Commentary: Is There a Dearth of Black Public Intellectuals?

Looking at Melissa Harris-Perry and how scholars of color can often be undervalued.

Posted: 01/15/2014 04:47 PM EST

When Politico’s Dylan Byers tweeted an apparent slam of both Ta-Nehisi Coates and Professor Melissa Harris-Perry in one fell swoop, the response from #BlackTwitter was swift and forceful. Byers questioned whether Coates was correct in his assessment that the tenured professor and MSNBC host is “America’s foremost public intellectual.” 

The dustup sparked a conversation about public intellectuals and can be a moment where we can establish what characteristics we value in our thought leaders, and more specifically the role of Black academics in uplifting and informing communities.

The fact that the mainstream media can undervalue the contributions of scholars of color is nothing new.

“I think Dylan Byers’s comments are part of a long tradition of both white people and men (and intersections thereof) ignoring Black women's intellectual production,” Dr. Brittney Cooper, an assistant professor of women, gender and Africana studies, told BET.com. “Clearly Melissa Harris-Perry is an intellectual, and though she might not be our foremost intellectual, she is certainly among the foremost. I think that goes without saying.”

The debate over the use of the word “foremost” is not as important as a conversation about the value of the Black academy and the work we all must do to truly value the contributions of people of color.

“There is certainly a dearth of high profile Black women academics. Plenty of Black male academics dominate the public sphere and public consciousness. Black women have had a harder time building the kind of platform enjoyed by bell hooks and Melissa Harris-Perry,” Cooper says. “That has to do both with good ole American sexism, but also a failure among some Black male academics who do have certain kinds of power to mentor and open doors for Black women.” 

Harris-Perry is valued precisely because she has an uncanny ability to boil down the most complex concepts to make them understandable for a mainstream audience. Harris-Perry is at her best when she’s in full “nerdland” professor mode. 

“[Melissa Harris-Perry] is by far the most prominent Black public intellectual right now,” Dr. Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University and the director of the Tufts Center for Race and Democracy, told BET.com. “It’s reflexive racism that finds the idea of a Black intellectual to be oxymoronic that discounts that she is a well-trained political scientist and tenured professor. One of the things that happens is that we often forget that there are a critical mass of Black academics that are dedicating their lives to this work and only a handful have received the recognition.” 

Right now, there isn’t really a pipeline of Black academics with direct access to the national media. So it is hard for Black academics to facilitate long-form conversations nationally, on important issues like race, gender, feminism, LGBT rights and immigration. High-profile scholars like Professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West are only among a handful of academics to break through. Many Black academics are engaging local communities in these conversations, but are not yet on the national stage. 

“We are at an interesting moment,” Dr. Peniel Joseph, a professor of history at Tufts University  and the director of the Tufts Center for Race and Democracy, told BET.com. “I grew up when a certain wave of Black intellectuals came of age, so for me there have always been high profile Black public intellectuals. And historically, whether it be Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Skip Gates, bell hooks, or Michael Eric Dyson, for me there has always been space and room. That has changed somewhat and things have both closed and opened up for Black public intellectuals.”

Dr. Joseph’s own work on the issue of race and structural inequality is just one example of scholarly work breaking through. The center’s National Dialogue on Race Day will continue to be an annual event, in the hopes to bring the issue of inequality of outcomes as a result of colorblind racism to the forefront. Colorblind racism, the counterargument to the myth that we are living in a “post-racial” society under a President Barack Obama, is focused on growing social, economic and political disparities in outcomes, instead of overtly racist intent. Professor Gates has also broken through to the mainstream with a successful run of his PBS series The African-Americans: Many Rivers to Cross.

“People don’t know about [many Black academics] on a national level, but they speak at churches and community centers and so there is a difference between the mainstream academy and the general public and the Black academy and the Black community,” Joseph says. “And for many Black academics, whatever access they can get to bring the conversation into the national media, those opportunities are few aand far between.”

Public recognition is often the result of having a national platform to stand on like Harris-Perry has at MSNBC, where she’s able to wax on about political and social issues — and, of course, all things nerdy. But it’s also important to remember the work that scholars are doing at a local level and the conversations that they’re having within their Black communities. They may not be the “foremost” intellectuals, but their efforts are just as vital to the national conversation.

Zerlina Maxwell is a political analyst, writer and TV commentator. She has a B.A. in International Relations from Tufts University and a law degree from Rutgers School of Law. 

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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 (Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for GLAAD)

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