Black Intellectual History and the Long Struggle for Freedom

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

Dorothy Cotton teaching in 1966 (Bob Fitch Photography Collection, Stanford University).

African American intellectual history has been one of the key components of the Black Freedom Struggle since the mid-19th century. In his pioneering work The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (1855), William Cooper Nell was very explicit with his hope that the book would “deepen in the heart and conscience of this nation the sense of justice, that will ere long manifest itself in deeds worthy a people who, ‘free themselves,’ should be ‘foremost to make free.’”1 While Nell’s book was primarily a social and military history, its discussion of the ideas contained in works such as Hosea Easton’s 1837 Treatise on the Intellectual Character and Civil and Political Condition of the Colored People of the United States marks it as an early contribution to African American intellectual history. And his hope that the book would aid in the contemporary abolitionist movement set the tone for much of the scholarship on Black intellectual history in the years to come. Nell’s status as an amateur historian writing before the professionalization of the discipline is also in many ways emblematic of the field, which has always incorporated the insights of independent scholars, journalists, scholars in fields outside of history, and others in telling the story of Black thought in the United States.

Methodologically, African American intellectual history has been at the forefront of creatively blending cultural and intellectual history since the 1970s. The traditional distinction between these fields posits that cultural history tends to focus more on popular or folk thought in contrast to intellectual history, which explores the formal thought of elites found in political treatises, speeches, government documents, and other “traditional” source material.2 In his recent essay “Culture as Intellectual History,” Benjamin Alpers notes that American cultural and intellectual history have been so intertwined for the past 30 years that many see them as the same field.3 When looking specifically at African American cultural and intellectual history, I would argue the interconnections stretch back at least another decade, beginning with Lawrence Levine’s 1977 Black Culture and Black Consciousness, a book which Levine initially conceived of as an analysis of 20th-century Black political thought before switching gears to explore the worldviews of 19th-century slaves and ordinary African Americans, worldviews that he refers to as “folk thought.”4

Scholars writing on the Black intellectual tradition have collapsed the distinction between cultural and intellectual history in part out of necessity but also because of the political project of Black history more broadly. While scholars of American intellectual history have often focused on elites, those writing on Black intellectual history are often writing about individuals who did not possess as much formal education, financial security, or political power as their white counterparts. This is not to say there is no Black educated or financial elite on whom scholars of Black thought can focus but merely to state that working class and informally educated African Americans such as Langston Hughes or Maria Stewart have made outsized contributions to the field. Were Black intellectual historians to only focus on elites, we would have a very incomplete picture of the Black intellectual tradition.

But it has not just been necessity that has forced scholars of Black intellectual history to take seriously topics such as trickster tales, popular culture, or the political thought of working-class Black women; it has also been the egalitarian commitment of African American history itself. As noted above regarding William Cooper Nell, from its inception, Black history has been at heart an argument for Black freedom, both political freedom but also economic and intellectual freedom. The subfield of African American intellectual history shares this concern and has pushed back against the broader field of American intellectual history and the ways in which that field has sometimes reinforced hierarchies of race, gender, and class by privileging the ideas of middle and upper class white men over all other groups. For many scholars working in the field of Black intellectual history, it has been vital to challenge these hierarchies and demonstrate the varied ways that Black people of all classes, religious orientations, and educational backgrounds have made key contributions to Black thought and culture.

One of the primary ways that scholars of African American intellectual history have expanded the field of intellectual history and the concept of who counts as an intellectual is by reimagining and refiguring the archive. In her essay “Becoming African Women” that appeared in New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (2018), Ashley Farmer demonstrates the disparate ways that Black nationalist women both challenged and crafted their own gender roles even as they continued to participate in groups that “espoused conservative gender politics.”5 To get at the worldviews of women in the US Organization and the Committee for Unified Newark, Farmer relies on handbooks and advice columns, sources that are not generally considered part of the purview of intellectual historians. I have employed Farmer’s approach in my own work, relying on sources such as postcards and programs of organizations such as the Sojourners for Truth and Justice to understand the ideas and activism of women such as Louise Thompson Patterson. By broadening our view of what “counts” as intellectual history, including the people on whom we focus and the sources we employ, intellectual historians can delve into topics that may have seemed impossible or implausible just a few decades ago.

I believe that the future of African American intellectual history will look very much like the field’s foundations. Guy Mount notes that “if there is a single thread that ties together the diverse strands of black intellectual scholarship, it is that present-day political concerns in any given era have always driven, shaped, and animated black historical inquiry.” For Mount, that has sometimes been good, and sometimes led to a “historical ventriloquy” that distorts the past.6 But in our current political moment, scholars are realizing their critical roles in broadening American democracy to make it work for everyone. Thus work on Black intellectual history should and will likely become even more explicitly political, along the lines of works such as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor’s From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation or Barbara Ransby’s Making All Black Lives Matter. While most historians have long discarded the myth of objectivity, we still often have a veneer of it in our scholarship, leaving out any mention of our religious, social, or political commitments. I believe scholarship on Black intellectual history will likely be more explicit about just where authors stand, as we will see a lot more historians using their analyses to clearly advocate for radical transformations in American politics and society.

  1. William Cooper Nell, The Colored Patriots of the American Revolution (Boston: Robert F. Wallcut, 1855), 10.
  2. Benjamin L. Alpers, “Culture as Intellectual History: Broadening a Field of Study in the Wake of the Cultural Turn” in Raymond Haberski Jr. and Andrew Hartman, American Labyrinth: Intellectual History for Complicated Times (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2018), 277.
  3. Ibid., 271.
  4. Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), xiii.
  5. Ashley D. Farmer, “Becoming African Women: Women’s Cultural Nationalist Theorizing in the US Organization and the Committee for Unified Newark” in Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer, eds. New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2018), 177.
  6. Guy Emerson Mount, “Historical Ventriloquy: Black Thought and Sexual Politics in the Interracial Marriage of Frederick Douglass” in New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, 139.
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Chris Cameron

Chris Cameron is an Associate Professor of History at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. His research and teaching interests are in African American and early American history, especially abolitionist thought, liberal religion, and secularism. He is the author of 'To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement' (Kent State University Press, 2014) and 'Black Freethinkers: A History of African American Secularism' (Northwestern University Press, 2019). Follow him on Twitter @ccamrun2.