This week, the campus activities board at my university hosted the commentator and journalist Touré for a presentation as part of Black History Month programming. Attending Toure's talk reminded me of a group of popular commentators, including blogger and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates and MSNBC television show host Melissa Harris-Perry. Years ago, the most prominent figures to hold forth on race and African American issues were known as "black public intellectuals," these days, the subject position seems to have shifted to what we might refer to as black media commentators.
Sure, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Michael Eric Dyson, and Cornel West, for instance, are still widely known, but even they began occupying the airwaves over the last decade or so as commentators, not intellectuals in the strictest sense. Gates serves as editor-in-chief of the news site The Root, which he co-founded in 2008; Dyson regularly appears on MSNBC and has a radio program; West's collaborations with the journalist and commentator Tavis Smiley are particularly well known. These figures are still actively engaged in their work as scholars and professors, but the significance of media outlets and appearances, not publications, is hard to deny.
Some observers have been critical of what the shift from intellectual to pundit might mean. Just last week, scholar Eddie S. Glaude, Jr. offered strong words when he wrote in the New York Times that "The idea of the intellectual who reads widely and deeply and who
critically engages the complexity of our times has been supplanted by
the fast-talking 'black Ph.D. pundit' who strives to be on CNN, Fox or
MSNBC." The desire to be heard is powerful, and no doubt, a large number of African American academics would like broader pulpits, so to speak.
Melissa Harris-Perry remains a college professor, but she is now most widely known as a television host. Political activist Al Sharpton is the host of PoliticsNation with Al Sharpton on MSNBC. During what appeared to be a Golden Age of black public intellectuals, high profile figures made occasional appearances here and there and received considerable media attention. Now, a number of figures have set time slots, and the position of television host or co-host seems to be a more fixed goal in a way that was not the case 10 and 20 years ago.
During the 1990s, academics drew wide attention in part based on their compelling writings. For some reason, relatively few recent publications by academics have drawn the type of mass appeal of West's Race Matters, bell hooks's Ain't I a Woman, Gates's The Signifying Monkey, or other works produced a couple of decades ago. In addition, few black writers have developed the kind of active following of a Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blog at The Atlantic has made him one of our most prominent African American cultural commentators.
• Were the 1990s a Golden Age for (some) Black Public Intellectuals?
• Popular Publications by Black Public Intellectuals, 1981 - 1999
• Black Intellectual Histories