Drucilla Cornell, in Memoriam

Drucilla Cornell

The eminent philosopher Lewis R. Gordon, a foremost expert on the thought of Frantz Fanon and a longtime companion of and contributor to the Frantz Fanon Foundation, shares his thoughts about the recent passing of radical theorist and philosopher Drucilla Cornell. Dr. Gordon’s « In Memoriam » is a note of love to Prof. Cornell as well as a reflection on the depth of loving relationships. We thank Dr. Gordon for sharing his thoughts about the passing of his dear friend Drucilla, which capture the affinity between her thought and that of other major radical thinkers, such as Rosa Luxemburg and Frantz Fanon. The Frantz Fanon Foundation joins the Cornell family, Prof. Gordon, and so many others who treasure Prof. Cornell’s outstanding work in radical thinking and who have been impacted by her life, her activism, and her thought.  

I woke one morning in mid-December to Thelonious Monk’s performance of “I Didn’t Know It Was You.” That beautiful tune made me think of my beloved comrade and friend Drucilla Cornell. The reasons why are many along a trail of “perhaps.”  As existentialists often reflect, no one knows anybody. We realize much about others when they’re gone. In their passing, one realizes their greater meaning in the lives of those who live on.

Given our close friendship, I will refer to her as “Drucilla” in the spirit of how she referred to Rosa Luxemburg simply as “Rosa.”

Drucilla’s intense fire of life began to dim in October and eventually went out on December 12th, 2022. I use this metaphor for her passing because it is how Frantz Fanon’s  friends described him, as reported by his brother Joby, although, in Peau noir, masques blancs, Fanon had opened his reflections, prophetically, with concerns about a cooling flame. He joined the ancestors on December 6th, 1961. They share the twelfth month of the year with a strange numerology of six days. 

Drucilla loved Fanon. She saw him among the many great thinkers she admired from Hegel to Marx to Luxemburg, and in placing him with Luxemburg especially, she saw a brother and a sister motivated by the power of radical love.

I’m sure, had Frantz and Drucilla met, the admiration would have been mutual. Both thinkers were revolutionaries trained in “practical” professions—Frantz Fanon was a psychiatrist; Drucilla Cornell, a Lawyer. Both had a profound love for philosophy but refused to fetishize it. And, of course, both saw the interconnectedness of thought and its relationship to beauty, dignity, freedom, love, truth, and reality.

Despite their love for great thinkers, Drucilla Cornell and Frantz Fanon were not elitists. They understood that everyone had a role to play in realizing thought’s great possibilities and that each person’s specific role was unique. It is no doubt why Drucilla was among those feminist thinkers who, when reading Frantz Fanon’s writings, immediately had the Zulu reflection, “Sawubona”: “I see you.”

A succinct obituary of Drucilla is available on the Hannah Arendt Center’s website.  I offer here some additional reflections on her importance for the community of the Frantz Fanon Center.

An activist since her adolescence, Drucilla was guided by a commitment to playing her part in  building a livable world. Her life was marked by many challenges, which she related to me over the past quarter of a century. Throughout, what strengthened her was the spirit of love she received from her maternal grandmother, who encouraged her wonder and search for forms of love manifested in what Hegel called Absolute Spirit.  Her grandmother ran a printing press and nurtured her imagination while introducing her to pluralistic forms of knowledge in frequent trips to the African American communities in Watts, Los Angeles. They went by bus to see her grandmother’s soothsayer or African spiritual advisor. Those visits were never marked by fear of Black people, which, by example, inoculated Drucilla in the 1950s against the racist propaganda of the country of her birth. She witnessed the contradictions of a society that dehumanized human beings while avowing its supposed birthright as a defender of freedom.

When Drucilla was about sixteen years of age, her grandmother printed several copies of a special collection of Hegel’s thoughts on love to accompany her on dates. One could imagine Drucilla sliding the book to each no doubt perplexed suitor. This complex dialectic of pluralistic knowledge, witnessing of material inequalities, and the dynamics of love from generalized humanity to romantic investments in everyday life met in her later years in her understanding of political life as she became a union activist, an activist against antiblack racism and sexism, an intellectual, and a teacher.

I should add that Drucilla was a polymath. D.A. Masolo once told me a Luo proverb: It’s a man one eye who, spotting another with one eye, goes to her and say: “You have one eye.”  Drucilla was a gifted mathematician with a love for theoretical physics; she loved poetry; she wrote plays; she wrote histories and biographies; she wrote legal and philosophical treatises.  I loved discussing theoretical developments in many disciplines with her. She had that rear gift of being able to process complex ideas in a nano-second, even though, amusingly, she was a luddite when it came to multi-functional devices such as computers and so-called “smart”-phones. Among her greatest joys was learning. 

Love, for Drucilla, was a form of dedicated loving. To love and to be loved back revealed a commitment to building possibilities in which the self was never closed. She read Hegel in that way, which led to her early theoretical work in legal theory. This was done alongside her activist work of union organizing and her dedication to fighting struggles on multiple fronts. She held memberships to radical left parties and liberal ones; she worked with communities rethinking the idea of legal remedies beyond the confines of those narrowly defined by states. These commitments attracted her to the thought of Jacques Derrida, who became the godfather to her daughter Sarita.

Drucilla played a central role in bringing Deconstruction to legal theory through a series of groundbreaking anthologies and monographs—for example, Beyond Accommodation: Ethical Feminism, Deconstruction and the Law (1991), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice (1992), and The Philosophy of the Limit (1992)—in which she offered her contribution to Deconstruction, which, we should remember, is not a closed but open and ethically motivated understanding of theory and practice. Today many activists and theorists speak of necessary boundaries, but few think about the paradox of limitless freedom leading to license versus responsible freedom—one constrained by ethical responsibility—manifesting limits that serve as conditions of possibility of realized freedom. For Drucilla, this insight about freedom was a clue for what she would later call the law of laws. Legal legitimacy required a law over law, wherein law is not used for lawfare, for war by the means of legalistic technologies, but instead for well-being or livable life.

Her understanding of the connection between love and revolution, limits that enable flourishing or livable lives led Drucilla to rethink problems of absence, of those unheard, and this drew her back to Rosa Luxemburg and Frantz Fanon, whose relationship to her beloved Hegel was not one of application but, instead, innovation.  Drucilla brought these two luminaries in conversation with traditions across the spectrum from Global Southern to varieties of feminist thought in a synthesis that transcended North/South divides. Her theoretical writings in effect rechanneled her grandmother’s trips into Watts, but this time beyond the United States as it took her to South Africa, where, in the spirit of her grandmother, she sought the counsel of Sangomas.  For Drucilla, Constitutional Court Justices in South Africa, Research Professors in the top universities, and major public intellectuals were but part of a complex society in which the Sangoma, as Boaventura de Sousa Santos would say, was a contributor to a plurality of epistemes and legitimating practices of knowledge. It is this insight that attracted Drucilla to uBuntu, which is a complex Indigenous African form of relational understanding of ethical life and political responsibility.

Moving from narrow formalism about ideals, Drucilla offered an understanding of reasonable ideals instead of closed rationalistic ones. Her goal, always, was to be constructive. Reading Fanon and Luxemburg in this way meant nothing short of an open instead of closed dialectical project, one informed by the existential understanding of the value of committed practice in which outcomes were never guaranteed without performance.  An expression of this project, her 2007 book Moral Images of Freedom, won the Caribbean Philosophical Association’s Frantz Fanon Outstanding Book Award. Another, uBuntu and the Law: African Ideals and Postapartheid Jurisprudence (2012), published in the Just Ideas series she edited with Roger Berkowitz, brought elements of the uBuntu project she co-organized across South Africa, from Cape Town to Venda, into scholarly reflection.  So, too, was her Law and Revolution in South Africa uBuntu, Dignity, and the Struggle for Constitutional Transformation, published in 2014.  These are but a fragment of her creativity and influence.

Germane to the Fanon Foundation, Drucilla’s Fanonian turn, though commencing from her years of working with Black radical groups in southern California in the late 1960s through 1970s, eventually took the form of joining the twenty-first century project of creolizing theory as articulated by Jane Anna Gordon, whose treatise Creolizing Political Theory was published in the Just Ideas series in 2014, and other members of the Caribbean Philosophical Association who participated in the Creolizing the Canon and Global Critical Caribbean Thought books series. This was a natural progression, given her work’s bringing together dialectical thought with Deconstruction, psychoanalysis, and African philosophy and jurisprudence. These are elements that were already there in her writing, as I was citing and discussing her thought as early as in my first book Bad Faith and Antiblack Racism (1995) and nearly every one of my subsequent texts.  It was with that in mind that I invited her to write the afterward to my 2015 book What Fanon Said. It was, as I saw it, a way of saying “Sawubona.”

Creolizing Rosa, which Drucilla co-edited with Jane Anna Gordon, reminds the world of the revolutionary adage of what freedom for all signifies. Luxemburg, we should remember, understood the importance of South Africa and Caribbean countries such as Martinique and Guadeloupe while her fellow European intellectual were still locked in the problematic orientalist presupposition of “juvenile” reason rising from the East and achieving maturity in the West. Her identification with Rosa Luxemburg—and  Frantz Fanon—attested to her conviction that the globality of thought not only comes from many directions but that it must do so through the interaction of those confluences at all levels of society. Freedom divorced from reality makes no sense, and projects of self-purification closes its spirit from an important lifeline premised on relationships with the breadth of humanity: reality. This is the core calling of, in a word, revolution.

Drucilla has been saying Sawubona throughout her life to so many who were invisibilized. This was a committed effort on her part because, as a woman, she was aware of the complex gendered history of the divergence between speaking and being heard, seeing and being seen, and forms of seeing that amount to not seeing.  It’s rather poignant that her final book, Today’s Struggles, Tomorrow’s Revolutions: Afro-Caribbean Liberatory Thought,  building on Global Southern existential philosophical and political commitments of doing what one must even under threats of despair, political nihilism, and violence, was published several weeks before she joined the ancestors.

Now, when I take off my shoes to speak, to teach, or to pour libations, I think of Drucilla among so many courageous, loving ancestors, who loved so hard it hurt, who fought to their last breath, who understood so clearly causes greater than themselves, whose entire life was a beginning for so many others, and thank her among them for having lived and enriching the lives of so many with dignity and love.

Lewis R. Gordon

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