Beyond the ‘Great Men’ Canon of Black Intellectual History

*This post is part of our online forum titled “What is African American Intellectual History?

Angela Davis at the 2018 ATC Colloquium, (Berkeley Center for New Media)

African American intellectual history is a deep engagement with the ideas, theories, perspectives, and ideologies of Black thinkers across time and space. It chronicles the vast and distinct ways that African Americans have interpreted social, political and cultural phenomena, to not only make sense of the world they inhabit, but to transform it. African American intellectual history, in its most expansive forms, includes the theorizing of Black intellectuals trained at elite institutions as well as the theories of the unlettered or self-taught. It entails the theories of Black artists who live the link between culture and politics as well as the robust intellectual labor of Black women. For students and scholars of African American intellectual history, the rich archive of Black thought acts as an affirmation. It gives life and inspiration in a world that is often depleting, voyeuristic, and even deadly for Black men, women, and children.

This vibrant and ever-growing tradition of “thinking while Black” and “thinking out loud” provides a window into the lived experiences of Black folks across several centuries, documenting the prolific ways that African Americans have wrestled with the facts of Blackness and white domination. African American intellectual history is therefore an invitation to continue to build on the ideas of the past in order to solve contemporary problems and to imagine liberated futures. While African American intellectualism, as a concept, is grounded in the U.S. context, the nexus of the ideas emanating from the tradition often transcend the borders of nation-states. The synergistic relationships between Afro-Caribbean intellectuals, for instance, (C.L.R. James, Walter Rodney and Frantz Fanon, to name a few) and African American intellectuals, activists, and artists inspired liberation movements and support networks across the African Diaspora in the mid to late twentieth century. African American intellectual history is therefore a repudiation of racist and colonial regimes. But not always. In many instances, the African American intellectual tradition also reflects the internalization of dominant ideologies that are antithetical to Black liberation. Like all Black things, it is highly contested.

The value of African American intellectual history and Black intellectual traditions lies in the brilliant ways the scholarship disrupts Eurocratic conceptions of who counts as an intellectual and what constitutes intellectual work. In addition to the organic intellectuals, guerilla intellectuals, scholar activists, and public intellectuals, Black activists, workers, organizers, and artists take center stage within African American intellectual history as critical thinkers and producers of knowledge. To be sure, the ideas of a few “great men” like W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Delaney, and Harold Cruse have dominated Black intellectual studies. But the Black intellectual tradition is rich because it engages the ideas generated by a broad and diverse cadre of folk who wrestle with complex ideas about the world in which they live and the worlds that must be created.

In recent decades, Black Women’s Studies and Black feminist scholarship has opened pathways for the study of a much more vibrant and expansive African American intellectual tradition. Fusing the intellectual thought of Black women with cultural history and literary studies, Black women historians/writers/artists forged the critical excavation of Black women’s knowledge, deepening African American intellectual history in undeniable ways. Engaging the ideas of women like Pauline Hopkins, Anna J. Cooper, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Amy Jacques Garvey, Claudia Jones, Toni Cade Bambara, or Angela Davis is never simply about adding “gender balance” to a male-dominated field. Rather, Black women’s intellectual work offers a profound engagement with what it means to be free and what it means to be human. This monumental work is still unfolding. In the edited volume, Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women, “the work of recovery” or recuperating a tradition of Black thought among “unconventional intellectuals” unveils a brilliant legacy among Black women that adds depth and rigor to the study of race, democracy, citizenship, and liberation.

Still, a survey of required texts for college courses on African American intellectual history reveals that Black women’s social and political thought is too often sidelined, ignored, or reduced to an additive model. The few article excerpts by Black women thinkers on college syllabi (usually Cooper, Wells, or Davis) are no longer sufficient given the body of work now available on these women and many others. In the introduction to Black Women’s Intellectual Traditions: Speaking Their Minds, which explores the intellectual work of Black women in the nineteenth century, Carol B. Conoway and Kristen Waters caution, “Do not walk away from these intellects and activists.” They urge, “Listen carefully to their voices and the voices of those who elucidate and amplify their work, bringing their legacies into the present.” Needless to say, the antiquated male dichotomies–Du Bois vs. Booker T. Washington, Du Bois vs. Garvey, and Martin or Malcolm–are not only irrelevant to the full scope of Black freedom struggles, they betray the vitality of Black thought and the “freedom dreams” it inspires.

In its more radical configurations, African American intellectual history is enriched by resistance to heteronormative and patriarchal dominance. In addition to the recuperation of Black women’s thought, a deep exploration of the ideas, perspectives and artistic productions of Black queer thinkers is also a vital and empowering development in African American intellectual history. Yet, old habits and emotional attachments to male canons are hard to break. Too often, students assume that Black women thinkers are principally concerned with sexism, and Black queer thinkers only speak to the needs of LGBTQ communities, regardless of the breadth of the archive of ideas. When I have taught the theories of Ella Baker, Ida B. Wells, James Baldwin, Marlon Riggs, or Audre Lorde, for instance, it is astounding how many students and scholars alike compartmentalize these liberationists according to narrow conceptions of gender or sexuality. Recognizing their contributions to the total freedom of Black people, which includes those most marginalized within Black spaces, requires a reordering, and maybe even a reckoning, with our very own mental blocks/patterns and limiting assumptions around Blackness.

As historical studies of the 1980s and 1990s expand, and new millennium political histories take shape, a deeper engagement with Black rightwing thinkers–a network of intellectuals, pundits, politicians, writers, and ideologues–must figure into African American intellectual history. Black political conservatives (also referred to as “Black neoconservatives”) have aligned themselves with a rightwing movement expressly committed to a “war of ideas.” Black conservative intellectuals have played key roles in circulating and legitimizing controversial perspectives and innuendo that often have characterized the rightwing’s crusade against the liberal state. Intellectuals such as Thomas Sowell, Anne Wortham, and Shelby Steele have advanced arguments that have provided cover for antiBlack and racist ideas that would be routinely condemned if spoken by white folks.

While some may reject the notion that conservative pundits and personalities are intellectuals, they have used media platforms and conservative networks to forcefully intervene in national discussions on racial inequality. Given the current political context in which historical amnesia and party polarization rule the day, a thorough analysis of the right’s mission to reach ideological dominance is imperative for understanding the contemporary political landscape. It also provides an opportunity to study the counter-arguments from scholars such as Manning Marable, Robin D.G. Kelley, Ronald Walters, and Cornel West as well as germinal texts, including Angela Dillard’s Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner Now?: Multicultural Conservatism in America and Gayle Tate and Lewis Randolph’s edited volume Dimensions of Black Conservatism: Made in America. The impact of Black conservative ideology in shaping colorblind racism during the “culture wars” and post-racial mythologies in the post-civil rights era cannot be underestimated. Concepts like “Black underclass,” “reverse racism,” “affirmative action baby,” “victimology,” “racial preference,” and “race card” have fueled ideas that ultimately have legitimized devastating public policies.

If taken in its full diversity, African American intellectual history reveals the highest expressions of human potential, human survival, human creativity, and innovation. It is a tradition that explores contention, conflict, and controversy as well as Black folks’ miraculous ways of being–in spite of, and beyond, racial domination. Although African American intellectual history is a disruption of mainstream canons, too many educators have fallen into the trap of canonical thinking. We must go beyond the “Great Men” canon in order to expand possibilities for true liberation.

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La TaSha Levy

La TaSha Levy is an assistant professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington-Seattle. She earned a Ph.D. in African American Studies at Northwestern University, a master’s degree in Africana Studies at Cornell University, and a bachelor’s from the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia. Her research interests include post-WWII African American political history, social movements, Black intellectual traditions, and intersectional racial discourse. Follow her on Twitter @tashaspeaks.

Comments on “Beyond the ‘Great Men’ Canon of Black Intellectual History

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    Excellent definition and exposition of African American Intellectual History with the interweaving of Black Women as essential to the genre and not as appendages. I was particularly struck by use of the term “Eurocratic” rather than “Eurocentric,” a deeper meaning and systemic understanding of white supremacy.

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      Thank you so much, Dr. Harris. I appreciate that. I learned the term “Eurocratic” while studying the work of Dr. Joyce E. King. I was intrigued by her use of the term in the book “Heritage Knowledge in the Curriculum: Retrieving an African Episteme.” (Should’ve noted that.) She offers a number of conceptual interventions that illustrate my point. Du Bois’ “double consciousness” was spot on, for instance, but there are others pressing the language with precision. Thanks for reading.

  • Avatar

    Thank you so much, Dr. Harris. I appreciate that. I learned the term “Eurocratic” while studying the work of Dr. Joyce E. King. I was intrigued by her use of the term in the book “Heritage Knowledge in the Curriculum: Retrieving an African Episteme.” (Should’ve noted that.) She offers a number of conceptual interventions that illustrate my point. Du Bois’ “double consciousness” was spot on, for instance, but there are others pressing the language with precision. Thanks for reading.

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