BU Humanists at Work: Darien Pollock, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

Darien Pollock, Assistant Professor of Philosophy

“I think a lot of students would benefit from taking just one philosophy course,” says Assistant Professor of Philosophy Darien Pollock. “They would see that things that you think have to be true don’t have to be.” 

Darien Pollock was once one of those students. As an undergraduate at Morehouse College, Pollock felt disillusioned with his coursework and frustrated by the cost of books. He was ready to throw in the towel when a friend persuaded him to try a philosophy class before taking official steps to drop out. The friend assured him that philosophy courses draw heavily from open-source texts, so he wouldn’t have to spend much money, if any, on books. Pollock obliged, thinking, “This thing is not expensive, so I can try it.” 

And it stuck. He loved the questions he was asked to think about, and he loved that in philosophy, there are really no right or wrong answers. Most of all, he loved the freedom of thought that philosophical discourse encourages: “There are so many things at any university that can make you feel unfree. Philosophy was the one thing that made me feel free, whether it was free to think about ideas that I never thought I could think about or being able to engage in things like argument, which I thought, coming from some of the communities that I come from, always led to violence. To just see that argument could be used to bring people together was amazing to me,” says Pollock. 

This complex relationship between experiences in the academy and experiences (both personal and communal) in other environments now forms the backbone of Pollock’s research. He explains how this tension plays out in his forthcoming first monograph, Street Knowledge

“Most of the things we do in the academy are about building theoretical frameworks and models about how reality is. What is the opposite of that? Whatever that thing is, how can we incorporate our book knowledge with that ‘stuff’? I call that ‘stuff’ ‘street knowledge.’ We get street knowledge through what Jacques Derrida called ‘free play,’ which involves trying to describe the world through your own lived experiences and at the same time challenging whatever a person or institution in power says is the right way to interpret your experiences. Street knowledge comes out of us challenging these interpretations.” 

Pollock maintains that one can possess street knowledge anywhere. In his book, he is intentional about “dislodging the word street” from connotations with a poor or racialized environment. “Street knowledge has to do with your relationship to power and who you’re in community with. You can have street knowledge at a place like BU. You can have marginalized discourses and communities within places of power,” he explains. 

As a professor, Pollock is keenly aware of the tensions between his position in the academy and the marginalized experiences that he’s lived and studied. He acknowledges that on multiple occasions he’s found himself standing in front of a class teaching theory while thinking of experiences, both his own or others’, that “fly in the face of that theory.” But Pollock leans into these kinds of tensions, which can also make for fascinating classroom discussions. 

Pollock’s academic experiences have also helped him see that there are resources and tools in the academy that are not reaching marginalized communities. Working at the intersection of theory and experience, Pollock tries to address this gap through his organization, Street Philosophy Institute. In his own words, the Institute “organizes academics in universities and tries to use that human capital in whatever problem space is affecting a local community. The Institute is a way for me to combine my awareness of marginalized experiences and the promise that comes with using some kind of theoretical tools that some people can’t see through their lived experiences.” The organization’s founding was a reaction to the 2016 election of Donald Trump, and they work mostly with communities in Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. 

For example, in their first project, which took up the issue of voting rights, the Institute served as a liaison between communities and sociologists and political scientists whose empirical data on voting had the potential to be a powerful tool for community organizing and mobilization. The Institute is currently working on a project called “Racial Healing in Florida,” which began in support of youth in Pollock’s hometown of Marianna, Florida who were angered that their formal education had excluded the teaching of one of the largest mass-lynchings in U.S. history, which took place in Marianna. 

“One of my goals in philosophy is to talk about how the street philosophy framework can be used to make sense of how we leave things out in the academy,” says Pollock, whose work reaches far beyond his native Florida. Much of his current research is focused on problems in the African context, which he calls “one of the most under researched areas in philosophy.” 

He explains that “in relation to our American status quo and established institutions, a lot of philosophy in the African context equates to a type of street knowledge because it’s not incorporated into what we consume on a daily basis, even in our classrooms.” Pollock spent much of his summer working with academics in Nigeria, following in the footsteps of his undergraduate mentor at Morehouse, Professor Barry Hallen, who taught philosophy in Nigeria for over thirty years. 

Pollock explains that post-colonization, prominent Western academics across disciplines theorized that West African languages are inherently not conducive to working in mainstream academic fields: math, physics, philosophy etc… “Something about this racist theory has stuck with the universities themselves,” he says. Like in many African countries, university research and coursework in Nigeria is conducted in the language of the country’s former colonizer, in this case, English.

So can you do philosophy in Yoruba or Hausa or Igbo? Pollock sees this as an empirical question and hopes that his work in Africa will support the academics who are trying to find out, noting, “I want to help give African universities the right tools so that they can decide how they want to interact with the broader world and express their own lived experiences on their own terms.”

Pollock sees BU as a place that positions him to do this work. He calls the philosophy department at BU “a pluralist department” that “thinks that there are a lot of different methods of doing philosophy,” noting that “most philosophy departments aren’t like that.” In fact, when Barry Hallen returned to the US with a specialty in philosophy in the African context, the only institution that would hire him was Morehouse College, a HBCU. Pollock recalls that on several occasions, Hallen, who received his PhD from BU, remarked,“I would not have been able to do the work that I did in Africa if it was not for the diversity of methods that I got from BU.” 

In this way, an appointment at BU in 2022 was a kind of homecoming for Pollock, who is enjoying being in an environment where colleagues approach philosophy in many diverse ways and where he can contribute his own theories, methods, and experiences.