U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Great Works of Black Intellectuals Since 1967

A few days ago on Twitter, I posed a question to my followers: what, they did believe, was the most important book by a black intellectual since 1967? I asked the question for several reasons. One, I’m pleased to announce that shortly the S-USIH will host a roundtable on Harold Cruse’s classic, Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. It’ll be a combination of regular bloggers and several guests to discuss Cruse’s magnum opus. Thus, my starting point of 1967. Since it has been fifty years since the release of that book—not to mention the Detroit riot of the same year, and the release of works such as Black Power and Where Do We Go From Here—I wanted to gauge what others thought mattered since that tumultuous year.

The responses were, thankfully, diverse in numerous ways. Importance can mean different things to different people. Whether a work shapes debate in mainstream society is in the eye of the beholder.  Some of the repeat mentions require extended discussion. Several followers of mine argued for Paul Gilroy’s The Black Atlantic (1993). I think this makes sense, as his work revolutionized the way in which scholars thought about the Black Diaspora. It’s difficult to think of any work today that talks about the relationship of peoples of African descent across the world that doesn’t at least pay tribute—or argue with—Gilroy’s masterwork.

Robert Allen’s Black Awakening in Capitalist America (1969) also received numerous mentions. This is good because it’s a reminder that there’s a lot of intellectual discourse from the 1960s that we should still wrestle with today. Allen’s work is no exception. His book is a critical look at the relationship between capital, capitalism, and racism in American history. Nathan Connolly’s meditation on the book from several months ago is a good primer for those who’ve not read Allen in a while, want to learn more before diving in, or are always thinking about Black Awakening in Capitalist America. With so many debates about race and class roiling the American intellectual and political left these days, Allen’s work is especially important right now.

In this same vein, books such as Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow (2010) and Melvin Oliver’s Black Wealth White Wealth (1995) were mentioned. Contemporary debates about mass incarceration and the collapse of African American wealth in the aftermath of the Great Recession have a lot to with these choices. Religion also made an appearance on the list—perhaps too brief an appearance. James Cone’s Black Theology and Black Power (1969) was mentioned, and I think it also has some modern significance too. The intersection of black thought, black politics, and black activism was important to understand in 1969—and, no doubt, is still important today.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention works such as Toni Cade Bambara’s The Black Woman (1970) and Audre Lorde’s Sister Outsider (1984). They were both important to the development to of a black response to the rise of second-wave feminism in the 1960s and 1970s. I don’t wish to group these books separately from everything else—Bambara and Lorde both understood the importance of race and gender to one another as categories (social, political, intellectual) in American society.

Works such as Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well (1992) or Charles Mills’ The Racial Contract (1997) are also important. They both force us to re-examine American history from a different angle, not simply seeing race everywhere but accepting that race and American society cannot be easily separated from one another. Other intellectuals, such as Martha Jones and Ibram X. Kendi, were mentioned for more recent works that also point to the centrality of race in American history.

This isn’t an exhaustive list of what I was sent—mostly just the highlights of what I read. For one, note the considerable lack of black intellectuals (with the exception of Gilroy) beyond America’s shores. It is also intriguing to point out what wasn’t mentioned. Public intellectuals such as Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, and Michael Eric Dyson were not mentioned. Black conservatives weren’t mentioned much either—although Thomas Sowell received a mention. Shelby Steele and John McWhorter are also important in this regard. Finally, though, there were two other writers who, I believe, are important to think about. Toni Morrison’s Playing in the Dark (1992) made a significant impact on not just literary criticism, but how we think about American culture in general. But the mention of Alex Haley’s Roots (1976) as an important work should also force us to consider how certain works—not intended to be “intellectual” in a traditional sense—can also change American culture.

What are your choices? What would you add to the list? Personally, I’d add more Adolph Reed—especially Stirrings in the Jug (1999). It might be too early to add Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book Between the World and Me (2015) but his essays, such as his piece on reparations, probably belong on the list. Suffice to say, there’s a lot of important works to choose from and think about.

8 Thoughts on this Post

  1. What a great question! Although I know it’s a slightly unusual suggestion — and stretches the usual definition of “intellectual” — I’d want to include Octavia Butler in the conversation, either the Xenogenesis / Lilith’s Brood trilogy or the Parable books…or perhaps Kindred.

  2. Robert, thanks for this great post — and so timely!

    I’m putting together my syllabus for a spring seminar — broad topic is “U.S. History since 1970” — and have been wrestling with the surfeit of primary sources. Now I have more choices, which is a good problem to have, but still a problem.

    I am thinking of assigning The Devil Finds Work, for Baldwin’s thought itself and maybe also as a model of how to think about the films we will be looking at from the period. (Still haven’t decided whether I want to wander into the 80s-90s or just camp out in the 70s.) But I don’t want to get too meta.

    Anyway, thanks for rounding up this list — will be interested to see what titles people add.

  3. I would add also Reed’s book WEB Du Bois and American Political Thought which does an excellent job of historicizing both Du Bois and the various periods of his work. It is a useful corrective to the various works that would cherry pick Du Bois’ thought. Great piece!

  4. Hmm, I’m surprised Gates’s The Signifying Monkey (1988) didn’t get a mention, but I’ll fill the space now. I’d also argue that Samuel R. Delany deserves a slot, and that’s even if you restrict yourself to his essays and memoirs. Finally, if the context is transatlantic, Stuart Hall can’t be ignored even if Gilroy has a higher profile in the U.S. Finally, although his political positions tend to fall outside the left-academic mainstream, I think it’s somewhat misleading to label McWhorter a “conservative” intellectual, at least as far as the average American understanding of that term goes.

  5. I’ve no candidate (b.c haven’t read enough of the relevant ‘universe’) for “most important book” by a black intellectual since 1967, but many years ago I found George Jackson’s Soledad Brother (subtitle The Prison Letters of George Jackson) to be worth reading, though it was so long ago I can’t say I remember it all that well.

    p.s. In the (different) category of black scholars active today and for some time past, I’m a bit surprised no one, at least in this thread, has mentioned Orlando Patterson. One or two other names come to mind, but I’ll leave it there.

  6. I dislike any list of this type that omits the cultural criticism of Ralph Ellison and Albert Murray, because some of their work predates the 1967 divide; not to mention James Baldwin’s work which is enjoying a revival. But I do want to piggyback on Louis’s mention (just above) of Orlando Patterson, specifically his “Slavery and Social Death” and “Freedom”. At first, each seems to be academic/scholarly work of the normal sort of intellectual history and the history of concepts. But read closely he also ups the ante by offering critiques and moral meditations on slavery as a social and historical phenomenon and on the sociology, history, and moral vision of human freedom. They are, then, as much social and political thought as they are intellectual history.

  7. Vol. 1 of Patterson’s ‘Freedom’ has been sitting reproachfully on one of my shelves for quite a while — “reproachfully” because I’ve only dipped into it. Richard King’s comment (above) has prompted me to move it up on my reading list. (I’m sure ‘Slavery and Social Death’ is v. worth reading too, but for various reasons I’m less likely to read it, though I wouldn’t completely rule it out.)

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