A quiet scholar who broke barriers
by Carlin Romano, Philadelphia Inquirer
Black Philosopher, White Academy
University of Pennsylvania Press. 171 pp. $55
Think of William Fontaine (1909-68), “the only African American philosopher at a first rank university” when appointed at the University of Pennsylvania in 1947, as a forerunner of Barack Obama.
A lean, six-foot tall man from modest circumstances, with credentials and manners pleasing to a white professional class whose previous racial barriers he broke.
A proud man full of promise in the eyes of white thinkers eager to bring him under their wing, whose relationship to historic African American culture involved periods of uncertainty and friction.
And, perhaps most poignantly, a professional first-of-his-kind black man accused, at least once by another prominent African American, E. Franklin Frazier, of being a black man “trying to act white” – a “wuzzlehead,” in the slur of his era.
How Bruce Kuklick, the Penn historian best known for richly researched accounts of American intellectuals, came to write a biography of Fontaine is as good a story as that life itself.
Commissioned by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences to produce an essay about post-World-War II American philosophy, Kuklick found himself in 2002 exploring the Penn Archives housed in Franklin Field.
A staffer persuaded him to look at the papers of Fontaine, who had taught at Penn for two decades. They filled “one small box of correspondence.” Kuklick remembered taking a lecture course as a 1960s Penn undergraduate from Fontaine, but was stunned to discover that Fontaine had written a graduate-school recommendation for him years ago, something of which Kuklick “had no recollection.”
That startling surprise “summoned” Kuklick to explore the life of this somewhat forgotten ceiling-shatterer, and Kuklick “became absorbed in his compelling life story.”
Black Philosopher, White Academy does credit to both the author’s investigative skills and his passion for the tale. It’s easy enough to bring back successful figures heavily documented in public records. Resurrecting Fontaine, who, Kuklick concedes, “did not achieve the public eminence of someone such as Du Bois,” is a singular achievement.
Born and raised in the poor, segregated West End neighborhood of Chester, Pa., the second of 14 children, Fontaine attended Chester High, where he played violin and excelled at Latin, then graduated first in his class from Lincoln University in 1930.
In his early years as an academic – pursuing a Ph.D. in philosophy at Penn, teaching Latin at Lincoln, and then philosophy at Southern University and Morgan State – Fontaine exhibited enormous interest in both African American literary and intellectual history and philosophy’s standard canon.
In the latter vein, Kuklick reports, Fontaine steeped himself in everything from the modern, rarefied analytic epistemology of Harvard’s C.I. Lewis to the sociology of knowledge of German thinker Karl Mannheim. In the former, he celebrated the aesthetic accomplishments of the Harlem Renaissance, even sketching out a play and beginning an acquaintance with that cultural flowering’s great impresario, Philadelphia-born black philosopher Alain Locke.
Fontaine seemed unlikely to be coopted by mid-20th-century academic philosophy’s hyper-analytic artificiality, which largely removed it from public significance. In 1936, he earned his Ph.D. in philosophy with a thesis comparing Boethius and the rebellious Giordano Bruno.
But something changed, Kuklick explains. Fontaine was drafted into the segregated U.S. Army of World War II and taught at a military installation. There, he came under the influence of a sergeant named Nelson Goodman, a future Penn and Harvard analytic philosopher. Once Goodman engineered Fontaine’s groundbreaking, ongoing appointment at Penn in 1947 – a kind of “tenure without tenure” for most of Fontaine’s career due to Fontaine’s tuberculosis and meager record of publication, the younger man morphed into a different kind of intellectual.
At Penn, his earlier devotion to African American culture evolved in a more assimilationist direction that emphasized the entanglement of black and white history, and perhaps smoothed edges that might have hurt him at Penn.
“[T]he Negro does not think in a vacucum,” Fontaine wrote. “Standards of the total culture and the desire for status affect his thinking.”
Kuklick writes that Fontaine “had learned to mingle deference with gentility. . . . he had matured into a demure scholar who could behave himself in an upper middle-class white environment.”
Kuklick’s research shows that “The Mind and Thought of the Negro,” Fontaine’s most significant publication, “was the only article Fontaine never mentioned” in the resumes he prepared for Penn during the next 20 years.
According to Kuklick, Fontaine at Penn – despite regularly having “coffee together” with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. near campus (King also took philosophy courses at Penn) – “published essays from which philosophers could draw no social implications.” When Penn’s public relations people asked whom he favored as philosophers, Fontaine mentioned not Locke or Du Bois, but white philosophers such as Goodman, Lewis, and Edgar Singer.
Kuklick recognizes that his pioneering portrait depends on scanty materials. Despite that, he’s resolutely fair to his subject.
He notes, for instance, that Fontaine’s interest in African American issues revived in the early 1960s. And while he bluntly assesses Fontaine’s light scholarly production, he also ascribes “more than outstanding merit” to what his imperfect subject did publish on African American culture. Similarly, he reports the great admiration still felt for Fontaine by many former students.
And so, if, as Kuklick observes, Fontaine ended up a “liberal, internationalist Cold Warrior” and inveigher “against the black power movement” for asserting “a special culture untouched by white America,” he also found a home in the “intellectual forefront of the burgeoning civil rights movement” and engaged forcefully in pan-African issues.
Reflecting on Fontaine’s life, Kuklick divides blame for his subject’s failure to achieve great stature. Always “a bit standoffish,” Fontaine struck Penn students such as future novelist John Edgar Wideman as “aloof.” Fontaine’s only book, Reflections on Segregation, Desegregation, Power, and Morals (1967), Kuklick opines, combined “long-simmering anger” and “a breakdown of control” over his material.
At the same time, Kuklick also indicts Fontaine’s discipline – academic philosophy – for his truncated achievement. It had, this leading historian of the field declares, “no time for what he did well and dismissed his mainstream philosophical work.”
Fontaine’s “immersion in white institutions,” Kuklick concludes, “came with a penalty.”