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Students Participate in College Class, Meet with Dr. Cornel West
Posted 12/19/2017 12:17PM

The Upper School English senior seminar taught by English Teacher Terri Wiley titled "Black in America" employs the Harkness discussion model and is completely facilitated by a different student each class. Fourteen students were enrolled this semester, with three in Grade 11. Some of the assigned texts for this course include A Raisin in the Sun by Lorraine Hansberry, The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin and Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

On November 16th, the students participated in a college class at Haverford College. Terrance Wiley, professor of Religion and Africana Studies and Coordinator for the Initiative for Ethical Engagement and Leadership, teaches a class titled "Religion in the Black Freedom Struggle." The class includes sophomores, juniors and seniors enrolled at Haverford College. Because the two classes have a couple texts in common on their respective syllabi, both Ms. Wiley and Mr. Wiley decided to create a space for college and high school students to engage with one another.

During the week that Baldwin joined the Haverford College class, the college students read both A Raisin in the Sun and The Fire Next Time and during a prior week they also read excerpts of Prophesy Deliverance! by Cornel West.

During the joint class, the students were asked to write a poem (individually or collectively) and they had less than 10 minutes to prepare. Additionally, the poem had to include one of two phrases from James Baldwin's text, The Fire Next Time. Several of the Baldwin students both wrote and orally presented the poem to the entire group. At the end of the presentations, students voted and the two students with the loudest applause "won" a Baldwin bag. Mr. Benke was the judge, and one of the two winners was Savannah Sanford '19.

On December 11, a group of Baldwin students attended "Social Justice Matters," a lecture at Haverford College by Cornel West, Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. Dr. West also holds the title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and has taught at Union Theological Seminary, Yale, Harvard and the University of Paris.

Dr. West recently released the 25th anniversary edition of his book Race Matters, which was first published in 1993 on the one-year anniversary of the Los Angeles riots. The book contains Dr. West's most incisive essays on the issues relevant to black Americans, including the crisis in leadership in the Black community, Black conservatism, Black-Jewish relations, myths about Black sexuality and the legacy of Malcolm X. The insights Dr. West brings to these complex problems remain relevant, provocative, creative, and compassionate.

Before his talk, Dr. West met with a select group of students for dinner at Haverford's Visual Culture, Arts and Media facility. Of the 28 students seated at the table, four of them were Baldwin students: Cara Guernsey '18, Oona Maloney '18, Savannah Sanford '19 and Anna Wetzel '22. Students at the dinner asked Dr. West questions. After dinner, these students along with Baldwin seniors Gabrielle Alston, Bria Beauvais, Sophie Lewis, Carly McIntosh and Haley Tavares attended the lecture in Haverford's Founders Great Hall. Many of these students arrived to the lecture after attending Baldwin's Kwanzaa event earlier in the evening.

After his talk, Dr. West answered questions from the audience. Additionally, after the lecture and Q&A West remained to take photos and converse with students, faculty and other attendees. During this time, he signed Cara's new 25th Anniversary copy of Race Matters, and Bria asked a question about moral inconsistency.

Dr. West graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in three years and obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton. He has written 20 books and has edited 13. Though he is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud, his most recent book is the highly anticipated Black Prophetic Fire which is due to be released in October and is already receiving critical acclaim. Dr. West is a frequent guest on the Bill Maher Show, Colbert Report, CNN, C-Span and Democracy Now.

See photos from the events here.

Students' Reflections on the Events:

Anna Wetzel '22: "Experiencing this event has opened my mind to different ways of interpreting and implementing diversity in our Baldwin community. Dr. Cornel West emphasized the importance of multi contextualism, rather than multiculturalism. Multi contextualism refers to the inclusion of people from different contexts, a broader term used to describe the different overlapping groups that apply to all individuals. This mindset expands inclusivity as it signifies the importance of all facets of an individual's identity, not just their culture. I started a group in the Middle School, LatinX Student Union, that emphasizes the importance of cultural inclusivity. However, I learned through this event that a more appropriate term would be to think through a multi contextual lens. I am thrilled to have had the privilege to have participated in this event and have learned so much because of it."

Sophie Lewis '18: "Cornel West spoke internationally, not nationally, which is something that we need to be progressive. America is no longer a national country, it acts internationally. He brought up many points that many Americans don't think we are a part of ... but we are. Our president is on the side of the superior in an unjust issue, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many people don't know how Isis was created. Cornel West brought up all of these points and spoke for the minority. He didn't only speak out for minorities in America, but all over the world. We need a leader who realizes all aspects of American supremacy."

Savannah Sanford '19: "Hearing Cornel West speak felt like a once in a lifetime opportunity and I'm glad I got to meet him. During the dinner conversation, I sat next to Dr. West, which intimidated me at first, but as he started talking I realized he was really easy going and down to Earth. During both the dinner and the lecture he used language that really showed his personality. He referenced several pop-culture icons both old and new and criticized the political climate. Dr. West was not afraid to offend people, critique popular opinions and everything he said made sense. I enjoyed taking a full three pages of notes so that I could reflect on all of the information I had just received. I hope that if you can't hear Cornel West in person, you should definitely look him up on YouTube or read his articles."

Cara Guernsey '18: "I really enjoyed getting to experience the class at Haverford College because not only did it introduce us to the style of a college class but it also opened us up to new perspectives of people we had never met before. I loved being able to share my ideas on Baldwin's The Fire Next Time with people whom I don't see every day at Baldwin and with whom I could debate and disagree. It is important for us to practice sharing our ideas with people other than our friends and close peers, and I think that this was the perfect opportunity to practice those skills. In terms of the actual subject matter, I enjoyed reading and analyzing The Fire Next Time and thought that the Haverford class intertwined very well with our curriculum regarding the book.

The first encounter I had with Dr. West, he embraced me with open arms followed by a handshake where he clasped my hand as if I was an old friend whom he respected and cared for. This was my first impression of Dr. West: a compassionate, respectful and loving human being whose presence lights up the room with an indescribable energy. As soon as he walked through the door, you felt a wave of humility embrace you but also a wave of kindness and humanity. While I was intimidated by his resume and his stature, I knew immediately that this man was as human as I was and regarded me as having equal value and worth. However, once you start to listen to him speak, you realize that he is much more than your average human.

During our semi-private dinner before his talk, I learned that he embodies some of the best parts of humanity known to this earth. By listening to this man speak, I came away knowing that he stands for love, selflessness, tenderness, compassion, awareness, interrogation, courage, humility and responsibility. Though some may not agree with his politics, you cannot argue against his moral compass which points to one of the truest norths I have ever known.

Later, all of these thoughts were running through my head as I made my way forward to ask him to sign my book after his talk. I like to think of myself as a confident person, but I have to admit that I was very scared to march over to Dr. West and humbly ask him to forget everyone else in the room for a second so that he could sign my book. I asked him if he would "do me the honor of signing my book," and after a brief contemplation, he agreed to take the time to sign it. Originally he wrote "Love, Cornel West," but then he paused and wrote above it, "Stay Strong!" with both words underlined. As I watched him add this onto my book, I felt so honored that he included a personal note with his signature, but when I reopened my book later that night and reflected on the evening in general, I wondered why he chose this specific message for me. While I understand that it is very likely that it was a generic message that he would say to anyone looking to him for advice, I couldn't help but wonder why "Stay Strong!" He may not know me personally but he could tell that I am white, and most people would not think of choosing "Stay Strong" as their message or piece of advice to a white person after finishing a talk on racial oppression in America and how to solve it. It seemed to me that this message would be more applicable to someone who did face that oppression in everyday life and who must carry a burden with them 24/7 because of something they cannot control. So I came back to "Why me?" While I don't have an answer and may never get one, I can't help but feel that somehow, he saw something that I couldn't. I can't help but feel that Dr. West saw through me and into the very depths of who I am in that split second because that is the type of man he is. While I don't know what inside me warrants "Stay Strong," I do believe that it is a message that I can carry with me throughout the coming years and throughout my life. Though I am white and I am privileged, I want to be an ally and a proponent for the cause that Dr. West instills in you from the moment you meet him: to support and to fight for the oppressed in society whether black, transgender, poor, etc. I think that in writing his message, Dr. West is pushing me and challenging me to step up and join the fight even though it is not an easy one and may not apply to me directly. However, that is Dr. West's message. One may not think that these issues apply to them because of their own background or experiences, but these issues apply to everyone. They apply to humans everywhere and humanity must stand in solidarity against them because that is what it means to be a beautiful human being and to live a beautiful life. I confess I do not know exactly where to go from this revelation. However, I do know that I must struggle to find the path, and I must stay strong in doing so."


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