Black Philosopher, White Academy

A post at Lewis Gordon’s website about Bruce Kuklick’s book on William Fontaine, an African-American philosopher who taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1947-1967, has been making the rounds on social media lately.

William Thomas Fontaine was born on December 2, 1909, in Chester, Pennsylvania. An alumnus of the historic black institution Lincoln University, he was among the small population of blacks who achieved a B.A. degree in the first half of the twentieth century and, through the achievement of his Ph.D. in philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, he belonged to an even smaller accomplished group….  Kuklick portrays Fontaine’s life story as ultimately a tragic allegory of the plight of misplaced black intellectuals in white institutions…. The book opens, for instance, with the story of Morton White, Nelson Goodman, Alfred Jules Ayer — eminent and assimilated white Jewish philosophers — and William Fontaine, a fellow proponent of assimilation in his presentation of the self, sharing a ride to the American Philosophical Association (APA) meeting in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1948.  The four philosophers had a lively conversation on philosophical matters as they drove to the meeting to which Ayer, visiting from Oxford, was one of the plenary speakers. The tone of the ride changed, however, when they arrived in Charlottesville and realized that Fontaine not only had to stay in the colored section of town but also had to be accompanied by his white colleagues into the white-only hotel at which the convention was taking place with their assuring the staff that he was only attending the meetings and would not be staying there. The experience embarrassed Ayer, Goodman, and White, and they successfully lobbied for a resolution that was passed the following year stating that the American Philosophical Association would no longer meet in states that practiced segregation…

[Fontaine] did not ultimately share a space with his colleagues as an intellectual. This circumstance was marked not only by the bittersweet experience of his receiving tenure as an assistant professor, because promotion to associate with tenure was premised on demonstration of good or excellent scholarship, but also by the symbolism of him as an intellectual janitor through his “office” being a renovated broom closet that is today a women’s toilet. Black membership in a white academy was, and in many respects unfortunately still is, a humiliating experience for many (if not all) black scholars.

The post is interesting throughout, with too much worth quoting. Read it here.

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LK McPherson
LK McPherson
9 years ago

I especially like this passage from the Gordon post:

“Since reason is philosophy’s domain, there was an extent to which anti-Semitic presumptions of hyper-rationality favored white Jewish intellectuals. For black intellectuals, especially those who became professional academics, however, the struggle was markedly different because of anti-black racists’ belief in black intellectual deficiency.”

The philosophy profession has yet to acknowledge, let alone grapple with, the racial bias virtually inherent in its cult of genius–though a similar problem is starting to be acknowledged in the case of (white) women.