After three days of panels on everything from feminism and film making to bicycles, banks and Burger King, the Art of Social Justice conference on the Auraria campus came to a close last night with a breathtaking speech by human rights activist, Dr. Cornel West. The Turnhalle Ballroom in the Tivoli center was filled to capacity, with many disappointed people -- who had been waiting in the round-the-corner line to get in -- turned away.
The crowd was a blend of black studies majors, Occupy dropouts, and curiosity seekers familiar with West's hilariously inspiring appearances on Real Time with Bill Maher. The dialogue between the audience and the keynote speaker wasn't unlike a Southern Baptist church, the crowd snapping fingers, nodding heads, shouting "preach it!" and "that's right," keeping the mood informal yet energized.
Earlier in the night, while the event organizers had their hands full squeezing the crowd into every last available seat, a DJ on stage kept everyone energized with some light scratching over loops of James Brown tracks. Local Slam Nuba poet Dominique Ashaheed brought the crowd to a climactic roar, almost draining them all before the feature guest even took the stage. She introduced her third and final poem with the words "this one is about Emmett Till, but it could also be about Trayvon Martin," before rolling into a spooky, a capella version of the Billie Holiday song "Strange Fruit." When Ashaheed finished, walking quickly off the stage wiping tears from her eyes, the audience exploded with praise, standing to their feet and shouting their approval.
Then West took the stage. "I want to say first off that I stand with my homeless brothers and sisters," he began. The remark -- a reference to the city council's upcoming hearing on the urban camping ban -- received a raucous response from the crowd. West's Denver references didn't end there; a few moments later he expressed regret that he would not be in town for the upcoming Earth, Wind & Fire show, noting singer Philip Bailey's Denver roots. Later, he hit a somber note with the sentiment "I was passing through Five Points this evening. Seeing all the beautiful black folks up there, I was thinkin': we still got some residential segregation and social segregation."
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While West's speech touched on a variety of issues from the recording industry to unnecessary political divisions, the issue of race inequality was heavily featured. "Oh yes, we have a black man in the White House, and while that is a certain kind of victory, it mostly just says, 'You're less racist than your grandma.' As Malcolm X said, 'You put a knife in my back nine inches, then pull it out six inches, and just celebrate the progress.'" When referring to income inequality of the races, West said "we're still living in a Jim Crow Jr. society."
The heavily energized crowd came to a grim hush when Trayvon Martin's name was brought up. Using the opportunity to note Martin's parents' sober lack of revenge, West commented on U.S. attitudes toward 9/11 attackers: "What was our response? 'Let's hunt em down like cockroaches; who do they think they are? We'll kill 'em as soon as we catch 'em.' I was thinking to myself if black people had responded to American terrorism that way there would have been a Civil War every generation."
Beyond being a civil rights icon, West has to a certain degree become a fashion icon. His anachronistic three piece black and white suit with black silk choker has become a trademark for the Princeton University professor; in a recent New York Times interview he referred to the look as his "cemetery clothes...If I drop dead, I am coffin-ready." And West also stuck by his trademark subject. "What does it mean to be human? The word human comes from the Latin word humano, which means burying, or burial. We, as humans, are candidates for burial. We're. Not. Here. That. Long."
Throughout the night West was full of comedy and wisdom, delivering mash-ups of pop culture references, such as the familiar Socrates line "the unexamined life is not worth living," with the unfamiliar Curtis Mayfield line "the examined life is painful." His speech was idealistic without being trite, critical without being cynical. His playful rhyming of "spiritual malnutrition" with "moral constipation," and "switch from the bling-bling and the g-string to the let freedom ring," gave his sermonistic words a hip-hop flow that even the white folks could groove to.