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A Philosophical Account of Africana Studies: An Interview with Lewis Gordon
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Nepantla: Views from South 4.1 (2003) 165-189

Lewis Gordon received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Yale University in 1993, then taught in the philosophy department at Purdue until 1996. The following year, he moved to Brown University, where he is now chair of the Department of Africana Studies. He has had an equally significant and original impact in both domains. In Africana studies, Gordon has pursued an expansive concept of black identity that includes not only the United States and Canada, but Latin America and the multilingual Caribbean as well. In philosophy, he has resuscitated the tradition of existentialism, which was previously on the wane after the onslaught of antihumanism, poststructuralism, and other attacks on the theory of subjectivity that is the cornerstone of existentialism. For Gordon, existentialism is a vital tool in the project of developing a new humanities and new social theory, ones that can interrogate their Eurocentrism and base themselves more fully on the experiences of diverse peoples. Moreover, he argues that existentialism is critical for the development of African-American thought as well as for an analysis of racism in everyday life. He has developed these arguments in four books, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995), Fanon and the Crisis of European Man (1995), Her Majesty's Other Children (1997), and Existentia Africana (2000).

Gordon has thus led a movement toward a reconfigured existential phenomenology among black philosophers; in addition to the books just listed, he has edited four anthologies that collect the developing body of work in this new genre of black existentialism. Building on Frantz Fanon here, Gordon's project has been the development of new phenomenological accounts of embodied black existence. His phenomenology therefore does not assume that anybody's lived experience can stand in for the whole. As feminists have called for, it recognizes that only a multitude of accounts can reveal the complex of cultural meanings distributed through differentially marked bodies. Gordon's work shows us by example how existential phenomenology can be reformed of its narrowness (European male perspective) and how it can continue to provide a powerful theoretical framework within which we can address social issues.

Gordon's timely intervention helps to correct problems in both postmodernist treatments and individualist moral philosophy. Postmodernist analysis often limits itself to the level of cultural representation, never seeming to get to the level of human action. An enormous amount of postmodern work ostensibly about “the body” never addresses actually existing bodies. Individualist moral philosophy often seems to operate in a universe where it is assumed that complex reasoning can be used to determine an individual's choices of action without interference from economic forces or cultural pressure, and where the goal is always assumed to be achieving gender and color “blindness.” Gordon's account provides a useful alternative to these approaches, a phenomenological indictment of racism's effects as well as its assumptions.

In this interview, Gordon explains how his philosophical work has informed his development of Africana studies, how he envisions the relationship between Africana and Latin American studies, the errors he detects in some of the existing work in both these areas, and the role of philosophy developed from the “margins.”

——L. M. A.

Linda Martín Alcoff: What is your view of the relationship between Africana studies, on the one hand, and Latin American studies and Latino studies, on the other? These departments do not always have good relationships in this country, with frequent tensions over questions of territory. I know you've thought about this and addressed it both institutionally and theoretically.

Lewis Gordon: Well, the first thing I'd like to say is that I'm delighted you're here because I dig your work as a philosopher and in addition to that these are issues we have been talking about over the years. In terms of the relationship of Africana studies to Latin American studies, these issues are connected to the forms of attacks that emerged in the 1980s and 1990s. If you look at the early programs in the late 1960s and early 1970s, many of them were actually cohesive. At Lehman College at the...

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