We PELers spent black history month actually reading black history, and on 2/28/12 spoke with Law Ware of Oklahoma State University about philosophy and race. Is there a philosophically viable concept of race at all? What are the potential sources of past and current oppression, and what general strategies seem promising to deal with them? Is “understanding” all one needs to beat prejudice? Here’s what we all read:
“Of our Spiritual Strivings,” by W.E.B. DuBois, which is chapter 1 of his 1903 book The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois was a historian who took classes with William James and knew his philosophy. This essay gives an existential take on what it’s like to live with a “double consciousness:” to see through the eyes of Western culture (from his white teachers) as an intellectual, but also to see through the eyes of his oppressed brethren. Far from simply wanting blacks to integrate, he saw the black experience as providing a spiritual viewpoint that commercial white America sorely needed. You can read the book online; however, the Norton Critical Editionincludes lots of helpful footnotes and supplementary essays.
Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963) and “The Black Power Defined” (1967). MLK did have a PhD in philosophy of religion. In the first of these essays, he explains the philosophy behind his non-violent political methodology, and in the latter, he displays a surprising streak of realpolitik. We also looked at the very short speech by Malcolm X, “The Black Revolution” (1963) for comparison and contrast.
“A Genealogy of Modern Racism,” by Cornel West, which is chapter 2 of his 1982 book Prophesy Deliverance!West is renowned in academia for his scholarship in pragmatism, but most of his books have to do with race. In the essay he brings up Foucault’s theory of power, where oppression can be meted out through all the tools culture has at its disposal. In this “genealogy,” he describes how the history of Western thought, with its habits of scientific categorization and its classically inspired aesthetics reinforced ways of thinking that ruled out in advance the equality of blacks.
Check back to this site in the couple of weeks after the episode is posted for more links and information regarding the books, lectures and other media discussed during the episode.