Africana Philosophy: Globalizing the
By Michael J. Monahan, assistant professor
of philosophy at Marquette University
In the fall of 2007, Africana Philosophy makes its
debut at Marquette University. This course provides
an introduction to the philosophical traditions of Africa,
the Afro-Caribbean, and African America. Marquette has
had a course on African American philosophy for nearly
thirty years, a fact of which the university, and the
philosophy department in particular, should be very
proud. Nevertheless, when I came to Marquette, I reconstructed
the course with an eye toward moving beyond a narrow
focus on African America. I wanted to engage with Africa
itself, as well as with the African diaspora in the
Caribbean and the Americas.
In making this change, I looked toward the role this
course would fill as part of the “diverse cultures”
requirement in Marquette’s Core of Common Studies.
The “diverse cultures” requirement invites
students to reflect upon the effect human diversity
has on their own identities by familiarizing them with
differences and similarities across cultures. In light
of this goal, I hope to explicitly draw students’
attention to the complicated manifestations of diversity
that exist both outside and inside their own
Combining “External” and “Internal”
Often courses that fulfill diversity requirements focus
almost exclusively either on “external”
or “internal” relations to diversity. By
“external” relations to diversity, I mean
diversity that stands outside of whatever counts as
the home or norm for a given subject of study. A course
on Chinese history, or African literature, would be
“external” since these subjects stand outside
of most students’ “home” in the history
of Western civilization or Anglo-American literature.
By “internal” relations to diversity, I
refer to diversity that exists within the home
or norm. Courses in Native American art, or Asian American
history, or even African American philosophy, tend to
be “internal” in this sense. By making the
shift from “African American” to “Africana”
philosophy, I aim to explicitly blur this distinction
between external and internal relations of diversity.
This “blurring” approach presents important
advantages, one of which is discipline-specific. Courses
that focus exclusively on African American philosophy
tend to place thinkers in dialogue with European and
Anglo-American philosophers, thus maintaining the internal
and normative structure of the Western tradition. These
courses may, for example, explore W. E. B. DuBois’s
relation to G. W. F. Hegel’s philosophy of history
or to William James’s theory of knowledge. But
they may simultaneously overlook “external”
(non-Western) influences, including the manner in which
African American philosophers engaged with the intellectual
and philosophical traditions of Africa and the Caribbean.
By shifting the scope of the course to explicitly include
these traditions, I move beyond the narrow focus on
African America’s encounter with European philosophy.
I thus situate African American philosophy within a
broader context of global (not just Western)
philosophy. Here the external distinction between
African America and the African and Caribbean regions
informs the internal distinctions between African
American and European American schools of thought.
Ultimately, these divisions collapse into each other.
To fully understand how African American philosophy
differs from European American philosophy, a student
must understand African American philosophy’s
intellectual relation to Africa and the rest of the
diaspora. The internal inquiry, then, leads to the external.
At the same time, to fully understand the relation between
African American philosophy and its African and Caribbean
counterparts, a student must attend to the unique relations
each of these traditions has with European American
philosophy. The external comparison thus leads to another
form of internal inquiry.
Shifting Perspectives for Student Learning
As the student realizes the interdependence of the
internal and the external, she comes to reimagine her
own relationship to the world. For every relation of
external diversity, there is an “us” that
stands as the normed center, and a diverse
“them” that stands outside of that center.
By blurring the distinction between the internal and
the external, diversity education also blurs the distinction
between “us” and “them.” When
diversity education does its job well, there is a kind
of decentering for the student, where he or
she is able to move beyond and call into question the
position of the normative “us.” Diversity
education strives to upset our students’ tendencies
to take their “normal” perspectives for
granted. It works to make them to understand one or
more “foreign” perspectives, and when things
go well, to see how their norm is somebody
else’s foreign other. This is an explicit
aim of my Africana philosophy course.
Take, for instance, an African American student who
enrolls in my course to fulfill requirements both for
diverse cultures and for her Africana studies major.
Through the course of the semester, I hope that she
will relate her personal history, cultural background,
and identity not only to the histories, cultures, and
philosophies of Africa and the African diaspora, but
also to those of Europe. Most importantly, I hope that
she will recognize how the unique confluence of traditions
that emerged in the United States has affected her identity.
If I am successful, my student will be at once a part
of and outside of all of these traditions. Her encounter
with diversity will not simply evoke appreciation of
the foreignness of Africana philosophy or the foreignness
of European/American philosophy from an Africana perspective.
It will instead lead her to question the very roots
of these structural distinctions in the first place.
Just as the internal leads to the external (and vice-versa),
the norm and the foreign are deeply interdependent.
Similarly, a European American student may expect the
Africana philosophy course to expose him to an exotic
and exciting “foreign” body of philosophy.
He may be surprised to learn the extent to which the
intellectual traditions of Africa and the African diaspora
have shaped and informed the dominant European/American
philosophy. While the contrast he finds in Africana
philosophy may deepen his understanding of the European
tradition, the depth and breadth of similarities between
the two traditions may surprise him. He will find his
sense of what is normal and what is foreign challenged.
Thus the student will reach a deeper and more sophisticated
understanding not only of philosophy, but also of his
own place and role within a diverse world.
If I am successful, each of my two example students
will find their dissimilarities matched by their similarities.
They will find that their differences of background
and perspective, which are undoubtedly real and important,
are countered by similarities and common ground. Just
as external diversity leads to internal diversity, and
as the norm leads to the foreign, so difference leads
In the Africana Philosophy class, we will inquire into
the very meaning of Africana philosophy itself. What
characteristics do the diverse elements of this single
tradition share? In order to answer this question, we
must attend both to what is different and what is similar
about Africana philosophy’s individual elements.
We will also identify what ties the Africana philosophical
tradition to and sets it apart from the European tradition.
As a consequence of these investigations, my students
will find themselves at various times on the same and
different sides of the increasingly unstable divide
between the normal and the foreign. Rather than seeing
divisions between groups as hard and impenetrable, students
will see that apparently discrete groups are actually
interdependent, and that difference is always mingled
with similarity. Since students often reflexively believe
that “difference” is incommensurable, this
revelation of similarity is crucial as they form an
understanding of their place in the world.
Diversity education should do more than simply offer
students a buffet-style array of exotic intellectual
delicacies. Educators must make a conscious effort to
bring students into critical confrontation with their
own relations to diversity. Students must come to realize
that they can not only find themselves in the “diverse”
other, but also find diversity within themselves. I
believe that almost any class can and should accomplish
this outcome. Africana Philosophy simply offers an opportunity
to engage these issues with an intensity, focus, and
rigor that is sadly uncommon within the general curriculum.
Editor’s note: Marquette University is a
participating institution in AAC&U’s Shared
Futures: Global Learning for General Education project.