I first learned about feminism from a man. His name was Richard Haynes, a philosophy professor at the University of Florida (UF). It was my first semester at UF and I was working my way into the undergraduate philosophy major. Somewhere in his 70s, Haynes was a gentle man with a radical bent who approached philosophy critically and pragmatically. For Dr Haynes philosophy wasn’t just about abstract speculation. It was, rather, a grounded effort to examine and address some of the most pressing questions of our time. Thus in addition to European classics like Aristotle and Descartes, Haynes introduced his students to the philosophies of critical race theorists, feminists and environmentalists. Through the works of scholars like Alain Locke and Catherine MacKinnon, Haynes compelled us to think about philosophy as a practical engagement with real world problems, even a prism through which we could understand ourselves and our relationships with others. Both racism and sexism were thus philosophical questions that, like any other issue in philosophy, required critical thinking and effective action.
I should say that Haynes wasn’t the first to teach me the value of critical analysis for social life. About a year prior to my transfer to UF from a community college, I accepted Islam through the Nation of Islam (NOI). It was 1997 and I had been visiting the mosque consistently for months at my brother’s behest. He had joined the NOI about a year before my first visit. Engaged in the study of America’s black intellectual tradition, he found the NOI through college classmates and friends. Once he joined, my brother began raising questions I couldn’t answer – questions which focused on my belief in God and how my lifestyle fit into that belief and religion more generally. These also focused on social issues including my perceptions of race and gender. Admittedly, I was stumped. I had never considered my religious beliefs as anything more than part of my taken-for-granted identity as a Catholic Cuban-American. Indeed, the two identities went hand in hand. Nor had I thought much about the problems of race and gender in any socially meaningful way. I knew, of course, that racism and sexism existed (my own experiences confirmed that). But I didn’t really know how to think about these problems beyond the individual. I lacked both a framework and the tools for understanding inequalities as more than individual behaviours. Eventually, his questions frustrated me enough that I agreed to visit the mosque. There, in the heart of Liberty City, my questions found answers. And Islam was central to them.