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Black Existentialism Brings Philosophy to Bear on Our White Supremacist World

Black existentialism isn’t just about suffering — it is also about affirmation.

isitors examine an exhibition on the Harlem Renaissance and Transtlantic Modernism, which includes some 160 works of painting, sculpture, photography, film and ephemera at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, on February 20, 2024.

As we celebrate Black History Month, it is important that we not think of that history as complete. The Black diaspora constitutes a complex existential tapestry that is still being woven — a tapestry of agency, creative expression, suffering, pain, joy, resistance and imaginative futures. In short, not only is the telling of Black history incomplete, but its future is not a fait accompli. Hence, though we celebrate Black History Month annually, we must also continue to examine the constantly unfolding dynamism of embodied Black spiritual, aesthetic, ethical and intellectual practices. It is with this understanding that I turn to the rich theme of Black existentialism.

Most have heard of existentialism as a philosophical approach propounded by such Western/European thinkers as Søren Kierkegaard (who is said to be the father of the intellectual movement), Friedrich Nietzsche, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus and even the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky. But what about Black existentialism? What are its presuppositions? What are the social and historical conditions that have shaped its philosophical (even metaphilosophical) insights, especially insights that are crucial to Black people in the contemporary U.S.?

To address these questions, I turned to the work of E. Anthony Muhammad, assistant professor of educational research at Georgia Southern University. In this exclusive interview for Truthout, Muhammad discusses how Black existentialism functioned as a crucial site for his own existential explorations and intellectual development, and his most recent book, Discovering Black Existentialism.

George Yancy: Delineate what you see as hallmarks of Black existentialism. Also, share some of the historical and contemporary figures who are instrumental in shaping this incredible philosophical perspective.

E. Anthony Muhammad: For me, alterity (or otherness) is what lies at the core of Black existentialism and, specifically, the racialized alterity that manifests as the anti-Black terror, oppression and subjugation of white supremacy. I see this antagonistic relationship between white society and its Black “Other” as the source of the concerns with freedom, anguish and liberation that philosopher Lewis Gordon identified as core features of Black existentialist thought. But what has always accompanied this alteric disposition of whites toward Blacks is suffering. As you point out in your work (and I’m thinking here of your book, Black Bodies, White Gazes), it is precisely the suffering of Black bodies — the lynching, the killing by police, the slaughter of Black people in grocery stores — that represents the existential reality of being Black in America. However, I don’t want to paint a totally dire picture because, in addition to racialized alterity and the concomitant Black suffering that accompanies it, a third hallmark of Black existentialism is affirmation, redemption. Despite white society’s unrelenting efforts throughout the centuries, we are still fighting, still existing, and in many cases, thriving.

As for prominent figures, I personally cast a wide net in my conceptualization of Black existentialism. For example, I see figures as temporally and stylistically diverse as Frederick Douglass (and others who penned narratives of their lives under enslavement), Ralph Ellison, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Billie Holiday’s ode to “Strange Fruit” and even Elijah Muhammad’s depictions of “White devils” as contributing to the corpus of Black existentialist thought because, in their own way, they each addressed anguish, freedom, liberation and Black suffering under white oppression. From a scholarly perspective, writers such as yourself, W.E.B. Du Bois, Frantz Fanon, Lewis Gordon, Lucius T. Outlaw, Leonard Harris, Charles W. Mills and Tommy Curry have certainly been instrumental in shaping my thinking about Black existentialism.

When I think about one of the key themes of existentialism, I think of Jean-Paul Sartre’s thesis that “existence precedes essence.” For Sartre, this means that human beings create meaning — that is, we are not condemned to an ontological template, as it were. There is no fixed human nature. Yet, anti-Black racism precisely attempts to fix the Black body into a racist template or a racist stereotype that refuses our existence, our capacity to be otherwise. It is this “fixing” that the philosopher Lewis R. Gordon sees as a form of epistemological and ontological closure. Flesh out how Black existentialism frames what it means to be Black vis-à-vis such a closure.

Those are great ways to frame it, “fixing” and “closure,” because that is exactly what anti-Black white supremacy does; it affixes to Black people an absurd, fictitious caricature and it closes any and all attempts to see Black people as anything other than what white supremacy has constructed. I see this “fixing” as synonymous with the “invisibility” that Ralph Ellison discusses in his novel, Invisible Man. I also see it in the superimposed anti-Black “subperson” status of Black people as described by philosopher Charles Mills in his understanding and critique of whiteness. The “closure” that you mentioned signals that the habitual movements enjoyed by whites in society are indeed closed off to Blacks. This is the “disorientation,” the “being stopped,” and the “I cannot” imposed upon Black bodies articulated by philosopher Sara Ahmed. These are the dilemmas taken up in Black existentialism. And, more than just being taken up, these are the dilemmas at the heart of Black existentialism.

By starting with oppression and subjugation and beginning in the muck and mire of Black existence, Black existentialism is in many ways a bottom-up philosophy. Your mentioning Sartre also dovetails with the framing taken up in Black existentialism. The existentialist tradition of which Sartre is himself a representative of (as well as Continental philosophy as a whole) has as its concerns the choices, freedoms and actions of the individual. With Black existentialism, however, the overriding concern is with the collective experiences of a people, Black people. I also see in Sartre’s oft-quoted words “Hell is other people,” from his play No Exit, an alignment with Black existentialism. The fixing and closures imposed upon Blacks by whites (the “other people”) represent “Hell” because Black people are forever condemned to and tormented by the myths, stereotypes and apprehensions of the white gaze. Articulating this hellish existence as the Other is the crucial theme of Black existentialism, its “first philosophy,” if you will.

What I find fascinating about your work is how you integrate pedagogy and Black existentialism. Discuss how you use Black existentialist thinkers as an important way of getting students to see themselves in philosophy in ways that they might not otherwise do because students continue to be primarily exposed to the works of dead white men.

Thank you for asking this question. As an educator, it’s important for me not only to connect with students, but also to convey content in a way that is both informative and impactful. For Black students, learning about philosophy and phenomenology (which studies the texture of human experience as philosopher Drew Leder talks about) can often be boring because of the whiteness that is pervasive in its presentation. Typically, the complex, often obtuse presentation of ideas solely from the European philosophical tradition produces a disconnect in Black students. I’m speaking from my own personal experience; I’m not just theorizing. For me, reading and learning about Hans-Georg Gadamer, Edmund Husserl, Martin Heidegger, and others was an arduous task. There was no connection to me other than needing to understand these thinkers and their ideas as part of my doctoral program. Because of this, I set about finding a way to make a connection between my studies, phenomenology specifically, and my own life and experiences. I found that connection in your work and the larger works of Black existentialists, Africana phenomenologists, and the like. I’ve also developed a way to help Black students make this connection as well.

In a talk I gave at a historically Black university, for example, I was discussing phenomenology and its foundational scholars. I spoke of Husserl, Heidegger and Maurice Merleau-Ponty and their respective phenomenological projects. After this presentation of the philosophies of these “dead white men,” I noticed the eyes of the Black students had glazed over. Having planned for this, I took out an iPad and respectfully took a picture of the class. I then walked around the class letting each student look at the picture. When I got back to the front of the classroom, I asked, “What’s the first thing you looked for in the picture?” A brave soul raised their hand and said, “I was looking for me!” I went on to explain that it’s natural to look for ourselves in what’s put before us and when we don’t see ourselves, we often lose interest… like the students did in my presentation of dead white philosophers. On my next slide, I had images of Du Bois, Fanon and yourself, Dr. Yancy, with descriptions of each of your phenomenological projects which center around and foreground Black life in America. In that instant, those Black students found a connection between phenomenology and their experiences, and their interest was piqued. It’s important for me to find creative ways like that to make connections between Black existentialism and students.

For you, Black existentialism doesn’t function as a mere abstract philosophical way of seeing the world. Share how central Black existentialism is in terms of how you have come to understand your life and how you negotiate the world. Also, speak to how Black existentialism has generative implications for the ways in which Black people can resist anti-Blackness.

That is a powerful question. Part of the reason Black existentialism isn’t just an academic undertaking for me is because of the white gaze that Frantz Fanon discussed in Black Skin, White Masks and that is so integral to much of Black existential works. Every day, when I walk out of my front door, I am seen by an anti-Black society as a “n*****,” as “violent,” as “criminal,” as “the Other.” That cleaves to or adheres to me and all those like me no matter my degrees, my income, my accomplishments or my zip code. Given this reality, Black existentialism means more to me than just citing Black philosophers and rattling off its tenets. Black existentialism quite literally addresses, gives voice to, and prioritizes the anguish, despair and suspicion that society evokes and provokes and that I absolutely feel as a Black being wearing a hoodie, jogging down the street or simply buying groceries. If I never wrote another book or taught another class, this would still be my reality as a Black man.

But as I mentioned earlier, Black existentialism, for me, is not all doom and gloom. The descriptions of the muck and the mire are necessary because that’s Black history, our history, and in many ways, our reality still. But there’s also the liberatory and resistance aspects of Black existentialism. They go hand in hand. This is what I take from your work in Black Bodies, White Gazes on Black resistance, where you discuss “decoding/recoding.” In making visible the realities of Black life under white supremacy, Black existentialism’s descriptions are a means of decoding the world white society has constructed. But in that moment of decoding is also the act of recoding, of reenvisioning what Black life is and can be outside of the racist myths, stereotypes and caricatures imposed by the white world. This phase of recoding, of reenvisioning, of reinventing, of affirming, of becoming is what gives Black existentialism its redemptive and regenerative power.

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