When folks mention black public intellectuals, they usually have a group of academic scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Cornel West, bell hooks, and Michael Eric Dyson in mind. Although poets like Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni, and Sonia Sanchez continue to engage large numbers of people in multiple public spaces, they, like other major black poets, are less likely to be viewed as black public intellectuals, especially as the phrase was configured in late 1990s scholarly and popular discourses.
Interestingly, at the moment that African American scholars were preparing and being primed to become more public, large numbers of a new generation of leading black (print-based) poets were solidifying their places in specialized literary discourses (i.e. MFA programs, distinct literary fellowships and awards, etc). More importantly, the popularly constructed image of the black public intellectual was a skilled speaker/debater and author of at least two or more academic studies on "race" with an appointment at an elite college or university. In addition to excluding a range of African American academics, the conceptions and coverage of public intellectuals typically did not include poets.
Nonetheless, in a couple of my classes this semester, I have had the opportunity to consider and present Elizabeth Alexander and Evie Shockley, among others, as public intellectuals. In one class, which enrolls all first-year black women, we have been reading Alexander's Crave Radiance and discussing how this thinker covered so many ideas, people, and historical events and then managed to re-present those topics into lines of poetry.
In a course on afrofuturism, my students and I read Shockley's the new black, a book that challenged us to understand the value and values of non-narrative poetry. The radical design of some of Shockley's poems has made reading her work a notable visual experience as well.
Viewing poets as intellectuals prompts readers to look beyond prose as the main or only source for the presentation of thoughtful and challenging ideas. In addition, calling on poets in ways that public intellectuals have been called on might give literary artists more incentives or encouragement to address contemporary and popular subjects as opposed to the inclination of the broader field of literature to concentrate on the past. When and if we view black women poets such as Evie Shockley and Elizabeth Alexander as public intellectuals, we are inclined to give more consideration to the details of how active thinkers present ideas about race, black culture, and American history.
A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories