Cornell University Press

In Memoriam: Charles W. Mills

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We lost Charles W. Mills last night. It hurts to write that. There has been too much loss and death these past eighteen months.

I did not know Charles well, but many people I published and worked with did. For thirteen years I acquired books in philosophy at SUNY Press. In the early aughts, we began one of the first series on philosophy and race, edited by Robert Bernasconi and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting. I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing that Charles would endorse one of the early books in that series. He was a generous man who did right by younger philosophers.

I’ll never forget the thrill of hearing that Charles would endorse one of the early books in that series. He was a generous man who did right by younger philosophers.

When I took a new job as director at Northwestern University Press,  which also had an outstanding list in philosophy, I was star-struck when I learned Charles was serving a term on the faculty editorial board. He was always present for the meetings, courteous, kind, incisive, and he encouraged me to call him “Charles” and not “Professor Mills.” He spoke little at those meetings, but when he did, everyone in the room paid attention to his soft lilting voice. Charles was brilliant and utterly humble. I was always nervous to email him or ask him for anything, knowing that his service to the field and to his university was extensive and demanding, but he was always responsive and unfailingly polite.

For a few years, I lived between the el tracks and Northwestern campus and often saw Charles walking back and forth between the train and the university. He had an easily recognizable gait and, in almost any weather, sported the same worn black leather jacket. Rather than a briefcase, he always used a backpack. He was tall but a bit stooped perhaps owing to the backpack, heavy with books. It always made my day to see him because it was a tacit reminder that there are good and incredibly intelligent people in the world.

The book everyone associated with Charles was The Racial Contract, his first book, published with Cornell University Press. I’d like to know the story of how that came to be. Why Cornell? At that time, Cornell University Press had a tendency to publish more rarified philosophy, and Charles’s work stands out on the list for that reason. Its success brightly highlights the need for more engaged scholarship.

It always made my day to see him because it was a tacit reminder that there are good and incredibly intelligent people in the world.

When I began as Cornell director last year, one of the many exciting things was to be working at the press that brought out Charles’s signature work. At some point along the way, we realized it was coming up on twenty-five years since its publication and that an anniversary edition would be a fine way to honor the philosopher whose work was foundational for so many scholars in political philosophy and beyond. Senior editor Emily Andrew approached Charles with the idea, and it was a very happy day when we signed the addendum to the contract for the twenty-fifth-anniversary edition, which will publish in March 2022.

Bittersweet now to think we might have celebrated the book’s publication together at some future conference. I hear he was a genius with handouts. I wonder if he made one for The Racial Contract? A sort of cheat sheet to the major ideas contained therein? The joy of reading an analytic philosopher’s work on a topic is in the clarity of thought displayed, and the book is quite probably quite easily diagrammed. That we will not have this chance at one of the simple joys in publishing—relishing great work well done—is yet another heartbreak.

As I read through the many encomiums to the man on social media tonight what is most striking is how each says the same thing: he was a profound thinker and a generous mentor. He embodied both humor and humility. And, above all, his kindness shone through.  


Jane Bunker is Director at Cornell University Press. You can follow her on Twitter @evanstonjane.

Find out more about Charles W. Mills and his work on the Harvard Political Review:

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