Black Philosopher, White Academy

At a time when almost all African American college students attended black colleges, philosopher William Fontaine was the only black member of the Penn faculty. Bruce Kuklick sheds light on Fontaine's career as a black scholar as well as on the discipline of philosophy and academic life at mid-century.

Black Philosopher, White Academy
The Career of William Fontaine

Bruce Kuklick

2008 | 192 pages | Cloth $59.95
Biography | Education
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Table of Contents

1. A Cultured Education
2. A Student of Philosophy
3. Ambition Constrained
4. The Sociology of Knowledge
5. Social Change and World War II
6. The Ambiguity of Success
7. Social Philosophy and Civil Rights
8. Conservative Pan-Africanism
9. White Racism and Black Power

Bibliography of the Writings of William Fontaine

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


In the middle of 2001 the American Academy of Arts and Sciences commissioned me to write an essay about philosophy in the United States after World War Two, and about the way the university system housed this scholarly discipline. The Academy did not want a study of great American thinkers in philosophy, but an appraisal of how the field served undergraduates, and of what connection the area of inquiry had to other subjects and to the outside world. In working on the project, whenever I traveled, I went to university libraries to explore the records institutions might have kept. I was interested in student enrollments, courses taught, interdisciplinary cooperation, and other peculiar aspects of campus life. The pickings were slim. In many cases schools do not keep files from academic departments at all. In other instances relevant documents show up in the collections of deans and provosts and presidents. Where records survive, they look erratic—material for one span of years gets saved, while for another span everything disappears. Sometimes librarians have saved enormous quantities of the personal papers of individual philosophers, and sometimes the material in them pertains to the practices of the discipline at a given time. Sometimes, however, someone seems to have performed triage on these collections of philosophers, or pertinent material does not get preserved. I could never predict what I would find, and I never stumbled on extensive information applicable to my topic.

For well over a year, I neglected to search at my own school, the University of Pennsylvania. I had gone to Penn in the early 1960s as an undergraduate philosophy major, and supposed that I knew the place well. In late December 2002, nonetheless, I decided to visit the University Archives, located in the bowels of Penn's football stadium, Franklin Field. The existing records paralleled those at other colleges. I located some departmental information in the cartons of mail, publications, typescripts, and lecture notes of long-dead professors of philosophy. Penn had no documentation for some stretches of time, but the staff did come across a substantial amount of material from the period when I studied there. In addition, the archivist asked me if I wanted to see the personal manuscripts of William Fontaine, a black man who had taught in the Penn philosophy department for some twenty years. Fontaine had lectured to me. I had vaguely positive memories of his classes, but I could barely recall him or them.

It was the mid-afternoon of a gray day shortly before Christmas, and I wanted to get home. Yet I knew in the end I would have to examine everything in the Penn depository, and I was told the Fontaine papers were limited. I would check them. In fact the collection was minute: two pieces of African sculpture, a plaque for a teaching award, and one small box of correspondence. Most of the paper documents consisted of notes for a book Fontaine published late in his life, written on the backs of envelopes and old exams. The box also held a quarter-inch thick file comprised mostly of what I call "flimsies," onionskin duplicates of standard forms noting Fontaine's yearly appointment status and salary. A miscellany of mail about departmental affairs made up what remained. I flipped through these messages, and my eye caught one that had printed in a bold hand in the top right hand corner, KUKLICK. Over forty years before Fontaine had recommended me to graduate school. I had no recollection that I had known him well enough even to ask for a reference, or that I had even applied to the school to which he had directed the letter. The mere existence of the recommendation stunned me far out of proportion to the importance of the words of praise.

I could hardly look at the carbon copy. I walked out of the small reading room and asked the assistant archivist if she would get the page with my name on it, xerox it, and put it in an envelope. I walked home with the envelope, mind spinning, and had my wife look at the piece of paper before I was willing to scrutinize it myself.

I am not a superstitious person. But the discovery rattled my metaphysical bones. It summoned me to an era that I hardly recalled, and asked me to understand events of which I had been unaware. One of the first black men to cross the color line in higher education Fontaine, it turned out, had a distinctive historical pedigree. As the only African American philosopher at a first-rank university, he had lived uniquely between the black and white segregated worlds. He had subjected himself, and been subjected, to pressures that astounded me. How had I managed, as a young man, to meet up with such an uncommon human being? What had my relationship with him been like? Why, in Fontaine's tiny remains, had there endured a letter about me? Why had he, dead in 2002 for almost thirty-five years, tapped me on the shoulder?

Over the next few years, sometimes obsessively, I tried to answer these questions. I began to dream about Fontaine, and to refer to him as "Bill," as if he were still around. I first thought I would get a handle on the issues by writing an article on his career at Penn. Five years later I had become absorbed in his compelling life story for its own sake. I framed new questions, and almost beyond my will composed this book-length biography.

Renown escaped Fontaine. To write about him has required detective and salvage work. The research has sent me on a series of small journeys during which I have harassed librarians and archivists, and accessed many collections of documents with far less material about Fontaine than he left behind at Penn. I have, from time to time, come to tears when reading some of the primary sources. I have mercilessly pestered good-natured colleagues with an expertise in African American history. Nothing that I have written depends solely on my own memories, which kept tumbling into my head, although I have used odds and ends from a variety of secondary sources. A scrap here, a scrap there. Scholars can trace my comings and goings from a complete set of footnotes, and my Note on Sources at the end of this book also indicates where I have come up short. Moreover, I have interviewed over twenty-five people who knew Fontaine. I have, however, gathered nowhere near the material I would have thought necessary to put together a coherent account. The story of Fontaine's life waxes and wanes relative to the evidence I have unearthed for any given time. The project could not have gotten off the ground except as a biography that makes extended use of published writing to track his intellectual development. Still, the overall experience resembles that of a sailor who observes on the water the wreckage of some marine craft and who tries to piece together the nature of the sunken boat from the flotsam on the waves.

I have exploited the available evidence for all that it is worth, and more. But the evidence still does not do enough. Attentive readers will note that appropriate qualifying phrases have intimated the constraints on the narrative, and readers may well add some qualifications of their own. The shortage of the facts and thus Fontaine's elusiveness as an historical figure have tied themselves, over the last several years, to my own perplexities in getting inside his skin. I realize, moreover, that white institutions have excessively generated the present sources. The lost and unexplained aspects of Fontaine's life and my own difficulties of historical comprehension symbolize for me the mystery of his in-betweenness. In writing the book and attempting to give the man his due, I have often found myself paying a personal debt—but incompletely.

The American philosopher William James once remarked about the pathos of death that all the intensity of a personality is reduced, after death, to a few lines of print, a mere musical note in a symphony. I have had that feeling in reconstructing this life.