BLOOMINGTON — The blizzard that cancelled guest speaker Roger Wilkins' trip to Illinois Wesleyan's annual soul food dinner couldn't keep the event from going off without a hitch.
With Earl Hines' deft piano playing in the background, an estimated crowd of 175 students and local resident at the Hansen Student Center in Bloomington were treated to a menu of fried catfish, green cabbage, sweet potato pie and cornbread Sunday evening, followed by a lively speech delivered by IWU Physics Department Chair Narendra Jaggi.
The record-breaking snowfall on the East Coast made it impossible for Wilkins, the distinguished civil rights leader and Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, from attending the fete, but Charlene Corrouthers, a junior at Wesleyan and one the event's organizers, was not discouraged by the change in the evening's plans.
"It's unfortunate our speaker cannot be here," said Corrouthers, the university's issues and programming commissioner, "but Professor Jaggi is very active with regards to diversity issues on campus. He's spoken out on these issues before."
Jaggi, who earned his Ph.D in physics from the University of Bombay in 1982, was at home Sunday afternoon grading papers when he was asked to speak in place of Wilkins.
"It took me about two seconds to say yes," Jaggi said.
"It's a natural fit, because it's a passion of my own. I see this as an opportunity to share my thoughts with my students."
How was he able to prepare something on such short notice?
"I just speak from the heart," Jaggi said. "This is something I feel very deeply about."
Jaggi added he is often asked to speak extemporaneously, and finds it easier to simply write out a favorite quote and gather his thoughts than worry about the details.
"I think authenticity is more important than elegance. So if I say a few ums and ers, that's not as important as long as it comes from inside."
As he came to the stage Jaggi held up one of the advertising posters featuring Wilkins.
"I brought this up to see if I looked like him," he joked. "Not even our ties match."
Jaggi pointed out to the audience that Feb. 12, in addition to being Lincoln's birthday, was also the anniversary of the founding of the Illinois chapter of the NAACP.
"How many of us here knew that? Raise your hands."
There was hardly a hand to be seen other than Jaggi's.
Jaggi went on to speak about the anxieties black parents share with first-generation Americans who want their children to pursue the kind of education that guarantees employment.
"I've noticed that so many of these parents steer their children away from what we call a liberal arts education so they can become engineers," Jaggi said.
"Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois were having a similar argument 100 years ago. Washington argued for the applied sciences and industrial education. DuBois, however, argued for the humanities, the education that expanded your mind and deepened your understanding. And first-generation Americans wonder if their children will be philosophers or financiers. But that's a false dichotomy. Now is the time to be both."