I’d seen the Facebook event reminder for Dr. Cornel West’s lecture at Sacramento State University for weeks. Keith Lamont Scott had just been killed over a week before the talk, and afterwards, the typical social media activism populated my news feed. People changed their Facebook photos to show support. People posted memes meant to capture the complexity of racism with a clever quote on top of a photo. And though there were pockets of deeper discourse – people actively looking for solutions – I was ready to unplug and hear Dr. West talk about “Race, Democracy, Justice & Love.”
The talk started at 7:30, so my wife, a friend, and I stepped onto campus at 6:15 to get good seats. But when we arrived, we found a line from the door of the student union winding past four classroom buildings. My companions waited in line as I entered the union from the back entrance, hoping to see someone I knew near the front of the line. The lobby outside the union ballroom was packed wall to wall and it was clear that even had I found someone, there would be no way to get to them.
“Can you believe this?” I said to a police officer monitoring the crowd.
She looked at me and shook her head.
“How many people does the ballroom hold?” I asked her.
“1,500, I think. But there’s probably 3,000 people out there.”
I took a spot on the grass on the quad outside just in case my wife and friend couldn’t get a seat. A screen had been setup outside where they’d stream Dr. West’s talk. By 7:15, my companions had joined me and a teeming crowd with one of the most diverse groups of people I’d ever seen. Black, white, brown, old, young, abled, disabled. Still, the majority of the crowd were college students, some with their laptops and notebooks out, and then it struck me. This large group of people I was sitting in the middle of hadn’t come to Sac State for a singer or band or actor or other kind of entertainer, they’d come here for an intellectual.
The crowd, the moment, felt crucial.
When Dr. West appeared on the screen in his usual black “funeral” suit he said he wore because he was always prepared to die, the crowd cheered as though some heartthrob had emerged on stage. Beside me, a young black man held his girlfriend and said, “There he is.” Under the trees to my left, two women dressed in Native American garb hollered. A man in a wheelchair near the front clapped slowly. Many had their phones out, recording, wanting to capture every word.
The first thing Dr. West did was thank his mom, who, along with some of his other family, sat in the first row. For a talk about love, it was an important beginning. Dr. West, who had been raised in the Glen Elder neighborhood of South Sacramento, stated that he is who he is because his mom loved him. From there, using his rich voice and verbal mastery, Dr. West led the crowd on a trip meant to challenge the preconceptions we receive upon our American births. For black and other marginalized groups, one of these birthrights is that of despair. But he reminded us that he wasn’t asking us to participate in “sentimental perceptions of the world” that make us want to “evade disillusionment and despair,” but to actually live with despair, to embrace it, because through that we are led to moral awakening.
He continued to touch on the need for moral awakening throughout his hour-long speech. The main way to reach this awakening, he said, is through love. “You have to muster the courage to love truth and love beauty and love goodness,” he reminded us. “We have a profound love deficit,” he continued. “It’s the only way we can account for the fact that we are the richest nation in the history of the world and yet 22% of our precious children no matter what color” and “44% of black children under six live in poverty.” This is a problem we can solve with love, he said.
But how? First, by understanding that justice = love. If Wall Street execs can embezzle billions of dollars and not go to prison, but “let Jamaal get caught with a crack pipe or Juanita get caught with marijuana and off to jail” they go, then that’s not justice, and therefore, it’s also not love. If you consider yourself an American but refuse to engage honestly in public discourse about race, then you are not participating in justice and therefore, not participating in love. Second, by being prepared to die because of love. Not a literal death, of course, but if we love all other human beings, we must be willing to kill off those preconceptions we receive as Americans, preconceptions that say whites are better, that males are better, that straight people are better.
Dr. West acknowledges that these deaths take a lot of work. He says that in order to kill these parts of us, we need to develop a “catastrophic consciousness” that he correlates to the blues, where people are on “intimate terms with terror, trauma, stigma, catastrophe, calamity, and monstrosity” because these are “part and parcel of what I am.” In other words, we need to develop a consciousness that isn’t afraid to love.
As the speech ended, though the sky had darkened, through the streetlamp lights and parking lot lights and cell phone lights, I could see people of all genders and all races and all ages nodding and clapping and yelling that yes, we agree, these are problems that love can solve. We stood and looked at each other as though we’d all learned something about ourselves, as though we were committed to killing off the parts of ourselves that prevented us from loving truly, especially those different from us. My wife, our friend, and I walked back slowly to our car, and around us college students spoke vigorously about the talk, and I smiled because their voices sounded like hope, because their voices sounded like love.