University of Connecticut professor addresses black existential philosophy

Luke Skywalker and Frederick Douglass have one commonality – fighting for freedom.

Lewis Gordon, of the University of Connecticut at Storrs, lectured to roughly 60 students and faculty about black existential philosophy. Photo by Kari Williams

Freedom is a condition “through which you can have human flourishing,” according to Lewis Gordon, philosophy and African-American studies professor at the University of Connecticut at Storrs.

Gordon presented “Living Thought, Living Freedom: A lecture in black existential philosophy” last week at the Lovejoy Library Friends Corner, discussing freedom and the “question of black,” followed by discussion with the roughly 60 students and faculty in attendance.


Douglass, who was born into slavery in the 1800s, lived an “existence of servitude” with his grandmother as his sole caretaker. Because of the relationship Douglass formed with his grandmother, Gordon said Douglass understood he had a “capacity to love”— Even when he discovered his biological father may be the slaves’ master.

Douglass’ biological mother walked through the woods every evening – after working sun up to sun down – to spend time with her son. This proved to Douglass that in a world where he was taught his value was “through use for a master,” his mother valued him when he could do nothing in return for her.

As a result, Douglass developed, according to Gordon, “what’s dangerous for a slave” – self-respect.

When a minister tried to “break” Douglass, Gordon said it was at that time that Douglass “realized he could only really live if he was willing to die.” A two-hour fight ensued because, according to Gordon, Douglass did not want to kill the minister.

After escaping slavery, Douglass became involved in political activity, with his work being “about the fact that there was a political system subjugating people.”

In black thought, Gordon said speeches from across the decades talk about love.

“Within the framework of this story, love is a revolutionary force,” Gordon said.

Question of black

Gordon said before there was a reason to be called “black,” people were not called “black.” The same can be said for Europeans, Africans and the like, according to Gordon.

“The only way black could emerge as black was in that world, but that world rejected black people,” Gordon said.

From the philosophical and anthropological perspective, Gordon said “the modern world did something rather tragic” in labeling individuals as “people” and “not people.” For example, when a person is rejected a room at hotel, Gordon said the impulse for that person is to say he or she is as human as the person rejecting humanity. But that, according to Gordon, makes the person rejecting the room the standard – which could be a low standard.

Additionally, when people say “black,” they are “on funny terrain,” according to Gordon, because the population is taught how to “evade” talking about race. But Gordon said that creates a paradox in that in the effort to create a distance in the discussion, it actually creates intimacy.

“In a way, we learn to talk around it,” Gordon said.

Additionally, Gordon said people are “living under a fictional understanding” of what it means to be black. In 1980, he taught white students in a middle-class area and asked them to tell him everything they knew about black people. By the end of the class, Gordon said every hand was up and the information they discussed was not much different from characteristics of white people.

The lecture was supported by the Graduate School Research and Development Fund and the philosophy department.

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