West, Cornel

▪ 2003

      In April 2002 American intellectual Cornel West created even more media speculation as to the status of Harvard University's top-ranked African American studies department when he announced both his resignation from his position there as Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor and his plans to join the faculty of Princeton University. His decision followed months of controversy surrounding Harvard president Lawrence Summers's disapproval of West's recent publications and extracurricular activities, which Summers had deemed to be of questionable academic merit. Other prominent members of the department at Harvard threatened to defect to Princeton also, owing to their dissatisfaction with Summers's perceived ambivalence toward such issues as affirmative action; K. Anthony Appiah joined Princeton in September.

      Cornel Ronald West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Okla. His father (a civilian air force administrator) and his mother (a teacher and school administrator) instilled in him a progressive idealism and a strong practical morality rooted in the Christian faith, considerations that informed both his political orientation (democratic socialism) and his future choice of career. He entered Harvard at the age of 17 and graduated magna cum laude with a degree in Near Eastern languages and literature just three years later. He earned a Ph.D. (1980) in philosophy from Princeton. West served as assistant professor of philosophy of religion at Union Theological Seminary in New York City for several years before joining the faculty at Yale Divinity School in 1984. He briefly returned to Union in 1988 but left again to become professor of religion and director of the African American studies program at Princeton. In 1994 West returned to Harvard as professor of religion and African American studies; he was later made a university professor, an honour granted to fewer than 25 members of the entire faculty. As he grew in prominence, West became known and appreciated by many for his engaging Baptist-minister inflection and oratorical style, and his audience and influence soon extended well beyond the world of academia into intellectual circles and the public at large.

      West's somewhat circular pattern of institutional wanderings was mirrored by his closely related yet also wide-ranging book topics. He wrote over a dozen volumes, including The American Evasion of Philosophy (1989), in which he developed his own brand of pragmatism; Breaking Bread (1991), which was coauthored by feminist intellectual bell hooks and featured essays seeking to reconcile gender relations within the black community; Race Matters (1993), the best-seller that greatly increased West's public visibility; and The War Against Parents (1998), which was coauthored by economist Sylvia Ann Hewlett and presented a critique of U.S. government policies that thwarted parents' efforts to raise their children. His compact disc project, Sketches of My Culture (2001), included hip-hop performances and spoken word poetry.

Shanda Siler

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▪ American philosopher and political activist
born June 2, 1953, Tulsa, Oklahoma, U.S.
 
 American philosopher, scholar of African American studies, and political activist. His influential book Race Matters (1993) lamented what he saw as the spiritual impoverishment of the African American underclass and critically examined the “crisis of black leadership” in the United States.

      West's father was a civilian U.S. Air Force administrator and his mother an elementary school teacher and eventually a principal. During West's childhood the family settled in an African American working-class neighbourhood in Sacramento, California. There West regularly attended services at the local Baptist church, where he listened to moving testimonials of privation, struggle, and faith from parishioners whose grandparents had been slaves. Another influence on West during this time was the Black Panther Party, whose Sacramento offices were near the church he attended. The Panthers impressed upon him the importance of political activism at the local level and introduced him to the writings of Karl Marx (Marx, Karl).

      In 1970, at age 17, West entered Harvard University on a scholarship. He graduated magna cum laude three years later with a bachelor's degree in Middle Eastern languages and literature. He attended graduate school in philosophy at Princeton University, where he was influenced by the American pragmatist philosopher Richard Rorty. (West briefly abandoned work on his dissertation to write a novel, which was never published.) After receiving his doctoral degree in 1980, West taught philosophy, religion, and African American studies at several colleges and universities, including Union Theological Seminary, Yale University (including the Yale Divinity School), the University of Paris, Princeton University, and Harvard University, where he was appointed Alphonse Fletcher, Jr., University Professor in 1998. He returned to Princeton in 2002.

      West's work was characteristically wide-ranging, eclectic, original, and provocative. His several books analyzing issues of race, class, and justice or tracing the history of philosophy typically combined a political perspective based on democratic socialism (see social democracy), a Christian moral sensibility, and a philosophical orientation informed by the tradition of American Pragmatism. His best-known work, Race Matters, a collection of essays, was published exactly one year after the start of riots in Los Angeles that were sparked by the acquittal of four white policemen on charges of aggravated assault in the beating of Rodney King, an African American motorist. The book discussed the pervasive despair and “nihilism” of African Americans in poverty and criticized African American leaders for pursuing strategies that West believed were shortsighted, narrow-minded, or self-serving. West also considered issues such as black-Jewish relations, the renewed popularity of Malcolm X, and the significance of the Los Angeles riots themselves.

      West was always a political activist as well as an academic, and he did not hesitate to participate in demonstrations or to lend his name or presence to causes he felt were just. At times his activism created tensions with the administrations of the universities where he taught. In 2001 the new Harvard University president, Laurence Summers, reportedly admonished West in private for devoting too much time to political activity and other extracurricular pursuits. Their dispute was soon joined by supporters and detractors of West both inside and outside the academy, who debated not only the merits of West's scholarship but also the commitment of Summers and Harvard to affirmative action programs. Eventually West resigned his position at Harvard and moved to Princeton.

      West's other works include The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989), The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991), Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism (1993), and Democracy Matters: Winning the Fight Against Imperialism (2004). In 2001 he recorded a raplike spoken-word CD entitled Sketches of My Culture. In 2003 he appeared as the character Councillor West in the popular movies The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions.

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Universalium. 2010.

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