Whither Black Intellectuals?

An essay by Herb Boyd

Jerry Gafio Watts

Nothing invigorates a debate about black intellectuals more than when they disagree among themselves, and their differences become grist for the media.  A recent example of this war of words, a takedown in rhetoric occurred back in the spring when Michael Eric Dyson excoriated Cornel West, his former mentor. 

Published in the New Republic, the blistering attack went viral all over the Internet, which was clearly part of the author’s intentions. Interested parties waited eagerly for West’s retort, but, for the most part, the pragmatic scholar was momentarily silent, choosing to let the verbal fusillade fade into the ether. 

Toward the end of Dyson’s screed, we get at least a glimmer of his motivation for the 10,000 word essay.   For several months—if not years—the bile from West had accumulated, necessitating a release. 

Dyson said West had assailed him with a barrage of disparaging comments, including that he was a “cheerleader and bootlicker” for President Obama.  When West finally broke his silence, he said, “Character assassination is the refuge of those who hide and conceal these issues in order to rationalize their own allegiance to the status quo.”

And thus the bout was on. 

Students of African American history and intellectual thought probably heard a familiar ring in the encounter between these two very popular public intellectuals.   In the distant black past, there was a similar rift—but far more political--in the abolitionist movement. 

In 1843, the National Negro Convention was held in Buffalo, New York.  Among the delegates was the Rev. Henry Highland Garnet and the meeting would have long been forgotten except for his speech that called for slave rebellions. His position was opposed by Frederick Douglass, who preferred a less militant approach to eradicating slavery. 

“Let your motto be resistance,” Garnet bellowed. He fell one vote shy of commanding the day.

A few years later, Douglass, the leading black intellectual of the era, would disagree with Martin Delany about the role of white abolitionists in the movement.  Douglass was a consistent proponent of moral suasion, which put him at odds with the more radical and militant plans of John Brown, though aligned with Wendell Phillips and William Lloyd Garrison. 

For Delany, the white abolitionists were prejudiced and he insisted that blacks help themselves.

This split put an end to the working relationship between the two thinkers who had combined their energy and insight in publishing the North Star.  They personified the growing ideological and philosophical divide in the black community, a fissure that would become wider with the arrival of W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington.

It seems to me, said Booker T, I don’t agree, said W.E.B.” is a line from a poem by Dudley Randall and it encapsulates the differing outlooks of the two great men.  Many books have been written about their argument over the best route to citizenship and liberty for black Americans.  Both Washington and Du Bois were vying for the leadership of their people after the death of Douglass in 1895.  At one time there was a chance for them to fuse their outlooks but that vanished when Washington’s accommodationist views clashed with Du Bois’ determined push for full civil rights.

Their disagreement was never as rancorous and bitter as the one Du Bois would have with Washington’s successor, in effect, Marcus Garvey.  Despite their common Pan-Africanist perspectives, they could not overcome the personal dislike that festered with each intemperate published comment.  Their dispute was soon the source of an ongoing feud that nullified the possibility of any unity in the black community. 

Interestingly, Ida B. Wells and Mary Church Terrell stood apart from the ground forged by them, establishing their own independent ideas about race relations and human rights.


The delightful and pleasant veneer of the Harlem Renaissance often concealed the perturbations among some of the artistic denizens.  A bit of a rumble from some of the leading thinkers occurred over their stance on white author Carl Van Vechten’s novel Nigger Heaven (Alfred A. Knopf, 1926)

To some degree it was reminiscent of the problems during the abolitionist phase and how to deal with whites who had insinuated themselves into the ranks.  But this proved to be a minor disturbance compared to the disgust brewed by Langston Hughes and Zora Neale Hurston over their play “Mule Bone.” At the heart of the issue was which of the writers rightfully owned the work and who could curry the favor of their benefactor, a white woman.

When James Baldwin lacerated Richard Wright in his earliest essays, many recognized a traditional skirmish that pitted one black intellectual against another.  Baldwin’s challenge to Wright had territorial aspects, very much like his critique of Hughes over the turf in Harlem, but it was basically one of literary form and content.  While it never degenerated into a nasty back-and-forth, it was clearly adversarial and competitive, and a quarrel that would, circumstantially, include Ralph Ellison.

Ellison’s presence loomed recently with the death of Jerry Watts.  The title of Watts’s book Heroism & The Black Intellectual—Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life (University of North Carolina Press, 1994), indicates his path and admiration of Ellison, who, “of all major contemporary black intellectual figures…probably comes least to mind when we think of politically engaged intellectuals,” he mused.

Ellison, thus, represents the politically conscious intellectual intent on reflecting about “their duties, allegiances, and ambitions.” Watts’ evaluation of Baldwin is not comforting, dismissing him as a “black victim-status intellectual.”

In his baleful hook no one but Ellison is spared.  His estimation of Harold Cruse whose The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (Quill, 1994) sparked a longstanding discussion, Watts opines, that he interpreted “the history of twentieth century Afro-American intellectuals through a lens of dogmatic ideology.” 

Later, in an article he wrote for Dissent, Watts was even self-condemnatory. “While I have some contributions to make to the betterment of black life, I can easily understand the low priority that many blacks give to my situation as an anxiety-ridden bourgeois black academic intellectual.”

At his funeral this year on Dec. 5, as expected there was a large gathering of black and white intellectuals at the New York Society for Ethical Culture.  Right down front, his head tilted back and his afro visible from any angle was Dr. Cornel West. 

In his book, Watts took West to task for his inclusion of some entertainers in the Black intellectual tradition.  In a footnote, he observed “Certainly, jazz vocalists and preachers are linked to traditions, but they are not for the most part linked to intellectual traditions.” 

During his speeches, West often invokes the jazz immortal John Coltrane and James Brown.  This critique was probably impervious to West whose blurb cited the book as “superb.”


The evolution of black intellectual thought turned very political, at least publicly in the fifties as the civil rights movement took shape with a certain amount of intensity fomented by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. 

Concomitant to their outbursts--one centered on who wore the crown--was the emergence of the Nation of Islam, and its most iconic figures, Elijah Muhammad and Malcolm X.  In a very short period, their presumed alliance ruptured acrimoniously, ending in a fatalistic hatred. 

Before his assassination Malcolm was on a fast track to international acclaim, gradually setting aside his denouncements of King and other civil rights leaders. 

Even so, the residue from the previous generation of antagonism found resonance in the Black Panther Party.  When Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver went their separate radical ways they merely circled back on each other, inviting their acolytes to a deadly internecine warfare.  One of the promising moments of these halcyon days was the temporary merger of the Panthers with some former members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, principally Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), H. Rap Brown, and James Forman.  The marriage was irreconcilable.

As mentioned earlier, black intellectual thought was quite vibrant in the sixties, particularly as manifested in the plays, poetry, and artistic expressions evinced by a number of groups and formations.  Amiri Baraka represented the quintessential Black Nationalist before diverging into Marxist-Leninism.  Soon it was a standoff that one wag termed a contest between “the narrow nationalists and the mechanical Marxists.”

Baraka’s sudden departure from a coterie that included Haki Madhubuti, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, Chancellor Williams, Dr. Yosef ben-Jochannan, Molefi Asante, Jayne Cortez, Sonia Sanchez, et al, was a cause for grave concern as liberation movements blazed on the African continent. 

From various sectors of the Third World and the African Diaspora came the ideas of Frantz Fanon, Cheikh Anta Diop, Ivan Van Sertima, Walter Rodney, Jan Carew, all of which captured some of the earlier conclusions presented by C.L.R. James, George Padmore, and Claudia Jones.

In his book Black Intellectuals—Race and Responsibility in American Life (W.W. Norton & Company, 1996)) William M. Banks plows through this terrain of thought from the Talented Tenth, to Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, Lani Guinier, Angela Davis, Henry Louis Gates, Gerald Horne, Nell Irvin Painter and several provocative stops along the way. 

To some degree UCBerkeley’s Dr. Banks’ ideas embrace those offered by Professor Watts.  His conception of intellectuals “focuses on individuals who are reflective and critical, who act self-consciously to transmit, modify, and create ideas and culture.” 

As you can see that’s a pretty wide expanse of concept, and much too often Banks’ focus slants toward academia.

On the other hand, Jacob Carruthers in his Intellectual Warfare (Third World Press, 1999) takes on those critical of African-centered thought and ideas.  His invocation of the names of George James, Asa Hilliard, James Spady, Dr. Leonard Jeffries, Howard professor Frances Cress Welsing, David Walker, and all the way back to ancient Kemet with the innovations of Imhotep, provides a telling counter to the intellectual tradition fostered by Paul Johnson, whose Intellectuals (Harpercollins, 1989) attempts a similar recounting, though essentially Eurocentric with James Baldwin and Richard Wright the only black intellectuals in his book.

A cursory glance at my bookshelf reveals some of the scholars and thinkers who have been influential in my intellectual development—Malcolm X, Gordon Parks, Robin Kelly, Charles Ogletree, Peniel Joseph, Ishmael Reed, Derrick Bell, bell hooks, Mumia Abu-Jamal, Fred Beauford, Shirley Graham Du Bois, George Curry, Maulana Karenga, Dr. Ron Daniels, Don Rojas, Malik Chaka, Todd Burroughs, Jared Ball, John Hope Franklin, Maya Angelou, Robert Allen, Baraka, Dan Aldridge, Ron Lockett, Madhubuti, Larry Neal, Glen Ford, Nellie Bailey, Joanna Fernandez, Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, E. Franklin Frazier, John A. Williams, and John Henrik Clarke—for starters. 

Each of us has an extensive list of black intellectuals who have helped us understand the world, and who have shaped the ideas, forged the concepts, and did the deep and critical thinking in the world we inhabit. 

Lay out your own trajectory, list your teachers and comrades, and we can compare them the next time we meet.  And as Anna Julia Cooper reminded us eons ago, so much depends on when and where you enter this discourse on black intellectuals.

If this brief survey doesn’t ignite some feedback, some bracing reaction, then it fails in one of the key precepts of intellectual thought—to deliver an analysis that one can either seize on and embellish, or summon enough gumption to oppose.

There is no way to predict the direction of black intellectuals nowadays.  One thing for certain, there will come a time, when perhaps out of total exasperation and anomie, they will turn on each other like crabs in a barrel.  When we can overcome the internal contradictions and settle on a plan to bring about an end to institutional racism and the often-infantile quarrels that divides us, we will have a confederacy of comrades on the ramparts for change and prosperity. 

Black intellectuals you have nothing to lose but your indifference!        

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