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The Black Atlantic, Afrocentricity, and Existential Phenomenology:

Kathryn T. Gines

Dissertation Abstract: This dissertation examines the system of anti-black racism and the means available to confront it. I take into consideration the ways in which systems of racial oppression are buttressed by violence and the difficult questions concerning how they can be dismantled. I argue that while Arendt’s political thought is often illuminating, her limited conception of the political has a dire impact on her analyses of race, racism, colonialism, and violence. I problematize the exclusion of economics from the political realm in “The Social Question” and trace this exclusion to The Human Condition and the well-known public/private distinction. Arendt’s distinctions between the public, the private, and the social prove to be a hindrance to her analysis of anti-black racial discrimination in numerous contexts, from segregation in the U.S. to colonization in Africa. In order to explain why decolonization is often a violent phenomenon, I examine Sartre’s and Fanon’s arguments that colonialism is a violent system that creates an antagonistic relationship between the colonized and the colonizer.
I contend that Arendt’s critique of Sartre and Fanon in On Violence distorts their analyses. I also take up the debate between Sartre and Fanon, arguing (contra Sartre’s Black Orpheus) that once an authentic race consciousness is attained, it should be retained (even in the absence of racial oppression).

Doctoral Dissertation: “From Political Space to Political Agency: Arendt, Sartre, and Fanon on Race and Revolutionary Violence.” Director: Robert Bernasconi. Readers: Sara Beardsworth, Mary Beth Mader, Ronald Sundstrom

“The Black Atlantic, Afrocentricity, and Existential Phenomenology:
Theoretical Tools for Black European Studies”

This paper aims at contributing to one of the stated objectives of the conference, namely, “to advance the development of new theoretical and methodological tools to understand the African Diaspora within Europe.” I begin by briefly taking up the concept “The Black Atlantic” including its reference to the cultural/intellectual contacts between members of the African Diaspora in America and Europe, how it is employed by Paul Gilroy, and the strong critiques of Gilroy’s analysis by Molefi Kete Asante. I then examine the counter-narrative offered by Asante’s project of “Afrocentricity” alongside his critique of “Eurocentricsm” and “Western Philosophy” (or its sorted, inaccurate history) in general. In the final portion of the essay I make the case that the discipline of Philosophy (in spite of its racist overtones and undertones), or more specifically, Existentialist-Phenomenology provides a useful theoretical framework for examining the African Diaspora in Europe (i.e. Black Europeans) particularly in relationship to notions of history, culture, location, and (adopted) identity. I demonstrate this through the work of scholars like Frantz Fanon (French Martinican) and Richard Wright (American Negro and French citizen) both of whom used Existentialist-Phenomenology to analyze and articulate their lived-experience of blackness (not only in their “native” birth places, but also in Europe and even in Africa). I also consider the (in)compatibility of Gilroy’s Black Atlantic, Asante’s Afrocentricism, and Philosophy’s Existential-Phenomenology as methodological/theoretical tools for Black European Studies.

The phrase “The Black Atlantic” has been popularized by (Black) British scholar Paul Gilroy who published a book under this title which was followed up by Against Race. This project has been criticized by scholars like Asante who advocate Afrocentricity and take seriously the notion of a collective identity founded in the shared experience of being descendents of Africa or members of the African Diaspora in an anti-Black and anti-African “situation.” Asante describes Gilroy’s project as an “attempt to deconstruct the notion of African Identity in the United States and elsewhere…[that] runs squarely against the lived experience of African-Americans.” Going against Gilroy’s thesis, Asante argues (and I agree) that “The history of discrimination against us in the West, whether in the United Sates or the United Kingdom or other parts of the western world, is a history of assaulting our dignity because we are Africans or the descendents of Africans. This has little to do with whether we live on one side of the ocean or the other.” Although Asante is also critical of Western Philosophy (for erroneously tracing its roots to the Greeks rather than acknowledging the philosophical contributions of Africans), Existential-Phenomenology - with its emphasis on existence/Being, being in a (concrete) situation, and a reasoned study of appearance and embodiment - provides theoretical resources for examining and articulating the “situation” and “lived-experience” of Black Europeans with “given” and/or “adopted” identities.

This project represents my larger research interests in using the interdisciplinary approaches of Philosophy and African American/African Diaspora Studies to examine race and gender, freedom and oppression, theories of liberation, and the significance of political agency for descendants of Africa around the world. For example, I am currently engaged in a project on two 19th century African American Scholars titled “Alexander Crummell and Anna Julia Cooper: Constructions and Constrictions of Race and Womanhood” in which I examine European influences on their conceptions of race, gender, and progress. Both Cooper and Crummell studied in Europe, and Crummell spent a significant portion of his life in Africa (Liberia). A different, but related project on which I am working is on Jean-Paul Sartre, Frantz Fanon and Hannah Arendt on Race and Racism, (Anti)Colonialism, and Violence as a form of (or a response to a lack of) political agency.

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