Remembering William R. Jones (1933-2012):
Philosopher and Freedom Fighter


To write about Professor William R. Jones is for me to write about a man who was more than a scholar, more than a historic figure, more than a friend, and definitely more like a relative. His passing is a loss for so many. It is a blow to a profession and a discipline in addition to many erstwhile political causes. And given his love for his wider community and family, it is also for many of us who loved him, a profoundly personal loss.

I will move from the professional to the personal, which, for Professor Jones, as we all knew him, was never neatly separate. I encountered Jones in perhaps the best way one should with a philosopher: through his work. His ideas were instrumental in the later parts of my dissertation, which was later revised into my first book, Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism. The part entitled “God in an Antiblack World” was inspired by his important book Is God a White Racist?: A Preamble to Black Theology (1973; reprinted in 1997), which I first read in the course “Black Theology,” a course I took at Yale Divinity School under the instruction of one of my mentors M. Shawn Copeland, who now teaches at Boston College. That classic work was Jones’s devastating critique of James Cone’s and others’ articulation of Jesus’ symbolic location as a champion of the oppressed. The history of black suffering doesn’t bear that out, he insisted. Black liberation theology required, he argued, a rigorous engagement with theodicy. Such an exploration would reveal the classic problem of responsibility and free will, where human agency must be considered for the path of any commitment to social transformation and liberation—the project, that is, of bringing some semblance of heaven on earth.

Jones’s thought had a profound impact on me. He raised a problem that led to my asking a different kind of question. As he asked the reader to consider what to do if G-d were a white racist, I began to question the mediation of deities in terms of self-reflection, especially from the actual behavior of people of faith: Must G-d, in other words, be in their image? If G-d could never be in their image, and if they could never hope but to echo G-d’s as an ethical hope (the Jewish view), then another conundrum emerges, especially when one reflects on the troubling history of gender and race: How is black female love of a non-female deity possible?

That consideration was a clue to a problem in many models of ethics: the presupposition of similarity as a condition for responsibility and love. What if such commitment and devotion could be premised on difference?   If so, wouldn’t that pose a radical consideration of responsibility for those who use difference as an excuse instead of an opportunity for an ethical extension of the hand and the heart?

I continued reading Jones’s work, and I was struck by his activist-oriented scholarship. He articulated a demand for “black philosophy,” as it was at that time called, well in his challenging essays “Crisis in Philosophy: The Black Presence,” in the Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association XLVII (1973), and “The Legitimacy and Necessity of Black Philosophy: Some Preliminary Considerations,” published in The Philosophical Forum IX (1978). These writings brought to the fore his astute understanding that every liberation struggle, every fight for social justice, also involves exploration of their epistemic and theoretical conditions. In his own way, he identified a problem of philosophy often overlooked by its practitioners from racially and ethnically dominant groups: Philosophy was not immune to colonial dynamics, and some of those also involved lying to itself about its relationship to things human.

Looking further, I learned that this was a theme throughout Bill’s thought. A graduate of Howard University, he was once a devote Protestant who achieved his M.Div at Harvard University and was transformed by the contradictions of a religion of love issuing so much hate in practice. This concern brought him to the Unitarian Church, but his unease continued. A self-critique was necessary, and he offered such in his Brown University dissertation, “On Sartre’s Critical Methodology” (1967). What he appreciated about the thought of Sartre and other existentialists was their quest for radical self-critique, a practice they extended to the study of thought and society. It was this methodological concern that led to his writing Is God an Antiblack Racist? when he taught at Yale Divinity School in the early 1970s.   

There are stories, some of which are apocrypha, on whether that challenging—and to some, shocking—treatise led to his leaving Yale, an institution at which he was an award-winning faculty member. What is clear is that it led him, with his wife and two sons, to Florida State University at Tallahassee, where he was Professor of Religion (focusing on philosophy of religion) and the founder of the Afro-American Studies program. I will return shortly to some of the consequences of this move.

I began my career as an assistant professor of philosophy and African American studies at Purdue University. While there, my colleagues Renée T. White and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and I had decided to organize a conference on Frantz Fanon in 1995 in celebration of what would have been Fanon’s seventieth year. We sent out a call for papers, and as the conference neared, I received an unusual phone call.

“Dr. Gordon,” the caller queried, “I would like to know if it’s too late for me to submit an abstract to present a paper at the conference. I’m a great admirer of Fanon’s thought, and I would appreciate the opportunity to participate.”

I responded that “We have quite a number of presentations, but I will see what I could do, depending on what you would like to present. What is your name?”

“Bill Jones,” he said. “Some people know me as William R. Jones.”

There was a long silence. “One moment,” I replied. I then walked out of my office and spoke to my colleagues in African American Studies, who included Leonard Harris, and explained who was on the phone asking to participate in the meeting.

On my return, I explained to Professor Jones that I was a great admirer of his work and it would be an honor not only for him to participate but also for him to do so as our keynote. With typical modesty, he laughed and said that would be fine but that he insisted on paying his own way and participating as any other presenter at the meeting. So, we had William R. Jones, without fanfare, at what was the conference that led to the publication of Fanon: A Critical Reader (1996). Remarkably, he was ill at the time and had showed up with his oxygen tank ready to go.

Jones’s keynote was memorable, but for me it was the beginning of what was also a filial relationship, the transformation into “Professor Jones” simply becoming, for me, “Bill.” My favorite memory is of picking him up from the airport in Indianapolis. I had also picked up Paget Henry of Brown University on the same trip. As I drove to West Lafayette, talking about how delighted I was to have the editor of The C.L.R. James Journal and the author of Is God a White Racist? attending our conference, I turned to address Paget and saw him crouched over in a near fetal position in his seat.

“Are you OK?” I asked.

“You’re driving too fast!” Paget said.

“This is Indiana,” I answered. “Look—the other cars are passing us on the highway.” I looked back at Bill and asked if he were OK.

He smiled gently and said, “I’m from Kentucky. This is slow driving there.”

Such was the beginning of the transformation of our relationship into a close friendship of nearly two decades.

If asked what he was first and foremost, Bill often said he was a secular humanist. He devoted his life to struggles against dehumanization across the globe as a participant in the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa, and the fight for egalitarian education worldwide. He mentored scores of graduate students, many of whom were from underrepresented communities, to the completion of their doctoral degrees, and he was proverbially “there” for so many people in need that he once lamented to me that he wished it were not at the expense of his relationship with some of those most close to him.  

Bill was not only a gentleman. He was also a gentle man. That is to say that he paid attention to every one with unusual patience and tenderness. Nothing made him happier than to see another human being flourish.

I have a picture of Bill in my living room. It’s of him with a joyous smile at my wedding. One of the things he mentioned at the ceremony was the importance of unions once thought impossible serving as revolutionary beacons of hope. My wife is a descendant of European Jews who moved to South Africa. I am of Irish and Palestinian Jews who, when they moved to Jamaica, married Afro-Jamaicans, Chinese Jamaican migrants, and Tamil Indians who were former indentured servants. My wife’s Jewish family had become white. Mine became black. A decade earlier, it would have been illegal for us to marry in her parents’ country, even though we are both Jews. And in the US for most of Bill’s life, it was the same.

I was honored to be the featured speaker at Bill’s retirement celebration in 1999. Organized by his former student, the award-winning novelist Monifa Love and her husband, the late Ed Love, the event included many proclamations that revealed Bill’s impact on the state of Florida, the country, and the globe. There is a William R. Jones Day in the city of Tallahassee and another for the state, and numerous scholarships and honors in his name. There was a theater full of students, colleagues, politicians, friends, and relatives. But the powerful close to the meeting was the man himself. He voiced his appreciation for our gathering in his honor, and then he reflected on two aspirations that animated his life. The first was love. The second, which he articulated with trembling lips, as his large, penetrating eyes seemed to wonder reflectively and panoramically over the struggles, the humiliations endured and the battles lost and won, was, simply but profoundly put, in his powerful words, 




Bill kept his eye on the prize. We are fortunate to have had such a guiding spirit in the world of philosophy. As with the challenge he posed to Black Theology, we may wish to take his counsel to heart and reflect on the responsibility we have for the knowledge we seek and produce as we face a world we not only try to understand but also change.

Thank you, Bill, for proverbially more than you could ever know.

© Lewis R. Gordon