The Black Intellectual Tradition and the Myth of Objectivity

W.E.B. Du Bois and the founders of the Niagara Movement (Source: Library of Congress)
W.E.B. Du Bois and the founders of the Niagara Movement (Source: Library of Congress)

By 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois had accomplished more than most people could accomplish in several lifetimes. One bachelor’s degree from Fisk University, another from Harvard University. Graduate study at the University of Berlin. A pioneering dissertation on the abolition of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The first Ph.D. earned by an African American at Harvard. Professional appointments at Wilberforce University and the University of Pennsylvania. Presentations at the American Negro Academy. Publications in the Atlantic Monthly. The list went on and on.

Now, as he taught at Atlanta University and put the finishing touches on his landmark sociological study, The Philadelphia Negro, Du Bois might have rested on his laurels. He did not. He could not while he lived in the belly of the beast–the heart of the Jim Crow South. Facing the “red monster of cruel oppression,” Du Bois would later write, “I faced the great Decision. What with all my dreaming, studying, and teaching was I going to do in this fierce fight?”

As Du Bois’s biographers have noted, that question became unavoidable on April 24, 1899. On that day, Du Bois walked along Mitchell Street towards downtown Atlanta. He carried a letter of introduction addressed to Joel Chandler Harris, an editor at the Atlanta Constitution. He also held a proposed editorial protesting the recent lynching of Sam Hose, a black farmhand accused of murdering his employer before raping the employer’s wife. Du Bois, familiar with the work of anti-lynching activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett, knew that the charges were false. He would expose the truth: that Hose killed his employer in self-defense and had not raped the wife. He would demonstrate through objective research that Hose’s only “crime” was being black in America.

samhoseldOf course, Du Bois did not make it to his destination. On his way, he learned that a lynch mob had burned Hose alive. His charred knuckles were on display—on sale—in a grocer’s window further along Mitchell Street. Du Bois was stunned. Numbed. “I turned back to the University,” he later recalled. Rather than continuing on his current course, Du Bois turned from his work, shaken by the realization that “one could not be a calm, cool, and detached scientist while Negroes were lynched, murdered and starved.”

The well-known account of Du Bois’s self-identified awakening illustrates a key truth about the black intellectual tradition. Historian Manning Marable, who defined the black intellectual tradition as “the critical thought and perspectives of intellectuals of African descent and scholars of black America, and Africa, and the black diaspora,” argued that it has always been prescriptive. Since the colonial era, black intellectuals have attempted to improve the actual condition of black people by marrying “scholarship and struggle . . . social analysis and social transformation.” That commitment to social advocacy has never diluted the seriousness of black intellectual work, however. In Marable’s words, the “common recognition of the broad social purpose of intellectual work did not mean that black scholarship must be . . . a partisan polemic with no genuine standards of objectivity.”1

Du Bois’s career proves Marable’s point: black scholars have always produced significant scholarship and advanced their academic disciplines even as they empowered their communities. But the account of his reaction to the lynching of Sam Hose also reveals the futilities of striving to meet “genuine standards of objectivity.” Du Bois, like other black intellectuals of his era, had long been motivated by the conviction that facts had intrinsic value. In his optimistic estimation, sound social science including his Philadelphia Negro would show that systemic racism was the clear cause of any problems attributed to African Americans. Racism would wither away in the face of knowledge. It had to. Though well-reasoned, those expectations proved to be misplaced. As Du Bois would admit in his autobiographical writings, it made no difference if one was a “calm, cool, and detached” academic while Hose’s burnt remains sat in a storefront window. His killers had abandoned objectivity a long time ago.

To that point, Du Bois’s disavowal of the idea of objectivity was also a condemnation of its racialized use. Du Bois later remembered that he once “regarded it as axiomatic that the world wanted to learn the truth and if the truth was sought with even approximate accuracy and painstaking devotion, the world would gladly support the effort.” The Hose lynching (and, as Aldon Morris has shown, the dismissal of his scholarship) proved him wrong.2 The lynch mob did not care that Wells disproved the “threadbare lie” about the black beast rapist. They wielded their passions and prejudices as a cudgel against objective scholarship. Accordingly, Du Bois was forced to admit that “there was no such definite demand for scientific work of the sort that I was doing.” His scholarship would have to be re-conceptualized. It would have to be paired with struggle.

Today, we stand on the firm foundations established by Du Bois and numerous other scholars who asserted that, to paraphrase historian Vincent Harding, the work of black history is always political. Still, it is worth recalling their past musings on objectivity. Indeed, on the eve of a new academic year, those musings are just as relevant now as ever.

Black Lives Matter march, Nashville, Tennessee (Source: Brandon R. Byrd)
Black Lives Matter march, Nashville, Tennessee (Source: Brandon R. Byrd)

There is no doubt that scholars will enter classrooms this fall with a set of pressing questions. What does it mean to teach in a Trump climate? How do we respond to the searing question of whose [black] lives matter? What lessons will we learn from the mounting, disingenuous calls for law and order?

In short, what, in this tumultuous moment, with all of our dreaming, studying, and teaching, will we do in this fierce fight?

The immediacy of those questions, new and old, struck me on a recent drive to campus. I was listening to an NPR Code Switch podcast episode entitled “What Does ‘Objectivity’ Mean to Journalists of Color?” The hosts, Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji, posed that question to Pilar Marrero, a Venezuelan-American political journalist with La Opinion, and Wesley Lowery, an African American reporter with The Washington Post. Both gave well-considered answers but Lowery’s had particular resonance. The idea of objectivity, he noted, is inherently flawed. It is a means of reinforcing racist agendas. Lowery explained that an unattainable standard of objectivity is routinely applied to reporters and journalists of color, especially those who write about race and racism. On the other hand, their white counterparts are assumed to be unbiased–to have some sort of natural penchant for impartiality. That is why the first reports about police shootings of black people—those that shape public impressions of their lives and deaths—almost always come from police departments. When whiteness becomes the standard of objectivity, Baltimore County Police gets to kill Korryn Gaines and then write her obituary.

That trend coheres with the longer racialized history of objectivity. It should give us pause about prioritizing detachment over truth in our classrooms this semester. Or striving for fairness in the writing tasks we undertake this year. Neither have much merit–not when demands for and definitions of objectivity still come from those who have yet to examine their own prejudices. Instead, scholarship and teaching must be purposeful and truthful. Both must be passionate, not dispassionate. Both have to be responsible to actual political and social conditions, not distanced from them. After all, social analysis is nothing without social transformation. And one cannot be calm, cool, and detached while Negroes remain lynched, murdered, and starved.

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

  1. Manning Marable, ed., Dispatches from the Ebony Tower: Intellectuals Confront the African American Experience (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000), 1-2.
  2. In The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. Du Bois and the Birth of Modern Sociology (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), Morris illustrates how white social scientists and the white public disregarded Du Bois. They dismissed his scholarship on race as illegitimate on account of his blackness, instead elevating Robert Park to the position of ‘father of sociology.’
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Brandon Byrd

Brandon R. Byrd is an assistant professor of history at Vanderbilt University and working on a book manuscript entitled, An Experiment in Self-Government: Haiti in the African-American Political Imagination. Follow him on Twitter @bronaldbyrd.

Comments on “The Black Intellectual Tradition and the Myth of Objectivity

  • Great work! ThankU:)

  • Excellent, Prof. Byrd. I always teach my students that objectivity is a chimera or a bag of magic salt. It’s a fable. At best. At worst, its a claim to power, as if somehow projections of one’s objectivity are supposed to imbue that person with authority over competing voices. Accuracy, not objectivity represents the gold standard of research. Its certainly a lesson I learned from DuBois. Nice work here bringing it all together.

  • Of course there are many conceptions (some indefensible or ideological in a pejorative sense) of the concept of objectivity, and thus it is important to be clear in what sense one is invoking the notion, and thus one can be both objective and, as you say, at once purposeful, passionate, and truthful. The argument here has considerable pedigree in and is perfectly consonant with views in contemporary professional philosophy. That facts, theories, and values are distinguishable but often intertwined or “entangled” is one of the lessons of the late philosopher, Hilary Putnam (among others: Iris Murdoch, David Wiggins…), and it is perfectly compatible with the idea that morality is, to some extent and in some manner, “objective,” as are at least some (if not most) values, and as is our concept (and conceptions) of truth: consider, for instance, and again with Putnam, what is implied by and follows from “describing” someone as “cruel,” as one of a class of “thick ethical concepts” (hence values are neither merely subjective or conventional). Amartya Sen, an economist and philosopher, has made a compelling case for the re-integration (‘re-‘ because ‘classical’ economists like Adam Smith, contrary to popular interpretations of his work, had a keen appreciation of this) of ethics into economics in his little book, On Ethic and Economics (Blackwell, 1987). So, for example, if “welfare economics” is to be meaningful as a branch of economics and a social science, it cannot avoid ethical questions that arise when speaking to problems of (absolute or relative) poverty and other forms of deprivation or disadvantage. In short, (e)valuation and description are, as Putnam says and Du Bois so poignantly understood, “interdependent.” One fairly recent book that helps one think through some of these issues and is a nice volume for those just embarking on an academic life is Andrew Sayer’s Why Things Matter to People: Social Science, Values and Ethical Life (Cambridge University Press, 2011).

  • I heartily but respectfully disagree with Professor Connolly’s contention that we should reduce the concept of objectivity to something that is merely “a chimera or a bag of magic salt,” or “a fable.” Indeed, the notion of “accuracy” suggested as an alternative model here implies the concept of objectivity and is in fact a demanding and not infrequently unattainable standard insofar as it can denote or imply precision or exactness (the kind of objectivity, if you will, found in theorems or mathematics generally, or something closer to the goal or standard of the natural sciences rather than the social sciences, the latter relying on a less exacting measure of what counts as ‘objective’). We should certainly point out those cases where claims to objectivity amount to little more than unjustifiable or unwarranted claims of authority or power, and in pointing this out, we hold ourselves to conceptions of objectivity shorn of same (after all, to be ‘accurate’ is not a subjective standard), and thus are not simply making counterclaims or critiques that are “subjective” (thus they are not reducible to individual whims, biases, prejudices, preferences that are incapable of being rationally or ethically generalizable). Nicholas Rescher has a nice account of one aspect of objectivity in his book on same: “One potentially effective means of achieving objectivity is ‘to put oneself in another’s place’ and to proceed by taking into view some paradigmatically reasonable person and asking what they would do if confronted by a situation of the sort that one is facing oneself. And of course there is always the prospect of actually asking them. Seeking good advice from others is thus one of the most effective means of cultivating objectivity. Objectivity is ‘impersonal’ and ‘impartial’ not by way of dehumanization but by way of abstracting from those idiosyncracies that stand in the way of someone doing what ‘any of us’–any rational, sensible, normal [or moral]–person would do in one’s place.”

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