Cornel West

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Cornel Ronald West (born June 2, 1953 in Tulsa, Oklahoma) is a prominent American scholar and public intellectual. Formerly at Harvard, West is currently a professor of Religion and African American studies at Princeton University. West's unique intellectual contributions draw from such diverse traditions as the African American Baptist Church, Marxism, pragmatism, and transcendentalism.



The grandson of a preacher, West was shaped from a young age by religious tradition and political struggle. As a young man, he marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized to demand black studies courses at his high school. West later wrote that in his youth he admired "the sincere black militancy of Malcolm X, the defiant rage of the Black Panther Party, and the livid black theology of James Cone."

He enrolled at Harvard University at age 17, and graduated in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and literature. He went to Princeton to complete his graduate education, where he was influenced by professor Richard Rorty, and specifically his dedication to the pragmatist school of philosophy. His dissertation, completed in 1980, was later revised and published as The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. In his mid-twenties he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

In 1984 he went to Yale Divinity School, in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale he participated in campus protests for a clerical union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration cancelled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris (where he was teaching three).

He then returned to Union for a year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Afro-American studies program, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison.

1993 saw the publication of Race Matters, a bestselling collection of essays, as well as his departure from Princeton to join the Afro-American studies program at Harvard, chaired by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (who called West "the preeminent African-American intellectual of our generation"). In 1998, he received the prestiguous appointment of University Professor.

West's popularity was not, however, universal. Critics, most notably New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship, and lack of scholarly seriousness. After Race Matters, he failed to produce any significant solo scholarship for several years and instead focused on slight, co-authored and edited volumes and on popularizations. Nevertheless, West remains a widely cited scholar. West never responded to Wieseltier's attack ("The Unreal World of Cornel West" (

In 2001, West became involved in a very public dispute with newly appointed Harvard president and former Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers. (West was one of the 17 faculty members with the distinguished rank of University Professor. University Professor rank faculty report directly to the president on their research agendas.) Summers, in one of his meetings with West, allegedly accused West of devoting too much time and attention to political activities and less traditionally academic pursuits, such as producing a hip hop album (the critically-panned Sketches of my Culture) at the expense of his teaching and academic responsibilities. In 2002, West left Harvard to return to Princeton.

In 2003 West appeared as Councillor West in the science fiction films Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions, and has recorded commentaries on philosophy for all three films in the Matrix trilogy for their DVD release.

The introduction to The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, entitled "The Making of an American Democratic Socialist of African Descent" is an autobiographical essay.

West was a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc., the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African Americans.


West, never satisfied with the world of academia, is unusually politically active for a scholar of his reputation. He describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist" (due to Marx's opposition to religion), and serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, which he has described as "the first multiracial, socialist organization close enough to my politics that I could join."

He has been involved with such projects as the Million Man March and Russell Simmons's Hip-Hop Summit, and worked with such controversial figures as Louis Farrakhan (whom he has actively criticized), and Al Sharpton, whose 2004 presidential campaign West advised.

In 2000, West was a senior advisor to Democratic presidential candidate Bill Bradley. When Bradley lost in the primaries, West became a prominent endorser of Ralph Nader, even speaking at some Nader rallies. Some Greens had sought to draft West to run as a presidential candidate in 2004, but he refused, citing his participation in the Sharpton campaign.

West, along with other prominent Nader 2000 supporters, signed the Vote to Stop Bush statement urging progressive voters in swing states to vote for John Kerry, despite strong disagreements with many of Kerry's policies.

West also serves as co-chair of the Tikkun Community. He co-chaired the National Parenting Organization's Task Force on Parent Empowerment, and participated in President Clinton's National Conversation on Race.

He has publicly endorsed In These Times magazine by calling it: "The most creative and challenging newsmagazine of the American left."

Published works

  • Black Theology and Marxist Thought (1979)
  • Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982)
  • Prophetic Fragments (1988)
  • The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989)
  • Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (with bell hooks, 1991)
  • The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991)
  • Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993)
  • Race Matters (1993)
  • Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1994)
  • Jews and Blacks: A Dialogue on Race, Religion, and Culture in America (with rabbi Michael Lerner, 1995)
  • Future of the Race (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 1996)
  • The War Against Parents: What We Can Do For America's Beleaguered Moms and Dads (with Sylvia Ann Hewlett, 1998)
  • The Future of American Progressivism (with Roberto Unger, 1998)
  • The African-American Century: How Black Americans Have Shaped Our Century (with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., 2000)
  • Cornel West: A Critical Reader (George Yancy, editor) (2001)
  • Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004)


  • "Cornel Ronald West." Contemporary Black Biography, Volume 33. Edited by Ashyia Henderson. Gale Group, 2002. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center. Farmington Hills, Mich.: The Gale Group. 2004.

External links


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