Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the third installment of Dialogues on Disability, a series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability, the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession, their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally, resistance to ableism, accessibility, and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Tommy Curry. Tommy is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Texas A&M University, where he specializes in Critical Race Theory, Africana Philosophy, Black Sexuality, and Black Manhood Studies. When he’s not producing articles, Tommy plays chess and games with his two daughters. He also coaches tennis, strings tennis racquets, watches the tennis channel, and gives his Facebook friends shot-by-shot analyses of Grand Slam matches. Tommy is interested in disability in part due to his experiences with what gets referred to as Trochlear Dysplasia and Patella Alta and is especially concerned with medical and social responses to pain management for members of working-class racial and ethnic groups.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Tommy! Let’s start with your background. Did you always want to be an academic, a professional philosopher in particular, or is this something that you grew into?
Shelley, thank you so much for the invitation to be interviewed and for the opportunity to share my philosophical work and my experiences in philosophy.
Well, I was a first-generation student from Lake Charles, Louisiana, and my interest in becoming an academic started at a very young age. When I was twelve, I started debating, and from that moment on, I knew that I wanted to write the types of literature that I read. By my junior year in high school, I knew that I wanted to be a college professor; I just didn’t know of what. In debate rounds, I mostly ran arguments about Critical Race Theory and Critical Legal Studies and these areas became the central topics of my dissertation and remain central areas of my research.
It took a lot to be a professional philosopher. I had intended to go to law school because, in the 90s, that was thought to be the natural progression for debaters. I found myself in a place saturated with white people and Black people who had certain class advantages and perceptions that I didn’t understand. I had grown up in a poor, segregated city of the southern US; so, many of the ideas about race and racism, poverty, and intelligence that I encountered in northern cities seemed very strange to me. As a Black male, I was outnumbered by my female counterparts from high school forward. I went to a Black magnet high school in Lake Charles and was one of only two Black male students in an advanced class of thirty. In college, I was the only Black philosophy major at SIUC from 1999-2001; so, there wasn’t much incentive to continue in philosophy. It was an extremely hostile environment where, if you were Black, whites could say anything that they wanted about your intelligence; and they did. If you dared to defend yourself, you automatically became the one at fault. One white woman who taught modern philosophy wrote a five-page letter to me in which she said that I was an “angry Black man” because I talked about the racism in the work of Kant and Hume. Emmanuel Eze’s book Race and the Enlightenment had just been published; I had read the book in relation to the texts of her class and was excited to find that it confirmed my impression that both race and Africa were central to the ideas that Kant and other Enlightenment thinkers had formulated about civilization. Anyway, I was offended by this professor and took her letter to the undergraduate advisor in the department, who responded by telling me that this white professor was trying to help me.
That’s only one example of the general reaction to my attempts to do philosophy and be a high-achieving Black male academic; there are others. The year that I won the nationals for the SIUC debate team, one white male professor told me that if I missed class, he would fail me, even though I had previously given him a letter stating that my absence would be due to my involvement in a university-sponsored event. It was well known in the department that I aimed to maintain a 4.0 grade point, so several philosophy professors told me that their classes were difficult and that I would never get an “A” in them. I thought their claims were strange, given that I was a double major, was in the honors college, and was also an undeclared graduate student. Their idea seemed to be that philosophy was, somehow, above and beyond my capacity. In graduate school, my advisor told me that despite my satisfactory performance in all of my classes—especially my excellent work in post-colonialism and Critical Race Theory—I had to demonstrate to the (white) faculty that I had a passion for “real philosophy,” which meant, of course, philosophy of the European tradition. I had no such passion; so, I was forced out of the program, despite the fact that the lowest grade that I had received was a sole B+. One faculty member said that they would let me stay in the program if I agreed to not write anything on race for a year and if I demonstrated that I knew “real philosophy.” Not surprisingly, this department was subsequently found responsible for racial discrimination against a female professor of color. In short, while I knew that I wanted to be a professor, I had to grow into being a philosopher.
I finished a doctorate in philosophy because Ken Stikkers talked me into staying in the field and Derrick Bell insisted that a Ph.D. would be much more useful for what I wanted to do than a J.D. I had always been fascinated by theory, but quickly learned that any attempt to ground one’s view of racism on history or on other actually occurring social phenomena was regarded as a weakness in philosophical circles. I became a philosopher because I believed that philosophy could help us think about the problems of our social reality. I study social problems, read demographic data, and go through archives to find lost essays because I enjoy actually knowing things about the world and trying to figure out how all of it is interrelated. Consequently, I end up reading more history, sociology, and Black Studies scholarship, than I read philosophy. All and all, philosophy was just a means to study this constellation of interests.
Please say more about what motivates your current research and teaching.
I attempt to fill what I take to be the serious gaps in knowledge about Black people generally and Black males in particular. Philosophy is a largely constrained and predetermined endeavor. To be deemed “progressive,” or “good,” one must uphold insidiously racist values because the discipline at large believes that such values are true, regardless of their histories. Black philosophers have a responsibility to test theory, to make sure that its historical development and claims fit the social problems and realities that they endure. I am disturbed that philosophers simply invent history and assert the empirical conditions of Black people lives with little effort or attempt to verify their thinking or to demonstrate knowledge of the era to which they refer in their work. Black people are largely understood as mythological creatures. Black men are understood to be boogeymen. What I mean is this: in philosophy, Black male figures are set up as caricatures for dismissal. I cannot tell you how many times W.E.B. DuBois or Frederick Douglass are called patriarchs; yet, they lived in a time when white male progressives and ethnologists denied that Black males could even be “men”—that is, denied that Black males even had a gender—and, meanwhile, white feminists lynched Black men and formed their own Klan organizations to prevent the “manhood” rights of the Black race. Despite this reality at the close of the 19th century and the dawn of the 20th, it is assumed that Black males were only about power and domination, that Black males were only mimetic beings who, although they were raped, lynched, and eaten by white men during slavery, wanted nothing more than to be white men.
When we go through the letters and writings of Black men, we find poems and articles that reject ideas about the white man’s burden that were central to the understandings of “manhood” and “dominance” in the 19th century. In the race encyclopaedias, as well as in the minutes of Black women’s clubs, we find Black men funding, speaking, and thanked for uplifting the women of the Black race and the race’s children. In fact, we find that Black men started day cares and co-ed tennis clubs. DuBois wrote children’s books, funded and published Black women’s research, and worked with Black gay men on various sociological projects. We know almost nothing about Augustus Dill who was DuBois’s prize student at Atlanta University and a gay Black man who co-authored the Brownie’s Books with DuBois. This area of research changes how we think about Black male sexuality and race consciousness at the turn of the 20th century, as well as challenges the idea that race-conscious Black males made heteronormative assumptions in their work.
To give another example, I’ve edited a lost book on Eldridge Cleaver that convincingly demonstrates that not only was he a Black man who had sex with men, but he was also a very deep thinker about the history of sexual violence and rape of Black men by white men and women. The book is a powerful text that challenges the dominant historiography of Cleaver’s work. I love finding these texts and letters that only a handful of people know exist. They show us that many of the theories advanced about Black people are, at best, wishful thinking and mask political ideology and self-interest. History shows us a much different picture than these essentialist assertions about Black men and women that are still held in philosophy.
I suppose that I think finding evidence of such things brings me a little closer to truth and enables me to believe that we can study race seriously beyond the rewards or permission that this white discipline bestows on works that simply make Black thinkers into carbon copies of white thought. Black, Brown, and Indigenous folks are much more complex than any one ideology or any one American or Continental philosophical tradition. These complexities motivate me to show the thinking of Black men and women and have shown me what other traditions—such as American and Continental philosophy—are unwilling to discuss.
For example, my reading of William H. Ferris’ The African Abroad led me to search for Josiah Royce’s insidiously racist essay “The Characteristic Tendencies of American Civilization.” For years, I argued with Royce scholars about his racism and support for the white man’s burden. They dismissed the argument, preferring the narrative in which Royce cared about Black people and was an anti-racist. Royce called Black Americans “Niggers,” Black Africans “Kaffirs,” and advocated the colonization of Blacks in the American South, but he was heralded as the next big thing for race theory. Back in graduate school, Frank Oppenheim sent me a letter urging me to uphold this idea that Royce was the most progressive thinker on race of his time. I knew that this was simply false. I found Royce’s aforementioned “lost” essay on Google, despite the fact that many American philosophers claimed that it never existed. These types of discoveries motivate me because they confirm to me that much of what we take to be knowledge or truth is simply popular consensus, not fact. I believe in a world where scholars who actually do research about Black people can challenge ideology, even though they may be demonized by their contemporaries. I teach with this in mind. My students learn about Black men and women who are rarely mentioned in other texts: Drucilla Dunjee Houston, Dr. Ellen Irene Diggs, John Edward Bruce, and William H. Ferris are some of my absolute favorites to teach.
You are a prolific philosopher who has published on a variety of topics. One of the topics on which you have written a great deal and about which you frequently post on Facebook is the mutually-constitutive associations between Black men, vulnerability, and racism. How would you describe these associations?
Thank you. I recently completed my 50th article/book chapter, so I’m pretty excited about this milestone. As you say, many of my Facebook posts are about Black men and boys and how actual data and social science findings run against the theories in philosophy. Black male vulnerability is the term that I use to capture the disadvantages that Black males endure compared to other groups, the erasure of Black males from theory, and the various violences and death that they suffer in society. I argue that Black males have a specific societal disadvantage that usually leads to their death or to their confinement in an “under-caste” (to use Michelle Alexander’s term). This vulnerability is certainly a product of the various social stratifications that are created by racism; but, it also produces epiphenomenal dynamics that manifest as effects in mental health, identity, self-esteem, and social behavior. Although Black masculinity has been thought to merely mimic white masculinity, what we can actually see is a Black male resistance to white male patriarchy, capitalism, and even religion.
In a very deep sense, sexual violence has been a central mechanism for the practice of racism historically. In Glenda Gilmore’s Gender and Jim Crow, she explains that Jim Crowism involved an inversion of gender relations, such that white women were positioned as sexually superior to Black males. We find similar accounts in Martha Hodes’s White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South; Crystal Feimster’s Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching; and Michelle Mitchell’s Righteous Propagation: African Americans and the Politics of Racial Destiny after Reconstruction. So, we have empirical and theoretical work that shows how, historically, Black men have been vulnerable to the sexual violence of white women. In many cases, as in the case of Vincent Woodard, The Delectable Negro: Human Consumption and Homoeroticism within US Slave Culture, we see the consequences of white male homoeroticism, consequences that have been largely dismissed because this history challenges philosophical accounts of racism that represent it as an entirely heteronormative phenomenon.
In my work, I aim to show that there are all sorts of complex sexual relations and erotics involved in the domination of Black males. Louise Newman’s White Women's Rights: The Racial Origins of Feminism in the United States demonstrates that sexual exploitation of Black males was at the core of early feminist thinking from the mid-1850s to mid-1950s. Contrary to the idea that Black men did not analyze gender or sex, the texts of Robert F. Williams, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright all specifically sought to react to this sexual exploitation of Black males within Jim Crow, highlighting the violence of “white womanhood.” This history should inform how we think about racism; but, it is a history largely obscured by prevailing categories of thought, that is, by dominant thinking about gender. Because Black men are males, they are thought to be protected from certain experiences precisely because of their maleness, experiences such as rape by women or rape by white men. I am part of an ongoing study that looks at the sexual experiences/abuse of young Black males. The findings of the study, such as the figures about the rape of young Black boys, have been shocking. We can see this population of male victims in the National Crime Victimization Survey data; but, little has been written on Black male sexual victimization, largely because of how the FBI has, in the past, defined rape, as well as because of historical myths about the Black male rapist. In my work, I’m trying to show how the history of Black male vulnerability is indispensable to our understanding of racism. The sexual assault, such as forcible anal and oral sex, that historically has been inflicted upon Black men and boys by the police and white vigilantes should be central considerations in our understanding of how racism actually works. Black men have been subject to a myriad of different sexual violences that have produced gender identities and anxieties about sex. The heteronormative reading of Black masculinity is too simple to account for all of the erotics that have operated in, and continue to operate in, the oppression of Black males.
A growing number of philosophers argue that all knowledge is perspectival and many more of them argue that subjects who occupy marginalized and oppressed social positions gain certain distinct forms of knowledge precisely in virtue of their subjugated social positioning. Do your insights about the co-constitutive associations that you perceive between Black men, vulnerability, and racism derive in any way from your own experiences of racism and disability?
I would say so. I am very critical of a certain kind of intuitionism that seems to accompany standpoint epistemology; but, I do think that the positionality of certain groups allows them to experience certain phenomena that can be investigated and tested, such that we better understand the complexities of social organization, societal stratifications, and the existential and psychological consequences of various sorts of marginalization.
For example, as a Black male, I was constantly pressured in school to play football, year after year, until the coaches found out that I couldn’t play. There was this expectation that, as a Black male, I would be an athlete. Many times, I was referred to as less male—by both men and women—because I couldn’t perform the same physical activities as other Black males who played sports. As a highly-accomplished Black male academic—and this is pretty consistent with the literature—I have been effeminized and asexualized, especially because of my inability to exhibit certain physical prowess. The assumption has been that I look like a running back, so my attitude and interests should conform to the perception of my body. Despite this in-group dynamic, many whites still react to me as a super-predator and fear-inducing being; so, vulnerability, suffering, and pain are not regarded as capacities that I should have.
There is a para-ontology at play in the racism that is directed towards Black males: it hyper-masculinizes and hyper-sexualizes the Black male body through a form of super-humanism. Because Black males are largely thought to be super-predators and criminals, the racial imagination of whites and other minorities socialized within these white racist frames presupposes of Black males both an able-bodiedness and a savageness that conceptualizes them almost in super-human terms. In other words, the racism against Black males conceptualizes them as fully able-bodied, such that they are the criminals that this racist society imagines them to be. Billy Hawkin’s The New Plantation: Black Athletes, College Sports, and Predominantly White NCAA Institutions does a great job of showing how one aspect of the exploitation of Black males is its roots in able-bodiedness. The disabled Black male is configured as a deformity at some distance from the racist stereotype of the Black male savage and therefore is unimaginable to most people. The hyper-masculinization and hyper-sexualization of Black males means that the inability of disabled Black men to conform—both in conception and in caricature—to these stereotyped capacities produces a conceptual impossibility: they are not really Black men.
There is very little analysis of physical disability for Black men that doesn’t depend on their comparison to the racist tropes of super-humanism. It is as if the distortion of these tropes of American racism is not caused by racism itself, but rather by the inability of Black males to perform as the caricatures of these tropes. When studying Black males, it’s impossible to ignore how disability concretely affects the types of discrimination and social marginalization that they suffer. To take just one example, Black boys with disabilities are disproportionately placed in special education classes. The work of Mark D. Hayward and Melonie Heron, entitled “Racial Inequality in Active Life among Adult Americans,” offers a stunning picture of the rate that disability and physical pain affect Black males. These authors show that hypertension, diabetes, stroke, arthritis, depression, low vision, and hearing difficulties (for instance) disproportionately affect Black middle-aged men. So, any serious study of Black men and boys must consider not only how their bodies are perceived by others, but also how they are impacted by the social disparities that solidify racial inequality in our society.
As you’ve now indicated, your insights about Black men, vulnerability, and racism have been conditioned by, and also condition, your work on Black men and disability. Give our readers a glimpse of your research on racism, disability, and medical research and innovation.
A significant portion of my research has dealt with regenerative medicine and orthopedics. I was born with what medical practitioners refer to as “a patella-femoral disorder.” So, I had physical therapy for most of my adolescent and teenage years. Throughout much of my young adult life, I saw orthopedic specialists who touted different corrective surgeries. Although I had several surgeries, I was never fully pain free. (An alienating dissonance occurs when doctors tell you that you’ll never be able to run and, for most of your life, you’ve been unable to walk without pain, but you’re nevertheless perceived to be some kind of predator waiting to physically assault anyone and everyone.) Because of the pain, I began to research regenerative medicine and the availability and effectiveness of various treatments.
After I received several treatments myself, I came to recognize that there are very real economic and corporate interests that lead information about treatments to be withheld from minority populations. More than 60% of Black men work in blue collar occupations; roughly 7% of Black women work in blue collar occupations. These figures suggest that arthritis, hypertension, and many of the other impairments that Black men (and women) experience toward the end of their lives are actually due to workplace injuries that they acquired in their youth and middle years. Because of these social and economic circumstances, Black and Brown working-class men and women disproportionately experience chronic pain; yet, they are prescribed pain-management drugs less often than white people and they rarely receive information about new and innovative treatments. In other words, race and economic status converge around pain and the withholding of information about pain-control regimes and health for many racial and ethnic communities. So, research about disability and pain management has become a passion for me that I see as inextricable from my study of racial inequality, generally, and of Black males, specifically.
Let’s bring our discussion back to the professional practices of philosophy. What, if any, connections do you perceive between racism, vulnerability, and the underrepresentation of Black men in philosophy, both as teachers and students?
Given that there are roughly 75 Black male professors in philosophy, I obviously think that underrepresentation is a huge problem. Relatively few Black men actually attain bachelor degrees, let alone doctorate degrees, due to the high rates of homicide, under-education, and incarceration that target Black men. When we look at the National Center for Education Statistics and the American Association of University Professors tabulations that came out this year, we see very clear disparities in the total number of Black professors and white professors, as well as disparities between Black males and Black females. As of 2011, the total number of Black male faculty—full-time tenured, tenure track, non-tenure track, part-time, and graduate student employees—at Title IV degree-granting institutions was less than 48,000, while the number of Black female faculty at the same institutions was approximately 70,000. When we look at whites in the same category, you have almost 617,000 women and close to 665,000 men. This numerical disadvantage isn’t taken into account in terms of Black male vulnerability in the university. Department of Education Data shows that for the last two decades Black women have surpassed Black males in degree attainment. Since the 1990s, Black women have attained roughly 60-70% of the degrees that have been earned by Blacks from associate to professional degrees.
These figures represent the extraordinary accomplishments for Black women; but, they also highlight a vastly different historical and sociological reality for Black males than for Black women. The small numbers of Black males, both as students and as professors, does not factor into how most scholars think about the particular race/sex marginalization of Black men. Because they are men, their vulnerabilities and disadvantages are largely denied prima facia. But, the peculiar social location of Black males shows that their history and disadvantages makes them quite unlike males in the dominant racial group. Philosophy has not really responded to the specific kinds of disadvantages that Black males suffer in society, but rather analyzes and understands them as analogs of white men, which is a vastly ahistorical and insidiously racist projection. Black males are largely denied a philosophical and theoretical forum in which to speak about the issues that affect them, such as their experiences of racism, including their experiences of sexual and physical violence and rape and even their mental health.
I was happy to see that the New York Timesfinally provided some hard data on the number of Black men missing from the ages of 25-54; however, the numbers for ages 18-24 are just as depressing. Although Becky Pettit’s, Invisible Men: Mass Incarceration and the Myth of Black Progress, was released in 2012, I have not seen any serious conversation in philosophy about the impact of mass incarceration and homicide on Black male degree-attainment and economic futures. Perhaps many philosophers believe that the subject of death as a consequence for racial groups is not philosophical enough. The assumption in philosophy seems to be that Black men are a problem, so there is little more that needs to be said about them. There is no desirability to have Black men in philosophy departments, where racial stereotypes of them as dangerous, hostile, and unsafe currently hide behind the language of diversity. For Black males to do philosophy, all of their experiences and almost all facts about their social existence must be replaced with ideology: they are usually described in terms of their attitudes towards whites, rather than in terms of their actual work or the conditions that they concretely suffer in America. I have been in conversations in which Black male philosophers with named chairs were described as “incompetent” and “arrogant,” simply because they had dared to disagree with white philosophers. There can be no Black male genius who is not conciliatory to the established consensus and imposed collegiality designated for Black men in the field.
Several Black male philosophers are currently exploring what it means to be simultaneously a Black male in philosophy and a Black male who has been a victim of the prison-industrial complex; has been forced into a life of poverty and crime; has been a victim of sexual abuse and rape at the hands of women and men; or who is capable of love. These conversations are, for the most part, unwelcome in philosophy. I have seen Black male philosophers read papers about themselves and be attacked, ridiculed, dismissed, or yelled at, without any reaction from audience members. In fact, I’ve been subjected to this kind of behavior myself. Many Black males say that they have thought about leaving philosophy altogether because of the lack of openness to conversations about their victimization and disadvantage.
Black males are well aware that the academy is a hostile place for them; there is no real incentive to go into philosophy where they cannot speak about or write about themselves. Other fields are more open and allow Black males to do this work, including write about their own vulnerability. Fields such as education and criminology allow Black men to research and write about themselves; hence, these fields provide them with the sense of agency and independence that is usurped from them in philosophy and some other disciplines. Philosophy departments don’t hire Black men to study their own problems like they do with other groups; so, other fields are much more attractive. You would think that in a social and cultural environment in which Black men constitute the majority of victims of police brutality, incarceration, and homicide—all political and ethical issues—philosophy would provide a place to study such suffering. Unfortunately, this seems to not be the case.
Are there additional books and articles or films and other pedagogical tools that you would recommend on the topics that you’ve brought to our attention?
Besides the books and articles I’ve already mentioned, I would recommend both Tyrone Howard’s Black Male(d): Peril and Promise in the Education of African American Males and Victor M. Rios’s Punished: Policing the Lives and Black and Latino Boys, for their commentary and analysis of Black and Brown males in education. For a historical and psychological/psycho-analytic account of Black males, I strongly recommend the classic text by Richard Majors and Janet Billson entitled, Cool Pose: The Dilemmas of Black Manhood in America; David Marriott’s phenomenal text entitled, On Black Men; and Thomas Foster’s “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery,” in Journal of the History of Sexuality (2011). All of these works deepen our understanding of diverse economic and racial problems, in general, as well as promote recognition of the sexual and erotic motivations behind the oppression and murder of Black men and boys, in particular.
Thank you very much for all of the references that you’ve provided today, Tommy. Thanks also for taking the time to be interviewed for Dialogues on Disability. You’ve offered a great deal of insight and information upon which our readers should reflect.
Readers of this interview are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Tommy Curry’s remarks, ask him questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments will be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, July 15th at 8 a.m. EST for the fourth interview in the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at email@example.com. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, age, culture, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.