The Complexities of Black Folk: Yancy and Appiah

Reblogged from New York Times.

This is the 10th in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches in New York University’s department of philosophy and its school of law. He has been the president of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, and of the PEN American Center. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, “Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.” — George Yancy

George Yancy: How did you become interested, philosophically, in the question of race? Did it grow out of something like a conceptual problem of reference, or did it come more out of lived experience? Or, perhaps this disjunction is a false start?

Kwame Anthony Appiah: I’m always skeptical when intellectuals give accounts of how they came about their interests! So you should take what I have to say as a set of hypotheses about my own past, not as the results of introspection, which yields nothing about this.

Black identity in America brings with it a whole host of contradictory forces, which are not easily parsed either as American or as black. And how they play out for you depends on other things about who you are.

When I first started teaching in the United States in 1981 I had a joint appointment at Yale, in African and African-American studies, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other, and I was casting about for things to do on the African and African-American side of my work, both as a teacher and as a scholar. I had been an undergraduate student at Cambridge in medical sciences for one year, and philosophy for two, and I was puzzled, as a newcomer to the United States, by the fact that many people appeared to think “race” was a biological concept, whereas I had been taught in my brief career in the life sciences to think it was not.


Kwame Anthony Appiah
Kwame Anthony AppiahCredit

So I looked to see what there was of a philosophical sort to teach on this topic and discovered not very much. And since “race” was a rather central concept in the field of African-American Studies, it seemed to me that thinking a bit about it was a contribution that someone with my training could make.

Since my dissertation had been in the philosophy of mind and language, issues about reference seemed like one thing to take up, but I began mostly with explorations that were less technical, just trying to get across why it was that the life sciences had given up on race and what the best conceptual and empirical evidence suggested about whether they were right. Eventually I got to see that the concept had a life in many fields — or rather that many concepts travel under the flag of the word “race.” So I’ve written about it as a topic in literary studies as well as in biology, the social sciences and metaphysics.

G.Y.: In your new book, “Lines of Descent,” you write that W.E.B. Du Bois saw himself as an American and a Negro (as opposed to an African-American). You state correctly how being an “American” and being a “Negro” did not fit well for him. I’m reminded of Du Bois’s encounter in “The Souls of Black Folk” with the tall (white) newcomer and how she refused to exchange visiting cards with him and how this signified early on in his life a deep tension in his sense of “racial” identity. Do you think contemporary African-Americans also find themselves possessed by, as Du Bois describes it, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps them from being torn asunder”?

K.A.A.: I think that Du Bois’s way of thinking about this, which was informed by 19th– century German social philosophy, can be put like this: Each people, each Volk, has a soul, a Geist, that is the bearer of a folk culture and of what he called spiritual “strivings.” American Negroes were possessed of the soul of America and the soul of the Negro. Since America’s folk culture was racist, they were possessed by a spirit that was, in some respects, hostile to them. The Negro soul gave them the resources for a positive sense of self, which helped to resist this, but it also gave them various other gifts.

The sense in which a black American in New York now shares the pain of the lynch victim in Georgia 100 years ago is importantly figurative rather than literal.

I don’t believe in the Volksgeist myself. (Big surprise.) So I would translate all this into perhaps less exciting terms. But to begin with I’d have to challenge one of the tendencies of this German Romantic line of thought — which is to think that there’s a kind of wholeness and homogeneity to the collective soul. Because it seems to me that black identity in America brings with it a whole host of contradictory forces, which are not easily parsed either as American or as black. And how they play out for you depends on other things about who you are — a woman, a skilled laborer, a philosopher, a bisexual, a Catholic, and so on.

Also, I don’t think it’s the case that you can parse African-American life as one tension between the two sides of the hyphen. I do think that there clearly are characteristic sources of racial storm and stress, but that class and gender and other factors mean that it’s a different story for different subgroups.

G.Y.: Even if one agrees, as I do, that there is not really anything like a “collective Negro soul” — and especially not in the metaphysical sense — isn’t there a way we can still hold on to something like “black identity”? In other words, aren’t there ways in which to be black in America is based upon shared traditions of resistance, shared pain and angst, shared assumptions about things like the racial policing of our bodies or white supremacy, and so on?

K.A.A.: One reason I’m a nominalist about identities is that you can say that there’s a shared label, then say that what it does, both in the mind of the bearer and in her treatment by others, has elements that are shared and elements that are distinct. So what makes the identity one identity is its label, I think, more than what is done with it.

Similar complexities surround the idea of a black culture. Black Americans can certainly draw on cultures transmitted within communities of black people, and those cultural traditions may have elements shared across the board. Black adults, for example, tend to teach black children ways to handle American racism. The black label explains part of why they do this: bearing the label brings with it the risk of racist responses. So we could then say that teaching kids to deal with racism is part of black culture.

Then there’s the equally vexed issue of shared experiences. The sense in which a black American in New York now shares the pain of the lynch victim in Georgia 100 years ago is importantly figurative rather than literal. And it is a difficult question how much Booker T. Washington shares the traditions of resistance of Frederick Douglass. An idea, a practice, a response can be marked as black in various ways, without its being shared among black people. The advantage of abandoning the Volksgeist is that we can ask what is and isn’t actually shared.

G.Y.: I’m also thinking about Du Bois’s essay “The Souls of White Folk” where he says he is “singularly clairvoyant” when it comes to understanding white people. “White folk” isn’t just a nominal concept here; it has political, psychological and existential content. His claim about knowing the ways of white folk is an epistemic claim that is grounded upon his own identity as an oppressed black person who is part of a suffering group, one who rides the Jim crow car, but who in his clairvoyance also sees what I don’t think we want to deny — that is, a collective white supremacist identity. What do you think?

K.A.A.: One thing that I think is absolutely true in Du Bois’s remark is the recognition that the oppressed often have a deeper understanding of the lives of oppressors than vice versa, because they have to make sense of the powerful to survive. (If you want to know how the marriage of a person with servants is going, don’t ask their friends, ask the servants.) But again, I’d be a nominalist about white identity. And I’d agree that the role of whiteness in white supremacy is part of the story. But John Brown, like many other white abolitionists, wasn’t participating in the supremacist narrative, he was trying to undo it. So while white people share an identity, it isn’t going to follow that they share an agenda, or beliefs or values in virtue of that fact.

G.Y.: You also wrote in “Lines of Descent” that “Du Bois would say that the race concept should be retained, or that a black identity should be preserved, until justice and freedom reign on earth.” Yet, this seems to confine black identity to a kind of master-slave relationship; once the white master disappears, there will be no need for a black identity. Do you think there are legitimate ways in which black people can hold on to their “racial identities” after, let’s say, the collapse of white supremacy? Isn’t black identity certainly more than being forced to ride the Jim Crow car or being disproportionately profiled by white police officers?

More From The Stone

Read previous contributions to this series.

K.A.A.: I think it would take an imagination more powerful than mine to know what would be possible once white supremacy came to an end everywhere. Identities shift their meanings all the time, and a black identity in a world without white supremacist institutions or practices would undoubtedly mean something different. What would happen to the way the identity relates to transnational forms — Pan-Africanism, black churches — and how it would change within our country would be worked out by real people in real time. So while racism gives black and white identities a central role in their particular current inflections, who knows what they would mean in a future without racism?

And even in the present, as you say, the meaning of the black label for particular people and communities has to do with a great deal more than the experience of racial insult and injustice. We have vibrant black cultures in music, film, literature, sport, dance, the visual arts, and one’s relation to these forms is psychologically and sociologically mediated by a black identity. You can think of these things as “ours” through the black label, the black identity. And there’s no obvious reason why any of this would stop just because we got, say, institutionalized racism under control.

G.Y.: There are not enough John Browns fighting against white supremacy (even if one disagrees with his method) and all the subtle ways in which it has continued to exist. To invoke Du Bois again, how have you experienced what he says is an unasked question: How does it feel to be a problem? And in what ways do you personally negotiate that question and what it implies?

K.A.A.: Well, I should begin by saying that I think that a background of class privilege on both sides of my family has protected both my sisters and me from some of the worst challenges of living in a racist world. (They have also had the advantage of living much of their lives in various parts of Africa!) I was born in London but moved with my family to Ghana when I was 1. My sisters were all born there. When I was an undergraduate at college in England, Skip Gates and I and a Nigerian philosophy student we knew were the only black people in our college. But I had white upper-middle-class high school friends and upper-middle-class English cousins around, so I guess I didn’t feel that there was any question as to my right to be there, and I don’t think anyone else thought so either. (And I wouldn’t have cared if they did!)

As a young person in Ghana, many people I met in my daily life in my hometown knew my family, and knew why I was brown and not black. They knew my mother was an Englishwoman (and white) and my father was Ashanti (and black). And throughout my childhood in Ghana the Asantehene, the king of Ashanti, whose capital was my hometown, was my great-uncle by marriage. (To those who didn’t know me, though, I was a “broni kokoo,” a red [skinned] foreigner; “broni” is often mistranslated these days as “white person.”) So, in a way, the most interesting “problem” for me, having been in America and then an American citizen for much of my adult life (since 1997), has been how to figure out a black identity, having come from two places where my color had a very different significance.

One of the things that I have always been most grateful to this country for is the sense of welcome I have often felt from African-Americans as a person of African descent. There’s no necessity about this: my ancestors — and not so many generations back — were in the business of capturing and selling other black people into the Atlantic slave trade (and some of my mother’s kinfolk back then were no doubt in the business of buying and shipping them). So one thing that race does in the world is bring black people together in spite of these divided histories. But I suppose that the main effect of my being black has been to draw me to black subject matter, black issues, and to give me an interest — in both senses of the term, an intellectual engagement and a stake — in pursuing them. Without this connection to the world of Africa and her diaspora I would just be someone else.

G.Y.: One central premise or conviction of cosmopolitanism, which you wrote about in your book, “Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers,” is that all human lives matter. Yet in 2015 we continue to witness the need to declare “Black Lives Matter.” Has America failed to embrace this conviction when it comes to black people and other “strangers”?

K.A.A.: No society has yet lived up to the principle that everybody matters. Our American failures have indeed been around race and gender and religion and sexual orientation and disability, but we mostly move in the right direction over the long haul, though too slowly for anyone who cares about this principle. It ought, by the way, to worry morally serious conservatives that conservatism has been on the wrong side of so many of the struggles around these issues, even when they have eventually come round. Our defections are particularly scandalous, I think, because we began with the proposition that we’re all created equal.

It is just preposterous that in 2015 we have to be in the business of insisting that Black Lives Matter. It ought not to be necessary to say that the relative invisibility of black suffering and the racially oppressive character of our institutions, especially as they face the black poor, are huge problems. But it is necessary, alas. And surely one of the greatest scandals in the world today is the fact that the “home of the free” has more people incarcerated per capita than any other nation — O.K., except the Seychelles islands — and while less than half of our prisoners are (non-Hispanic) blacks, you’ve got to believe that the general indifference to this vast prison population has something to do with its racial composition.

What kind of person would want to live in a society where half the male population has been arrested at least once by the time they’re in their mid-20s, which is the situation for African America? (Actually, what kind of country has arrested more than a third of its male population of any race by that age?) I think the general tolerance for the level of poverty in this very rich country is probably connected with the association of poverty with black people as well. So, as Du Bois pointed out a long time ago, among the victims of American racism are many of the white poor. My blood pressure literally rises in indignation whenever I think about the depraved indifference of too many of our politicians and too much of our media to these problems. I’ve argued (in “The Honor Code”) that patriotism is above all about having a stake in the honor of your country. So let me put it this way: On these questions, we Americans should be ashamed of ourselves.

G.Y.: I’m sure you are aware that the South Carolina police officer Michael Slager has been charged with the murder of Walter Scott, a black male, after a video of Slager shooting Scott in the back as he fled surfaced on the Internet. Some see this as a kind of turning point in the situation between white police officers and black people in the United States. Do you?

K.A.A.: We’ll see. Certainly, the response of the authorities in the town has so far been exemplary. But this was a very extreme case. An independent witness filmed the whole thing. The murder involved shooting a man in the back, a man who posed no threat because he was clearly running away. Officer Slager seems to have lied about what happened, and appears, in the video, to have planted evidence. So, of course, it’s a good thing that he will be charged and tried — and, of course, his trial, just to be clear, should start with the presumption of innocence — but I don’t know that the evidence will be so overwhelming the next time something like this happens. Without that iPhone video, it might just have been another case where the cop claimed self-defense. So who knows if a prosecutor or a grand jury would have believed him.

Of course, we’ll never know for sure what would have happened. Maybe the bullets in the back fired from a distance would have worried the coroner, but there have been more than 200 shootings of suspects, both black and white, by police in South Carolina in the last five years; only a few have been investigated, and there has not been one conviction of an officer. Still, one story often helps people to understand what a whole lot of argument doesn’t. So, let’s hope that this story helps people understand why too many black people are right not to trust too many police officers. Then, perhaps, we can develop the political will to do something about it.

 This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series (with Linda Martin Alcoff, Judith Butler, Noam Chomsky, Emily S. Lee, Joy James, Charles Mills, Falguni A. Sheth, Shannon Sullivan and Naomi Zack) can be found here.

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.


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