Black History Month 2020
Celebrating Black History Month with philosophers past and present suggested by faculty and grad students in the Department of Philosophy at Simon Fraser University.
Black History Month grew out of a proposal by black educators and students at Kent State University in 1969. This year the event focuses on African Americans and the Vote, since 2020 marks the centennial of the Nineteenth Amendment and votes for women, and also the sesquicentennial of the Fifteenth Amendment (1870) giving black men the right to the ballot after the Civil War. The theme in Canada is “Canadians of African Descent: Going forward, guided by the past”.
Further reading: 'I'm used to being the only brown person in the room': why the humanities have a diversity problem’ The Guardian 27 January, 2020 --Cultural bias and a lack of plurality of voices may account for low numbers of BAME postgraduates in subjects such as history and philosophy.
St. Augustine (354–430 AD) is described as the greatest Christian philosopher of the Antiquity. He was an early Christian theologian whose work influenced religious thinking well into the nineteenth century. He is also described as the first medieval philosopher, one of the earliest to think about time. Furthermore, his work, the Confessiones, which is a first-person perspective of philosophy, influenced modern autobiography.
A Roman citizen, he was born to a Berber mother in Thagaste, a town in Numidia, the Roman province in North Africa that is now modern Algeria. Contrary to how artists have represented him over the ages, there is good evidence that St. Augustine was black.
Social media image credit: Philippe de Champaigne [Public domain]
Zera Yacob (1599–1692) was a 17th century Ethiopian philosopher who explored religious skepticism. His 1667 treatise, the Hatäta (Inquiry) investigated the light of reason and has been compared to Descartes' Discours de la méthode.
Yacob advised following one’s own reasoning process rather than accepting the beliefs of others without question. He is also noted for his ethical philosophy around the principle of harmony, advising that an action’s morality could be judged by its effect on overall world harmony.
Social media image credit: A.Savin (Wikimedia Commons · WikiPhotoSpace) [FAL]
Philosophers consider the first personal slave narratives by women that were used as arguments for abolition are arguably philosophical as the key theme is human dignity. Authors Mary Prince, Harriet Jacobs, and also Phyllis Wheatley (philosopher and poet) wrote in the late 18th/early 19th centuries, bringing awareness to a wider public of the daily existence and often brutal hardships endured by slaves.
Phyllis Wheatley (1753–1784), the first published woman of African descent, was enslaved as a child and transported from West Africa to America. She was not only the first African American woman to publish a volume of poetry, but was also the first to earn a living from writing. Her volume, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral, was critically acclaimed. Also an accomplished letter writer, she drew attention by calling for an end to slavery. Learn more in this podcast.
Social media image credit: Phillis Wheatley [CC0]
British abolitionist and autobiographer, Mary Prince (1788 – 1833) was enslaved in Bermuda then escaped to England where she wrote her slave narrative, The History of Mary Prince. Her accounts of the violence and mistreatment she witnessed helped activate the anti-slavery movement. She was the first woman to present an anti-slavery petition to the British parliament.
"I have been a slave myself—I know what slaves feel—I can tell by myself what other slaves feel, and by what they have told me. The man that says slaves be quite happy in slavery—that they don't want to be free—that man is either ignorant or a lying person. I never heard a slave say so. I never heard a Buckra (white) man say so, till I heard tell of it in England."
Check out the Google Doodle honouring Mary Prince's 230th birthday.
Harriet Jacobs (1813 – 1897) was the first woman to write a fugitive slave narrative in the United States. She was born in North Carolina and enslaved at birth. She wrote her autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl under a pseudonym. Its descriptions of sexual abuse and harassment exposed the daily life commonly endured by many slave women.
Social media image credit: By Unknown - "Harriet Jacobs" By Jean Fagan Yellin, found at Google booksitem provenance: image: Illustration from page 265, Public Domain, Link
Anton Wilhelm Amo (c. 1703–1758) was born in Ghana, West Africa. At the age of three, he was gifted to the Duke of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel in the Netherlands. Under colonial efforts to Christianize people in Dutch colonies, he was baptized then educated, becoming the first African to receive a PhD at a European university. One of his major contributions to philosophy is his study of the human mind.
However, his first work, “Dissertatio Inauguralis De Jure Maurorum”, argued that African kings were the same as their European equivalents and thus had been vassals of Rome. His conclusion was that by slave trade, Europeans were violating the principle in Roman Law that all Roman citizens are free. He taught philosophy for many years before returning to Ghana in around 1747.
Social media image credit: Gerhard Geyer; Photo: Blackpiper (überarbeitet von ParaDox) [Public domain]
WEB Du Bois
William Edward Burghardt Du Bois (1868 –1963) was born in Massachusetts, US and died a naturalised citizen in Ghana. He studied Philosophy among other subjects at Harvard, and was the first African American to earn a doctorate at the university. He wrote extensively on issues of race, African American rights and Pan-Africanism and was a founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).
Social media image credit: James E. Purdy [Public domain]
James Baldwin (1924–1987) was born in Harlem, New York City. As a writer, playwright and essayist he played an important role in social and political activism in the US during the civil rights movement of mid 20th century. Many of his works explore racial and social issues of the time, and he was especially known for his essays on the black experience in America.
Social media image credits: Sjakkelien Vollebregt / Anefo [CC0]
Sophie Oluwole (1935–2018) was the first Nigerian woman to earn a PhD in philosophy. She completed her doctoral studies at the University of Ibadan then taught at the University of Lagos (UNILAG). Her work built around Yoruba philosophy, a branch that she proposed predates Western traditions in the subject. Her book, Socrates and Orunmila: Two Patrons of Classical Philosophy examined and contrasted the two philosophers that influenced her work the most. She was an advocate for the importance of African philosophy and challenged colonial educational indoctrination that presumed that Africans were primitive and could not think.
“They said Africans could not think,” Oluwole told the Punch newspaper, “that we were not thinkers, that we were primitive. I felt challenged and said I was going to find out if truly we could not think. I wanted to prove them wrong.” The Independent 10 January, 2019
Listen to Sophie Oluwole on reality