67. Chike Jeffers on Slavery and Diasporic Philosophy

Posted on 10 January 2021

Co-host Chike joins Peter to look back at series two and ahead to series three.


Further Reading

• C. Jeffers, “Rights, Race, and the Beginnings of Modern Africana Philosophy,” in P.C. Taylor, L.M. Alcoff, and L. Anderson (eds), The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race (New York: 2017), 127-39.

• C. Jeffers, "Anna Julia Cooper and the Black Gift Thesis," History of Philosophy Quarterly 33 (2016): 79-97.

• C. Jeffers, "The Cultural Theory of Race: Yet Another Look at Du Bois's "The Conservation of Races,"" Ethics 123 (2013): 403-426.

• C. Jeffers, "The Pitfalls of Placing the African Personality on the World Stage: Edward Blyden's Cultural Nationalism and Cosmopolitanism," The APA Newsletter on Philosophy and the Black Experience 9 (2010): 1-5.


Joel Goldenberg 10 January 2021

I found it poignant that the philosophical thought of Paul Cuffe is interspersed among his shipping logs. This is as it may serve as an allusion and metaphor towards the philosophical question of Identity posed by the famous Ship of Theseus. Namely, that in the context of the African Diaspora the question of the Identity of its people is confounded by their having been displaced; a bit analogous to the question posed by Theseus’s ship having its parts replaced while still asking if it still retains its original identity.


I understand that this is an imperfect analogy as the diasporic displacement under consideration is a spatial one, whereas the ship’s parts that are replaced is of a more substantive nature. However, as you have mentioned throughout this series, the spatial dislocation is inevitably entwined with a cross-cultural proliferation [e.g. Christianity, African-“American” etc.], thus affecting to some extent a substantive identity change as well from African precolonial identity etc.


Thank you very much, both Dr. Chike Jeffers and Dr. Peter Adamson, for an extremely enlightening, informative, intellectual, and (above all) enjoyable series.

Peter Adamson 11 January 2021

In reply to by Joel Goldenberg

And thanks to you for this reflection on the episode! Glad you enjoyed it.

Jason MacDee 14 January 2021

I'm just curious when this episode was recorded and whether the specific mention of "insurrection" was inspired by events in the USA Capitol or a coincidence.

I know many podcasts record days/months ahead of actual release dates. This was released on 9 Jan 2021 according to Stitcher and the violence in the Capitol was on 6 Jan. You've discussed the various approaches about how the thinkers wanted to ensure freedom and equality, so it's no surprise the idea of an insurrection or other overthrow was brought up in this one as well as others. But I think this is the first episode where the specific term "insurrection" was used. So I was just curious if that was a complete coincidence, purposeful, or maybe a bit of priming from the current events. Or maybe I'm just primed and didn't notice it mentioned in previous episodes.

Thank you so much for all of your podcasts, I love them!

Well as you know we have occasionally (though rarely) referred to current events but in this case you're right to suspect we recorded this several weeks earlier. Almost always the podcasts are recorded a month or at least a couple of weeks in advance, to make sure there are no problems and give us (or rather our audio expert Jim) time to edit. So, just a coincidence!

Guy of Jerusalem 28 March 2021

The trilemma of integration, violence, or emigration which you discussed seems to be a not uncommon one in histories of downtrodden or persecuted peoples or groups (or at least those whose identities were fraught with a constant sense of threat). Its pressures have contributed to the development of political philosophy, and sometimes to some grave misjudgments, I should add. 

My question is: are new political philosophies being born out the Africana trilemma?  

I ask this question with a view to a comparison with two other, very different historical contexts, but in which this trilemma was quite a factor: 

For Jews in pretty much all European countries during the 19th century and first half of the 20th, this trilemma was central. On a practical level, those who inclined toward integration either assimilated as Jews and went about their business as citizens in their respective countries (having been granted emancipation rights, it was possible in some places), or simply converted into Christianity. Those who saw violence as the answer were drawn towards revolutionary Marxism. Emigration was of course the path of those who left to found anew a Jewish homeland in the ancestral land of Israel, or of those who left for the U.S., Argentina, and other welcoming countries. (This is obviously a simplification - many who were drawn toward integration were quite influenced by Marxism or other socialist ideas and were active in Jewish socialist movements, as were many Zionists. And Zionism itself had to answer to what degree it was right to employ violence for its goals).   

The same can be said regarding Protestant groups in 17th century western European countries. Many simply fought in the religious wars, and many emigrated to "the New World" or internally within Europe - there were options for them in this respect. Again, they had to answer to what degree violence was permissible in the emigration route. 

All this has much to do with philosophy: in the European Jewish case, Marxism broadly construed was a powerful answer - by making class struggle rather than religion or ethnicity the subject of discourse, the problem to be solved already presupposed that Jews could set aside their religion or ethnicity and focus on socio-economic-cultural reform within European countries. Many philosophers and intellectuals of Jewish descent operated within that mindset, at least in part. As we know, in Europe on the whole, that did not work out well for Jewish communities, as anti-Semites had other ideas. But a lot of philosophical ground was covered and is still being covered, in part at least as a result of the impetus of that trilemma. 

In the Protestant case in the 17th century, toleration was a powerful answer, and that contributed in general towards the development of liberalism. On the emigration route, it evolved towards the founding ideals of the United States, which sadly did not entirely abolish slavery at the start, nor did it at all rule out violence toward native peoples of the "New World," as we all know, leading to countless tragedies. But the start of it was that very trilemma, mixed in with many other factors of course... 

But I ask about Africana... 


Yes, that's a nice observation - and of course is one reason Africana philosophy is interesting and important, that so many of the thinkers are delving into topics of broader relevance. So my first answer would be just that, that even if the trilemma you point to is not unique to the Africana experience, what individual thinkers said about it was more specific and original (so just to give an example, because it's the most recent thing we did, the use of socialism to discuss integration by a figure like Hubert Harrison is complex and original). Then I think also there are specific aspects of the Africana context that make it philosophically distinctive, most obviously race: race becomes a topic that needs to be theorized and interrogated and you have many views on this ranging from hard biological theories to moderate ones (biological differences between races but with fuzzy edges) and social construction theories, which I think we may first encounter with Alain Locke. And of course these theories of race have knock on implications for what the thinkers say about the trilemma, for instance Locke's views on the interaction of cultures and races would not be comprehensible without his ideas about the social construction of group identity. Then there is also the historical dimension of the emigration option, which as Africana thinkers noted has parallels to the Jewish situation but is fundamentally different since they look back to Egypt, have complicated relationships to precolonial culture, and maybe most importantly often accept the Christian religion even as they conclude that they need to disembark from the Chirstian society of their oppressors. So in short I think what you're pointing to is more like a family resemblance: the details of each of these traditions is formidably complex.

Guy of Jerusalem 29 March 2021

In reply to by Peter Adamson

Thank you for your reply. I am learning a lot from your podcast. It really is a gem. 

Re: race - after reading a bit and thinking some about this issue, it seems to me that only racists would think about it as something biological. I am skeptical about many things, but not about "race" being socially constructed. We are all one species as attested by the ability to produce healthy offspring between any pair of male and female individuals, provided they are of the right age, health, etc. So you cannot "cut" between racialized groups along biological reproductive lines, which would have made them different species. On the other hand, you can socially "cut" the human species along any number of arbitrary bodily/biological dimensions, e.g. blood type, handedness, etc. Attaching moral or any kind of social significance to such differences is patently absurd in some cases - those that are not readily detectible by our senses (blood type). In others such as handedness, stigmatization is known to have occurred, but clearly it is absurd and has been recognized as such by everyone (who today attaches any moral significance to left-handedness? that is a bygone superstition). "Race" is a social cut of unfortunately significant and frequently fate-determining proportions, all too easily done on account of visuals - skin color mostly. But biologically, what makes skin color any more morally meaningful than blood type or handedness? I would argue that the philosophical interrogation needs to focus on why visuals count (socially) for as much as they do. I am always open to reading anything that could change my mind, and I am listening to your podcasts, but I seriously doubt anything would convince me to accept a biological theory on race, even if it is coming from people with the best intentions for historically discriminated groups. 

Re: Africana - without knowing much, what seems to me most interesting about it is heritage - the heritages of peoples whose formative periods occurred on the African continent. I do not know much about Russian philosophy, and my attitude is the same. (With respect to philosophical heritages I know more about, obviously the interests are specific to the contents). Indeed, because of the slave trade, an African diaspora has been created and now it seems that African heritages exist all around the Atlantic ocean. But surely, Africa should not be defined by the slave trade nor by the construction of race. Just like the Jewish or Irish peoples have known terrible hardships but are not defined by them, but rather by their unique heritages. Slavic peoples were subject to slave raids for centuries as their very name suggests, but no one would define them by this, nor by their unique physical attributes, but rather by their own, autonomous cultural products. 

Peter Adamson 29 March 2021

In reply to by Guy of Jerusalem

Yes, I totally agree about the last paragraph - this is one reason that the material we have covered in the diasporic traditions look so different in the light of the earlier parts of the series.

As for biological accounts of race, now in 2021 it's hard to disagree with what you say, though "biological" covers a lot of different possibilities. But in the 19th century as far as I could tell when we were covering that, the biological account of race was such a widespread, "common sense" view that Africana thinkers needed to resist racism from within a biological perspective though they often pointed to the idea of racial mixing, fuzzy boundaries, etc. But as we saw some Africana thinkers went so far as to say that the "original" races would reemerge from mixed populations after a few generations. (The Biblical stories about the origins of races were also important here.) Then too one could believe in biological races without saying that one race is inferior to another. So as I say, what you are saying is kind of the obvious non-racist view seems as far as I can tell to emerge only in the 20th century; there are anticipations of it in the 19th c but Locke is the first I've read who makes it crystal clear that races are socially constructed groupings.

And I'd add that just saying no to biology hardly settles the matter: there is now a healthy sub-field called Philosophy of Race, to which co-author Chike Jeffers has contributed significantly. It's sort of like in philosophy of mind: you can say "well Cartesian dualism is a non-starter" but that leaves open a myriad of other options as to what the mind is. Similarly, what race is, in terms of its causal sources and effects, its metaphysical status, etc is deeply complex. Sex/gender would be another comparable case.

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