George Yancy is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. He is the author, editor, and co-editor of over 18 books. His first authored book received an honorable mention from the Gustavus Myers Center for the Study of Bigotry and Human Rights and three of his edited books have received CHOICE outstanding academic book awards. He is editor of the Philosophy of Race Book Series at Lexington Books, and is known for his interviews and articles on the subject of race at The Stone. In this interview, he talks about growing up in the projects, praying for the Devil, listening to Malcolm X records, reading the encyclopedia and thinking about forms, atoms, and the rings of Saturn, deciding he was going to become a philosopher taking a college class in high school, working with Sellars and Hempel, thinking he was literally the only Black philosopher on the planet, getting into Yale and the sea of whiteness, beginning to think about Black embodiment and White supremacy, leaving Yale with an M.A. and working at the Philadelphia Tribune where he wrote about hip hop culture, the meaning of death, and God, meeting his wife, who encouraged him to return to school, publishing before he got his PhD from Duquesne where he accepted a job, learning to teach and overcoming his shyness, Gangsta Rap and the therapeutic uses of rap music, his kids, whether it’s possible for White people to empathize with Black people, how academic institutions should treat faculty of color, London Fog Tea Lattes, Bruce Lee, arrogance and sexism in philosophy, the Black Lives Matter movement, Trump, Toni Morrison, Old Bay Seasoning, and what he would ask God if he had the opportunity.
What's your earliest memory?
When I think about my earliest memory, I would say that it is seeing my mother cry. She was once accosted by some stranger. He had been hiding in the dark and attacked her. I vividly recall seeing my mother’s eyes being bruised. When my mother would cry, I, too, would cry. So, I recall crying, sadness. Accompanying that earliest memory is the memory of a certain mood. Looking back, I would say that the world showed up for me in the form of a pervasive melancholy, which took the form of a certain intensity of feeling forlorn.
Where did you grow up? What did your parents do for a living? Do you have any siblings?
Perhaps this feeling isn’t completely removable from where I grew up. I spent the bulk of my childhood in North Philly. I lived in the Richard Allen Homes, which was a place where low-income Black families lived (editor’s note: more on Richard Allen, here). Let’s call it what it was: the ghetto. My father was an auto-mechanic and a really good one. My mother was a seamstress and did the best that she could to raise me and my sister. It wasn’t easy for her, but we never really felt as if we wanted for anything. I’m the youngest. Given the often violent conditions in North Philly, which were linked to so much poverty, my sister would look after me, fight my battles. Of course, we also had our sibling spats. Being raised in the “projects” could be hell. There was poverty, rats and roaches. I recall seeing heroin needles on the ground. I had to avoid stepping on them, especially if not wearing shoes.
Rough man. I can relate. As a little kid, what did you do for fun?
Though there was violence and poverty, my friends and I learned how to use what we had within this minimalist economic and physical space. Keep in mind that the architecture of the buildings in the projects was uniform; everything looked the same. So, the physical structures of the buildings signified monotony and conformity. But instead of clipping the wings of our imagination, we thrived. For example, we creatively used discarded, urine stained mattresses to do flips on. After all, there were no trampolines. So, as kids we were making a way out of no way; this was an instance of bricolage at its very best. Imagine living in the midst of so much poverty and yet having fun, spending glorious days trying to figure out the next way to force our environment to conform to our young desires, especially given the intractable realities of poverty.
What were your parents like? Any indication you were going to be a philosopher?
My sister was far more socially sophisticated than I was. I was neurotically shy. My mother and father never married, though when they met they had the same last names. The only difference is that my father spelled his last name with an “e” (Yancey) and my mother didn’t. I’m told that they were distant cousins, and have no reason to doubt this.
While my father didn’t visit us much, my sister would always call him “Daddy.” I, on the other hand, never called my father “Dad.” The word has never really resonated with me, it doesn’t have that affective dimension. The first time that I called my father “Dad” was on his death bed. It was real and heartfelt. I called him Brother El, which was the name given to him by the Moorish Science Temple of America, which was founded by Noble Drew Ali. So, my father was Islamic by faith, though it was fused with so many other political and philosophical dimensions. My father as natively brilliant. He was articulate and incredibly gifted with insight and the ability to persuade, though not in the spirit of sophism. He was really concerned about the “truth” of the matter.
My mother is passionate, in the etymological sense of suffering. She has an affect that is emotionally pregnant. Not much open to debate, but a faithful Christian, steadfast. Being raised Baptist, with all of these early Christian sensibilities, and their metaphysical implications, impacted my philosophical growth. My mother was not one to question scripture. As a boy I would ask her questions about God, God’s existence and our certainty about that, God’s hiddenness, the idea of hell and why there needed to be such place, other religions and their faith claims. My mother would say, “You’re not supposed to question God!” Once I asked my mother if it would be fine to pray for the Devil. It took her a few weeks, as I recall, to answer. Remarkably, she said, yes. I would say the “Now I lay me down to sleep” child’s prayer. At the end of the prayer, I would say, “God bless the Devil,” which in retrospect was so incredibly theologically rich. After all, I was taught that God forgives and is all-loving. I was also taught that the Devil was the epitome of evil. It seemed to me that the Devil might benefit from a child’s prayer, this child’s prayer. One of my biggest fears was linked to my having been inculcated to believe that I had to be perfect in the eyes of God or I would be damned. At least that is how I understood it. So, I had this fear of not being loved enough by God. Of being rejected by God. You have to understand that that is a powerful fear for a child to live with. There is so much guilt and fear. I recall a recurring dream that I had where I was banging on the doors of heaven, but could not get in. I would wake up in a panic. My sense is that the preacher, who was actually my uncle, should have spent more time talking about a loving, compassionate, and gentle God, a conception of God as understanding the complexity of what it means to be human, our foibles, imperfections, our humanity. Despite these fears, I continued to drill my mother with questions. They were questions that I felt compelled to ask.
My father was open not only to hear my questions, but to encourage them. He, too, had this incredible curiosity and wonder. You know, when I was about 14-years-old, I went to spend the summer with him. During that time, I was exposed to the views of Malcom X. My father had these old records of Malcolm speaking. He also had books of Malcolm’s speeches, which I struggled to read through. I didn’t know at this time that later in my life I would meet Malcolm’s youngest brother, Robert Little and spend quality time talking with him about Malcolm’s death. At another time, I would briefly meet Malcolm’s wife, Betty Shabazz, who autographed my copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X. I would spend hours being mesmerized by Malcolm’s voice, which functioned as a kind of sonic authority. It was also his command of the English language that also excited me. In retrospect, he reminded me of my father, both were wordsmiths. So, early on, I was being impacted by a certain style of argumentation and a certain aesthetics of the spoken word. I recall a burgeoning desire to speak like Malcolm and my father. Like Malcolm, I wanted to move a crowd through the power of words. Conversations during that visit with my father, and many other conversations that we had, were some of the very best conversations that I’ve had in my life. They would leave me bewildered in the best possible way. Later in life, I would come to have a closeness to my father that is unbreakable despite the fact that death has taken him away; in fact, he was taken from us on a Father’s Day celebration.
The questions that I asked my mother and that I would also pose to my father were fused with that feeling of melancholy that I mentioned. They were deeply personal and made my entire being shake. I recall, as an older teenager, looking up toward the heavens, as tears fell, asking why are we here. I needed to know, I wanted something more than my mother’s faith. In retrospect, it wasn’t some empiricist demand for evidence that I desired, but more of the need to fill an emptiness; it was more like the cry of an orphan. In retrospect, as I take stock of the many questions that I asked, especially the sense of wonder that infused them, I came to realize that I was a philosopher; I just didn’t know that there was a term for the kind of identity that was forming. What I was feeling, the stirring, the brooding, the types of questions that I posed, was unambiguously philosophical.
You seemed like a serious kid. Did you lighten up as a teenager?
Well, the questions got even more complicated as I became an older teenager. While in high school, I wanted to be a pilot. So, I would read books about planes. I was once looking through the World Book Encyclopedia (the blue ones) under the letter P. By the way, my mother bought those for me and my sister, and they cost her a pretty penny. As I recall, she would put down money every month or week. It was hard for her, but there she was trying to guarantee her children an education outside of school. Anyway, I was going to the section of the encyclopedia on planes as I had done many times before, but this time my eyes stopped on the word philosophy. I read the definition of the word, and then the entire entry, and thought that this is what I’ve been doing – practicing philosophy, loving wisdom. After reading this entry, at about 17-years-old, I voraciously read Bertrand Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, which I had taken out of the school library. I recall remembering whole passages from that book. I was in early high school at the time. I recall that there were few teachers who could answer the many questions that I had. Being so preoccupied with reading philosophy, I became more solitary, something that I would say felt a bit “monastic.” While my friends were out playing basketball, I would be obsessing over Platonic Forms and how I could see one. I would literally walk around looking at trees, wondering if one of them could be the Form of tree. So, I developed this aesthetic for trees. In fact, I recall hugging trees. Strange, right? But this was the outgrowth of my youthful understanding of Plato. I was looking for the Form that all trees participated in. And I looked for the one that most instantiated the Form of beauty. I eventually came to understand that the Forms were supersensible entities. It was Plato who helped to nurture my proclivity toward things metaphysical. Being raised in a Baptist home was the other influence, but, again, I would raise questions that were not "supposed" to be raised. I recall many nights trying to explain to my mother Aristotle’s unmoved mover proof for the existence of God. There were times when she would fall asleep listening. I was not very happy with her dosing off to sleep at such a time, though now I look back and smile.
You were a good student then?
While in high school, and before that, my grades were mediocre at best. My sister, however, had grades that were stellar. I was too undisciplined at school – distracting others, giving my teachers a lot of back talk, being suspended many times. My mother was not happy with my behavior at school as she had to take time off from work to visit my teacher or the principal. Taking off from work was hard for a single mother. So, by the time I formally came to know that there was a field called philosophy, everything changed; not so much my grades, though there was a modicum of improvement, but I began to think more seriously about the learning process itself. There was this insatiable hunger to learn everything (stuff outside the school curriculum) as quickly as possible. So, while I didn’t enjoy high school as such, I did come to love philosophy profoundly around this same time. I would neglect my school work (the little that I would do) just to read philosophy. I recall sitting in a Spanish class reading Russell's history text as verbs were being conjugated by other students. Needless to say, the teacher wasn’t very happy. I had come to envision myself as fit for more. I began to feel as if history asked more of me. I hope that this doesn’t sound narcissistic. I desired to be like Plato and Aristotle. I desired to impact the world. Spanish and high school, more generally, with the exception of two main teachers, didn’t provide for me any support regarding such desires. Also, keep in mind that my high school teachers were dumbfounded that this Black teenager was reading philosophy. This was unheard of. And I had to make sense of this myself, especially given the fact of my unimpressive grades and the fact that I was a Black kid from the projects. As I can now say, because I didn’t have the discourse back then, racially normative assumptions that circulated in the air that I breathed and objective material conditions should have occluded my capacity to have such a robust imagination. A Black philosopher from the ghettoes of North Philly? No way! Yet, there I was. This enigma.
That doesn’t sound narcissistic. I think many bright young people feel out of place in high school, especially a high school not equipped to accommodate bright young people! Was all of this challenging? Did you have any favorite philosophers back then?
I was reading lots and lots of ideas for which I had to work hard to understand. I recall that I was particularly obsessed with Spinoza after reading Russell’s description of him as having an intellectual love of God. There was an affinity that I had with Spinoza, something bordering on pantheism, though I never thought of God in completely abstract terms. There was/is still that sense of being orphaned in a cosmos that remains disturbingly silent. Theological and philosophical abstraction leaves much to be desired. I needed/need a set of ideas that excited my soul, and that implicated my heart. There was a lot of Pascal in me.
Was it all philosophy all the time then?
So as not to give the impression that I was this kid constantly burdened down by what St. John of the Cross called the "dark night of the soul," I had lots of fun. I played sports, but didn’t really get the rules. So, while I could run fast and was pretty strong for my age, playing sports began to come into conflict with the time that I needed to read philosophy. After all, I had "bigger" things to grapple with. Philosophy led me to think about the cosmos, especially after coming to understand that cosmology is a branch of metaphysics. My mother bought me a telescope and so right there in Richard Allen Homes, the projects, the ghetto, I was looking at craters on the moon, and the moons of Jupiter. One special night, I actually saw Saturn and its rings. It was amazing. Again, though, there was this disconnect. It is hard to explain. Here I was getting a C or D in chemistry, and had not taken a single course in physics. Yet, at home, I’m reading about the atomists and wondering about the fundamental nature of physical reality. Of the two teachers that I mentioned above, one of them, my math teacher, had studied at La Salle University. So, knowing of my passion for philosophy, he asked the professor that he studied with years before, Eugene Fitzgerald, if I could informally audit an introductory philosophy course. He said yes and I was elated.
The other students taking the course were much older and couldn’t make sense of my presence, especially when I showed them exactly how much philosophy I had read. While he was not required to grade me because I was sitting in on the course, Fitzgerald gave me an A for the course and the rest is history.
So, at this point, were you sure you were going to college (for real)?
You know, prior to knowing that there was a field called philosophy, I had no intention of going to college; in fact, I didn’t really have a conception at all of going to college. Perhaps I was simply indifferent. I was not, as many would have said, “college material.” For me, there was the thought of being a pilot and perhaps going to the Airforce, but beyond that I didn’t see the importance of college. Having fallen in love with philosophy, coming to know that there was such a field, the desire to study philosophy formally became my sole purpose, it was my telos. So, I felt that I had to attend college.
So you were set on studying philosophy then?
The moment that I found out that there was a field called philosophy, that one could have a “career” (what I would now call a vocation) loving wisdom, I was sold. I knew that I had to study philosophy. More accurately, I had to be a philosopher. At this time, a guidance counselor said that I should begin at a small branch campus. So, I attended the University of Pittsburgh, at Bradford. The guidance counselor, to my knowledge, had no idea that the University of Pittsburgh had one of the best philosophy departments in the world. Recommending a small branch campus was her way of making the transition from high school to college manageable for me.
College, a culture shock?
It certainly was. Part of the shock was due to the fact that I hadn’t spent much time away from my mother. So, it was less culture shock and more of the shock of being without my mother, a kind of “familial shock.” The first day on campus, I called my mother. I cried over the phone. Here I was this neurotically shy teenager in a strange place. She told me to come home if I didn’t like being there. I said that I would give it a few days. Thank goodness I gave it a few days. I don’t want to think about where I would be had I gone down the path not taken, especially as so many who remained in Richard Allen Homes became victims of violence, the crack-cocaine epidemic, and mental illness. I was perceived as an oddity on campus. I brought all of these boxes with me, which were filled with my books. I also brought along my telescope, and wore these old Cordovan shoes, the style of shoes worn by Eugene Fitzgerald. I thought, “Now this is how a philosopher ought to dress.” Bad move! I knew that other students were laughing, but by this time I had developed an even stronger sense of myself as a philosopher. I wanted to “look” the part. I did average that first year. In fact, in many ways, that first semester felt like high school. I only wanted to take philosophy courses, but I had to take these introductory courses other than in philosophy.
Least favorite classes? Favorite classes? Room for romance?
One was a biology course, which I didn’t like. Another one was a basic writing course, which was taught by Paul Pival. I did average in both. I also took a course on existentialism and literature taught by Erik Nakjavani. We read Sartre, Camus, and Kafka. I really enjoyed that course. At the time, because we were reading so much fiction I thought that this was not really philosophy, which was such a narrow assumption on my part. As I look back, though, the professor was really impressed with the questions that I would ask. We would spend quality time during his office hours discussing existentialism and religion.
It was in that course that I fell for this one student. She was taken with the complexity of my questions. I wasn’t quite like Malcolm in terms of moving large crowds, but I certainly moved her heart and desire. Not too long into the course, we began to date. She was, I believe, an English Literature major and wrote for the school newspaper. She also played the clarinet. She was far more academically prepared for college than I was. Yet, I was still this enigma. For example, while I should have been spending time engaging schoolwork, I became obsessed with the philosophical problem of how God could create and yet transcend time. I would keep extensive notes and diagrams attempting to understand this problem. Actions, after all, are in time. I would spend hours talking about this with her. I was also trying to read relativity theory on my own at this time, especially general relativity. There I was spending my days dreaming of curved space and what could it possibly mean for God to create outside of space and time. So, again, there was that peculiar sense of disconnection. We did have fun together, though. We mainly stayed together.
Did you party?
I recall that there were parties on campus. I could have gone but, again, I was far too shy. I have never really cared much for partying. To this day, I have never been to a club. I’ve imagined going, but will probably never do so.
Were your professors supportive?
There was a powerful moment that has come to remain incredibly important to me. In the basic writing course, it was required that we keep journals. The idea was to get us in the habit of writing. We were allowed to write on whatever we desired. So, naturally, I explored some of my deepest thoughts at that time about existence, death, God, religion. Pival, happened to be the advisor of my girlfriend. So, one day she and I were walking together and Pival pulled me away and said that he wanted to speak with me. My girlfriend was instructed to remain outside the office. Given their close relationship and the fact that he hardly spoke to me in class, the entire experience was intriguing and unsettling. I sat down and he said that he had been reading my journal entries. He asked me what some of my favorite words were. So, I shared with him a few. Again, the entire experience was strange. Where was this going? He then looked up at me and said, “George, you know you are a genius.” I actually laughed, having no idea what he could have meant by that. He said, “No, I mean it.” There are these special moments in one’s life that are momentous, one of a kind. This was mine. I recall leaving his office feeling confused. I knew that I was no “genius.” I mean, come on. I was doing average work. I knew that he wasn’t talking about something that would appear on an IQ test. It was certainly not about numbers. In retrospect, though, he provided for me a term that was linked to creativity, uniqueness, and a sense of being odd, though in a way that I will always celebrate. For me, his use of that term spoke very powerfully to my sense of intensity of being and the range of my imaginative capacity at that age. I imagine that in his many years of teaching, he had not witnessed a 19-year-old student who was getting a C in his class and yet one who was also able to engage ideas, to bare his soul in that journal, at such an impressive level, and to do so with a broad and sophisticated vocabulary (thanks to my father and Malcolm). He wanted me to know that I was different, that I was unique, driving home to me yet again that feeling of being an enigma. So, even as the students would snicker and talk about me behind my back, especially given my use of “big words,” I had touched something in this professor. And he had given me a gift; a way of seeing myself. So, even as biology and basic writing were my least favorite classes, it was Pival, through a powerful practice of naming, who gave a Black kid from the urban enclaves of North Philly a way of rethinking his identity and further opening up ways to press on.
How’d you end up at the main campus at Pitt?
Toward the end of my first semester at Bradford, I came to understand that not only was I the only Black student majoring in philosophy, but I was the only major on campus. I discovered this in tandem as I came across the names of internationally renowned philosophers who actually taught at Pitt, but at the main campus. I can across the names of Wilfrid Sellars, Nicholas Rescher, Adolf Grunbaum, Annette Baier, Alexander Nehamas, David Gauthier, Carl G. Hempel, Kurt Baier, and many others. I knew that I had to leave Bradford and transfer to the main campus. I applied to transfer and it was immediately granted. I should mention that there was also, technically, one professional philosopher on campus at Bradford. His name was Sam Fohr. He was fantastic. We were immediately fit for each other, especially given his philosophical and religious interests in Eastern meditation practices. We are still friends. At this time, I had also become interested the writings of J. Krishnamurti, Aldous Huxley, Tarthang Tulku, Peter D. Ouspensky, G. I. Gurdjieff, Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, the Bhagavad-Gita, and more. I remember that Fohr took me to see the late Swami Bhashyananda. After I asked him a question during our encounter, he looked me in the eyes and said publicly, “You will someday become a very wise man.” This was another one of those powerful naming practices that shaped my identity.
Was it exciting to be on the main campus with these great philosophers?
At the main campus, again, to my knowledge, I was the only Black philosophy major, but I was in philosophical paradise. I studied epistemology with Sellars, Kant with Rescher, ancient with Nehamas, Freud with Grunbaum, the empiricists with Annette Bair, and had some of the most philosophically stimulating discussions with Hempel. I also took a graduate course with Mary Louise Gill, which was a bit advanced, but very good. At this point, I desired to go to graduate school as I began to see myself in the capacity of a professor. Studying with the likes of the historical greats mentioned above, I wanted to do what they were doing.
Man, what was Sellars like?
Sellars was philosophically methodical and delightful. He had this wonderful smile, a powerful presence, and this sparkle in his eyes. The graduate students at Pitt at that time called him the “GLP,” which meant the “Greatest Living Philosopher.” The best advice that he gave to me once as I was sitting in his office was that I should pick the right philosophical metaphors. My sense is that he meant that metaphors can either hinder philosophical clarity or provide great philosophical and imaginative insight. I took his epistemology course and received an A in it. He told me that I had earned the highest grade in the course. This led me to ask if he would direct my undergraduate honor’s thesis, which he agreed to do. So, I decided to write on Russell’s sense-data theory. I was interested in questions regarding the conditional properties of objects and what this meant in terms of our knowledge of those properties and those objects. I didn’t get to meet with Sellars much as he was ill during that time. I still have one of the notes from his secretary informing me that he could not meet as he was ill. I’m so honored to have worked with Sellars and to have gotten his confidence that I had philosophical talent.
I first met Hempel on a city bus. I told him that I was an honors philosophy major. He invited me to stop by his office whenever I desired. Man, did I stop by. In retrospect, I asked him a few questions that I thought were profound at the time, but now I see to have been a bit silly. For example, he had this position that an empirical explanation presupposed certain empirical assumptions. I later came to see that this is crucial to his covering-law model of explanation. So, I recall wondering if God might possibly function as a non-empirical explanation for the universe, an explanation that didn’t presuppose empirical assumptions. I actually asked him that question. He looked at me and in a heavy German accent he said: “I don’t understand the question.” I thought that I had posed a question that was so brilliant that it had stumped him. Later I would laugh at myself, realizing that Hempel, being a member of the Berlin Circle, would have found my theological metaphysics deeply problematic. It turns out that Hempel was probably saying to me that my question made no sense at all. So much for my profundity. In any event, this was such an important time for me. Here I was, the Black kid from the projects, studying with such great historical figures. Their biggest impact on me, and this would include Rescher, Grunbaum, Nehamas, Bair, and John Haugeland with whom I took a course on Heidegger, was that they provided a model for me. I wanted to be like them. I wanted to do philosophy and shape the field. Hell, shape the world.
Ambitious! What was your grad school plan?
I was so hyped. I knew that if I wanted to teach philosophy then I had to go on to get advanced degrees. So, I asked those philosophers with whom I had gotten excellent grades to write letters for me. With letters from Sellars, Rescher, and Grunbaum, I felt very confident that I would get into the places that I wanted to study. I should mention that as a junior and senior at Pitt, my grades significantly improved. In fact, they were stellar. As an honors philosophy major, I had to take additional philosophy courses and at least one graduate course. At this point, I made sure that none of my grades were lower than an A-. The grades reflected just how much I loved philosophy. In retrospect, though, I had graduate school in mind. I wanted my grades to show just how serious I was about philosophy, how excellent I was, especially having gotten through such a difficult philosophy program like Pitt’s. So, I went to Yale.
Where’d you end up going to grad school? Was it what you expected?
So, I applied to various graduate programs, getting into Yale, Rutgers, and Columbia. I decided on Yale. At Yale, I found myself thrown into a sea of whiteness, which became a turning point for me. Race had always been there, but it was hidden as normatively white and so functioned as a site of the unraced. But you know, while I will always honor my time with these philosophers, and will continue to keep them in highest esteem, I had no idea that at Pitt there was this white normative philosophical formation going on. It would be much later that I came to realize that philosophy at Pitt was hidden as normatively white and therefore functioned as a site of the so-called unraced. How could I have missed it? I also missed it as I read through the World Book Encyclopedia. Under the philosophy entry were the faces of all white men. Perhaps this, along with the fact that I had not been told about the existence of any living or dead Black philosopher, was why I actually thought, at the time, that I was the only Black philosopher. I’m serious!
Could you explain what you mean when you say race, "was hidden as normatively white and so functioned as a site of the so-called unraced?" Did you encounter racism at Pitt?
So, not only was I within a sea of monochromatic white bodies, but I was also within a space of white reasons – to play with Sellars here. In other words, and this is still true of major philosophy departments around the world, race was ostensibly non-philosophically relevant. Yet, the philosophical scenarios, the background assumptions, were normatively white. The philosophical problems engaged spoke to various interests that didn’t fall out of the proverbial sky. Such interests presupposed a lived world within which white embodiment was relevant philosophically; however, the raced body as a philosophical issue was nowhere to be found. Of course, in Haugeland’s Heidegger seminar, we critically engaged the body, but it wasn’t through the lens of race. Throughout my philosophical studies/training at Pitt, epistemological questions presupposed a normative, racially neutral epistemic subject (that is, a white subject), and questions regarding what it means to know, not to know, to be ethical and just were questions to be addressed through conceptual analysis, an approach that meant leaving the body, historical context, power, race, and gender behind so that “real” philosophical problems qua philosophical problems might be rationally judged and assessed based upon their ahistorical philosophical merit, a form of merit un-muddied by the contingencies of our quotidian social existence.
So, did I encounter racism at Pitt? If by racism one means acts of intentional hatred and meanness directed at my person because I’m raced as Black, then the answer is no. However, if white racism also encompasses forms of complicit exclusion, forms of white privilege, and forms of white hegemony, then, yes, I did encounter racism there. It was especially that form of racism that hides behind normativity, as if doing philosophical things as usual doesn’t negatively impact or do violence (epistemic and otherwise) to those of us who are not white and whose lives are thereby impacted differently. Given the history of white supremacy, and its ongoing manifestations, our lives are shaped differently in fundamental ways— impacting how we think about the world, how we conceptualize issues, the priority that we give certain philosophical problems, the morphology that philosophical issues take, the urgency of transforming philosophical ideas into praxis or combining reflection and praxis.
Yale was a good decision though, right?
You have to understand that Yale was a dream come true. When you think about my life in North Philly, the poverty, the quality of schools relative to those in wealthier areas, my extremely poor grades, the structural disadvantages of a young Black boy raised in the projects, my mother having been born in West Virginia where she faced segregation, I should not have been going to Yale. Look, I should not have fallen in love with philosophy, I should not have been reading Russell’s History of Western Philosophy, I should not have been looking at Saturn through a telescope, and I should not have been reading about Einstein. The poverty, the pervasive gang activity and drug availability in my community, should have destroyed my imagination. I should not have been able to dream. Yet, I did dream. But it never should have been the case that I had to dream in spite of so many obstacles, ones that were and continue to result from the fact that Black lives don’t matter; they are disposable in North America. So, off to Yale I went.
Was Yale competitive?
Yale was competitive, but I wasn’t really caught up in that trap. All I wanted to do was to study philosophy, to do what I had been doing prior to knowing that there was such a field. I wanted to sustain that sense of wonder, that sense of passionate and free inquiry. However, it was at Yale that I was hit by the reality of just how much my mother didn’t have economically. Had I not received a full ride, I would not have gone to Yale. White students were everywhere. I would just watch them take out their fancy computers from the trunks of their parents’ nice cars. So, for me, Yale reminded me of the great divide that separated me from the whites there. I could see what Richard Wright called their mania for trinkets, which he saw as a kind of “lust for trash.” I often wonder to what extent I have also been seduced by the same lust. As we succeed in our fields, I think that we must be careful of such seductions, especially those of us who are born into poverty. We must remain steadfastly aware of how class, more income, higher salaries, living in wealthier neighborhoods, can militate against a certain quality of critical consciousness. If we don’t, we become complicit with all sorts of injustices. We become ethically sluggish as Socrates would say.
Grad school can be stressful. What did you do to unwind?
My reprieve, that is, what I did to unwind, was to walk around the predominantly Black economically depressed area right next to Yale. So, to feel more like me, to feel more at home, I had to leave Yale, its geography of wealth, reputation, and whiteness. Strolling through the hood was life-sustaining. Nevertheless, I did enjoy studying with the philosophers at Yale.
Favorite classes? How did you get into the black embodiment stuff?
I took courses with some of the greats like John E. Smith, Rulon S. Wells, Maurice A. Natanson, and others. I wrote this one paper on Leibniz’s cosmological argument for Wells. At Yale, our comprehensive exams consisted of modifying two papers for which we received an A. The requirement was to have two other faculty members read them critically. As I recall, the papers had to be “publishable.” The papers would receive a grade of pass or fail. I decided to submit the Leibniz paper. I received a pass and recall that Robert S. Brumbaugh said that it was the type of paper that was publishable. This was again one of those important gift-giving moments.
It was during this time, though, that I became more interested in questions that would later have a deep impact on my philosophical direction in the area of critical philosophy of race, critical whiteness studies, and African American philosophy. While at Yale, I took a course on hermeneutics with Georgia Warnke. While I’m pretty sure that we didn’t explore race as such, I became interested in questions at the intersections between hermeneutics and science. Less interested in sense-data theory, I became far more engaged with questions of how we know what we know as a function of being part of a community of intelligibility. So, the notion of what it meant to be an epistemic subject shifted. It was no longer an issue of subjectivity vis-à-vis sense-data and what is known as qualia, but embodiment and interpretive horizons, context, linguistic mediation, historical and cultural constitution.
As you can see, there is a small step from here to questions about the “raced” body and epistemology, the lived experience of Black embodiment and what this means in terms of how knowledge production occurs, how philosophical sensibilities are formed, what philosophical questions get raised and how they take on new importance. While I was undergoing a kind of epistemic gestalt switch, I was also in deep and critically transformative conversations with the prominent cultural theorist James G. Spady who introduced me to an incredible range of the works of African American philosophers. Spady had thrown me into this world of ideas that forever changed how I would think philosophically. I must say, though, that I took quite a hit to my ego when I came to realize that I was not the only Black philosopher in the world. Yet, given the paucity of numbers of Black philosophers, and the fact that this continues, I still felt unique to be part of this very small critical cadre of thinkers.
Although I had intended to get the PhD from Yale, I decided to leave with the MA. I was fine with that decision and have not regretted it.
Why’d you leave Yale?
I left for a number of reasons. I think that in retrospect, I needed more support. I needed someone who would take me under her wing and guide me. I never really felt like I belonged. Quite frankly, I felt alone. Also, I was a recluse, still shy. So, there were times when I didn’t feel academically successful; I didn’t feel as if I was thriving, though my grades were good. I also felt from at least one philosopher there at the time a bit of hostility. There is no need to name-drop or to expose what I now see as arrogance and racism. Besides, I forgive him. You know, his hostility could not compete with the road that I had traversed. I had already become a miracle. Nothing that he could say would change that. I also left Yale because of a relationship to which I was committed. And though that relationship with her ended long ago, just as the one had ended that I had cultivated for years with the fellow student at Bradford, I found that leaving Yale helped me to find my philosophical voice, to become the philosopher that I had to be. So, I decided to go home, back to North Philly.
What did you do when you returned to Philly?
By this time, though, my mother had moved from Richard Allen Homes. While back home, I wrote for The Philadelphia Tribune and was happily paid to do so. I was allowed huge amounts of space to write on whatever I desired. So, there I was writing about the existence of God, time travel, rap music and Hip Hop culture, the meaning of death, doing book reviews, you name it. The executive editor at that time, after reading a few of my submissions, all of which were published, decided to call me in for a meeting. As he later said to me, he thought that I was much older from my writings and was surprised to see this young man walk into his office. Publishing so many articles, I had even gained a following in Philly. Folk got to know my work and would also write editorial comments. It was such a rich experience. It was reminiscent of Pival’s class. I got to write, pure and simple. It was also during this time that I got to spend far more quality time, long hours at a time, with Spady. His impact on me was formative and continues to this day. We didn’t talk much about grad school. For me, studying with him was far greater and rigorous than any graduate school.
Why’d you return to grad school?
It would take the person who would eventually become my wife, Susan, to raise the issue of returning to graduate school. While dating, and working on her graduate studies in the area of music therapy, she asked me about going back to Yale. I knew that I didn’t desire to do that. Then again, why should I go back to graduate school? I was writing, thinking, engaging in unparalleled critical conversations with Spady, reading a broad range of literature from philosophy to cultural studies that he provided. In fact, it was during this time that I decided to do something incredibly daring. I thought that given the paucity of African American philosophers, and the fact that there wasn’t a text where one could go to learn about the intersections between their lives and philosophical positions, that it would be great to do a series of interviews of African American philosophers.
The final book comprised 17 of these interviews, which included Angela Davis, Cornel West, Adrian Piper, Lucius Outlaw, Anita Allen, and others. The book was published by Routledge under the guidance of William Germano, who is a brilliant editor and has an eye for cutting edge philosophical work. The book was an immediate success. I continue to have younger Black philosophers come to me and tell me that it was that book which convinced them to go into philosophy. In essence, I had created a book that I needed years before. Anyway, the more Susan pushed me to return to graduate school, the more I became convinced, especially as she got me to see that perhaps I should think about getting the PhD in philosophy in order to teach.
The book was a great idea! How did you meet your wife?
We first met in Philly. She was working as a music therapist. I was writing for The Philadelphia Tribune. We found ourselves in the same place at the same time, which was attempting to help others in need. I can say, though, that back then I was in need, in need of sanity, in need of honesty, in need of stability. She was it. My version of the story is that she fell in love with me in no more than a week. Man, that is some serious narcissism on my part. Ha! But if you ask her, it took a bit longer. What did click immediately was the mutually shared respect and the mutually shared passion for ideas. One thing that I do recall that strikes me are the long hours that we spent talking into the night, many times until the next morning. It was crazy. Eros can express itself in surprising and multiple ways. There is so much to be gotten as we dwell near another, touching the other with words, an entwining of souls.
Beautiful man. So, where’d you apply to grad school? Where’d you decide to get the PhD?
I applied to Duquesne, Temple, and Villanova. I got into all three, but decided on Duquesne. That was probably one of the best decisions that I’ve made in terms of the professional dimensions of my life as a philosopher. You know, it was a bit humorous that when I called the chair of the philosophy department at Duquesne, Eleanore Holveck, to inquire about the status of my application, she said that when she was looking through my application she realized that just a few days prior she had purchased a copy of my book. You can imagine how surreal that was. As both Temple and Villanova had offered very nice presidential fellowships, Eleanore, who I came to greatly admire, arranged for me to be the first recipient of what became known as the McAnulty Fellowship. It literally freed me from teaching as a graduate student and allowed me the opportunity to publish articles and books as a graduate student. Philosopher Charles Mills used to tease me about being the most published graduate student that he had ever known.
When did you figure out what you were going to write your dissertation on? Who was your dissertation advisor? Was writing the dissertation difficult?
Studying at Duquesne was an enriching experience. Given the combination of Spady’s influence and the further development of my interest in questions regarding race and embodiment, and the fact that I had begun to think about the power of discourse (through the work of Foucault), social constructionism, and the self as homo historicus, I knew that I would write something on a theme within what is now called Africana philosophy. I wanted to write on something that would reflect the interdisciplinary direction of my knowledge production. Duquesne provided the matrix. In fact, at Duquesne, I excelled, receiving all A’s. I must say, though, that I felt extraordinary pressure, which I now see as having been self-imposed. Because I already had my first book under my belt, I felt this incredible anxiety about having to do really, really well. In retrospect, I think that it was an obsession that proved unproductive. So, I just worked as best I could without letting the book impact how I thought professors would have such high expectations of me. In short, I allowed all of my autodidactic proclivities to expand, and allowed that sense of wonder to expand. When left alone, I excelled. Spady had instilled in me a powerful sense of intellectual independence and audacity.
Put it this way, before I successfully defended and officially graduated from Duquesne with my PhD in philosophy, I had edited six books, which included Cornel West: A Critical Reader. That book, believe it or not, is the first book in American history that consists of a collection of critical essays exclusively on the philosophical work of a living Black philosopher. I had also published 16 articles, many of which were peer-reviewed. So, I was something of an oddity. In fact, many readers of my work at that time assumed that I was a professor with my PhD already in hand.
How did you end up getting an M.A. in Africana Studies from NYU?
Given my penchant for doing things my way, I realized, right before I wrote my dissertation, that I was formally lacking in a certain area of training. I wanted to get another degree. I wanted to get a second MA, this time in Africana Studies. So, I applied to NYU. They said that I only had one academic year to complete the degree. They were skeptical about my being able to complete the MA in that time. Well, I got in and was given a prestigious fellowship, and completed the MA in one academic year, writing the MA thesis in the summer under the brilliant Farah J. Griffin at Columbia University. Further influenced by courses taken at NYU, I wrote my MA thesis on racial embodiment and received incredibly important feedback from Farah. I then formally returned to Duquesne, wrote my dissertation, which involved exploring more complex questions regarding Black embodiment and the white gaze. I delved into what is now called critical philosophy of race. I read everything that I could get my hands on within the area of critical whiteness studies. Guiding my work were some very powerful assumptions that helped to make clear that I was providing a unique phenomenological reading of Black embodiment and the white gaze. Fred Evans, who is both philosophically brilliant and deeply concerned about social justice issues, was my dissertation advisor. While he wasn’t formally trained in critical philosophy of race or critical whiteness studies, he brought all of his philosophical training to bear upon my work. In fact, Fred and I were and are kindred spirits. Our work overlaps in important ways. Fred was such a great fit because he was able to engage critically and insightfully a broad range of philosophical issues. Pedagogically, he recognized my independence and gave me the space to grow philosophically. His feedback was always productive and incredibly rewarding. He made writing the dissertation such a pleasure.
What was the job market like when you finished? Any horror stories from the job market?
I must say that I have never technically had much of an experience with the job market. Because I had published so much, and because I had made a name for myself, and specialized in African American philosophy, critical philosophy of race, and critical whiteness studies, I was offered a position at Duquesne. So, fortunately, I have no horror stories from the job market, but I greatly empathize with those who have and continue to have such stories. To those who do, I advise that they keep in mind the sense of philosophical wonder and passion that they had long before knowing that there was such a term called philosophy. So, it was a combination of my prolific publications at that early stage in my academic career, name recognition, and my specialization that caught the eyes of a few faculty members and those in the upper-administration. The areas that were my strengths did not exist at Duquesne. So, I was doing the right thing at the right time. I was more than delighted to join Duquesne’s department. In fact, it was a bit strange to be colleagues with those from whom I had taken courses. My time at Duquesne was great. I would later come to realize that I was the first professional Black philosopher to be employed in Duquesne’s philosophy department.
Awesome. Did you have teaching experience at that point?
I would like to share a point about my shyness. Keep in mind that the McAnulty Fellowship freed me from having to teach. And while at Yale, I avoided every opportunity to TA. So, here I was, well-published, but lacking in classroom experience. The first day was dreadful. I recall saying to myself that someone would ask me a question for which I didn’t have an answer. I was literally shaking with all of those eyes on me. It was like being at a party knowing that I could not dance while everyone waited, watching for me to move my body. While I can’t explain what exactly happened, the very next day that I stood up in front of my class, a part of me that I had never experienced before came alive. I was at home within that space. The words came, the gesticulations flowed, a natural rhythm of pacing began, and students would ask their hardest questions and answers poured forth from me. To this day, I say to both my graduate and undergraduate students that their show of brilliance creates the sort of context that makes me brilliant, that is, when they are at their best, really passionate about the work/readings, I’m transformed into a better teacher and philosopher as a result. Ask the difficult questions, and I will, more often than not, rise to the occasion. I’m able to travel to conceptual places (on the spot) that I had not gone before. There is that phenomenon where we judge and see who we really are after we have gone forward in time. Well, I am a teacher, but one who tries his very best to create dangerous spaces within my classrooms, dangerous for me and for my students. It is the kind of danger where you must be prepared to lose something, to be vulnerable, and practice un-suturing of the self. Doing philosophy in the classroom is about undoing one’s self.
What explains, you think, your drive, the curiosity that compelled you to peer through that telescope back in the day? Is it something that can be taught or transmitted?
Those are really good questions. I think that part of the telescope experience had to do with a cousin of mine, also living in Richard Allen Homes, who actually got me hooked. As I recall, he had a star chart and at one point built his own telescope. But this alone doesn’t explain the drive that you’re asking about. I think that the drive was coupled with a gradual understanding of the complexity of coming to terms with the fact that we are actually living in an expanding universe. There are times when I stop and just up look or out and marvel at the fact that we are a very tiny part of an expanding cosmos. You know, it is so easy to forget this. I find that people hardly ever look up and appreciate the sheer mystery of space. There is a way in which we’ve become seduced by all of the social traffic around us (going to school, driving cars, reading newspapers) that we forget that we are on a planet that is orbiting the sun at about 67,000 miles per hour and that our entire galaxy is moving through space at over 1 million miles per hour. That’s frighteningly fast. So, peering through that telescope might be interpreted as part of a larger sense of feeling orphaned. Peering out into space is a kind of Herman Melville moment where I’m asking where is the orphan’s parent hidden. Regarding your other question, I do think that the drive to be curious about peering through a telescope or through a microscope can be transmitted. My sons are often looking up, noticing stars, and also strange and beautiful cloud formations. Yet, it’s possible for someone to experience these fascinations and move very quickly away from them, where what appeared to be a drive or curiosity sort of goes away. I think that I have this mood, though, that opens up the world as mysterious, where my life, our lives, human existence, appears to me in the form of a deep enigma, something that causes me to suffer. Not sure how that got completely transmitted.
So you have kids? How many?
Yep! We have 4 boys together. All beautiful and brilliant. We tried for a girl, but it didn’t work. We even bought the book. The techniques are so boring and mechanical. Hey, but I was desperate. The idea of a daughter who loves her daddy, thinks the world of him, and needs his protection, is an important sentiment (probably patriarchal) of mine. We even gave her a name; it was Kavisha, which is the name of a singer that my wife knew.
You mentioned rap. Big fan myself. Favorite artists then and now?
This takes me back to Spady. As the preeminent Hip Hop and rap cognoscente, Spady got me really interested in the philosophical dimensions of Hip Hop culture and rap music. So, it wasn’t just about loving the beat, though the beat is supreme. He got me to engage the cultural semiotics of the discourse, the urban spaces within which the rappers performed, their syncretic creativity, the myths and metaphors that they deployed. You know, I co-edited a book on rap, Hip Hop and its therapeutic importance entitled, Therapeutic Uses of Rap and Hip Hop. That book has been adopted by so many in the helping professions. It is a success. In terms of my favorite rappers, I was ushered into rap through the works of X Clan, Poor Righteous Teachers, Public Enemy, Chubb Rock, Heavy D, Apache, MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Big Daddy Kane, Kool Moe Dee, Slick Rick and others. I recall driving in my then Honda Accord blasting Poor Righteous Teachers. The speakers really suffered, though. Look, the sound had to be loud, it was a sonic preference; call it an aesthetics of loud. In fact, it wasn’t “loud” at all, but played at a level that would intensify the music, do justice to the beat. While I continue to think about hip hop and rap, I feel that I’m behind in terms of keeping abreast of all of the newest stuff out there. So, I need to listen more. Two of my sons keep me in the loop. Spady taught me to appreciate all rap. It was not about creating these artificial distinctions, where, for example, so-called Gangsta Rap is deemed ersatz, violent or devoid of political consciousness. Rather, it is about attempting to understand how these artists are constructing their worlds, engaging their lived spaces, and making existential sense of their lives while being subversive and having fun. This doesn’t mean, from my point of view, that there isn’t room for raising important questions regarding the complex ways in which some songs articulate certain problematic discourses. One question that we might ask is: when listening to rap are we playing the role of domineering moralists or critical cultural interpreters? The latter doesn’t rule out ethical critiques, but the former might distract from appreciating nuance and subversion. I try to listen to such rappers as Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, and Brother Ali as much as I can. I can’t wait to teach a course on the philosophical importance of Hip Hop and rap.
I agree and oh my god that course would be amazing! Are you still at Duquesne?
No. I’m now at Emory, which is such a wonderful academic home. As you know, folk here are doing some cutting edge work in all of their academic fields. Duquesne is a great school. It was my first academic place of employment. Great school. Great philosophy colleagues, especially Fred Evans and Jim Swindal. There were many Black students and students of color who were profoundly saddened when they found out that I was leaving. In fact, there were students who had planned to take my courses even after I had already left. There were some students who would say that they are “minoring in Yancy,” which was such an honor to hear.
Looking back, I brought something special to those spaces that are predominantly white at Duquesne. And I don’t think that white philosophers can offer what I offered to those Black students and students of color. There is a certain discourse, certain assumptions, a shared discourse, a shared worldview, a shared style. There is also a certain understanding of where they come from, the specific racialized-cum-economic challenges that they face. While white philosophers can have good intentions, and they should, they lack that shared space of being, that shared epistemic horizon that reveals layers of reality that so many of them don’t share with their Black students and students of color. So, it wasn’t just what I taught that was important to Duquesne, but my racialized presence in a sea of whiteness. Students of color must be able to see that Black folk are in academic positions of authority such that they can possibly see themselves in those roles in the future.
I agree that there is an urgent need for diversity, and I agree with a lot of the stuff you said about standpoint epistemology earlier, but I wonder if you underestimate our ability to empathize with each other a bit. We can talk like we are talking right now, and we have imagination and intelligence to help us bridge gaps between us. Like, when you describe going to Yale, I think lots of people can relate to those feelings. We don’t all have the same struggles, but we can understand the struggles of others. I mean, I’m not a bat!
I’m sure that there is much that you and I can agree on and about which we share similar feelings. In fact, this interview proves that. There is a certain beautiful bonding that has taken place. But you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick. In fact, there is a study that shows how white people fail to show empathy, especially when combined with subtle forms of white racism, toward people of color. Of course, that study finds this to be indicative of a kind of ethnocentrism, more generally. Your question is a good one, but I don’t think that I’m underestimating the extent to which white people can’t or don’t empathize with Black people or people of color. Again, this might also be linked to the ways in which so much of our culture (visual or not) requires Black people and people of color to empathize with white people. This is because it is necessary for Black people, for example, to have a kind of dual cognitive skill where we are forced to understand what goes on within the white world and what goes on within our own worlds. White people, can, for the most part, avoid our world, avoid Black children’s literature (the very few books out there dealing with Black children and their lives), avoid serious Black characters playing serious roles in movies. I don’t think the imagination and intelligence of white people under white supremacy help them to empathize with Black people or people of color. White history has proven that; it isn’t just my pessimism. I mean, Kant is said to be brilliant. Yet he was a racist. The same holds for Hegel, Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Or think about unarmed Black people, especially Black men and boys, and how they are being killed by the white state and proxies of the state. Those instances are not about empathy. Those white cops holding Eric Garner down showed no ethical imaginative bridge building. The history of white America has been one that has systematically failed or refused to understand the plight of Black people. White imaginative power and intellectual power seem very feeble when it comes to addressing in a positive and ethically robust sense the pain and suffering of Black people. And, it is far more painful for Black people because white people are not bats. Perhaps if they were bats, we would understand that they aren’t human so that they don’t have a developed ethical disposition that prevents them from treating us like fellow human beings. Yet, the Black Lives Movement proves that white people, for the most part, don’t understand Black lives and how our lives don’t matter. Perhaps it would be better if white people were bats. Perhaps it would be easier for Black people to digest so much white indifference and at other times so much white violence and vitriol shown toward us.
Do you feel like Duquesne didn’t appreciate you?
Let me reiterate, Duquesne was great to me. The intellectual capital that we create as scholars impacts in positive or negative ways the schools at which we teach. My impact was certainly positive. I think, though, that universities must do far more to retain their faculty of color. To my knowledge, because philosophy is the whitest of the humanities, you would think that those in power would be prepared to keep its faculty of color, especially those who are making important changes to the profession, being highly productive in one’s scholarship, changing the meta-philosophical terrain. Then again, perhaps it is this whiteness that prevents a commitment to real institutional change. Those institutions and administrators must be prepared to commit to the ideals that they hold, ideals regarding robust diversity, and so on. Look, a lot of white males do philosophy in ways that repeat the same old problems, philosophical texts, engage the same white and male philosophical figures, they write in the same old style, further insulating philosophy more and more from the real world. I don’t mean this to be nasty. But many white philosophers are paid well with very little in terms of scholarly publications and where their work doesn’t challenge the canon in any significant way. Universities and colleges must be prepared to fight for its faculty of color, to retain them, to recognize and compensate them for their creative and prolific output, their national and international standing.
You are remarkably productive. What are your writing habits?
Thanks. I often think that I’m lagging. This is another seduction of the academy of which we must be aware. There was a time when I didn’t count the number of publications I have. Yet, academia (philosophy) leads us down this competitive path. So, I’ve been retraining myself not to count, even as material goodies (such as merit raises) are to be had from being prolific. Of course, as we know, this can encourage perfunctory work. So, I’m trying to get back to that place where numbers don’t matter so much as the nurturing and freeing of my philosophical imagination. It is also, for me, about forms of knowledge production that impact real lives, that unsettle people in good, ethically, and relationally flourishing ways. In other words, I find that being productive is important, but not if it undermines that exciting experience of having fallen in love with wisdom and letting everything else take care of itself. You know, I also know some brilliant philosophers who don’t publish much at all. They are dynamic teachers. In the western tradition, as far as I’m aware, Socrates didn’t publish a single philosophical paper.
My writing habits are not too strange. Before I write, I typically have a London Fog Tea Latte. Before I write, I need my writing space cleared and clean. I need stuff out of my visual field that isn’t related to that specific writing project. I read from various sources, often writing down various sentences or a concept or just a term. A single term can get me into the necessary writing space. It’s as if that term functions within a larger chain reaction that touches off other terms. These terms help to generate entire sentences. Perhaps this is related to what I see as an important feature of my reading and writing: seeing a web of conceptual connections. Even a metaphor, like “ambush” or “un-sutured,” both of which informs the core of how I’ve theorized aspects of whiteness, can open an entire imaginative field. There are times, though, that my writing habits involve not just cleaning my work space, but sweeping, say, the kitchen. It’s almost as if my body isn’t ready yet. So, I’m off finding stuff to do other than write, despite the fact that I know that it is time to do so. But once I begin, I can keep going for hours. I find writing to be a very physical process. I find it to be physically exhausting; it’s one of those processes where one’s entire embodied self is engaged. Perhaps this is why I often forget to eat lunch or don’t want to stop to eat dinner. In fact, I don’t tend to recognize that I’m hungry. But I am fascinated with how a blank screen moves from blank to filled with words. There is something magical in the process of writing. Oh, wait. I don’t write unless I have a title first. The title is the frame within which I write. There have been a few times, though, when I had to modify the title based upon the content of the piece. Yet, the title is a precondition for me.
What do you do to unwind nowadays?
Movies! I love watching movies. Back at Duquesne, every Thursday night, I would go home after teaching and enjoy an entire pint of coffee ice cream and watch a movie. Also, I have no so-called highbrow sentiments when it comes to movies. So, I’ll watch old Bruce Lee movies, James Coburn as the fictional character, Flint, Marvel movies, comedies, Sci-Fi, and especially really good old and new western movies. I guess that I shared this love with Ludwig Wittgenstein who I understand loved going to the movies to watch Westerns. As a boy, I always strongly identified with the male hero in any movie that I watched, the one who saved the day, and who typically got the beautiful woman. One might say that I was being groomed to fit the role of a patriarchal “savior” figure vis-à-vis women who could neither save themselves nor resist my charm. Of course, in those days, I was forced, as a young Black boy, to identify with the white protagonists. So, there was a sense in which I “became white.” Isn’t that both fascinating and yet such an act of violence?
Depends on what you mean by violence!
Well, I mean that in a way I had to do violence to my identity as Black in order to be one of the white heroes. I, in some sense, could not be me. Young white children watching white heroic figures can imagine that they are those figures without that sort of racial violation. And you also have to think more specifically about how Hollywood has and continues to privilege white actors, write narratives that are structured by white norms. These processes are not accidental or benign, but discriminate against Black actors and people of color.
Exciting upcoming projects?
Yes. The second edition of Black Bodies, White Gazes is coming out. I updated that text to make sense of so many recent deaths of unarmed Black bodies through the white gaze as it continues to ontologically truncate Black bodies and render them disposable. That book was so painfully prescient when it came out initially back in 2008. Yet, the phenomenological explanatory space that the text carved out continues to be profoundly relevant to Black people in 2016 and beyond. My co-edited book, Our Black Sons Matter is coming out. It is a beautiful and painful text where mothers (across race and nationality) of Black sons grapple with the pain and sorrow of what it means to give birth to what so much of white America sees as “problems.” My interviews with about 35 philosophers/intellectuals on race should be out soon with Oxford University Press. That text is just phenomenal. There is nothing like it. And I’ve just begun to write a very important book, which is currently under contract, that engages so much of the white racist hatred that I received after the publication of my article “Dear White America” in The Stone. That text will prove to be cathartic for me and deeply insightful in terms of how it speaks frankly and courageously about the pervasive poison of white supremacy in our contemporary moment.
High point of your career?
Truly discovering just how powerful, positive, and transformative of an impact we can have on our students. Of course, they also impact us in powerful and positive ways.
Believe it or not, walking out (really storming out with expletives and all) of the middle of teaching a class as a form of demonstration against students not being attentive. It happened only once. The next day in class, you could hear a pin drop.
If you could go back in time and give yourself advice back then, what would it be?
Wait and watch. Don’t trouble your soul. You are far more than you can imagine. That I promise you!
How do you see the future of philosophy?
It will have an abysmal future unless it becomes far more relevant to actual human suffering, pain, rage, death and dying, and oppression.
Of course, while I don’t see this as a trend, I would say that one disconcerting reality is the failure of us, male philosophers, to confront our sexism in and outside of the profession. Guys, stop the bullshit. Another disconcerting aspect would be the pathetic ego-driven, “god-like” pretensions of so many philosophers. Come on, you ain’t all that. None of us are. Man, the arrogance is appalling. By the way, that shit isn’t exclusive to white folk. Black philosophers and philosophers of color are also guilty of this. Lastly, disconcerting is the continued lack of a robust interdisciplinary ethos within philosophy.
There are more multiple voices within the field, though still too few; and there are differently embodied folk and thereby different epistemic and value-laden horizons that challenge various oppressive practices and assumptions.
What do you make of the black lives matter movement?
Powerful. And politically necessary. Yet, profoundly disconcerting that in 21st century North America Black people find it necessary to make the declaration that their lives matter. You know, it is actually within that declaration, contrary to those who don’t understand it, that all lives matter. In other words, Black Lives Matter is a universal that is inclusive of all lives mattering. I think that this implied universality is linked to being treated as the damned of the earth, the lowest of human refuse. By the way, it does not follow (and has not historically followed) that White Lives Matter is inclusive of all lives mattering. Historically, and in our contemporary moment, white lives continue to have a certain ontological premium attached to them. In fact, the logic of whiteness is both viciously binary and dehumanizing in its exclusionary structure. Black Lives Matter is a movement that Black people have shaped since our coming to this country in chains. It’s not new, but more of the necessary same.
Man, you don’t stop. Simply put. He is a conduit through which white America expresses its most vile desire for white purity. An apocalyptically dangerous white man who sees himself as the center of the world. That kind of hubris bespeaks realities of genocide.
Favorite curse word?
My sons would say that it is the word “shit,” especially as I use it under so many circumstances. Hey, I just used it above under disconcerting trends.
Favorite work of fiction?
This could change, but at the moment it is Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye. The protagonist, Pecola Breedlove, is treated as one of the least of these; she reminds me of the deep fragility of the human condition and my own daily failure to curtail human suffering and human abuse that I know exists. When I envision her as embodied in space and time, I feel compelled to hug her and to tell her (and remind her) just how beautiful she is.
That’s a hard one. I would say somewhere between a really juicy and loaded Philly Cheesesteak or a huge plate of fresh seafood with just the right amount of Old Bay Seasoning. Then again, it might be my mom’s fried fish and cornbread. If it’s my last meal, then I might as well leave with all of the love that her hands would put into that precious meal.
If you could ask God, or an omniscient being, one question, what would it be?
That’s an easy one. “God, would you reveal yourself to me such that I would have absolutely no doubt about your existence, survive that veridical experience, and then passionately share it with others toward the larger goal (with your indisputable help) of healing and repairing this horribly broken world of ours?” Of course, if this being was truly omniscient I might simply ask: What is the answer?