Many years ago, before he was a familiar presence on television, film, and radio, before he dropped his Reader in 1999—a decades-spanning collection of his passionate, polymathic essays—and was recognized, rightly, as one of the most dynamic public intellectuals in America, some people couldn’t get a grip on Cornel West. “ ‘What are you?’ they asked me,” West says now. “And I’d go, ‘I’m a jazzman in the life of the mind. I’m a bluesman in the world of ideas. I’m aparticipant.’ ”
Born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953, and raised mostly in Sacramento, West first started participating in academia at Harvard, graduating magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and civilizations, and then becoming the first African American to gain a PhD in philosophy from Princeton University. From there, West began weaving together the neopragmatism he’d been studying with the theological tradition of his childhood in Shiloh Baptist Church, the existentialist yearning of his great heroes Chekhov and John Coltrane, and the transcendentalism and romance of his favorite poets and soul musicians, to build a kind of unified theory of belief and action. As a professor of African-American studies, at institutions including both Harvard and Princeton, where he is still a professor emeritus, Dr. West’s teachings were never of the cripplingly abstract variety you remember from your Philosophy 101 class, but instead pragmatic, engaging, and uplifting—it is not for nothing that his demeanor and oratory style is often compared to that of a Baptist minister.