U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Within and Without: Teleology, Tradition, and the Varieties of Black Intellectual History

Editor's Note

Welcome, readers, to our special roundtable on New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition, edited by Keisha N. Blain, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer (Northwestern University Press, 2018). Please join our conversation in the comments! Thank you. —Sara Georgini

New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition makes for refreshing reading. This begins with the editors’ choice of title, “Black Intellectual Tradition” rather than, say, “Black Intellectual History.” The historical subjects in the text belong to this tradition as do its practitioners. In most cases, the writers in the book explore subject matter in the tradition, and they contribute to it at the same time. This is probably so because of a tendency Friedrich Nietzsche noticed in what he called “antiquarian” historical consciousness around 150 years ago. In its positive expression, the historian in this mode thinks, “It was possible to live here,

“because it is possible to live here and will in the future be possible to live here, for we are tough and cannot be broken overnight.” With this “we” he looks beyond his own transient, curious, individual existence and sense himself to be in the spirit of his house, his lineage, and his city. At times he even greets across the distance of darkening and confusing centuries the soul of his people as his own soul; the ability to empathize with things and divine their greater significance, to detect traces that are almost extinguished, to instinctively read a past frequently overwritten, to quickly understand the palimpsests, indeed polypsests—these are his gifts and his virtues.[1]

For reasons like these, the editors tell readers that contributors to the book mean to expand “what counts as intellectual history,” to broaden and deepen its archive of sources, and to correct what they see as an underrepresentation or even exclusion of peoples of African descent from the field.[2] The structure of the text—a thorough introduction by the editors, followed by further introductions of four thematically arranged sections written by leading lights in the field—reinforces the sensibility. The more seasoned historians effectively pass the baton to (mostly) up-and-coming scholars. Would it that more volumes of this kind might come along with similarly generous arrangements. Our profession would benefit.

For many of the writers in this volume, without explicitly saying so, doing history in the black intellectual tradition means at least some qualified embrace of teleology. Expressions of a black intellectual tradition form part of a struggle toward ends like liberation or justice. The stakes are high; ruptures, when they appear, have meanings beyond purely belletristic ones. History does not appear in disparate pieces, events in-and-for themselves. It isn’t radically contingent. Tradition matters.

I’ve tried here to give some sense of the text as a whole, with the sure knowledge that any attempt only fails beyond underlying tendencies concerning philosophy of history. The book convincingly “debunks the myth of a monolithic black intellectual tradition” (4). Transnational approaches feature beyond even the section explicitly dedicated to such matters, familiar figures are recast, and neglected thinkers emerge. Nonetheless, even the two perhaps most contextualist or historicist-leaning essays have telic tendencies.[3] Brandon Byrd, in a very thoughtful institutional history of black women and the workings of respectability politics during the American occupation of Haiti, and Guy Emerson Mount, in an analysis of Frederick Douglass’s interracial marriage, remind readers that the way forward is hardly continuous. Byrd underscores the “complex and uneven” path of black internationalism in the interwar years, on its way to greater militancy later on in the century. History moves in fits and starts, has “liminal” states, which suggests some underlying end, purpose, or direction (60). Mount admonishes historians for “presentism” while uncovering a moment in the late 19th century when some African Americans imagined futures of racial mixture or hybridity. Yet for Mount a tighter historicism means turning up “forgotten alternatives” (to borrow from C. Vann Woodward) when it comes to patterning a better future. Against the “restrengthening of monoracial sentiments within certain black radical circles…black millennials…might…affirm blackness in all its diverse multihued, interracial complexity” (152). Rigorous historicism, in this view, tells readers how future generations ought to be.

A Few Openings to Consider, with Regrets

I regret that space doesn’t permit more thorough treatment of the dozen original essays in the book. (This essay is too long for a blog post as it is.) My hope is that we here at S-USIH cover them all by some accidental division of labor. I learned an enormous amount by reading this book, so in what follows I’d like to suggest a few openings or questions I had. Among the many good things about writing for a blog, in my experience, is that we can eschew formal conventions and open things up some. In that spirit, I have a few pointed questions based upon close readings of the essays in this volume. Following that, I’ll conclude with some general thoughts. I’ll consider three thinkers in the book, again with sincere regret.[4] Consider this a representative sampling of a number of ideas I had about the essays in this collection.

Celeste Day Moore, “Every Wide-Awake Negro Teacher of French Should Know: The Pedagogies of Black Internationalism in the Early Twentieth Century”: In this fascinating essay, the opening anecdote reframed a well-known debate between W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. The wizard of Tuskegee pitted practical, industrial education against the traditional liberal arts, in this case using French language instruction as an example. I wonder, given his wizardry, did Washington’s rhetorical staging of a “‘picture of a lone black boy poring over a French grammar amid the weeds of a neglected home’” being the “‘acme of absurdities’” hide anything? (25)  I noticed that a 1933 survey of modern language instruction in thirty African American colleges included Tuskegee (27). I was reminded of Ralph Ellison’s essay “The Little Man at Chehaw Station” where a young Ellison learned music performance with the luminous, cosmopolitan pianist Hazel Harrison, who taught there in the 1930s. Ellison’s essay made me wonder whether, whatever the stated, public image of Tuskegee, romance languages formed part of the curriculum. Why include Tuskegee in the survey otherwise? Could this be another instance of Washington or his successors (Robert Russa Moton, for example) pitching one thing for certain white audiences while actually doing quite another? The opening framing device set the scene wonderfully, but my curiosity was piqued to say the least. It speaks to the complicated negotiations some HBCUs had to make when it came to the relationships between liberal arts, public opinion, donors, the surrounding environs, and students.

LeRhonda S. Manigault-Bryant, “‘I Had a Praying Grandmother’: Religion, Prophetic Witness, and Black Women’s Herstories”: In this essay, easily one of the most conceptually interesting and challenging in the collection, I was struck by certain similarities or linguistic affinities between African American Southern grandmothers and white Southern grandmothers. Clearly, the contexts, experiences, and existential risks were not the same at all, yet the mode or language wasn’t entirely dissimilar. I found the autobiographical part of this essay really compelling. Having read about or knowing a reasonable amount about white Southerners’ grandmothers (not from direct familial experience, seeing how my grandmothers were born in Poland), I wondered about the linguistic affinities between “womanist god-talk” for example, and the folk wisdom of Christian Southern grandmothers more generally. “Conjure knowledge” the idea of cyclical rather than linear ideas of time, seemed to me singular and unique, yet other language appeared shared, say lessons of humility, which were often species of the Protestant ethic. Sometimes working class Southern grandmothers told their grandkids, “don’t get above your raising,” but with remarkably different inflections based upon remarkably different experiences, depending upon who said it. What should we make of regional language and culture and, where and in what instances was it transformed by acts of “symbolic reversal” across the color line? Where and in what instances was it shared?

Ibram X. Kendi, “Reigning Assimilationists and Defiant Black Power: The Struggle to Define and Regulate Racist Ideas”: Really accomplished intellectual historians offer useful typologies for understanding complex ideas. Ibram Kendi’s contribution is a great example of this. I found the idea of “assimilationist” racism very useful. It cleared out conceptual space in what tends to be a jumbled intellectual history. Those thinkers who rejected black biological inferiority didn’t count as antiracists, if in the same breath they believed black culture inferior. As I read through the clean lines of the argument, questions emerged. Are the binaries between Black Power thinkers and assimilationists drawn too broadly? I wondered whether Daryl Michael Scott’s use of “damage imagery” in his essential book, Contempt and Pity, covers more ground and nuances the debate in critical ways.[5] Poverty of culture arguments also involve “damage” arguments, and the idea of “pathology” lives across time, but also across ideological differences. Certain Black Power thinkers read Frantz Fanon pretty enthusiastically. Fanon certainly thought colonialism damaged black people, making therapeutic violence necessary and cathartic. Some Black Power thinkers were influenced by thinking like this, and so some versions of Black Nationalism or separatism do seem to resemble cultural pathology arguments. Why pattern a life by searching for long lost roots, embracing a homegrown faith, or crafting cultural amalgams out of different African sources if you don’t feel something missing from—or wrong with—black culture at present? Is this purely to cast out white corruptions? If white oppression is the corrupting influence, then doesn’t this potentially head down the garden path to arguments like those made by Stanley Elkins, and by extension Daniel Patrick Moynihan?  I had a hard time finding my way out of this bind.

Summary Thoughts

Every essay in this book merits close reading, so I worry whether the generosity of its form might wreck on the shoals of industry conventions and proclivities. I envision a nightmare scenario, where graduate students “gut” this book for its thorough opening introductions and four thematic introductions. Students working on comprehensive exams could use the book to get a sense of directions in the field without reading carefully the thinkers featured in it. This would be a loss, but the imperatives of our profession lend themselves to extensive rather than intensive, close readings. The passion of these essays demand better of intellectual historians. We have lots more to think about and many more things to read and learn if we pore over this collection carefully. I don’t know that I found completely compelling all of the arguments I read in this collection, but I know that I’m far better for having read them. The book will change how I write intellectual history from here on out. Let’s hope many of our number rise to the challenges New Directions in the Black Intellectual Tradition presents and give it the readings it richly deserves.

[1] Friedrich Nietzsche, “On the Utility and Liability of History for Life,” in Unfashionable Observations, The Complete Works of Friedrich Nietzsche, vol.2 (Stanford UP, 1995), 103. Emphasis mine.

[2] Keisha Blaine, Christopher Cameron, and Ashley D. Farmer, eds. New Perspectives on the Black Intellectual Tradition (Northwestern UP, 2018), 4. Subsequent references in parenthesis.

[3] There’s a good argument to be made that Gregory Childs’ essay, “Conspiracies, Seditions Rebellions” belongs in this group. The recovery of the legal culture of “conspiracy” and “sedition” over the common practice of attempting to find empirical evidence of conspiracy in the historical record definitely fits the bill for explicitly historicist thinking.

[4] I’d love to hear from contributors other than those I cover here, if that’s something that interests any of them. I have ideas about all of the essays in the book. I’ll admit I took lots and lots of notes from the final section on Black Radicalism, to my mind anyway, the most generative in the book.

[5] Daryl Michael Scott, Contempt and Pity: Social Policy and the Image of the Damaged Black Psyche, 1880-1996 (UNC Press, 1997).

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