"Afro-American studies was never meant to be solely for Afro-Americans,” Cornel West has said. Not many people at Princeton University would make that assumption, given the perpetual motion of West — one of the most prominent public intellectuals of his time and easily one of the most recognized black academics in history — between classroom and lecture hall, theater and recording studio, constantly living the life of the mind and of the soul.
Afro-American studies, West has said in public discussions with the author and feminist Bell Hooks, “was meant to try to redefine what it means to be human, what it means to be modern, what it means to be American, because people of African descent in this country are profoundly human, profoundly modern, profoundly American.”
From humble beginnings in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Sacramento, California, West, the son of a schoolteacher and a general contractor, has earned degrees at Harvard and Princeton. He was professor of religion and director of the growing program in African American studies at Princeton from 1988 to 1994, and his views also led to his first major publishing success outside of the academy. In the wake of Rodney King’s beating in Los Angeles, the 1993 publication of West’s book “Race Matters” — about the importance of black people and their suffering — brought him to the attention of the general public and even then-president Bill Clinton.
West, who served at Harvard from 1994 to 2001 before returning to Princeton, again found fame, and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list, with his 2004 book “Democracy Matters,” which focuses on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. as the pinnacle of both democracy in the United States and the humanist tradition. And he put out his first hip-hop album, “Sketches of My Culture,” in 2001. But through all of his fame, he has remained true to his callings in life: his devotion to his Christian faith and his passion for teaching. “A teacher. A professor. Connect the life of the mind to the struggle for freedom,” he writes. “That was it. That would be my life.”