U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Historical Materialist Approaches to Black Intellectual History

This post, the first of my now regular Friday posts, serves as my reflections on the first plenary of the Third Annual U.S. Intellectual Conference, on Renewing Black Intellectual History. Adolph Reed, Jr., Kenneth Warren, and Dean Robinson were the panelists.

To be quite honest, the session got off to a slower start than I anticipated. Being quite familiar with the work of Reed, the first speaker, I expected his usual brilliant polemics. Instead, he patiently discussed the origins of the collection Renewing Black Intellectual History, which he edited alongside his friend Warren. It seems that the book arose from several bitch sessions at Hyde Park watering holes. Reed and Warren were disgusted with the non-materialist approach to black intellectual history, the types of approaches they thought dominated African-American Studies programs during the 1980s and 1990s, which emphasized culturalism and deemphasized political economy. They desired stronger contextual analysis. Racism is protean in character and needs to be posited contextually.

Dean Robinson spoke from his contribution to the collection, a distillation of his 2001 book, Black Nationalism in American Politics and Thought. Robinson is critical of treatment of Black Nationalism that ignores political failure and emphasizes cultural success. He particularly mentioned the work of William Van Deburg and Peniel Joseph for this type of faulty analysis, which he sees as a reversal of Harold Cruse. Robinson and his fellow panelists find black politics—and left politics—lamentable in its current state, because activists and intellectuals tend to think about politics as performance of the self, instead of as strategic thinking. These are valuable points and I was happy to hear them, in spite of the aforementioned slow start.

The session picked up steam in the Q&A. The first question was posed by Randal Jelks, who wanted to know why the collection did not include a single essay on black religious thought, a curious omission considering the centrality of religion to African-American history. Jelks implied, I think, that Reed and Warren ignore religion because they dislike it. I’m not sure if this is true or not, but I wish this would have been explored in more depth. Reed replied to Jelks that he did not think an essay on religion would have altered the central messages of the book. But Reed has long been critical of what he considers an over-emphasis on religious leaders in relation to the civil rights movement, dating back to his book on Jesse Jackson. I wish this would have been discussed more polemically and less cryptically. I think it might have shed light on Reed’s historical materialism, which ultimately informs his longtime criticism of Obama. Reed thinks that black political leaders, and all political leaders, are only as good as the movements they speak for.

Speaking of which: Kloppenberg referenced Reed’s 1996 critique of Obama. Here is that passage in its entirety for your reading pleasure, written shortly after Obama won his first Illinois state senate race:

“In Chicago, we’ve gotten a foretaste of the new breed of foundation-hatched black communitarian voices; one of them, a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics, has won a state senate seat on a base mainly in the liberal foundation and development worlds. His fundamentally bootstrap line was softened by a patina of the rhetoric of authentic community, talk about meeting in kitchens, small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance. I suspect that his ilk is the wave of the future in U.S. black politics, as in Haiti and wherever else the International Monetary Fund has sway. So far the black activist response hasn’t been up to the challenge. We have to do better.”

“The Curse of Community,” Village Voice, January 16, 1996—reprinted in Reed’s Class Notes: Posing as Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene (New Press, 2000).