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Philosophical Blacknuss: American philosophy and the particular.

WE is gathahed hyeah, my brothahs, In dis howlin' wildaness, Fu' to speak some words of comfo't To each othah in distress. (1)

--Paul Laurence Dunbar, An Ante-Bellum Sermon

Teaching philosophy from within the African-American social historical context has always been important to me. I want to explore the particulars of the black experience with the skills of a philosopher. As a graduate student, I was trained to think of philosophy as the discipline that disregards the particulars of an individual's life and to focus on the aspects that were both "universal" and "impartial." in graduate school, any discussion of racism or sexism was too partial and better suited for academic exploration in the disciplines of sociology, criminology, or political science. In this regard, questions concerning social justice and blacks or women were not philosophical questions. This was disheartening given that I wanted to write a dissertation that drew on the experiences of black people in the United States. I was told that if I chose to write about race and race-related issues, I would not have a job as a philosopher in the United States and probably nowhere in the world. Undaunted, I took on this challenge and have attempted to address in a philosophical manner concerns that I think are rooted in the black American social, political, and historical experience. (2) I knew that I must take the black experience seriously as an area of research and as a source of philosophical insight as my starting point for my work in philosophy. (3)

I had to take a position because I knew that the black experience was not given a high level of regard and respect as a lived experience by philosophers, and I wanted to do philosophy. (4) I knew that the discipline's unwillingness to take seriously the lived experiences of black people has a significant effect on the research projects and career opportunities for those philosophers that Kristie Dotson calls diverse practitioners of philosophy. (5)

The challenge is to do philosophy in a society and profession that devalues black life experiences and expects black philosophers to revel in the lived experiences of others. As diverse practitioners of philosophy, taking the black experience seriously means that we must start with the view that our task is to challenge and counter the "deforming mirror of truth." (6)

The Master Narrative and Race

Before his death in 1989, historian Nathan Huggins added a new introduction, "The Deforming Mirror of Truth," to his important book, Black Odyssey. Huggins's basic thesis was that historians helped to foster the national belief in what he called a "master narrative" regarding race, racism, and slavery in the United States that deformed historical truth. This narrative was etched into the Constitution and had become the mantra for thinking about the role of slavery and race in the United States. Huggins writes:
   American historians have conspired with
   the founding fathers to create a national
   history, teleologically bound to the Founders'
   ideals rather than their reality. They
   have chosen to see American history from
   even before the Revolution as an inexorable
   development of free institutions and the
   expansion of political liberty to the broadest
   possible public. Like the framers of the
   Constitution, they have treated racial slavery
   and oppression as curious abnormalities
   -aberrations-historical accidents to be
   corrected in the progressive upward reach
   of the nation's destiny. (7)

In this narrative, the United States is a country founded on and dedicated to the proposition that all men were created equal or one day will be. "The holy nation thus acquired a holy history. A conspiracy of myth, history, and chauvinism served to create an ideology as the dominating historical motif against which all history would resonate." (8) The story had no place for racial slavery or the racial caste system that followed emancipation. It is a sanitized account of race and racism that the United States tells and sells about its founding and its aims. This narrative becomes the foundational script for what it means to be an American and to be in America. (9) This fable supports, among many others, two themes: The first is to glorify the white presence in the United States. The second is to ignore the meaningful presence of nonwhites, in particular enslaved Africans. It is this myth that deforms truth.

I think that there are ample examples of the prevalence of these themes in our reading of American history. What Huggins forcefully argues is that this telling of the creation and aims of the United States reinforced the positioning of blacks as inferior beings and the black experience as having no positive value. While Huggins focuses on historians, it is clear that he could include philosophers, sociologists, theologians, and a host of others as purveyors of the myth of black inferiority. It is through the retelling and reinforcing of this narrative that black females, males, and children are devalued as members of the society. (10)

It is the marginalization of blacks as full human beings that becomes the focus of racial consciousness in the United States. As Clarence S. Johnson notes, in a quote worth repeating:
   An individual's consciousness about racial
   categories in this transgressive, counter-hegemonic
   sense consists in her or his
   awareness of the fact that to be black (in
   terms of a person's pigmentation) automatically
   translates into occupying a subordinate
   social position in society. By contrast,
   to be white (in terms of a person's skin
   pigmentation) automatically translates into
   occupying a position of power. The significant
   point here concerns the individual's
   awareness of "whiteness" and "blackness"
   as terms for racial categories that represent
   and reflect distinct and unequal social locations
   in society, wherein the criterion
   for membership into a racial category, and
   hence for entry into a given social location,
   is skin color. (11)

The use of racist practices and policies has helped to create a heightened racial consciousness in this country and also has helped to form the belief that blacks are a stable racial group both in physical and psychological terms. The social practices, laws, and educational and religious teachings have all worked to marginalize the social standing of blacks. (12)

The main point here is that the social and political history and practices of this country have fostered views (1) of blacks as morally and intellectually inferior to whites and (2) that the black experience has no redeeming value. (13) This shaping of the status of blacks in the United States has been four hundred years in the making. The idea to subjugate blacks was formed early in the development of the country. A. Leon Higginbotham Jr. writes in his book In the Matter of Color:
   In treating the first 200 years of black presence
   in America, this book will demonstrate
   how the entire legal apparatus was
   used by those with the power to do so
   established a solid legal tradition for the
   absolute enslavement of blacks. It will be
   an effort to look at this history primarily
   through the special focus of a legal lens, to
   examine the pathology of the law, its creation,
   it sanctioning, its tolerance, and its
   occasional eradication of the racist practices
   that caused one group of human beings
   to receive such special, harsh, disparate
   treatment. (14)

These practices and customs devalued both black people and the black experience. This positioning of black people can help explain why the black experience has no value in the discipline of philosophy; the people who have these experiences have no value.

It was this problematic framing of the black American experience that I hoped philosophy would help me find answers to. I hoped that philosophy would help me find answers about, if not solutions to, liberty, justice, and freedom that would help me counter and correct these misconceptions about the black experience. I was wrong about both. Philosophy and many of the philosophers I encountered had no interest intellectually, politically, or academically about the manner in which philosophy could address concerns rooted in the African-American lived experience. (15)

I realized that the history and the wider social understanding of the social status of blacks shaped how we think about what it means to know, how we distribute social goods, how we understand beauty, how we understand what it means to be human. Race affected how groups value their female members and the quality of respect and regard given to women who are members of the "other." It affected the manner in which black men viewed black women and how black women viewed black men. In this regard, race and racial practices have shaped the social practices and customs of the United States in that race and racist ideology have been in play from the cradle to the grave for black Americans. Race affects where we are born, who our parents are, the type of prenatal treatment our mothers received, where our parents could work, where they could live, where they could be treated when ill, where they could be buried when they died. Race and racism affected what they valued and whom they valued. (16) Race and racist practices also affected the manner in which whites saw and thought about blacks as persons and the black experience. It is not a pretty image. (17) Professional academic philosophers are not immune to societal racism and sexism.

What often shocks new graduate students of color is that those people who are supposed to be rational and reflective about life and life experiences are not particularly welcoming to the life experiences of others. These students realize that these are the people teaching them and recommending them for jobs to other persons who have little regard for black people or the black experience. This is the harsh reality of life in the philosophy game. (18)

What does it mean to be a philosopher and to do philosophy in a society that has devalued you and the group to which you can be identified as socially, morally, and intellectually inferior? How do you work from within your lived experience in a discipline that has no respect or regard for your experiences? These are difficult questions. To be steadfast requires courage and fortitude. Indeed, we find ourselves working in a discipline that devalues black people and the black experience. For many of these "scholars" in philosophy, in regards to positive values, the black experience is a null set. Confronting these negative evaluations is the challenge of the diverse practitioner of philosophy.

Let me note that black women professional philosophers have their own particular issues and concerns that arise out of the racist/sexist reading of the black experience. These issues and concerns are related to and connected to those of black male professional philosophers. While both groups challenge the strength and vitality of the master narrative regarding race and sex, their challenges are different. Challenging the master narrative does not mean replacing it with one that uses race as a catchall for the experiences of black men and women. We each have our own particular issues and concerns and we have some that overlap and connect. If we as diverse practitioners of philosophy are going to take the black experience seriously, we must seriously respect the experiences of black women and men. (19)

What is the point? The point is that working on issues and concerns that arise out of lived experience within the tradition of Anglo-American philosophy is difficult. Philosophers are not immune to racism and sexism. It is not as if the ability to formulate a complicated argument is a vaccination against racism and sexism. Reason and sound arguments have not dislodged the view of the black experience as having no value. (20)

When Howard McGary and I cowrote Between Slavery and Freedom, we had to grapple with using the American slavery experience as the focal point of the book. We had to answer the charge that our work was too partial. We wrote:
   We think that a philosopher might aspire to
   universalist criteria in some sense and still
   be committed to taking account of matters
   that are essentially perspectival, such as
   the American slave experience. Often the
   moral issues one focuses on depend on
   one's sensitivity to the actual experience of
   those involved. When one takes the slave
   experience seriously, issues like oppression
   and forgiveness come to the fore. But
   thinking seriously and reflectively about
   these issues, taking full account of the
   slave's experience, does not, so far as we
   can see, preclude aiming at universality or
   impartiality (or, for that matter, objectivity).
   It would be limiting if one were interested
   solely in how things seem from that perspective,
   but one can hardly appreciate the
   moral issues involved in American slavery
   without examining, inter alia, how things
   seemed from the slave's point of view. (21)

Many years later I still think it is true that we can do philosophy from within our own lived experience and bring out important philosophical insights. However, we must first respect and be sensitive to our lived experiences. Unfortunately, the discipline of philosophy has not shown respect or sensitivity to the experiences of its diverse practitioners. To have the courage to research with the knowledge that our work may not get acclaim or regard because it is about our lived experience is a difficult choice. I am not suggesting that anyone make this choice, but it was my choice.

With all of this said, I contend that philosophers of color have been faithful to philosophy even when philosophy has not been faithful to them. We still recruit young scholars of color to attend graduate school to study philosophy and to one day teach philosophy, even though we know there are academic "haters." (22) One can liken these times to the early years of school desegregation when blacks sent their children into hostile schools even with the knowledge that the trek would be full of haters (persons who had no respect for blacks). We still send our children out to integrate schools, only this time it is in philosophy programs as graduate students and into hostile philosophy departments as new professors. Just like the black students who integrated elementary and high schools in the 1960s, we are integrating philosophy departments in the new millennium. The struggle continues. It is my contention that to take the black experience seriously is to appreciate the manner in which racism and sexism affects our role as diverse practitioners of philosophy and what it means to do philosophy in a society that devalues our experiences and then still do it.

The title of this essay, "Philosophical Blacknuss," draws on the composition by Rahsaan Roland Kirk: "Blacknuss." The track is entirely built on and performed with the thirty-six black keys of the piano. (23) Kirk states at the beginning of the composition: "We don't mean to eliminate nothin,' but we're gonna just hear the black notes, if you don't mind." In this regard, this essay is like the Rahsaan Roland Kirk song that postulates that sometimes we must focus our work from within our own lived experience. This essay is dedicated to the memories of William R. Jones and Paul Laurence Dunbar, who understood the value of both black people and the black experience, and Shelton Howden, who did not. (24) Blacknuss!


(1.) Paul Laurence Dunbar, An Ante-Bellum Sermon,, accessed April 6, 2013.

(2.) I was fortunate to come to philosophy after having been a grunt in Vietnam, a hustler on the block, and a menial laborer. These life experiences have affected how I do philosophy. Since I came to philosophy after my time in 'Nam, working in philosophy was a career choice, not a spiritual calling. I was also fortunate to meet and interact in graduate school and early in my career with other like-minded diverse practitioners, such as Williams R. Jones, Angela Davis, Lucius Outlaw, Howard McGary, Bernard Boxill, Leonard Harris, Tommy Lott, Cornel West, Frank Kirkland, and Laurence Thomas.

(3.) John Hope Franklin noted that the black scholar has to prove that he or she is a scholar and, if he or she wants to do academic research on the African-American experience, show that that experience is worth studying. John Hope Franklin, "The Dilemma of the American Negro Scholar," in Soon, One Morning; New Writing by American Negroes, 1940 1962 (New York: Knopf, 1963), pp. 60-76.

(4.) I met some black philosophers who thought that my obsession with the black experience was academically misguided and thought that as philosophers we must transcend race. The experience of those diverse practitioners of philosophy who have attempted to show that their work can do so have done no better than those who have worked to make the black experience a part of the larger philosophical landscape. In some cases the frustration and disappointment felt when the race-transcending person's work is not given the respect and regard of the average white philosopher is crushing. Who wants to be crushed morally and spiritually? That's why I placed my bet on black.

(5.) Kristie Dotson, "How Is This Paper Philosophy?" Comparative Philosophy 3, no. 1 (2012): 4.

(6.) I take Dotson's use of diverse practitioners of philosophy seriously because I agree with her concern that much of black/Africana philosophy has been black male philosophy; see note 16.

(7.) Nathan Irvin Huggins, Black Odyssey: The African-American Ordeal in Slavery (New York: Vintage Books, 1990), Kindle edition.

(8.) Ibid.

(9.) It must be remembered that there has been a great deal of literature and scholarship that has supported the master narrative. The text Problems of Citizenship is an interesting read. It was an attempt to provide a problems course for introductory social sciences at Dartmouth College. It has a section on the Negro and notes that it will address the woman question, which was noted but not discussed in many textbooks. It may be argued that it is not representative of the racist diatribe that has been used to disparage blacks, but its attempt to be even-handed makes it worth considering. Hayes Baker-Crothers, Problems of Citizenship (New York: Holt, 1924).

(10.) Avril Fuller, "Black Rue: The Hunger Games and Rhetorics of Innocence," unpublished manuscript.

(11.) Clarence S. Johnson, "(Re) Conceptualizing Blackness and Making Race Obsolescent," in White on White/Black on Black, ed. George Yancy (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005), p. 178.

(12.) Bill E. Lawson, "Social Disappointment and the Black Sense of Self," in Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 1997), pp. 149-156.

(13.) Derrick Bell has the best analysis of way in which laws and social practices are able to self-correct for whiteness. See, for example, Derrick A. Bell, Silent Covenants: Brown vs. Board of Education and the Elusive Quest for Racial Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004); Derrick A. Bell, Richard Delgado, and Jean Stefancic, The Derrick Bell Reader (New York: New York University Press, 2005); and Derrick A. Bell, Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism (New York: Basic Books, 1992).

(14.) A. Leon Higginbotham Jr., In the Matter of Color: Race & The American Legal Process: The Colonial Period (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 14.

(15.) John H. McClendon, "On the Politics of Professional Philosophy: The Plight of the African American Philosopher," in Reframing the Practice of Philosophy: Bodies of Color, Bodies of Knowledge, ed. George Yancy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

(16.) See, for example, Paul C. Taylor, "Pragmatism and Race," in Pragmatism and the Problem of Race (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004); Charles W. Mills, "Do Black Men Have a Moral Duty to Marry Black Women?" Journal of Social Philosophy 25, no. $1 (1994); George Yancy, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2008); Bernard R. Boxill, Blacks and Social Justice (Totowa, N J: Rowman & Allanheld, 1984); Howard McGary, Race and Social Justice (Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1999); Laurence Thomas, Vessels of Evil: American Slavery and the Holocaust (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993); Leonard Harris, Philosophy Born of Struggle: Anthology of Afro-American Philosophy from 1917 (Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt Publishing, 1983).

(17.) George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: The Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Hanover, NH: Wesleyan University Press, 1987).

(18.) "Philosophical Playa Hatin' Race, Respect and the Philosophy Game," in Reframing the Practice of Philosophy: Bodies of Color, Bodies of Knowledge, ed. George Yancy (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012).

(19.) See also Patricia Hill Collins, "The Social Construction of Black Feminist Thought," Signs 14, no. 4 (1989); Valerie Smith, "Black Feminist Theory and the Representation of the 'Other,'" in Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory and Writing by Black Women, ed. Cheryl Wall (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1989); Michele Wallace, Invisibility Blues: From Pop to Theory (New York: Verso, 1990); Gloria T. Hull and Patricia Bell Scott, eds., All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press,1982); Rebecca Wanzo, The Suffering Will Not Be Televised: African American Women and Sentimental Political Storytelling (Albany: SUNY Press, 2009); Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2011); Anna Julia Cooper, "Our Raison D'etre," in The Voice of Anna Julia Cooper: Including a Voice from the South and Other Important Essays, Papers, and Letters, ed. Charles Lemert and Esme Bhan (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1992).

(20.) Laurence Thomas, "Moral Equality and Natural Inferiority," Social Theory and Practice, 31, no. 3 (July 2005): 379-404.

(21.) Howard McGary and Bill E. Lawson, Between Slavery and Freedom: Philosophy and American Slavery (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. xviii

(22.) This bit is cribbed from my paper "Philosophical Playa Hatin' Race, Respect and the Philosophy Game."

(23.) Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Blacknuss, Atlantic Records, 1972. Songs on the pentatonic scale: "01' Man River," "Amazing Grace," "New World Symphony"--Dvorak, "Deep River," "Swing Low, Sweet Chariot," "Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child," and "My Girl"--The Temptations.

(24.) William R. Jones, "The Legitimacy and Necessity of Black Philosophy: Some Prelimi nary Considerations," Philosophical Forum 9, no. 2-3 (Winter-Spring 1977-1978); J. Saunders Redding, Stranger and Alone: A Novel (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1989).

Bill E. Lawson is distinguished professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis in Tennessee. His areas of specialization are African-American philosophy and social and political philosophy. His published works include Pragmatism and the Problem of Race (Indiana University Press, 2004), edited with Donald Koch; Faces of Environmental Racism, 2nd ed. (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), edited with Laura Westra; Frederick Douglass: A Critical Reader (Blackwell, 1999), edited with Frank Kirkland. He has testified before a US congressional subcommittee on welfare reform. He was a 2011-2012 University of Liverpool Fulbright Fellow at the University of Liverpool in the UK.
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Author:Lawson, Bill
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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