Reflections on African American Intellectual History

*This post is part of our online forum titled “What is African American Intellectual History?

Researchers using the Schomburg Collection, 1938 (New York Public Library).

In the mid-1970s when the study of African American history was gaining unprecedented interest in the mainstream U.S. historical profession and when some practitioners of U.S. intellectual history were seeking to revitalize their enterprise as epitomized by the publication of the anthology New Directions in American Intellectual History (1979), slavery historian John W. Blassingame suggested to readers of Reviews in American History that African American intellectual history—which he did not specifically define—was a “neglected field.” Two decades later, John Hope Franklin echoed Blassingame’s concerns. Unlike Blassingame, Franklin did provide a definition of Black intellectual history, however vague it might have been.  For him, this field of historical inquiry entailed the “critical examination of what the group—historians, novelists, theologians, sociologists, psychologists, and others—were thinking and saying.”1  Long before Franklin and even Blassingame imparted their observations, plenty of scholars, especially African American historians, were engaged in what could be construed as what we now often conventionally and imprecisely call African American intellectual history.

In what follows, I evoke political scientist Adolph Reed Jr. and literary scholar Kenneth W. Warren’s keen observation (a refreshing nod to the historiographer’s craft) that the “academic practice of intellectual history is itself a historical phenomenon” by briefly revisiting a largely forgotten tome by historian, clergyman, and longtime professor at North Carolina Central University Earl E. Thorpe (1924-1989).2  I also offer some unadorned and elemental thoughts on Black intellectual history.

In 1961, Thorpe authored The Mind of the Negro: An Intellectual History of Afro-Americans, a relatively obscure and largely ignored, yet cerebral and ambitious book.  He confessed that his work was one of broad strokes, yet insisted that it was nonetheless the first study to attempt to “analyze the Negro mind in the United States.” For Thorpe, Black intellectual history essentially amounted to the musings and ideas of African Americans (unsurprisingly mainly men) since the “age of slavery.” Because like his white American counterparts he focused on the written record, he prioritized those documented beliefs and viewpoints of so-called “articulate” Blacks. As a result, the origins of the “intellectual history of Afro-Americans” for Thorpe began primarily with those free Black men who were active in the abolition and convention movements. Like his male predecessors and contemporaries, he perpetuated what we today certainly consider an archaic male-centered view of Black intellectual history. At the most basic level, Thorpe surmised that there were two central themes of Black intellectual history: the “quest for freedom” and “defending the race against the charge of biological and racial inferiority.” Echoing Ralph Bunche, Gunnar Myrdal, and August Meier, Thorpe argued, “Negro thought is basically accommodation and attack thought.”3

A close reading of The Mind of the Negro, however, reveals that Thorpe also subtly identified two different conceptualizations of Black intellectual history as a field, notions that are still worth debating, revising, and explicating. On the one hand, it was the history of African Americans’ collective consciousness and analyses of their conditions during various time periods. On the other hand, he envisioned Black intellectual history as constituting the history of the worldviews of African American thinkers who left behind meaningful writings. He likewise argued that African Americans’ beliefs were diverse and the perception of a singular “Negro mind” per se did not, and never would, really exist (something that is ever so obvious today). “The existence of groups or classes” within African American society, Thorpe cautioned, “indicates that one might more rationally entitle an intellectual history of the race, ‘The Minds of the Negro.’”4 During the middling years of the modern civil rights movement, Thorpe also accurately maintained that U.S. intellectual history was in its infancy and pointed out that white historians active in this subfield had largely neglected African American thinkers’ ideas. A decade into the twenty-first century, philosopher Lewis R. Gordon reiterated Thorpe’s sentiments, suggesting that there still existed “the tendency to deintellectualize African and black intellectual history.”5

That Thorpe did not concentrate on formulating a nuanced philosophy of African American intellectual history in The Mind of the Negro, published more than five decades ago, is unsurprising. Such theorization, however minimal, would come later in the evolution of African American historiography. Even though there is an abundance of scholarship on what could be classified as constituting Black intellectual history in the broadest sense of the field’s scope, it could be argued that the specific field of Black intellectual history per se in the twenty-first century is still under-theorized. The delayed evolution of explicit theorizations of African American intellectual history, when compared to mainstream American intellectual history, has much to do with the peculiar evolution of African American history. Simply put, prior to the civil rights-Black Power movement and earlier, explicit theorization of sub-fields was not a crucial task for Black historians. They had more pressing concerns, many of which were identified and addressed during the early Black history movement.

For the last several decades, numerous historians have produced scholarship that could be considered Black intellectual history (the biographical tradition being among the most popular genres). Intellectual history—in unembellished terms, the history of ideas and of those who formulated, articulated, and documented their thoughts in different time periods and varying contexts—is a foundational subspecialty of African American history. Since its earliest expressions, those who have practiced Black intellectual history have, broadly speaking, been concerned with explaining how African American spokespersons have pondered and written about the unique status of their people that has been primarily characterized by varied forms of racial oppression.

The periodization of African American intellectual history is starkly different than that of its mainstream American counterpart. Including African Americans in the pantheon of American intellectuals significantly complicates how the totality of U.S. intellectual history is understood and described. Black intellectual history, moreover, has its own distinct creation story, evolution, and subspecialties and possesses what W.E.B. Du Bois called a sense of “two-ness” or duality. It can be considered a part of American intellectual history, yet its distinctiveness warrants that it be its own freestanding field. Still and all, in order for U.S. intellectual history to be complete, African American subject matter must be considered and in some cases centered.

Recently, the founders of the Black Women’s Intellectual and Cultural History Collective (BWICH) have called for a major reframing of Black intellectual history that serves as a corrective to Thorpe’s and others’ work. The editors of Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women (2015) argue that Black women have all too often been examined as “the objects of intellectual activity” and not as “the producers of knowledge.” They add: “The field of intellectual history has until now resisted embracing the implications of the new work on African American women.” In essence, they call for “the intellectual history of black women writ large” that recognizes its diversity in the United States and the African diaspora. Like their predecessors who researched dimensions of Black women’s history three and a half decades earlier, they consider their scholarship to be “the work of recovery.” For the members of BWICH, Black women’s intellectual history constitutes a “new history of ideas” or “intellectual history ‘black woman-style,’ an approach that understands ideas as necessarily produced in dialogue with lived experiences and always inflected by the social facts of race, class, and gender.”6 Because through much of the twentieth century Black women have been systemically excluded from political spheres and academic spaces, the scholars of Black women’s intellectual history must search for their subjects’ ideas in unconventional sources and spaces. The Black women’s intellectual history described and called for in Toward an Intellectual History of Black Women can provide new and refreshing directions in Black intellectual history.

More scholarly production in the field of African American intellectual history—in its various incarnations—is warranted.  Returning to issues raised by scholars who have explicitly sought to define Black intellectual history like Thorpe, the field can be conceived as the analysis of all African Americans from various time periods who possessed and expressed ideas in various formats and/or the unpacking of the writings, musings, and speeches of Black scholars, leaders, spokespersons, and personalities who spent their lives thinking and sharing their ideas with a broader public. This latter group could be thought of as intellectuals by vocation or profession. In dealing with this group who more often than not tends to be the subject of conventional Black intellectual history, their documented thoughts should be carefully read and re-read by the practitioner as if they are the coveted primary documents for which social historians often search day and night.

African American intellectual history, by name, has recently been memorialized and reinvigorated by the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). As we continue on into the new millennium, I humbly suggest that it is the duty of the scholar of Black intellectual history to explore their subjects’ thought within the particular historical contexts that shaped their identities, to determine the trends and diversity of thought during the historical moments that molded their subjects, to historicize their subjects’ ideologies and worldviews, to adopt a transdisciplinary approach, to translate into a twenty-first century language what their subjects were thinking, and in the tradition of pragmatic Black Studies to strive to make the ideas of past thinkers, when relevant, useful to our understanding of the present. 

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

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