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    Teacher delivers 'unsettling' speech

    Ivy League professor and author Cornel West raises thorny questions about race as part of the Carter G. Woodson Lecture Series.

    By STEPHEN HEGARTY, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published May 5, 2002


    TAMPA -- Shaconnie Lofton walked through the lobby of the Tampa Marriott Westshore Saturday evening when she stopped at a table covered with stacks of books with the titles Race Matters and The African American Century.

    "I know him," said Lofton, 21, who graduated from the University of South Florida earlier in the day. She looked at the intense face on the book cover, an African American man with slightly wild hair and serious black-rimmed glasses.

    "I read this one in class," Lofton said. "Cornel West? Is he here? Wow!"

    Cornel West, one of the nation's noted African American intellectuals, was indeed in Tampa on Saturday, speaking to a crowd of more than 300 as part of the annual Carter G. Woodson Lecture Series.

    The Ivy League professor of African American studies who has turned difficult subjects such as race relations into bestsellers, has been in the news recently for announcing that he was leaving Harvard to return to rival Princeton. He released a CD last year. He is very much in demand as a speaker.

    On Saturday, he showed why.

    He took turns citing and quoting authors W.E.B. DuBois and F. Scott Fitzgerald, funk musician George Clinton and singer Roberta Flack. One moment his voice boomed as he strolled the stage -- looking like Richard Pryor in his prime -- showing how an African American can create a stir just by walking into a corporate board room. Moments later he went quiet, stroking his beard with two hands while hissing the words "American slavery."

    Here's how West began his speech: "I want to thank you all for coming here tonight. I hope I say something that thoroughly unsettles you."

    For an Ivy League intellectual, West has an unusually high profile in popular culture.

    His 1993 book Race Matters touched off a national dialogue on race and made the bestseller list. He acted as a political adviser to Bill Bradley and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

    West raised eyebrows in academia last year when he released a CD called Sketches of My Culture. The collection -- spoken-word pieces steeped in African American history with a sort of an easy listening hip-hop sound -- has been called a rap CD, but on Saturday, West dismissed that characterization.

    "I have too much respect for real rap artists to say that," West said. "I'm a spoken word brother."

    Later he characterized the CD as a "feeble effort to connect to the young folks.

    "The president of Harvard says this is an embarrassment. I say "You are not my point of reference."'

    West's defection from Harvard followed weeks of well-publicized tension between West and Lawrence H. Summers, the president of Harvard, who reportedly questioned West's scholarship in the wake of his CD release.

    West, who just returned from Australia and recently was treated for prostate cancer, was expected to be a bit worn out. But he spent more than an hour and a half signing books and playfully posing for photographs with well wishers.

    As gregarious as he was, his speech fulfilled its promise of unsettling people.

    "This talk of colorblindness," West said. Then putting on a phony flat Midwestern accent, "I don't see color. I just see the person.'

    "How come we can't still have our blackness and still have our humanity? Is that an oxymoron?"

    On the much maligned phenomenon of "gangsta rap," West said: "If they see a gangster culture, they're going to sing about it. Now, we're not going to call the corporate chiefs of Enron "gangsters.' But we ought to be honest about it."

    The speech drew a crowd that was a who's who of Tampa Bay's African American community. The audience included Oswald Bronson, president of Bethune Cookman College; John Smith, the former president of Fisk University; State Rep. Frank Peterman of St. Petersburg; Hillsborough Circuit Judge Perry Little; Dr. Leroy McCloud of St. Petersburg; former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Jerry Bell; and Ike Tribble of the Florida Education Fund, who started the lecture series more than a decade ago.

    The speech was sponsored by the fraternity Sigma Pi Phi and Dimmitt Luxury Motors as a fundraiser for the private predominantly black Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach.

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