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West, Cornel 1953–

Cornel West 1953

Scholar, educator, social critic, writer

At a Glance

Early Life: Family, Church, and Friends in Struggle

Developed Skills of Critical Thinking and Political Action

Into the Limelight: A Career in Teaching and Writing

The Power of Diversity

Moved Into the Twenty-first Century

Selected works

Sources

Professor of religion and Afro-American studies at Harvard University, Cornel West has dazzled a vast array of audiences from scholars and activists to students and churchgoers with his analytical speeches and writings on issues of morality, race relations, cultural diversity, and progressive politics. A keeper of the prophetic African-American religious tradition, West taught the philosophy of religion at both Union Theological Seminary, Yale Divinity School, and Princeton before landing his position at Harvard.

As a scholar, activist, and teacher of religion, West juggles his theological concerns with his political convictions. While teaching religion at Yale, for instance, he was arrested for participating in a protest rally. Wests blend of philosophy and an on-the-streets politics reflected his passion and commitment to his main goal: namely, uphold[ing] the moral character of the black freedom struggle in America, as he was quoted as saying in Emerge.

Thought of as our black Jeremiah by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of Harvard Universitys African American Studies Department, West served dual roles as prophet and intellectual both within and beyond the black community in the United States. His writings, which reflect the theories of early American historian Sacvan Bercovitch, combine a dual castigation for moral failure with an optimism that insists on the possibility through struggleof making real a world of higher morality.

In a 1991 book written with West, African American social critic, bell hooks, wrote that the word prophetic has emerged as that expression which best names both Wests intellectual project, his spiritual commitment, and his revolutionary political agenda. Their book, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, draws its title from Wests own model for an effectiveand sorely-neededrelevant black intellectual community.

West envisions the most effective role for the black intellectual as a critical, organic catalyst in what he calls the insurgency model. In this model, intellectuals would challenge the status quo, voicing opposition to an inherently racist civil authority. The rebellion would then lead to the creation in the long term of a post-(not anti-) Western civilization and the revitalization in the short term of institutions that foster insightful critical thought and serve the cause of black insurgency.

At a Glance

Born Cornel Ronald West, June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, OK; son of Clifton L., Jr. and Irene (Bias) West; divorced twice; married third wife; children: Clifton Louis. Education: Harvard College, A.B. 1973; Princeton University, M.A., 1975, Ph.D., 1980. Politics: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Religion: Baptist.

Career : Assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary, 1977-83 and 1988, Yale Divinity School, 1984-87, and University of Paris VIII, spring 1987; director of Afro-American Studies and professor of religion at Princeton University, 1989-94; Professor of Religion and African-American Studies, Harvard University, 1994- involved in Theology in the Americas movement; joined Democratic Socialists of America, 1982; served on national political committee for seven years; became honorary chairperson.

Addresses : Office Barker Center, 2nd floor, Department of African-American Studies, Harvard University, Cambridge, MA, 02138, FAX (617) 496-2871. Publisher Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.

West defined his vision in Breaking Bread, noting, The central task of postmodern black intellectuals is to stimulate, hasten, and enable alternative perceptions and practices by dislodging prevailing discourses and powers.

Early Life: Family, Church, and Friends in Struggle

In his autobiographical introduction to his book The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, West describes the various academic, political, and personal influences on his life, attributing most significance to his experience in my closely knit family and overlapping communities of church and friends. West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the grandson of the Reverend Clifton L. West, Sr., pastor of the Tulsa Metropolitan Baptist Church. Wests mother, Irene Bias West, was an elementary school teacher (and later principal), while his father, Clifton L. West, Jr., was a civilian Air Force administrator. From his parents, siblings, and community, young West derived ideals and images of dignity, integrity, majesty, and humility. These values, presented in Christian narratives, symbols, rituals, and moral examples, provided him existential and ethical equipment to confront the crises, terrors, and horrors of life. West suggests that the basis for his life vocation lies in three essential components of that Christian outlook, which he viewed most clearly in the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. These were a Christian ethic of love-informed service to others, ego-deflating humility about oneself owing to the precious yet fallible humanity of others, and politically engaged struggle for social betterment.

In Ethical Dimensions, West examined his own experiences and those of his ancestors against a broad historical backdrop. His views on what he calls the Age of Europe are informed by his descendence from seven generations of Africans who were enslaved and exploited, devalued and despised by Euro-Americans, and three more generations who were subordinated and terrorized by the legal racist practices of Jim Crow laws in the South. He recounted that both of his parents were born into a place and time Louisiana during the Great Depressionwhen Jim Crow laws of segregation were thriving. West viewed himself, however, as the product of the post-World War II eclipse of this Age of Europe, when European cultural domination of the world ended. Still closer to home, West sees himself as a child of the American Centurywhat American editor and publisher Henry Luce defined as the period of unprecedented economic prosperity in the United Statesand a youth of the time that witnessed the overturning of discriminatory segregationalist laws in the United States.

Wests community of friends and family participated actively in the struggle to overturn these racist laws. His earliest political actions included marching with his family in a Sacramento civil rights demonstration and coordinating with three other Sacramento high school students a strike to demand courses in black studies. In his youth, West admired the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party, and the livid black theology of James Cone [a noted writer and professor of religion at Union Theological Seminary].

Robert S. Boynton highlighted in the New York Times Magazine the role the Panthers played in refining Wests progressive international perspective: they taught him the importance of community-based struggle; introduced him to the writings of Ghanaian anticolonial philosopher Kwame Nkrumah; and acquainted him with the principles of critical Marxist thought, which called for the achievement of a classless society. Still, West recalled in his introduction to Ethical Dimensions that he never fully agreed with these groups and thinkers, since he longed for more of the self-critical humility found in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, he considers himself a non-Marxist socialist, since he champions his Christianity over Marxism and believes that religion and socialism are reconcilable doctrines.

Developed Skills of Critical Thinking and Political Action

At age 17, West enrolled in Harvard as an undergraduate. By taking eight courses per term as a junior, he was able to graduate one year early, achieving magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature. While there, he once wrote a spontaneous 50-page essay to work through the differences between Immanuel Kant and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegels conceptions of God. He even dreamed of philosophical concepts taking form and battling one another. According to Boynton, government professor Martin Kilson called West the most intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral student I have taught in my 30 years [at Harvard].

West credited his time at Harvard with fueling a reexamination of his world views; over those three years, he surveyed his own thoughts and actions and pursued a rigorous study of new ideas. In class, he developed a passionate interest on the effects of time and culture on philosophical thought and historical actions. Outside of class, he participated in a breakfast program group in the Massachusetts village of Jamaica Plain, took weekly trips to Norfolk State Prison, and worked with the Black Student Organization, which was responsible for the 1972 takeover of Massachusetts Hall to both protest Harvards investments in Gulf Oil and show support for liberation forces operating in the southwest African country of Angola. But West attributed his greatest intellectual influences on political matters to a variety of philosophers such as nineteenth-century Serbian political writer Svetozar Markovic. He continued, however, to recognize the limits of book knowledge and to value dedication in action.

After Harvard, West began pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton University. There, he discovered that the values most precious to him were those of individuality and democracy. In the introduction to Ethical Dimensions, he defined individuality as the sanctity and dignity of all individuals shaped in and by communities, and explained democracy as a way of living as well as a way of governing. The work of Richard Rorty, a philosopher at Princeton, also impressed West. West called Rortys attention to history music to my ears and subsequently developed his own vision of Rortys favorite philosophical tradition American pragmatismin his 1989 book The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. In this book, West defined his own version of pragmatism, called prophetic pragmatism, which he believes is vital in promoting the formation of a democracy that both recognizes and extols the virtues of individual morality, autonomy, and creativity. Philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, writing in Nation, considered the book a powerful call for philosophy to play its role in building a radical democracy in alliance with the wretched of the earth and deemed West possibly the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.

Into the Limelight: A Career in Teaching and Writing

Wests books began to be published in the early 1980s, but he wrote many of them in the late 1970s. During his mid-twenties, he left Princeton, returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow to finish his dissertation, and then began his first tenure-track teaching job as an assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While a Du Bois fellow, West married and had a son, Clifton. Both this marriage and a later one ended in divorce.

While teaching at Union, West concerned himself with the major national progressive multiracial and religious activity in the country in the 1970s. He also traveled to Brazil, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, Europe, and South Africa, where he saw and involved himself with intellectual and political progressive movements reminiscent of our 1960s. In the early 1980s, West encountered Michael Harringtons Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that shaped the version of democratic socialism he would subsequently promote. West described the DSA in Ethical Dimensions as the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join.

West wrote The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought during his time at Union, but it wasnt published until 1991. In the book, he traced Karl Marxs intellectual development to reveal how Marx incorporated the growing consciousness of history in modern thought with values of individuality and democracy. West combined his interests in Marxism and religion in his 1982 book Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, in which he shows the potential in prophetic Christianityand especially in aspects of the black churchfor meaningful opposition to racism and oppression.

In 1984 West assumed a post at the Yale Divinity School that eventually became a joint appointment with the institutions American Studies Department. He participated in a campus drive for clerical unionism and against Yales investments in South African companies and was arrested and jailed during one campus protest. West viewed his political actions at Yale as a fine example for my wonderful son, Clifton, who had become a progressive student body president in his predominantly black middle school in Atlanta. The Yale administration punished West by canceling his leave and requiring him to teach a full load of two courses in the spring of 1987.

Before his leave was canceled, West had already arranged to teach African-American thought and American pragmatism at the University of Paris, so in order to fulfill his responsibilities to both schools, he commuted to Paris for his three courses there while teaching his two courses at Yale. He also served as the American correspondent for Le Monde diplomatique at Yale. In 1988, West returned to Union; one year after that move, he accepted a position at Princeton University as professor of religion and director of the Afro-American Studies program. West continued to write and edit books on philosophy throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In his 1985 publication Post-Analytic Philosophy, which he edited with John Rajchman, West reflected on the crisis in American philosophy. Prophetic Fragments, an essay collection published in 1988, is considered a tome of contemporary cultural criticism, addressing such subjects as theology, sex, suicide, and violence in America today. In 1991s Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, co-authors West and bell hooks limit themselves to the problems of creating black male-female dialogue and an effective black intellectual community while suggesting practical solutions to communication problems.

The Power of Diversity

Wests impassioned and insightful writings make a resounding appeal for cross-cultural tolerance and unity, while urging individuals to recognize the power of diversity within a society. As a member of the editorial collective for the journal Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture, West draws on his research to relate Marxist thought to cultural politics of difference, including differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, and age. And out of a desire to contribute to the building of coalitions across different communities, he writes a column for the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun. Finally, in an effort to reach out to still wider audiences, West provides commentary on contemporary subjects for popular journals, such as his essay on the 1992 Los Angeles riots for the New York Times Magazine.

West continues his exploration of race relations and cultural diversity in his 1993 book Race Matters, which his publisher, Beacon Press, promotes as a healing vision for the crisis of racial politics today. Appealing to a broader audience than some of his earlier works, Wests message remains uncompromising and unconventional, according to Ellis Cose in Newsweek. He sees salvation in a renewal of love, empathy and compassion, in a radical redistribution of power and wealthand in facing difficult truths.

As Boynton indicated, Wests inimitable drive to keep on teaching and writing is so strong that West feels as though if he were to stop, he would just explode. Resolute in his belief that people of color must struggle now for a better future, he persists in his quest to create an effective, black, progressive leadership. West ends his introduction to Ethical Dimensions with a call to action: The future of U.S. progressive politics lies in the capacity of a collective leadership to energize, mobilize, and organize working and poor people. Democratic socialists can play a crucial role in projecting an all-embracing moral vision of freedom, justice, and equality, and making social analyses that connect and link activists together.Americas massive social breakdown requires that we come togetherfor the sake of our lives, our children, and our sacred honor.

Moved Into the Twenty-first Century

West is devoted to celebrating African-American citizens who have left an indelible mark on people of all cultures and races, and continues to address issues that affect the lives of all people. Since his move to Harvard, West has published several more books including The Future of the Race and The African American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Country, both co-authored with his colleague Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The latter is a book that is comprised of approximately 100 biographies of prominent African Americans, including some obscure notables such as the first black woman aviator, Bessie Colman. For the book, the authors wrote, At the dawn of the 21st century we cannot imagine a truly American culture that has not, in profound ways, been shaped by the contributions of African Americans.

In 1996 West, along with feminist and economist, Sylvia Ann Hewlett, created the Task Force of Parent Empowerment, and later, West and Hewlett co-authored The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For Americas Beleaguered Moms and Dads and Taking Parenting Public: The Case For A New Social Movement, which was edited by Hewlett. Both books address how American government policies and the American media work against families. West and Hewlett have called for a Parent Bill of Rights.

West decided to try something new. He recorded a CD that included rap and spoken word, Sketches of My Culture. While the CD may not have measured up to a rap critics picks, West was harshly criticized by Harvard President, Larry Summers, President Clintons treasury secretary. Summers suggested that West pay attention to more scholarly pursuits and inferred that West allowed grade inflation. West was also criticized for leading a committee for AI Sharptons presidential campaign, should he decide to run. In addition, Summers commented that West should be publishing books that would be reviewed by academic journals rather than in the New York Times. According to The Economist, the incident spiraled into a full-blown tempest which caused West, along with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Kwame Anthony Appiah, to consider quitting and going elsewhere. Summers and West have since made peace. Gates, who turned Harvards fledgling African American Studies department into a robust and thriving department that can boast of having the countrys top black intellectuals and has had record number of students enrolled said, One of Professor Wests great gifts is that he can engage in conversation with almost anyone, whatever their ideology. His keen-edged analysis forces us to remember what he has to say. Theres no one from whom Ive learned more than Cornel West. One of the most important things that he has to teach, I think, is that being a Black intellectual doesnt have to mean mindless, pompous cheerleading.

Selected works

Albums

Sketches of My Culture, 2001.

Books

Black Theology and Marxist Thought, Theology in the Americas, 1979.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, Westminster Press, 1982.

(Coeditor) Theology in the Americas, Orbis Books, 1982.

(Coeditor) Post-Analytic Philosophy, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Prophetic Fragments, Eerdmans, 1988.

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

(Coeditor) Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, 1990.

(With bell hooks) Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, Common Courage Press, 1993.

Race Matters, Beacon Press, 1993.

Future of the Race, 1997.

(with Sylvia Ann Hewlett) The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For Americas Beleaguered Moms and Dads, 1998.

Cornel West: A Critical Reader, 2001.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Monthly Review, Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities, Critical Quarterly, Nation, October, Tikkun, New York Times Book Review, and New York Times Magazine. American correspondent for Le Monde diplomatique, 1984-87; member of editorial collective Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture.

Sources

Books

Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad, University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

hooks, bell, and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

West, Cornel, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

West, Cornel, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Commonweal, December 20, 1985, p. 708.

The Economist, January 5, 2002.

Emerge, March 1993.

Essence, June 1996, p. 42.

Nation, April 9, 1990, pp. 496-8.

National Review, January 28, 2002.

Newsweek, June 7, 1993, p. 71.

New York Times Magazine, September 15, 1991.

The Progressive, January, 1997, p. 26.

Publishers Weekly, March 30, 1998, p. 60; October 16, 2000, p.57.

Religious Studies Review, April 1992, p. 103.

Time, January 14, 2002, p. 14.

Voice Literary Supplement, December 1988, pp.3-4.

Nicholas S. Patti and Christine Miner Minderovic

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West, Cornel 1953–

Cornel West 1953

Scholar, educator, social critic, writer

At a Glance

Early Life: Family, Church, and Friends in Struggle

Developed Skills of Critical Thinking and Political Action

Into the Limelight: A Career in Teaching and Writing

The Power of Diversity

Selected writings

Sources

Professor of religion and director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, Cornel West has dazzled a vast array of audiences from scholars and activists to students and churchgoers with his analytical speeches and writings on issues of morality, race relations, cultural diversity, and progressive politics. A keeper of the prophetic African American religious tradition, West taught the philosophy of religion at both Union Theological Seminary and Yale Divinity School before landing his position at Princeton.

As a scholar, activist, and teacher of religion, West juggles his theological concerns with his political convictions. While teaching religion at Yale, for instance, he was arrested for participating in a protest rally. Wests blend of philosophy and an on-the-streets politics reflects his passion and commitment to his main goal: namely, uphold[ing] the moral character of the black freedom struggle in America, as he was quoted as saying in Emerge.

Thought of as our black Jeremiah by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., chair of Harvard Universitys African American Studies Department, West serves dual roles as prophet and intellectual both within and beyond the black community in the United States. His writings, which reflect the theories of early American historian Sacvan Bercovitch, combine a dual castigation for moral failure with an optimism that insists on the possibilitythrough struggle of making real a world of higher morality.

In a 1991 book written with West, African American social critic bell hooks wrote that the word prophetic has emerged as that expression which best names both Wests intellectual project, his spiritual commitment, and his revolutionary political agenda. Their book. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, draws its title from Wests own model for an effective and sorely-neededrelevant black intellectual community.

West envisions the most effective role for the black intellectual as a critical, organic catalyst in what he calls the insurgency model. In this model, intellectuals would challenge the status quo, voicing opposition to an inherently racist civil authority. The rebellion would then lead to the creation in the long term of a post-(not anti-) Western civilization and the revitalization in the short term of institutions that foster insightful critical thought and serve the cause of black insurgency. West defined his vision in Breaking Breading, noting, The central task of postmodern black intellectuals is to

At a Glance

Born Cornel Ronald West, June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, OK; son of Clifton L., Jr. and Irene (Bias) West; divorced twice; married third wife; children: Clifton Louis. Education: Harvard College, A.B., 1973; Princeton University, M.A., 1975, Ph.D., 1980. Politics: Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Religion: Baptist.

Assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary, 1977-83 and 1988, Yale Divinity School, 1984-87, and University of Paris VIII, spring 1987; director of Afro-American Studies and professor of religion at Princeton University, 1989. Involved in Theology in the Americas movement. Joined Democratic Socialists of America, 1982; served on national political committee for seven years; became honorary chairperson.

Addresses: Office 104 Dickinson Hall, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ 08544. Publisher Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, MA 02108.

stimulate, hasten, and enable alternative perceptions and practices by dislodging prevailing discourses and powers.

Early Life: Family, Church, and Friends in Struggle

In his autobiographical introduction to his book The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, West describes the various academic, political, and personal influences on his life, attributing most significance to his experience in my closely knit family and overlapping communities of church and friends.

West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the grandson of the Reverend Clifton L. West, Sr., pastor of the Tulsa Metropolitan Baptist Church. Wests mother, Irene Bias West, was an elementary school teacher (and later principal), while his father, Clifton L. West, Jr., was a civilian Air Force administrator. From his parents, siblings, and community, young West derived ideals and images of dignity, integrity, majesty, and humility. These values, presented in Christian narratives, symbols, rituals, and moral examples, provided him existential and ethical equipment to confront the crises, terrors, and horrors of life. West suggests that the basis for his life vocation lies in three essential components of that Christian outlook, which he viewed most clearly in the example of Martin Luther King, Jr. These were a Christian ethic of love-informed service to others, ego-deflating humility about oneself owing to the precious yet fallible humanity of others, and politically engaged struggle for social betterment.

In Ethical Dimensions, West examines his own experiences and those of his ancestors against a broad historical backdrop. His views on what he calls the Age of Europe are informed by his descent from seven generations of Africans who were enslaved and exploited, devalued and despised by Euro-Americans, and three more generations who were subordinated and terrorized by the legal racist practices of Jim Crow laws in the South. He recounts that both of his parents were born into a place and time Louisiana during the Great Depressionwhen Jim Crow laws of segregation were thriving. West views himself, however, as the product of the post-World War II eclipse of this Age of Europe, when European cultural domination of the world ended. Still closer to home, West sees himself as a child of the American Centurywhat American editor and publisher Henry Luce defined as the period of unprecedented economic prosperity in the United States and a youth of the time that witnessed the overturning of discriminatory segregationalist laws in the United States.

Wests community of friends and family participated actively in the struggle to overturn these racist laws. His earliest political actions included marching with his family in a Sacramento civil rights demonstration and coordinating with three other Sacramento high school students a strike to demand courses in black studies. In his youth, West admired the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party, and the livid black theology of James Cone [a noted writer and professor of religion at Union Theological Seminary].

Robert S. Boynton highlighted in the New York Times Magazine the role the Panthers played in refining Wests progressive international perspective: they taught him the importance of community-based struggle; introduced him to the writings of Ghanaian anticolonial philosopher Kwame Nkrumah; and acquainted him with the principles of critical Marxist thought, which calls for the achievement of a classless society. Still, West recalls in his introduction to Ethical Dimensions that he never fully agreed with these groups and thinkers, since he longed for more of the self-critical humility found in the life and work of Martin Luther King, Jr. In addition, he considers himself a non-Marxist socialist, since he champions his Christianity over Marxism and believes that religion and socialism are reconcilable doctrines.

Developed Skills of Critical Thinking and Political Action

At age 17, West enrolled in Harvard as an undergraduate. By taking eight courses per term as a junior, he was able to graduate one year early, achieving magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature. While there, he once wrote a spontaneous 50-page essay to work through the differences between Immanuel Kant and George Wilhelm Friedrich Hegels conceptions of God. He even dreamed of philosophical concepts taking form and battling one another. According to Boynton, government professor Martin Kilson called West the most intellectually aggressive and highly cerebral student I have taught in my 30 years [at Harvard].

West credits his time at Harvard with fueling a reexamination of his world views; over those three years, he surveyed his own thoughts and actions and pursued a rigorous study of new ideas. In class, he developed a passionate interest in the effects of time and culture on philosophical thought and historical actions. Outside of class, he participated in a breakfast program group in the Massachusetts village of Jamaica Plain, took weekly trips to Norfolk State Prison, and worked with the Black Student Organization, which was responsible for the 1972 takeover of Massachusetts Hall to both protest Harvards investments in Gulf Oil and show support for liberation forces operating in the southwest African country of Angola. But West attributes his greatest intellectual influences on political matters to a variety of philosophers such as nineteenth-century Serbian political writer Svetozar Markovic. He continued, however, to recognize the limits of book knowledge and to value dedication in action.

After Harvard, West began pursuing a doctorate in philosophy at Princeton University. There, he discovered that the values most precious to him were those of individuality and democracy. In the introduction to Ethical Dimensions, he defines individuality as the sanctity and dignity of all individuals shaped in and by communities, and explained democracy as a way of living as well as a way of governing. The work of Richard Rorty, a philosopher at Princeton, also impressed West. West called Rortys attention to history music to my ears and subsequently developed his own vision of Rortys favorite philosophical traditionAmerican pragmatismin his 1989 book The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism. In this book, West defines his own version of pragmatism, called prophetic pragmatism, which he believes is vital in promoting the formation of a democracy that both recognizes and extols the virtues of individual morality, autonomy, and creativity. Philosopher K. Anthony Appiah, writing in the Nation, considered the book a powerful call for philosophy to play its role in building a radical democracy in alliance with the wretched of the earth and deemed West possibly the pre-eminent African-American intellectual of our generation.

Into the Limelight: A Career in Teaching and Writing

Wests books began to be published in the early 1980s, but he wrote many of them in the late 1970s. During his mid-twenties, he left Princeton, returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow to finish his dissertation, and then began his first tenure-track teaching job as an assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. While a Du Bois fellow, West married and had a son, Clifton. Both this marriage and a later one ended in divorce.

While teaching at Union, West concerned himself with the major national progressive multiracial and religious activity in the country in the 1970s. He also traveled to Brazil, Jamaica, Costa Rica, Mexico, Europe, and South Africa, where he saw and involved himself with intellectual and political progressive movements reminiscent of our 1960s. In the early 1980s, West encountered Michael Harringtons Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), an organization that shaped the version of democratic socialism he would subsequently promote. West described the DSA in Ethical Dimensions as the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join.

West wrote The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought during his time at Union, but it wasnt published until 1991. In the book, he traces Karl Marxs intellectual development to reveal how Marx incorporated the growing consciousness of history in modern thought with values of individuality and democracy. West combined his interests in Marxism and religion in his 1982 book Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, in which he shows the potential in prophetic Christianityand especially in aspects of the black churchfor meaningful opposition to racism and oppression.

In 1984, West assumed a post at the Yale Divinity School that eventually became a joint appointment with the institutions American Studies Department. He participated in a campus drive for clerical unionism and against Yales investments in South African companies and was arrested and jailed during one campus protest. West viewed his political actions at Yale as a fine example for my wonderful son, Clifton, who had become a progressive student body president in his predominantly black middle school in Atlanta. The Yale administration punished West by canceling a planned leave and requiring him to teach a full load of two courses in the spring of 1987.

Before his leave was canceled, West had already arranged to teach African American thought and American pragmatism at the University of Paris, so in order to fulfill his responsibilities to both schools, he commuted to Paris for his three courses there while teaching his two courses at Yale. He also served as the American correspondent for Le Monde diplomatique at Yale. In 1988, West returned to Union; one year after that move, he accepted a position at Princeton University as professor of religion and director of the Afro-American Studies program.

West continued to write and edit books on philosophy throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. In his 1985 publication Post-Analytic Philosophy, which he edited with John Rajchman, West reflects on the crisis in American philosophy. Prophetic Fragments, an essay collection published in 1988, is considered a tome of contemporary cultural criticism, addressing such subjects as theology, sex, suicide, and violence in America today. In 1991s Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, co-authors West and bell hooks limit themselves to the problems of creating black male-female dialogue and an effective black intellectual community while suggesting practical solutions to communication problems.

The Power of Diversity

Wests impassioned and insightful writings make a resounding appeal for cross-cultural tolerance and unity, while urging individuals to recognize the power of diversity within a society. As a member of the editorial collective for the journal Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture, West draws on his research to relate Marxist thought to cultural politics of difference, including differences in race, gender, sexual orientation, and age. And out of a desire to contribute to the building of coalitions across different communities, he writes a column for the progressive Jewish journal Tikkun. Finally, in an effort to reach out to still wider audiences, West provides commentary on contemporary subjects for popular journals, such as his essay on the 1992 Los Angeles riots for the New York Times Magazine.

West continues his exploration of race relations and cultural diversity in his 1993 book Race Matters, which his publisher, Beacon Press, promotes as a healing vision for the crisis of racial politics today. Appealing to a broader audience than some of his earlier works, Wests message remains... uncompromising and unconventional, according to Ellis Cose in Newsweek. He sees salvation in a renewal of love, empathy and compassion, in a radical redistribution of power and wealthand in facing difficult truths.

As Boynton indicated, Wests inimitable drive to keep on teaching and writing is so strong that West feels as though if he were to stop, he would just explode. Resolute in his belief that people of color must struggle now for a better future, he persists in his quest to create an effective, black, progressive leadership. West ends his introduction to Ethical Dimensions with a call to action: The future of U.S. progressive politics lies in the capacity of a collective leadership to energize, mobilize, and organize working and poor people. Democratic socialists can play a crucial role in projecting an all-embracing moral vision of freedom, justice, and equality, and making social analyses that connect and link activists together.... Americas massive social breakdown requires that we come togetherfor the sake of our lives, our children, and our sacred honor.

Selected writings

Black Theology and Marxist Thought, Theology in the Americas, 1979.

Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, Westminster Press, 1982.

(Coeditor) Theology in the Americas, Orbis Books, 1982.

(Coeditor) Post-Analytic Philosophy, Columbia University Press, 1985.

Prophetic Fragments, Eerdmans, 1988.

The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

(Coeditor) Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures, 1990.

(With bell hooks) Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism, Common Courage Press, 1993.

Race Matters, Beacon Press, 1993.

Contributor of articles to periodicals, including Monthly Review, Yale Journal of Criticism: Interpretation in the Humanities, Critical Quarterly, Nation, October, Tikkun, New York Times Book Review, and New York Times Magazine. American correspondent for Le Monde diplomatique, 1984-87; member of editorial collective

Boundary 2: An International Journal of Literature and Culture.

Sources

Books

Bercovitch, Sacvan, The American Jeremiad, University of Wisconsin Press, 1978.

hooks, bell, and Cornel West, Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, South End Press, 1991.

West, Cornel, The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, University of Wisconsin Press, 1989.

West, Cornel, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, Monthly Review Press, 1991.

Periodicals

Commonweal, December 20, 1985, p. 708.

Emerge, March 1993.

Nation, April 9, 1990, pp. 496-8.

Newsweek, June 7, 1993, p. 71.

New York Times Magazine, September 15, 1991.

Religious Studies Review, April 1992, p. 103.

Voice Literary Supplement, December 1988, pp. 3-4.

Nicholas S. Patti

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Cornel West

Cornel West

An American philosopher, Cornel West (born 1953) quickly won recognition as a critic of culture, an interpreter of African American experience, an advocate of social justice, and an analyst of Post-Modern art and philosophy.

Cornel West, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953, lived most of his childhood and youth in segregated working-class neighborhoods in Oklahoma, Kansas, and California. In high school he excelled in scholarship and athletics. He earned his A.B. at Harvard University, then completed his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton in 1980. While a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant in humanities and ethics at Harvard and in philosophy at Princeton.

In 1977 he joined the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York, teaching classical and contemporary philosophy. From 1984 to 1987 he taught at the Yale University Divinity School, then returned to Union in 1987-1988. In 1988 Princeton University tapped him to be the director of its African American Studies Program and as professor of religion. In the former program he drew together a multi-disciplinary group of literary artists and scholars who interpreted the African American experience in history and literature.

West earned an early reputation as a scholar of infectious enthusiasm, sharp insight, and wide-ranging interests. Within a decade of earning his doctorate, he accepted visiting appointments at Barnard College, Williams College, Princeton Theological Seminary, Haverford College, City University of New York (Center for Worker Education), Harvard Divinity School, and the University of Paris. In addition, he lectured at more than a hundred colleges and universities in the United States. He taught philosophy to inmates of a federal prison, an unusual distinction for an academic philosopher. Within the same decade he produced dozens of essays and reviews, published in books and in journals, both scholarly and popular.

In an age of scholarly specialization, West cultivated widely diverse interests. His nimble mind danced from one subject to another with dazzling virtuosity. On one side of his thought he was a social philosopher, drawing much from the Marxist tradition but uninhibited by allegiance to any Marxist orthodoxies. His scholarship was closely related to active involvement in movements for social and racial justice. He was simultaneously an interpreter of African American experience to white Americans, of American philosophy to Europeans, of democratic beliefs to South Africans, of religious insights to secularists, and of secular themes to the religious. As a philosopher, he showed special interest in pragmatism, Post-Modern thought, and philosophy of religion. His artistic interests included literature (he had published one short story and friends predicted that he would write a novel), opera (he was seen occasionally at Salzburg), cinema (he was a fellow at the British Film Institute), and architecture (he lectured at the School of Architecture at Milan, Italy).

The unifying center for these diverse interests was a concern for cultural criticism: intellectual, esthetic, ethical, and religious. Whatever area of human interest he entered, from the arts to the most technical philosophy, he soon related to its expressions in contemporary society and its meaning for human self-understanding and justice. West appreciated culture as an expression of human creativity; he also saw that culture often oppresses human beings, especially marginalized people. He united intellectual analysis and social involvement, scholarship and action, the academic world and political life.

Even as he boldly acknowledged his roots in the African American church, West made trenchant criticisms of religious belief and practice, and he asked no favoritism for religion in the intellectual discussions of universities and society. He drew inspiration from the prophetic tradition of the Bible, and the words "prophetic" and "prophecy" appear often in his writings.

West was an eloquent lecturer, whose lithe and energetic body was totally involved in the torrent of words and ideas that tumbled from his mouth. He asked his listeners not only to hear what he said, but to enter into his thought processes and share his enthusiasms or generate their own thoughts and enthusiasms. His speaking style was symbolic of his convictions, which rejected the divorce of body from mind, of emotion from intellect, characteristic of much philosophy since Descartes. In a time when many philosophers would be horrified to be called preachers, West (although not an ordained minister) was not embarrassed to preach an occasional sermon. For him a passion for social justice was as intellectually respectable and demanding as the most rigorous intellectual analysis of propositions, and the two were never far apart in his philosophy.

West wrote and co-authored numerous books on philosophy, race and sociology. His Race Matters won a Critics Choice Award and was listed as a New York Times Notable Book of the Year in 1992. Other works included Keeping the Faith: Philosophy and Race in American (1993) and Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995), co-authored with Michael Lerner. In 1996 he co-authored The Future of Race with his Harvard colleague, Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

West was a frequent guest lecturer on university campuses nationwide. He joined the Harvard Faculty in 1994 as professor of Religion and African American Studies. During the 1996 Fall Semester he was a visiting professor at the University of Arizona. West was a featured speaker during the 1997 Martin Luther King, Jr./ Human Rights Week Celebration at Boise State University. At Harvard, West was known for his electrifying presentations that inspired students to critically analyze their own beliefs on race, culture, and class. Gates once described West as "the pre-eminent African American intellectual of our generation."

Further Reading

West's first book was Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982). He co-edited Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985), a collection of essays by numerous scholars. Prophetic Fragments (1988) is a gathering of some 50 of West's essays and reviews. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism by West (1989), is a study of an America n intellectual tradition. Out There: Marginalities and Contemporary Culture, co-edited by West (1990), explores artistic interests. Jervis Anderson interviews West in The New Yorker (Jan 17, 1994). Critical reviews of West's work can be found in major newspapers and magazines such as Time. Campus newspapers where West was a guest speaker provide information on current interests and social causes. □

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