The Black Absence in Academic Philosophy

Jason Stanley recently posted the following interesting status message on his Facebook page:

The first sentence of this article is “Nationwide, just over 5 percent of all full-time faculty members at colleges and universities in the United States are black”. If that is so disturbing as to give rise to this headline, what are we to say about the fact that fewer than 125 members of the 11,000+ members of the American Philosophical Association are black. If *just over 5 percent* is disturbing, what about *1 percent*?

I’d call that statistic disturbing several times over. It’s not a new one to me, but its capacity to induce deep discomfort does not go away. There’s no two ways about it: philosophy, as an academic field, does not seem up to the task of accommodating black students or faculty.  A problem as severe as the numbers indicate is not amenable to easy solutions either.

At Brooklyn College, our department has twice played host to black professors–Lewis Gordon and Tunde Bewaji–for visiting positions that lasted for a year. The enrollment of black students in their classes–Philosophy of Culture and African-American Philosophy–was through the roof; we had never seen as many black students register before for a class. This suggests one immediate step: the hiring of black faculty.  (Brooklyn College has failed to hire a black philosopher, so we aren’t doing too well in his regard.)

But black faculty will have first been black students earning Ph.Ds, which brings us to the problem of the lack of black students in philosophy graduate programs. During my graduate school years, I can only remember seeing one black student in the twenty or so graduate level courses I took; he simply disappeared after a while. All the usual suggested solutions still seem worth a shot: aggressive recruitment, careful, close mentoring. I have no idea, honestly, what steps major graduate programs nation-wide are taking in this direction.

Just getting black students into philosophy programs will not help if they find their curricula to not be of interest.  One possible way to get black students interested in philosophical curricula–at the undergraduate level for starters–is to bridge it for them somehow. For instance, Brooklyn College offers a class called ‘Philosophical Issues in Literature’ which is taught as a Upper-Tier core course. A variant of this could be ‘Philosophical Issues in African-American Literature’; it would serve to introduce black students to epistemic, ethical, metaphysical, and political issues through that canon. (Philosophy departments, of course, would have to get over their uptightness about philosophy only being taught from ‘classical texts.’) Given this introduction they might then be inclined to see what the ‘regular’ or ‘mainstream’ philosophical tradition has to offer them.

Of course, as Stanley noted, philosophy departments also could and should:

 [T]each the extremely rich tradition in African-American Philosophy, especially in Political Philosophy. Start with David Walker‘s *Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World*, go through to Du Bois‘ *The Souls of Black Folks*, and Alain LockeCLR James‘s *The Black Jacobins* is a brilliant way to think about the contradictions of liberalism. There is tons of great political philosophy and aesthetics there. [links added]

These changes to curricula and hiring and retention practices are still just scratches on the surface. What is perhaps needed is a deeper and more fundamental change, a reconceptualization of the nature of philosophical inquiry and practice. For that, Kristie Dotson‘s paper “How is this Paper Philosophy?” (Comparative Philosophy 3:2) makes for very useful reading. I hope to write more on it soon.

CLR James on the ‘Surprisingly Moderate’ Reprisals of the Haitian Revolution

Here are two very powerful passages from CLR James‘ classic The Black Jacobins: Touissant L’Overture and the San Domingo Revolution (Vintage Books, second edition revised, New York, 1962, pp. 88-89):

The slaves destroyed tirelessly. Like the peasants in the Jacquerie or the Luddite wreckers, they were seeking their salvation in the most obvious way, the destruction of what they knew was the cause of their sufferings; and if they destroyed much it was because they had suffered much. They knew that as long as these plantations stood their lot would be to labour on  them until they dropped. The only thing was to destroy them. From their masters they had known rape, torture, degradation, and at the slightest provocation, death. They returned in kind. For two centuries the higher civilisation had shown them that power was used for wreaking your will on those whom you controlled. Now that they held power they did as they had been taught. In the frenzy of the first encounters they killed all. Yet they spared the priests whom they feared and the surgeons who had been kind to them. They, whose women had undergone countless violations, violated all the women who fell into their hands, often on the bodies of their still bleeding husbands, fathers and brothers. “Vengeance ! Vengeance” was their war-cry, and one of them carried a white child on a pike as a standard.

And yet they were surprisingly moderate, then and afterwards, far more humane than their masters had been or would ever be to them. They did not maintain this revengeful spirit for long. The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression. For the one aims at perpetuating resented injustice, the other is merely a momentary passion soon appeased. As the revolution gained territory they spared many of the men, women, and children whom they surprised on plantations. To prisoners of war alone they remained merciless. They tore out their flesh with redhot pincers, they roasted them on slow fires, they sawed a carpenter between two of his boards. Yet in all the records of that time there is no single instance of such fiendish tortures as burying white men up to the neck and smearing the holes in their faces to attract insects, or blowing them up with gun-powder, or any of the thousand and one bestialities to which they had been subjected. Compared with what their masters had done to them in cold blood, what they did was negligible, and they were spurred on by the ferocity with which the whites in Le Cap treated all slave prisoners who fell into their hands.

The italicized line is footnoted as follows:

This statement has been criticised. I stand by it. C.L.R.J.

I can imagine some of the contours of this criticism: How could you defend rape and murder and pillage? The killing of babies? The savage treatment of prisoners?

James offers a defense in the same passage and it is interestingly plausible.  The slave revolt, the uprising, was bound to be a convulsion, a shaking-off, one that could not but, given the history of their oppression–described in gruesome detail in Chapter 1–result in some reprisals. But this striking back would not be, and perhaps couldn’t be, anything more than a brief spasm of cruelty and anger, a cathartic and horrible outpouring of accumulated anger and grief. It would not be followed by enslavement and the systematic, prolonged brutality the slaves had been subjected to. The violence inflicted on the slaves was directed at the perpetuation of a very particular system of control; that which the slaves directed at their masters was a momentary outburst.  The mutilations, floggings, rapes, and live roastings–among other humiliations and obscenities–the slaves had suffered were to ensure the breaking of their spirit, the assertion of owner privilege; they were the visible features of an ideology of utter and total control. They broke bodies and minds alike. The cruelties of the retaliation meted out by the slaves, in contrast, appear as a momentary expression of revenge, the passions underlying which, hopefully, would soon subside. There is nothing systematic, nothing codified, about them.

These considerations do not, I think, condone the violence but they do put them into some perspective.

Studying Political Philosophy via Revolutions (Well, Three of Them)

Today, I’m going to think out loud about the syllabus I’m designing for the coming fall semester’s seminar on Political Philosophy. (I’m conducting this rumination in a public forum in the hope of helping me finalize this pesky business; please do chime in with suggestions, critiques, bouquets, brickbats etc.) My class will meet twice a week–two hundred-minute classroom sessions–count for four credits, and is roughly re-describable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’ (This would clear things up considerably were it not for the fact that our department also offers Social Philosophy, which I’m told, is also redescribable as ‘Classical and Contemporary Social and Political Philosophy.’)

In the fall, I plan to center my class’ discussions and readings on political revolutions; to use the French, American and Haitian Revolutions to introduce and illustrate  many central questions of political philosophy: the nature of political power and the state, political resistance, the rights of citizens, the nature of citizenship, the legitimacy of legal regimes, the varieties of political unions, the nature of conservatism etc. The readings then, should be a mix of contemporary polemics and retrospective evaluation.

For the French Revolution, we’ll begin with SieyesWhat is the Third Estate, then read Edmund Burke‘s classic, Reflections on The Revolution in France, followed by some yet-to-settled-on excerpts from Michael Walzer‘s Regicide and Revolution and Tocqueville‘s Ancien Regime and the French Revolution, and close with Maistre‘s Considerations on France. I will probably include: some material by Robespierre and William Doyle’s A Very Short History (to start things off).

For the American Revolution, we will probably begin with excerpts from Trenchard and Gordon’s Cato’s Letters before reading Thomas Paine‘s The Rights of Man and Common Sense. (A new Verso edition that collects these two looks promising.) Then we’ll read some of The Federalist Papers. The current list includes 1-3, 9-10, 14-15; time permitting: 22-23, 26-27, 37, 39, 47-48; and then 84, 78, 70, 39, 51.

Having read a bit about the French and American Revolutions, we will read Hannah Arendt‘s On Revolution before moving on to the Haitian Revolution. As historical background, we’ll read CLR JamesBlack Jacobins. (I’m also considering Laurent Dubois’ Avengers of the New World.) For theoretical assessments, we’ll read excerpts from Nick Nesbitt’s Universal Emancipation (I’m inclined to think the Nesbitt’s writing is likely to present a challenge to many of my students) and Susan Buck-MorssHegel and Haiti. (I’ve just been pointed to Aristide’s edited collection of Toussaint L’ouverture‘s writings, collected in The Haitian Revolution (Verso) and will probably include selections from there.)

So: This isn’t a perfect syllabus by any means. There is possibly too much reading–but I had to leave so much out!–and too little balance. But I think it does well in providing a historically situated debate on most of the central questions of political philosophy. The writing is accessible; indeed, there are a few stylists in there (Burke,Paine, the Federalist Papers etc) so the reading assignments should be quite enjoyable. Most of the pieces are provocative with a few that have real polemical bite.

It should make for an entertaining fourteen weeks.