Bruce Kuklick: Interviewed by HNN about his new biography of an African-American intellectual

Historians in the News

Bruce Kuklick is Nichols Professor of American History at the University of Pennsylvania. He has written ten books ranging in subject from baseball to American philosophy, and was elected to the American Philosophical Society in 2004. His most recent book Black Philosopher, White Academy is a biography of African-American intellectual William Fontaine.

Who was William Fontaine?

One of the first, if not the first, African American scholars to cross the color line in the then segregated world of higher education. He taught at the University of Pennsylvania from 1947-1968.

What brought you to wright on Fontaine, and what do you hope the reader will glean from his story?

He was a mentor of mine, and in some ways I wrote it to pay a personal debt. The major theme is that Fontaine and members of his generation who spent their lives in white institutions paid an enormous personal price. It was not heroic or glamorous, but psychologically difficult and demanding.

Fast-forwarding to the present, there are those black intellectuals who've said they wouldn't teach at historically black colleges and universities because they can't compete financially with the Ivies and their equivalents. There are those that would reasonably find this perplexing, but at the same time it is exciting to see so many African-Americans on faculty at the Ivy institutions they were historically restricted from. What do you make of this?

Scholars who are in it for the money are a disgrace. I think it is still true today that the HBCUs nurture their mostly black students in ways that schools with mostly white students do not nurture their black students. I would look forward to a time when the universities were color blind in respect to both hiring faculty and enrolling students, but that time is a long way off.

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