The Idea of the Black Intellectual

When I first began to teach a class titled Black Intellectual Thought, I wanted to broaden the classic definition of a black intellectual for undergraduates who tended to think of black intellectuals as a small stratum of African Americans who were literate and who had access to mechanisms for publication. I first used William M. Banks’ vivid and engaging text, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life.1 Black Intellectuals adeptly narrates a history of important black thinkers within changing contexts of slavery, race, and modernization, but it also emphasizes a narrow understanding of black intellectualism. I found myself sometimes working against this text to get students to think about the patterns, changes and complexities of black thought expressed in different contexts by people that did not fit a definition of the black intellectual as an elite. I found that I was more interested in teaching students about black intellectualism as an historically constructed category than I was interested in introducing important individuals. The briefest and most cursory review of current African American intellectual history across time periods illustrates that scholars are thinking as much about what an intellectual was and is as much as they are writing about what intellectuals have done and are doing.2

Beyond being introduced to important black thinkers, I wanted students to think more about what makes black intellectual work black. Jonathan Scott Holloway provides one answer to this question when he describes the twentieth-century “black intellectual ‘crisis cannon’ ” being defined by “the fact that writing about black intellectuals almost always revolves around a crisis of the moment or the crisis of living in a world where many believe the words ‘black’ and ‘intellectual’ are mutually exclusive.”3 Holloway further explained the importance of understanding how the category of the black intellectual is both an analytical lens and an historical creation.

Holloway argued that the establishment of the American Negro Academy in 1897, “marks the birth of the twentieth-century black intellectual tradition.”4 It is the scholarship of twentieth-century black intellectual history that tends to use the term “black intellectual,” whether as methodological tool or as historical construction. Early American and antebellum scholarship, instead of writing specifically about black intellectuals, tends instead to explore patterns of black thought primarily through the analysis of society and culture. For example, Patrick Rael, in his now classic study of antebellum black thought, used the term “black intelligentsia” to highlight the function of class and status in the formation of a cadre of blacks who could influence the American public sphere and their own communities via print.5 In contemporary scholarship, the term itself, “black intellectual,” carries a descriptive and discursive weight that it does not have when applied to the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.

Although it is important to look for and recover more black voices to expand the number of black intellectuals in history, I think it might be more important to further historicize the category of black intellectuals by examining the processes through which blacks have been granted and have seized intellectual authority. In Boston, from 1831 until her disgruntled 1832 departure, the black woman Maria Stewart published a series of pieces and gave several public lectures. At least two times Stewart addressed audiences at the lodge house of black Freemasons in addition to speaking at other Boston venues. Stewart’s biographer, Marilyn Richardson explained that when Stewart gave her speeches, she was acting as one of the earliest American public female speakers.6 Moreover, Stewart spoke within and against a black masculine public sphere that was just beginning to assert itself within and against a broader realm of white authored print and publication. When Stewart left for New York she described her disillusionment at having some Boston blacks challenge her authority to speak. While Stewart did not play an historical role as large as that of her peer and inspiration, David Walker, juxtaposing her with Walker illustrates how positions of intellectual authority were configured to legitimate male public expression at the expense of female spokespersons. To further understand the role of black women as important thinkers who also defined the possibilities and problems of black thought and expression, the historical formations that have created black intellectuals and black intellectualism must be further explored.

Defining black intellectualism historically also reveals the lack of scholarship that understands how changes in American religious history have affected black intellectual traditions. Historians tend to see transformations in black institutional life and the media as forming the basis for black intellectual traditions that are specific to the twentieth-century. While historians of pre-twentieth-century black thought have had to examine religious ideas as fundamental to black intellectual traditions, they have tended to examine religion more for how it informs ideas about black respectability and politics than for how it functioned theologically. I agree with Holloway’s description of the transformation of twentieth-century black intellectual traditions. However, I would add that they faced the unprecedented challenge of having to engage a growing body of secular thought that arose from higher education and that challenged previous traditions of black thought premised upon theological ideas.

Certainly, many African Americans stand out for their expressed insight and their historical impact; however, the idea of an intellectual is not a neutral analytical category that merely functions to illuminate important thinkers and their thoughts. Banks briefly theorized the meaning of the intellectual by differentiating between intellect and intelligence. He posited that intellect refers to the use of an active curiosity to understand the underlying meaning and logic of events and symbols. Furthermore, he described intelligence as reflecting the everyday pragmatism and utilitarianism required for daily function.7 Investigating the historical evolution of black intellectual work reveals how this distinction between intellect and intelligence might obscure rather than clarify change over time. Intellectual history is more important for revealing how ideas have reflected and shaped social identities, like that of the black intellectual, than it is for uncovering new black intellectuals.

  1. William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life (NewYork: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996.
  2. For example see, Christopher Cameron, To Plead Our Own Cause: African Americans in Massachusetts and the Making of the Antislavery Movement (Kent, Ohio:  Kent State University Press, 2014); John Ernest, Liberation Historiography: African American Writers and the Challenge of History, 1794-1861. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina, 2004; Carla L. Peterson, ed. “Doers of the Word,” African American Women Speakers and Writers in the North, 1830-1880 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995); Lara Langer Cohen and Jordan Alexander Stein, eds. Early African American Print Culture (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012); Ross Posnock, Color and Culture: Black Writers and the Making of the Modern Intellectual (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1998); Adolph Reed Jr. and Kenneth W. Warren, eds. Renewing Black Intellectual History: The Ideological and Material Foundations of African American Thought (Boulder, Colorado: Paradigm Publishers, 2010); and Mia Bay, Farah J. Griffin, Martha S. Jones, Barbara D. Savage, eds. Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (University of North Carolina Press: 2015).
  3. Jonathan Scott Holloway, “The Black Intellectual and the ‘Crisis Canon’ in the Twentieth Century,” Black Intellectuals: Commentary and Critiques. Spec issue of The Black Scholar 31.1 (Spring 2001): 2-3.
  4. Holloway, 1.
  5. Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 211.
  6. Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), xiii.
  7. Banks, xv-xvi.
Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Chernoh Sesay Jr.

Chernoh Sesay Jr. is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. He is currently completing a book entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. Follow him on Twitter @CMSesayJr1.

Comments on “The Idea of the Black Intellectual

  • Thank you for this insightful piece. First as a scholar of Black intellectual life, I concur with your assessment. My own book, “Benjamin Elijah Mays, Schoolmaster of the Movement: A Biography,” (UNC Press, 2012) in the introduction the limitations of how Black intellectuals and the religious dimensions go still largely untreated over against Black writers and artist of 1920-40s, even in the 21st. Second, as the co-editor of the American Studies Journal (AMSJ), I would love for our blog of the American Studies Journal, “On Teaching” to have your and the blog’s permission to repost it. Please send me an email regarding the latter.

  • Fascinating and insightful post, Dr. Sesay.

    I wonder how the specific inclusion of autobiography and memoir infuses the discussion both in terms of historiography and in terms of teaching? Your post hints in this direction, but I wanted to pose the question more specifically.

    I’m particularly fascinated by the genre itself, but more broadly I’m intrigued to consider how narrating one’s story and life as history, as historical/intellectual artifact, has defined the multiple meanings of “black intellectual”? To list the memoirs of black intellectuals I’ve read during the last year or so (Anthony Pinn, Writing God’s Obituary; bell hooks, Wounds of Passion: A Writing Life; Horace Porter, The Making of a Black Scholar; Jonathan Holloway, Jim Crow Wisdom; Lamin Sanneh, Summoned from the Margin; and W. E. B. Du Bois, In Battle for Peace [again]), recalls numerous expressions and ideas about “black” and “intellectual,” not to mention aspects of time, place, gender, religion, etc.

    Your post has provided a great deal to consider and ponder.

  • I just had to come back to this post one more time, and offer my thanks for such a fantastic work. It’s given me a lot to think about and I certainly will try to deal with this question of the idea of the Black intellectual over on the USIH blog. I suppose, for me, a major question is: how does the idea of the Black intellectual square up against the idea of the American intellectual in general? Both Dr. Jelks and Dr. Sinitiere bring up some great examples of Black intellectuals, whose life stories display the diversity of Black intellectual experiences both inside and outside the U.S. academy.

  • This is an important question Robert, one I’m sure we will be grappling with at our state of the field session at the USIH conference this fall. It is really hard to answer. On a basic level of course, Black intellectuals, at least since Du Bois’s Souls of Black Folk, almost have an obligation to speak to issues of racial inequality, something that many American intellectuals have done, but are not necessarily expected to do. The idea of a Talented Tenth that will advance the interests of the race has been an extremely powerful one and I think we would be hard pressed to find a well-known black artist or thinker who has not in some way felt an obligation to challenge and attempt to eradicate racism. This was true of people such as Alain Locke and Zora Neale Hurston in the 1920s and remains true of people like Nas or Cornel West today.

    • Dr. Jelks, I have just begun to read your biography of Benjamin Elijah Mays and I am finding it very insightful and useful. Thank you for this work!

      Dr. Sinitiere, Your question is a good one. I agree that autobiography and even biography frames a conversation about black intellectuals in interesting ways. I talked briefly about biography in my November 7 post here at AAIHS.org. I agree that some autobiographers have clearly understood their stories as making particular and significant social, political, or intellectual statements. I would never argue that the category of the intellectual or the genre of autobiography are unimportant, but I am more interested in how the idea of an intellectual is shaped historically. Again, your insightful response raises the great question of how individuals understand themselves relative to ideas about the intellectual and the nature and consequences of intellectual work.

      Dr. Greene and Dr. Cameron, I also agree that the relationship between the categories of Black intellectual and American intellectual pose important questions of definition, context, and power. As American intellectualism, in its various forms, has undergone change, Black intellectualism has also evolved. I look forward to exploring these ideas in greater detail, but Dr. Cameron, it does make much sense that among Black intellectuals “an obligation to challenge and attempt to eradicate racism,” is one way of beginning to differentiate between American and Black intellectual work.

      Also, I deeply appreciate all of your efforts Dr. Cameron in creating such a lively, useful, and insightful forum!

  • Why the Confederate Flag Must Come Down

    The very fact that a Confederate Flag exists as symbolic reasoning is testimony to the genius of the ancestry ( i.e. African Egyptians ) of contemporary African Americans. For centuries, leaders of the Western World have sent their military men, and their scientist who search around the partial ruins of ancient Egypt, the founders of symbolic linguistics. These are ruins which exhibits a still to be fully understood ancient African concepts personified in symbols imparting a kind of linguistic psychophysiological inflection that superceeds all known languages looking for clues to African Egyptian concepts of thought. The confederate flag was a proud symbol of a slave holding people who saw themselves intellectually, and militarily fit enough to do battle with other peoples of the world who did not embrace chattel slavery as an acceptable means of obtaining personal capital. White supremacy is the order of the day both in the south and the north. The symbol of chattel slavery (i.e. confederate flag), and chattel slavery itself (i.e. capital from the trafficking and exploitation of human flesh) had to go because its practice ran counter to the western world idea of a decent pluralistic democracy with a capitalist economic base. A nation essentially born out of the efforts of undesirables (i.e. the United States of America) many who were sent out of Europe because of dis-loyalty to a state sponsored religious structure. Globally, the abolition of chattel slavery in America was part of white supremacy colonialism correcting itself making it more representative of eclectic global knowledge( i.e. Western World epistemology in total ) to date. Many of the physical trappings of chattel slavery have disappeared from sight but a careful scrutiny of the employer employee relationships in America (i.e. labor laws) reveal a hostile economic relationship between the upper, middle, and the lower classes as a result of the upper, and middle class efforts to extract a maximum profit from a combined exploitation of the poor capitalistically. The confederate flag is an ugly scar on the face of global white supremacy which can never symbolize harmonization with the rest of the non-white world.
    The time has come for people to really explore and examine the ideas behind the symbolism contemporarily referred to as the Confederate Battle Flag. This flag symbolizes all of the morals and dogma embraced by the southern racist in America. The author of the thoughts behind these racist behaviors intended or unintended was Albert Pike. Pike was an American attorney, Confederate officer, writer, and Freemason. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts. Pike is also the only Confederate military officer or figure to be honored with an outdoor statue in Washington, D.C. Pike was also acclaimed as “America’s Plato.” “The Homer of America “, and the Zoroaster of Asia.” Albert Pike wrote the book titled “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry, Charleston, S.C. 1871. In my estimation, Pike was indeed an intellectual genius of his time. I accuse him of being a genius because of his metaphysical thoughts which led to the foundation of southern white supremacy racism in America. Pike’s metaphysics embraced his understanding of the interplay of polar opposites upon this plane of existence. There is hard, and there is soft. There is good, and there is bad. There is light, and there is darkness. There is black and there is white. Pike’s genius also was reflected in his ability to dovetail his writings with observable events in nature. Day light reigns for a time, and then there is night. Night reigns for a time, and then there is day light. Everything in Pike’s world symbolized something. The confederate battle flag symbolizes a way to act. The flag reminds every southern, white racist of his duty to obey his morals, and view the descendants of black slaves as subordinate to them. The flag also reminds the white southern racist of the rites and rituals (i.e. dogma) that they must practice (i.e. racial discrimination) to make sure that white dominates black. It is time to put Pike’s thoughts to rest with an understanding that a nation built upon Pike’s metaphysics is as wrong as Plato’s thoughts when he conceptualized a “Republic “ which, when put into practice, became communism.
    We must get clear on the religious significance of the practice of black slave human sacrifice ( i.e. the killing of black people ) and later day black human sacrifice which I believe took place often in the deep south of the United States of America both individually, and collectively. To some white Americans. Sacrificing African American souls to ancient gods came to America with the very old belief systems of some Western World immigrants whose polytheistic perceptions of reality involved receiving blessings from their gods primarily through sacrificing the lives of those life forms whom they perceived as lesser beings, black slaves and freed slaves, and blacks in general contemporarily, native Americans, cows, hogs, ducks, chickens, etc. These believers in ancient polytheistic religions are those whom the disciples of Jesus Christ sought to convert to Christianity after the death of Jesus Christ. It is entirely ridiculous to think that Christianity, a belief in a black skinned savior (i.e. Jesus Christ) is the savior of a significant number of self-proclaimed non-blacks in the world. Polytheistic religious practices continues to this very day, and was cleverly eclectically articulated in America by the religious scholar Albert Pike. Pike systematically dovetailed selective religions, and created a hierarchical religion that ate up the ground of all other known religions. Pike’s transcendent religion structure, which utilizes the practice of sacrificing of human beings is designed to invoke non-Christian gods to bless the white race with dominance over all other races of man in the perceivable world. Pike’s polytheistic religion imparts the metaphysical, and physical foundations of contemporary white supremacy animated, and expressed through all American institutions.

  • Rich men like Trump shake their fist at God and ask ” why don’t you speak clearly to mankind ” ? To a confused world Trump presents himself as the model of an a-moral man.

    Let’s get clear on the psychology of the rich, and famous. Trump lavishly dines upon the riches of the earth. He has his heaven on earth, and from this comfortable pillow he launches his rebellion against God by expressing anti-Christian messages using roman metaphors. We should consider the supposed origins of that ancient Rome which Trump hopes to resurrect. Rome was the most decadent government known to mankind in this that their armies, and their society were both homosexual, and bisexual, their dining rooms had adjacent vomitoriums where they regurgitated what they had just eaten to make room to eat more, and they ate their meals lying down. The classical Latin language itself is a command language lacking in words like” please” and” thank you.” They devalued their women not thinking them worthy of separate, individual names thereby naming numerous women in the same family names like Cynthia I, Cynthia II, and Cynthia III. Rome was founded by two young men who were supposedly raised by a wolf. Again, if we pay particular attention to the human ethics inferred by alluding to the ethics of a pagan nation founded by wolf-raised feral children (i.e. Romulus and Remus), we gain insights into the desired ethical foundation of a man like Donald Trump. Trump wants to maculate the American white male this time devoid of Christian ethics so that they may purify America. Trump howls for America to return to ethics that determine non-whites as less deserving of their care, and consideration. He wants us to take off our regalia of puny Christian ethics codified in the U.S. Constitution ( i.e. the bill of rights ) so that we may be more untamed. Both Trump’s and Putin’s Virtu’ or” behavior showing high moral standards allude to the virtues or moral standards of an ancient roman citizen, not an American citizen, the virtues or high moral standards of a wolf, not a contemporary human being. Trump wants to put afoot a white male, high tech, a-moral savage which is Trump’s version of Adolph Hitler’s “Das Uberman ( i.e. The Superman ).

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