This Plan was comprised of four papers. My purpose in my first paper is to draw on the resources of existential phenomenology to understand the limitations and possibilities of black existence. The second paper draws on recent work in philosophy of race to address how blackness is distinct from race, how it manifests itself and why it is a useful category. In my third paper, titled “The Aspect of the Savage: The transformation of the European and the construction of whiteness,” I am concerned with the seminal question: what is the white American and what do they want? The final paper is a personal reflection on mixed-race existence titled “The visible unknown and invisible known.”
Martin Heidegger distinguishes human beings from objects precisely because human beings do not have an essence. To think of oneself as an object with an essence is to deny one’s responsibility for one’s own existence. But the black in a white dominant society is precisely thrown into a world in which, due to their blackness, they are objectified. We understand ourselves initially and for the most part based on how others understand us, how others see us; to the degree that others see us as objects we come to see ourselves as they see us. To be black, then, is to be attuned to oneself as an object, which suggests that one is more likely to live in “bad faith.” However, as W. E. B. Du Bois observed, to be black is also to have a “peculiar sensation” of double-consciousness, the awareness of being both black and, for example, American. Double consciousness, then, introduces an instability into any understanding of oneself as an essence, because one is always more than whatever essence one might take oneself to be. Thus, despite the tendency toward reification, double consciousness suggests there may be simultaneously a possibility of freedom from objectification.
This is why existentialist thought is useful when discussing race. It discards any essential qualities that a person might have and focuses on lived experience. Racial categories are social constructs; biological essentialism has been disproved. There is nothing essential about being a black person; black people are all unique and distinct. That being said, because of the historical conditions we are born into and that shape us—because there have been social structures that judge black people in certain ways and the dominant culture holds essentialized views of black people—there is a shared experience of being black in the world.
I found most inspiration for my Plan from William Edelglass, John Sheehy, Martin Heidegger, Frantz Fanon, and my life. One of the highlights was a tutorial I created on black existentialism, where we did readings and discussed the ontological burdens of blackness in an anti-black world. I will go on to a year-long masters program in philosophy at Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium and then hopefully go on to Penn State to complete a PhD.
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