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

By Tommy J. Curry

Philosophy Born of Struggle

The roots of Africana philosophy are deep, and many nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century thinkers have been forgotten. One such example is William Ferris (1873–1941), author of African Abroad, or, His Evolution in Western Civilization, Tracing His Development under Caucasian Milieu, published in 1913. Ferris’s work runs to almost 1,000 pages, but those interested in how black thinkers imagined the philosophy of history as dictated by a God who valued compassion toward the Negro will find selections of his work in The Philosophical Treatise of William H. Ferris, selected by this writer. Ferris believed that God intended the suffering of blacks to overturn the violence of the Anglo-Saxon and save humanity from tyranny. In like manner Jacoby Carter brings forward theorist Alain Locke (1885–1954)—one of the architects of the Harlem Renaissance—in African American Contributions to the Americas’ Cultures: A Critical Edition of Lectures by Alain Locke. Locke’s belief in a tolerant, empowered American democracy motivated his commitment to racial and ethnic pluralism. These two collections join other works on iconic black figures, for example, Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader, edited by Bill Lawson and Frank Kirkland, and Robert Gooding-Williams’s In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (2009). And in his collection Philosophical Meditations on Richard Wright, James Haile makes the case that the philosophical insights of even famous twentieth-century novelists have been neglected. All these works are further evidence of a sustained historical effort to show that the African American tradition is against social exclusion and capable of challenging the social impotence of traditional philosophical thinking.

Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917, edited by Leonard Harris, is a foundational work in Africana thought. Including an introduction and select bibliography of Afro-American works in philosophy, the volume gathers not only essays from many of the first black philosophers working in universities in the United States—for example, William T. Fontaine and Broadus N. Butler—but also provides accounts of the difficulties these philosophers faced entering into the academy. Professors and students alike often forget that underrepresentation or marginalization of ideas and texts is the result of an active discrimination in universities.1 Philosophy Born of Struggle succeeded in introducing historic figures like Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois, Eugene C. Holmes, and Alain Locke as canonical thinkers who expressed the various problems and realities that confront black Americans. Philosophy in Multiple Voices and What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question, both edited by George Yancy, offer first-person accounts of the racism in the discipline of philosophy. These books introduce racism, economic exploitation, and sexual violence not as descriptive social or historical phenomena but rather as the substance of black experience, which require methodological and conceptual diagnosis and remedy by political action and ethical prescription.

In the early 1990s, black philosophers began organizing the themes of Africana thought into subfields and specialties. Howard McGary and Bill Lawson’s Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery introduced the idea that slave narratives and autobiographies offered philosophical insights and reflections of enslaved African peoples. This notion was controversial in the early 1990s because philosophy was understood as a universalist project that sought to uncover the principles of life that applied to all groups of people simultaneously. Lawson and McGary pushed against this assumption and argued that because slavery was a condition of profound powerlessness, normative ideas like oppression, paternalism, resistance, political obligation, citizenship, and forgiveness took on a peculiar and unique character in the black American experience. McGary and Lawson’s book was quickly joined by African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions, edited by John Pittman, which offered readers a survey of the problems and terms that were being deployed to describe this recent research in Africana thought.2 The first section of this collection, “Philosophical Traditions,” includes K. Anthony Appiah’s “African-American Philosophy?”; Kwasi Wiredu’s “African Philosophical Tradition: A Case Study of the Akan”; and Lucius Outlaw’s now famous essay “African, African American, Africana Philosophy,” which synthesized themes common to these three philosophical traditions but insisted that commonality must give way to the particular context, study, and sociology of ideas that made these areas take up specific problems in relation to geography and history. Whereas the three traditions are linked by struggles against racism, each group of people has a peculiar and particular history within which this resistance occurs. It is common practice for black philosophers in the United States to particularize Africana philosophy by terming such work as black philosophy or African American philosophy. A Companion to African-American Philosophy, edited by Tommy Lott and John Pittman, is a great introduction to the debates surrounding various aspects of African American philosophical thought and to the stake various scholars had in the terminology used to refer to the discipline. This debate over terminology expressed a contentious, deeply felt battle over the meaning and reach of race in Africana philosophy. The divergent views that emerged revealed that there was more than one way to resist racism: which is to say, resistance can take the form of embracing race or rejecting it outright.

The scholarship for the next decade vacillated between the two—the ethics involved in embracing blackness and the dangers of rejecting the explanatory power of race. Some scholars believed that the idea of a racial identity was itself racist because it presupposed a historical, cultural, or biological separation between groups of individuals. Those who reject race as the basis of identity are often referred to as racial eliminativists. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture popularized this point of view in higher education in the United States. Appiah takes the position that race cannot be used as a stand-in for culture, nor is race an accurate way to link people together. Racial solidarity, because it depends on racialization and assumptions of difference between groups, requires some level of essentialism and error in human identification. As Appiah argues in subsequent works such as The Ethics of Identity, the very concept of race ultimately obscures the links and associations that individuals have to each other as global citizens—as part of a world humanity and community.

The most vocal critic of Appiah’s position was Lucius Outlaw, who argued in On Race and Philosophy that race was and should continue to be a conceptual instrument of organization. As he wrote in the introduction to that work, race refers to social collectivities, groups, or “populations identified as such on the basis of the degree to which persons share more or less particular sets of varied and varying physical and cultural characteristics” (italics Outlaw’s) that allow theorists to speak of experience, aspirations, and the realities of oppressed groups. A decade later, in Race: A Philosophical Introduction, Paul Taylor offered a similar idea to that of Outlaw, allowing for race to convey an individual’s position as part of a community affected by racism. Often referred to as conservationists, theorists who take this position believe that race, for the purposes of identity and conceptualizations of community in this historical moment, is fundamental to how theory and reality can be accurately articulated and described. Tommie Shelby’s We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity seeks to temporally situate the debate between Appiah and Outlaw by arguing that race could be a useful and politically pragmatic construct to motivate social change, but that it needs to be eliminated once racism had been overcome because it risks obscuring the identities of blacks as humans and Americans in a postracial society. This “pragmatic nationalism” (as Shelby calls it) attempts to recognize and ameliorate racism without the perils of identity and essentialism waged by Anthony Appiah the decade prior.

These debates reflect core disagreements among the authors as to the actual effect and history of racism on the black body. As Charles Mills explains in Blackness Visible: Essays in Philosophy and Race, “White racism so structured the world as to have negative ramifications for every sphere of black life— juridical standing, moral status, personal/racial identity, epistemic reliability, existential plight, political inclusion, social metaphysics, sexual relations, aesthetic worth.” Humanity, or rather the denial of the human person to blacks, has been a theme common to all reflections in Africana philosophy. Addressing consequences of white supremacism-racism means that the dehumanization, or what Mills calls “the peculiar status of a sub-person” is of the utmost concern. Rather than simply assuming black people were human, various scholars debated the implication of racism on the ability to think and contemplate the idea of a black humanity. Because racism implies the biological and/or cultural inferiority of groups racialized as other than white, there is an explicit dehumanization in such appeals. To be an inferior race has historically been tied to lacking reason, morality, and civilization. It means existing outside humanity as a savage and not subject to the ethics by which rational human beings are governed. The consequences of such negation are not simply interpersonal. In Rights, Race, and Recognition Derrick Darby suggests that such denials of recognition condition the negation not only of the morality of one’s person but the very idea and dispersal of rights. This being the case, the operation and function of white supremacy became a motivating factor in how black philosophers sought to account for and debate the dynamics of empire, white identity, and racism in the twentieth century and beyond.


1. In 1952, one black philosopher’s letter of recommendation from his advisor admitted he was a good philosopher, but nonetheless was burdened with being a Negro.

2. African-American Perspectives and Philosophical Traditions was first published as a special triple edition of Philosophical Forum (1992–3).

Works Cited