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Think Out Loud

An emerging black digital intelligentsia has embraced online technology to change American ideas

William B. Plowman/NBC/NBC Newswire/Getty

Twenty years ago, less than two years after I’d received my doctorate in religion from Princeton, I appeared with Cornel West, Derrick Bell, and bell hooks in an illustration accompanying an article in The New Yorker about the rise of a new generation of black public intellectuals. Those were heady times. “A new African American intelligentsia has become part of this country’s cultural landscape,” wrote literary scholar Michael Bérubé. “It’s a development as noticeable as the ascendancy of the New York intellectuals after the Second World War.” 

The comparison was apt. Like the New York intellectuals, we had come to prominence as a group, our race a defining feature of identification and struggle in the same way that their Jewishness had supplied inspiration and subject matter. Many New York intellectuals were leftists searching for a Marxist and anti-Stalinist alternative to Soviet communism; many black public intellectuals were also leftists, who grappled with the enchanting, if insular, siege of black nationalism while combating the unheroic ubiquity of  white supremacy. 

Both cohorts were decidedly public. The social and literary criticism of such New York intellectuals as Lionel Trilling, Edmund Wilson, Philip Rahv, Alfred Kazin, Mary McCarthy, Daniel Bell, and Irving Howe were published in the pages of political journals like Partisan Review, Dissent, and, before its 1970s ideological migration to the right, Commentary. If Irving Kristol, Sidney Hook, and Norman Podhoretz later pioneered the onset of neoconservatism, black public intellectuals like Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Shelby Steele bypassed progressive politics and embraced the stony irreverence  of its black conservative counterpart.

Black public intellectuals had our own literary outlets: magazines and journals like Reconstruction, Transition, and Emerge, among others. We published trade books, snagged lucrative speaking gigs, and appeared on highbrow and popular radio and television shows. “Whether lecturing in churches or testifying on Capitol Hill,” as Bérubé put it, we had “the burden and the blessing of a constituency, a public—which is something most so-called public intellectuals can only invoke.”

As with our New York predecessors, there was friction created by our ascension. Bérubé’s story, and a similar one published later that year by Robert Boynton in The Atlantic, inspired a slew of contrary responses (Sam Fulwood III, in the Los Angeles Times, touted a third renaissance—after the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement—of black scholars who were “the primary beneficiaries of the expansion of education and equal opportunity laws”); rebuttals (Michael Hanchard argued in The Nation that Jewish intellectuals weren’t our true precursors, but that instead we descended from a group of black thinkers who argued “over various crises within black communities in New York during the 1930s, ’40s, ’50s”); and, of course, disputes. In The Village Voice, Adolph Reed sneered at nearly every black intellectual cited in Bérubé’s essay, arguing that while “Baldwin and Ellison bristled at the Black Voice designation, today’s public intellectuals accept it gladly,” out of a meek, if convoluted, sense of Uncle Tomism. “Maintaining credibility with their real, white audience requires that they be authentically black, that their reports on the heart of darkness ring with verisimilitude.” Besides excoriating us for interpreting black life for white America, Reed accused us of lathering each other with praise: “[Henry Louis] Gates, West, and [Robin] Kelley lavish world-historical superlatives on Dyson, who, naturally enough, expresses comparable judgments about them.” (Ironically, Reed’s accusations of lost academic rigor, celebrity-mongering, and trading one’s intellectual integrity for book deals and assorted commercial inducements echoed my comments, published in the New Republic earlier this year, on West.)

Despite the similarities, there were crucial differences between the New York and black public intellectuals. For the most part, the New Yorkers were journalists and critics who wrote and thought outside of academia. We were nearly all scholars, the first generation of black thinkers to gain broad access to the Ivy League and other elite institutions of higher education. Jewish intellectuals had been excluded from most elite colleges and universities until the late ’30s. They faced quotas because of deeply rooted prejudice—and because of the profound fear of the Jewish intellect. They were savaged by anti-Semitic tropes of greed and the lust for commercial control, and yet they were also viewed as bookish people who valued literacy and what Hannah Arendt famously called “the life of the mind.” The stereotypes used to define us were less flattering: Black people were uninterested in ideas and addicted to ignorance. Our public performance of intelligence—in the media and lecture halls and political forums—contradicted entrenched stereotypes of black stupidity. Paradoxically, our success gave rise to furious criticisms of sullied academic standards—affirmative action as devolution—and compromise of the scholarly craft.

Perhaps the most difficult notion for the mainstream to reckon with was that our generation of black intellectuals was not just racially representative but representative of the wider American intellectual enterprise. And when erudite and persuasive black public intellectuals began to hold forth on race, politics, and culture on Charlie Rose, or All Things Considered, or the opinion pages of The New York Times, we did far more than shatter the myth of black intellectual inferiority. We proved that, as with basketball and music, the dominant American thinkers were black. Which brings us to the present.

In 2013, Professor Eddie Glaude, chair of the Center for African American Studies at Princeton, argued  in The New York Times that black intellectuals ought to be “the moral conscience of their societies: that what we write, say, and do should reflect intelligent efforts to provide a critical account of who we take ourselves to be as a nation.” According to him, black intellectuals had failed in their responsibilities in this regard, to their communities and to a democracy undercut by race. We had in fact reached a “new nadir” for critical thought, one in which too many black intellectuals—those, he claims, who “can spin a phrase and offer a sound bite”—had collectively forgone the “hard work of thinking carefully in public about the crisis facing black America.” His prescription for the shortcomings of the digital age called for black thinkers—including himself, presumably—to “model the value of seriousness amid the white noise of our current media landscape.” These values could only be arrived at if black public intellectuals recommitted to reading and writing and cultivating the “habits of public intellectual work.” 

Glaude’s assessment of black intellectual life in America today was striking to me for many reasons, but none more so than this: The sort of work he called for was in fact being done, by many people, in many places, with great diligence and care. It just wasn’t being done by people like him or, to an extent, like me. A new generation had come onto the scene, with pedigrees that didn’t include terminal degrees, but who were driving the conversation nonetheless. Between the World and Me, which currently holds the second spot on the Times’ nonfiction best-seller list, was written not by a professor but a young black thinker who did not graduate from college: Ta-Nehisi Coates. Coates established his reputation not in scholarly publications but through popular blog posts and articles for The Atlantic

Along with Coates, a cohort of what I would like to call the “black digital intelligentsia” has emerged. They wrestle with ideas, stake out political territory, and lead, very much in the same way that my generation did, only without needing, or necessarily wanting, a home in the Ivy League—and by making their name online. They include, to name only a few, Jamelle Bouie at Slate, Nikole Hannah-Jones at The New York Times Magazine, Joy Reid at MSNBC, Jamilah Lemieux at Ebony, and the New Republic’s Jamil Smith. Brilliant, eloquent, deeply learned writers and thinkers, they contend with the issues of the day, online, on television, wherever they can. Academics haven’t disappeared, of course. Their influence, however, isn’t exclusively dependent on validation at the university level. Podcasts, blog posts, social media, and television shows are of vital importance for them. Among this number, I would also include Marc Lamont Hill, James Braxton Peterson, Brittney Cooper, Jelani Cobb, and Melissa Harris-Perry

This mixture of scholars and thinkers from outside the academy is nothing new. For every black scholar like the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier, author of The Black Bourgeoisie, or historian John Hope Franklin, who wrote From Slavery to Freedom, there was Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin; for every academic like St. Clair Drake, there was an independent thinker like Horace Cayton, who teamed with Drake to write Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City; for every Michelle Wallace and bell hooks in the academy, there was Carol Cooper and Jill Nelson outside it (although Nelson temporarily took up residence at the City College of New York); and for every Gerald Early, Kimberle Williams Crenshaw, and Patricia Williams in academia, there was Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, and Greg Tate in the trenches. 

Yet today’s black digital intelligentsia, both academic and otherwise, has found greater communion with its own members than earlier generations did, in large part, I believe, due to the impact of technology, especially the internet. Popular publications like Emerge may have brought scholars and thinkers together in the past, but the internet has provided far more outlets, and far greater likelihood of interaction. In the battle against police brutality, for example, activists from the Black Lives Matter movement have been able to forge direct links with black academics engaged in the intellectual resistance to the unjust use of authority by law enforcement. And a prominent black thinker with 250,000 Twitter followers has a better chance of opening a dialogue with her favorite academic than someone who, in the past, had just sent along a letter. 

Despite all the talk of the digital divide—the very real gulf that separates those with access to technology from the black and brown folk who lack it—the black digital intelligentsia has ingeniously used technology to extend and explore thought and fight injustice. Black folk, and particularly well-educated, elite black folk, have taken more quickly and creatively to technology than their white peers, and turned its myriad functions to our social and professional use. “Black Twitter” may be infamous for scorning white women like Rachel Dolezal who think they are black, but it has also pioneered the idea of hashtag activism, such as #SayHerName, which highlighted the invisibility of black women in discussions of police violence in black communities, or #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen, with its allusion to tensions between black and white feminists, to offer but two examples. 

The black digital intelligentsia uses blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and podcasts in the same way that intellectuals of my generation used publications, television, and speaking engagements: to fight social injustice, to channel black frustration with inequality, to combat white supremacy, to chastise the powers that be for their lack of principled public policies, to hold politicians accountable, to scold the disengagement of the elite, to tell as much of the truth as they can about the worlds they observe and occupy. This is perhaps the most pleasing contradiction of the internet era: It’s nothing new, but it is.

Another cohort of black public intellectuals came between the current one and my own. They watched us speak on college campuses or in the media, and our public success showed them that they no longer had to hide, or make incidental, their interests in the various dimensions of black life and society. They engaged the study of slavery and its various aftermaths in a far more sophisticated fashion; they tracked the sociology and ethnography of black urban life; and they examined the literary and musical dimensions of black cultural expression, from pioneering novels to burgeoning jazz studies. They devoted themselves to directors like Spike Lee, John Singleton, and Euzhan Palcy and to the hip-hop of Public Enemy and 2Pac. This wave included scholars like Duke University cultural critic Mark Anthony Neal, who published the groundbreaking What the Music Said in 1999, and Dwight McBride, whose essay collection, Why I Hate Abercrombie & Fitch, is a pioneering exploration of the public consequences of gay black male identity.

They were different from us in terms of subject matter, style, and intellectual pursuits, but one thing remained the same: The book was their scholarly sine qua non, the achievement that made all other ambitions possible. Derrick Bell took a public stand for black female professors at Harvard Law School only after the publication of And We Are Not Saved. bell hooks “turned up” in the pages of Esquire—in an article entitled “Feminist Women Who Like Sex,” in which Tad Friend coined the term “do-me feminism”—after she wrote Feminist Theory: From Margin to Center. Yale Law School professor Stephen Carter went on Today to discuss the complexities of affirmative action because he had written Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby. Today, though, the game’s done changed—in fact, quite a bit. 

The book is no longer exclusively dominant in the realm of black ideas. The black digital intelligentsia flourishes in an epistemic ecology in which the scholarly impulse has been sheared by the cutting edges of new technology and the desire for instant knowledge and commentary on current ideas and events. Today, legitimate thinkers take to blogs, Twitter, Facebook, and even Instagram to hash out ideas, test theories, and explore intellectual options. The digital world serves as a forum for a kind of perpetual work in progress, or an extension, or remix, of existing work.  For example, scholar Courtney Baker, in advance of her recently published book Humane Insight: Looking at Images of African American Suffering and Death, published a blog post entitled “Sandra Bland’s Face” at the Los Angeles Review of Books. The post explored the competing and conflicted uses of Bland’s image as the country attempted to interpret her death in a Texas jail cell—the same kind of work Baker explores in greater detail in her book. While Vincent Brown, a Harvard history professor, explores slavery and death in The Reaper’s Garden: Death and Power in the World of Atlantic Slavery, he explores those same ideas, and others, in multiple media: He is the principal investigator and curator for the online animated thematic map Slave Revolt in Jamaica, 1760-1761: A Cartographic Narrative and was producer and director of research for the PBS documentary Herskovits at the Heart of Blackness. Salamishah Tillet is a professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the co-founder of a nonprofit that uses art therapy to fight sexual violence against women and girls. But her reach has been extended by her online columns in The Nation and her regular appearances on MSNBC. And Peniel Joseph, a history professor at Tufts University and author of Dark Days, Bright Nights: From Black Power to Barack Obama, uses his column at The Root to amplify his views on politics and current affairs. Even traditional outlets reflect the digital influence: Online newspaper columns and articles now come with a battalion of links to relevant articles, books, and even visual references to support the argument. 

Savvy and gifted black scholars like Morehouse College professor and CNN contributor Marc Lamont Hill and Lehigh University professor and MSNBC contributor James Braxton Peterson also take advantage of these new means to address social ills. Hill and Peterson have both published academic books. They also commented on the Ferguson uprisings: Hill in an online column for CNN, Peterson in a Reuters column that was widely circulated on the internet. Both discussed Ferguson, at length, on Twitter. A noteworthy article in an academic journal, or even a popular publication, may still garner the offer to extend one’s ideas in a book-length project, but nowadays the process is sped up by measures and leaps of bandwidth: Digital columns may lead to television appearances and thus more quickly to publishing or academic opportunities. Hill’s commentary and television reporting, combined with his high profile in social media, helped him land a book deal addressing the rebellion in Ferguson. Peterson’s commentary on a range of social and political issues on MSNBC, for web sites and in social media, significantly elevated his academic prominence. 

Beyond the rewards of online success are the intellectual advantages of the immediacy that characterizes the digital vocabulary. The black digital intelligentsia is able to quickly judge where an argument needs to be revised, redrawn, or withdrawn altogether; previously, in my generation, an essay’s first draft may have circulated among trusted friends and no further. Now, publication online, as an essay or a tweet, permits strangers, some of whom may be terrifically skilled interpreters, to weigh in on one’s scholarship. Airing ideas online offers a potential aid to refining one’s argument. It doesn’t replace the need to sweat over the work, but it does provide eyeballs and eardrums in ways never before available to thinkers. 

More important, black intellectuals who might not easily snag a hearing in traditional editorial circles—maybe they went to a second- or third-tier school, or didn’t have access to scholars who might recommend them for plum gigs in the classroom or for publication—might, by the force of their ideas online, arouse the attention of administrators or faculty in search of new talent. Brittney Cooper, a Rutgers professor who has not yet published a book, is nonetheless a highly regarded commentator on race, culture, politics, and feminism, having made her start with her Crunk Feminist blog. Cooper’s rise, and Hill’s and Peterson’s emergence, too, may have taken more time in an earlier era. Their conspicuous success illustrates the benevolence of digital acclaim. They are simply being smart about showcasing what they can do in a number of venues, or to use the appropriate term, on a number of platforms. 

Jelani Cobb, a professor at the University of Connecticut, and the author of three books—on hip-hop, Barack Obama, and essays about black culture—has written brilliantly on contemporary black life. This is befitting his graduate training at Rutgers under David Levering Lewis, a renowned historian and author of two Pulitzer Prize-winning biographies of W.E.B. Du Bois. Long before protests about how the movie Straight Outta Compton neglected to broach the vicious misogyny of N.W.A’s DJ and producer, Dr. Dre, Cobb had done so in his 2007 essay collection, The Devil and Dave Chappelle. As smart and as eloquent as he has been in his books, however, Cobb is a public intellectual based on his prowess as an online columnist, and now, on the strength of those digital efforts, a staff writer for The New Yorker. If Coates, as has been suggested, is this generation’s James Baldwin, then Cobb is surely our era’s Ralph Ellison: an erudite and scholarly writer whose sentences are gracefully freighted with a profound knowledge of the range and depth of blackness. While Ellison, Baldwin, and Richard Wright published in magazines like Harper’s, Esquire, and Look, Coates and Cobb blog at The Atlantic and The New Yorker; same aspiration, same scope of interest, same literary and intellectual pedigree, just a different form. 

Perhaps no scholar better embodies the trajectory of the black digital intelligentsia than Melissa Harris-Perry. A professor at Wake Forest and talk-show host on MSNBC, Harris-Perry has written two books; but she is best-known for turning the media into her classroom. She can—and did—school a black president about his “daddy issues” and educate America about why Magic Mike XXL is a feminist film. Harris-Perry possesses a formidable capacity to translate complicated subject matter into understandable language. Consider her withering deconstruction of Michelle Cottle’s attack on Michelle Obama in Politico, which brought the historical sweep of black female stereotypes in the public sphere to a mainstream format. 

She has also brought onto her show, and thus introduced to the nation, as wide and diverse a selection  of scholars and intellectuals as has been collected on television before—including transgender writer Janet Mock, Australian feminist critic Chloe Angyal, historian and Schomburg Center director Khalil Gibran Muhammad, and social activist and hip-hop artist Jessica Disu. What’s more, Harris-Perry’s show has bucked the trend of the Sunday news shows—which, in 2014, featured around 75 percent white guests—by bringing to her round table a majority of guests of color. 

At The Atlantic Coates called Harris-Perry America’s “foremost public intellectual,” an assertion that former Politico journalist Dylan Byers criticized on Twitter, saying it undermined Coates’ intellectual credibility. But her academic credentials—a Ph.D. from Duke; her professorships; the two books, the first of which, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won awards in 2005 from the American Political Science Association and the National Conference of Black Political Scientists; and having been the youngest scholar to deliver the Du Bois lectures at Harvard—showed that Harris-Perry more than deserved the recognition. “[She is] among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president,” Coates wrote. “And none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry.”

Before the digital era, Hill, Peterson, Cooper, Cobb, and Harris-Perry would certainly have stood out. Their gifts would have distinguished them sufficiently to win a place in the academy, or in whatever venue they chose to aspire. But there is little doubt that their membership in the black digital intelligentsia has procured for each the sort of broad cultural recognition that would not have been possible before. 

Today’s generation, as with my own, must be wary of the pitfalls of public exposure, of too-quick fame, of chasing bright lights rather than doing the sort of work that is sometimes, perhaps even often, quiet, and which runs counter to the digital demands of nonstop, 24-hour connectedness. This is not a new worry. In the Wordsworth sonnet, “The World Is Too Much With Us,” we are warned against the gross materialism of the Industrial Revolution—“getting and spending.” The black digital intelligentsia must not cede to fluttering activity, to distracting if enticing preoccupations, however measured, in whatever bandwidth, the necessary time to develop as deeply and profoundly as possible their scholarly gifts and intellectual abilities. By its nature, the scholarly enterprise runs counter to the logic and need of the hour and counsels retreat and withdrawal, saying no. 

To be sure, there is danger in the belief that everything—every idea, issue, conflict, disagreement, or difference of perception—can be solved, or even usefully summed up, in 140 characters, or in a posting on Facebook. These are contemporary problems that must be acknowledged. But each generation of black thinkers has confronted intellectual challenges inherent to the age and usefully overcome them. Some things take time, and if the considered opinions of traditional journalism are the first rough draft of history, then digital journalism is the dry run of the first draft. There is value, and even political utility, in speedy responses to serious issues that demand thoughtful and critical reflection. But there is value, too, in pulling back for the long view over the long haul. 

These two notions need not be in competition; snobbishness—or, to be fair, squeamishness—about weighing in too quickly, too lightly, ignores the challenge that short bursts of intellectual reflection present, the clarity demanded by them, the energy required to express a meaningful thought without relying on obscure erudition or distancing jargon. We pretend that online writing is easy at our own risk. Intellectuals of the digital age, black or otherwise, must remember what all great thinkers know: The best work flourishes when discipline is geared to the task at hand.

The lesson of doing one’s work well, and thoroughly, is crucial for young black scholars, both those in our graduate schools and nonacademics striving to find their place online. The virtues of the digital era for black thinkers are many: the archiving of past scholarship that minimizes the time spent in excavating critical historical documents and resources; the communication with other like-minded thinkers, across disciplines, regions, and literally across the world; the vetting of ideas and the practice of intellectual habits with others who harbor similar desires; the interaction with populations that one hopes to study, creating a potentially stronger research feedback loop than might otherwise exist; and contact with inspiring role models who in earlier times may not have been nearly as accessible. While the Luddite in me still loves to serendipitously discover treasures in secondhand bookstores, to smell the decaying papyrus and browse over the cornucopia of cerebral achievement cataloged in texts hewed from trees, I have learned to be (almost) as excited about clicking on the latest essay or blog post from a first-rate thinker leading me through the cadences of critical reflection in the digital gymnasium of the mind.

Correction: The sidebar in an earlier version of this article misspelled Marc Lamont Hill’s middle name.