Earlier in the week, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote a blog entry "The Smartest Nerd in the Room" referring, at one point, to Melissa Harris-Perry as "America's most foremost public intellectual." As is always the case when one person notes a "top" in as field, some people pushed back against Coates's designation. Journalist Dylan Byers, though, stepped into the territory of insult when he wrote that Coates's claim about Harris-Perry "undermines his intellectual cred, no?" Coates followed up with "What It Means to Be a Public Intellectual."
The exchange and some of the responses were somewhat interesting, and it occurred to me that in the mentions of "public intellectual," hardly anyone said "black public intellectual," a phrase that had been quite popular some years ago. In fact, one reason that Harris-Perry is designated a public intellectual is because of how much the phrase "black public intellectual" haunts the discourse about intelligent black people who speak in the public discourse.
Everyone knows, for instance, that Chris Hayes, Erza Klein, Nate Silver, and Rachel Maddow, for instance, are all smart and academic. But their lineage to the label "public intellectual" does not operate the same way for them. It's also true that they began in journalism, while Harris-Perry( and Al Sharpton) took non-journalist routes to their positions. In many respects, Harris-Perry's as well as Coates's appeal are based on developments that were central to the idea of "black public intellectuals."
You might recall that it was The Atlantic (back then referred to as The Atlantic Monthly) that really helped initiate a national discussion about black public intellectuals back in 1995. (You could back much further in The Atlantic Monthly and see Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. DuBois presenting ideas there in the late 19th century). During the 1990s, the most prevalent figures in discussions of black intellectuals were Cornel West, bell hooks, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and to a degree, Michael Eric Dyson. There was often some push-back about those intellectuals, perhaps most notably from Adolph Reed, Jr.
Back then, black public intellectuals were almost always linked to elite universities. It’s also worth noting that back then, the most familiar “products” of black public intellectual were their books and speeches on college campuses or at other venues (some folks probably remember Tavis Smiley's "State of the Black Union" town-halls beginning in 2000). West, bell hooks, and Gates all had signature books. There were all kinds of writings, media coverage, and conferences about the meaning of "black public intellectuals." Oh, and Harvard was central in the whole discourse on black public intellectuals because of the attention that Gates had gained concerning African American Studies and by assembling a "Dream Team" of intellectuals there. By a number of measures, the 1990s were, as I've noted before, a golden age for (some) black public intellectuals.
But things change.
Among other things, the landscapes for transmitting and receiving ideas have dramatically shifted over the last several years. Sure, Gates and Harvard still matter (in really big ways), but a whole new cast of prominent black people arrived on the scene, most notably of course was Barack Obama.
It's appropriate to mention Obama here now because his own rise helped advance the visibility of Coates and Harris-Perry. Remember that one of Harris-Perry's early important moments was her take-down of Gloria Steinem on an episode of Democracy Now in a disagreement over Hillary Clinton and Obama. That moment was key in the sense that: 1.) it brought Harris-Perry considerable attention as a new voice willing to dismiss an elder revered feminist, and 2.) it was also important in the sense that black feminist critiques of the supposed oversights of white feminists resonated in really deep ways historically (that critique, for instance, runs throughout bell hooks's early works and is what helped endear her to both white and black feminists; no doubt, her writings were influential for Harris-Perry).
During the Democratic primaries back in 2008, Harris-Perry became an increasingly visible commentator, which resulted in her eventually writing a column for The Nation and making appearances on MSNBC.
Coates began blogging for The Atlantic in the fall of 2008, and although he addressed several different topics, he was especially active covering discussions related to the primaries and later the election of Obama. (Not surprisingly, one of Coates's most well-known long-form pieces was "Fear of a Black President;" I say not surprisingly because part of what made the reporting and writing so solid for the article was based on how long Coates had been working through the ideas. Really, one of the cool things about following TNC over a long period of time is that you get to see him publicly working through multiple perspectives on a subject.).
For some reason (which I'll need to address in some future entry), by the time Obama was making his rise, the label "black public intellectual" had already been on a decline. Notably, media platforms had changed; whereas Cornel West and bell hooks had won audiences through books, like Race Matters and Ain't I a Woman, respectively, people were now building followers through blogs, appearances within the whole "talking head" circuit on news programs,
To be heard on a consistent basis in these new environments meant that more than having an university home, one needed a media home. It meant being journalistic, not just academic and intellectual. One had to be a facilitator of conversations (something Coates and Harris-Perry excel at in their respective fields) and not simply a spokesperson or dynamic speaker, which had characterized popular definitions of those black pubic intellectuals of the late 1980s and through the 1990s. [And of course, those conversations about the promise and shortcomings of black intellectuals were haunted by Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967)].
Harris-Perry and Coates would have been in their early 20s as the discussions around these black public intellectuals were reaching a peak during the late 1990s.They were probably aware of some of the same conversations that were taking place across black (intellectual and activist) communities. They were also young enough to take advantage of the changes that would take place over the last several years.
One place where Harris-Perry and Coates diverge is on their thoughts concerning Obama. Coates has no problem offering critiques of the President. Harris-Perry is more reluctant to do so, and that could be because MSNBC tends to lean toward the Democratic Party. It's also true that Coates is linked, on the one hand, to a black militant tradition, and on the other hand, to aspects of contemporary progressive moments (somewhat evidenced in his engagements with commenters), all of which helps explain why he's more open to really critiquing Obama.
Oh, there's also obviously something gendered going on too. Obama's sometimes unfortunate habit of talking at, about, and (sigh) down to black men prompts brothers to push-back in notable ways, as Coates did after Obama's speech at Morehouse.
All kinds of viewers admire Harris-Perry. But she has built an especially strong following among black women, whose viewing interests have been neglected for far too long in mainstream media and entertainment (this also helps explain some of the appeal of the fictional Olivia Pope from Scandal, by the way). As a professor, Harris-Perry is one of the relatively few black women academics that is on such a high profile platform.
I notice a large number of young black women academics I follow on twitter often express admiring comments toward Harris-Perry and her show's hashtag #nerdland. That admiration is linked to a cultural and intellectual lineage that includes, among others, bell hooks.
Although he covers a range of issues, Coates is still often cited on “race matters.” But he still very much defines himself as a journalist, a field whose practitioners (including Coates) would necessarily want to avoid the label “public intellectual” for themselves. But given that Coates is one of the few black commentators at a major newspapers and one of the most frequent black guest columnists for The New York Times over the last couple of years, it's difficult not to view him as a kind of black public intellectual.
Coates and Harris-Perry are both really talented and deserving of the praise and recognition they receive. As most folks know, I've been writing about Coates's work for some time here. But it's also worth noting that one thing that makes these special figures, including black public intellectuals, so special relates to the fact that the larger, high-profile marketplaces for cultural exchange present us with so few choices -- a feature of the continuing sagas.
• Black Intellectual Histories