(b. 1953), essayist, public speaker, social activist,
and major figure in African American academia. Cornel West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, on 2 June 1953. His mother was an elementary school teacher who later became principal; his father, a civilian administrator in the air force. Both of his parents attended Fisk University. The family, including West's brother, Clifton, moved often. They eventually settled in a middle-class African American neighborhood in Sacramento, California. West graduated with a degree in Near Eastern languages and literature from Harvard University. He received his doctorate in philosophy from Princeton University. As director of Princeton's Afro-American Studies Program from 1988 to 1994, and as a professor in Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies since 1994, West is one of several high-profile scholars who have strengthened African American studies programs. He has taught at America's most prestigious universities and has lectured at many others. The blend of skills and styles employed by West inspires adjectives from his admirers and critics; unadorned nouns seem unable to capture his complexities.
West is a prolific essayist and author. His first book, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, appeared in 1982 and attempts to synthesize elements of African American Christianity and thought, Western philsophy, and Marxist thinking. In 1988 West published Prophetic Fragments, a collection of essays that discuss similarly disparate elements. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989) engages populism and race, class, and gender issues. The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991) and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993) continue the discussion of those ideas in the context of modern America. Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times and Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America also date from 1993. Throughout his career West has also produced collaborative work: Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985), edited with John Rajchman; Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991), cowritten with bell Hooks; Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995), authored with Michael Lerner; The Future of the Race (1996), with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, The Future of American Progressivism (1998). West's contributions to journals, popular magazines, and essay collections are myriad. His most influential book is Race Matters (1993), a short collection of essays that epitomizes West's careful attention to African American culture.
As a literary figure West is not easily categorized. His strength lies in his interdisciplinary focus. West synthesizes diverse topics in his writing leading to a careful control of language that is often poetic in its precision. He participates in African American oral and musical literary traditions with a spontaneous, performative element in his work that is as much a legacy from his grandfather, a Baptist preacher, as it is a language borrowed from jazz and rap. In his writing he legitimizes all forms of African American speech and bends them to effective use, employing language as a polemical weapon for social activism. This crafting of language and blending of genres mark West's literary style.
Cornel West's contributions to African American literature and thought range across disciplines and worlds to comment upon African American life. His work exemplifies synthesis and innovation.
Subjects: Literature — United States History.