Fostering the next generation of Black philosophers at Penn

In the past decade, the department has become a hub for race theory and a welcoming environment for a diverse group of young academics, mentored by those who have paved the way before them.

william fontaine books
Left: Near the end of his life, William Fontaine wrote the book, “Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power, and Morals,” about racial integration and his opposition to the ideology of the Black Power movement. Right: “Black Philosopher, White Academy,” by Penn emeritus History professor Bruce Kuklick, details Fontaine’s personal history and scholarship.

Philosopher William Fontaine earned tenure in the late 1950s. At that time, he became the first African American to formally do so at the University of Pennsylvania, breaking into a field of American academia typically reserved for white men. It was a first for the Ivy League.

“When no philosophy department in a majority white university had Black people on their tenure track faculty, Penn hired William Fontaine,” says philosopher Anita Allen, who arrived at Penn in 1998, then just the second African American affiliated with the University’s Department of Philosophy. “To that point, he’d been teaching at historically Black universities and colleges.”

inside images of william fontaine book
The story of William Fontaine—seen here in 1936, after he earned his Ph.D.—as a Black philosopher showcases how far the field has evolved, both at Penn and generally, but also how far it still has to go.

And yet, job security for Fontaine didn’t mean treatment equal to that of his white peers, says Bruce Kuklick, an emeritus professor in Penn’s Department of History who wrote a book about Fontaine called “Black Philosopher, White Academy.” “Fontaine was at the bottom of the hierarchy and the food chain, not only in the University but in the department itself. His salary is always one of the lowest. When he’s talked about, there’s always a certain paternalism.”

In a way, Fontaine’s story as a Black philosopher showcases how far the field has evolved, both at Penn and generally, but also how far it still has to go. After Fontaine’s death in 1968, it was three decades before Allen arrived at the University and another 17 years after that before Quayshawn Spencer joined the department as standing faculty.

Yet in the past decade or so, there’s been a quiet but noticeable shift in the department’s makeup and scholarship. It’s garnered a reputation as a place to study philosophy of race. Black graduate students currently make up about one-fifth of the department’s overall Ph.D. candidates. Recent curriculum additions include courses on affirmative action, race and biology, and racial justice. And at the behest of Spencer and colleagues Errol Lord and Michael Weisberg, applications for the graduate program no longer include GRE scores, an attempt to remove another barrier to entry.

The changes in Penn’s department mirror those taking place—albeit slowly—in the field at large.

The legacy of Fontaine

To understand the present often requires a look at the past, an exercise that became personal for Kuklick when the American Academy of Arts and Sciences asked him to write an essay about the discipline of philosophy. His research led him to a box of William Fontaine’s papers—including a graduate school recommendation Fontaine had written for him—and ultimately to write “Black Philosopher, White Academy.”

“I’m this old white guy. I don’t have any claims to know about African American studies,” Kuklick says. “But you quickly realize the terrible psychological price that Fontaine and other African Americans paid more than 60 years ago living in a white world.”

By opening doors to women and people of color, the field is expanding the kinds of questions that get attention. Anita Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Philosophy

As a professor, Fontaine was highly respected. He taught Penn’s introductory philosophy course, making him and his lessons the first exposure to the field for many students. But his fellow academics didn’t praise much of his scholarship, in particular, about questions on the theory of knowledge. Beyond that, Fontaine was hampered by a long and ultimately fatal battle with tuberculosis that sidelined him often. About a year before his death, however, he wrote a book called “Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power, and Morals” about racial integration and his opposition to the ideology of the Black Power movement.

“There’s a story that Fontaine was not naturally inclined to write a book about integration and race, but that his white colleagues thought he should add his voice to the national conversation,” says Allen, the Henry R. Silverman Professor of Law and Philosophy, whose work focuses on data protection, but has included subjects like affirmative action and racial categorization. “It represents a dilemma a lot of people face today. As a philosopher of color, should one inevitably write about race?”

anita allen in the law school
When professor Anita Allen arrived at Penn in 1998, she was just the second African American affiliated with the University’s Department of Philosophy. She continues to break down barriers, for example, becoming the first female African American president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, the field’s main organizing body. (Image: Sameer Khan)

The book didn’t get much attention when it was published. Today, however, it’s become an important read for anyone “interested in understanding how we could possibly solve the continuing segregation that characterizes our lives,” says Allen, who was recently elected to the National Academy of Medicine and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.

Fontaine’s research is slowly making its way into broader modern philosophical discourse, as it gets discovered and dissected by a new generation of scholars like Penn doctoral student Daniel Fryer, who studies philosophy of law, political philosophy, and the philosophy of race and ethics.

“One of my worries is that even when Black philosophers gain notoriety, it’s because they were the first. They’re looked at as historical figures, but no one grapples with their philosophical contributions,” Fryer says. “Fontaine had a sophisticated critique of the Black Power movement and an informed analysis of integrationist thought. He was onto something early on and that’s quite impressive.”

That discussions around Fontaine’s work and the philosophy of race are happening signals a shift in one of the oldest—and arguably, one of the most traditional—academic arenas around.

An evolving field

Just before arriving at Penn, Quayshawn Spencer published a demographics paper in the journal Critical Philosophy of Race. “It was a headcount of the Black philosophers in the United States,” says Spencer, the Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of Philosophy. “It included Ph.D. students, postdocs, and anyone else employed in an academic capacity: tenured professors, adjuncts, those on temporary contract, instructors. It was defined broadly to get a broad picture.”

quayshawn spencer on steps
Professor Quayshawn Spencer joined the philosophy department in 2015, nearly 50 years after Fontaine’s death, just the second standing African American faculty member. As a philosopher of race, his arrival almost immediately changed the department’s curriculum, how the profession viewed Penn philosophers, and the type of graduate students the department could attract.

The American Philosophical Association (APA), the field’s main organizing body, today has more than 7,000 members. At the time of their research in 2013, Spencer and colleagues found just 141 Black philosophers affiliated with a philosophy department in any academic capacity. “There are more philosophers in the United States than one might think,” he says, “but at that time, very, very few of them were Black, on the order of 1%.”

According to the APA’s 2020 demographic statistics, that number is still low, hovering around 2%, with just 155 members identifying as Black/African American. Yet anecdotally, the field today seems to offer expanding room for academics of color.

In 2018, for example, Allen became the first female African American president of the APA’s Eastern Division, a position currently held by another African American philosopher, Tommie Shelby of Harvard. The Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, started in 2007 by Penn State’s Kathryn Sophia Belle, aimed to offer networking and mentoring for Black women in the field. Even the existence of a publication like Critical Philosophy of Race matters, Allen says.

“A thriving journal, the fact there are enough African-ancestry Black women to meet annually and share our scholarship, these are signs of great progress,” she says. “By opening doors to women and people of color, the field is expanding the kinds of questions that get attention.”

Fryer describes this as a type of positive feedback loop: Philosophers are taking more seriously previously marginalized topics like race and disability. This leads to hiring more philosophers who study these subjects, which leads to the subjects getting taken even more seriously. “Departments are advertising positions to hire philosophers who primarily work on race, or who specialize in African American philosophy,” he says. “You just didn’t see that 10 years ago.”

Penn’s Department of Philosophy reflects this forward momentum, too.

Fostering the next generation

When Spencer came to Penn in 2015, he was the first Black standing faculty member in the philosophy department in decades. (Allen is affiliated, but with a secondary appointment.) “There’s something to be said for having voting power, having a say in the curriculum, who is invited for colloquium,” Spencer says. “The culture and strategic plan, who moves forward in the department—none of that was being influenced by Black thinkers.”

How you move in this space as a person of color matters. Having faculty who understand on a personal level what that social dynamic is—especially in the context of race—was very helpful. Yosef Washington, fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Philosophy

Spencer had been hired to focus on philosophy of race, a step that almost immediately changed what type of curriculum the department offered, how the rest of the profession viewed Penn philosophers, and the type of graduate students the department could attract. “We started to become a hub for race theory,” he says. “You could just see the number of Black applicants go up in a one-to-one correspondence with the number of applicants interested in philosophy of race.”

Yosef Washington was one of them. Washington, now in his fourth year, studies race as part of what he describes as a “gumbo of different philosophical interests.” He came to Penn because it was one of the few philosophy departments with a diverse faculty.

“How you move in this space as a person of color matters,” Washington says. “Having faculty who understand on a personal level what that social dynamic is—especially in the context of race—was very helpful. Having two Black faculty also signaled what type of place Penn was and that I was not going to be their introduction to what it’s like to have blackness around them.”

Washington knew the department already had two African American graduate students, Daniel Fryer and now-postdoc Ben Baker, but history taught him that he’d likely be the only non-white student his year. Instead, his cohort also included one Asian woman and another Black man, Ian Peebles. The following year, Alex Tolbert, another Black student, joined the Ph.D. program. “I was resigned to the fact that I would probably be the only one,” Washington says. “I was very happy to find out I wasn’t.”

ian peebles on stairwell
ben baker sitting on steps
In the past decade the diversity of the department has increased with students like (left) fourth-year Ian Peebles and first-year Lisa Martinez-Katout and (right) now-postdoc Ben Baker, who currently works in the lab of Penn neuroscientist Konrad Kording.

Baker, now working in the lab of Penn Integrates Knowledge professor Konrad Kording, had a similar experience initially. “I wasn’t super hopeful that at Penn I would have a community of other Black philosophers around me interested in what I was interested in; I had made my peace with that,” he says. But with each cohort, he found he had more Black colleagues. “It gave me more camaraderie and confidence,” he adds.

As several of the Penn Ph.D. students interviewed for this piece explain, discourse about race is just more likely to happen and feel comfortable in a department with Black peers and advisors. “Seeing the willingness of Quayshawn and Anita to advocate and work with me made me think that Penn would be an environment I could flourish in,” says Peebles, now in his fourth year. The same is true, he says, of engaging with a diverse group of graduate student peers.

Weisberg, the department chair, says the department has worked hard to foster a mentorship type of ecosystem. “Quayshawn and Anita provide enormously important leadership,” he says. “We also know that our older African American graduate students mentor the younger ones, and that all of our graduate students mentor undergraduates of color. This isn’t a formal system we’ve put in place, but rather the result of having incredible graduate students.”

The future of the department, the field

Beyond admitting more graduate students of color, the Penn philosophy department is now working to attract a more diverse applicant pool. One successful change centered around the GREs. Women and minorities historically don’t score as high on this standardized test, which can be expensive to prepare for and take, Spencer says. Plus, he adds, the GREs don’t accurately predict someone’s potential to succeed as a philosopher.

“When you crunch the data on our admits, you can see that the GREs don’t make a lick of a difference in how they perform in our program,” he says. “We were able to present the evidence and convince the department to unanimously reject even considering GREs. Now we’re not looking at them even if students have them.” Elimination of the GRE, which became official for the 2019-2020 academic year, doubled the applications the department now receives. It also increased the number of women, minorities, and international students who apply.

Despite the change that’s already happened, there’s plenty appetite for more, to continue diversifying the department’s standing faculty, for example, and help the field keep moving toward a future that looks, feels, and sounds different than its past.

“In my cohort, there are four women and one man. If more departments have cohorts that look like us, we’ll see a change,” says Lisa Martinez-Katout, a first-year Penn graduate student. “The younger generation of philosophers wants to make change. We’re doing public philosophy, bringing it to underserved populations, getting the word out to say, ‘Join us, do this, it’s fun.’ That sends the message that philosophy doesn’t have to be traditionally the way it was.”

It’s a sentiment William Fontaine likely understood well.

Homepage image: Postdoc Ben Baker, who earned both a law degree and a doctorate in philosophy, studies how the brain processes information. His newest project incorporates another passion of his—hip hop dancing. Though in the early stages, the research will use machine learning and pose tracking to understand what is attractive about dancers who win hip hop dance battles.