African American Intellectual History Society March 7, 2015
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.
- William M. Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life(NewYork: W.W. Norton and Co., 1996. ↩
- 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). ↩
- Jonathan Scott Holloway, “The Black Intellectual and the ‘Crisis Canon’ in the Twentieth Century,” Black Intellectuals: Commentary and Critiques. Spec issue of The Black Scholar31.1 (Spring 2001): 2-3. ↩
- Holloway, 1. ↩
- Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002), 211. ↩
- Marilyn Richardson, ed. Maria Stewart, America’s First Black Political Writer: Essays and Speeches (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), xiii. ↩
- Banks, xv-xvi. ↩
Chernoh Sesay Jr.
I am an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at DePaul University. I earned my Ph.D. in American History from Northwestern University in 2006. I am currently completing a book manuscript entitled Black Boston and the Making of African-American Freemasonry: Leadership, Religion, and Community In Early America. This study examines the origins of African American Freemasonry and traces the development of black Freemasonry from its founder, Prince Hall, to the famous antebellum abolitionist and member of the African Lodge, David Walker. In this treatment, black Freemasonry and it origins in Boston become a prism through which to consider various relationships between interracial and black politics, religion, and leadership. I am also developing two separate but related research agendas. I am examining the significance of institutional links connecting various African American religious, fraternal, sororal and educational institutions meant to structure and emphasize certain ways of being black in the antebellum United States. I am also exploring how different forms of nineteenth and twentieth-century African American historicism were comprised of aligned and competing theological and secular concerns