In this interview, Christopher Lebron, Assistant Professor of African-American Studies and Philosophy at Yale, joining Johns Hopkins this summer as Associate Professor of Philosophy, talks about growing up on the Lower East Side, his big wheel, his Dad’s Salsa band, his Walkman, playing sax, L. Ron Hubbard, being an introvert, dropping out of college for financial reasons, losing his faith, working and going to college part time, advice to first generation college students, meeting Joshua Cohen, deciding to go to MIT, working with Tommie Shelby, feeling alienated and grateful in grad school, tattoos, video games, the strengths and weaknesses of philosophy and poli sci, the crunchy crowd, policing in the South, winning a big award, being sent to the ‘Black People Department’, his teaching goals, how having a kid has changed his philosophical outlook, temperance, Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea, afrofuturism, Kendrick, Oldboy, and what he would do if he were king of the world…
So, where did you grow up?
I grew up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in NYC. It's a neighborhood that has changed a lot since I came up.
What did your parents do?
My parents had regular jobs, when they had jobs, that is. My father spent most of his years of my childhood working at a local community center where the neighborhood kids went for after school programs. At night the center remained open for older teens to get them off the streets and doing things that were safer and more constructive than sitting in the park at night or hanging out on the corner. It sounds grandiose but I am confident that my father and his co-workers and that center saved at least a couple of lives. My father is also one of four brothers that form a professional Salsa band, so music was part of his vocation and a deep part of my life. My mother spent her working years doing clerical work for a variety of companies; her last years working she spent at medical offices. She is diabetic and disabled so has not been able to work for many years now.
What instrument did your dad play?
I have a very strong ethical commitment in my house with my little boy: parents say what they do, and do what they say and always stick to that. I think some of that came from this first memory. My father would sometimes travel overseas to play music. We were never well-off so these trips were kind of highlights as they brought extra money into the house. I must have been about 3 1/2. Before my father went on his trip he had promised that when he got back he would buy me a big wheel. I remember waking up that morning and first thing looking out of my crib - for some reason I had still been sleeping in one - and standing and asking my father if he remembered his promise. The poor man had just gotten off the plane a few hours earlier, so maybe had slept for an hour or so, but he smiled, said he remembered, got out of bed, made me some breakfast and took me to a toy store. It's a beautiful memory of my father expressing his affection and attentiveness through consistency and a desire to see me happy.
That’s a sweet story. Thanks for sharing. As a kid what were you interested in?
Music was a huge part of my life because of my father's interests. There was always music in the house, in the car, and from the earliest age I could own one, I had a Walkman, and ever since I've always had a portable music system with the best headphones I could afford. In fourth grade I started playing saxophone and continued to do so for ten years or so. I actually was quite good but then gave it up in my early 20's.
I'm a big geek, always have been. I am also restless so I allow intriguing things to take up residence in my head and invite me to probe. I'm a lover of science and technology but have really no aptitude for doing science given my extraordinary weakness in mathematics. However - suprise! surprise! - I get the theory of things pretty easily, so I follow what I can in science and technology. I was a big tv watcher as a kid;
Favorite TV shows as a kid?
TV was really big in our house. I can't say I had very specific favorite shows. I watched whatever my parents and I could enjoy together. Today, I can't stand broadcast TV - I stream, rent or buy the shows I want and leave it at that. We never have the TV on in the background in our house.
I do love movies, but not in that cinephile kind of way, probably because of how I grew up. You mostly won't find me citing obscure European directors that make movies about people walking into rooms but not saying anything. But I love to watch good movies of all sorts, and will watch them repeatedly and enjoy discussing them analytically as I would a good book.
And, then, yes - books. Nuff said.
I loved science fiction. I still do, but as a kid I had much more time to read it. The enduring books for me were the first three books of Madeline L'Engle's Time Quintet (the last two were published when I had moved on from her work). I also read, later, L. Ron Hubbard's Mission Earth Decalogue.
Were you or was your family, religious?
My mother is very religious - Christianity is her thing. My father was and is a believer, but he is more philosophical about it. He thinks there is something greater, but does not put much stock in it preferring to think about agency apart from revelation, ultimate purpose, or sinning or salvation. Me? I was religious as a kid in the way kids sometimes can be. I thought the creation story was cool; my parents were believers; I went to Sunday school for a while; the priest said there was a god, my parents said so, so of course there is a god!
Not so much anymore. Not for a long time.
Any sign you were going to be a philosopher?
This is an interesting question to answer since it seems to turn on the idea that a philosopher is a certain kind of person and I wouldn't want to reinforce notions of who can or can't be, who is or isn't the right kind of person. So I can say some things about the kind of person I am that have been professionally fortuitous.
To begin, I am very much an introvert. 98% of the time, I prefer the company of my own mind than other people. I know that sounds awful or arrogant. I don't mean it in any of those ways. Rather, I can be remarkably happy not speaking to another person for days and not really long for it. That kind of quality allows my imagination the space to do what it does. I can be melancholy with respect to the human condition - always have been. I find humanity as a category beautiful but many persons as individuals horrible or disappointing. How does that work?
I love to write and I love to systematize observations and arguments; I've always valued precision in language and statements.
Finally, though I should not admit it publicly, I think some part of me still clings to a childhood ideal that I can somehow figure it all out. Not in some omniscient, hey I'm a genius way. No, I mean - ah, I get the world in a way in which I can be at peace with it. This will likely never happen. Hence, my toleration for melancholy.
Where did you end up doing undergrad? Was it assumed you would go to college?
I went to Hunter College for one year after a year break upon finishing high school. No one assumed I would go to college. My parents certainly wanted me to go but there was no infrastructure to get that process going, so to speak - my mom had a high school degree, my father not even that; no one in the extended family had a degree. I wound up going mostly because I had done well-enough in my specialized high school and it was there that some basic expectation was set up. During my years at Hunter, the jazz band was my source of fun - I was really a quite good saxophonist.
Why’d you give up saxophone?
I dropped out of Hunter College after a year. My financial aid was denied but in reality my parents did not make enough to pay my way so I simply dropped out. For whatever reason, the idea of student loans at that time did not really register. So when I left the college and the band, it wasn’t long after I didn’t see a place for music in my life.
When and how did you lose your religion?
I lost my religion sometime around the age of 20. I was in my first run at undergrad at Hunter College. We had been having a pretty hard time at home and I was at that age when finding oneself seems deeply important. Between our hard times and my own sense that the world was in no way governed by benevolence, even rationality, I threw in the god towel.
When did you start going to school again?
I went back to school, first on a part time basis, in 2001. I was working sales jobs full time and I realized I would never get a "real" job without a degree. I was able to go back full time after about 3 semesters and I flew right through my courses. Going back as an older student gave me a very clear perspective; for example, going to graduate school came into view though there was absolutely no precedent for it in my family.
Favorite classes? Least favorite classes?
My favorite classes were always my pol theory, literature, and philosophy courses. Outside of mathematics, at which I was awful, I disliked one and only one philosophy course - logic. It was too cold and formal to me and bored me tremendously.
What was your favorite philosophy class?
This is a great question. My favorite philosophy class was not a philosophy class at all. It was a literature course taught by a Cynthia Ozick scholar by the name of Elaine Kauvar. It was called Literature and Psycholanalysis. In that course we read a number of novels and we treated the characters as real people subject to various psychoanalytic theories. That course taught me the beginnings of imagining multiple uses for texts; it also began me on a path that I abandoned for a while but recently rediscovered and which defines my work - to deal deeply with human affect and the effects of social injustice on questions of imagination, motivation, and reasoning.
What did your folks think of your choice of major?
My parents had nothing in particular to say - the plain truth is they knew absolutely nothing about how college worked or how the job market valued some degrees over others. They were just happy I was going.
What advice would you give to other first generation college students?
Get to know people, be unafraid to reach out to 'important' people in your field. If you have real confidence in your ideas and skill, put them to use and on display to acquire advantage.
Were you politically active in college?
I was not active. Whether I am today depends on what the criteria are for being considered active. I am an introvert and to be perfectly honest, I've always hated group work. I am very individualist in my own life. That said, I was often discouraged from writing publicly, yet I do it to do my part in the division of labor to help the public think through tough political and philosophical problems concerning social justice.
What did you major in?
I majored in political science almost immediately and decided to specialize in political theory almost immediately.
When did philosophy enter the picture?
I added philosophy as a second major soon after taking a number of courses and realizing how close the work was to that in my theory courses, and, to be honest, to make myself more marketable for grad school applications.
Did you consider studying anything other than political philosophy?
When I had been at Hunter I was certain I would be a lit major - I always had a natural facility for writing and I had some bizarre idea I would get the degree, write (who knows what) and make a living. Then reality hit. When I went back to Baruch for the second and final run at a degree, I simply went with my strengths and temperament.
When did you start taking the idea of grad school seriously? Why the focus on poli sci instead of philosophy (not that they are mutually exclusive)?
Initially, I think I had some romantic idea that poli sci would make me more politically savvy about how human nature interacts with power. This turned out to be only partially true. In the final analysis, I was sufficiently spooked by professors from both poli sci and philosophy telling me that jobs in philosophy were hard to come by. I came from a family that had suffered unemployment - I myself had once collected unemployment insurance. So I felt I was already taking a huge risk going after a PhD - getting one in poli sci with a focus in political thought seemed to be the best of all worlds, all things considered.
In the summer of 2002, I was a McNair Fellow. Its mission is to funnel underrepresented minorities into grad school. I got, if I remember correctly, two checks for $1500 and that allowed me to forego a job. I had one thought - somebody is giving me money to think? I was sold.
How did you end up at MIT?
By luck! In the summer of 2002 I was fortunate enough to be part of another pipeline program. The first was the Ralph Bunche Summer Institute, which is run by Paula McClain out of Duke's Poli Sci department. The summer session was intensive and very educational on what grad school would be like and the more I learned the more I wanted to do it. It takes in 20 students and for one month we are given a preparatory graduate education in the questions and methods of studying race in the field of American politics. That's right - I learned how to use STATA! At the end, it sends 10 students to APSA to present a poster and get a sense of how the profession works. I was chosen. At the poster session, Joshua Cohen introduced himself and we began a dialogue that convinced me MIT was the place for me. Not because he sold me, but because I was sold on the place as a problem-solving institution. I could have went to Chicago. That year I applied to the top ten programs in political science including Yale, University of Virginia, Cornell, Princeton, Harvard. Only MIT and Chicago admitted me. When I visit these places today I can't help but have a good laugh over this!
How did you meet your wife?
The Ralph Bunche Program!
Who did you work with at MIT?
My advisor was Joshua Cohen. I also worked with Sarah Song and Melissa Nobles at MIT. Tommie Shelby filled out my committee, but he was also a deeply important and generous mentor. At the time, he was the only black philosopher I knew personally, and one who was clearly succeeding. He was generous and has remained a generous source of support and advice.
What was your dissertation on?
My dissertation had the awful title, "Race, Power, History, and Justice In America". Well, that's what it was on...
haha! While in grad school, how did you evolve, intellectually?
I certainly did. When I applied to grad school I had in fact been determined to NOT do race work. I had this whole plan to apply John Rawls's idea of the original position to the international political system to work out what states that didn't' know how much power or wealth they had would think made for a just world. That died quickly. I got to a very un-diverse institution in a very un-diverse field reading work in the very racially unaware liberal analytic tradition. Meanwhile I was the kid with the Avirex jacket and tattoos and the work I wanted to do to originally felt all wrong. So I began to be compelled by continental theory and had a very awkward Heidegger phase. I never did find my voice in grad school which resulted in a very ambitious but terribly muddled dissertation. It took me getting a job and a couple of years having the most splendid conversations with my then colleague and today dear friend Melvin Rogers to figure out what I was really going on about.
What’s your most recent tattoo?
The last tattoo I got was of Da Vinci's Perfect Circle with the caption "Sapienta Potestas Est" - knowledge is power. I live by that saying.
Was MIT a friendly environment?
In one manner of speaking it was. Most of the faculty were highly pragmatic (again, it's an engineering school) so I didn't experience resistance to my questions or methods. My cohort mates were fine people. So, people were friendly to me but the situation soon felt unfriendly for me. I was the only black person in a cohort of about 15 people. Everyone seemed to know each other. The stuff I was reading was not only difficult but utterly alien to me and sometimes nonsensical given the things I had experienced. And all of this seemed urgent to me but no one else, so in addition to the feeling of being dropped in an elevator shaft that most first years experience, I further experience a sense of complete aloneness no matter where I was. I am quite sure I experienced a bout of depression that first year - I had many deeply unhappy days there.
Sorry to hear that, man. What did you do to unwind?
I'm an avid video gamer, so I did some of that, though time did not permit me the hours I would normally have devoted to my hobby. I did love most of the reading and the process of learning, so in some ways, the work was part of the unwinding. I never did lose sight of the fact that I was a kid from the hood being paid, even if not much, to attend one of the most intellectually elite universities in the world.
Yeah. Favorite video games?
I collect games and own about 400 physical games, and more than 800 pc games digitally. My favorite genre is RPG - role playing game. I've played so many games, but a few all time favorites are: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic; Final Fantasy X, and very recently, the utterly perfect The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. The game is as perfect as perfect gets.
Big fan of RPGs! So, what are the biggest differences between poli sci and philosophy you think, like, what are the relative strengths and weaknesses of the fields?
If you are trained as a political theorist in a poli sci department, the range of background literature you are expected to know is different than that if you are trained in philosophy. Yes, you will read Rawls everywhere. But you might not read Tocqueville in a philosophy department. Maybe you'd read J. S. Mill in both programs, but you might not read Hume in a poli sci program. My graduate training gave me a very distinct advantage in being able to move between disciplines. Josh is a philosopher and while we did read standard texts in pol theory, it was just part of the air that I might spend time reading someone like Robert Brandom, for example.
I think a strength of poli sci training is the exposure to empirics and social scientific methods, even if to renounce them. A weakness is how often the importance of ideas is suppressed in favor of 'the data' in political science programs and departments. The rate at which people abandon their imaginations as if that facility was not part of their human ability to perceive the world were unimportant or embarrassing was and is deeply depressing.
Philosophers, of course, work in the realm of ideas and arguments, so this is one inverse. I can only speak for myself, but being trained by a philosopher, I often feel I was exposed to an expectation of argumentative rigor that, to be perfectly frank, I can't say I always find in the field of political theory proper. But this can result in drawbacks. Philosophers sometimes look at the rest of the humanities in the way that social scientists look at social theorists. Philosophers often treat their analytic chops as equivalent to social scientific data processing so sources from literature and music or theater, for example, are seen as too mushy to be useful for moral theorizing, which is another silly and tragic attitude.
What was the job market like when you finished up grad school?
Best advice? Worst advice?
I wish I could recall...I can tell you my own advice!
Do the work. Minority scholars, especially - be unrelenting in doing the work. The unfortunate fact is you will often need twice as much as your white counterparts and even then that might not be enough. So next piece of advice, refuse to be invisible. Do the work and let that fact be known. Of course, don't be obnoxious about it, but be out there. If you can, go to the conferences. Write people you don't know and ask them to read your work; ask to read their work and provide smart comments. Attend the colloquiums. But always be doing the work. At the end of the day, no number of fancy contacts in the industry will allow you to hide a blank C.V. Do. The. Work.
How did it feel to land your first gig?
Landing the first job was a great relief. It was a bad theory market AND I was half of a 2-body academic pair, and we landed jobs together. We were lucky then and our tremendous luck has held up. A lot of people face severe difficulties being academics and staying together.
Did you like Charlottesville?
No. It had its charms...for other people.
Were you prepared to teach?
Yes and no. Graduate training rarely emphasizes teaching, and mine was no different. But I was ready as a person even if I didn't have all the requisite skills.
Did living in the south change your views on race?
This is an interesting question. I think Charlottesville was my first pointed exposure to liberal racial hypocrisy. Not my first exposure, of course, but Cville prides itself on being a bastion of progressivism. It's got all the markers - a crunchy crowd at the farmer's market; a collection of niche restaurants you can wear jeans to eat at; art galleries, etc. Yet, right by the Farmer's Market are railroad tracks and literally across the tracks are housing projects. The brown folks rarely seemed to cross those tracks. There were always police on the downtown mall, and even as UVA has a row of fraternity houses, often with kegs on the front lawns on Saturday morning, the police invariably harassed black indigents - they were clearly fucking up the vibe for the crunchy crowd. I know that sounds salty, and it is. It was bullshit. You can print that.
Why did you leave for Yale?
A few reasons. My wife received a great offer from the political science department at Yale. I took a great risk stepping off the tenure track at the time, but we had worked it out so that the risk was as well-managed as can be. So why would I have done that? I was very unhappy in Cville and I was pretty unhappy at UVA. With all due respect to my dear friends who are there, it is a place whose entire existence revolves around a dead slave owner. That is going to cause issues for someone like me, and it did.
I hear you. It seems like you are flourishing at Yale. Do you feel like you finally found your philosophical voice?
I appreciate that. I spent my time here well. I’ve been very productive - of course, the police in America helped things along...It's hard to say if I finally found my voice. The part of writing that is art resists finality. But I feel confident in saying that I decisively stepped onto a fruitful path in the last few years. A path that will surely shape my career and output for a long while.
Still feel like an outsider?
Yes, but I don't care much now, and mostly don't have to care, if I'm being very plain.
I was a lecturer here. My wife and I received offers from Cornell, which put me on the tenure track. It was at that point, Yale moved to put me on the tenure track. That year I won one of the most prestigious book awards in my field, yet political science at Yale didn't lift a finger to hire me. African-American studies stepped in and made the hire and poli sci never after that even bothered to offer me an affiliated status. It's a department with no black people and they were happy to have me shipped off to the Black People Department. Again, I'm calling it like it is - no point now in not speaking the truth.
I must say, for all the shit the discipline of Philosophy is given, that field has been very kind to me and my work. Not uniformly, of course, but I have felt welcomed there, in addition to political theory, though not necessarily in political science proper. That discipline still has serious race problems.
Wow! I respect your honesty. Do you have any surprising political views?
I do have strong political views and some people who know me, but only partially, might be surprised at them. I am on the one hand a deep egalitarian. I despise unfairness and unearned privilege. I believe our society should be set up such that every person get an absolutely equal starting place and I endorse the idea that the government should be involved in massive redistribution to accomplish this aim. But I also subscribe to the idea of deservingness, which is not an especially popular progressive view. I think it is part of respecting persons that their differential efforts to leverage the skills they have be recognized. But I reject the idea that desert necessarily ought to or needs to result in the kind of inequality many people currently struggle under. There is something in the middle that strikes me as a just state of affairs.
In the past 17 years, how have your views on race changed most radically?
My views haven't changed as much as my emotions. For a long while, I could and did live angrily inside. Growing older, being married, having a child, and really trying to open myself up has made me, I think and hope, a better person, but in some senses more burdened. My racial views are more critical than ever because I know more, but affectively, I am quicker to take up competing positions before I take up anger, even when it's justified. It's tiring, but that's what it means to be brown in America if your view of a good life is not only to acquire stuff but to acquire temperance.
What hasn't changed?
I still think brown people in this country get a raw deal every day and that we persevere despite disadvantage, not because America is the land of the free and the home of the brave, because it isn't. America is a great promise, not a realized dream.
When you teach nowadays, what's the goal?
I have two main goals when I teach. One is to treat students as free and equal young adults capable of managing their lives, ambitions, and responsibilities. I don't think people can truly develop intellectually if they lack maturity and a sense of their own agency. Second, my aim is to empower students, by which I mean the following: at this stage of their educational career, the idea of learning is different. We're past rote memorization and regurgitation. College is the last, advanced stage of intellectual development before these young adults head into the world as citizens, etc. I try to provide tool sets for engaging a complex and ethically messy world. My area is political philosophy - I can't "teach" them about what it means to be a virtuous citizen but I can, by way of my experience and expertise, provide them the kind of pivotal points of reflection so that they can trouble themselves and maybe others with deep, probing questions about obligation, the good life, flourishing, etc.
How does having a kid change your philosophical outlook?
You learn exactly how much patience you don't have; you face the lies you've told yourself about your virtues - you deconstruct yourself and, if you're sincere about being a good parent and person, you rebuild, one habit at a time. This finds its way into the work in a few ways. One, I think more closely about accessibility - I have something I want to say, I think it's helpful, but am I being clear? Second, the idea of making the world just a little better takes on a new valence. You move past the romance of thinking big thoughts to the reality that if you do what I do in my work, the ideas matter not only now, but have mattered since the first Africans were chained up and dragged here. It's not a game.
You have a new book coming out, The Making of Black Lives Matter: A Brief History of an Idea…excited?
What's the goal of the book?
Well, this is one reason I'm a bit afraid. My goal for the book was to provide a way of thinking conceptually about the movement for black lives in a way that pays proper homage to the history of black thought, and in a way that allows that history to speak to us more crisply in light of the movement. I think some people will come to the book thinking this is a handbook for organizing. Then I think other folks, academics, will come to the book expecting new scholastic revelations about the thought of Ida B. Wells, for example. Both groups will be disappointed. The book is a book of political thought - an accessible book, but it is not about movements; it's about ideas that matter for this movement. On the other hand, because it is meant to be an entry point, I was not concerned to challenge literatures. That's not what this is about - it's about bringing an intellectual past into conversation with a political present, not disputing some small point on page whatever of one of Frederick Douglass's biographies.
Other than the book, any other interesting upcoming projects?
Well, I was already halfway through a book on race, equality, and imagination, so I will be going back to that. I've also begun to do some political philosophical work in the space of afrofuturism. In fact, I've just drafted a paper on how Donald Trump's slogan, "Make America Great Again" is an inversion of themes you find in lost race fiction, like King Solomon's Mines, and that afrofuturist writers provide a mode of analysis for resisting Trump's...desires.
Interesting! Do you find any trends in philosophy disconcerting?
I don't know if I can comment on trends so much as dispositions, and the one that has always burned me up is the drive to treat philosophical conversation as a form of gladiatorial sport. I can't deal. Of course, we debate. But this thing of knocking people from their perch for the win is stupid, and we do it a lot. I know I have and it's not productive in the least bit.
What I say is preemptively caveated by the following blanket statement: there's still lots of work to do. Okay? OK.
I perceive that women are having an increasingly formidable presence in the discipline. We need that. I also perceive increasing open-ness to the place of race in philosophy. Remember that caveat folks! I don't think we're there yet with trans, disability, or native studies. There's work to be done. But I sense some grounds for hope. Also, I perceive as positive that despite the curmudgeons, an acceptance of public thought as essential to the philosophical mission of asking about the good life. That's a win for the discipline.
The academy is liberal, but as you point out, there is a lack of diversity. Why?
I wish I could give you some flashy, succinct answers tied to years of data. I can't. What I can say is that attitudinally, people don't care enough. It's that simple. They don't want a diversity of perspectives badly enough. They don't desire the capability to value that which lies outside the boundaries of the familiar. If they did, the academy would look different. It's not complicated. People's ideals and actions often come apart when it really matters, when there are real goods on the line, like prestige and position.
Most underrated living philosopher?
Oh, I don't do that kind of thing. There is an army of super-talented people that are overlooked for a host of reasons that don't have anything to do with the quality of their work. Naming one person simply won't do to help the situation.
Favorite songs or albums nowadays?
In the hip hop space, Kendrick Lamar is my favorite living artist - the man is really something special as a creator. Of course I've been listening to Damn, but Section 80 gets played regularly as well.
In the jazz space, I've been listening to Melissa Aldana, a brilliant tenor saxophonist who won the Thelonious Monk Saxophone Competition a few years ago. She has this beautiful huge sound hitched to razor sharp precision in her phrasing. It's no wonder she took the prize.
Love me some Kendrick! Favorite movies of all time?
Great choices, man! I love the original Oldboy. Brutal, beautiful. You're king of the world. What's your first move?
My goodness...absolutely equal and free public education through college; I won't care how much redistribution I have to engage in to do it - I'm king, right?
Yup. Last meal?
I hope you're not asking what I want as my last meal!