One of the first African American students to earn a philosophy degree at Hamilton, Alfred Prettyman ’56 became a guiding figure in African American philosophy. First, however, he had a groundbreaking career in publishing, becoming an editor at Harper & Row, then leaving to launch, in 1969, a publishing company to create a platform for black intellectuals. In the 1970s, his Emerson Hall Publishers was one of the country’s top black publishers.
But to Todd Franklin, Hamilton’s Christian A. Johnson Excellence in Teaching Professor of Philosophy and Africana Studies, Prettyman’s enduring legacy is founding the Society for the Study of Africana Philosophy. Prettyman first hosted the society salon in 1976 at his New York City apartment, where it still meets. “He’s always been trailblazing in terms of, as I like to describe it, in giving a voice to or creating mediums for the sharing and expression of voice of African American intellectuals,” Franklin says.
The salon has become a mecca for African American philosophers, a space where scholars at all stages of their careers can present work and engage in great conversation, says Franklin, who has done just that. He describes the society as “a long-standing community of scholars dedicated to clarifying and addressing social issues regarding race.”
In its founder’s assessment, the society’s most significant impact has been to provide a forum for “cordial, but uncompromising” critical discussion across disciplines. “In this we have engaged the works of women and men graduate students, untenured and tenured faculty, as well as unaffiliated intellectuals and members of the community — all of a variety of cultural identities,” explains Prettyman, who is still an active scholar.
The announcements for the society’s meetings give a glimpse of what happens on those Sunday afternoons: “What’s Your Tribe?: an open discussion on the recent report, Hidden Tribes: A Study of America’s Polarized Landscape; Please read as much of the [160-page] report in advance of the meeting.” Or “At our September meeting, our perennial host Alfred Prettyman will give a presentation and facilitate a discussion on the Sage Philosophy of Frederick Ochieng'-Odhiambo. In preparation, please read the ‘African Sage Philosophy’ entry of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Students are welcome.”
Throughout the years of discussions and meetings, Prettyman has maintained a rich archive of the society, and he recently donated all of it to Hamilton. He wants it to be used as a resource for active study and research and considered Hamilton, with Franklin as curator, to be the best place to house it. Franklin is working to establish the archive with Director and Curator of Special Collections and Archives Christian Goodwillie and with help from students. One of the goals is to digitize the materials, which include audio tapes of the salons.
“The idea is to really ramp that up in terms of digital humanities and have it as an opportunity for students to create different types of projects and draw upon it as a resource,” Franklin says. “I want it to be something that inspires thought.”