But "Africans are philosophers. From the moment they were abducted they argued philosophically that it was unjust," Coleman says. But they weren't listened to, and even today they are missing from the canon of Eurocentric curricula and are not valued as philosophers.
Enlightenment philosophers such as Hobbes or Rousseau philosophised and spoke about slavery, but not really about the European colonial enslavement of African people. If they did, it was in a supposedly universal political sense as the opposite of freedom, or metaphorically, as in Wollstonecraft, who meant "enslaved" wealthy, "white middle-class women." "She didn't really want to get her hands dirty with the actual enslavement right before her eyes."
A leading member of the "Sons of Africa" was Quobna Ottobah Cugoano, who had been abducted on the West African coast. Later, he was the first African who penned and published arguments against enslavement in English.
The most notable thing about this was that his writings weren't narratives or biographies, like those of his colleague Olaudah Equiano, but rather philosophical arguments that were rooted in the European ideas of the Enlightenment, beginning with John Locke, one hundred years earlier, in the 17th century.
Cugoano committed himself to Locke's idea that each person owns himself. Accordingly, his philosophical argument was that this also applied to Africans and, therefore, African persons couldn't be owned by other persons. Through enslavement, African people had been dispossessed of themselves, argued Cugoano. With this, he came to a conclusion implicit in Locke's thought - one that Locke himself had not drawn. For Locke once wrote: "Every freeman of Carolina shall have absolute power and authority over his negro slaves."--From An interview with Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman by Aaron Salzer, of science.ORF.at Translation from German by Dr Jeff Bowersox and Daniel James. [HT DailyNous]
Coleman is right that philosophy has been whitewashed. I learned this not during my BA & PhD, but while entering the profession, as I became a student -- guided by the economists David Levy and Sandra Peart -- of the shared history of economics, statistics (recall), and philosophy, which is not just at the intersection of Utilitarianism's history (e.g. recall this post on W.E.B. Du Bois). Questions of breeding/eugenics, slavery, and racialized (inferior) others haunt the enterprise from the start (recall this post). In the English-language context the racialized (to be enslaved/bred, etc.) other is not just African (or, recall, Indian), but also Irish (recall my post on Berkeley).
So, it is a painful fact -- for those of us who reflect on the fact that we continue and renew a practice, even a continuous tradition --, that philosophy has systematically effaced African voices from our history and self-conception. It is painful because I take pride to belong to a community that in its self-conception is receptive to argument and evidence. Coleman is right to be unrelenting about this "whitewashing" and to bring to our attention African authors and arguments that contested the institution of slavery and the nature of philosophy (by say, giving living evidence that philosophy is not just an occupation of white university professors or leisured gentlemen [see also Haslanger's comments]). My view, perhaps too optimistic, is that thereby Coleman puts us in the position to renew, even revive, philosophy if we are willing to live up to his challenge.
But Coleman has a tendency to essentially our philosophical past through the implication that the institution of slavery was uncontested by Enlightenment thinkers (or before). But this ignores not just the opposition to the institution by Radical philosophers that Jonathan Israel has been describing at length in his works, but even the non-trivial opposition of Adam Smith and, especially, his student, James Millar (see here for scholarship), to really existing slavery in their own day. They did so in lectures and publications. They were not alone in Scotland: James Beattie (who is loathed by Hume and Kant), also was a fierce opponent of slavery in part on strongly held religious grounds (reminding us of the positive role of Christian thought).* This is is not to deny that each one of these Scottish men requires critical and serious criticism of their views of race, empire, slavery (etc), but Coleman has a tendency to present the past in Manichean terms. He thereby obscures that the the nature of philosophy was contested in the Enlightenment age of slavery and that slavery was, in fact, one of the key issues of contestation--my suspicion is that part of Ancient philosophy's opposition to Sophism turns on the Sophists attack of slavery (see here for hints). (And when we look closely at the debates during the eighteenth century we find plenty of complexity; even Hume, who was too comfortable with racism and no abolitionist, liked to taunt his Republican opponents that their beloved liberty was founded on slavery.)
These days it's still a hard sell to convince professional philosophers that Mandeville (a complex proto-Feminist) and Millar were philosophers worth taking seriously. (Poor Beattie: if Kant and Hume agree about something it must be true!) It's not so long ago, and now I speak from personal experience, that Adam Smith was put in the same non-philosophical category by many professional philosophers. (Amusingly enough, Smith gets re-discovered in every generation for over a century now.)
Now, this is not a plea for using Millar to displace Cugoano in any future canon or curriculum. Rather, it's to point out that Coleman is right that there has been institutionalized forgetting and effacement, including (judged by a depressingly low bar) philosophy's rare, more noble past.