chapter  9
7 Pages

Thinking while black

ByMark Anthony Neal

Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, there was a long established tradition of the so-called “Race Man” – African American men who presumed the role of spokesperson for black communities. Though many of these figures were university-trained – W.E.B. DuBois figuring prominently in this regard – for the most part, these were men – and almost always so – who did not have professional affiliations with “mainstream” institutions of higher education. With the racial integration of such institutions in the late 1960s, the very landscape of higher education was altered, allowing for the creation of the first critical mass of university-affiliated black scholars, many aligned with nascent Black Studies Programs. In the late 1980s there was a clear shift, largely articulated with the emergence of a new generation of black public intellectuals, many of whom possessed Ivy League pedigrees and affiliations with the most prestigious research universities in the nation. Given the foundations of Black Studies as a mechanism of social change, political agitation, and the reclamation of historical knowledge, and the emergence of the “university” as a linchpin of the neoliberal state, how has the role of the so-called black public intellectual changed? When W.E.B. DuBois published The Souls of Black Folk, his message seemed

appropriately pitched to a liberal and literate, white, middle-class readership – chapters of the book were serialized in the pages of The Atlantic Monthly in the years before the publication of the book in 1903. Though the book might have been most visibly received by a mainstream white reading public, it is clear that DuBois imagined a broader public for his work, employing multi-voiced and multi-platformed modes of address to speak to the diverse and disparate publics in which he was politically and culturally invested. Trained as a social scientist, Du Bois aimed to broaden the location where knowledge could be produced and disseminated. As such, The Souls of Black Folk (1903) coalesces distinct literary and critical genres in order to tell the story of the “Negro” only forty years after the Emancipation Proclamation. The Souls of Black Folk, in its time, functioned very much like a mixtape, using literary collage to

capture the everyday concerns of communities who defined hybridity – what Du Bois’ celebrated thesis of “double consciousness” is really about – a century before Barack Obama’s name could be conjured as evidence of some post-racial reality. W.E.B. DuBois’ manipulation of forms like the sermon, music and cultural criticism, the memoir, political theory, historical narrative, and the eulogy throughout the pages of The Souls of Black Folk (1903) serves as precursor to the multimedia strategies that would be employed by public intellectuals a century later. The deployment of multifaceted modes of expression highlights one of the

primary challenges of the Race Man discourse, where figures are engaged in forms of representation – as in speaking for the concerns and aspirations of the black masses within the institutions of the white majority – while also literally representing the best face of blackness within the public spheres of that same white majority. Additionally, such figures were also drawn to performances of black masculinity tethered to notions of authenticity that circulated within black publics that were as diverse and disparate as those that existed within the social enclaves of the white majority. The very idea of the Race Man – a figure additionally endowed with presumably magical powers of oratory – was fraught with expectations that could never be fully realized. Nevertheless, figures as diverse as DuBois, Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson,

A. Phillip Randolph, Hubert Harrison, Adam Clayton Powell Jr, and others could lay claim to Race Man status at various stages of their public careers. In virtually every case, they were produced within the confines of well regarded institutional fixtures within black communities, such as the black church, black civic and political organizations such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and the Urban League, and educational institutions such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Of the latter set of institutional locations, the one I am most concerned about in this instance, few if any of the Race Men who taught and administered at HBCUs had any real institutional relationship with major white research institutions. The example of Melvin B. Tolson, modernist poet and longtime HBCU professor, whose career was dramatized in the recent Denzel Washington film The Great Debaters (2008), is instructive. Though the film glosses over many aspects of Tolson’s career, highlighting instead his work with the Wiley College debate team, Tolson’s truly engaged political work wasn’t simply about instructing black college students (largely drawn from the middle class) in the fine art of debate, or in producing a body of literature that ranked with the best of his more celebrated Harlem Renaissance peers, but rather the more concrete, roll-up-your-sleeves labor that he did on behalf of the tenant farming movement in the South.1