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Wood ’18 on African-American Authors II

Zachary Wood ’18, co-President of Uncomfortable Learning and an EphBlog favorite, wrote an article in The Nation titled “You Shouldn’t Have to Take an African-American Studies Course to Read African-American Authors.” Let’s discuss if for a few days. Today is Day 2.

 At most colleges in the United States, students have to take courses in African-American studies to read the work of black thinkers in an academic setting. Meanwhile, the work of white male authors is taught in virtually every course that does not focus specifically on the experience of nonwhites.

Well, isn’t that because the most important work in, say, philosophy was written by whites, or at least not by blacks? (Leave aside complications as to whether “whites” would cover people born 2,000 years ago in places like Turkey and about how the authors in the Indian/Asian philosophical traditions might be categorized.) There are only so many spots in the syllabus. Every time you add person X, you need to subtract person Y.

 I am a sophomore at Williams College, majoring in political science and philosophy. Throughout my freshman year, I took seven courses in the humanities and social sciences, from English and philosophy to political science and anthropology. Yet only two of the seven courses incorporated the critical thought and perspectives of at least one scholar of African descent.

I don’t know exactly which courses Zach took, but consider the lowest numbered course in Philosophy at Williams:

PHIL 109 T(F) Skepticism and Relativism

Intellectually, we are ready skeptics and relativists. We doubt, we point out that no one can be certain in what she believes, and we are suspicious of declarations of transcendent reason or truth (unless they are our own). Emboldened by our confidence in skeptical arguments, we claim that knowledge is inevitably limited, that it depends on one’s perspective, and that everything one believes is relative to context or culture. No domain of inquiry is immune to this destructive skepticism and confident relativism. Science is only “true” for some people, agnosticism is the only alternative to foolish superstition, and moral relativism and, consequently, nihilism are obvious.

See the link for more details. Thanks to former EphBlogger Joe Cruz for sharing the syllabus (pdf). Do you see any African-American writers? I don’t.* Nor should there be! If you only have 12 weeks to cover such a broad topic, you need to focus on the best and most important work. That no writing by a black author makes that cut is no more surprising to me than the fact that none of the 64 starting cornerbacks in the NFL is white. Is it really surprising to you?

*Even if there is an African-American writer, Wood’s and my points still stand. I have no reason to doubt that Wood’s intro philosophy classes had no black writers and every reason to believe that this omission is caused, not by the racism of Williams faculty, but by the relative merits of the works under consideration.

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#1 Comment By damn, i’m back On January 21, 2016 @ 10:25 am

LOL. no important work in philosophy written by black people. OK. And is the same true in the other 5 courses?

I’m sure Cruz’s class is great and I do not mean to besmirch his pedagogical decisions as though he alone is responsible for changing the syllabus, but you provided only the one example. You mean to tell me Albert Einstein and Neils Bohr (I see what Cruz is doing and think it interesting for a class) are more clearly major philosophers than any single black philosopher ever?

christ, the cornerback thing again? You’ve never learned. And so I’ll never return (well, probably I will in another 5-10 years again)

#2 Comment By dcat On January 21, 2016 @ 12:40 pm

Why no African philosophers. Achebe, Soyinga, and wa Thiong’o are widely recognized as both fiction writers and literary philosophers. Frantz Fanon is as influential as any philosopher who wrote in the 20th century, full stop. Karena? Oruka? Senghor’s “Negritude”? What about the work of someone like Kwameh Nkrumah who may well not have been a professional philosopher (nor was Einstein), but whose philosophical background did happen to manifest in becoming head of state of the first decolonized sub-Saharan African nation. What about Du Bois? And none of this even gets into critical race theory.

I haven’t the foggiest idea what the cornerbacks thing has to do with anything. It’s a hell of a red herring, though. There are no white cornerbacks in an American sports league in 2016. Great. There is a whole range of black philosophers from the time period of the courses in question. I too am not criticizing Cruz. I am criticizing the dog whistle politics that this post represents.

#3 Comment By student On January 22, 2016 @ 12:12 am

I have been assigned quite a few books by Black and African American writers here at Williams. Each one was illuminating and contributed positively to the course at hand. I’ve been assigned books my males and female, blacks and whites, socialists and economists. The one group of people whose books I have never been assigned here are Williams are conservatives. I wonder why.

#4 Comment By Zach Wood On January 22, 2016 @ 2:39 am

Dave has made a few points here with which I deeply disagree. If I had more time, I’d be happy to rebut each of them. That said, I wanted to pose a question to Dave since he has argued that “the relative merits of the work under consideration” justify the near absence of African-American authors in courses outside of Africana studies:

Dave, what thinkers of African descent have you read? And which texts? I’m curious.

#5 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 22, 2016 @ 6:51 am

A fair question!

First, most of the academic work has been along the ideological lines that you might suspect. I am, for example, a huge fan and avid reader of Thomas Sowell. I am also a (lesser) fan of Walter Williams.

Second, the intellectual atmosphere of Williams, even back in the day, was very pro-diversity. If you took a course from, say, David Smith, you can be sure that you were exposed, as I was, to a range of black intellectuals. Alas, to be honest, I have difficulty remembering them now.

Third, I have never even heard of, much less read many of the authors that dcat mentions: Achebe, Soyinga, wa Thiong’o, Karena, Oruka, Senghor, Nkrumah. Should I have? I doubt it. Call me crazy but I doubt that many Williams professors are racist! (Of course, never forget EphBlog’s finest (?) moment.) If Joe Cruz does not think these folks are among the top 20 (or whatever) important authors to read on the topic of Truth/Skepticism, I believe him. If the same is true of the five separate (?) professors that Zach mentions, I believe them too.

Fourth, the reason that the cornerback example is important is because it provides a clear counter-example to the racial justice viewpoint that is so prevalent at Williams. “Racial justice” means that, in a fair society, the racial distribution in field X matches the racial distribution in the wider society. If the society is 10% black, then 10% of the best writing in philosophy was done by blacks and, therefore, 10% of the readings in any Williams philosophy class should be written by blacks.

By the way, of anyone has a better definition of “racial justice” — as it is used at places like Williams — I would be eager to read it.

But, if we are not surprised/offended by the under-representation of whites at cornerback we should also not be surprised/offended at the under-representation of blacks among professional philosophers and/or on Williams syllabi.

#6 Comment By sigh On January 22, 2016 @ 9:18 am

1. Oh, so only american authors count (10% of society, which, btw, is not the right percentage, but whatever)? LOL.

2. If you’ve never heard of many of the famous philosophers dcat referenced, who are you to write “Well, isn’t that because the most important work in, say, philosophy was written by whites, or at least not by blacks?” No. the philosophy YOU KNOW is written by whites. But you don’t know african and africana philosophy because you haven’t been introduced to it. And many of the professors currently teaching across the country have had similarly little introduction to that body of work and thus do not engage it (I am not accusing Cruz of that, as I do not know his scholarship. I am accusing a large percentage of scholars in most humanities and social sciences because I know it to be true from interaction and citation patterns). In sociology, for example, a new book was just published about Du Bois’ role (The Scholar Denied) in creating the field of sociology in the United States and the systematic effort to deny him his place as the real origin point of American empirical sociology in favor of the Chicago school which was clearly later, more biased in its methods and claims, and yet nearly 100 years later the Chicago school is still referred to by many as the first “school” of sociology in the United States.

#7 Comment By ephalum On January 22, 2016 @ 9:41 am

Sweet Jesus, this is twisted beyond belief. To take another football analogy: just as you apparently believe that blacks’ genetic inferiority prevents them from doing good work in philosophy, folks also for decades suggested that it was blacks’ genetic inferiority (rather than racist assumptions leading to lack of opportunities) that prevented them from being good NFL quarterbacks. I’m sure if you were in charge of the NFL, Russell Wilson, Jameis Wiston and Cam Newton would be playing WR or CB, because it would be league policy that blacks are too dumb to play QB.

#8 Comment By dcat On January 22, 2016 @ 4:59 pm

You “doubt” that you should have read China Achebe? You doubt that you need to have read Nobel Prize Laureate Wole Soyinka? You’ve never heard of Kwameh Nkrumah, who lead the liberation movement in Ghana and became that country’s first postcolonial head of state?

You’ve listed a small handful of Williams professors, pulled out the bizarre red herring (in bold font no less) that Williams professors are not racist, an accusation no one here seems to have made, and washed your hands of things you have never read based on the wholly sound logic that you have never read them.

Only Dave can valorize his own ignorance in such a way as to disparage an entire continent’s worth of literature and philosophy.

#9 Comment By dcat On January 23, 2016 @ 6:26 pm

Oh, and this week Thomas Sowell, one of the black writers David respects, wrote this:

No national leader ever aroused more fervent emotions than Adolf Hitler did in the 1930s. Watch some old newsreels of German crowds delirious with joy at the sight of him. The only things at all comparable in more recent times were the ecstatic crowds that greeted Barack Obama when he burst upon the political scene in 2008. Elections, however, have far more lasting and far more serious—or even grim—consequences than emotional venting. The actual track record of crowd pleasers, whether Juan Perón in Argentina, Obama in America, or Hitler in Germany, is very sobering, if not painfully depressing.

Yeah, this guy’s a real powerhouse thinker.

#10 Comment By David Dudley Field ’25 On January 26, 2016 @ 8:46 am

Whoops! Just realized that the political philosopher I am currently reading is black!

Am I a good person or a bad person because, while reading his book, I forgot his race . . .

By the way, the author is an Eph. Can anyone guess the book?

#11 Comment By dcat On January 26, 2016 @ 10:33 am

Yeah, I love this “look how race blind I am” nonsense by Ephblog’s resident race baiter. YOU are the one who made a whole host of stupid assertions about black philosophers (and writers who engage in philosophical issues) and when challenged you come up with this drivel? Christ, man, as if the very factor blackness for African American writers, especially in the Jim Crow era, or for African writers doesn’t matter. You draw this presupposition that the white middle class experience is the norm and then you draw all of your conclusions from that.

Then you come in here with your equivalent of “but I have black friends” and think that makes you a paragon of virtue. Hint: I would bet your black friends think you’re an ass. (Or I should say, I bet they think you’re an ass too.)