Happy Birthday

cornel west
Evan Vucci/AP

Happy Birthday, Cornel West, Author, Professor and Hip-Hop Artist

June 02, 2010
by findingDulcinea Staff
Cornel West, a popular professor of religion at Princeton University, has received widespread notoriety for both his intellectual abilities and his knack for sparking public debate over controversial issues.

Cornel West’s Early Days

Cornel West was born June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, but his family moved to Sacramento during his childhood. West's famiy belonged to a Baptist church and it was in church that he first heard stories about the role of faith in helping enslaved African-Americans eventually gain freedom.

It was during his time in Sacramento that he came to know the Black Panther organization and began his interest in political activism. West was also greatly influenced in his academic persuits by the biography of Teddy Roosevelt.

West earned two bachelors degrees (one in Middle Eastern Studies and another in literature) in three years at Harvard. However, West did not limit his college experience to his academics; his brother Clifton told Time magazine that West, “always liked to go to two or three parties every weekend, but only after reading two or three books.”

In 1980, West earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton. After earning his doctorate, West began teaching religion and African-American studies at Princeton and other universities.

West’s Notable Accomplishments

In 1993, one year after the Los Angeles riots that erupted after the police beating of Rodney King, Cornel West's book “Race Matters” was published. The book, dealing with race relations and sparking debate from all sides, became a best-seller, and turned West into publicly known figure.

West calls his view “prophetic pragmatism,” and it is fully explained in his book, “The American Evasion of Philosophy.” Time magazine explains that West is hard to classify in any one school of thought (liberal, conservative, etc.), as he takes bits and pieces of many views.

In 2001, West found another way to reach audiences with his political thoughts and impressions of black history when he released a hip-hop album entitled “Sketches of My Culture.” The Washington Post said of West's first performance after the release that it “wasn't so suprising to those who know his lecture style—part poet, preacher and comedian.”

West has released two more albums since “Sketches,” “Street Knowledge” in 2003 and “Never Forget: A Journey of Revelations” in 2007. “Never Forget” featured artists such as KRS-One, Andre 3000, Talib Kweli and Prince; West told USA Today that the album is trying to “bring together the spiritual and the social, the personal and the political, while keeping it artistic. In hip-hop, there is a real need for that.”

The Rest of the Story

After spending years teaching at Harvard University (and earning the uncommong distinction of University Professor there), West returned to Princeton in 2002.

West has written nearly 20 books in his life so far, and has earned as many honorary degrees. He served as honorary chair of the Democratic Socialists of America, and recieved the American Book Award. He is a frequent commentator on radio and television, appearing on shows like “Real Time with Bill Maher” and “Tavis Smiley,” West also was key in developing the “Matrix” movie series, and appeared in the second and third movies in that series.

When asked about his celebrity status, West told PBS that he does not shy away from the spotlight: “I’ve always wanted to use whatever celebrity status I have for the struggle for freedom, the struggle for goodness.”

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