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Africana Philosophy: The Development of the Discipline in the United States (May 2017): Home

By Tommy J. Curry


This bibliographic essay originally appeared in the May 2017 issue of Choice (volume 54 | number 9). 


The term “Africana philosophy” references any number of perspectives, critiques, and political theories concerning the life, experiences, and historical struggles of black people—the descendants of Africa. Africana philosophy is a diverse field of thinking, vastly interdisciplinary, and at its best is able to synthesize the findings of multiple empirical fields like history or sociology into explanative theories. The history of “Africana philosophy” is marked by contestation.  The first reference to the philosophy of black people appeared in the early 1970s; referred to as black philosophy in the American Philosophy Association proceedings, it primarily focused on the United States. By the 1980s, young black philosophers began speaking of black philosophy as an “Afro-American” philosophical tradition. This term—Afro-American philosophy—was used by some of the most visible and well-known black philosophers of the time, among them Cornel West and Lucius Outlaw. What is now known as Africana philosophy emerged from the civil rights struggle. The demand for new race relations and social organization in the United States was accompanied by a call for new ways of thinking about race, racism, and the historical struggles of black people—abroad as well as in the United States. Black leaders called for an understanding of black American racism through the lens of America’s global domination and exploitation of the darker races.

In 1967, in his Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community? Martin Luther King Jr. argued, “In one sense the Civil Rights Movement in the United States is a special American phenomenon which must be understood in the light of American history and dealt with in terms of the American situation. But on another and more important level, what is happening in the United States today is a significant part of world development.” King understood that racism was not simply an American phenomenon, but it was still that “hound from hell which dogs the tracks of our civilization.” That same year, Stokley Carmichael and Charles Hamilton wrote Black Power: The Politics of Liberation in America, which recognized “the ethnic basis of American politics as well as the power-oriented nature of American politics.” For someone like Malcolm X the racism of the United States called for radicalism rather than passivism. In By Any Means Necessary, X argued that “it is a crime for anyone to teach a person who is being brutalized to continue to accept that brutality without doing something to defend himself. If this is what the Christian-Gandhian philosophy teaches, then it is criminal—a criminal philosophy.” This milieu of disputation spurred a new way of thinking about US society and black people’s place within it. The call for Black Power in the United States was accompanied by the birth of new concepts like decolonization and self-determination. Many scholars argue that black thought was unidirectional, flowing from black American thinkers to people in other oppressed countries. There is no denying that the radical thinking that emerged from the civil rights struggles found an audience outside the United States; black theorists throughout Africa and the Caribbean also called for decolonization in the United States. Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth (first published in French in 1961 and translated into English two years later, with a preface by Jean-Paul Sartre) and I Write What I Like, a collection of the writings of Steve Biko, a South African anti-apartheid activist, were powerful texts that motivated the emerging claim to a black philosophy in universities across the United States.

This new way of thinking, this post–civil rights philosophy, made its primary object of study the structure and origin of racism. To some this focus on racism indicated a limitation because it took a social phenomenon rather than a conceptual problem to be its inquiry. Others argued that this response overlooked the complexity of the historical origin, sociological stratifications, and ideological reifications involved with the centuries-old problem of white racist superiority. Taking racism to be simply an accumulation of negative attitudes addressed through etiquette or shared discursive norms that do not mention color is to reiterate preferred social conventions. However, taking white superiority and racism to be an overarching structure of not only the United States but the organization of power throughout the world—which is expressed by imperialism, colonization, and globalization—reveals a much broader, and more accurate, context. As an umbrella term used to refer to the experiences, thoughts, and schemas of black (African descended) people the world over, “Africana philosophy” attempts to centralize the experiences of black people, be those experiences material or phenomenological, the world over.

Tommy J. Curry is professor of philosophy and Africana studies at Texas A&M University, and he is president of Philosophy Born of Struggle, one of the oldest black philosophy organizations in the United States. He has written extensively on racism, critical race theory, hip-hop, and black male vulnerability.