Interview with Lewis Gordon (1/2)

Lewis R. Gordon by Sula Solomon (November 2015)

Lewis Ricardo Gordon is an African American philosopher of Jewish and Jamaican origins born in 1962. He is Professor of Philosophy at the University of Connecticut, Honorary Professor in the Unit for the Humanities at Rhodes University in South Africa, the founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies as well as former president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. Being particularly interested in the fields of Africana philosophy and black existentialism, he is considered the father of postcolonial phenomenology. In this first part, he tells us about his life since his childhood in Jamaica and in The Bronx until today.

  • Born in Jamaica, you grew up in New York City, in the Bronx, before going to study philosophy and political sciences at Lehman College and then at Yale University. Today, you are a professor of philosophy at the University of Connecticut as well as an honorary professor at Rhodes University in South Africa. What urged you to study in these fields and then to embrace a university career ?

Life offers many paradoxes. We wonder where we’re going, and when we’re there, we realize that’s where we were to be going as though it were either choice or fate. Rejecting the latter, it means I was choosing where I’d like to go. The options facilitating such had to emerge, however. Such, also, are life’s contingencies. When I was a little boy in Jamaica, I knew I loved at least three things other than my family: (1) music, (2) stories, and (3) learning about the world. I remember lying on my back looking up at the stars, which were majestic in number from the perspective of an island in which, because of fewer streetlights, the night was glorious. I realized when I was a child that there was so much more than us (human beings) in the world, yet it was wondrous that we were able to experience anything and see such things. I remember paying attention to everything: the caress of the wind from the Caribbean sea, the smell of flowers whose nectar was suckled by humming birds and butterflies, the beautiful look of rain falling amid sunshine, and so much more. Speech for me began very early, reputedly at age three months. My relatives often remind me of that, though my memories pretty much confirm much. It was the year of Jamaica’s independence from Britain, and all kinds of special events followed, including the new country’s television station. The world expanded, and conversations were manifold. I loved listening to the various topics my aunts would engage, as I was an infant in their lap and eventually a little boy playing at first in the home of my great grandparents and then eventually a series of homes as my young and beautiful mother attempted to make her way through that newly independent island in her subsequent marriage and addition of two more children. Events leading to our departure from the island would take up too much time here, but the short of it is that my mother left her husband, moved to the United States (with only $5 USD in her pocket), and fought to reunite herself with her three sons. I was left with some relatives on my father’s side. They were sadistic, so when my mother managed to get me to the USA at age 9, I presented an oration of my abuses that could have rivaled the best of Pericles or Frederick Douglass. So, despite arriving on a tourist visa, I remained, and the next decade was spent through the familiar cons of undocumented immigrants. I became a permanent resident under an amnesty effort of the Reagan administration, where the hope was actually to garner more conservative Latin American voters, and I subsequently became a citizen.  The stories in between are also too numerous for this interview.  I remember arriving in New York City, which, from the perspective of a child from Jamaica, was shocking, as it didn’t appear as the magical city of magazines and television. We lived in the South Bronx, and en route from the airport, I saw many indignities, as a child of postcolonial Jamaica would view things. Garbage was everywhere; people seemed shameless in their dress and manner; buildings and sidewalks smelled of urine, vomit, and dog feces was everywhere. To make matters worse, people were mean. They spared no opportunity to degrade anyone who seemed vulnerable. Yet amid muggings, many street fights, and racist attacks from ignorance of invisible boundaries as my brothers and I traversed the city, I loved the schools. The 1970s was a moment in which the USA’s social welfare state attempted to invest in its infrastructure, which included public schools not only for children but also for adults. It was wonderful to meet children from so many different places, though there were tensions. The schools I went to had large numbers of blacks and Puerto Ricans (including Afro-Puerto Ricans), and whites were most represented by Italians. There were some white Jews (the first time I met white Jews, by the way), against whom I was astonished to see degrading attacks such as pennies being thrown at them. The mostly Catholic children didn’t know I was Jewish, and it was odd to me, since Jamaica was a place with a black national identity in which, as Jamaicans, some families were “black” despite having members from the very light to the very dark and others Asiatic. My background was not only Jewish (Palestinian Jews and Irish Sephardic Jews through my mother) but also of Tamil Indian background (also through my mother) and Chinese (through my father) in addition to Africans from Liberia, Ghana, and parts of East Africa such as Egypt and Ethiopia. My relatives had also moved around the various islands, so there was Cuban and Panamanian ancestry. So, it hadn’t occurred to me that my Irish Jewish and Tamil great grandmother would have been considered “white” had she been born in the USA, or at least not black. I was also shocked at the hatred for black people. It’s not that there wasn’t antiblackness in Jamaica.  It was just that in the USA it took violent and other overtly discriminatory forms.  My experiences included witnessing several blocks full of angry whites with weapons prepared to attack us when I was in middle school, and the liberal use of the word “nigger” said it all. Anyhow, amid all that was also beauty and kindness. I discovered my ability to learn musical instruments quickly, and I developed an unyielding love of natural science (astronomy, chemistry, biology) to the point of conducting many at-home experiments. I distinctly recall trying to figure out how material things are able to be, and I remember noticing a “sound” to reality, as though there were frequencies through which all things that are related to each other must interact for an effect the consequence of which is material being. I also loved writing, and wrote so often that my teachers would set aside time for me to read my stories and essays to the classes. Yes, I was an odd child. This didn’t stop me from having friends, but my friendships were always premised on mutual wonder. Anyhow, I’m offering too much. Let’s simply speed things up and say that I became a musician and continued writing.  Along the way, I had great teachers.  They ranged from one who gave me my first set of encyclopedias at the completion of the 6th grade to another who gave me my first copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X in the 8th grade to a wonderful gay teacher in the 9th grade who spent much time with me discussing Marx and Hegel and their philosophy of history to the many great jazz musicians with whom I worked at Jazz Mobile in Harlem (such as Frank Foster, Freddie Waits, Charlie Persip, Billie Taylor, and Eddie Locke) to my high school music teachers of band and music theory. I had no plans to go to college.  I played music at night and took minimum wage jobs during the day. I ended up registering to the college in which my girlfriend was enrolled, and fell in love with learning so much that I took many classes, ended up in a special program called the Lehman Scholars Program (LSP), which was directed by classicist, poet, and jazz lover Gary Schwartz, and getting involved in a vibrant world of campus activism through the Black Students Union (which was my first connection to the anti-apartheid movement). I graduated with majors in philosophy and political science with a strong background in classics (because of the LSP), and triple honors because of theses I wrote for the two disciplines and the honors program.  I also became a member of Phi Beta Kappa. I spent the rest of the 1980s playing blues, jazz, and rock ’n roll in NYC and teaching high school, where I created a special program for in-school truants.  It was called “The Second Chance Program.” Our students were so difficult that we were informed that “success” meant 10 percent completing their high school diploma.  We regularly achieved an 85 percent completion rate.  The details of the innovations we developed in that program would take too much time for this interview. Let’s just say that with such success, I was asked to write a study of the program. When doing so, it occurred to me that one thing wouldn’t make sense to the school administrators. We were ultimately successful because we respected the agency of our students. We embraced their humanity. That observation stuck with me in the form of a question that has permeated my intellectual career: Why is it that although we are aware we are human beings, it matters for us to be treated as such? When people are treated as human, they grow; when they are denied such, they wither. I became concerned with human potential. There were many intellectual turns here and there, as I had secured studies in areas ranging from economics to aesthetics along that path before entering Yale University to study philosophy. I had thought this question of potential was best explored through delving deeply into Aristotle’s theories of potentiality. The great scholar of Aristotle, Sarah Waterlow Broadie, was there. She felt I should expand my horizons, as I had only studied analytical philosophy, so she recommended I take Maurice Natanson’s seminar on Jean-Paul Sartre. That experience with Natanson was love at first sight, so to speak. He was a phenomenologist who was also a professor of psychiatry and literature. He became my mentor, though I had also worked with the great logician Ruth Barcan Marcus and several other stellar professors there. My committee was eventually Jonathan Smith, the famed scholar of American philosophy and German idealism, and M. Shawn Copeland, with whom I studied Black Liberation Theology, Womanist Theology, Political Theology, and African American political thought. Lots of other things happened during those 3.5 years at Yale. I became an organizer who brought together left-leaning political groups all across New Haven, especially through my work with the Black Graduate Network and a group called Brothers Getting Busy (which was organized by a brother called Shabazz who subsequently suffered several terrible tragedies). We were effective enough to shut down most of the city of New Haven during a staff’s strike at the university.  I worked with all the religious institutions, and even with a group at the forefront of AIDS activism because of the discrimination we saw against those suffering from the, at that time, pandemic.  Thinking back, I don’t know how my colleague Renée White (with whom I co-led the Black Graduate Network) and I managed to do so much in so little time.  I also continued playing jazz in those years, with a trumpeter named Greg Hampton and at times with bassist, Jeff Harmon (who was an activist and UPS worker and is now, by the way, White’s husband). My intellectual work in that period was at first formal (I wrote a 90-page exploration of deontic logic) and then increasingly through the question of what it meant to engage the human being’s relationship to reality radically.  It struck me that not only the question but also the questioner should be interrogated.  The result was my dissertation: “Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism: A Study in the Philosophy of Jean-Paul Sartre,” on which I worked, with my advisor Natanson’s counsel, in the spirit of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka Kansas, at “deliberate speed.” The first draft was completed in four months, so we spent the rest of the year revising it about 10 times, and I completed my degree in a defense for which I earned a “distinction” in April 1993. I had initially hoped to return to the Bronx to teach in the immigrant communities from which I came, but those teaching colleges weren’t interested in me, so I applied, at the advice of Natanson, to big research places. I was offered an appointment at Yale, but I decided I wanted to learn more about the world. My interest was never merely academic, so I first went to the Midwest to Purdue University (which made many of my peers thought I was crazy), where I developed a lifelong friendship with Leonard Harris and William McBride, and then to Brown University, where the same emerged with Paget Henry. I eventually returned to my concern for public education and decided to go to Temple University, though some wonderful colleagues wanted to recruit me at the University of Pennsylvania.  Again, there’s not enough space for details in an already long response. This story has many missing elements, such as family tragedies, etc. I liked the initiatives that were taking place at UCONN, especially in the Philosophy Department, so I came here to be part of a creative community committed to building something special. In between was the founding of several organizations and associations and my work on the global stage, which led also to my appointments in South Africa, Jamaica, and France.

  • You are the founder of the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies as well as the president of the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought and, from 2003 till 2008, of the Caribbean Philosophical Association. What are the purposes of these organizations?

I noticed the misrepresentations of Jewish people not only in the United States but also across the globe. Once not white, suddenly there were not only white Jews but also their domination as the authentic exemplars of Jewish people. My work on race theory led to my outrage of a lack of nuance and understanding of these issues. There are Jewish people, for instance, who are black in one country and white in others. The perpetual movement of Jewish peoples followed by various communities becoming hegemonic because of their place in various empires meant a constant shift of their visibility and invisibility. Worse, every group of Jewish people I’ve met asserted themselves as the authentic Jews (readers of my work know I’m a staunch critic of authenticity narratives).  Anyhow, the invisibility of Jewish diversity led to my concern to change that. Such efforts began during my years of teaching at Brown University, where I was also the faculty mentor of the Multiracial Jewish Club, and then, through the urging of my friend and student Walter Isaac, I joined a research group in San Francisco called Be’chol Lashon (“In Every Tongue”), where I met the late great Jewish demographer and urban sociologist Gary Tobin. I’ve always rejected the view that ideas could live without a home. So, I worked to build institutions as material conditions for them. I founded the Center for Afro-Jewish Studies and the Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought as conditions for the possibility of research in those areas. I’m often asked why I chose the title “Afro-Jewish Studies” for the former, since the center studied the full range of Jewish communities.  My answer was that a “Center for Jewish Diversity” would mean, in many people’s minds, one for Ashkenazi, Mizrahi, and Sephardi.  Jewish racial and ethnic diversity would be occluded. “Afro-Jewish Studies” compelled people not only to ask important questions but also think of Jews differently. The Institute for the Study of Race and Social Thought was founded as a place for creative work in the human sciences, especially in the study of its namesake. The Caribbean Philosophical Association was founded with a similar conviction: Ideas emerge from communities, and the latter need institutions in which to grow. The motto of the association is “shifting the geography of reason.” We aimed not to mimic organizations from the north but instead to think differently and develop alternative professional models. We take seriously Fanon’s observation of each generation’s having its mission to fulfill or betray. Our presidents serve one term, and we focus on cultivating leadership from the younger generation. Thus, there are people now leading the organization who were in graduate school when it was founded, and there are some among the secretariat who were in undergraduate school. We subsequently linked with Francophone, Hispanophone, Lusophone, and Dutch-speaking communities across the Caribbean, First Nation communities across the Americas, organizations in Africa, Asia, Europe, and South America, developed publishing institutions such as journals and varieties of book series, created international awards for scholarship for and on thought from the global south, and even have a summer school.  Much of this is due to the creativity each subsequent president and vice president and members of the secretariat was able to bring to the association.

Interview of Lewis Gordon realized by E. Michaut


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