Cornel West’s parents were a teacher and a civilian administrator in the U.S. military aslo active in the Baptist chruch. He, his brother, and his two sisters grew up largely in California; he suffered from asthma. While in high school, he became involved with the Black Panthers and began reading Karl Marx, while attending Baptist church. West did his undergraduate work at Harvard University, and earned an M.A. and Ph.D. at Princeton University. After teaching at a number of universities in diverse programs including philosophy and religion, he returned to Harvard as a professor of African American Studies, leaving in 2002 for Princeton and returning again in 2019. Following two previous marriages, he is currently married to Elleni Gebre Amiak; he has one son.
Marxism and Christianity remain two dominant strands in his philosophy, as expressed in numerous writings such as Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity. Both perspectives are needed, he argues, to attend to racial, social, political, and economic change through a faith-based framework. The two-pronged approach is called “prophetic pragmatism.” Among the topics he has addressed is “black rage,” aiming to understand violence from the interpersonal to collective level such as “riots.”
A frequent essayist, commentator, and lecturer, West has authored several books, such as The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought and Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times. He has also has published anthologies of the smaller works, becoming especially well known for the collection Race Matters. His influence ranges far outside philosophy, as he often addresses current events. His politically radical Marxist thought is combined with a critical attitude toward race studies, arguing that focusing primarily on race may discourage thinking about the broader context of capitalist oppression.