PRINCETON, N.J. – Celebrities like Lupe Fiasco, George Clinton, Bootsy Collins and Harry Belafonte, joined with high-profile academicians Wednesday to pay tribute to Dr. Cornel West, who announced his retirement from Princeton University.
West, who is the author of the best-seller Race Matters and the recently-released book The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto with commentator Tavis Smiley, announced last year that he was returning to Union Theological Seminary, the place where he launched his teaching career in 1977.
“We are here to celebrate the work, legacy and spirit of one of Princeton’s most cherished sons, Dr. Cornel West,” said Dr. Eddie S. Glaude, chairman of Princeton’s Center for African American Studies at the farewell celebration held on campus. “Princeton is a far, far better place because he’s been with us over the past 40 years.”
The three-hour program, titled “A Bluesman in the Life of the Mind,” drew hundreds of students and locals who showed up at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton to praise West’s scholarship as a philosopher and public intellectual.
Princeton’s President Shirley Tilghman, who described West as an “author, actor and rapper,” said that she was thrilled when the university was able to lure him back to Princeton in 2002 “after a period of self-inflicted exile in Cambridge, Massachusetts.”
West earned his Ph.D. from the university and taught there from 1988 to 1994 before leaving for Harvard. He returned in 2002 after a public spat with Harvard’s then president, Lawrence Summers.
Now, he is a sought-after speaker and activist, barnstorming the country to speak out about racial and economic injustice.
In between speeches, musicians such as cabaret singer Maude Maggert, Terence Blanchard and George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic took to the stage to pay homage to West through music. Fiasco performed several of his hits, and Collins talked about his collaboration with West on past recordings. Belafonte drew applause when he told the 58-year-old scholar that his work on behalf of the poor and disenfranchised was needed and welcomed.
“I didn’t come to say much, I just wanted to be a witness,” said Belafonte, who like West, has expressed dismay with the Obama administration’s policies, particularly as they relate to people of color and the poor.
“I’ve heard about you not being invited to the White House,” noted Belafonte. “I’ve been to the White House these days and you haven’t missed much,” he added.
By the end of the night, students, faculty and local residents were dancing up and down the aisle to Clinton’s 1970s song, “Give Up the Funk.” West was leading the way.
“When you hear the music, recognize this is not just mere entertainment,” West told the crowd at the end of the night. “There is love in that music. There is freedom in that music. There is courage in that music and it comes from a people who produced Black vessels like me when all we had was the music.”
At Union, West will teach philosophy courses to graduate students but will retain his emeritus status at Princeton.