U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Amiri Baraka, Melissa Harris-Perry, and Public Intellectuals in Recent American History

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.

19 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Thanks for this Robert. My knowledge of the pantheon of contemporary black public intellectuals—meaning its full range—is limited. I’ve learned a lot over the past 3-4 years following the work of Coates and reading in H.L. Gates’ writings. Baraka’s death has, as such, been another experience in learning for me. And I knew very little about Melissa Harris-Perry before this recent kerfuffle (mostly because we’ve only subscribed to cable for two years, 2010-12, in the last 10). Then again, I don’t consciously seek out the writings of intellectuals by race or ethnicity. I run into people by topics of interest. Since Gates, for instance, has written extensively on the canon, it was a foregone conclusion I’d read deeper into his work. – TL

    • Indeed. And that’s something that we should all consider in regards to who’s a “public intellectual”. Gates comes up in that conversation because he seems to be almost everywhere—especially when there’s a show about race on PBS. Baraka became well known in the late 1960s precisely because of the historical moment.

      • So, a characteristic of the “public intellectual” is diversity in thought—the ability to demonstrate relevant thought on a number of subjects.

  2. One man’s public intellectual is another man’s…well, whatever.

    Whatever he called himself — and he certainly blended black nationalism with Marxism — one thing was constant. He was a bitter, vile and open anti-Semite, who hated Jews over and above anything else he believed. The Times, of course, says only that his works “were periodically accused of being anti-Semitic, misogynist, homophobic, racist, isolationist and dangerously militant.”

    Note that slippery word “accused,” with the implication that of course conservative, white and deluded right-wingers would make such a spurious charge.

    At least the obit included the judgment of Stanley Crouch — a black man who, like Baraka, wrote about jazz and blues, but who is the polar opposite of Baraka. Crouch said that his writing was “an incoherent mix of racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, black nationalism, anarchy and ad hominem attacks relying on comic book and horror film characters and images that he has used over and over and over.”

    –Ron Radosh @ http://pjmedia.com/ronradosh/2014/01/09/amiri-barakas-death/

  3. Yeah, I’m glad you brought that up. And it was something I was trying to get at as well in the final paragraph of my piece.

    At the same time, though, talking about the late 1960s and debates over Black Power and the urban crisis, you have to mention Baraka as a key figure. But every obit of Baraka has to include these vile things that Baraka said. One of the many sad things about Baraka (and, frankly, far too many other figures in Black Power) was his anti-Semitism and misogyny overshadowing any ideas he had about American society. One of the trends in recent Black Power historiography has been an acknowledgement of the many dumb things the more notable BP activists said and believed, while also trying to understand many other BP activists who debated the course of Black Power’s place in society.

  4. And as for Tim’s comment to my reply: I think you’re right. I see Gates so much in historical documentaries I keep forgetting he’s a professor of literature!

  5. Robert: thanks for this. Baraka was a genius and a provocateur.

    As a lifelong Jewish fan of Baraka’s work, I am troubled by the implications of so many obituaries that his provocations were not situated and complicated–often embedded in the dialogue of fictional characters in old plays. [NB: How many Norman Podhoretz obits will be headlined “anti-Black racist Norman Podhoretz dies”? And his offenses have always taken the form of clear expressions of his own sincere inner thoughts].

    90 percent of what critics use as evidence of Baraka’s anti-Semitism could be used, analogically, to convict an artist like Quentin Tarantino of white supremacist commitments. AB, like QT, was hardly perfect on race matters, but to file them as simple “racists” in this way–as if AB was the equivalent of Skrewdriver or QT the equivalent of the V-DARE site– is to badly mislabel things and rob important terms of their meanings.

    Most importantly, Baraka changed his mind, publicly. He grew. He came to embrace, for example, queer politics later in life. How many intellectuals model such growth in their final acts?

    It’s not perfect. It doesn’t erase earlier things that are problematic. But it’s much more admirable than the alternative. And it is remarkably rare.

    Finally, compare the moral outrage re: some lines of Baraka’s writing from the 1960s with the generalized lack thereof re: the lives rubbished by Ariel Sharon. Such an operation would seem to amplify and complicate what JRR tells us about obituaries as a form of popular memory and politics.

    • Thanks for this wonderful comment. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m still diving deeper and deeper into what Baraka had to say about a variety of subjects, including Jewish Americans and queer politics. I’ve noticed on Twitter there’s already been some serious debates about the emphasis on Baraka’s statements on Jewish Americans, and how much this should be focused on as part of his larger biography as a public intellectual and activist.

      And about the obituaries, you’re certainly right that battles over memory are taking place in these obits for both Baraka and Sharon.

  6. It’s quite interesting to think of Harris-Parry as a public intellectual, which she obviously is, beyond the actual quality of her intellectual interventions, academic or otherwise. I see Harris-Parry as the full-fledged mass media intellectual, as a savvy figure inscribed in both the politics and economics of MSNBC. And to further grasp her place one would of course have to address her harsh critiques of other people of color, especially African American public figures like West and Smiley, who have criticized (rightly in my view) the Obama administration for not doing much for peoples of color nor the poor in general, and for perpetuating civil rights abuses, the drone war, etc.

    Regarding Baraka, I agree with Kurt’s assessment–it is essential to take into consideration the particular politics of representation in his work; to what uses certain figures are used in his poetry and theater. This doesn’t mean obviating the problematic character of such representations, of course, but to consider the aesthetics of Baraka seriously, instead of reducing it to mere polemic by focusing on one verse or two, extricating it from their context. Even in
    the not so poetic screed “Somebody Blew America,” definitely a low point in his career, the accusation of anti-Semitism founders when one reads it carefully. The “who” at the root of “evil” is not the Jewish subject, but a virtually all-inclusive “who’s who” of empire and capitalism, which, yes, includes Israel according to the poetic voice, but is also accused of creating Hitler and the death of “most Jews.”

    • Thanks for the as always insightful comment. You raise some good points in terms of discussing both Baraka’s poetry, and Harris-Perry’s debates with West and Smiley. I think that divide among black public intellectuals will be something historians will wrestle with in the future, esp. if they’re discussing the “black public sphere” or the arguments amongst American liberals during the Obama presidency.

      • Following up on Tom’s polemical register, perhaps one might want to include in this discussion the idea of the counterpublic, alternative publics, etc., a la Michael Warner.

    • I see Harris-Parry as the full-fledged mass media intellectual, as a savvy figure inscribed in both the politics and economics of MSNBC.

      Sarah Palin is “savvy.”

      As for what “full-fledged” might mean, I struggle with the definition of “public” in “intellectual.”

      It’s a sliding scale between “public” and “intellectual.” A weekend show on cable backwater MSNBC that garners a few hundred thousand does not even move the meter in a nation of 300 million.

      FTR, the righties eat her up, and wish she had greater ratings.


      A successful partisan technique is to harp on the excesses of the other side. If the public actually knew who she is, Melissa Harris-Perry would win more votes for the other side.

      • I think to construct the idea of a public in terms of numbers is not effective, it ends up producing a hierarchy of value that is not helpful in terms of reading how intellectuals intervene in the public sphere, namely beyond academic research and teaching. Harris-Perry is definitely savvy in negotiating b/w different audiences within the so called liberal sphere. Starting with her articles in The Nation, she has positioned herself very smoothly against the Wests and Smileys of the world (and definitely against the actual radicals, such as the Black Agenda Report peeps). And she includes in her programs scholars who are definitely to the left of her own positions.

  7. When discussing African American intellectuals, it’s important to take into account the long tradition and institution of race men, a self-appointed black male coterie that assumed the mantel of leadership to further the struggle for racial emancipation. Characterized by a vanguard of intellectuals, the race men tradition defined the ways black males positioned themselves as the community’s exemplary representatives. These black men assumed intellectual celebrity as they defended black collectivities against the onslaughts of a white world that not so much as throttled the hopes of black people as denied them their humanity.
    African American Studies scholar Hazel V. Carby defines the race men tradition as follows: “Black people have had to prove, actively and consistently, that they were not the inferior beings that their status as second class citizens declared them to be: hence an aggressive demonstration of their superiority in some field of achievement, either individually or collectively, was what established race pride: ‘the success of one Negro was interpreted as the success of all’” (Hazel V. Carby, Race Men , 4).
    It would be interesting to read Amiri Baraka’s standing in the public sphere in relation to the 1960s milieu of black self-assertion in the arts, politics and culture, which forms a continuum with a tradition of race men dating back to Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Dubois among others.
    Side note: I don’t completely believe that fragmentation in the media obviates people’s ability identify African American public intellectuals. For example, I would consider Glenn Ford from Black Agenda Report as continuing what Cedric Robinson defined in Black Marxism as the Black Radical Tradition…

    • Excellent point. It’s also important to take note of the class divide between the people these intellectuals sought and continue to seek to represent as a totality, as a vanguard. Warren’s What Was African American Literature? touches wonderfully on this dilemma.

  8. Nice article, Robert, and a great discussion.

    This is probably too tangential to be of much relevance, but after reading Ratner-Rosenhagen’s wonderful article, I thought of the Max Planck line, “Science advances funeral by funeral,” having encountered it awhile back while reading David Warsh’s Knowledge and the Growth of Nations. [32]

    In any case, I am wondering — if science advances less by people changing how they’ve learned to think about and practice it, and more by generational succession, how might that compare with whatever “lessons” might be extracted from the lives and obituaries of intellectuals, public or otherwise?

    In Planck’s account, science is a social, a collective enterprise, with death the sine qua non of progress, while the implication in Jennifer’s beautifully written piece is that, at least in this regard, intellectual historians, whether at the moment alive or dead, constitute more a collection than a collective. Yes, they derive comfort and inspiration from their shared existential conditions of life — including their manifold contextual determinations — but I couldn’t see a hint of anything analogous to the progress of science: apparently, that’s a story that can’t now be told.

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