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American philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah is not allowed into China.

He mentioned this fact at the end of his well-attended March talk in Cleveland, noting he is unwelcome because of his support of Liu Xiaobo, a writer and political activist who won the Nobel peace prize in 2010. At the ceremony in Oslo, Liu was represented by an empty chair.

Appiah, a Princeton University professor, won an Anisfield-Wolf prize in 1993 for his book, “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture.” Today he is president of the PEN American Center, whose home page features a vibrant photo of Liu, with the statement “jailed for writing seven sentences in China” and an invitation to view his case.

“Many, many more writers would be in prison today if we weren’t constantly popping off about it,” Appiah said of Liu’s incarceration. “Still, we haven’t managed to get him out.

“Chinese people complain to me about my regular complaints about Chinese human rights,” Appiah told several hundred listeners assembled in Severance Hall for his lecture on making moral revolutions. “I say, ‘Don’t complain about my complaint – complain about us, the United States.’”

This robust dynamic is caught, Appiah writes, by Thomas Jefferson, who referred to “a decent respect to the opinions of mankind” in the American Declaration of Independence. This is “why the nation’s honor can be mobilized to motivate its citizens,” Appiah writes in his 2010 book, “The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen.”

His latest book is a scholarly and elegant examination of three practices—dueling in 18th Century England, foot binding in China, and Britain’s transatlantic slave trade—and how each came to a decisive end. All collapsed fairly abruptly.

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments,” Appiah writes. “Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.”

Still, foot binding, which thrived for a millennium, ended in the span of a generation: Political scientist Gerry Mackie reports that “the population of Tinghsien, a conservative rural area 125 miles south of Peking, went from 99 percent bound in 1889 to 94 percent bound in 1899 to zero bound in 1919.”

In his book, Appiah calls this “the great unbinding” and attributes it to Christian missionaries campaigning against the practice combined with an awakening of national honor. The Chinese elite were increasingly shamed that outsiders condemned the practice as backward.

But as he gave the F. Joseph Callahan Distinguished lecture, Appiah did not dwell on foot-binding. He spoke, softly and forcefully, about cracks in U.S. national honor: 25 percent of the world’s prison population incarcerated in a country with four percent of the global population, and a lack of “democratic discourse” over drone strikes abroad, which Appiah said, had “killed huge numbers of absolutely innocent people, more than were killed in the World Trade Center.”

In sampling historic moral revolutions, Appiah cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Scalia, John Locke, Thomas Aquinas, Aristotle, “the Bernie Madoff problem” and the 1792 novel by Frances Burney, “Cecilia.” He ranged fluidly across cultures and centuries.

Kenneth F. Ledford, professor of history and law at Case Western Reserve University, praised Appiah as “a massively productive scholar and one of the leading intellectuals in the United States.”

Appiah suggested that U.S. students—such as those at CWRU—were bound up in the nation’s honor, and the beneficiaries of “one of the best university systems in the world.” He expressed optimism that his listeners could be instigators of the next moral revolution.

“When you point out that people aren’t living up to their standards,” Appiah concluded, “you are appealing to their national honor, which, by the way, is what was crucial to the ending of foot binding.”

In what we hope will become an ongoing series, we’ll be sitting down with Anisfield-Wolf winners to hear their thoughts on winning the Anisfield-Wolf award. What has it meant to their careers, to their personal lives, to their approach to their craft? 

In our first installment, we spoke to Kwame Anthony Appiah after his recent talk with Johnnetta Cole at Oberlin College. He was, as we predicted, gracious and forthcoming. We look forward to share more interviews with you over the coming months! 

After a rich discussion between philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah and museum director Johnnetta Cole, the final question in Oberlin’s Finney Chapel was a zinger.

Appiah, who won an Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 1993 for his influential collection of essays “In My Father’s House: Africa in the Philosophy of Culture,” had been turning over questions of identity and art with Cole, an anthropologist who leads the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. The duo’s last question came from Kelsey Scult, 20, an Oberlin African Studies major, who just completed a January internship at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle.

Looking at Cole, the white student  asked, “If I was up for a job at your museum against someone of African descent, I would think they should probably get the job.”

Without hesitation, Cole told Scult she had asked “an absolutely wonderful question.  When you go for the job, I would urge you to identify with all of humanity.  And all of humanity came from only one place—the African continent.”

Cole, 76, who grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, said her mother understood something about common humanity. “My mother didn’t have positive experiences with white folk, but whenever she did, she’d say, ‘You know so-and-so, that white man, he must have a touch of color.’ I live for the day when we dwell more on our connectedness than our differences.  If you’ve done your work, and you know how to move with respect, then it should be your job.”

Appiah, 58, president of Pen America and a Princeton University professor, agreed. He reminded Scult that the W.E.B. Du Bois sought out white experts in compiling his Encyclopedia Africana, and that museum staffs are not segregated. “Identity is not the main thing that matters in scholarship, although identity does matter,” he said, noting that a cadre of white men weighing the intellectual rigor of women might be suspect.

The February 7 evening in Finney Chapel began with Appiah’s slide show of exteriors of renowned museums.  He noted that these institutions were forming during  the 19th Century’s infatuation with Romanticism, a reaction to the Enlightenment that yoked artistic expression to nationalism.  Appiah argued that contemporary peoples aren’t shed of this link, using an example from the Guggenheim Museum that grouped El Greco and Picasso as exemplars of Spanish art, even when the biographical facts confound such claims.

“One of the great philosophical misunderstandings about art is that it is an expression of a nation, a culture, and not the work of an individual,” Appiah said. This is just as true for literature, which borrows liberally from other wells, as William Shakespeare did from Italian sources, he said.

Cole, who had left the stage for Appiah’s opening remarks, returned to ask him, “If museums did not exist, would it be necessary to invent them?”

Appiah looked slightly startled. “That’s a great question,” he murmured. “The things that museums do, we’d have to do—care for precious objects that come from the past, help interpret them, introduce young people to this great human heritage and research those objects about which we don’t know enough.”  He said the key meaning of the arts lies in the act of preserving and passing on the masterpieces worth responding to.

For identities to matter, Appiah said, they must be taken up, interpreted and mediated by outside reactions. He said if he began wearing a dress around the Princeton campus, there might be mild surprise, but little more.  A student came to the microphone and challenged him, saying in academics, gender bending would frequently provoke hostility.

Cole, who graduated from Oberlin in 1957, said she was smitten by the student’s moxie. Several times, she circled back to quote an Appiah truism: “Things are always more complicated than they seem, and some complexities we don’t like to confront.”  When the same student asked how First World museums, which own stolen objects, justify exhibits that amount to “celebrations of colonialism, exploitation and displacement,” Appiah said the crux was not ownership, but access.

“Not everything that started out in a colonial place was stolen,” he said. “What’s really important is if you live in Mali, you don’t have much of a shot at the cultural artifacts that a person in London or New York or Berlin has a chance to see.”  Appiah said he was cheered by some of the lending now from the British Museum to institutions in Kenya and China, whose curators are keen to exhibit not just indigenous objects, but want examples of English and European art to share.

In international exchanges, Appiah noted wryly, “Every threat can be re-described as an offer.”

Judith Ortiz Cofer, 1994 winner for fiction, shares her advice on becoming a writer in this quick clip. She stresses the importance of taking your craft seriously and making room for your goals in your life: 

“You have to imagine yourself as an artist before you can become an artist. And the way that I did it, was getting up at 5 in the morning and writing for two hours before everyone else woke up. You have to allocate a place and time to become an artist. Just like if you want to be the best basketball player who ever existed. You can’t sit in a room and say, ‘I am going to be the greatest.’ You have to get out to the court and practice and practice. A musician has to practice. A singer has to sing. A writer has to write.” 

Watch the entire video above and get inspired! 

1993 winner Kwame Anthony Appiah is well-known for his musings on race, culture, and identity. Born to a European mother and a Ghanaian father, he has been conscious of the way those three notions intersect in society. In this BigThink video, he shares his personal philosophy on life. Check it out and let us know what you think! 

Kwame Anthony Appiah

Watch Anisfield-Wolf jury member Rita Dove get presented with the 2011 National Medal of Arts by President Barack Obama and Kwame Anthony Appiah be presented with the 2011 National Medal of Humanities.