Kwame Anthony Appiah: The Complexities of Black Folk
The New York Times
George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Kwame Anthony Appiah, Professor of Law and Philosophy
New York University
Kwame Anthony Appiah
This is the 10th in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Kwame Anthony Appiah, who teaches in New York University’s department of philosophy and its school of law. He has been the president of the American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division, and of the PEN American Center. He is the author of numerous books, including, most recently, “Lines of Descent: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Emergence of Identity.” — George Yancy
George Yancy: How did you become interested, philosophically, in the question of race? Did it grow out of something like a conceptual problem of reference, or did it come more out of lived experience? Or, perhaps this disjunction is a false start?
Kwame Anthony Appiah: I’m always skeptical when intellectuals give accounts of how they came about their interests! So you should take what I have to say as a set of hypotheses about my own past, not as the results of introspection, which yields nothing about this.
When I first started teaching in the United States in 1981 I had a joint appointment at Yale, in African and African-American studies, on the one hand, and philosophy, on the other, and I was casting about for things to do on the African and African-American side of my work, both as a teacher and as a scholar. I had been an undergraduate student at Cambridge in medical sciences for one year, and philosophy for two, and I was puzzled, as a newcomer to the United States, by the fact that many people appeared to think “race” was a biological concept, whereas I had been taught in my brief career in the life sciences to think it was not.
G.Y.: In your new book, “Lines of Descent,” you write that W.E.B. Du Bois saw himself as an American and a Negro (as opposed to an African-American). You state correctly how being an “American” and being a “Negro” did not fit well for him. I’m reminded of Du Bois’s encounter in “The Souls of Black Folk” with the tall (white) newcomer and how she refused to exchange visiting cards with him and how this signified early on in his life a deep tension in his sense of “racial” identity. Do you think contemporary African-Americans also find themselves possessed by, as Du Bois describes it, “two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps them from being torn asunder”?
K.A.A.: I think that Du Bois’s way of thinking about this, which was informed by 19th- century German social philosophy, can be put like this: Each people, each Volk, has a soul, a Geist, that is the bearer of a folk culture and of what he called spiritual “strivings.” American Negroes were possessed of the soul of America and the soul of the Negro. Since America’s folk culture was racist, they were possessed by a spirit that was, in some respects, hostile to them. The Negro soul gave them the resources for a positive sense of self, which helped to resist this, but it also gave them various other gifts…
…K.A.A.: Well, I should begin by saying that I think that a background of class privilege on both sides of my family has protected both my sisters and me from some of the worst challenges of living in a racist world. (They have also had the advantage of living much of their lives in various parts of Africa!) I was born in London but moved with my family to Ghana when I was 1. My sisters were all born there. When I was an undergraduate at college in England, Skip Gates and I and a Nigerian philosophy student we knew were the only black people in our college. But I had white upper-middle-class high school friends and upper-middle-class English cousins around, so I guess I didn’t feel that there was any question as to my right to be there, and I don’t think anyone else thought so either. (And I wouldn’t have cared if they did!)
As a young person in Ghana, many people I met in my daily life in my hometown knew my family, and knew why I was brown and not black. They knew my mother was an Englishwoman (and white) and my father was Ashanti (and black). And throughout my childhood in Ghana the Asantehene, the king of Ashanti, whose capital was my hometown, was my great-uncle by marriage. (To those who didn’t know me, though, I was a “broni kokoo,” a red [skinned] foreigner; “broni” is often mistranslated these days as “white person.”) So, in a way, the most interesting “problem” for me, having been in America and then an American citizen for much of my adult life (since 1997), has been how to figure out a black identity, having come from two places where my color had a very different significance.
One of the things that I have always been most grateful to this country for is the sense of welcome I have often felt from African-Americans as a person of African descent. There’s no necessity about this: my ancestors — and not so many generations back — were in the business of capturing and selling other black people into the Atlantic slave trade (and some of my mother’s kinfolk back then were no doubt in the business of buying and shipping them). So one thing that race does in the world is bring black people together in spite of these divided histories. But I suppose that the main effect of my being black has been to draw me to black subject matter, black issues, and to give me an interest — in both senses of the term, an intellectual engagement and a stake — in pursuing them. Without this connection to the world of Africa and her diaspora I would just be someone else…
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