Saturday, October 5, 2013

From Cornel West to Ta-Nehisi Coates: Shifts in the idea of Black Male Public Intellectuals

During the mid to late 1990s around the time I began undergrad, I noticed the growing coverage of "black public intellectuals," the phrase used to refer to some highly visible African American academics, commentators, and artists.  Among those frequently mentioned were Cornel West, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Michael Dyson. West was particularly prominent, based on a combination of factors--his popular book Race Matters, his vibrant intellect, his charisma, and his signature afro.

Since at least the fall of 2008, journalist and blogger Ta-Nehisi Coates has been the "black public intellectual" that I've followed most closely and consistently. Of course, black public intellectual might not be the phrase we'd use these days, and maybe the formal academic and university credentials associated with PhDs like West, bell hooks, Gates, and others prevents us from referring to journalists/bloggers as intellectuals. Still, Coates's musings, analyses, and coverage concerning a wide range of "race matters," pop culture, and politics  in public venues resemble all the features that folks used to associate with those intellectuals. Of course, there are some key differences as well.

Early on, West built a following from the ranks of college students and academics employed at universities. When his book Race Matters was published, the work was read, discussed, and assigned on college campuses across the U.S., and West became a really popular invited speaker on campuses. Eventually, he left Princeton to work at Harvard and become a part of Gates's famed "dream team" of black public intellectuals.  

Coates had been a journalist for years prior to 2008, but becoming a blogger for The Atlantic during the Presidential primary and campaign was a major professional breakthrough. He became one of the relatively few black bloggers at a high profile magazine and thus had an especially visible platform to discuss a range of issues pertaining to race, and more specifically black people.  Clearly, Coates was and is not the only thoughtful African American journalist and blogger. Yet, few have the institutional backing and visibly that he has with a venerable magazine like The Atlantic. By the way, an article "The New Intellectuals" in The Atlantic (then known as The Atlantic Monthly) helped spark that conversation in the 1990s about "black public intellectuals."

From the standpoint of generation, much separates West (b. 1953) and Coates (b. 1975). One is viewed as an academic/intellectual. The other is defined as a journalist/blogger. Thus, their most consistent institutional support has come from different places: from American universities for West, and from newspapers and magazines for Coates, though he has been doing a teaching gig at MIT the last year or so. West has long demonstrated a high regard for MLK and philosophy, his main field of study.  Coates, on the other hand, seems to prefer Malcolm and the lessons one gains from rap music, oh, and the Civil War

Cornel West authored several publications over the years, but his public presentations and persona have really been central to his identity as a black public intellectual. Coates, on the other hand, has not been particularly drawn to public speaking. He prefers to write, and does so often--publishing approximately 3 blog entries per day Monday - Friday between the fall of 2008 and 2012. He's somewhat slowed his pace over the last year.

Among various other similarities, West and Coates have offered critiques of Barack Obama over the years,
though Coates has not been defined by his assessments of Obama the way West has. Given the sheer volume of Coates's non-Obama writings, he escapes being only linked to Obama discourse in a way that is a little more difficult for West and his frequent collaborator Tavis Smiley. West has produced a tremendous body of works over the decades, but I sense and fear that these days many "new" readers know him primary based on his critiques of Obama. 

If we are inclined to define Coates as a black public intellectual, then a major difference between West and him might be their most prominent mediums of expressions: writing vs. speaking. And again, I recognize that West has been a prolific academic writer over the years. Yet, his charisma , persona, and public speaking appearances have been far more central to his popular cultural identity. Conversely, while Coates has appeared on television programs as a commentator and although he speaks at events on college campuses, his identity as a journalist and blogger have been vital to why and how audiences know him.  

Coates's medium of blogging has made his writings and ideas available to me on a daily that is less likely with West, but I imagine that the different kind of blog-less reading I was doing back in 1995 and 1996, which included Race Matters, helped me establish the framework that allows me to keep up with the range of topics Coates covers now.  

Black Intellectual Histories 
Ta-Nehisi Coates 

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