The difficult aspect of writing about an event, especially one like “Black Thought: In the Hour of Chaos” is figuring out where to begin.
I have started this piece many times. Each beginning featured a description of Professor Emeritus of African American Studies Cornel West and his entrance into McCosh 50. I would describe how the room fell silent and suddenly erupted into applause when the 61-year-old academic with a black beard and a gray-streaked Afro stepped into the largest academic space at Princeton. The date was Thursday, November 6. Then I would follow with an introduction of the other two participants of this “conversation,” Dr. Imani Perry, professor of African American Studies, and Dr. Eddie Glaude Jr., chair of the Center for African American Studies (CAAS). At this point I would note the transformation that the McCosh 50 stage had undergone with the appearance of three navy chairs, two tables, a rug, and a copy of Professor West’s latest book Black Prophetic Fire.
From there, I racked my brain and desperately searched my notes for the perfect quote to kick start this article, to create a piece that would not just review the event but speak to my larger audience and force me to do the very exercise I find difficult—to continuously re-engage with these thoughts and themes. This self-inflicted pressure forced me to step away from the piece for a while, come back, erase and start over.
“To be a highly successful black professional is to be well adjusted to injustice,” said Professor West. We were not even ten minutes into this hour-and-a-half conversation before he dropped this statement. The crowd applauded. A woman behind me snapped emphatically.
In many ways the conversation between Professors West, Perry, and Glaude touched upon various points that raised more questions than answers—something I noticed later while sitting in front of the blank Word document on my computer. There is no clean way to address the diverse number of subjects that they raised and discussed from the role of the black body throughout history to the distinction between an intellectual and an academic individual. However, despite the apparent fragmentation, separated by shock factor soundbites from Professor West, for the next hour and a half the conversation loomed over the themes of the necessity of integrity and engagement in the present day.
“We are more concerned with creating smart people than courageous people,” began Professor West.
A friend next to me vigorously wrote down the following: “smart does not equal courage.” I looked around me. Heads bounced up and down. Pens moved. To be courageous, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is to possess a “spirit, liveliness, lustiness, vigor, vital force or energy.” To be courageous, according to Cornel West, was to be present, in every sense of the word. If I knew the definition, I would have written: “smart does not equal spirit.”
Keeping on the topic of spirit, someone brought up the idea of space in relation to courage. The dialogue moved and in those ten minutes, the scholars on the stage acknowledged that as blacks there were spaces that they needed to be intentional about. Professor West cited examples of how blacks were not being allowed to occupy certain spaces. He called our public schools a space where “soul murder” occurred.
This caused, in his words, a “reniggerization of the black population.”
The crowd “ooed.” The same woman behind me yelled: “Tell it brother!” People nodded in support.
In order to stop this “reniggerization,” Professor Perry and Glaude moved to addressing the current state of black intellectual life. Highlighting the importance of commitment, Professor West noted that in order to be intellectuals, we have to commit to the idea of integrity and invest in becoming human beings.
We were 45 minutes into the talk at this point. No one was really sure though because there are no clocks in McCosh 50 (something I discovered during Economics 100). I thought about what it meant to be a human being in this age and to maintain this integrity. My thoughts did not stray too far before I was pulled back by the voice of Imani Perry.
“We live in a world…a society where attention is a commodity,” she said.
When Mike Brown was shot on August 9, 2014 in Ferguson, a suburb roughly 10 minutes outside of St. Louis, the United States erupted. Community members took to the streets, protests ensued and police occupation of the town began. For the next four weeks, the 24-hour news cycle colored the story with sensational headlines such as “Looting erupts after vigil for slain Missouri teen Mike Brown” by NBC and “Missouri crowd after shooting: kill the police” by the Associated Press. The internet exploded with twitter campaigns like #IfTheyGunnedMeDown and #BlackLivesMatter. We took to our social media platforms—writing essays, blog posts and 140-characters-or-fewer soundbites about our feelings. The Internet became our personal soapbox.
“People have a tendency to want to come out before they are really cooked,” said Professor Perry. “Saying something is not the same thing as participation.”
She continued on this theme of attention as a commodity, citing young people as often times being an example of that. The students around me nodded. Someone whispered a comment about posturing during precept.
I thought about the number of Facebook statuses and tweets I read over the summer. Some made great, succinct points about current events. Others used many words to say very little. Our opinions came in waves and caused me to wonder, how long would we focus on these issues? Would our interest, chatter and anger only remain as long as we were constantly exposed to the images provided by the media?
I thought about how talks like these always left me reinvigorated in the cause and disappointed in myself. I wrote down some notes asking: “What is the purpose and effect of reinvigorating if it’s always followed by a plateau?” A plateau symbolized by my immersion into the problems surrounding Princeton, not limited to my exams, social life, and lack of sleep.
“To go from Aretha to Beyoncé is a decline!” said Professor West.
Wrapped up in these thoughts, I missed the transition again. The crowd laughed at the joke and I wondered how we arrived at this point. For about 20 more minutes, the scholars on stage tried to negotiate their ideas on participation and it seemed as though we were moving toward the intended theme of the night.
“Now, we would like to turn it to the audience for questions,” said Professor Glaude.
A buzz made its way through the crowd, followed by a silence. No one wanted to be the first one. After a quick jab by Professor West, Khallid Love ’15 stood up and broke the ice.
The same level of energy and intellectual thought permeated the Q&A portions where three students returned to this idea of engagement and how our generation could tangibly do this.
“How can you teach integrity in a time when a quick ascendance is what we strive for? How do you learn or even teach the value of craft and form?” asked Liv Adechi ’16.
The crowd applauded with vigor. It was as though she found the language to properly articulate all of our concerns. How do we value the care with which engagement takes?
Though he did not answer the question in full, Professor West acknowledged the gravity of the issue. All three professors admitted to constantly grappling with the question in their everyday. In the thirty seconds following the applause, the crowd buzzed and the people in my cluster tried to answer the question for themselves.
After this question and the excitement it generated, the talk ended. A new energy had made its way into the room. People rushed up to the stage in attempts to snag a picture with Professor West. I sat in my chair for a little while longer, trying to absorb the information presented to me and let out a conflicted sigh. On the one hand, I was excited; I had never thought more about issues in such a concentrated space before. On the other hand, I was frustrated that I would talk about this for only a while longer before the call of my readings and blackboard posts began to tug at my guilt.
I have always thought of reflection as a liberating process. Though I rarely voice it, deep down I always associate reflection with some sort of positive outcome. However, one week later, as I still reflect on the themes addressed during Black Thought, I continue to feel this unease. I think about my role as a black individual at Princeton and wonder if my often silent disposition and participation in certain groups and activities have left me, as James Baldwin has been called, a darling of white liberals? I question my purpose as a student of color. I wonder if I am doing enough to show that I am actively “for the cause.”
When I sat down to write this piece, I did not want it to be a document that attempted to poke at the holes in the conversation (though this is not to say they do not exist). I wrote this article to recount the experience of watching three intellectuals grapple with questions we often think are associated with our own sense of inadequacy. I wrote it as a way to continue to think of new ways of engaging with the overwhelming amount of information presented. But mostly, I wrote it to try and understand my own unease with being forced to reflect on the fact that the role of a black body in 2014 is not all that different from one in 1954.