Cornel West is a professor of African-American Studies and Religion at Harvard University. He is a prominent author, respected critic, democratic socialist and noted theologian, as well as an important figure in the effort to renew the dialogue between Jews and black people. He has been greatly influenced by the black church and the Black Panthers. He lectures on college campuses across the country, to audiences of thousands. Many of his books have become best sellers, including Race Matters, which was published in 1993.
Although West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma (on June 2, 1953), he was raised in Sacramento, California, where his father worked for the Department of Defense as a general contractor. From an early age, West took part in civil rights marches and demonstrations. He became an important figure in the local civil rights movement and organized protest marches, demanding that black studies courses be given at the high school he attended. He once said that 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.
After finishing his studies at John F. Kennedy High School, he attended Harvard University. He once told an audience in the 1960s that he arrived on campus "unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant decolonized outlooks." At Harvard, he took classes in philosophy, history and social thought with Cavell, Nozick, Beer, Hughes, Kilson, Parsons, Irwin and Williams, graduating magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization in 1973.
West went on to obtain a doctorate from Princeton in 1980, writing a dissertation on The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought. He accepted teaching positions at many prestigious universities, including Harvard, Yale and Princeton. He was an assistant professor in the Union Theological Seminary and took on a teaching position at Yale Divinity School. He was also Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard University and was appointed to Harvard Divinity School. In 2001, he began teaching at Princeton.
Cornel West has been awarded more than 20 honorary degrees along with the American Book Award. He serves as honorary chair or co-chair of many community organizations, and is a sought-after speaker for various campus political functions. He is still, to this day, an oft-cited scholar in popular writings concerning African American studies and African theology. Nonetheless, he has his share of critics. Leon Wieseltier of the New Republic, for example, charged West with opportunism, crass showmanship and a lack of scholarly seriousness.
West is known for his combination of political and moral insights and his contribution to the post-1960s civil rights movement. Most of his work focuses on the role of race, gender and class in American society. Another topic of his writing is what he refers to as the "radical conditionedness" of the American people.
Professor West describes himself as a "non-Marxist socialist," mainly because Marx opposed religion, and as a "radical democrat suspicious of all forms of authority." He has referred to the United States as a racist patriarchal nation where white supremacy continues to define everyday life. He is known to have said that white America has been weak-willed in ensuing racial justice and that it continues to resist fully accepting the humanity of blacks.
He claims that these attitudes have degraded and oppressed black people, who are now hungry for identity, meaning and self-worth. West attributes most of the black community's problems to existential angst derived from the emotional scars inflicted by white supremacist beliefs and images that permeate American society and culture.
West always talks about his beliefs, his activism and his faith in the context of "radical amazement." He was once asked how he remains so hopeful and optimistic about the future, when he is under constant assault from the right and even from those on the left who advocate compromise and bipartisanship. He was asked to explain how he keeps his faith in the face of setbacks and disappointments.
To answer that difficult question, he explained that there is a difference between hope and optimism. He quoted Czech dissident Vaclav Havel, who was later elected president of his country. Havel said that optimism is the belief that things are going to turn out as one would wish, while hope is when one is totally convinced that something is moral and right regardless of the consequences. In that sense, West said that he is full of hope but in no way optimistic.