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What I Learned Teaching African Philosophy This Semester

This semester, I have been teaching an independent study on African philosophy with two young women. And I have experienced some painful and joyful emotional growth in the process.

This was our anthology, which I highly recommend.

They have taught me so much. We finished our independent study the other day by watching the movie Judas and the Black Messiah*. It is about the Black Panthers and the assassination of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton by Chicago law enforcement. It’s really interesting.

And it is really distressing.

Content Warning: The following paragraph as well as some other paragraphs in the post have some brief descriptions of violence against People of Color. Judas and the Black Messiah* ends with an historically accurate depiction of brutality by law enforcement again People of Color while they are sleeping. The police fired over one hundred bullets at sleeping Black Panther party members. Ballistics experts determined that the members of the Black Panther party only fired one bullet, if that.

Fred Hampton was 21 when he died. His wife was about to give birth to their first child, Fred Hampton, Jr. 

To be honest, I sometimes struggle with the Black Panthers as an organization. On the one hand, they did awesome things. For example, Fred Hampton (a key leader in the party) formed a Rainbow Coalition that banded people of all difference races and ethnicities (white, Latinx, and black) together to battle poverty and hunger.

The Black Panthers also worked to protect black neighborhoods and their inhabitants against the brutality of the police and people motivated by racial hatred.

Fred Hampton’s family was friends with Emmett Till. Till was a fourteen year old black boy who was brutally lynched and murdered for supposedly offending a white woman. (You can read more about this here. Please prepare yourself if you do because Till’s death, as well as its surrounding circumstances, is horrifying.)

Horrifying incidences such as this were all too common for Fred Hampton and other members of the black community. It is no wonder they felt like they had to form a party to protect themselves. I definitely understand this.

Nevertheless, sometimes certain members of the Black Panthers resorted to violent rhetoric and actions that are hard for me, a Quaker and a pacifist, to understand. But I need to struggle with these issues. This is a post I wrote recently on a related issue:

Property Destruction and Police Violence

What I do understand, however, from listening to my black friends and students is that the issues of racism and police police brutality are very real to them.

They experience the trauma of these issues, whether personally or proximally, daily. And I have decided that if I truly want to love them, I need to understand these issues and the history of them.

I can’t pretend that I know more about these issues or that I somehow have easy answers. Because I am white, I have a different embodied experience than they do. So, I need to listen, empathize, and hear their experience.

And I realize I need to listen to a wide range of voices on this issue. I can’t just listen to the voices that make me feel comfortable or that express views that require no change from me. Here is a post I wrote recently on a related issue:

The Candace Owens Video and Systemic Racism

That is one of the reasons I do independent studies by request on African philosophy. It’s also how I ended up watching Judas and the Black Messiah with my students.

Watching this movie would have been upsetting had I watched it by myself. It was really upsetting to watch with two young amazing black women after we have spent a whole semester talking about African philosophy, the black experience, and the struggle for liberation.

I couldn’t help thinking of them and my other black students and friends. And I couldn’t help thinking about the recent George Floyd protests as I watched the movie, especially its violent finale.

I ended up crying.

To be honest, I ended up borderline sobbing, which was a bit embarrassing. I know these issues affect them deeply, and I don’t want this kind of cruelty and racism to exist in the world. In the midst of my tears, I apologized and told them that I wanted to end our class on a note of hope, but I didn’t know what to say.

And so they took over.

They talked about what gives them hope and what makes them afraid and lose hope. I told them that I didn’t know what to do sometimes but that teaching them and other students in African philosophy had changed me, and I couldn’t look at the world the same way again.

I was thinking about how at one point in my life I had a lot of “answers” about a lot of things of which I had no first-hand experience. That was unwise of me. Now I try to listen, learn, to be willing not to have pat answers, and to be willing to cry or even sob. I think that’s much wiser, and I feel joy in letting go of the need to be right and in control.

This post is dedicated to my students but also to anyone else who wants to work to make the world a better place. It’s also dedicated to anyone who wants to grow as a person and who finds the process very painful sometimes.

Growth is painful. And it also brings joy.


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*Judas and the Black Messiah is a solid movie and very helpful for understanding the issues surrounding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover’s handling of the Black Panther party at this time. Please be aware that it is not, in any way, a happy movie, and there is profanity and some strong scenes of violence throughout. It is very enlightening, though.

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