U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Black Public Intellectuals

Are there particular pressures on black academics to be public intellectuals? How does one respond to those pressures while maintaining an active academic career? Are black academics more at risk if they do become public intellectuals? The New York Times hosts a discussion by John McWhorter and Glenn Loury.

McWhorter calls for a balance. “The academic realm can be highly unsatisfying” because people don’t read the work we shed blood, sweat, and tears to finish. But at the same time, people like Cornel West or Henry Louis Gates haven’t been rigorous academics since they were young men.

At the same time, graduate students should not have any different expectations of black scholars than they do of white. McWhorter heard an obituary of Manning Marable, who held a joint appointment in History and African American studies at Columbia, on NPR in which a student raved about all the “files and folders” that Marable had, as if to prove he was truly a serious academic.

3 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Lauren,

    Good topic. I think Adolph Reed, Jr. addresses this pressure in a piece titled “What are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Curious Role of the Black Public Intellectual ” in his book/collection titled *Class Notes* (NY: New Press, 2000).

    – TL

  2. I think the problem is more about this country’s lack of respect for academics in general. If those in power read more diligently and consulted more widely there would not be a need for “Public Intellectuals”. Academic publishing, from journals to monographs, doesn’t help either as knowledge is priced out of the private pocket and the library budgets are stretched by greedy conglomerates. Tenure and other demands to publish are also a drag. Time was when Academics were warned not to rush into print!

  3. three quick answers:
    1. there may be pressures from individuals outside the academy, but these pressures are likely minor if they exist. there may also be economic pressures…these pressures are likely major if they exist.
    2. a better question might be how do people navigate being academics and public intellectuals if they choose to do so. and the answer is being extremely extremely efficient, because the two positions require two different styles of writing/communicating.
    3. yes–you are at risk of not being taken seriously, of not being productive, of not being tenure/full worthy. but if you are productive enough even in this market you should end up tenured/full somewhere.

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