Monday, April 11, 2011

Manning Marable, the 1950s & Black Public Intellectuals

It's really sad and tragic to think about the recent passing of Manning Marable. He had made some many important contributions to the field of black studies. Several writers, including Farah Jasmine Griffin, Aldon Nielsen, and Chris King, have been mentioning Marable's generosity and the value of his work.

I was recently thinking about the birth years of African American poets and wondered why being born in the 1930s was so important for them having extraordinary careers. The 1950s appear to be the decade for African American scholars. 

Consider the following list of scholars and their birth years:

Trudier Harris b. 1948
Patricia Hill Collins b. 1948 
Lani Guinier b. 1950
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. b. 1950
Manning Marable 1950 - 2011
Patricia J. Williams b. 1951
bell hooks b. 1952
Cornel West b. 1953
Condoleezza Rice b. 1954
Stephen L. Carter b. 1954
Valerie Smith b. 1956
Michael Eric Dyson b. 1958

Many of those academics are employed by prestigious universities, and at least 7 of them (Harris, Gates, Marable, hooks, West, Carter, and Dyson) have published more than 10 book-length studies. Condoleezza Rice has less books to her name, but her academic career did carry her to the position of National Security Advisor and then Secretary of State. 

We can certainly think of individual black academics born prior to 1948 and after 1958. Yet we might have far more difficulty identifying a group of 10 or so black scholars or academics born during a common 10-year period with as much influence and name recognition as those mentioned above.

What was it about being born between 1948 and 1958 that gave some African American academics a particular advantage?

Black people born during the 1950s with interests in pursuing graduate education had far more access to leading academic institutions than African Americans born in previous decades.  During the mid to late 1980s, Ivy league and elite universities were competing to recruit "talented" black scholars and committing resources to African American faculty in ways that would have been unthinkable in the past.

By the early to mid-1990s, there was an unprecedented amount of attention on black scholars. Popular magazines such as  The Atlantic, The New Yorker, and The New York Times, to name only a few, played important roles in identifying and at the same time publicizing the idea of "black public intellectuals." Also,  academic and commercial presses provided black scholars with book publishing opportunities.  

Those African American scholars who were in their late 30s or early 40s - that is, those born in the 1950s - were the right age, so to speak, and thus well positioned to receive the benefits of the opportunities and attention.

The kind of cultural and institutional boosts that assisted scholars born in the 1950s were not as widely available to scholars born prior to that time period. The opportunities and attention were bestowed on fewer black academics at a time.  There were obviously individual exceptions, but there was no expanded coverage of black scholars of those earlier generations, nor were universities and well-financed publishers supporting them in comparably large numbers. 

Scholars born during the 1960s and 1970s have had access to elite universities, and they have proven themselves quite capable of producing impressive work. Still, they have not received nearly as much coverage, as a group, as those scholars born during the 1950s. As a result, the generations of scholars born during the 1960s and 1970s have had relatively limited influence and visibility.  That is, in comparison.

Again, there are some individual exceptions. The larger point, though, is that those cultural and institutional boosts - such as widespread coverage, expanded publishing opportunities, and high profile positions at elite universities - were granted to black scholars born in the 1950s in new and unprecedented ways and thus helps us better understand why talented folks like bell hooks, Manning Marable, and Cornel West, to name a few examples, were able to really maximize their gifts and become recognized for their contributions across and beyond the academy.       

Birth Years & Age Matters

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