Professor of Philosophy and M. Moran Weston/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies, Columbia University
My main areas of research include social and political philosophy (esp. anti-racist critical theory), the history of African-American political thought, 19th Century European Philosophy (esp. Nietzsche), existentialism, and aesthetics (including literature and philosophy, representations of race in film, and the literary theory and criticism of African-American literature).
My book, Zarathustra’s Dionysian Modernism (Stanford UP, 2001) is a contribution to the philosophical scholarship on Nietzsche’s Also Sprach Zarathustra; in Zarathustra, I argue, Nietzsche exploits literature’s capacity for philosophical invention (what my colleague, Philip Kitcher, describes as its ability to “build new ways of conceiving the world and our place in it”) to elaborate a philosophical explanation of the possibility of creating new values.
Much of my work lies at the intersection of aesthetics and the philosophy of race or at the intersection of political philosophy and the philosophy of race.
My writings in the former vein have focused on representations of race in film. In “Aesthetics and Receptivity: Kant, Nietzsche, Cavell, and Astaire,” for example, I take issue with Stanley Cavell’s reading of two routines performed by Fred Astaire in The Band Wagon and argue that a failure to give sufficient attention to the workings of racial ideology can lead aesthetic judgment astray.
My writings in the latter vein pivot around the theme of racial injustice. In “Race, Multiculturalism, and Democracy,” for example, I 1) defend a social constructionist account of black racial identity and 2) rely on that account to argue the case for endorsing race-conscious multicultural education as a means for fostering the capacity for democratic deliberation. In another essay, “Autobiography, Political Hope, and Racial Justice,” I consider current prospects for a racially progressive politics in the perspective of two autobiographies, Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father and W. E. B. Du Bois’s Dusk of Dawn.
During the last ten years, or so, my scholarship has focused on the history of Afro-Modern and, specifically, African-American political thought. In In the Shadow of Du Bois: Afro-Modern Political Thought in America (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), I situate Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folk within the Afro-modern tradition, a rich body of inquiry that is bound together by certain thematic preoccupations-—e.g., the political organization of white supremacy, the nature and effects of racial ideology, and the possibilities of black emancipation—and that includes the writings of Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, Frantz Fanon, and others. Souls, I argue, is this tradition’s preeminent, political theoretical response to Jim Crow, the now defunct system of American racial apartheid. My ongoing scholarly engagement with the Afro-Modern tradition includes a book-in-progress on Martin Delany’s political thought, an essay on M.L. King’s concept of dignity, and plans for a short study of Du Bois’s Darkwater.
Finally, I have recently begun to write about the contributions that the study of the history of African American political thought can make to anti-racist critical theory and about issues relating to the concept of ideology.