Teacher? Philosopher? Writer? Theologian? Sociologist? Which of these disciplines best describes Cornel West and his large body of work? None of them—and all of them. Some say that West is the first leading African-American intellectual to rise to prominence since W. E. B. Du Bois in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Others assert that West says a lot without saying anything. West’s admirers like his prophetic speech and his intellectual ability to cross and integrate disciplines, while his detractors say that West never fully completes his ideas and thoughts and has no plan to implement change. Regardless of one’s opinion of West’s writings, politics, or philosophies, it is apparent that West defies being placed into a simple category. He and his work are far too complex for that.
Cornel was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma. His mother was a schoolteacher and then a principal, and his father worked for the U.S. Air Force as a civilian. Cornel has one brother, Clifton. After several moves, the West family settled in Sacramento, California, in a middle-class African-American neighborhood. After high school, Cornel graduated with a degree in Near Eastern languages and literature from Harvard University and later earned both his master’s degree and his doctoral degree (in philosophy) from Princeton University. He then went to Union Theological Seminary.
In 1988, West led Princeton’s Afro-American Studies program. In 1994, he went to Harvard University with dual teaching appointments (in the School of Divinity and in the Faculty of Arts and Sciences). West and his Harvard colleague William Julius Wilson simultaneously became full professors in 1995, the first African Americans to achieve the highest academic post possible at that university. Unlike associate professors, full professors can teach across academic disciplines, meaning that as a theologian, West can teach courses that encompass theological concerns within the law or history department, for example. This seems to be the perfect position for someone like West, who has a vision of the various academic disciplines akin to a spider’s web, intricately linked and interdependent.
For West, scholarship is not done only in the ivory towers of colleges and universities. He believes that intellectuals must come down from those towers and help meet the needs of the society in which they live; their knowledge must be applicable on the streets. West adheres to what he calls “prophetic pragmatism.” Pragmatism emphasizes the idea that “knowledge [is] derived from experience and experimentation”; it desires to “solve practical problems,” and thus the philosophy’s “truth is tested by its utility and consequences.”
Additionally, West believes that there is a prophetic component to his philosophy. He sees a connection between prophecy and pragmatism. Although he does not seem to believe that he is speaking directly and literally for God, he does believe in the Christian idea of speaking the “truth in love,” although he also says that prophetic insight is available “through a number of different traditions.” For him, prophetic pragmatism means telling the truth about the human condition, the human struggle, and the chances for improvement. For West, practical problems in society are economic disparity, racism, cross-cultural relations, families and children, and homophobia.
West’s lectures, speeches, interviews, essays, and books hold true to these beliefs. Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1982), his first book, mixes several of his beliefs and ideas. These include Christian theology, the African-American experience, philosophy, and political ideologies. West’s paternal grandfather was a Baptist preacher in Tulsa for 40 years and apparently influenced West profoundly, as West dedicated this book to his grandfather. He notes in that dedication that his grandfather is one “who through it all kept the faith.” That, too, seems to be what West is trying to do. Ultimately, he sees Christianity as a liberating force for people to “have the opportunity to fulfill [their] potentialities,” but he is not talking about eternal life; he is talking about the here and now. To many, this is a radical view of Christianity; to him, it is absolutely accurate and essential for the transformation of society, a transformation for which he hopes.
In the preface of Prophesy Deliverance! West describes himself and states his intellectual presuppositions: He is “committed to the prophetic Christian gospel,” has an “affinity to a philosophical version of American pragmatism,” and has an “abiding allegiance to progressive Marxist social analysis and political praxis.” Additionally, West notes that he does not understand philosophy to be merely an intellectual exercise full of empty jargon and rhetoric but a discipline that affects and is affected by its cultural context, a context that is full of various problems and choices. West’s other works follow this same pattern, mixing various intellectual ideas with an assortment of practical, real-life problems.
West’s body of work includes the following titles: Theology in the Americas: Detroit II (1982, coeditor); Post-Analytic Philosophy (1985, coeditor); Prophetic Fragments (1988); The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1989); Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures (1990, coeditor); The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991); Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life (1991); Beyond Eurocentrism and Multiculturalism: Vol. 1, Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times (1993), and Vol. 2, Prophetic Reflections: Notes on Race and Power in America (1993); Race Matters (1993); Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America (1993); Jews and Blacks: Let the Healing Begin (1995, coauthor); The Future of the Race (1996, coauthor); and The War against Parents: What We Can Do for America’s Beleaguered Moms and Dads (1998, coauthor).
Race Matters became a best-seller and is the book that earned West the most celebrity, leading him to accept numerous speaking engagements across the United States. It is also the book that is the most accessible to the general public, leading some to call him a “public intellectual.” West says that current race problems within the United States are “an everyday matter of life and death.” He further says that the current political atmosphere does not work, that neither liberals nor conservatives can effectively address or solve the problems of race. He also has strong beliefs on other current social issues, but none are a simple affirmation or condemnation of one perspective over another. West calls for individual responsibility and a political system structured for fairness and opportunity.
In The War against Parents, West and coauthor Sylvia Ann Hewlett call for both political and cultural changes, saying that parents are drowning in economic, social, and family demands, but that children must have this nurturing from their parents because the values taught serve as “the glue that holds society together.” In a 1993 interview with Black Collegian, West seems to agree that both the Christian Bible and the Islamic Quran say that homosexuality is unacceptabld behavior, yet he calls for a “different kind of dialogue” in which a “fundamental concern is to keep track of the humanity of folk.”
Concerning relationships among Jews, non-Jewish whites, and non-Jewish blacks, West says that Jews do not fully understand the African-American identification with the plight of Palestinians living in Israel, nor do African Americans fully understand the importance of the state of Israel for Jews. He further states that African Americans should choose to put neither whites nor Jews “on a pedestal or in the gutter,” that “the very ethical character of the black freedom struggle largely depends on the open condemnation by its spokespersons of any racist attitude or action.” Like a prophet, West is calling for change, but like a pragmatist, he is calling for this change to be exhibited on the street corners in the United States. He maintains an “audacious hope,” saying that it is essential for any transformation to a more humane and equal American society, claiming that “Either we learn a new language of empathy and compassion or the fire this time will consume us all.”
(See list of abbreviations here.)
Bolden, Tonya (1993), “Recovering Hope,” Black Enterprise 23(12), online, EBSCO Host.
Bowman, Jim (1994), “A Conference on Racism,” Commonweal 121(4), online, EBSCO Host.
Cose, Ellis (1993), “A Prophet with Attitude,” Newsweek 121(23), online, EBSCO Host.
Donovan, Rickard (1991), “Cornel West’s New Pragmatism,” Cross Currents 41(1), online, EBSCO Host.
Edwards, Audrey (December 1995–January 1996), “Cornel West: In Praise of the Combative Spirit,” Heart & Soul 12, online, EBSCO Host.
Engelhardt, Elizabeth Sanders Delwiche , “West, Cornel,” in OCAAL.
Gooding-Williams, R. (1991), “Evading Narrative Myth, Evading Prophetic Pragmatism: Cornel West’s The American Evasion of Philosophy,” Massachusetts Review 32 (4), online, EBSCO Host.
“Healing the Rift between Blacks and Jews” (1995), Christian Century 112(29), online, EBSCO Host.
Iannone, Carol (1993), “Middle Man,” National Review 65(14), online, EBSCO Host.
Kazi, Kuumba Ferrouil (1993), “Cornel West: Talking about Race Matters,” Black Collegian 24(1), online, EBSCO Host.
Lewis, Judith A. (1995), “The Impact of Racism on American Family Life,” Family Journal 3(2), online, EBSCO Host.
McKim, Donald K. (1996), “Pragmatism,” Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press).
Pinsker, Sanford (1994), “What’s Love, and Candor, Got to Do with it?” Virginia Quarterly Review 70(1), online, EBSCO Host.
Sanoff, Alvin P. (1993), “A Theology for the Streets,” US News & World Report 113(25), online EBSCO Host.
Smith, Sande (Ed.) (1994), “West, Cornel,” Who’s Who in African-American History (New York: Smithmark).
Van Leeuwen, Mary Stewart (1998), “Parenting and Politics: Giving New Shape to ‘Family Values,’” Christian Century 115(21), online, EBSCO Host.
West, Cornel (1982), Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (Philadelphia: Westminster Press).
“West, Wilson Named University Professor at Harvard” (1998), Black Issues in Higher Education 15(8), online, EBSCO Host.
White, Jack E. (1993), “Philosopher with a Mission,” Time 141(23), online EBSCO Host.
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