Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Joyce Mitchell Cook: Autobiographical and Philosophical Fragments

Academic journal article The Western Journal of Black Studies

Joyce Mitchell Cook: Autobiographical and Philosophical Fragments

Article excerpt

In 2007, the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, founded by Kathryn T. Gines, held its first conference, which took place at Vanderbilt University. The room was filled with professional Black women philosophers and Black women whose work intersected with Black feminist theory, critical race theory, critical philosophy of race, and other philosophical traditions (for example, variations of both analytic and continental). It was an unprecedented historical gathering, a philosophically fecund space, one filled with tremendous energy, pride, mutual validation, respect, and creative and critical philosophical dialogue. It was within this same space that Joyce Mitchell Cook, the pioneer Black woman who was the first to receive the Ph.D. in philosophy, received a beautiful public recognition from a critical mass of other Black women philosophers. I was delighted to be there on such a momentous occasion. As I recall, there were only two other male philosophers of color in attendance:

Lucius T. Outlaw and Ronald Sundstrom.

It was during her speech that Cook said publicly: "If it wasn't for George Yancy, I would not have been known." I was deeply moved by her public recognition, especially as I had no idea that she had conceived of my role in her life in this specific way. More importantly, however, her words spoke to me of her sense of humility and thankfulness. It spoke to me of our friendship and mutual trust. She was, after all, already known as the first Black woman to receive the Ph.D. in philosophy. She had already paved the way, made her historic mark. Yet, I understood what she meant. She was referring to the precious time that I had spent with her, engaging her life and philosophical worldview, and making sure that her voice and achievements, and the details of her life, were made public and available to the broader philosophical community and to the world.

Back in 1997, I met Cook for the first time. It wasn't face-to-face, but over the phone. I was the one who was unknown at the time. So, I was the real stranger who Cook allowed into her very private life. It has been my sense that Cook has, for the most part, lived a very private life, one filled with just a few valued friends/insiders. This would later be confirmed as we became friends. Cook was very selective in terms of whom she befriended. In fact, in 1997, it was Adrian Piper, the first tenured Black woman philosopher in the U.S., who introduced me to Cook, which, again, was done over the phone, by conference call. I will be forever thankful to Adrian for arranging my conversation with Cook. Adrian was an incredible ally. She actually mediated our conversation, assuring Cook that I was a burgeoning philosopher on the philosophical scene and that the idea that I had for interviewing African-American Philosophers for a volume under contract with Routledge was groundbreaking. I had already completed my interview with Adrian; it was brilliant and philosophically engaging.

So, I made my case to Cook. I could hear her reluctance through her moments of silence. I also got an early sense of her humility. Indeed, it was at that moment that I came to realize that Cook, while the first Black woman to receive the Ph.D. in philosophy, was very unassuming about that distinction. Having broken that barrier was not uppermost on her mind during our conversation. Her real worry had to do with whether or not she had much to say and if what she had to say had any philosophical value were she to do the interview. It is important to note that Cook had been out of the professional field of philosophy for many years--in terms of attending conferences, delivering papers, and so on. I understood her concerns. Again, though, it was her humility and honesty that moved me. What became clear to me over the years is that Cook, while not participating in the sphere of professional philosophy, had never abandoned philosophy. Philosophy was her vocation, her calling. …

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