- Negotiating the "Color Line"
This slim volume, a small gem of research and reflection, is a history of the life, mind, and times of William Fontaine, a little-known but fascinating and significant pioneer African American intellectual and academic. Oddly, there is no mention of Fontaine in Rayford Logan's and Michael R. Winston's Dictionary of American Negro Biography, which, at the time of its publication in 1982, was considered an African American version of Debrett's Peerage in regard to deceased persons who had been leading figures in the African American community. Fontaine, a person of "darker color," was the "first son and second child in a family of fourteen siblings" (p. 6). His father was a laborer, his mother a housewife. Six years after graduation from historically black Lincoln University in 1930, Fontaine completed work at the University of Pennsylvania that earned him a Ph.D. in philosophy, a discipline throughout his life dominated overwhelmingly by conservative whites whose self-perceptions included a certainty that they were teachers and expositors of the "foundational values of the West"—values that tutored a white, largely male elite in moral values and the understanding of their place as "humans in the cosmos" (p. 83). Following thirteen years of significant service as a professor in historically black Southern University in Louisiana and Morgan State College in Baltimore, Fontaine integrated the faculty of the University of Pennsylvania in 1949 when he received an appointment to Penn's Department of Philosophy. Significantly, it was during his years at Southern and Morgan State that Fontaine produced his most original scholarship. Once ensconced at Penn, Fontaine was "for many years one of the very few black academics in the white university world" (p. 3). It was not an easy situation for him. Until his arrival, "Penn in fact maintained segregation: the school had no black faculty and at any given time only a miniscule number of black students, if any" (p. 85). Despite the daunting challenges presented by his loneliness at Penn—"the only African American philosopher at a first-rank university" (p. x), lack of intellectual rapport with his white colleagues, steadily worsening [End Page 273] health, and an unhappy marriage—he endured at the university for nineteen years before his 1968 death at age 59.
The author, Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania, was an undergraduate student of Fontaine, who wrote a letter supporting his admission to graduate school. In this probing book, Kuklick is both a sympathetic biographer and a sharp-eyed, incisive critic of a tragic, tormented person. This is a rich study, filled with important information about all facets of Fontaine's life and mind, information carefully explored in relation to the various historical contexts in which Fontaine labored for success, fulfillment, and self-definition. Kuklick's biography is all the more impressive since the documentary record left by Fontaine is "very slim" (p. xi). To what could be found in documentary sources, the author added interviews with "over twenty-five people who knew Fontaine" (p. xi). Appropriately, in straightforward recognition of the limitations and bias of the sources available to him, Kuklick acknowledges that "white institutions have excessively generated" the documentary record on which his history rests (p. xi).
While at Southern University, Fontaine began to develop his unique perspective on race, drawing on his training as a philosopher to describe and analyze the dynamic interplay between race and identity for all Americans. As a philosopher and social thinker, Fontaine admired the thought of W. E. B. Du Bois, to the extent that many of Fontaine's fundamental ideas about black consciousness and the meaning of the concept of race in the United States were Du Boisian. Kuklick makes a convincing case that Fontaine moved beyond some of the limitations in Du Bois's racial analysis, particularly with regard to the dynamics of how African Americans and European Americans transformed themselves and each other as they interacted. Kuklick also sees the influence of Alaine Locke on...