The previous week has occasioned serious reflections on the idea of public intellectuals. Two events have contributed to this: first, the Ta-Nehisi Coates post that argued for Melissa Harris-Perry as America’s “foremost public intellectual”, and second, the death of poet and activist Amiri Baraka. Both events called for people to consider ideas about African American intellectuals in the public sphere, and how those individuals carve a space for themselves. While the situations are profoundly different, there is something to think about when comparing Baraka’s place as a public intellectual in the late 1960s, versus Harris-Perry and present-day notions of public intellectuals.
With Baraka’s death come obituaries that consider his place in the pantheon of African American intellectuals and artists. I think the Dissent piece on his life, published in 2002 and written by Scott Sherman, was the best review of his life I’ve seen published anywhere. Although written well before his death, it still covers Baraka’s many complexities as an artist, activist, and intellectual. Sherman’s essay reminds us that Baraka went through several ideological turns in his life: from a Bohemian poet, to Black nationalist, finally ending up by the 1980s as a Marxist revolutionary. Recent historiography on the Black Power/Civil Rights era offers some interesting points to consider.
Daniel Matlin’s On the Corner chronicles the creation of a certain type of Black public intellectual, unique to the late 1960s: the “urban crisis” intellectual. He covers the career fortunes of three individuals in particular: Amiri Baraka, Kenneth Clark, and Romare Bearden. While all were proclaimed as public intellectuals for different types of work (Baraka for his plays and poetry, Clark for his sociological work, and Bearden for his artwork), the three individuals became go-to public intellectuals when it came to the urban crisis of the late 1960s. Baraka’s ability to capture the depths of Black rage and despair during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement made him the perfect spokesperson. Yet we can’t separate his importance from the moment in which he was writing.
Perhaps, if I may be so bold, this was the point Coates attempted to make in his blog post last week. I’d agree with many others that Harris-Perry is not America’s foremost public intellectual. Yet, I find myself struggling to think of anyone who can hold that mantle. With a fractured media, cultural, and intellectual environment, the idea of public intellectuals in the early 21st century is something that is harder to identify today. In the late 1960s, of course, it was a bit easier to identify who was a public intellectual. People such as William F. Buckley, Gore Vidal, Noam Chomsky, James Baldwin, and Betty Friedan all come to mind. (And if anyone quibbles with that list, I’d be more than happy to talk about it in the comments section for sure.) But with the onset of urban rioting in the middle of the 1960s, figures such as Clark and Baraka came to prominence because, it seemed to many, they had something new and unique to say about Blacks in the urban North and West.
It will be interesting to see how historians interpret the intellectual and cultural moment of the early 21st century. In regards to President Obama’s time in office, perhaps Dr. Harris-Perry will be seen in the same light as Clark and Baraka were in the late 1960s: someone suited to speak to that era. Her published works, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought (published in 2004) and Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (2011) both tackle issues of race, gender, and politics that are important to understanding Black political ideologies in the post-Civil Rights era. Of course, most people know Harris-Perry best for her MSNBC show, and aren’t as familiar with her published academic monographs. Nonetheless, in the polarized intellectual environment of 2014, it becomes all the more important to be willing to look to a variety of figures as “public intellectuals”, including of course both Coates and Harris-Perry. But we must be willing to realize that, in 2014, there are many figures who could qualify as public intellectuals. As for a list of foremost public intellectuals, however, that may be more difficult to conceive in this day and age. This is, of course, in no way comparing Baraka and Harris-Perry as public intellectuals. Harris-Perry’s roots in the academy are far different from those of Baraka in the world of arts. And, there’s the differences in the public sphere to consider, with Harris-Perry and her cable show versus Baraka and the public sphere of the 1960s. Those differences are influenced by technology, but also by changing tastes in what the public consumes media-wise.
One final thought: looking at obituaries of Baraka, I can’t help but think of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s fantastic work (in the most recent issue of Dissent) about obituaries of public intellectuals. Her argument that “obituaries are sites of remembrance” is important to keep in mind with Baraka. He was a complex figure, a man who wrote some of the best work on the Black experience in the 1960s, yet was also capable of severe anti-Semitism and misogyny in his work. This is, in no way, a suggestion that he was a man of contradiction. He was just, quite simply, a man, capable of producing both fantastic art and cruel, rigidly ideological statements. As for Harris-Perry, I can’t render a full and impartial judgment on her impact as a public intellectual. But I look forward to someday reading what other scholars have to say about her, and other public intellectuals of this era, years (probably decades) from now.