West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma and raised in Sacramento, where his father was a general contractor for the Defense Department and his mother was a teacher, later to become a principal. West marched as a young man in civil rights demonstrations and organized protests demanding black studies courses at his high school. After Sacramento, where he served as president of his high school class, he enrolled at Harvard University at age 17. He took classes from philosophers Robert Nozick and Stanley Cavell and graduated in three years, magna cum laude in Near Eastern Languages and Civilization in 1973. He was determined to press the university and its intellectual traditions into the service of his political agendas and not the other way around: to have its educational agendas imposed on him.
“Owing to my family, church, and the black social movements of the 1960s”, he says, “I arrived at Harvard unashamed of my African, Christian, and militant de-colonized outlooks. More pointedly, I acknowledged and accented the empowerment of my black styles, mannerisms, and viewpoints, my Christian values of service, love, humility, and struggle, and my anti-colonial sense of self-determination for oppressed people and nations around the world.” He earned a Ph.D. in 1980 from Princeton, where he was influenced by Richard Rorty’s pragmatism. The title of his 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 mid-twenties, he returned to Harvard as a Du Bois fellow before becoming an assistant professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In 1985 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 union and divestment from apartheid South Africa, one of which resulted in his being arrested and jailed. As punishment, the university administration canceled his leave for Spring 1987, leading him to commute between Yale (where he was teaching two classes) and the University of Paris.
He then returned to Union and taught at Haverford College for one year before going to Princeton to become a professor of religion and director of the Program in African American Studies, which he revitalized in cooperation with such scholars as novelist Toni Morrison. He served as director of the program from 1988 to 1994. He then 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 freedom to teach not only in African-American studies but in divinity, religion, and in philosophy.
In 2001, after an argument with Harvard president Lawrence Summers, West returned to Princeton, where he has taught since. The recipient of more than 20 honorary degrees and an American Book Award, he is a longtime member of the Democratic Socialists of America, for which he now serves as Honorary Chair. He is also a co-chair of the Tikkun Community and the Network of Spiritual Progressives. West is a board member of the International Bridges to Justice, among others. West is also much sought-after as a speaker, blurb-writer, and honorary chair.
Critics, most notably The New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, have charged him with opportunism, crass showmanship and lack of scholarly seriousness. West remains a widely cited scholar in the popular press, in African-American studies, and in studies of black theology, although his work as an academic philosopher has been almost completely ignored (with the exception of his early history of American pragmatism, The American Evasion of Philosophy). West is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, the first intercollegiate Greek-letter fraternity established for African-Americans. He is a member of the fraternity’s World Policy Council, a think tank whose purpose is to expand Alpha Phi Alpha’s involvement in politics and social and current policy to encompass international concerns. West is a practicing Christian.