Cornel West: The Building of a Black Intellectual Empire


Dr. Cornel West is a towering intellectual respected by the academic and hip hop community.

West can be seen as an arrogant, loud-mouthed irrelevant who criticizes on President Obama for not prioritizing poor people. Yet undeniably, Cornel West has had an unprecedented influence on this generation of colored people both rich and poor.

His ease with modern ideas, his rat-a-tat-tat delivery of anything from biblical references to Lil’ Wayne lyrics, added with his infectious grin and engulfing hugs have propelled the Sacramento-raised grandson of a Baptist minister to his position as perhaps, this generations’ best-known black critical scholar in America.


Cornel West is a part of a small number of black academics — Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates Jr., Columbia University’s Manning Marable, Smithsonian Institution’s Johnnetta Cole, and Asa G. Hilliard at Georgia State. Having graduated Magna Cum Laude from Harvard in a short three years with a degree in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization, West then obtained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Philosophy at Princeton University.

While in his mid-20s, he returned to Harvard as a W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow before becoming an Assistant Professor at Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York. He taught at Union for one year before going back to Princeton to become a Professor of Religion and Director of the Program in African-American Studies. He then accepted an appointment as Professor – a position held by only 17 of 7,000 faculty – of African-American Studies at Harvard University. West taught one of the University’s most popular courses, an introductory class to African-American Studies.

When Lawrence Summers, the former U.S. Treasury Secretary, took over as President, he had a private meeting with West reportedly to question his outside activities, such as making the rap CD, advising Al Sharpton and allegedly giving students easy A’s.

Given over 20 honorary degrees, including an honorary doctorate of humane letters at the College of New Rochelle in New York and an honorary Doctor of Letters degree to West from DePauw’s, West plans to finish out his teaching career as professor of philosophy and Christian practices at Union, where he began as an assistant professor back in 1977.


The recipient of an American Book Award, Cornel West has written or contributed to over twenty published books with some of the most elite publishing houses in America. His first book, Prophesy Deliverance!: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, appeared in 1982, and attempts to synthesize elements of African American Christianity and thought, Western philosophy, and Marxist thinking.

In 1988, West published Prophetic Fragments, another collection of essays. The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism, from 1989 engages race, class and gender issues. His next set of books, The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought, in 1991, and Keeping Faith: Philosophy and Race in America, in 1993, continue the discussion of those ideas in the modern America.

Dr. West broke away from the pack with his book “Race Matters,” in 1994. Done also as a collection of essays that analyzed race relations, it was published by Vintage Books and distributed by Random House just one year after the LA Riots. Race Matters went on to become a New York Best Seller recording over 400,000 copies sold.

His most recent books include a memoir entitled Brother West: Living and Loving Out Load and a co-authored book with Tavis Smiley entitled, The Rich and the Rest of Us: A Poverty Manifesto.

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Cornel West wears what he calls his “coffin ready” attire; the signature jacket, pants, white shirt, scarf and black loafers. His distinctive daily wardrobe choice is because he is ready to die for his people. Although this generation best knows him as the intellectual front man for community-based efforts like the Million Man March and Occupy Wall Street, he’s organized national youth gang summits with Russell Simmons, and participated in national conversations about race with the likes of President Clinton and President Obama.

But at the forefront, West is an activist for American people of color, especially the poor. West credited Harvard with exposing him to a broader range of ideas, influenced by his professors as well as the Black Panther Party. He serves as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America and constantly describes himself as a “radical democrat suspicious of all forms of authority” on the Matrix-themed documentary, The Burly Man Chronicles.

Just last year, West was arrested in Harlem after speaking to a packed audience at the famous Apollo Theater about the Wall Street protests. On weekends, Dr. West travels the country delivering lectures, being, in his own words, “a bluesman in the life of the mind, a jazzman in the world of ideas, forever on the move.”