The Crisis of the “Negro” Intellectual

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I have always been conflicted about the term, “intellectual” being applied to me. It’s not that I haven’t always been interested in the life of the mind. I like being a reader, thinker, and researcher. But I have also been deeply committed to working with community members to make life better for those who are oppressed, dispossessed, and disenfranchised. Finding out how to meld the two paths has been my life’s work.

I read two literary classics at an early age–Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man and Richard Wright’s Native Son. Reading Ellison’s book left a bad taste in my mouth about academics as embodied in the character Dr. Bledsoe–a man who actually hates Black people and hates being Black while pretending to “uplift the race.” On the other hand there is Bigger Thomas, who finds himself in a situation at the mercy of Whites who want to have a “good time.” After accidentally killing the White woman Mary, Bigger compounds the crime by disposing of her body. While on the run, Bigger notices the stark differences in the goods available to Whites (e.g. meat, produce, etc.) versus those available to Blacks in his neighborhood. Bigger’s astute observations about difference and disparities helped me to understand what it means to be an “organic intellectual.” Bigger Thomas was a character for whom I felt great empathy because he recognized the ways justice is not being served in our society.

The big difference between the characters for me is that Bigger was, despite his predicament, not afraid to be characterized as “too Black.” I have found the academy a strange place where only Black scholars and students are charged with being “too Black.” None of my White colleagues and students have ever been called “too White.” None of my male colleagues or students have been accused of being “too male.” Indeed, I have never heard anyone called, “too Jewish,” “too Italian,” “too Irish,” “too Asian” or “too” anything other than Black.

Apparently “too Black” is researching and writing about issues and concerns that impact Black people. “Too Black” is assigning texts and articles written by Black authors. When I first began teaching one of my courses one of the course evaluations read, “she’s a good teacher but we have to read too many Black articles.” My initial response was to go check my syllabus where I discovered that I had more readings on Latin@, Asian, Native peoples and women than Black folks. Then I chastised myself for attempting to justify the fact that I had been “fair” when I had every right to organize the course the way I saw fit. Scholars are permitted something called, “academic freedom.” “Too Black” means that when you respond to a question about race, racism, inequity, or injustice by using a Black example, you are “reifying the Black-White binary.” But discussions about my sisters and brothers of Latin@  or Asian descent are never reinforcing a Brown-White binary or a Yellow-White binary.

My truth is that living in a Black skin reflects a specific set of complexities. I am old enough to have witnessed the modern civil rights movement’s struggles of Black people to make the society more just for all. Brown v. Board of Education, the Voting Rights Act, the Affirmative Action Order, and the Equal Opportunity legislation were not limited to Black people despite their primary role in getting them enacted. They apply to everyone. My metaphor for Black people in this society is that they serve as the “doormen” to opportunity, i.e. they open the door that allows ALL to enter. Unfortunately, they often remain outside the very doors they have worked to open.

So, what is my role in the academy? Yes, I teach and advise students of all races and ethnicities. I primarily work with White teachers. I often work with White parents. Most of my academic colleagues are White and I do not ask them to be anything other than who and what they are. All I ask of them is to allow me to do the same!

Stay Black & Smart!

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11 thoughts on “The Crisis of the “Negro” Intellectual

  1. I started reading Invisible Man a month ago and had to set it down; I think I was getting the same sense that you got. It was also thick with layer upon layer, and I had many other books that I needed to read over the summer. I would like to finish it when I have more time, but I think I will read the other book, Native Son, that you mentioned first based on what you have said. Also, I, unfortunately, have had professors that accuse certain students for being “too White.” It embarrassed the students, so much so that they would not participate in the discussions. What does that even mean? Too White! Too Black! Agh! Stereotypes and assumptions!
    Anyway, I really enjoy reading your blog! I love your reflective perspective. Blessings…

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      • Oh, and, by the way, I was looking for more literature by Black writers, but could not find much in my search. I have already read some works by Toni Morrison and Alice Walker. Sadly, there just doesn’t seem to be much more than that out there in the English canon, at least, from the places I looked. I am guessing it probably has something to do with writers having a hard time finding publishing houses. I’m not sure about that. Anyway, I am going to be teaching high-school English and would like to have more to add to my curriculum. Any suggestions you have would be greatly appreciated, or if you already wrote a post on this, just let me know. Thank you!

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      • There is a ton of work out there. High schoolers might enjoy Macine Claire’s Rattlebone…short stories that are linked. You might like Bebe Moore Campbell’s Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine.

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  2. Dear Black & Smart.. so glad to have stumbled upon your blog. No, not glad- ecstatic!! I am a career educator and fervent advocate for equity & excellence in education. I am founder of WeAreGifted2.blogspot.com where I address issues relative to ‘recognizing gifts and serving needs of Black, Hispanic, others who are under-represented in public school gifted & advanced learner programs. I have 3 facebook pages you may be interested in -https://www.facebook.com/groups/CelebratingBlackGenius/ , https://www.facebook.com/WeAreGifted2JLDavis and https://www.facebook.com/MirrorBooksPowerOfPositiveImages. All of these sites are avenues for me to reach the masses with the message that ‘the color of one’s skin and the neighborhood they originate from DOES NOT pre-determine their intellectual capacity’ by empowering them with information, resources and access to professionals who dedicate their lives to this important work. I am a mother, grandmother, college professor, consultant and author. Please check out my pages when you have a moment and let’s share ideas. I will definitely pass your link on to others..
    my best
    Dr. Joy Lawson Davis

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  3. I love the statement, “Most of my academic colleagues are White and I do not ask them to be anything other than who and what they are. All I ask of them is to allow me to do the same!” Grandma used to say don’t worry ’bout other folk, be you and you’ll be busy ALLLLLLL day!” On the “too Black” intellectual course with ya! #mytwocents

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  4. Great explication of the struggles that too many black teachers and other blacks have to endure. There was never a case when I heard any teacher tell a student that they were “too white” or “too anything” other than black. To be considered “too black” means that one retains “too many Aricanisms” and that one is not exhibiting enough “non black” behaviors. People of African ascent should never have to be “allowed” to be black; they should assert themselves the way nature planned them to be. But wait! Slavery, black codes, Jim crow, etc., interrupted that continuum.

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