Biography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2284

Article abstract: Combining intimate knowledge of life in Africa with a philosopher’s care for ideas and a reader’s appreciation of culture, Appiah critically analyzed the racial myths by which European culture views Africa, and those that inform the pan-African movement.

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Early Life

Kwame Anthony Appiah (also known as Anthony Appiah and K. Anthony Appiah) was born in London, England, to Enid Margaret Appiah, an art historian and writer, and Joe Emmanuel Appiah, a lawyer, diplomat, and politician from the Asante region, once part of the British Gold Coast Colony but now part of Ghana. He grew up principally in Kumasi, the capital of Asante. In his preface to In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture, he describes growing up in his father’s world—filled with barrister wigs and dark suits—and in that of the Asante palace royalty (to which he was closely related on his father’s side) without experiencing any sense that they were separate worlds or that they were radically different from the world of his mother’s family in England. When Appiah was eight years old and hospitalized for an illness, he was visited by both Queen Elizabeth and President Kwame Nkrumah of Ghana on the same day. This acceptance of differences without the identification of contradictions would inform his adult writing, which is often animated by the recognition of the diversity of cultural inheritances.

As a writer, Appiah followed in the footsteps of his mother, a writer of children’s books under the name Enid Elizabeth “Peggy” Cripps; however, there can be no mistaking the early and crucial influence of Anthony’s father. A dedicated pan-Africanist and nobleman, the senior Appiah distinguished himself first during World War II in West Africa and then after the war in London as a leader of the West African Students Union. He attended the 1945 pan-Africanist conference along with W. E. B. Du Bois and Kwame Nkrumah and twenty-seven years later was one of the few surviving members of that conference to attend a 1972 pan-Africanist conference. An early supporter of President Nkrumah as well as an early challenger who led an opposition party, Appiah was jailed by Nkrumah for his political activity but, according to his son Anthony, left as an enduring legacy to his children the lesson to be completely untempted by racism.

Life’s Work

Kwame Anthony Appiah was educated at Clare College in Cambridge, England, where he received his B.A. in 1975, his M.A. in 1980, and his Ph.D. in 1982. Throughout the 1980’s, he taught at Yale University, Cornell University, Duke University, and Harvard University, where he continued to teach in the 1990’s along with his friend and frequent collaborator, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Appiah’s earliest publications as an adult were poems published privately in the 1970’s; this interest in literature would remain a part of his professional career. Though his first three books, Assertion and Conditionals, For Truth in Semantics, and Necessary Questions: An Introduction to Philosophy, show an ability to write about complex philosophical issues in language that is clear and accessible to general audiences, they did not find wide audiences. These works, written before he focused his attention on the philosophical issues related to race and culture, were not widely reviewed, made no discernible impact on the study of philosophy, and quickly went out of print. Similarly, while the 1991 publication of a mystery novel, Avenging Angel, firmly established his professional interest in literature, its Anglophilic tone and setting do not give any sign of the complex questioning of nationality that would emerge in his philosophical writing.

The appearance of In My Father’s House in 1992 was a watershed for Appiah’s career. By reevaluating concepts of race, nationality, and culture, Appiah brought a fresh perspective to the ongoing debate about the importance of race at a time when Afrocentrism, of which Appiah is highly critical, was beginning to be nationally and internationally articulated, especially, though not only, on college campuses. Afrocentrism, as opposed to Eurocentrism, looks at the world from a black African perspective. Appiah’s goal in writing In My Father’s House was to expose the bad biology that underlies the pan-Africanism that extends from Alexander Crummell and W. E. B. Du Bois to the late President Nkrumah of Ghana. Though he is sympathetic to the goal of African unity, he points out that most people who have sought such unity have had to assume the existence of some stable African essence, an assumption that paves over the multicultural mixture of local and regional and ever-changing cultures that is modern Africa. Though he stops far short of articulating a vision, Appiah’s goal is to posit a nonracially biased alternative for grounding pan-Africanism based loosely on the notion of a fraternity of nations. A mixture of philosophy, literary criticism, history, and autobiography, In My Father’s House received the Annisfield-Wolf Award and the Heskovitz Award of the African Studies Association for the best work published in English on Africa and established the ideas Appiah would spend the bulk of the decade exploring.

In My Father’s House was widely and usually favorably reviewed, and its publication vaulted the author onto the stage of public intellectual debate, giving him a role he clearly relished. Though Afrocentrism is not a specific target of In My Father’s House, in 1993, shortly after the book’s publication, Appiah wrote an essay and book review of Clinton M. Jean’s Behind the Eurocentric Veils: The Search for African Realities (1991) entitled “Europe Upside Down: Fallacies of the New Afrocentrism,” in which he targeted the works of Molefi K. Asante and Cheik Anta Diop, the founders of Afrocentrism in the United States and in Africa respectively. Picking up on his central point in In My Father’s House, that the concept of race corresponds to no biologically or socially unifying principle in human beings, Appiah skewers the biologism that is often associated with Afrocentricity and questions the reliability of Asante’s knowledge of Africa and Diop’s defense of the African origins of Greek culture. Essentially, he sees Afrocentrism as an extension of the race solidarity concepts proposed by Crummell and Du Bois, a discourse he faults for being more concerned with self-esteem and sociopolitical aims than with truth, an argument that brought him the wrath of Asante and his followers.

His association with Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a man who has been his colleague throughout his professional career, has proved productive for both men. They have jointly edited several volumes in a series of collections of critical perspectives on black writers (including Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Richard Wright, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor), a collection of essays on the nature and defining characteristics of social identity, a book called Identities (1995), a reference work entitled The Dictionary of Global Culture (1997), and the journal Transitions, which is devoted to issues of concern to black life and culture and is written for a general college-educated audience. Of these enterprises, The Dictionary of Global Culture has proven to be the most popular and the most controversial. Written as a standard multicultural reference work, it was widely reviewed after its publication. The reviews often revealed the reviewers’ biases regarding multicultural education. Those who supported the trend toward multicultural education praised the volume’s wealth of hard-to-find information on non-Western cultures and figures. Those who opposed the trend noted that the work lacked or contained inadequate entries on key figures in Western culture.

Color Conscious, Appiah’s collaboration with Amy Gutmann, dean of the faculty at Princeton University, marks an attempt to return to the considerations raised in In My Father’s House but with a greater emphasis on their Anglo-American context. Appiah returns to the biological theory of race he attacked in In My Father’s House, criticizing it from more a historical perspective. He traces its growth from the racism of U.S. president Thomas Jefferson to the reorientation of race theories in the nineteenth century to accommodate Social Darwinism, to the further reorientation of these theories in the period after poet and critic Matthew Arnold, when biology was replaced by culture in the discourse on racial definition. Appiah arrives at what he calls an “analytical notion” of racial identity, which encourages the reader to acknowledge the reality of the idea of race as formative but not determinative in the development of identity. Belonging to a specified group still expresses something meaningful about a person but not everything about the individual. In her essay, Gutmann explores how such a notion of race might function in matters of social policy, particularly in preserving affirmative action. Though it is not as groundbreaking as In My Father’s House, Appiah’s contribution to Color Conscious is a fruitful development of ideas initiated in that earlier work, one that displays the same articulate and knowledgeable persona and has been widely praised.

Influence

Appiah has established himself as a thinker of considerable significance on the concept of race and African identity. His genealogy of the biological underpinnings of Du Bois’s theory of race has become a necessary reference point for further discussions of Du Bois’s thought. Similarly, in drawing distinctions between postmodernism and postcolonialism , two movements with much in common that have too often been conflated as a single movement, he has made a significant contribution to clarifying the biases regarding the reception of non-Western art and the assumptions that are sometimes shared by the creators of such art. Not least of all, In My Father’s House constitutes a worthy, analytic contribution to the growing body of postcolonial African philosophy.

However, Appiah’s most important contribution might be less a result of what he has written than of how he has written it. Appiah’s professional career began at a time when the humanities were highly specialized and growing increasingly separate: Criticism was written by critics, philosophy by philosophers, and fiction by creative writers. In addition, the philosophy of identity was growing increasingly informed by a politics of resentment and anger. His greatest contribution might be his example in showing how gracefully the boundaries between supposedly separate disciplines can be crossed, how fruitful it is to do so, and how unnecessary anger is to inform a philosophical search for concepts to advance the common good.

Additional Reading

Appiah, K. Anthony. “Reconstructing Racial Identities.” Research in African Literatures 27, no. 3 (Fall, 1996): 68-72. This article is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s reply to an earlier edition of the journal that featured four essays on his work. In his reply, Appiah cites his lack of a clearly articulated alternative to a racially conceived notion of African ancestry as the major shortcoming of In My Father’s House.

Bell, Bernard W., Emily Gosholz, and James B. Stewart, eds. W. E. B. Du Bois: On Race and Culture. New York: Routledge, 1995. This collection of essays on the importance of W. E. B. Du Bois as a cultural figure begins with a spirited exchange of views by authors Lucius Outlaw and Robert Gooding-Williams on the validity of Appiah’s attack on Du Bois’s theory of race. Outlaw disagrees with Appiah’s criticisms, while Gooding-Williams tries to show that Du Bois himself was already anticipating and replying to the concerns Appiah raises.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr., ed. “Race” Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986. This compilation of articles that originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1985 and 1986 deals with issues related to the definition of race and the difference it makes in arts and culture. Besides printing the original version of an essay on Du Bois, “The Uncompleted Argument: Du Bois and the Illusion of Race,” that served as the basis for Appiah’s essay on Du Bois in In My Father’s House, this collection is notable for the reply by Houston A. Baker Jr., “Caliban’s Triple Play,” in which he notes the shortcomings of Appiah’s biological dismissal of the category of race, comments that, though short, have proven to be the core of most objections to Appiah’s work.

Houessou-Adin, Thomas. “The Big Con: Europe Upside Down.” Journal of Black Studies 26, no. 2 (November, 1995): 185-200. Houessou-Adin, a student of Molefi K. Asante, one of the founders of Afrocentrism, replies to Appiah’s attack on the movement. Though the reply is needlessly personal, a failing that considerably lessens its overall merit, it does point out some Appiah’s mistakes in his account of Afrocentrism and is of note as an example of an Afrocentrist reply to Appiah’s criticism of the philosophical underpinnings of that movement.

Imbo, Samuel Oluoch. An Introduction to African Philosophy. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman and Littlefield, 1998. This well organized book concentrates on the ethnophilosophy question of the nature and function of African philosophy. Imbo also pits Leopold Senghor’s negritude philosophy against Appiah’s universalism.

Nicol, Davidson. “Race Ethnohistory and Other Matters: A Discussion of Kwame Anthony Appiah, In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.” African Studies Review 36, no. 3 (December, 1993): 109-116. An excellent and mostly approving review of the importance of Appiah’s work by a scholar familiar with much of the same material and who therefore brings an informed perspective to his discussion.

Research in African Literatures 27, no. 1 (Spring, 1996). The entire issue is devoted to an investigation of In My Father’s House. These essays are mostly by four scholars of African philosophy and culture. Though the scholars find much to correct and question in Appiah’s work, they find more to laud, and much of their work is in applying the philosophical concerns Appiah develops to other works and to considering further ramifications of his work for Africans and African Americans.

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