Cornel West Biography


(Survey of World Philosophers)

Article abstract: West, an advocate of the interpretation of philosophical pragmatism that he terms “prophetic pragmatism,” holds that an amalgamation of Christianity and Marxism can overcome white racism and offer hope to the black community.

Early Life

Cornel Ronald West was born to a civilian U.S. Air Force administrator, Clifton Louis West, Jr., and his wife, Irene Bias West, an elementary schoolteacher and principal. The couple’s older son, Clifton Louis III, remembers his brother as a gregarious youth who liked to go to two or three parties on a weekend, but only after he had read two or three books. The Wests had two daughters as well.

West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but spent most of his formative years in Sacramento, California. A troubled youth, he received a six-month suspension from elementary school for striking a pregnant teacher who demanded that he say the Pledge of Allegiance, which he declined to do in protest against racial segregation in the United States. This crisis was resolved after some weeks when West was permitted to enroll in a local accelerated school.

By the age of eight, West was reading adult books voraciously. He particularly enjoyed a biography of Theodore Roosevelt, who became one of his childhood heroes. Roosevelt, like West, suffered from asthma as a child and spent sleepless nights propped up on pillows. Roosevelt overcame his infirmity and went to Harvard, which is precisely what the young West vowed he would do.

During his years in secondary school, West was exposed to the activist racial philosophy of the Black Panthers, whose headquarters were near the Baptist church he attended regularly. During this period, through the Black Panthers, he was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx, which influenced his thinking profoundly, particularly when he considered Marxist economics in the light of people in his Baptist congregation who were only a few generations removed from slavery and who, despite working hard, lived a marginal existence.

After finishing secondary school at the age of seventeen, West entered Harvard University, where he majored in Near Eastern languages and literature. He received the bachelor of arts degree magna cum laude in 1973, completing his studies in three years despite having to work two jobs during much of his Harvard career and despite a consuming social life of partygoing, music, and dancing. Jazz would remain a central factor in West’s life and thought, and West came to identify music as an important restorative of his soul.

West continued his education at Princeton University, which granted him a master’s degree in 1975 and a Ph.D. in 1980. Midway through his doctoral studies, West returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow. With encouragement from philosopher Richard Rorty, he worked during that year on a novel that has not been published.

Life’s Work

In 1977, West became assistant professor of philosophy at New York City’s Union Theological Seminary, a position he held until 1983, when he was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor. He joined the Divinity School of Yale University as an associate professor in the same year and remained there until 1987. West taught in France at the University of Paris during the spring of 1987. In 1988, he rejoined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary for another year of teaching before being appointed professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University in 1989. There, working with such luminaries as novelist Toni Morrison and biographer Arnold Rampersad, West turned his administrative talents to creating what was considered, by the mid-1990’s, the United States’ best program in African American studies. In 1997, West joined the Afro-American Studies Program at Harvard University.

A committed Christian labeling himself a progressive black Baptist, West also became a Marxist. He would explore race relations throughout his professional life and became convinced that a combination of Christianity and Marxism offers the most effective means of combating racism and male dominance in contemporary American society.

The academic community has been considerably more resistant to West’s social views than have those outside the academy. A number of scholars have expressed concern about West’s seeming conviction that certain religious texts are absolute, a posture they fear limits the objectivity and depth of his analyses. His approach, essentially deductive and frequently authoritarian, runs counter to the inductive approach that most current academic humanists adopt in their philosophical explorations. This concern arises, at least in part, from the fact that contemporary scholars seek to maintain an intellectual detachment and neutrality that someone professing an avowed Christian bias is unlikely to possess.

West’s Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity encapsulates many of the social theories that the author presents in his later writing and lectures. The essence of West’s argument is that the combination of Christianity and Marxism can power the United States’ socioeconomic engine strongly enough to bring about significant changes in society.

This earliest of West’s full-length philosophical studies was commended for its clear, crisp writing style as well as for marking “an entirely new stage of development in the movement of black liberation theology,” as a reviewer for the academic book-review journal Choice wrote. West drew on such sources as the writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison, intertwining them with Marxism, African American Christianity, and the philosophy of René Descartes in his attempt to create a critical framework for African American thought. Before West, African American thought often had...

(The entire section is 2418 words.)