Last October, I noticed people gathered in a parking lot here in Columbus, Ohio on Cleveland Avenue south of Weber. (For you out-of-towners, it’s an urban area). I saw huge Obama banners, balloons, a couple guys on megaphones, tables bearing literature and grille masters flipping burgers and dogs. Sensing an opportunity to shore up my supply of yard signs, stickers and such, I darted through a convenient alley, looped back and parked. Turns out I had stumbled upon an early voter registration drive. Members of Obama’s traveling team were there along with local volunteers. I got to talking to the head local guy, a volunteer; renting space, getting donations anywhere he can–a real “hand to mouth” operator.
The mood was energized. Bullhorn one was chanting “Come on in-vote today. Sign up right here. We’ll take you downtown,” as several vehicles shuttled newly registered voters downtown to Vets (Auditorium, where early voting was underway).
Explaining that I was already registered, I lingered, listening while scoring precious Obama swag. Everyone talked issues and most seemed well informed. Petitions circulated. A volunteer yelled, “Sign up here…knock on doors…work the phones.” Bullhorn two squawked, “Tomorrow, come see Cornel West…1:30…Right here.” I said aloud, “Cornel West? Here? Tomorrow?” The guy next to me shrugged. I must have misunderstood. Seeking confirmation, I learned that the next day, Cornel West, in town to warm up OSU students at a free Bruce Springsteen concert and to speak at several churches in support of Barack would appear in this ubiquitous parking lot in the heart of Linden.
Cornel West is far from a household name. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, Dr. West is a well-respected author, scholar, observer, philosopher, public speaker, teacher and outspoken civil rights/human dignity activist. He also appears frequently as a panelist on Bill Maher’s “Real Time” program on HBO, the major TV networks, etc. My son, Steve brought a recent CW book, Democracy Matters home for me to read. He had read it for a class. It’s a great work. His latest is Hope on a Tightrope, which we gave to my son for Christmas. I look forward to reading it when he’s done.
When I told Susan of his expected appearance, she expressed doubt. I called to see if Steve was available. He wasn’t sure. He knew about the OSU rally but wondered why there had been no mention of Dr. West? Sunday, Susan and I left for church (as usual in a rush) forgetting my copy of Democracy Matters as well as my camera. After Mass, we drove up Cleveland a few blocks and parked across the street. Things were in full swing.
It was a typical, sunny Linden Sunday afternoon. The crowd was larger today. People of all ages, neighbors, students, local shop owners, street urchins and volunteers mingled with church goers, passers by and those simply curious. I cornered one of the “town criers” to again confirm the expected agenda, then had a burger, veering from one discussion circle to the next, as the crowd became one.
Amid the gang tags, the lot was abuzz. Passing cars honked and voices vaulted support. Behind us, a path opened to reveal a small SUV that stopped 10 feet from me. A dapper Dr. West emerged to a jubilant embrace, accepting all manner of greetings. I hugged him, as did many others. He posed for amateur cameras, (no ‘media’ anywhere in sight). He signed things. Since I had neither his book nor my camera, I simply shook his hand, telling him how jealous Steve would be to be missing this.
Nate Parker, a handsome young actor from a Denzel/Forrest Whitaker movie called “The Great Debaters,” gave Dr. West a touching intro. Gracious to a fault, Cornel acknowledged the young Parker’s success before embarking on a verbal junket that combined: culture, world history, music, art, the rule of law, society, Jazz, civility, humanity, religion and the Blues. He interjected bits of Abe Lincoln, Curtis Mayfield, Marvin Gaye, “the Boss,” Michelle and Barrack Obama, Joe Biden and his family, Sarah Palin, John McCain, George W Bush, greed, indifference, imperialism and American History in the making. The editor in me witnessed hundreds of complete, original, stunning “soundbites,” richly metaphoric, that conjured imagery more akin to poetry than to spontaneous social commentary. His unpretentious “nonperformance” invited call and response and we joyfully obliged. After a 20 or so minute improvisation that seemed the blink of an eye, he thanked us, urging us to do our parts as agents of change…to involve everyone we know as well as complete strangers. More hugs, photos and autographs ensued. Once he was almost free of us, I managed to precariously wedge myself between his associate, the open car door and its pillar to thank Dr. West one last time and to bid him farewell. He thanked me, saying “Keep it going…make it count.”
As his vehicle slowly moved through the throng, I found myself beside an elderly black man. Humbly dressed, time etched into his brow, his deep-set brown eyes were fixed on the exiting SUV. I detected distance in his expression. I asked, “Can you believe he was here?” extending my hand, which he gripped firmly. I continued, “I mean the man’s a MONSTER–I could listen to him all day. I don’t believe I actually got to meet him.” Seemingly adrift, he stood motionless as one eye welled with a tear. “Me neither,” he replied, nonchalantly blotting away the moisture with his sleeve. We then made eye contact and exchanged pleasantries before going our separate ways. Such experiences are indeed rare.
An interview with Dr. West: