Ten Black Philosophers That Should Be Taught In Schools
I teach philosophy to teenagers. Our journey through philosophical history goes something like this: Aristotle — Boethius — Aquinas — Descartes — Hume — Kant — Russell — Singer. There are others, of course, but you get the picture: it’s very European and very male.
On a basic level, this is fine. You cannot do justice to philosophy and not teach western philosophy and you cannot teach western philosophy without discussing these giants in the field. Recent events have encouraged us to widen our scope, however. Here are ten black philosophers I will be including in next year’s course. There are, of course, many more. The aim was to have a range across history and to include both indigenous and diaspora voices.
Ptahhotep (2375–2350 BC)
Ptahotep was a vizier in Old Kingdom Egypt. His maxims are an example of a genre called “wisdom literature.” They are a set of instructions describing rules of behaviour and include such maxims as:
- “Punish with principle, teach meaningfully. The act of stopping evil leads to the lasting establishment of virtue.”
- “Do not gossip in your neighbourhood, because people respect the silent.”
- “God loves him who listens. He hates those who do not listen.”
- “Only speak when you have something worth saying.”
- “How wonderful is a son who obeys his father!”
- “Do not place any confidence in your heart in the accumulation of riches, since everything that you have is a gift from God.”
- “He who has a great heart has a gift from God. He who obeys his stomach obeys the enemy.”
Teaching idea: Have students choose one of these maxims then give an example of a time when they or someone they know has followed or not followed the maxim. Does this 4000 year-old rule still apply today?
Kocc Barma Fall (1586–1655)
Kocc Barma Fall was a Cayorian philosopher from what is now part of modern-day Senegal and Gambia. He is famous for sayings such as:
- “If you want to kill a proud man, give him what he needs to live everyday. In the long run you’ve made him a serf [servant].”
In a 1993 film, this saying is used as a reason for Africans to reject food aid from western countries.
In Senegal today, so popular is Kocc Barma Fall that many sayings are attributed to him that he almost certainly did not say!
The four tufts of hair on his head symbolise four of his proverbs:
- You can love a young wife but do not tell her everything.
- A ruler can betray anyone, even his own family.
- An adopted son is not a real son.
- The elders are the wisest in the community.
Source: Rudolph T. Ware (2014), The Walking Qurʼan: Islamic Education, Embodied Knowledge, and History in West Africa
Teaching idea: Have pupils decide upon four of their own principles for living. Fall’s proverbs #1 and #3 require discussion; they have a context, which is described here.
Anton Wilhelm Amo (1703–1758)
Anton Wilhelm Amo came from what is now Ghana and as a child was given as a gift by the Dutch West India Company to a German aristocratic family.
His doctoral thesis at the University of Wittenberg argued in favour of materialism. He believed that the body rather than the mind was the seat of perception. This went against the prevailing belief of Cartesian dualism.
After a campaign of persecution against him, Amo returned to Africa at the end of his life. His philosophical work was largely forgotten.
Teaching idea: Watch Crash Course Philosophy “Where does your mind reside?” In a short essay, have students answer that question and refer to Amo in their answers.
Olaudah Equiano (1745-1797)
Having bought his freedom as a slave, Equiano arrived in London in 1786, joining the “Sons of Africa,” a group of black men who campaigned for the abolition of slavery. His popular autobiography, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano or Gustavus Vassa, the African, helped raise awareness of the horrors of slavery in Britain.
Equiano’s writings established for slaves what philosophers call an ontology. What was a slave? Were they fully human and did they deserve rights? He wrote to the Queen pleading that African slaves on British plantations “be raised from the condition of brutes, to which they are at present degraded, to the rights and situation of freemen.”
Sojourner Truth (1797–1883)
Born Isabella Baumfree, Truth escaped slavery, took the name Sojourner Truth, and, feeling called by God, began speaking out against slavery. In 1851 she delivered her speech “Ain’t I a Woman?”, which has become one of the most famous speeches on black and women’s rights in American history.
For Truth, being black and a woman made her a member of a doubly-oppressed minority. She believed that women’s suffrage was as essential as black liberation and did not believe that black men should find equality with white men only to leave black women unable to vote.
She also challenged some of the sexist ideas in Christianity. In her “Ain’t I a Woman” speech she sharply dismissed the idea that because Jesus was a man, men were superior to women:
Then that little man in Black there [a minister], he says women can’t have as much rights as men, ’cause Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him!
Source and teaching ideas: https://www.pbslearningmedia.org/resource/americon-lp-sojourner-truth/sojourner-truth/
Frederick Douglass (1817–1895)
Douglass was born into slavery and after escaping devoted his life to the cause of abolition. Like Equiano, his writings consider what it is to be a human being: what is the nature which unites us, slave or free, black or white? Like Aristotle, he believed human nature to be grounded in the intellect and championed the importance of literacy and education. For him, the key to freedom was language. Slaves were often prevented from finding common cause because they could not communicate with each other beyond their households, with no access to books or even an ability to read.
After being taught how to read by his mistress, Mr. Auld, his master,
found out what was going on, and at once forbade Mrs. Auld to instruct me further, telling her, among other things, that it was unlawful, as well as unsafe, to teach a slave to read … [s]aid he, “if you teach that nigger (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” These words sank deep into my heart, stirred up sentiments within that lay slumbering, and called into existence an entirely new train of thought … I now understood what had been to me a most perplexing difficulty — to wit, the white man’s power to enslave the black man. It was a grand achievement, and I prized it highly. From that moment, I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom …
Teaching idea: Watch Crash Course Philosophy “How words can harm” and discuss the importance of words and language, including the use of the n-word in the quote above and why it can cause harm.
Stuart Hall (1932–2014)
Stuart Hall was born is Jamaica but made his academic career at the University of Birmingham, founding a school of thought known as British Cultural Studies. He is perhaps best known for his ideas put forward in “Reception Theory,” which tries to explain how audiences understand and “decode” media, depending on things like our age, gender, or cultural background. Audiences tend to adopt one of three positions when reading a book or watching a film:
- Dominant Reading: the audience takes the view intended by the producer; this will tend to happen if the messages are clear and if the audience and the producer have a similar background.
- Negotiated Reading: the audience blends the producer’s views with their own.
- Oppositional Reading: the audience completely rejects the dominant reading and creates their own.
Teaching idea: Watch and discuss this video. See if students can give their own examples of the three different readings of a particular piece of media (film, TV, book) in line with Hall’s Reception Theory.
Sophie Bosede Oluwole (1935–2018)
Oluwole was the first woman to earn a PhD in philosophy in Nigeria. She used her career to champion African ideas:
I was always taught that Africans had no ideas, they cannot think, they are stupid, they have no philosophy, they have nothing, and each time they said that I was agitated to find out whether that was true. If you say Africans had no ideas, I was interested in finding out; is there anything in Africa? That was how I started looking to see if I could find African ideas. I know that there are so many theories, proverbs and so on, but I discovered that the Yoruba people had something, which they call Ifá system.
Ifá is both a religion and a system of divination. Using the Ifá literary corpus, called odu, and diving instruments (sacred palm-nuts and a divination chain), the diviner helps individuals and communities make important life decisions.
For Oluwole, what looks to outsiders like a “primitive” system was actually underpinned by a complex philosophy. In African philosophies, creative expression such as ritual is as capable of imparting knowledge as a book. Gods are not just divine beings, they also embody ideas. For example, Oya, who protects women, can be understood as a symbol of a form of ancient African feminism.
Source: “Sophie Bosede Oluwole” in Philosopher Queens.
Teaching idea: Watch and discuss this UNESCO video about the Ifá divination system. Then watch this video about an Ifá ritual in the modern USA. Can students identify the philosophy underpinning the ritual?
Angela Davis (1944-)
Angela Davis is a feminist-Marxist philosopher who was twice fired by UCLA for what they considered to be her extreme views. She also spent time in jail accused of conspiracy to murder but was acquitted. She later joined the University of California, Santa Cruz, and since her retirement has remained active in various political movements.
Much of her work has focused on the abolition of prisons. She believes that the aim of prisons in the United States is to contain, control, and kill those people that the state sees as threats, including people of color, immigrants, and members of the LGBT community. Her goal is not to reform the prison system but to dismantle it completely.
Teaching idea: Watch Crash Course Philosophy “What Is Justice?”, discuss the aims of punishment, then read the article above on prison abolition. Have students debate whether Davis is right that prisons should be abolished. There is a chapter on Davis in Philosopher Queens.
Cornel West (1953-)
Cornel West is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. West encourages an “insurgent model” for black intellectuals such as himself, believing that the purpose of philosophy is to bring about social change. Philosophy should be matter of “dialogue in the face of dominating structures” such as capitalism or imperialism.
West describes himself as a “non-Marxist socialist,” rejecting Marxism because of his Christian faith (Marx was opposed to religion) but holding to the basic ideas of redistributing wealth in socialism. “To be a Christian,” West argues, “is to love wisdom, love justice, and love freedom.” He opposes the Christian fundamentalism which he believes has given ideological heft to America’s imperial expansion and unfettered capitalism.
Teaching idea: Watch and discuss his section in The Examined Life.
As there is no magic to the number “ten,” here are some more candidates:
W.E.B. Du Bois (1868–1963)
Du Bois was born after the end of slavery in the United States but lived through the imposition of segregation and the beginnings of the civil rights movement. He was the first African-American to be awarded a Ph.D. from Harvard University and helped found the influential National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). He spent the final years of his life in Ghana.
Du Bois’ philosophy can be describes as a kind of “American Pragmatism,” shifting focus from abstract ideas to more concrete proposals for improving the lives of African Americans in particular. Du Bois believed that African Americans were better equipped to understand American society because they understood both the experience of racial minorities in America but also the dominant white culture, whereas whites only understood their own. This concept is known as “second sight.”
Teaching idea: From this resource, read Du Bois’ “The Talented Tenth” and have students turn his ideas into tweets using the provided worksheet.
Frantz Fanon (1925–1961)
In Black Skin, White Masks, Fanon, a French West Indian, discusses, among other things, how racism has different forms. For example, in anti-Semitism, Jewishness is reduced to an idea of Jewishness as a whole, where “the Jews” as a group are said to secretly be in control of money, the media, and politics. In anti-black racism, by contrast, blacks, especially individual black men, are feared for their physical attributes — tall, strong, dark — a fear rooted in the fear of slave uprising.
Teaching idea: have students list the different types of discrimination they can think of (sexism, anti-black racism, homophobia, etc.). Discuss what is the fear at the root of the discrimination, why it occurs, and how it can be overcome.
bell hooks (1952-)
Born Gloria Jean Watkins, hooks changed her name to bell hooks after her grandmother but decapitalised the initials in order to focus on her ideas rather than herself as a person.
hooks coined the term “oppositional gaze,” a way for black female spectators to “look back” at film and reject the subordinate portrayal of black women in particular. Films are almost never shot from the perspective of black women and black women have generally not been used to “looking” at films critically. If they were to take an oppositional gaze, they would notice the problems with their portrayal:
- White actors who star or co-star in films with black actors are more likely to the main focus.
- Blacks are depicted in more menial roles (e.g. cab drivers, cleaners) even when they are the focus of the film.
- Black males and females have more sex scenes on average than white actors, suggesting that blacks are more sexually active than whites.
- Black female characters are five times more violent than white females.
- Blacks characters use more profanity and colloquial speech than whites.
Teaching idea: have students choose for themselves a new name to express what they want to convey about themselves.
Anita Allen (1953-)
Professor of Law and Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, Anita Allen created the “philosophy of privacy” as a philosophical discipline. It focuses on the meaning and value of privacy as a concept and public policy responses to privacy law. She argues that privacy ought to remain an important value even in a world where we often share our lives online.
The legal case of Wisconsin v. Yoder was an early influence on Allen’s views. Yoder belonged to the Amish faith and didn’t send his son to secondary school. Yoder was prosecuted for violating the law which required parents to send their children to school. The case had to weigh religious freedom and parental autonomy (“family privacy”) against the laws of the state. How free are individuals and families to make their own private decisions?
Teaching idea: Discuss the Wisconsin vs. Yoder case and have students take either side of the argument, ending in a class vote.
Joseph-Achille Mbembe (1957-)
Joseph-Achille Mbembe is a Cameroonian philosopher, political theorist, and public intellectual. He is most famous for his concept of “necropolitics,” the the right a state gives itself to decide who may live and die as the “ultimate expression of sovereignty.”
This power can be seen in relation to Covid-19: governments exercised “necro-power” when they decided to enforce strict lockdowns (saving lives but harming the economy) or when they followed a looser approach to lockdown (causing deaths — mostly of older or sick people — but protecting the economy).
Teaching idea: A rough idea of necropolitics can be illustrated by considering utilitarian ethics when it deals with matters of life and death. Have students watch Wireless Philosophy and discuss the case of “Jones.”
The focus of Ruha Benjamin’s work is the relationship between emerging technology and ethics, particularly racial justice. In her book, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, Benjamin argues that modern technology can promote white supremacy and racial bias.
For example, a 2016 beauty pageant called Beauty AI was judged by a machine. The algorithm programmed into the machine preferred contestants with lighter skin color. It wasn’t that the AI was consciously biased — the preferences of the programmers were. Another example are automated soap dispensers, which often do not respond to hands with darker skin. Benjamin gives the explanation:
Near infrared technology requires light to bounce back from the user and activate the sensor, so skin with more melanin, absorbing as it does more light, does not trigger the sensor. But this strictly technical account says nothing about why this particular sensor was used, whether there are other options, which recognize a broader spectrum of skin tones, and how this problem was overlooked during development and testing…. Like segregated water fountains of a previous era, the discriminatory soap dispenser offers a window onto a wider social terrain.
Teaching idea: Watch and discuss Benjamin’s TEDx talk. Have students make a list of her examples of benches and the design biases they suggest. Then take a walk around campus looking for, and discussing, similar examples.
This article has been updated to include suggestions, particularly of female philosophers, made by helpful readers. It will continue to be updated to add more suggestions as they come.