John E. Drabinski, professor of Black studies, has won the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s 2014 Frantz Fanon Award for Outstanding Book in Caribbean Thought for his book Levinas and the Postcolonial: Race, Nation, Other.

Black-and-white closeup of John Drabinski
John E. Drabinski

Drabinski describes the book as “an effort at bringing some of the debates in contemporary European postmodern theory into conversation with a set of international authors who speak from the perspective of former colonized people.” Specifically, it relates the concept of “the Other,” developed by 20th-century French thinker Emmanuel Levinas, to the ideas of Indian philosopher and Harvard professor Homi Bhabha; Indian postcolonial theorist and Columbia University Professor Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak; Subcomandante Marcos, spokesperson for Mexico’s Zapatista movement; and Martinican poet, writer and critic Édouard Glissant. (For more about Levinas and the Postcolonial, see Amherst’s article announcing its 2011 publication.)

The Frantz Fanon Prize Committee, consisting of scholars from colleges and universities in the United States and abroad, praised Levinas and the Postcolonial as “a work that takes Levinas scholarship out of its exclusive dialogue with other European philosophers and opens it up to new geographies of reason. Drabinski refers to this new exchange as the ‘decolonizing’ and ‘creolizing’ of Levinas. These two terms point to the profound influence of Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant, two postcolonial scholars from the Caribbean island of Martinique.”

The award is named in honor of Fanon (1925–1961), a Martinique-born Algerian-French psychiatrist, philosopher and revolutionary whose work has influenced anti-colonial movements around the world. The Caribbean Philosophical Association (CPA) gives the award “annually in recognition of up to three works in or of special interest to Caribbean thought” published in the past six years, out of an array of works nominated by the CPA’s executive committee. Drabinski plans to travel to St. Louis to receive the award in a special session of the CPA’s international conference, June 19 to 21. As a winning author, he will automatically become a member of the prize committee.

The professor calls the award “the highest recognition for written work by my home organization,” noting that “the CPA is the center of Caribbean philosophy and cultural theory.” He is honored to have his name “alongside some of the very most important figures in the field—previous winners like Linda Alcoff, Paget Henry, Walter Mignolo and Susan Buck-Morss.”

Drabinski says the award validates the decision he made, after earning a Ph.D. in European philosophy, to shift his focus to Black studies—a transition “motivated by my insight that Western philosophy has been entwined with racism and colonialism for centuries, and that work from the global South offers important, transformative critique of the West, as well as a deep, complex and compelling alternative tradition. That is the controversial argument in Levinas and the Postcolonial, so getting the veracity of that claim affirmed by such an important association is a big deal for me personally. Switching fields was a huge personal and professional risk, but this confirms it was the right choice.”

“As well,” he adds, “Levinas and the Postcolonial is my explicit bridge from previous work in French philosophy to my future work in (exclusively) Afro-Caribbean and African-American philosophy.”

Drabinski is on leave from Amherst this year, but in previous semesters he has taught such courses as “Critical Debates in Black Studies” and “The Creole Imagination.” As a 2013–2014 Sheila Biddle Ford Foundation Fellow at Harvard’s W.E.B. Du Bois Institute, he is at work on a book-length study that “offers a philosophical reading of James Baldwin’s nonfiction work in relation to a range of black Atlantic thinkers, from early African-American thought to contemporary Caribbean critical theory.” He is also completing a study of Glissant’s poetics, called Abyssal Beginnings, and a translation of In Praise of Creoleness, by Jean Bernabé, Patrick Chamoiseau and Raphaël Confiant. In mid-February, he will give a seminar and a set of talks at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, as an Andrew W. Mellon Visiting Fellow; he received the fellowship, he says, on the basis of the success of Levinas and the Postcolonial.

Drabinski published Godard Between Identity and Difference in 2008 and Sensibility and Singularity: The Problem of Phenomenology in Levinas in 2001. He is co-editor, with Scott Davidson, of the Journal of French and Francophone Philosophy.