Uploaded by Mary Carlson

Dr. Cornel West biography and influence

Mary Mahoney Carlson - PHIL 901 - 12/1/21
Cornel West is a contemporary American scholar, philosopher,
and political activist. He is also a best-selling author, and a
prominent social critic, and is considered to be a leading voice on
issues of race in America. He has held professorships at Harvard,
Princeton, and Yale and is currently the Dietrich Bonhoeffer
Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice at Union
Theological Seminary as well as being Professor Emeritus at
Princeton University. Dr. West is a powerful orator, and can
frequently be found on television or on social media. He also has
an active schedule of speaking engagements and is personally
involved in many progressive causes.
He seems too learned to be embraced by popular culture and too popular to have
sway in academia, and yet he manages both. - Hugh Muir, The Guardian, Oct., 2020
West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in
Sacramento, California, in a predominantly Black community. His
family was close-knit and was active in their church, the Shiloh
Baptist Church, founded in 1856. During West’s childhood, the
church was led by the mesmerizing orator, Rev. Willie P. Cooke.
Cornel became a self-professed Christian at 7 years old.
From his parents, siblings and community, young Cornel derived
“ideals and images of dignity, integrity, majesty and humility.”
These values, he has written, provided him “existential and ethical
equipment to confront the crises, terrors and horrors of life.”
“I was a gangster when I was young. I had a Robin Hood mentality and tended to always want to
support the weak against the strong, but sometimes it was cohesive and I really needed to fall in love
with the power of education to find the right venue to express my rage. I still have a righteous
indignation at injustice, no matter what form it takes.” - Cornel West
Cornel West’s mother, Irene Rayshell (Bias), was a teacher and
principal, and his father, Clifton Louis West Jr., was a general
contractor for the Department of Defense. His grandfather,
Clifton L. West Sr., was pastor of the Tulsa Metropolitan
Baptist Church.
Irene B. West was the first African American teacher at Elk
Grove Unified Elementary School, which is now named the
Irene B. West Elementary School after her.
I am who I am because somebody loved me, somebody cared for me, and somebody
attended to me. I'll never, ever forget it. - Cornel West
As a young man, West marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized
protests demanding Black studies courses at John F. Kennedy High School, where
he was student body president. He 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."
In 1970, after graduation from high school, he enrolled at Harvard College and took
classes from the philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. In 1973, He received a
B.A. in Near Eastern languages and civilization. West then enrolled at Princeton
University where he received a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in 1980, completing a
dissertation under the supervision of Raymond Geuss and Sheldon Wolin, becoming
the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a PhD degree in philosophy.
“I think Sheldon Wolin is very important (especially his idea that) democracy is
always a matter of ordinary people taking back their powers and targeting
consolidated elite power. “ - Cornel West
Dr. West acknowledges many influences, from philosophers of
the the ancient world to the modern, theologians from many
traditions, African-American leaders from across the spectrum
from the Black Panthers to civil rights leaders, the
Transcendentalists, writers, playwrights and musicians,
particularly Blues artists, and most especially, his mother Irene.
Some of the most significant influences on Dr. West include:
Rev. Dr. James Cone, Paulo Freire, Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King,
Plato, Malcolm X, Anton Chekov, John Dewey, John Coltrane,
Friedrich Schiller, Abraham Joshua Heschel, St. Augustine, the
Apostle Paul, and Reinhold Niebuhr.
“James Cone was the theological giant in our midst who had a love
affair with oppressed people, especially black people.” - Cornel West
Dr. West has written 20 books and has edited 13. He
has authored best-sellers, including: Race Matters,
which was originally published in 1993 and became
an instant classic, selling over 500,000 copies.
Some of his other well-known works include:
Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West:
Living and Loving Out Loud. His most recent book,
Black Prophetic Fire, offers a critique of nineteenth
and twentieth-century African American leaders and
their legacies.
None of us alone can save the nation or world. But each of us
can make a positive difference if we commit ourselves to do
so.” ― Cornel West, Race Matters
Dr. West’s philosophy can be described as Christian Socialist or
Neopragmatist. He often references the Greek concept of
paideia, which is the idea that a quality education should be
focused on producing a whole, enlightened member of society.
In the tradition of John Dewey, Dr. West believes that students
need a “deep education, not schooling,” and calls on students
to distinguish between material success and the social good.
He calls himself a Chekhovian Christian and often makes
Biblical references in his speaking and writing. He often writes
about mortality and rebirth. He regularly quotes the Apostle
Paul, saying that “we need to learn to die daily.” This fits with Dr.
West’s admiration for Plato: one of his other frequent
references is to the “turning of the soul” in Plato’s Republic. This
is a poetic description of a shift from superficial things to the
To be dogmatic is to be fearful of Socratic interrogation. - Cornel West
Dr. West is also part of the tradition of Liberation Theology,
and follows in the footsteps of Rev. Dr. James Cone and
Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King in that he believes in practicing
his beliefs and creating good in the world. He is involved in
many progressive causes and has contributed his time and
his voice to those causes.
One of the most important causes for Dr. West is that of
police brutality. He has been an outspoken critic of the
justice system. He has been taken into custody several times,
from the 80’s, when he participated in anti-Apartheid
protests, to the protests following the murder by police of
Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO. During his time at Harvard,
he advocated for the University to divest itself from for-profit
incarceration and prison-related investments.
“Some of the greatest freedom fighters have come through prisons” - Cornel West
Dr. West’s first teaching position was as an
assistant professor at Union Theological
Seminary in New York City. In 1984, he
accepted a position at Yale Divinity School
that eventually became a joint appointment
in American studies. While at Yale, he
participated in campus protests for a clerical
labor union and divestment from apartheid
South Africa. One of the protests resulted in
his being arrested and jailed. As punishment,
the University administration canceled his
leave for spring 1987. As a result, he had to
commute between Yale, in New Haven,
Conn., and the University of Paris, where he
was also scheduled to teach.
“There are wonderful people at Harvard, we know that. It has a great tradition of Du Bois and so
many others, but I discovered that I can only take so much hypocrisy,” - Cornel West
Dr. West returned to Union for one year (1987-88) before joining Princeton as
a professor of religion and the director of the Program in African American
Studies (1988-94). He left Princeton for Harvard in 1994 and taught jointly in
the African American studies department and at the Divinity School. West
returned to the Princeton Department of Religion in 2002, after a
well-publicized falling-out with Harvard President Lawrence Summers. In
2012, West left Princeton for Union Theological Seminary. He continued to
teach occasional courses at Princeton in an emeritus capacity. West returned
to Harvard in November 2016, taking a non-tenured position as Professor of
the Practice of Public Philosophy, jointly appointed at the Harvard Divinity
School and the Graduate school faculty of African and African-American
Studies. West left Harvard in early 2021, after the University dismissed his
request to be considered for tenure because, according to him,
administrators’ thought his work “too risky” and “too fraught.” Dr. West is
currently the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professor of Philosophy and Christian
Practice at Union Theological Seminary, his “perennial home”, as well as
being Professor Emeritus at Princeton University.
“Dr. West’s esteemed legacy of engaging the most pressing problems facing our world —
including racism, poverty, sexism, and so much more — is an inspiration to all,” - Union
Theological Seminary President Serene Jones
Dr. West travels the country
lectures, being, in his own
West ha
words, “a bluesman in the life of the
mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas,
forever on the move.”
“I’ve never spent a weekend at home.
My calling beckons me. I’ve got
places to go, from schools to
community centers to prisons to
churches to mosques to universities
to trade unions. There’s academic
lectures, political lectures, religious
lectures. It’s just my regular weekly
travel. The aim is to touch minds and
settle souls; so you instruct as well as
Dr. West is a Socialist and has been a strong supporter of many progressive causes
including proper funding for public education, fair labor practices, and anti-militarism.
Dr. West describes “the structures and institutions of our present moment of predatory
capitalism (which) pose such tremendous burdens. Spiritual burden, economic burden,
political burden.” He has supported Democratic Socialist Senator Bernie Sanders in both
of Sanders’ Presidential campaigns.
Dr. West has had sharp words for the white
supremacist movement in the United
States and its allies, and has referred to
former President Trump as “a gangster. . .
everybody knows he is a pathological liar
and a xenophobe.”
“If only the war on poverty was a real war, then we would actually be putting money into it.” Cornel West
Dr. West has not shied away from controversy and has made his opinions known, even
when it was not easy to do so. He has been a vocal critic of former President Barack
Obama, who he has accused of supporting militarism in the same vein as the Bushes
and Clintons and He felt that Pres. Obama was too close to Wall St. interests and did not
attempt to improve the plight of those living in poverty in America.
He also had a well-publicized debate with writer Ta-Nehisi Coates. West has long
characterized Coates as a protector of “neoliberalism,” a term commonly used by the
left to describe the market-friendly, globalist policies of the Democratic Party, including
Obama, over the past few decades.
“The disagreement between Coates (and Obama) and
me is clear: any analysis or vision of our world that omits
the centrality of Wall Street power, US military policies,
and the complex dynamics of class, gender, and sexuality
in black America is too narrow and dangerously
misleading. “ - Cornel West
“Justice is what love looks
like in public.”
“There is a price to pay for
speaking the truth. There is a
bigger price to pay for living a lie.”
“If your success is defined as being well adjusted to injustice and well-adapted to indifference then we
don’t want successful leaders. We want great leaders – who love the people enough and respect the
people enough to be unbought, unbound, unafraid, and unintimidated to tell the truth.”