“Stay woke, but you better find some wisdom now. If you ‘stay woke’, then you can end up with indsomnia,” advised Dr. Cornel West to a Chicago State University audience reflecting on the life of Gwendolyn Brooks. “You can’t just come off of the block now and not be a long-distance runner. Gwendolyn Brooks was a long distance runner.”
Last Thursday, October 18, Chicago State University hosted two events that reinforced its position as one of the most important Black spaces in the city: Dr. Cornel West opened as the first speaker for the university’s new lecture series and the naming ceremony of the “Gwendolyn Brooks Library” followed shortly after. The events also marked the introduction to the regenesis of the Gwendolyn Brooks Black Writers’ Conference taking place the following day.
Before Dr. West serenaded the event’s attendees with his prophetic fire, a couple of notable names blessed the stage – one being Dr. Haki Madhubti, the man who made the call possible to lure Dr. West to town. Dr. Madhubuti, a former professor at Chicago State University, needs no introduction as he is one the pioneers of the Black Arts Movement and is the founder of Third World Press –– the oldest independent publisher of Black thought and literature. Dr. Madhubuti’s Third World Press published several of Brooks’ titles, many of which were available for sale at a table outside the crowded room.
As Dr. Madhubuti spoke, Nora Brooks Blakely sat peacefully listening to every word and occasionally flashing a smile in response to mentions of her mother. Blakely is an author in her own right and has the responsibility of managing her mother’s estate. The audience listened intently as Blakely quoted Brooks throughout her introduction and highlighted her commitment to service in Chicago’s Black communities. When Dr. West rose to speak, he complimented Blakely on continuing her mother’s legacy. “What a banner she’s held up,” lovingly shouted Dr. West. “You can see the beauty in her…”
For over 40 minutes, Dr. West gave a sermon in honor of Gwendolyn Brooks that weaved critiques of the American empire (which included barbs at President Trump and Fmr. President Obama), the power of love, the interconnectedness between Black culture and Black radicalism, and how it all related to core values found in Gwendolyn Brooks’ work. Above all, Dr. West talked about “spirit” and remaining radically honest in the current political climate. “We live in a power-driven, market-obsessed, celebrity-centered culture, and it is spiritually empty,” roared Dr. West. “[We] saw one example with our brother Kanye the other day. I’m praying for the negro-genius.”
Kamm Howard, the National Male Co-Chair and Midwest Regional Representative of the National Coalition of Blacks for Reparations in America (N’COBRA), described Dr. West’s presentation as “great” and “necessary.” “He gave a history of the spirit it takes to be in the struggle,” says Howard. “He told us what it takes to give your love and life to the people as Gwendolyn Brooks did.”
“I thought it was impactful,” describes Kenton Williams, an undergrad at Chicago State University. “There is a generation gap between the old and young. Some of us need to mediate that gap in order for us to unify. I think he did a fantastic job speaking to that intergenerational divide.”
Chicago State University is continuing with its lecture series on Nov 1, featuring Rev. Dr. Jeremiah A. Wright. from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.