Cornel West tells UNC students: “Try again, fail again, fail better”

Feb. 28, 2014 @ 10:38 PM

Audience members snapped their fingers, the popping noises reverberating across the auditorium, in agreement with Cornel West’s words.

“Try again, fail again, fail better. We all fall on our face,” West said.

But the question is, he asked, what kind of people are we when we bounce back?

On Friday, last day of Black History Month, West spoke to a packed audience at UNC-Chapel Hill’s Memorial Hall about the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and race issues affecting both North Carolina and the world.

West lectures around the country at institutions and on TV shows about race, poverty and injustice. He is a Princeton graduate and professor and also has taught at the Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris. He made his film debut in the Matrix. He has collaborated with artists such as Prince and Andre 3000 on spoken-word albums.

In a market-driven society fueled by the desire for power, money and status, freedom fighters with a foundation based in sacrifice and love are harder to find, he said.

“I am who I am because somebody loves me,” West said. When people think about MLK, “you think about a love warrior.”

He said when civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois wrote “The Ordeal of Mansart” in 1957, Martin Luther King became the answer to the questions raised in his novel.

How does integrity face oppression? What does honesty do in the face of deception? What does decency do in the face of insult? And how does virtue meet brute force?

“Justice can only be rescued by something greater than justice, meaning love,” West said.

Before Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis in 1968, his popularity was dwindling among both blacks and whites. Auditoriums weren’t filled to hear his speeches. Black preachers even dissuaded people from listening to him.

West said while he grew up in Sacramento, Calif., he saw firsthand the intense police surveillance and economically depressed neighborhoods that became everyday life for his brothers and sisters.

He added that when individuals become highly successful, they also are in danger of becoming well-adjusted to indifference, and more money in the U.S. must flow into high-quality education and decent housing for low-income families.

But “when it comes to prison, Lord behold, the money flows,” he said.

West also spoke of the raw message of Negro spirituals and of blues music, contrasting that piece of black history with the one-dimensional purpose of music today, to entertain.

“These days, young folk, not enough voices, too many echoes,” he said. “... Folks can be successful and not even sing in tune. They don’t even take the time to learn how to harmonize.”

Individuals need to stand up for what’s right, to take notice of injustices and respond in such a way that shows love rather than revenge, West said.

Harriet Tubman said she would have saved more slaves if they realized they were part of slavery. Sleep-walking, West called it. Martin Luther King’s biggest challenge was breaking through the “n*****ization of black people,” or the spread of societal fear among African-Americans at the time.

West also called upon the story of 14-year-old Emmett Till, who was brutally murdered in 1955 after supposedly flirting with a white woman while visiting family in Mississippi.

His mother, Mamie, held an open-casket funeral in Chicago, showing the world what racism did to her son.

“I don’t have a minute to hate,” she said at the funeral. “I’ll pursue justice for the rest of my life.”

West said there’s importance in carrying forward the missions and memories of freedom fighters, not just of MLK, but also of those who may have never been named.

“Let us never, ever forget the love, the vision, the courage.”