Jul 9, 2022
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West was born on June 2, 1953, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, and grew up in Sacramento, California, where he graduated from John F. Kennedy High School. His mother, Irene Rayshell (Bias), was a teacher and principal, and his father, Clifton Louis West Jr., was a general contractor for the Department of Defense. His grandfather, Clifton L. West Sr., was pastor of the Tulsa Metropolitan Baptist Church. Irene B. West Elementary School in Elk Grove, California, is named for his mother.
As a young man, West marched in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school, where he was student body president. He later wrote that, in his youth, 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.”
In 1970, after graduation from high school, he enrolled at Harvard College and took classes from the philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell. In 1973, West was graduated from Harvard magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and civilization. He credits Harvard with exposing him to a broader range of ideas, influenced by his professors as well as the Black Panther Party. West says his Christianity prevented him from joining the BPP, instead choosing to work in local breakfast, prison, and church programs. After completing his undergraduate work at Harvard, West enrolled at Princeton University where he received a Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) degree in 1980, completing a dissertation under the supervision of Raymond Geuss and Sheldon Wolin, becoming the first African American to graduate from Princeton with a PhD degree in philosophy.
At Princeton, West was heavily influenced by Richard Rorty’s neopragmatism. Rorty remained a close friend and colleague of West’s for many years following West’s graduation. The title of West’s dissertation was Ethics, Historicism and the Marxist Tradition, which was later revised and published under the title The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought.
In his late-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. In 1984, he went to Yale Divinity School in what eventually became a joint appointment in American studies. While at Yale, he participated in campus protests for a clerical labor union and divestment from apartheid South Africa. One of the protests resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration canceled his leave for the spring term in 1987, leading him to commute from Yale in New Haven, Connecticut, where he was teaching two classes, across the Atlantic Ocean to the University of Paris.
He then returned to Union Theological Seminary for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African-American Studies from 1988 to 1994. After Princeton, he accepted an appointment as professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at the Harvard Divinity School. West taught one of the university’s most popular courses, an introductory class on African-American studies. In 1998, he was appointed the first Alphonse Fletcher University Professor. West used this new position to teach in not only African-American studies, but also in divinity, religion, and philosophy. West was also inducted into Omicron Delta Kappa in 1998 at SUNY Plattsburgh.
West left Harvard after a widely publicized dispute with then-President Lawrence Summers in 2002. That year, West returned to Princeton, where he helped create “one of the world’s leading centers for African-American studies” according to Shirley Tilghman, Princeton’s president in 2011. In 2012, West left Princeton and returned to the institution where he began his teaching career, Union Theological Seminary. His departure from Princeton, unlike his departure from Harvard, was quite amicable. He continued to teach occasional courses at Princeton in an emeritus capacity as the Class of 1943 University Professor in the Center for African American Studies.
West returned to Harvard in November 2016, leaving Union Theological Seminary for a nontenured position as Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy, jointly appointed at the Harvard Divinity School and the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences Department of African and African-American Studies.
In February 2021, reports circulated that West was denied consideration for tenure at Harvard and had threatened to leave the university once again. On March 8, 2021, West announced that he would leave Harvard and move to the Union Theological Seminary in New York City.