A newcomer to the talk may very well have been blown away by the speech West delivered, at times hilarious, thrilling, calling to mind the memory of Martin Luther King Jr, in the same breath deconstructing the Latin roots of the word "human" and drawing forth a lesson about the blues in the process.
The lesson overall was about resurrecting King's memory and not subjecting it to as he called "Santa Claus-ification." West exhorted the packed house not to just drag out the memory of King as a sanitized holiday for expressing trite platitudes about civil rights.
In a speech that exemplified how West has come to be a rock star of modern philosophy, West invoked the ghost of Socrates to advance a painful dialogue about what American democracy is built upon. He even called forth the Socratic meditation on death as a call for Americans to meditate on death in America. Death of civic, spiritual and psychic life for people of color and society's marginalized.
To meditate on death in the Socratic spirit is to help reinvest dedication to life, and for this call of arms West wondered "how will you examine yourself as a human being, in time you will only be a culinary delight to the worms of this terrestrial earth, but who you are in between the womb and the tomb is what matters now."
West even commented on the nation's current grappling with terrorism in the middle east, arguing that people of color have struggled with terror for the last 400 years, and their response as a people has been to resist terror on principles of peace and nonviolence.
"Why after 400 years of racist terrorism has there been no black Al-Qaeda?" west asked adding "because as a people we have said 'I'm not getting into the gutter with the gangsters, I will take a higher, moral, spiritual ground."
The passion and revivalist electricity West brought to the crowd was amazing, and the sheer amount of name dropping of philosophers and novelists, blues artists and civil rights activists was enough to stun most of the crowd.
And I suspect the name dropping was enough to cause critics to scoff. In the past West has been a lightning rod for conservative critics who paint him as affirmative actions Frankenstein monster. A lightweight scholar using PC political clout to give him free rein to publish less and do more speaking engagements and cut hip-hop albums.
But I disagree. People forget West got into Harvard at 17, finished a degree in near eastern languages and civilization and went on to finish a degree in theology from Princeton where he now teaches. Theology ain't a field of study for lightweights, and as a student of philosophy myself I'm encouraged by the rambling scholar/activist approach West takes, which while might mean he writes fewer books to prop up the ivory tower as compared to some in academia, I'm encouraged that his activism- from political campaigning for candidates like Bill Bradley in 2000 (and soon Obama in South Carolina) to appearing on the Daily Show- is one founded in a unique philosophy of Rorty-esque neo-pragmatism, that bucks conventional and historical approaches to philosophy and scholarship.
But the greatest endorsement I thought was when at the beginning of his speech West thanked a former Harvard admissions director Chase Peterson, and former President of the University of Utah, "for a Mormon brother to take a chance on a 17 year old black brother like me from Sacramento California, I thank you again."
While West may be an academic diva, he's earned it in my book. (Eric S. Peterson)