Celebrating both the legacy of the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Black History Month, the Middlesex community met in the Kaye Theater on February 2, 2019, for a dynamic program of music, history, philosophy, and reflection.
The morning began with an inspiring performance by the Ladies of Essence – a Tufts University women’s a cappella group specializing in music of the African diaspora – whose three selections ranged from the hopeful “Lift Every Voice” to the sorrowful “Women Gather” to the energized “Rhythm Nation.” Middlesex students then read aloud selected quotations from Dr. King and from the day’s distinguished guest speaker, Dr. Cornel West, highlighting their shared, passionate advocacy for freedom, justice, and equality for all people in America – and for all humanity.
A professor of the practice of public philosophy at Harvard University, Dr. West has taught at Yale, Harvard, the University of Paris, Princeton, and, most recently, Union Theological Seminary. He has written 20 books and is best known for his classics, Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and for his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
Praising the Ladies of Essence for delivering “a sonic expression of a deep wrestling with catastrophes,” Dr. West added, “To begin with music is to say that we are in this together.” In a animated, engaging address, he dwelled not only on the life of Dr. King but wove together the thoughts of ancient philosophers, messages of modern writers, and numerous musical references, past and present. Taken together, Dr. West urged students to find their individual voices, attend to what really matters, empathize with others, and courageously serve something bigger than themselves.
“Today, people can’t wait to be peacocks,” Dr. West said. “Look at me! Look how rich I am! Peacocks strut because they can’t fly. You’ve got to be an eagle and fly.”
Dr. King, he pointed out, tried to “hate the sin but love the sinner,” always remembering that he was also a flawed human being. “Can you keep that love going?” Dr. West asked. “If not, then all we have left is hate.” Having faced violent white supremacists last August in Charlottesville, Virginia, Dr. West has seen what that looks like, describing the group as “courageous thugs” armed with weapons instead of morality. “You’ve got to choose to be courageous and have moral fortitude,” he stressed.
Citing several statistics, such as that one in five American children lives in poverty, Dr. West noted that much remains to be done in terms of the four issues that Dr. King focused on: racism, poverty, militarism, and materialism. “In the face of slavery, many still held up visions of truth,” he reminded his audience. To those who are ready to “step up, find your voice, and choose of life of integrity,” he affirmed, “The best of their lives can be operative in your life.”
After answering at length questions from the audience concerning self-realization, equality, and democracy, Dr. West continued talking with Middlesex students at a reception in the theater lobby, clearly pleased to see their sincere connection to his message and Dr. King’s ideals.