Cornell West declared to a Charlotte audience Monday that the “age of Ronald Reagan is over,” and he admonished the crowd to be more concerned with social justice, not just personal comfort.
Speaking to an overflow audience at the Neighborhood Theatre in the NoDa section, the author and Princeton University professor described the Reagan era as an age of “greed run amok,” an “age of Southern strategy” where politicians used race to divide the people.
“It didn’t work with John McCain, did it?” he said to shouts and applause. “It didn’t work with sister Sarah Palin, did it?… It’s over!”
Dressed in his trademark black and unkempt afro, West at times lectured, shouted, danced and prophesied for more than an hour in the darkened den. And his audience was captivated, giving him a call-and-response more typical in the black church.
West was in Charlotte to kick off the “Change is Coming to Charlotte” speakers series, which benefits the annual Charlotte Literary Festival. The festival was started in 2006 by Darren Vincent, owner of RealEyes Bookstore.
West peppered his speech with frequent references to blues and jazz greats B.B. King, Thelonious Monk, John Coltrane and Billie Holiday. He talked of Emmett Till, Frederick Douglas and Abraham Lincoln. He even joked about the Iraqi journalist who last week hurled his shoes at President Bush.
“As a Christian, I don’t believe in revenge; I believe in justice,” he said. “But that brother was just expressing himself.”
West, who teaches African American studies at the Ivy League university and recently authored a book titled “Hope on a Tightrope,” declared that America has now entered the age of Barack Obama.
“The age of Barack Obama begins with a mess,” he said, “and that’s our challenge.”
He called the Wall Street meltdown a “financial Katrina,” brought on by incompetence, greed and a careless attitude toward the poor.
“Seven hundred billion dollars for investment bankers,” he said. “Where is the money for ordinary people” who are losing their homes to foreclosure?
“Brother Barack has a serious set of challenges ahead,” he said. “Right when things are about to collapse, hand it over to the black folks.”
Perhaps acknowledging that his audience was decidedly young and decidedly professional, West said those who preach his message are often looked down on, dismissed as relics of the 1960s. But he reminded the crowd that the ‘60s were about a struggle for social justice.
“What we need today is an awakening, a deep awakening,” he said. “America needs people willing to be honest about the last 30 or 40 years.”
Every generation has its “giants” who risk success to pursue social justice, he said. So long as poor people are neglected, he said, success is nothing more than “being well-adjusted to injustice.”
“America would not have a democracy today without people raising the question, ‘What does it mean to be human?” he said. “…Some folks are so obsessed with their day jobs that they lose focus of what their life’s task is about.”
West, a long-time Obama supporter, cautioned the crowd against complacency. And he lightly criticized the president-elect for stocking his cabinet with former Clinton aides rather than forging his own way. But he also warned the audience against unrealistic expectations.
“He is no stronger than we are, because his is a cracked vessel,” West said. “We must remain vigilant in the age of Obama. If the age of Obama is not about empowering ordinary people, then he, himself, must be interrogated.”
West said America faces enormous social and economic challenges.
“We could be witnessing the end of the American empire,” he said. “Empires come and go… We are in a moment, and the direction it goes has everything to do with the question, ‘What does it mean to be human.’”