Introduction

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Cornel West 1953-

(Full name Cornel Ronald West) American philosopher, nonfiction writer, critic, essayist, and editor.

The following entry presents an overview of West's career through 1997.

An outspoken and highly respected Harvard educator and social critic, Cornel West has been called “the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation” by scholar Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Best known for his writings on the topic of race, particularly as presented in his best-selling book Race Matters (1993), West combines the philosophies of pragmatism, Christian religion, and Marxist criticism to analyze social and political issues affecting contemporary America. A self-described “radical democrat,” West has not remained ensconced in academia, but has instead ventured into the public realm to present his ideas to mainstream American society as a frequent speaker and author of numerous works on the subject of race relations and the African-American experience.

Biographical Information

West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His father was a civilian administrator for the U.S. Air Force and his mother an elementary school teacher (later a principal). The family, including an older brother, eventually moved to a middle-class neighborhood in Sacramento, California. At school, West, protesting the second-class position of black Americans in U.S. society, refused to salute the American flag. After attacking his pregnant teacher, who forced him to salute, he was suspended and later sent to a more accelerated school. Attending a Baptist church, West was fascinated by members of the congregation who frequently spoke of their ancestors who, only two generations earlier, were slaves. He also visited the local Black Panthers office where he learned about activism and was introduced to the writings of Karl Marx. West went on to attend Harvard, from which he received an A.B. in Near Eastern languages and literature in 1973. He continued his studies at Princeton University where he was attracted to the teachings of Richard Rorty, who stressed the relevance of literature and history to philosophy. After receiving his M.A. from Princeton in 1975, West returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow. There he decided to postpone his dissertation and work on a novel, which has remained unpublished. He received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1980. From 1977 to 1984, he served as an assistant professor of the philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary. While there, West published his first book, Prophesy Deliverance! (1982). He left Union Theological Seminary to accept a position as an associate professor of the philosophy of religion at Yale where he stayed until 1987. He then returned to Princeton to revive and direct its Afro-American Studies department. West subsequently took a position at Harvard University, where he teaches Afro-American studies and the philosophy of religion.

Major Works

West's writings address such issues as racism, multiculturalism, and socialism. Prophecy Deliverance!, the author's first book, considers the combination of the philosophies of Christianity and Marxism as a tool not only to confront white racism and oppression but to bring about social change. In this work he combined ideas from such disparate sources as the writings of African-American authors W. E. B. Du Bois and Toni Morrison, and the French philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. With Prophetic Fragments (1988), a collection of essays, West continued to reflect on Christianity and Marxism as well as offer writings on sex and violence in contemporary American society. The essays range from an examination of a socialist theory of racism to an exploration of the significance of rap music among young urban blacks. Influenced at Princeton by philosopher Richard Rorty's writings on American pragmatism, West cultivated his own version of this philosophy which he called “prophetic pragmatism.” He expounded upon this concept in The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), drawing upon the development of Anglo-American pragmatist philosophy and invoking the populist spirit of American philosophers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson to create a moral vision that takes into account race, class, and gender. In The Ethical Dimension of Marxist Thought (1991), a book that originated as West's doctoral dissertation, West applied Marxist concepts to contemporary political and social problems in an effort to counter what he viewed as the self-defeating forces of nihilism and skepticism. West argued that morality is found in the process of change and proposes radical historicism as an antidote to moral relativism.

West greatly enlarged his readership from the world of academia to that of the mainstream public with the release of his best-known work Race Matters in 1993. This book was published on the first anniversary of the Los Angeles riots which followed the acquittal of four white police officers accused in the beating of black motorist Rodney King. In this slim collection of eight previously published essays, West argues that both blacks and whites, liberals and conservatives, are all responsible for the poor state of race relations in the United States. In addition to an examination of the Los Angeles riots, which the author points out were not limited by race or class, Race Matters includes essays that cover the resurgent popularity of African-American activist Malcolm X, relations between blacks and Jews, black rage and sexuality, and what West sees as a “crisis of black leadership.” This crisis is evident in West's examination of the silence among black leaders when President George Bush appointed Clarence Thomas, a candidate whom many felt to be unqualified, to the Supreme Court. West argues that the African-American community needs what he refers to as “race-transcending prophetic leaders,” such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, and Fannie Lou Hammer of the National Welfare Rights Organization. The author believes that the current generation has failed to produce such a leader, a lack that only worsens the state of the disadvantaged. Keeping Faith (1993), West's next volume, consists of seventeen previously published essays on a diverse array of subjects including Marxist criticism of Georg Lukacs and Frederic Jameson, critical legal studies, pragmatism, architecture, and black painter Horace Pippin. The Future of Race (1996), co-authored with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., consists of W. E. B. Du Bois's 1903 essay “The Talented Tenth” and critical commentary on the responsibility of educated blacks in contemporary society. The book also discusses policy issues to alleviate poverty and to provide blacks with access to education and advancement. In addition to these works, West has authored, edited, and contributed to numerous books that further develop the major ideas propounded in his early works while exploring other topics including progressivism, parenting, and prison.

Critical Reception

Beginning with Prophecy Deliverance! and reaching a zenith with Race Matters, West has developed a reputation as a highly respected philosopher and critic. Although West has been reported as not entirely satisfied with Prophecy Deliverance!, the work earned praise from numerous reviewers and was received as a new phase in the history of black liberation theology. While West is consistently praised for his broad intelligence, rhetorical powers, and provocative insight into the issue of race, critics note that his work is often inaccessible to a wide audience due to his use of highly abstract concepts and allusions. West's writings have also been faulted for lacking intellectual rigor and depth due to their broad concerns and theoretical underpinnings. The American Evasion of Philosophy, regarded by many critics as West's most ambitious undertaking to date, was commended for its complex presentation of the history and significance of American pragmatism. Again West was praised for the wide range of his knowledge. Though the practical application of West's “prophetic pragmatism” was questioned in light of the abstract nature of the concept, West was credited with desiring to bring out of the sphere of academia a new type of intellectual life to serve the politically and socially disadvantaged. The publication of Race Matters, which was compared to the writings of Martin Luther King, Jr., W. E. B. Du Bois, and James Baldwin, affirmed West's position as one of the nation's foremost public intellectuals. Although West was taken to task for appearing to be a political centrist while also criticizing American capitalism, he was credited with attempting to provide a much-needed analytical framework for examining the plight of black Americans. As with earlier works, West was criticized for taking too broad an approach and for advancing idealistically vague solutions to the problems that he addressed. Nevertheless, the author was commended for his moral vision, keen intellect, and fresh perspective in addressing the much-visited topic of the country's racial divisions.