Lewis Gordon: raising blackness into being

Categorized as a black philosopher, Gordon sees himself as an Africana philosopher – a liberation philosopher – precisely because of Africa’s `non-existence’ in history


To understand Lewis Gordon you’ve got to understand jazz. Both can improvise on a moment’s notice, turning themes, chords and words inside out. Both are keenly aware of rhythm and tone, timing, humor, irony. Both take the products of the past and shake new life into them. Both are bold and provocative. And both have their roots in the Pan-African-American experience and in religious expression. It seems fitting then that Gordon’s faculty appointment straddles Afro-American studies and religious studies.

At 33, Gordon was one of the youngest professors ever tenured at Purdue University. That was in 1995, his second year there. At that point he had two books and 28 publications completed. “A white person with 10 would’ve gotten tenure,” says Gordon in his quiet yet blunt way.

“Most white philosophers would rather hire a mediocre black philosopher than a first-rate one because it challenges the ongoing legitimization of exclusion,” he adds. “Being very talented as a black person is a liability at some white institutions.”

The room in Churchill House where Gordon spends nearly three hours each Monday afternoon teaching a course on African philosophy is one part classroom and three parts exhibition hall. In the center are the tables and chairs where a dozen students sit in a circle. They discuss Hegel, Sartre, Fanon, Michael Jackson, W.E.B. DuBois and “Star Trek” at various turns of Gordon’s riffs. His students follow and respond with the fluidity of a jam session.

Surrounding this buoyant exchange are huge photos of families trapped in ghetto blight, illustrations of slaves crammed naked into ships, period costumes from Rites and Reason Theatre productions, a skull caked with dirt, an open coffin full of food products depicting smiling black Sambos, maids and cooks. But the students don’t notice the items on display from Rites and Reason’s archives. They’re totally focused on Gordon.

“According to Hegel, history is always located at points of `universality,'” he says as the class dissects Hegel’s “Philosophy of History.” “Of course the subtext to this is the advancement of European civilization. …That’s how history functions in the academy, to matter, to be important. … Although you have a lot of people on the planet, only a few are `historical.'” Then he riffs into “Star Trek”: “Have you ever noticed that on `Star Trek’ when they go to other planets they always find the right people to contact, the ones in power? But when aliens supposedly land here, it’s always in the middle of a corn field?”

He continues: “For Hegel, there was within any epoch, organizations and individuals of the highest level of achievement of that planet, not just that community. So in the 18th century you have to be in France. In 150 A.D. it’s Rome and Constantinople, then Athens….To Hegel, to be human is to have History, and since Africa has no history, Africans are sub-human. The reality of a people has to come through the eyes of Europeans – the center.”

Gordon, whose mother and her five children arrived from Jamaica in 1971 and lived in the Bronx, backed into the role of philosopher. A precocious child, he was reading and writing by age 3. He taught himself eight instruments by age 10 and played drums with professional jazz musicians while a teenager. “I used to hang out with these guys in the nightclubs, then they started asking me to join them on stage,” recalls the bespectacled Gordon, sitting in a restaurant with is 2-year-old daughter, Jennifer, asleep in a nearby stroller.

“I went to college to be with my girlfriend,” he says of his days at Lehman College in the City University of New York system. “They had this program where you could take as many classes as you wanted as long as you kept your grades up, so I took eight each semester. I just picked the ones out of the catalogue that looked interesting.” He maintained an A-minus average. This unorthodox method of study resulted in the registrar calling him into the office one day and pointing out that he didn’t have a major and needed one in order to graduate. “I asked the registrar to look at the courses I’d taken and to tell me which major I was closest to completing – philosophy was one of them.” He graduated magna cum laude in philosophy, political science and the humanities.

After marriage and graduation, his wife urged him to teach. He got a position at a high school in the Bronx that had an attendance rate of 70 percent. Gordon’s classes had a 98 percent attendance rate. He told his class at Churchill House about an experience at that high school: “I asked the students, who were mostly white, to tell me all the stereotypes they had in their heads about black people. At first they were uncomfortable, but I told them it was OK, and I wrote them on the blackboard. Pretty soon, I had four blackboards full of things – drug abuse, teen pregnancy, incest, crime, you name it. Then I went down the list and asked them if they knew any white people who ever did those things, and I’d check them off. After we were done, everything on the list was checked off.”

In 1990, when Gordon was still a graduate student in philosophy at Yale, Paget Henry, associate professor of sociology and director of the Afro-American studies program, invited him to deliver a lecture at Brown. “We were so impressed with him,” says Henry. “And while he was here, he expressed interest in coming here to teach – I never forgot that.”

Henry followed Gordon’s rise at Purdue, and when the search began for the position vacated by Michael Dyson (who went to the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill), Henry pounced. “I knew who I wanted,” he says. “And when the people in religious studies saw his work in black theology, they said `count us in.'” Gordon’s joint appointment was effective July 1 of this year.

“He’s already making a striking contribution to our doctoral program in contemporary religious thought, training all of our students in fundamental questions of method,” says Wendell Dietrich, professor of religious studies and professor of Judaic studies. “There is a power, originality and freshness in his thinking regarding contemporary `spirituality’ as he puts it….He’s a complete academic with a very powerful social conscience.”

Gordon is categorized as a black philosopher but sees himself as an Africana philosopher – a liberation philosopher – precisely because of Africa’s “non-existence” in history, philosophy and in much of academe. His latest and probably most ground-breaking work is an anthology of essays he edited. “Existence in Black: An Anthology of Black Existential Philosophy” includes essays by 20 scholars in the field, including two essays by Paget Henry and one by Gordon. This 300-page think tank effectively forges a new field: Black Existentialism. In his introduction, Gordon writes:

“For many black people, when the question of their blackness is raised, there is but one challenge from which all the others follow. It usually takes the form of another question: What is to be done in a world of nearly a universal sense of superiority to, if not universal hatred of, black folk?”

Gordon already is being compared with such black intellectuals as Cornel West and Dyson. “Lewis’ style is not as a public intellectual, like Mike and Cornel,” says Henry. “His scholarly side is stronger than his public side.” He adds, “But Lewis is going to make very important contributions to the field of philosophy and equally important contributions to Afro-American studies.”

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