Michael Eric Dyson penned an essay paying homage to the black digital intelligentsia in 2015 that paid homage to names that had some level of household recognition amongst black folks as well as some non-black circles naming people such as Ta-Nehesi Coates, Jelani Cobb, Melissa Harris Perry, Marc Lamont Hill, Jamilah Lemieux and Salamisha Temet. It was one of those few essays that actually talked about the nature of black intellectualism rather than performing what it looked like. A year-and-a-half later from the publication of this essay and after the election of Donald Trump, I have to admit that I’m a bit despondent over where we, as black folks, have found ourselves at the beginning of 2017. As the democratization of information seems to reach a perpetual zenith, I find myself crossed between cynicism and apathy which a touch of nihilism at the prospects for the future. To what good has traditional forms of black intellectualism provided us information as well as what are our prospects for the future. In essence does black intellectualism have a role in the 21st century?
I can’t help but wonder that the ways in which the black intellectuals, as named by Dyson, functioned as little more than social media and cable news puppets over the past election cycle for the sake of something far more malicious and sinister at play than ever thought. This is not the fault of those individuals, but rather speaks to principalities larger than what we’ve imagined. For example, when The Breakfast Club, hosted by Charlamagne tha God, Angela Yee and DJ Envy interviewed self-proclaimed pan-Africanist and popularly named Hotep-in-Chief Umar Johnson, in August 2016, the YouTube video had 375,630, and one from August 2015 had over one million views. This stands in comparison to the Breakfast Club interviewing Marc Lamont Hill only garnering 287,416 views.
Larger market forces, such as those that led to a Trump election, have had their impact on the way black folks ingest and digest information. More people were interested in the unfounded conspiracy theories of Umar Johnson election, about how Obama was selected as president to 1) brainwash African Americans and 2) colonize Africa rather than hear Marc Lamont Hill make a reasoned argument about why a Trump presidency might be the wake-up call black Americans needed. In a normal world (because I think we need to admit there’s something chaotic about the ethos of this country at the beginning of 2017), we turned to black intellectuals to help interpret and make sense of what was happening.
It’s hard not to single out Cornel West to illuminate my point. While academically he’s left people in wanting–many would like a new book from him written by his own two fingers–I realized it was more than academics when my mother didn’t even speak well of him when I was home over the holidays, much to my chagrin and slight disappointment. For my mother it was because he was a Bernie Sanders supporter, and much like my mother’s demographic, they saw the heir apparent to an Obama legacy in Hillary Clinton and not Sanders. If my mother’s baby boomer generational mindset had no problem jettisoning the bespoke Harvard professor, it functions as a double shock that he has little to no connection to the millennial generation despite his support of Black Lives Matters, his arrests on the front lines of protests in Ferguson, Missouri, again, his support of Sanders and ultimately his stringent critique of the “plutocrats and oligarchs” that fit well into his political philosophy of democratic socialism. West is someone who is on message, politically, philosophically and religiously aligned with the masses of black people, but is currently more embraced by white liberals and damn near ostracized by black folks.
So what happened?
It’s as if we, black folk, are crying for a type of intellectual leadership that helps us interpret the world we live in, but when that interpretation comes, we reject it on the basis of it being, well, leadership. It’s too top-down. It feels like the old-guard model of leadership that Black Lives Matter attempted to deconstruct with their “leaderless leaders” approach, trying to live into participatory democracy, a model that Ella Baker espoused during the black civil rights era. If we believe that nature abhors a vacuum, then what has replaced black intellectualism is but a vile and bastardized progeny of black thought and American tradition. Despite the claims of Michelle Obama, when they go low, so has black intellectualism.
What has emerged in the vacuum left by black intellectuals is a marketplace of ignorance with folly festivals and craptastic carnivals. The same social media public square that has to the capacity to engage the deeper problems of a Trump administration and the horror of his cabinet selections also has to bear the weight of a Chris Brown and Soulja Boy feud. Not to mention fruit hanging so low to the ground you could walk on it exists in videos of random street fights from WorldStar Hip Hop, to the latest Orlando Brown video. Because so many of us, myself included, consume and digest information (meaning more than just our news, but just plain ol’ information), the after effect has been that a Donald Trump presidency equals a Kim Burrell scandal equals major weather event equals the crisis in Aleppo equals Kanye and the Kardashians equals the NFC and AFC playoffs. I don’t blame Facebook, Twitter or any other social media site because they are just tools to be operated, but somewhere in the not-to-distant past, market forces took over and we have found ourselves at a point where think-pieces have replaced essays and Twitter rants have resulting in people being blocked have replaced open forums and debates.
For me, “black intellectualism” still exists, but it only exists because of my intentionality: 1) I seek it out and 2) I operate in academic spaces where the thoughtful heavy lifting is sustainable. Otherwise, it doesn’t exist. And we need to stop telling ourselves that it does. Recently, Pastor Shirley Caesar (of “greens, beans, potatoes, tomatoes, lambs, rams, hogs… YOU NAME IT!” fame), waded into the waters concerning Burrell’s sermonic rant. Here is the entire text from a published story on January 5, 2017 from what’s considered a reputable black news website concerning Kim Burrell:
These church ladies are downright hilarious. First, there was Kim Burrell’s sermon about how gay people were all going to die and go to hell, and now, her compadre in Holy Ghost, Shirley Caesar, is oddly defending Burrell and blaming President Barack Obama for making homosexuality “all right.”
During a recent sermon at the First Baptist Church of Glenarden in Maryland, Caesar shared her thoughts about Burrell and the president.
“You should’ve said something four years ago when our president made that stuff all right,” Caesar stated.
In another video posted to Twitter, Caesar suggested that pastors needed to keep their business in-house and possibly collect cellphones at the door.
I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest to Caesar that the president didn’t make it “all right.” And cellphones being banned from church isn’t going to protect your neck. And furthermore, Holy Ghost hypocrites need to stop picking and choosing what they actually follow in the Bible.
This is what has replaced black intellectualism: sassy opinions without a knowledge base of the subject, ad hominem attacks without merit which results in the failure to actually provide factual information on the subject matter! While many sit from the sidelines and condemn fake news websites on the political right, at times I read from so-called liberal and left-leaning sites bemoaning the ways in which information is disseminated where the lines between capricious opinions and certifiable fact become blurred.
The mismanagement of black religious culture in all things around African American culture and blackness is extremely frustrating to me and it speaks to the larger issue, as I see it, around black intellectualism in this country. It seems that the more reactive we become the less effective our voices are. For starters, there needs to be room for black religious intellectuals within the foray. As I watch my social media feeds botch conversations around Senior Eldress and Overseer/Bishop Kim Burrell of Love and Liberty Fellowship, in relationship to her sermonic rant concerning the sexual behaviors of those who may identify as same-gender loving, my mind metaphorically explodes because I’ve yet to see conventional wisdom that asks basic questions about content and context of her sermon. This is not at all to excuse the rant, nor to excuse her explanatory video, but rather to interrogate the church culture that produced a place in which she thought it was safe to say that as well as what else did she say in the sermon. Anecdotally, Burrell is known to be, shall we say, an “equal opportunist” when it comes to condemnation from the pulpit. Some stories are circulating that before and after the four minute rant against same-gender loving persons, she equally condemned entire demographics of men and women for various and sundry things.
Intellectually, black folk should have the space to discern the difference between why a sound bite from Kim Burrell in 2017 is representative of her whole, but a sound bite from Jeremiah Wright in 2008 was not. But the era in which we can do that is long gone. True intellectualism isn’t reducible to playing devil’s advocate, but it’s interested in figuring our collective and individual life philosophies; what makes us tick and what influences our conscience and ultimately our decisions and actions. Instead we, as black Americans, and I daresay as a country, have traded that in for clickbait on our favorite yet politically biased websites, likes on Facebooks, retweets on Twitter and followers on Instagram and God knows what else lies in the dark corners of Snapchat and Tumblr.
My brand of intellectualism wants to provide ecclesiastical context to why Burrell said what she said, but still hold her accountable for what she said. This first means to interrogate the audience to whom she was speaking, her religious upbringing and professional background and most importantly, look at her other sermons and in this case, look at the entirety of the sermon to see what she said before that sound bite and also what she said after. Are the ways in which we scold people for proof-texting biblical scriptures–the practice of lifting one or two scriptures without considering verses before and after it–is that no different or less than the rubric by which judgement has been passed on Burrell? Is Paul to be judged by Romans 1:23 (NIV) which reads
Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. 26 Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. 27 In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.
Or by Romans 8:38-39 (KJV)
For I am persuaded, that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.
There is a tension in the totality of Paul’s text here. The same mind that produced a commentary on same-sex sexual behavior also provided revelation on a surpassing and all-encompassing love. We should condemn Paul, through the lens of antiquity for his words that spread hate, and simultaneously lift up the words that spread love. This brand of black intellectualism that I am promoting, at the end of the day, ought to highlight the tensions and complexities of a person like Burrell, but should also still be able to point out the extremely harmful and passé ways in which that type of sermonic ranting is inexcusable and shouldn’t be tolerated.
The task of shepherding the collective conscience and mind through the various valleys of shadows of death through the last century or so often fell to those who I’d identify as black intellectuals, but not any longer. Instead, people like Charlamagne tha God and Rickey Smiley function as the epitome of intentional black thought. (Please note I am distinguishing them from black intellectuals.) Black folks are more apt to produce an think-piece on what Lil’ Wayne said to Skip Bayless or something that Stephen A. Smith said off the cuff. The level of the height of conversation has been lowered to the point you’d have to stand up just to see the horizon. While Rickey Smiley attempts to heighten the conversation by bringing on Rev. Freddie Haynes, a megachurch pastor from Dallas or culture commentator Jeff Johnson, admittedly it’s done in such a ham-handed way, there’s no room for dialogue, just monologue. While I appreciate the efforts of these aforementioned people, but we need to dispel the myth that this is moving the needle in any way toward effective forms of black intellectualism.
I’m not sure where, or exactly when, black intellectualism en masse died, but it transitioned under the first black president of the United States; the Age of Obama saw the death of the black intelligentsia. I go back and read the Dyson essay and it reads more like a necrology report giving a list of names and people along with their long-forgotten accomplishments. It was full of expectation and hope of 2015 where the country seemed ready to cross the identity thresh-hold of it’s first black president and then it’s first woman president. Now we’re stuck in some dystopian-esque limbo until January 20th when the unthinkable for most black Americans will become an undeniable reality.
And no one is asking where have all the black intellectuals gone.