The Contours of Black Intellectual History

This is an excerpt of the introduction to New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (Northwestern University Press, 2018) edited by Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron and Ashley D. Farmer. This excerpt has been reprinted with permission. Copyright © 2018 by Northwestern University Press. All rights reserved.

“African Amalgamation of Ubiquity” mural by Curtis Lewis, 1985 on the side wall of Operation Get Down, a drug rehabilitation center, in Detroit (Photographer: Camilo José Vergara).

In March 2016 we organized the inaugural conference of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS), a scholarly organization founded in 2014 to foster dialogue about researching, writing, and teaching black thought and culture. Since its debut AAIHS has quickly become one of the leading organizations, and its blog, Black Perspectives, has become the leading online platform for public scholarship on the black intellectual tradition. With the inaugural conference, we set out to advance these online conversations in person and foster new and innovative ideas about race and intellectual history. The conference exceeded our expectations; it brought together hundreds of scholars from across the nation and the globe who grappled with the significance and varied meanings of black intellectual history, a growing and thriving subfield in US and African diaspora history. As the diverse papers at the conference revealed, black intellectual history is by no means monolithic, and there are varied approaches to the study of black thought.

At its core the general field of intellectual history deals with the ideas and symbols that people use to make sense of the world. A guiding assumption of this field is that human beings depend upon the use of language, which gives meaning to individual lives. Another common assumption is that human beings cannot live in the world without theorizing about what they are doing. These theories may be explicit or implicit, but they are always present and make up our cultural construction of reality, which depends upon symbols and language. Intellectual history, then, is not about what people did, necessarily, but more about what they thought about what they were doing. This is not to suggest that intellectual history is entirely divorced from other fields of history, including social and cultural history. To the contrary, intellectual history helps to deepen our understanding of social and cultural history, forcing us to investigate the ideas that undergird political and social life and grapple with the theories and ideologies that inform historical actors.

Within the field of intellectual history, the study of black thought and culture remains underrepresented and people of African descent are often marginalized, if not excluded entirely from historical narratives.1 Despite the critical role black intellectuals have played—and continue to play—in shaping US and global political thought, they are often relegated to the sidelines and sharply criticized by those who fail to take seriously their ideas and contributions.2 New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition provides an important corrective to this exclusionary framework, building on a body of work that centers the historical and contemporary contributions of black intellectuals in the United States and in other parts of the globe.3

This volume highlights the individual and group contributions of black intellectuals to national and global politics, racial ideologies, social justice movements, and popular culture. Drawing insights from diverse fields, including history, African American studies, feminist theory, religion, and cultural studies, the essays in this collection foreground the ideas and activities of black intellectuals in the United States and other parts of the globe from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. They draw on several methodological approaches and primary sources to capture the black intellectual tradition, which the historian Manning Marable aptly describes as “the critical thought and perspectives of intellectuals of African descent and scholars of black America, and Africa, and the black diaspora.” By foregrounding the ideas of black men and women in various locales and working in different social and economic contexts, this volume debunks the myth of a monolithic black intellectual tradition, highlighting the varied lines of black thought. Indeed it captures the range and depth of the ideological and social traditions upon which black intellectuals drew in their efforts to address key issues in black communities.

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition extends the scholarship on the black intellectual tradition along the lines of historiography, place and space, and methods and methodologies. Whereas much of the literature in the field centers on the ideas or life of an intellectual—often a member of the black middle-class or elite—this volume broadens the scholarly discourse both on what counts as black intellectual history and who counts as an intellectual.4 While some chapters explore the ideas and theories of one or a group of black intellectuals, others instead grapple with the varied ways certain ideas spread in nontraditional arenas. Still others examine the ideological interrelationship among various black social movements.

Many of the essays highlight the ideas and activities of ordinary men and women, representing a key departure from traditional approaches to black intellectual history—which has privileged the voices of well-known (male) figures such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and C.L.R. James. While this volume does not overlook these key historical persons, it broadens the field by centering the ideas and political visions of an array of black men and women, including members of the working class and those who had little or no formal education. Indeed New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition highlights the crucial, yet often overlooked, ways that black people, of all walks of life, contributed to US and global history as key producers of knowledge. As the essays reveal, these men and women did not simply act on a whim; they carefully thought about their actions and they carefully devised strategies and tactics. They proposed solutions, they offered critiques, and they challenged others—all the while resisting many of their contemporaries who dismissed their contributions often on account of their education and social standing.

Reflecting older trends, recent scholarship has centered on the black intellectual tradition in the United States, often exploring the contributions of black intellectuals during the twentieth century. One of our goals in this volume is to not only capture the longue durée of black intellectual thought but to extend its geographical focus. Essays in this volume offer perspectives on the black intellectual tradition in various locales across the African diaspora from the early nineteenth century to the 1970s. They also grapple with the diverse transnational connections and networks forged among black intellectuals and highlight the diffusion of ideas among people of African descent in various parts of the globe. Significantly this volume highlights the wide range of methods and methodologies—including new approaches and sources—that scholars utilize in the study of black intellectual history.

To that end the essays draw on traditional primary sources and methods as well as unconventional ones—in some cases, examining written texts as critical sites of intellectual production and integrating personal historical accounts of intellectualism. Drawing on an array of innovative and untapped primary and secondary sources, such as underutilized historical newspapers, editorials, organizational records, and oral histories, this anthology critically engages with the ideas of a diverse group of black men and women and offers new insights on black thought formation and dissemination from the era of slavery to the civil rights and Black Power era.

  1.  Major scholarly works contain few pieces written by or about black intellectuals, while major journals, such as the Journal of the History of Ideas, publish few articles on the topic. On the literature, see David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper, eds., The American Intellectual Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015); Samuel Moyn and Andrew Satori, eds., Global Intellectual History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).
  2.  On the challenges facing black intellectuals in the United States, see Jonathan Scott Holloway, “The Black Intellectual and the ‘Crisis Canon’ in the Twentieth Century,” Black Scholar 31, no. 1 (2001): 2–13; Lewis R. Gordon, “Africana Philosophy and Philosophy in Black,” Black Scholar 43, no. 4 (2013): 46.
  3.  The literature on black intellectual history is extensive. Key works include Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: New York Review of Books, 1967); Earl Thorpe, The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans (Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1970); August Meier, Negro Thought in America, 1880–1915 (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995); William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life (New York: Norton, 1996). New works include Mia E. Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, and Barbara D. Savage, eds., Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2015); Brian D. Behnken, Gregory D. Smithers, and Simon Wendt, eds., Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America: A Historical Perspective (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017); Cornelius L. Bynum and Derrick P. Alridge, eds., The Black Intellectual Tradition in the United States in the Twentieth Century (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, forthcoming).
  4.  On earlier scholarship that centers on the ideas or life of an intellectual, see, for example, V.P. Franklin, Living Our Stories, Telling Our Truths: Autobiography and the Making of the African-American Intellectual Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Martin Kilson, Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880–2012 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2014); David Levering Lewis, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race (New York: Henry Holt, 1993); John D’Emillio, Lost Prophet: The Life and Times of Bayard Rustin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004); Jacqueline Johnson, Stokely Carmichael: The Story of Black Power (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Silver Burdett Press, 1990).
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