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A Westian vision of the role of black philosophy.

The role of black philosophy? I believe Bro. Cornel West pointed us down the right path. In 1977 he wrote: "Afro-American philosophy is the interpretation of Afro-American history, highlighting the cultural heritage and political struggles, which provides desirable norms that should regulate responses to particular challenges presently confronting Afro-Americans." (1) Where he spoke of "Afro-American philosophy," I would speak of Africana philosophy, a term I will treat as interchangeable with "black philosophy." (2) In what follows, I will use West's definition to build a vision of the role of Africana philosophy in the intellectual life of the black world. I will also provide an example of what I would see as the fruitful development of the field by briefly exploring the prospects for increased work on the topic of Pan-Africanism.

I would define philosophy in a general sense as the activity of raising and trying to answer, in a reflective and critical fashion, fundamental questions about the nature and value of things, about how we gain knowledge, and about how we ought to live our lives. Africana philosophy in the broadest possible sense is, on this definition, immeasurably old, as I see no reason to doubt that this activity has been carried out by people on the African continent for as long as our species has possessed the linguistic and cognitive capacities we associate with being human. Ancient Egyptian thought serves, I believe, as the initiating source of Africana philosophy as a historically ascertainable tradition, given the difficulty of measuring the age of sources in the oral tradition. (3) In the modern era, as Africans and African descendants confronted the slave trade, slavery, segregation, and colonization, Africana philosophizing developed a strong sociopolitical focus. The modern period also brings us the first black professional philosophers, people like Anton Wilhelm Amo, from what is now Ghana, who received the equivalent of a doctorate in philosophy in Germany in 1730, and Thomas Nelson Baker, who became the first African American in the United States to receive a PhD in philosophy in 1903. (4)

I shall concentrate here on Africana philosophy as a professional enterprise, that is, on the work of trained philosophers. I should explain right away, though, that I do not take all work in philosophy by black professional philosophers to count as black philosophy. I count only work that is distinctively Africana, in the sense that it is concerned with issues arising out of the black experience and/or it participates in a philosophical tradition associated primarily with black people. (5) Works by black philosophers that fit into the standard categories of Western philosophy and are not plausibly related to the racial/ethnic identity of their authors in any interesting way are best classified, in my view, as simply contributions to Western philosophy. (6)

With this brief historical overview and classificatory clarification in place, I can turn to explaining why I think Cornel West's conception of Afro-American philosophy is so helpful for figuring out the proper function of Africana or black philosophy. West's vision has three vital components I wish to highlight. Two of these components concern the temporal direction of our attention when doing Africana philosophy: West evokes, on the one hand, a backward-looking orientation ("the interpretation of Afro-American history") and, on the other hand, a sense of engagement with the present ("responses to particular challenges presently confronting Afro-Americans"). These different directions are not held in tension but rather smoothly reconciled: we are asked to look into the past to determine how best to deal with the present. The other component that I wish to highlight is not temporal but a matter of content, that is, a point about the subject matter of Africana philosophical inquiry: West calls for a focus on the "cultural heritage" and "political struggles" of black people.

I endorse this vision of black philosophy. I believe Africana philosophy maximizes its relevance and usefulness to black people's individual lives and the collective life of black people as a whole when it serves as a kind of powerful mirror we can use to critically reflect upon who we are and where we stand. The Westian vision of black philosophy helps us achieve this by encouraging the cultivation of the historical consciousness we need to understand how we became who we are, the awareness of present-day challenges needed to ensure that we are contributing to the ongoing struggles of our people, and the sensitivity to varying cultural and political dimensions of black life necessary to paint appropriately complex images of a healthy black future.

Let us consider, first, the importance of turning to the past. Part of the point here is that Africana philosophy must of necessity have concern for the past because it is only by grappling with our unique historical experience with slavery and colonialism that we can begin to address the issues black people face today. Another primary concern, though, is the need to retroactively build a canon. (7) It is a hugely important task for Africana philosophers to explore the black intellectual tradition and uphold within it those works they find valuable from a philosophical point of view. In his 1977 essay, for example, West critically engages with, among others, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, R. R. Wright Jr., Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, Sutton Griggs, Charles Chesnutt, Nella Larsen, Rudolph Fisher, Wallace Thurman, Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Gayl Jones, Toni Morrison, Jean Toomer, Langston Hughes, Sterling Brown, Zora Neale Hurston, and Ralph Ellison. (8) A number of these figures are, of course, already canonical in the study of African-American literature. In a manner that is not opposed to but rather complementary to the literary critic's examination of the ability of such figures to creatively render and reinterpret African-American experiences through the art of language, philosophers have the task of drawing analytical and critical attention to their ability to insightfully conceptualize various phenomena and make persuasive arguments, whether implicit or explicit in their writing. (9) Novels, poetry, plays, and other forms of creative writing may be usefully subjected to this kind of reading, but it is, of course, the nonfiction prose stream of black intellectual thought that is most readily amenable to this treatment.

Why is it so important that we turn to this historical chain of ideas, embedded most often in texts not generally recognized as philosophy? We turn back in this way because we as professional philosophers, self-consciously dedicated to the task of clarifying and addressing tough questions, have an extremely rich legacy of philosophical thinking behind us that must be reckoned with if we do not wish our contributions to be impoverished reinventions of the wheel. We do ourselves a number of disservices when we fail to examine the riches of the black intellectual tradition. First of all, despite my comment above about the most amenable sources, I mean to refer here not only to black writing, but also to oral traditions. Engaging with traditional African thought as best we can through its modern reconstruction is vital to avoiding a Eurocentric conception of Africana philosophy's roots. (10) Among the oral traditions of the diaspora, we might single out musical works as especially significant repositories of reflective thought that philosophers would do well to take more seriously. (11) Finally, a central reason for building up a canon through exploring the black intellectual tradition is the fact that, as previously noted, our problems today are connected to past injustices. For this reason, when we engage with modern black thought and its past attempts to comprehend and do battle with our systematic oppression, we encounter ways of thinking that remain strikingly relevant.

Take Robert Gooding-Williams's recent book, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (2009). Gooding-Williams contributes to the canon-building project I have described by treating Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk (1903) as an "outstanding contribution to modern political philosophy" that must furthermore be recognized as belonging particularly to the "Afro-modern tradition of political thought, an impressively rich body of argument and insight that began to emerge late in the eighteenth century" with the work of Afro-British figures like Quobna Ottobah Cugoano and Olaudah Equiano. (12) Gooding-Williams offers us a careful and well-argued reconstruction of the theory of politics in Souls (what he calls Du Bois's "politics of expressive self-realization"). (13) He then reaches past Du Bois back to Frederick Douglass, specifically the Douglass of My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), in order to claim that Douglass has a theory of politics (a "politics of radical reconstruction") that can be used to challenge Du Bois and reveal the latter's "limitations and blind spots." (14) Having thus engaged, in great depth, with two canonical thinkers and having thereby cast new light on their texts by juxtaposing them as he does, Gooding-Williams then explores what he sees as the problematic shadow of Du Bois over black thought today and the need for his Douglass-derived alternative view through a critical discussion of "ongoing debates about the nature of African American politics, the relevance of black identity to black politics, and the plight of the black underclass." (15)

Through efforts like these, Africana philosophers bring the past to bear on the present. They do this not in a manner that chains us to the past or blinds us to the present but in a way that carefully sifts the past for what is most informative and illuminating in understanding our current predicament and discerning possible paths forward. I should note that I, unlike Gooding-Williams, believe the influence of Du Bois on contemporary black political thought ought to be extended rather than lessened. I believe that we can and should draw on Du Bois in learning how to maintain a careful balance when confronting white supremacy between, on the one hand, constantly demanding an end to racial difference in access to power and resources and, on the other hand, constantly defending the value of racial difference in rejection of Eurocentrism. (16) One way to think of this is as a balance between seeking political sameness and affirming cultural difference. My belief that these two concerns, which pull in different directions, must be carefully balanced contrasts with Tommie Shelby's prominent position, according to which the cultural nationalist investment in affirming black cultural difference is an unproductive distraction. (17) These disagreements with Gooding-Williams and Shelby are symbolic, I believe, of the ultimate centrality in modern Africana philosophy of the question of the relationship between culture and politics. (18) Africana philosophy has, by necessity, a certain broadness of vision, a concern for the nature of what it is to be black that makes every aspect of black life of potential importance and also raises tough questions about how it all fits together. This broadness of vision helps make Africana philosophy relevant to thinking through an amazing variety of questions: from large questions of political economy to small, personal questions of daily habits, with not only everything in between but the infinitely intricate question of the whole also at stake. (19)

I would like to use the remainder of this comment to discuss an example of the kind of political and cultural issue that I believe Africana philosophy is well placed to address through clarifying, criticizing, and defending positions on what is at stake and what ought to be done. What is the contemporary relevance of the notion of Pan-Africanism? Is it a living political movement? Can it be used to describe our current cultural reality or a reality that we ought to be striving to attain? From a political perspective, some might see Pan-Africanism as a historical movement whose call for black unity was most pressing when we were faced with the task of overcoming racist political structures that formally subjected black people to white domination. Following the defeat of apartheid in South Africa, in a world with many countries run by black people (not to mention a black US president), black unity on a global scale may seem less important. From a cultural perspective, the idea that all black people are and ought to feel culturally connected may seem rooted in completely outdated notions of racial essentialism. Pan-Africanism might therefore seem, overall, simply a thing of the past.

In response to this, I would first like to point out why conditions in the black world today make the question of unifying black people across ethnic and national boundaries increasingly rather than decreasingly significant. In the majority-white countries of North America and Europe, immigration trends over the past half-century have consistently increased the diversity of black populations. Whether the majority of black people in the country are of recent immigrant background, as in European countries, or not, as in the United States, there is no escaping anywhere the reality that "the black community" in Western countries is drawn from various parts of the black world, making relations between black people of various backgrounds an important issue. (20) While immigration thus makes the local more global, the global has famously become more local through economic and technological transformations that reduce the significance of national borders. The future development of majority-black countries in Africa and the Americas will not be toward greater and greater independence, even if we defeat pernicious forms of neocolonialism, but greater interdependence. This raises the question of what role unity on the basis of African heritage might play in forming global linkages.

I believe Africana philosophy can and should help to organize and develop the conversation about Pan-Africanism that needs to happen in light of these political and cultural realities. Some may bring philosophical perspectives to this issue that lead to conclusions unfavorable to the Pan-Africanist stance, but I support Pan-Africanism and believe its philosophical foundations can be clarified and strengthened. Despite my space limitations, I wish to sketch two arguments showing this.

First, in relation to worries about essentialism, I would argue that embracing Pan-Africanism need not be about ignoring differences between black people and can, in fact, be valued precisely for the way it makes plain the diversity of blackness. What unifies black identity is a particular history, one that involves global dispersion and a series of recombinations under conditions of slavery and/or colonial rule. The amount of variation in the cultures brought together under this umbrella or newly created by this historical experience need not embarrass the Pan-Africanist. Indeed, in light of the reshaping and revaluing of what it means to be black through the agency of those so categorized, this diversity can and should be a source of pride.

Second, we should be wary of how resisting Pan-Africanism may mean perpetuating divisions that are not natural but rather, to a significant extent, products of anti-black racism. Misunderstandings and antagonisms between black people of different backgrounds do not arise simply because of the bare fact of being different. Especially when they have been brought together in societies full of anti-black stereotyping, much of the discord between black groups can plausibly be related to acceptance of or at least the failure to challenge the distorting images of racist ideology. Pan-Africanism's call for unity is partly a call to transcend rather than naturalize and resign ourselves to the existence of this type of invidious division. (21)

In closing, let me note that the African Union has declared itself open to the increasing participation in African affairs of the African diaspora, affirming even the possible future recognition of the diaspora as an official "sixth region." (22) I call upon Africana philosophy to aid in thinking through the aims and implications of this possible participation, drawing upon and critically engaging with the rich history of Pan-Africanist thought represented by figures like Du Bois and Garvey and relating the political issues here to cultural questions like those raised by the immense popularity of hip-hop in Africa. There is much to consider and discuss.


(1.) Cornel West, "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience," Philosophical Forum 9 (Winter-Spring 1977-1978): 122-123.

(2.) For the pioneering usage and theorization of the term "Africana philosophy," see Lucius Outlaw, "African, African American, Africana Philosophy," Philosophical Forum 24 (Fall-Spring 1992-1993): 63-93. For a book-length study of the field, see Lewis R. Gordon, An Introduction to Africana Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

(3.) On philosophy in ancient Egyptian thought, see Theophile Obenga, "Egypt: Ancient History of African Philosophy," in A Companion to African Philosophy, ed. Kwasi Wiredu (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004), pp. 31-49. Obenga makes a strong case for seeing a passage in a text from the Twelfth Dynasty (1991-1782 BC) known as the Inscription of Antefas offering us the "first definition of a 'philosopher' in world history" (ibid., p. 35).

(4.) See William E. Abraham, "Anton Wilhelm Amo," in A Companion to African Philosophy, pp. 191-199, and George Yancy, "Thomas Nelson Baker: Toward an Understanding of a Pioneer Black Philosopher," American Philosophical Association Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience 95 (Spring 1996): 5-9.

(5.) Stephen C. Ferguson II has similarly drawn a distinction between "Africana philosophers and the philosophy of the Black experience." I think we disagree, however, with regard to whether all work by Africana philosophers counts as Africana philosophy, given what Ferguson goes on to say while arguing that "the philosophy of the Black experience" is one part of the larger project of "Africana philosophy." Note, though, that my narrower definition, according to which not all work by black philosophers counts as Africana philosophy, nevertheless refrains from limiting Africana philosophy to work focused on the experiences of African and African-descended peoples, as I count any tradition of thought as Africana philosophy-whatsoever its themes--as long as it can be seen as distinctively tied to the work of black thinkers. See Stephen C. Ferguson II, "Philosophy in Africa and theAfrican Diaspora," in The Oxford Handbook of World Philosophy (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), p. 463. My view on what ought to be counted as Africana philosophy is partly influenced by Kwasi Wiredu's thoughts on how work that does not concern traditional African culture might come to be rightly called African philosophy. See Kwasi Wiredu, "On Defining African Philosophy," in Tsenay Serequeberhan, African Philosophy: The Essential Readings (New York: Paragon House, 1991), pp. 92-93.

(6.) So, for example, Ghanaian philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah has greatly contributed to Africana philosophy through efforts like In My Father's House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). His first two books, however, I would not consider contributions to Africana philosophy but rather simply examples of philosophy of language in the Western tradition. See Anthony Appiah, Assertion and Conditionals (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985) and For Truth in Semantics (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986). It is perhaps harder to decide how to classify some of his more recent work on matters like cosmopolitanism, empirical evidence in ethics, and the moral significance of honor. I would at least count his work on cosmopolitanism as forming part of Africana philosophy, given the ways in which he draws on aspects of his cultural background in making his arguments. For more on that topic, see my "Appiah's Cosmopolitanism," Southern Journal of Philosophy 51 (December 2013): 488-510.

(7.) I echo Howard McGary: "I can't emphasize enough that what I think is crucial now is that African-American philosophers spend the time creating the canon." Note, however, that McGary is perhaps not speaking solely about historically oriented work here, so I may, to some extent, be appropriating his words for my own purposes. See "Howard McGary," in African-American Philosophers: 17 Conversations, ed. George Yancy (New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 91.

(8.) The presence of Larsen, Jones, Morrison, and Hurston on this list is important, as it is imperative that in constructing the canon of African American philosophical thought, we ensure that women thinkers are amply represented. We are aided in doing so by collections of writing like Beverly Guy-Sheftall's landmark volume, Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought (New York: New Press, 1995).

(9.) For an example of an attempt to make this sort of complementary philosophical move in relation to a significant text in ancient Egyptian literature, see my "Embodying Justice in Ancient Egypt: The Tale of the Eloquent Peasant as a Classic of Political Philosophy," British Journal for the History of Philosophy 21 (May 2013): 421-442.

(10.) The need for diasporic traditions in Africana philosophy to engage with traditional African thought is nicely defended and demonstrated in Paget Henry's Caliban's Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2000). For an alternative view, see Cornel West, Prophesy Deliverance! An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity, anniversary ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002 [1982]), p. 24. The significance of traditional African thought for contemporary African philosophy has, of course, long been a central topic and source of controversy in the field. One way the issue has come up is the question of what difference it would make for African philosophy to be carried on in indigenous African languages rather than European ones. I have tried to contribute to moving the field from discussion to action on this issue by editing Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2013).

(11.) For an example of taking this type of source seriously, see Angela Y. Davis, Blues Legacies and Black Feminism: Gertrude "Ma" Rainey, Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday (New York: Random House, 1998).

(12.) Robert Gooding-Williams, In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), pp. 1, 2. Emphasis mine.

(13.) Ibid., p. 4.

(14.) Ibid., pp. 18, 5.

(15.) Ibid., p. 8. Gooding-Williams intervenes in these contemporary debates by engaging with a number of important black thinkers of today, including John Brown Childs, Joy James, Adolph Reed, Paul Gilroy, Tommie Shelby, Eddie Glaude, William Julius Wilson, Cathy Cohen, and Henry Louis Gates Jr.

(16.) For more on this, see my "The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois's 'The Conservation of Races,'" Ethics 123 (April 2013): 403-426.

(17.) See Tommie Shelby, We Who Are Dark: The Philosophical Foundations of Black Solidarity (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005). Note that while Shelby rejects the cultural nationalist element of Du Bois's work, he simultaneously draws on other aspects of his work in support of the view that there can be stable black solidarity across class lines (see chapter 2).

(18.) West, for his part, speaks of culture as a matter of "self-image" or "the perennial human attempt to define who and what one is" and politics as a matter of "self-determination" or the "struggle to gain significant control over the major institutions that regulate people's lives." He argues further that "culture is more fundamental than politics" in the sense that "Afro-American cultural perceptions provide a broader and richer framework for understanding the Afro-American experience than political perceptions," which helps to explain the large number of literary figures and other artistic types in his essay. See West, "Philosophy and the Afro-American Experience," pp. 123, 125.

(19.) For an example of tackling a question concerning daily habits in the light of the broad question of the relationship between race, culture, and politics, see my "Should Black Kids Avoid Wearing Hoodies?" in Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics, eds. George Yancy and Janine Jones (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2012).

(20.) Canada, the country I call home, is an interesting case, as the majority of the black population is of recent immigrant background (as in Europe) but there are also long-standing black populations and, in the province of Nova Scotia, where I live, the situation is somewhat similar to that of the United States: the majority of the black population is not of recent immigrant background but rather descended from people who arrived in this province centuries ago, and yet recent immigration has made the black population increasingly diverse. For more on the significance of the diversity of black Canada, see the final section of my "Do We Need African Canadian Philosophy?", Dialogue: Canadian Philosophical Review/Revue canadienne de philosophie 51 (December 2012): 643-666.

(21.) As Du Bois put it in 1933, "American Negroes, West Indians, West Africans and South Africans must proceed immediately to wipe from their minds the preconcepts of each other which they have gained through white newspapers." W. E. B. Du Bois, "Pan-Africa and New Racial Philosophy," Crisis 40 (November 1933): 247.

(22.) See section I.A.(k) of the Declaration of the Global African Diaspora Summit, held in Johannesburg, South Africa, May 25, 2012:

Chike Jeffers is an assistant professor of philosophy at Dalhousie University (Halifax, Nova Scotia). He specializes in Africana philosophy and philosophy of race, with broad interests in social and political philosophy and ethics. He is the editor of Listening to Ourselves: A Multilingual Anthology of African Philosophy (Albany: SUNY Press, 2013).
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Author:Jeffers, Chike
Publication:The Black Scholar
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Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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