I'd Never Imagined a Black Woman Philosopher and What it Means to Me that I Became One
I know that's a long title. Yesterday I unintentionally created a tweet thread in response to the New York Times profile of philosopher, Anita Allen. I say "unintentionally" because I intended to simply quote retweet a "Yay! This is awesome!" Instead, I created a thread about how reading her work inspired me to imagine philosophy as a different endeavor than I'd initially assumed it to be, and that for the first time, I imagined black women as philosophers. A couple of things strike me as I reflect on the thoughts of my younger self: (1) I tweeted that I could imagine witches and unicorns, but that I hadn't imagined a such thing as a black woman philosopher. I'd never consciously thought about that before the moment I tweeted it. It saddens me to think about the fact that as a black girl entering womanhood, it was easier for me to imagine a fictional thing than a black woman philosopher. I've had to sit with that fact and what that says about both my sense of self and my sense of who black women could be. I pinned the tweet. Because I want to see it. And I want others to see it when they see my profile and know what I overcame to be here. (2) I was aware of and admired Angela Davis, but I did not, at the time, think of her as a philosopher. I don't know how I thought of her -- a revolutionary? A face on a "wanted" poster, maybe? It is incredibly telling that (at the time), I didn't think of the woman who, in the US, would have to be the single most recognizable black woman philosopher as a philosopher. I don't know if I was unaware of her educational background or if my perception of philosophy as a white male endeavor was so strong in my mind that it never "stuck" for me that she was one.
Also, I need to correct that I was not a philosophy major as an undergrad. I was a political science major. I minored in philosophy and eventually went on to earn the Ph.D. (I corrected this in a later tweet, but I don't ever want to be accused of misrepresenting myself.) I switched my minor after taking Intro and one or two other philosophy courses. I was on a full four-year scholarship and did not want to delay graduation by switching my major.
What does it mean to me that I eventually became a black woman philosopher? That thing that 19- or 20-year old me could not imagine? This shit's been hard. I can't even list all the ways how. I've "left" the profession a few times over the years (which explains why I'm an assistant professor at 42). I decided a number of times along the way that it wasn't worth it--that my talents could be better used elsewhere. I even quit my Ph.D. for awhile. I was ABD and decided (without telling anyone) that I wasn't going to finish. I'd taken a job at Duke as Special Assistant to the Dean of Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, because for family reasons, I wanted to remain in NC. I decided that I'd work at Duke and eventually figure out what my next moves would be. The dean wanted someone with a Ph.D. He liked me and accepted that I was ABD with the expectation that I'd finish in a semester. I figured that if I did my job well enough, he'd forget that I didn't have a Ph.D. He didn't forget. Another dean took the position and asked how I enjoyed working at Duke. I loved it. It was a great job, and I didn't feel out of place as I had in my graduate department. He then asked about my two Master's degrees before remarking that "secretaries at Duke have Master's degrees." Understanding very clearly that my job was on the line, I finished my long-abandoned dissertation in six weeks. Not because I thought I'd be a philosopher, but because I had a mortgage to pay.
When life interrupted in other ways--sick, aging parents; my own health crises; the devastation of having a trusted senior scholar plagiarize my work--because philosophy had never quite felt like "home," it was easy to get lost. I wrote in an earlier post about the importance of community in one's success. I was left to figure out a lot of things on my own, which added to my own ambivalence about whether it was worth it. I appreciate that there's a Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. The Collegium is working hard to address those feelings of isolation; the reality that, in general, black women in the discipline don't receive the same kind of nurturing, mentoring, or access to networks that others do; and the toll that racism/sexism within the discipline and outside of it take on one's mental and physical health.
There's a discussion of Allen's interview happening at The Daily Nous about the kinds of difficulties Allen raised. I'm still not sure the discipline is ready for black women (or that it cares whether it's ready), which is why I'm glad Allen talked about philosophy showing that it is worthy of black women's time and attention, rather than the other way around. Allen cites some appalling instances in her experience and in the experiences of the few black women in her cohort. I've written about others in an article for Hypatia.
What does it mean to me that I'm now a black woman philosopher? I've only recently begun to identify as one with conviction. Does this discipline finally feel like home? Like I said, this shit is hard. My priorities and expectations have shifted, and my sense of self has evolved. I no longer need the discipline to feel like a place where I belong, although it would be nice if it did. I just need to do the work that I want to do. If others see it as philosophy, that's fine. If others see me as a philosopher, then that's fine, too.