Life and Works of Cornel West
Cornel West, born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953, lived most of his childhood and youth in segregated working-class neighborhoods in Oklahoma, Kansas, and California. In high school he excelled in scholarship and athletics. He earned his A.B. at Harvard University, then completed his doctorate in philosophy at Princeton in 1980. While a graduate student, he was a teaching assistant in humanities and ethics at Harvard and in philosophy at Princeton.
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. 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 as Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies.
Sonnie Smothers, writing in Booklist, felt that The Future of the Race presents "an argument that compels one to think about sacrifice for the good of humanity, whatever its rewards" (Booklist, February 15, 1996). However, Eric J. Sundquist, writing in Commentary, found the book's presentation of Du Bois's views to be incomplete and consequently inaccurate, and concludes: "Even if there is plenty to choose here between West's doomsaying and Gate's pragmatism, neither tells us much about the future of the race." Most of West's writings seek to inspire individuals to use the power of their minds to better themselves and their communities. Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life is no exception, but it also covers much more. Written with educator bell hooks, Breaking Bread includes the authors' thoughts on sexism, racism, and individualism, but also offers their critiques of aspects of black modern culture, including fashion and arts. Black Enterprise writer Tonya Bolden recommended Breaking Bread to "those who value the life of the mind," and observed that "the book lacks malice and carries a message of hope attesting to the authors' love for their people and commitment to their salvation." A Publishers Weekly reviewer similarly found that Breaking Bread "is of enormous importance and offers rewarding reading.
For the most part, he has produced three spoken word albums including Never Forget, collaborating with Prince, Jill Scott, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli, KRS-One and the late Gerald Levert. His spoken word interludes are featured on productions by Terence Blanchard, The Cornel West Theory, Raheem DeVaughn, and Bootsy Collins. In short, Cornel West has a passion to communicate to a vast variety of publics in order to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. – a legacy of telling the truth and bearing witness to love and justice.
Black Enterprise, June, 1992, Tonya Bolden, review of Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black Intellectual Life, p. 23.
Booklist, February 15, 1996, Bonnie Smothers, review of The Future of the Race, p. 96.
Choice, April, 1983, review of Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, p. 1156.