West focused much of his talk on the definition of humanity, the history of the African-American people and the importance of education and music, relating these concepts to the struggles of the inmates and the importance of thinking positively.
“I’m very relieved. We needed this. Some of these guys feel [the] empowerment of the Obama era but are dealing with the reality of being incarcerated,” Charles Atkins, a chaplain at the Garden State prison, said.
West spoke extensively on eliminating negative elements within oneself, referring to his experiences as a professor.
“Education is a process of learning how to die in order to be able to live,” West said. “There is a self inside of you that needs to die in order for your better self to emerge. There’s no rebirth without death.”
A student volunteer with the Petey Greene Prisoner Assistance Program at the University invited West to deliver the annual Black History Month talk at the prison. The volunteer had posed a question about criminal-justice reform to the professor at a Wilson College dinner discussion a few months ago and, upon hearing West’s answer, invited him to speak. For security reasons, student volunteers from the University as well as inmates are being granted anonymity.
The University program, which began in February 2007 under the direction of executive director Jim Farrin ’58, is run through the Pace Center and currently involves around 39 students.
“It was an interesting opportunity to learn about the criminal justice system … It does seem very removed from the ivory tower,” a volunteer who attended the talk said.
Before his talk, West said that the event was “Princeton at its best” and commended the students for studying the issue in the classroom and then facilitating a group to address the issue firsthand.
“We need more rehabilitation programs, and we need more educational programs and more art programs,” West said.
Student volunteers assist in tutoring inmates who are preparing to earn their GEDs. There are also programs offered in the arts.
An arts volunteer at the Garden State facility noted that inmates expressed interest in going to college after meeting with the students and that one had even asked a volunteer for an application to the University.
“It’s a really humbling experience. They draw with a lot of feeling,” the volunteer said. “They paint better than I do.”
The event included musical performances by the Garden State ensemble, which sang “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” as well as readings and the display of artwork from an art and poetry contest held at the prison. One of the inmates recited his first-place entry, a poem entitled “Hope on a Tightrope,” which is also the title of West’s latest book. Another inmate, an artist, presented West with several drawn portraits of the professor at the conclusion of his talk.
Many of the inmates in attendance were under 21 and had listened to a recording of West’s book in classrooms prior to the talk. They described the experience as inspirational.
“The talk was phenomenal. He definitely struck a chord with a lot of us on the inside,” one inmate said. “He made us feel like we could do anything.”
After the talk, a small group of inmates had the opportunity to speak in private with West without any prison administrators present for close to an hour.
“Oh my god, it was rich,” West said of the private session. “They really opened up [asking about] how they [will] sustain themselves when they get out and black leadership and the generational divide.”
West ended his talk with advice for the inmates on finding and embracing their voices and identities.
“A voice is something deeper and finding the courage to find out who you are. Everybody is a star,” West said. “If you don’t realize you’re already a star, then you gotta go.”