Whether cast as attempts to document African-American mind, worldview, racial philosophies, or cultural mythos, nearly all scholarly studies of black intellectual life have acknowledged—as this article will—the functional importance of formal and informal educational institutions and the central ideological role of the quest for freedom and equality. The diffusion of this latter complex of ideas through African-American communities, its crystallization in folk thought, in religion, in popular culture, and in social movements, plays as important a role in understanding African-American intellectual life as studying the history of black intellectuals as a social entity; and this article attempts to balance these approaches. It also recognizes that in African-American life and throughout the modern world, intellectuals themselves, as a professional category, employ, with relatively greater frequency and dexterity than most of their peers, symbol systems of broad scope and abstract reference concerning humanity, society, nature, and the cosmos. But because the social history of black Americans has severely restricted their formal practice of intellectual occupations, the performance of these roles has frequently been assumed by individuals practicing nonintellectual occupations. Accordingly, the deeply rooted human need to perceive, experience, and express value and meaning in particular events—through words, colors, shapes, or sounds—has manifested itself in black intellectual life only partially in professional works of science, scholarship, philosophy, theology, law, literature, and the arts. Without implying any absolute separation of literature, music, and the arts from African-American intellectual life, the task of delineating the fuller role of these expressive modes and their individual intellectual expositors will be left to the various specialized articles devoted to them particularly.
Despite contrary misconceptions, African Americans originated in Old World African societies with a wide spectrum of intellectual traditions, literate as well as oral, and in which even the most rudimentary and relatively undifferentiated communities created recognized institutional niches for the intellectual functions that are expressed in art and interpretive speculation. In the large, highly differentiated kingdoms of the Western Sudan and Central Africa, specialized intellectual leaders—ofttimes institutionalized in guilds or professional castes—defined the cosmologies in which the individual and group were conceptually located; they helped to identify and regulate the occurrence of evil; to legitimate the powers and responsibilities of authority; to preserve and explain society's past; to transmit analytical and expressive skills to the young; to guide and critique aesthetic and religious experiences; and to foster the control of nature.
The era of European New World colonization and the accompanying Atlantic slave trade dramatically disrupted the intellectual lives of Africans caught up in it; but throughout the history of the United States, African Americans have created syncretic intellectual lives often at the cutting edge of literary, artistic, and scientific creativity. Slavery notwithstanding, every era has produced individual representatives of what Benjamin Brawley termed "the Negro genius," whose intellectual and moral capacities provided crucial armaments in the ongoing "literature of vindication" that reformers and abolitionists initially mounted to defend African Americans against persisting theories of their innate inferiority. Inevitably, developments in African-American intellectual life have continuously been shaped by the problems and possibilities affecting American intellectual life generally. These have included the modernizing, secularizing forces that have moved the life of the mind in America from a colonial intellectual setting dominated by Christian divines and isolated scientific prodigies to a twentieth-century context variously identified with communities of bohemians, exiles, government-service intellectuals, and university professors. African-American intellectual life has evidenced also the tendency before the mid-twentieth century for intellectuals to believe themselves to be agents of progress, whether in the form of millennialism, republicanism, high culture, or social science methodology. This Enlightenment legacy has persisted in contradistinction to the modern tendency for the earlier progressivist faith to be replaced by doubt, and the formerly unifying vision and influence of American thinkers to be diminished by fragmentation and narrow expertise. Not surprisingly, the phases of African-American intellectual life have been delimited by the shifting conditions and recurring crises in black social history as well as by such larger contrapuntal developments; though manifest social exigencies have lent the progessivist faith and the struggle for a unifying vision more than conventional staying power in the intellectual world of African-American communities.
Colonial and Revolutionary America
During the colonial and Revolutionary era, the circumstances of slavery shaped African-American intellectual life in specific ways. First, slavery rigorously suppressed African culture, its languages and institutions of intellectual discourse, and drove surviving oppositional intellectual forms underground. Second, the repudiation in the American colonies of the Greco-Roman tradition of the erudite slave and the corollary prohibitions against literacy, stultified the development of Western intellectual skills and opportunities for the vast majority of African Americans. Third, strict social control of even quasi-free black intellectuals was attempted through both de jure laws and de facto discrimination. Fourth, as a consequence, an African-American tradition of sacred and secular folk thought in sermons, tales, aphorisms, proverbs, narrative poems, sacred and secular songs, verbal games, and other linguistic forms became the primary matrix for historicizing, interpreting, and speculating about the nature and meaning of society and the cosmos. Toward the end of the colonial period, however, the emergence of the earliest professional black intellectual voices was fostered by two broad cultural developments in the British colonies—the Great Awakening (approximately 1735–1750) with its unifying religious fervor, millennial progressivism, and missionary appeal to African Americans and Native Americans; and then the revolutionary political ferment that accompanied the spreading Enlightenment doctrine of the Rights of Man: life, liberty, and equality. African Americans quickly grasped the relevance to their own circumstances of the democratic dogma and revolutionist rhetoric that transfixed colonial legislatures and the Continental Congress; and during the War of Independence, while weighing the loyalist appeals and promises of emancipation from British colonial governors, black men and women sponsored petitions to legislatures, court cases for individual freedom, and platform oratory calculated to convert the professed revolutionary faith of rebel American slaveholders into direct challenges to American slavery itself.
During the decades following the War of Independence, the growth of autonomous black churches, schools, and fraternal and burial societies in the free North (Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, especially) and in selected southern cities (New Orleans; Charleston S.C.; and Savannah) created the initial context for formal development of group intellectual life. In early African-American churches a vital intellectual tradition of intense striving for contact with the sacred focused on the mastery, interpretation, and exposition of biblical writings, with a distinctive strain of exegetical "Ethiopianism" apparent as early as the 1780s. Identifying Africans in American bondage with Israel in biblical Exodus became a controlling metaphor in secular as well as sacred African-American literature; and the Ethiopian prophecy of Psalms 68:31—"Princes shall come out of Egypt; Ethiopia shall yet stretch out her hands unto God"—became the dominant sermonic text offered to answer the omnipresent question of theodicy. This problem of explaining the divine purpose of black suffering—while simultaneously separating the slaveholders' religion from "true Christianity"—became the pivotal heuristic of antebellum black religious thought and the foundation of a distinctive African-American theology. Some of the initial virtuoso intellectual action by African Americans arose out of such religious preoccupations or out of conversion experiences fused with the political ferment of revolution: the neoclassicist verse of Phillis Wheatley; the sermons and letters of the Congregationalist minister Lemuel Haynes; the antislavery autobiography of Olaudah Equiano, for example. Prior to the establishment of black secular education, the quest for literacy was fueled by religious impulses and facilitated by free black churches or by the "invisible church" in slave communities. And in New York City between 1787 and 1820, the African Free School, with white missionary support, provided formal education for hundreds of students such as Ira Aldridge, who went on to international fame as a Shakespearean actor.
But Free African societies and fraternal orders like the Prince Hall Masons also provided a counterconventional intellectual matrix—for mastering the secular and sacred freethought traditions of the Radical Enlightenment, in which the proselytizing mythographers of freemasonry and Renaissance hermeticism offered African-American free thinkers secret access to a "perennial philosophy" that hypothesized an unbroken continuity with, and a reverential attitude toward, the esoteric symbol systems and pagan wisdom literatures of ancient North Africa and the Orient. No less significant, the influence of Enlightenment science and technological innovation created a milieu in which perhaps the most variegated black intellectual career of the eighteenth century could evolve—that of Benjamin Banneker, mathematician, naturalist, astronomer, inventor, almanac compiler, surveyor, and essayist.
The Age of Abolition
In the nineteenth century the movement toward autonomous institutions in free black communities, North and South, continued. But the most significant developments for African-American intellectual life were the successive appearances of, first, widespread protest between 1817 and 1830 against the mass black deportation schemes of the American Colonization Society; second, the opening phase of the National Negro Convention Movement, from 1830 to 1840; and third, the emergence of militant black abolitionism, from 1843 to the onset of the Civil War. Alongside the growth of stable, northern free black communities, these developments provided the broadest context to date for the fruition of African-American intellectual skills and activities. Besides spurring the general acquisition of forensic and oratorical prowess, the anticolonization movement helped forge a vital journalistic tradition with the development of the nation's first black newspaper, Freedom's Journal —cofounded in 1827 by the college-trained, Jamaica-born John Russwurm, and Samuel cornish, a Presbyterian minister. Anticolonization activities also provided the impetus for the strain of radical political exhortation that erupted in David Walker's insurrectionist Appeal in Four Articles (1829), the nineteenth-century prototype for militant repudiation of white racism and black acquiescence.
The National Negro Convention Movement, which began with six annual aggregations between 1830 and 1835 (all save the fifth in Philadelphia), gave African-American intellectual life its first major coordinated organizational thrust—by providing linkages between the roughly fifty black antislavery societies then in existence; by creating a rationale for boycotts organized by newly established "Free Produce Societies" against the products of slave labor; and by founding temperance and moral reform societies and African missionary groups. With the revitalization of American abolitionism after the emancipation of slaves in the British West Indies in 1833, the ground was laid for a militant black abolition struggle that, beginning with the Negro national convention of 1843, developed increasing intellectual autonomy from the anti-slavery program of William Lloyd Garrison. Over the next two decades, black abolitionism moved ideologically toward programmatic insurrectionism and nationalist emigrationism, as the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Dred Scott Decision of 1857 made central in African-American philosophical debate the political issues surrounding the juridical denial of American citizenship rights and nationality to even native-born free black people.
The final three antebellum decades also witnessed an array of organized intellectual activities by newly formed African-American literary societies and lyceums in northern free black communities. The New York Philomathean Society, founded in 1830, the Philadelphia Library Company of Colored Persons, in 1833, as well as groups in midwestern and border cities, like the Ohio Ladies Education Society, started private libraries and organized debating and elocution contests, poetry readings, and study classes variously devoted to promoting "a proper cultivation for literary pursuits and improvement of the faculties and powers" of the mind. As early as 1832 the African-American Female Intelligence Society of Boston provided a platform for pioneering moral reformer and black feminist lecturer Maria Stewart; and the Benjamin Banneker Society in Philadelphia sponsored regular lecture series on political, scientific, religious, and artistic issues.
These expanding institutional supports for black intellectual life facilitated the careers of the two most extensively educated figures of the antebellum era—Alexander Crummell, Episcopal clergyman and Liberia mission leader; and James McCune Smith, university-trained physician, abolitionist, editor, essayist, and ethnologist—both products of the African Free School and of advanced training outside restrictive American borders. The early pan-African scholarship of St. Thomas-born Edward Wilmot Blyden; the pioneering political essays and fiction of Martin Delany; the voluminous racial uplift, moral reform, and women's rights lectures and belletristic works of Frances Ellen Watkins Harper—all reflect the expanding audiences and material support for African-American intellectual actions and performances that accompanied the broader ferment in American culture during the era of romanticist and transcendentalist ascendancy. No less than their Euro-American counterparts, Jacksonian-era black intellectual leaders espoused a providential view of history that afforded them a special worldwide mission and destiny. Beginning with Robert Benjamin Lewis's Light and Truth; Collected from the Bible and Ancient and Modern History (1836, 1844) and James Pennington's Text Book of the Origin and History of the Colored People (1841), a tradition evolved of popular messianic historiography by self-trained "scholars without portfolio," many of them Christian ministers, who drew eclectically on sacred and profane sources in ecclesiastical accounts, in the new romantic national histories, and in the archaeological and iconographic data vouchsafed by the rise of modern Egyptology during the early nineteenth century, following the discovery and decipherment of the Rosetta stone.
Although racial codes through the South greatly restricted black intellectual life, in Louisiana the language and intellectual traditions of French culture persisted during the antebellum era, with members of the African-American elite ofttimes acquiring an education in France itself and choosing expatriate status there over caste constraints in America. The career of New Orleans scientist-inventor Norbert Rillieux, whose innovations in chemical engineering revolutionized the international sugar-refining industry, developed in this context, as did the dramaturgy of Victor Séjour, a leading figure in the black Creole literary enclave, Les Cenelles (The Hollyberries), which emerged in New Orleans during the 1840s. Although no specifically belletristic literary movement appeared in northern free black communities, literary traditions in poetry, autobiography, and the essay extended back into the eighteenth century; and the final antebellum decade witnessed the publication of the earliest extant African-American novels and stage plays. The northern free black community of New York City served as the site of Thomas Hamilton's pioneering Anglo-African Magazine (1859), an outgrowth of the publisher's lifelong ambition to provide an independent voice representing African Americans in "the fourth estate," and a vehicle for skilled historical essays, biographical sketches, fiction, critical reviews, scientific studies, and humor by such eminent antebellum black luminaries as Edward Wilmot Blyden, Martin Delany, Frances Harper, James Theodore Holly, George Vashon, Mary Ann Shadd Cary, and John Mercer Langston.
The most influential product of African-American intellectual life during the era, however, was the twin stream of slave narratives and spiritual autobiographies that apotheosized the complementary ideologies of abolition and moral reform through biblical motifs of captivity and providential redemption related compellingly by such figures as William Wells Brown, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Jacobs, Jarena Lee, and Solomon Northrup. In their assault on the legal and historical pretexts for slavery, self-authored slave narratives in particular (as opposed to those transcribed by white amanuenses) cultivated an assertive facticity about the horrors of bondage and a subjective ethos of faith, adaptability, and self-reliance that gave expressive mythic structure to an evolving African-American corporate identity. In the narratives by black abolitionist leaders like Douglass, Samuel Ringgold Ward, and Sojourner Truth, slave autobiographies revealed their close alliance also with oratory as a political instrument and a molder of group consciousness. Evidencing often distinctive uses of the "plain style" or the flamboyant rhetoric of the golden age in American platform oratory, formal public utterances by African Americans during the final antebellum decades lend greater credence to the claims of intellectual historians that the national consciousness was created and stabilized, policies for westward expansion formulated, the rights of women conceived, the slave power consolidated and then broken, all through the egalitarian processes of public address—ceremonial, hortatory, deliberative. Black Americans during the years leading to the Civil War heard, pondered, read aloud, and committed to memory their favorite orators. And passages learned from Wendell Phillips's thousandfold lectures on Toussaint Louverture, from annual West Indian Emancipation Day observances, from Frederick Douglass's Fourth of July oration, and from African School texts of classical rhetoric prepared African Americans intellectually to respond, with arms and labor, when Lincoln finally appealed for their support to help save the Union.
Reconstruction through the 1890s
The Civil War and Emancipation dramatically recast the contours of African-American intellectual life. The decade of Reconstruction optimism focused the thought of black communities largely on the equalitarian possibilities of the franchise, on education, on the acquisition of property and wealth, and on the cultivation of those qualities of character and conduct conducive to "elevating the race" within the body politic. Freedmen's Bureau professional occupations and the emerging constellation of black colleges and universities created new matrices for black intellectual life within corporate intellectual or practical institutions. During the following decade, one index to the shifting intellectual balance appeared with the publication of the AME Church Review (1884), which for the next quarter century, under the successive editorships of Benjamin Tucker Tanner, Levi Coppin, and Hightower Kealing, would become the premier magazine published by and for African Americans and would be transformed from a church newspaper to a national scholarly journal of public affairs. It featured biblical criticism and theology, wide-ranging editorial opinions, articles on pan-African history and American civic issues, as well as black poetry and fiction and popular essays, all attuned to "the intellectual growth of our people" and carefully uniting sectarian and increasingly nonsectarian interests in the purpose of giving to the world "the best thoughts of the race, irrespective of religious persuasion or political opinion." Coterminously, a stream of articles and books on biblical interpretation by authors such as the Reverend James Theodore Holly, John Bryan Small, and Sterling Nelson Brown (father to the poet) confronted the hermeneutical practices and canonical assumptions of late nineteenth-century biblical higher criticism with allegorical, christological, typological, and historical challenges to traditionally anti-black exegeses of Jahwist traditions such as the so-called curse of Ham.
While black institutions like churches, fraternal societies, and conventions continued to foster intellectual activities, perhaps a better index of post-Reconstruction developments—and of the secularizing intellectual tendencies in particular—appeared with the formation in 1897 of the first major African-American learned society, the American Negro Academy, in Washington, D.C. It was constituted as "an organization of authors, scholars, artists, and those distinguished in other walks of life, men of African descent, for the promotion of Letters, Science, and Art." The Academy published twenty-two occasional papers over the next quarter century on subjects related to African-American culture, history, religion, civil and social rights. Its all-male membership spanned the fields of intellectual endeavor; and besides its first president, Alexander Crummel, it ultimately included such important intellectual leaders as Francis J. Grimké, a Princeton-trained Presbyterian clergyman; W. E. B. Du Bois, professor of economics and history at Atlanta University; William H. Crogman, professor of classics at Clark University; William S. Scarborough, philologist and classicist at Wilber-force University; John W. Cromwell, lawyer, politician, and newspaper editor; John Hope, president of More-house College; Alain Locke, Harvard-trained philosopher, aesthetician, and Rhodes Scholar; Carter Woodson, historian and Howard University dean; and James Weldon Johnson, poet, novelist, songwriter, and civil rights leader. Interrelated developments in institutionalized black intellectual life included the founding of the Atlanta University Studies of the Negro Problems in 1896, the American Negro Historical Society of Philadelphia in 1897, the Negro Society for Historical Research in 1912, and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915. Moreover, these institutions were frequently closely linked to the nationwide orbit of educational and reform activities sponsored by the more than one hundred local black women's clubs that had been founded by leaders such as Mary McLeod Bethune, Lucy Laney, Charlotte Hawkins Brown, Ida Wells-Barnett, and Nannie Burroughs and then federated in 1896 as the National Association of Colored Women. Nannie Burroughs, for instance, demonstrated the various intellectual intersections in her subsequent coterminous service as a life member of Woodson's Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.
No less important, the expanding literacy of the black audience during the educational fervor that followed Emancipation generated new opportunities for black intellectual entrepreneurs like the minister-pamphleteernovelist Sutton Griggs and artist-intellectuals like dramatist-journalist-fictionist Pauline Hopkins. They created intellectual products and performances devoted to racial solidarity and to a widening interracial marketplace of progressivist art and ideas. Following a decade of post-Reconstruction struggle against reaction, in the 1890s a cluster of significant events coalesced that expressed in a variety of intellectual and artistic media the new dynamic of black independence and self-assertion: In 1895, Booker T. Washington galvanized national attention with his Atlanta Exposition speech. In 1895 also, "Harry" Burleigh was assisting Antonín Dvorák with the black folk themes of the New World Symphony and at the same time making his entry into the New York concert world. In 1896 Paul Laurence Dunbar emerged as a leading poetic voice; and painter Henry Ossawa Tanner marked the beginning of his first substantial Paris recognition. In the same year a pioneering black musical comedy premiered on Broadway. In 1898 Will Marion Cook introduced "serious syncopated music" with Clorindy ; and the Anglo-African composer, Samuel Coleridge Taylor, achieved maturity and fame with the first part of his Hiawatha Trilogy. And in 1898 and 1899 Charles Chesnutt, the novelist, inaugurated the first fully professional career of a black fiction writer. The appearance in 1903 of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk became a synthesizing artistic event of this period and one that spurred, perhaps for the first time, an ascendancy to black national leadership on the basis of intellectual performance alone.
The era's famous Washington-Du Bois controversy highlighted not just the partisan intraracial ideological differences over political, educational, and economic strategies but the changing role and increasing prominence of secular intellectuals in black America generally—Washington's rise paralleling the emergence of an anti-intellectual, industrial-minded, managerial Euro-American elite and Du Bois's ascendancy paralleling that of a coterie of Arnoldian "elegant sages" who assumed the roles of national culture critics and prophets. Between African-American and Euro-American intellectuals of either orientation, however, the continuing predominance of conflict rather than the consensus over issues of racial justice also continued to parallel the still entrenched segregation of American intellectual and institutional life; and such conflict expressed itself through the continuing ideological and iconographical war over racial imagery in all the artistic and scholarly media of the period, a pattern that remained essentially unaltered until the intercession of World War I.
Renaissance and War
The emergence after World War I of the first major African-American cultural movement gave evidence of a self-identified intellectual stratum of "New Negroes." It was structured, first, by new sources of financial support and patronage for the performers of intellectual actions. Second, a cadre of secular leaders had developed—universitytrained philosophers and social scientists such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, and Charles S. Johnson and activist organizers like Marcus Garvey—who superintended the intellectual performances from bases in corporate intellectual institutions (primarily black colleges and universities) or in practical institutions like the NAACP, the Urban League, and the Universal Negro Improvement Association (UNIA). These developments were reinforced by the less formal creation of salons like A'Lelia Walker's "Dark Tower," of the "Negro Sanhedrin" at Howard University, and of coteries of artists in Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and cities distant from the "Negro Mecca" in Harlem. Third, the movement responded to patterns of rising consumer demand from white and black audiences alike for black intellectual objects and intellectual-practical performances. Fourth, new relationships had emerged between tradition and creativity in the various fields of intellectual action—modernism in the arts, and the rise in academia of the social sciences, the "new history," and new paradigms in physical science.
The increasing urbanization and industrialization of the nation generally, and the country-to-city Great Migration of African Americans in particular, combined with the emergence of popular culture and the new media technologies (radio, cinema, phonograph, graphic arts, etc.) to provide the culturally nationalistic "Black Renaissance," as Langston Hughes termed it, an unprecedentedly "creativogenic" milieu with specific intellectual characteristics. The growth of mass audiences, and of new technical means for communicating with them, expanded the field of action for black intellectuals. The general reaction against standardization and conformity in American life, and the postwar openness to diverse cultural stimuli, which accompanied the further decline of prewar Victorianism, lowered the barriers to cross-cultural exchange. A modernist "cult of the new," which stressed becoming and not just being as a creative value, fostered experimental attitudes and improvisational styles for which jazz became an acknowledged exemplar. The growing shift of moral authority in vernacular culture from religious spirituals and parlor songs to secular blues and cabaret lyrics undergirded a pronounced generational rebellion against conventional sexual attitudes and gender roles in black communities and beyond. The freer access to cultural media for American citizens generally facilitated the emergence of independent African-American motion picture and recording companies. Among the cadre of Black Renaissance intellectuals, the conscious sense of greater freedom, following a legacy of severe oppression and near-absolute exclusion, had created a collective compensatory incentive to creativity. A movement ethos that apotheosized youth, a self-conscious exposure to different and even contrasting cultural stimuli from black immigrants and ideas elsewhere in the African diaspora, and a now-fashionable tolerance for diverging views and intense debate helped make the Black Renaissance manifestly creativogenic, despite its manifold constraints.
A destabilizing facet of African-American intellectual life during the period, however, was the widening gulf between intellectuals and traditional patterns of authority and religious orthodoxy inside and outside black communities. As intellectual historians generally concur, at the end of Reconstruction the lives of most Americans were still dominated by the values of the village, by conventional nineteenth-century beliefs in individualism, laissez-faire, progress, and a divinely ordained social system. But in the closing decades of the century the spread of science and technology, industrialism, urbanization, immigration, and economic depression eroded this worldview. Black intellectuals experienced increasingly the same tension with ecclesiastical and temporal authority that modern intellectuals in general have felt—the intellectual urge to locate and acknowledge an alternative authority which is the bearer of the highest good, whether it be science, order, progress, or some other measure, and to resist or condemn actual authority as a betrayer of the highest values. Traditions for defining or seeking new "sacred" values that won stronger allegiance among African-American intellectuals included: (1) the tradition of scientism, that of the new social sciences in particular, because of their attention to the race problem and their role in public policy; (2) the romantic tradition, specifically the cults of "Negro genius," of an Herderian apotheosis of "the folk," of countercultural bohemianism and the "hip"; (3) the apocalyptic tradition of revolutionism, millenarianism, and radical Pan-Africanism adapted to the contours of American life; (4) the populist tradition with its themes of the moral and creative superiority of the uneducated and unintellectual and its critique of bourgeois/elite society by its disaffected offspring; (5) the feminist tradition, variously reformist or radical, with its revisionary assault on conventional gender roles and on the hegemony of an ostensibly patriarchal social matrix rooted in female subordination; and (6) the anti-intellectual tradition of order (dissensual political and religious sects built on charismatic models and revitalizationist discipline—Garveyism, Father Divine, and the Nation of Islam), which ofttimes deems pronounced intellectualism to be disruptive.
Among these traditions of alternative authority, scientism, despite the increasing popularization of scientific ideas in the mass media, had acquired the broadest social prestige but the least democratized mechanisms of evaluation and reward. To the extent that its accomplishments were achieved through formal research in laboratory settings by research-degree holders, it retained the most uncertain footing in African-American intellectual life at the same time that it more and more supplanted achievement in the high arts as the greatest potential symbol of group capacities and progress. At the turn of the twentieth century, the most highly honored of all black scientists, the agricultural chemist George Washington Carver (1864–1943), symbolized the ambiguities that the issue of race introduced into scientific culture in America. The tensions between theoretical and applied science contributed to Carver's being derided by partisans of the former as more a concoctionist than a contributor to genuine scientific knowledge. The tensions between science and the Christian faith he espoused as a spur of his Tuskegee research placed him in conflict with the cult of scientific objectivity. And despite the revolutionary impact of that research on peanut and soybean derivatives for the economy of both the nation and the South, to many black proponents of nationalistic racial uplift, his characteristic humility and racial deference made problematic the role of such black scientists in group progress.
At the time, however, Carver's uncertain place in African-American intellectual life mirrored the uncertain place of scientists generally in American culture and progress, as revealed in the apparent "inferiority complex" of American scientific culture in the international intellectual community at the turn of the century. That sense of national deficiency crystallized in a widely discussed article from the North American Review in 1902; this article lamented the inferiority of American scholarship and science relative to the European and noted that none of the great scientific achievements of the preceding century—the theory of evolution, the atomic structure of matter, the principles of electromagnetic induction and electrolytic action, the discovery of microorganisms, and the concept of the conservation of energy—had been the work of Americans, whose successes instead were largely derivative in the major sciences or were located in minor fields such as astronomy, geology, and meteorology.
Perceived deficiencies in the life of the scientific mind—and the manifest need for greater achievement—functioned analogously at the levels of nation and race, then, in the early decades of the twentieth century. Among African Americans, despite the pioneering doctorate degree in physics awarded Edward Bouchet at Yale University in 1876, a total of only thirteen physical or biological science doctorates had been earned prior to 1930. But in the next decade and a half a more than tenfold increase in earned science doctorates occurred, fueled primarily by doctors of medicine, among whom were pioneering Research scientists such as Charles Drew (1904–1950; hematology) and Hildrus Poindexter (1901–1987; microbiology). An estimated 850 African Americans earned natural science doctorates by 1972; and at a fairly constant rate approximately one out of every one hundred American science doctorate holders would be African American into the 1990s. But because the social history of African-American scientists confined about 75 percent of them, as late as 1981, to employment at predominantly black institutions of higher learning—with limited laboratory facilities and research support and heavy instructional responsibilities—their primary role in African-American intellectual life has been to teach the sciences at those institutions, where the majority of black science doctorate holders have continued to receive their undergraduate training. Nevertheless, as recipients of scientific awards, as office holders or journal editors in scientific societies, as members of scientific advisory or research grant review committees, and as authors of textbooks, African-American scientists have achieved distinction in fields as diverse as aerospace science (NASA astronauts Drs. Ronald McNair and Mae Jemison, for example), organic chemistry, marine and cell biology. In the mathematical theory of games and statistical decisions, for instance, David H. Blackwell, the first black mathematician elected to the National Academy of Sciences, coauthored a pioneering textbook for the field in 1954, won the Von Neumann theory prize in 1979, and, for work as a Rand Corporation consultant, has been cited as one of the pioneers in the theory of "duels"—a two-person, zero-sum game involving the choice of the moment of time for firing in military conflict.
Besides the prestige and inherent intellectual attractions of the sciences and scientism, these fields, despite the persistence of racial discrimination within the world of professional researchers, offered African-American intellectuals careers in which the links between merit and acclaim were presumably established by "objective" standards of authority with "universal" provenience. The scientific tradition of rejecting tradition if it does not correspond with the "facts of verifiable experience" provided some black intellectuals the kind of "higher" authority that freed them to an increasing extent from the "priestgoverned" black communities described by W. E. B. Du Bois. Such an outlook focused necessarily on the methods of science; but for natural scientists in particular, it failed to define concrete social objectives and social roles.
African-American intellectuals drawn to the social sciences, by contrast, found the then unquestioned social utility of the new sciences of society a source of continuity with the pre-twentieth-century "gospel" of progress and with associated meliorist, progressivist, or millenialist philosophies of racial uplift. Unlike the natural sciences, the place of the social sciences in African-American intellectual life was firmly established early during the development of black post-Reconstruction practical and educational institutions; and a tradition of prominent African-American achievement in the fields of economics, political science, anthropology, sociology, and psychology developed almost coterminously with the emergence and professionalization of these fields within the modern academy.
During the 1890s the earliest formal departments of sociology appeared in America, as did the first contributions of African Americans to the new discipline—both emerging amid a climate of extreme racism in popular and academic thought. The half century between the appearance in 1899 of W. E. B. Du Bois's The Philadelphia Negro and of St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton's Black Metropolis in 1945 has been described as the golden age in the sociology of black America, with a series of path-breaking works by social scientists based at black colleges and universities. Du Bois's classic study of black Philadelphia was both the first scientific study of an African-American community—a precursor of the Atlanta University Publications series he later founded—and the pioneer work of American urban sociology. It spurred similar projects such as The Negro at Work in New York City: A Study in Economic Progress (1912), conducted by George Edmund Haynes, one of the earliest black Ph.D. holders in sociology and an early proponent of black migration research. The period from World War I to the mid–1930s was dominated by the famous University of Chicago school of American sociology; and out of it a group of distinguished black sociologists and anthropologists—Charles S. Johnson, E. Franklin Frazier, Bertram Doyle, St. Clair Drake, and Horace Cayton—emerged with major research works on black family sociology, race relations, social stratification, community development, southern plantation systems, migration patterns, and related topics. At Atlanta University, Ira De A. Reid, a specialist on West Indian immigration and rural plantation studies, succeeded Du Bois in conducting studies on urban African-American life and in training new researchers. E. Franklin Frazier, at Howard University (where a sociology department had earlier been established by Kelly Miller) and Charles Johnson at Fisk University commanded, like Reid, the resources necessary to develop strong sociology departments with graduate Research programs. But at black institutions without resources for graduate study, strong undergraduate programs were built nonetheless by sociologists such as St. Clair Drake at Roosevelt College, Oliver Cox at Lincoln University, W. S. M. Banks and Earl Pierro at Fort Valley State College, and Mozell Hill at Langston University.
Though sociologists have outnumbered black social scientists in other fields, the middle decades of the twentieth century witnessed an expanding representation of African-American scholars in economics, political science, psychology, and anthropology. During the period from the 1930s to the 1960s economists such as Booker T. McGraw, Frederick Jackson, Rodney G. Higgins, Frank G. Davis, and Winfred Bryson Jr. developed careers as scholars and advisers to service organizations, businesses, and government, while Abram Harris, perhaps the most widely known black economist of the era, combined early service as an Urban League official with an academic career of Research scholarship on the labor movement and black business development that culminated in his series of studies on social reform strategies in the economic philosophies of Thorstein Veblen, Werner Sombart, John Commons, Karl Marx, and John Stuart Mill. From the 1960s to the 1990s, as the sphere of black entrepreneurial activities and service opportunities expanded in the wake of the civil rights movement, African-American economists such as Bernard Anderson, Andrew Brimmer, Samuel Myers, Thomas Sowell, Clifton Wharton, and Walter Williams have played increasingly diverse roles in the academy, in private and public foundations, in conservative or liberal "think tanks," in political organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus, and in a publishing industry eager for certified expertise in "the dismal science."
In economics, as in other social sciences like psychology and anthropology, however, black practitioners faced—with a difference—the dilemma that perplexed all fields of knowledge after the 1920s and 1930s, when scientism's leading edge—physics and mathematics—no longer epitomized the discovery of immutable natural laws but instead struggled with new uncertainties that undermined belief in fixed laws and principles. Albert Einstein's theory of relativity, Werner Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle," Kurt Gödel's demonstration that mathematical theories could not be verified without referring back to their own premises, all marked science, despite its spectacular technical achievements, as in some ways as metaphorical as the arts and incapable of vouchsafing ultimate principles for human action and judgment. Economic models that postulated rational patterns of buying and selling ignored irrational personal motivations such as race prejudice and circumvented central issues such as the effects of racist institutions on individual behavior.
In psychology, psychometric measures, regarded at the turn of the century as empirical propositions of enormous accuracy, had become so interwoven with ideological nativism, elitism, social class bias, and racism that as early as 1927 Horace Mann Bond found it necessary to denounce as "invidious propaganda" the then widespread psychometric "game" of testing black children for standardized notions of intelligence, for "racial temperament," and for dubious "mulatto hypotheses." Between 1920 and 1950 the roughly thirty black doctorate holders in psychology, beginning with Francis Cecil Sumner and his work on the psychoanalytical theories of Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, were drawn to a variety of research modes, from G. Henry Alston's experimental neurological examination of the "psychophysics of the spatial conditions for the fusion of warmth and cold into heat" to May Pullins Claytor's construction of questionnaires for detecting symptoms of juvenile delinquency. The training of African-American psychologists during the era was strongly influenced by the urgent social need for black teachers and social service workers. Corresponding tendencies led black colleges and universities to deemphasize the ascendant German-derived laboratory science curriculum in psychology that, at white institutions, subordinated the practical and applied sphere. Throughout this period Howard University's program in psychology, under the leadership of Francis Sumner, was the only black school providing graduate and undergraduate training in laboratory-experimental psychology. In the course of preparing such outstanding scholars as Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark, it developed a strong curriculum based on the behaviorism of John Watson and the dynamic psychology of Freud and William McDougall. However, in psychology as in the other social science disciplines, the diminishing likelihood that any one theory could ultimately disprove any other made relatively arbitrary such procedural choices; and the growing uncertainty of the concept of race itself as an operative term made the incursions of relativism even more pronounced.
In stressing the "cultural significance" of psychology—its importance for understanding "literature, religion, philosophy, art, crime, genius, mental derangement, history, biography, and all creations of the human mind"—the Howard program implicitly aligned itself with developing traditions of anthropological and folkloric study in African-American life that embraced the new notions of "cultural relativism" promoted by social scientists such as Franz Boas. Boas believed that "the idea of a 'cultured' individual is merely relative" to the system of meanings in which that individual grows up and lives and that such a belief liberates us from the normative prejudice that Western civilization is absolutely superior to others. After World War I, Boas and his students (who included the writer-folklorist Zora Neale Hurston) rejected genteel Victorian notions of culture that focused exclusively on the highest stratum of artistic expression by educated elites. They adopted instead a presumably detached viewpoint of culture as endemic to all human communities and perhaps better observed in everyday life and common emotions than in superordinate ideals or formalities.
The corresponding emphasis on folklore and folklife reinforced practices of cultural preservation that had become established in African-American intellectual life decades earlier. Groups of black scholars and students had been working actively to document and preserve African-American folk traditions since the 1880s and 1890s, when a black folklore group formed at Hampton Institute in Hampton, Va., to collect African-American sacred and secular songs, proverbs, tales, and wisdom lore. In the 1920s and '30s, in conjunction with a burst of interest in American folklore scholarship generally, a group of professionally trained black folklorists emerged who gave new regional and genre focuses to the enterprise. In 1922 Fisk professor Thomas Talley published a large collection of play songs, proverbs, and verbal art in his Negro Folk Rhymes ; in 1925 an African musicologist and composer from Sierra Leone, Nicholas Ballanta-Taylor, who had come to the Gullah communities of coastal Georgia and the Carolinas to study links between African and African-American music, published his transcriptions of religious songs in St. Helena Island Spirituals. Arthur Huff Fauset, who earned a Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania, specialized in the folk narratives and riddles of the South and the West Indies and in the urban religious cults of Philadelphia. James Mason Brewer, a Texas-based folklorist who studied at Indiana University with folktale specialist Stith Thompson, published a ground-breaking slave tale collection, Juneteenth, and subsequent volumes of South Carolina humor, as well as preacher and ghost tales from the Texas Brazos region. And Zora Neale Hurston, trained in Boas's anthropology program at Columbia University, fused her ongoing folklore collecting and research with a developing career as a creative writer that led to a series of works on American hoodoo, Jamaican obeah, Haitian vodoun and to the southern songs, jokes, games, tales, and conjure lore of her classic Mules and Men in 1935. In the works of all these scholars the underlying premises of the new cultural relativism provided a scientistic source of authority for the pragmatic labors of documenting and preserving the communal traditions of African-American life.
In analogous ways the practice and study of law and politics in African-American intellectual life responded also to the influence of the new sciences of society. Early black lawyers like George B. Vashon (1824–1878) in pre–Civil War New York and his pupil, Oberlin graduate John Mercer Langston, later the founder of the law school at Howard University, struggled for the rights of African Americans and for recognition as professionals in a nineteenth-century American culture in which the dignity, prosperity, formal cultivation, and pervasive influence of the legal profession were some of its most striking phenomena. Vashon had studied law in an age when jurisprudence, the liberal arts, and the sciences remained parts of a unified higher education, as testified to in his own multi-faceted career as lawyer, mathematician, linguist (with fluency in Greek, Latin, Hebrew, German, French), and author of the masterful epic poem Vincent Oge, on the Haitian revolutionary hero. Powerful contrasts were emerging, however, between the scientific worldview affirmed in his Anglo-African Magazine essay on "The Successive Advances of Astronomy"—an encomium to the triumph of Laplacean mathematics and Newtonian physics—and the religious folk cosmology of unlettered preacher John Jasper's legendary 1880 sermon "The Sun Do Move," with its fervent experiential rejection of the counterintuitive postulates of Newtonian science. Modern legal science had embraced those postulates in the course of its rise to intellectual dominance; and more than their British or continental European counterparts, American lawyers dominated political life, and to a large extent, business. And as Alexis De Tocqueville had early noted, in America the language and ideas of judicial debate and the spirit of the law penetrated "into the bosom of society."
The pervasive influence of legal ideas and attitudes in American thought, however, was inherently a force for conservatism, a conservatism rooted in the "natural law" philosophy that laws, as in Newtonian science, are to be discovered, not made, that they are patterned in "the nature of things," not on changing human needs. Sanctified in the U.S. Constitution, perhaps no theory of law was better fitted, as Henry Steele Commager noted and as black litigants quickly discovered, to restrict government to negative functions, to put property rights on a par with human rights, to invest the prevailing practices of industrial capitalism with legal sanction, and to provide protection for slavery in the natural law limitations of the due process clause. The U.S. Supreme Court's Dred Scott Decision of 1857, nullifying black citizenship rights, and the Plessy v. Ferguson decision of 1896, sanctioning "separate but equal" facilities as amenable to the Fourteenth Amendment, reverberated throughout African-American intellectual life; but through their manifest justice, such decisions helped inculcate a pragmatic tradition of protestant legalism in black thought, which eschewed the cult of veneration for the law that, for many other Americans, "made constitutionalism a religion and the judiciary a religious order surrounded with an aura of piety."
At the turn of the twentieth century, as a conflict developed between fixed, Newtonian concepts of law and dynamic, progressive ideas in politics and science, African Americans, guided by their painful experience of law as a fixed system of predation and social control, aligned themselves understandably with the new "sociological jurisprudence" that Roscoe Pound inaugurated as "a process, an activity, not merely a body of knowledge or a fixed order of construction." In accord with the new jurisprudence, as they established practices in local areas and aided in the development of national organizations of racial uplift such as the NAACP, black lawyers like Frederick Mc-Ghee (1861–1912), who was admitted to the bar in Illinois and Minnesota and who helped initiate the Niagara Movement (1905), conceived law more and more as an evolving social science, even as a method of social engineering—one that was required to conform to the whole spectrum of social needs and was dependent on society and capable of improvement. W. Ashbie Hawkins (b. 1862) and Scipio Africanus Jones (1863–1943), counsels in World War I–era NAACP civil rights cases, helped establish patterns of case research grounded no less in social facts than in legal rules. Such patterns were intensified by a subsequent generation of constitutionally trained attorneys led by Charles Hamilton Houston, William Hastie, James Nabrit, Raymond Pace Alexander, and Thurgood Marshall—whose collective work on classic civil rights cases spanned the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s, culminating in Brown v. Board of Education, Topeka, Kansas (1954), which ended legal segregation.
Houston, who had specialized in the study of constitutional law, absorbed the philosophy of "sociological jurisprudence" at Harvard Law School under Roscoe Pound's deanship; and on later becoming Dean of Law at Howard University, he promoted the philosophy of legal advocacy as a pragmatic tool available to groups unable to achieve their rightful place in society through direct action. Trained at Howard under Houston's mentoring dictum that "a lawyer's either a social engineer or … a parasite on society," Thurgood Marshall, whose nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Lyndon Johnson in 1967 marked the high point of African-American achievement in the judiciary, reaffirmed his own integral place in the new jurisprudential tradition by pointedly reminding celebrants of the 1987 bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution that the nation's founding fathers had held "a woefully incomplete conception of the people" and that their vision of the law, as reflected in the Constitution, had only been expanded through unceasing social struggle that had entailed a bloody civil war.
Because the law had retained its Newtonian character longer than any of the social sciences, the intellectual shift among African-American legal minds toward a pragmatic and evolutionary philosophy of the Constitution and the judiciary was part of a late phase in the broad scientistic conversion of American social thought. Since the tradition of moral reform in black political thought had even deeper roots in the Newtonian worldview—faith that the very perfection of liberty and a just social order was possible if human beings were but reasonable enough to affirm those concepts and virtuous enough to conform to them—the rise of a new anti-Newtonian science of politics posed significant problems for African-American intellectuals. The history of abolitionism and moral reform movements had given black communities a rich tradition of extraofficial political practice anchored in ethical appeals to the "Newtonian" political theory—and the accompanying rhetoric of natural law, social compacts, inalienable rights, immutable laws, eternal principles of justice, and so forth—to which the founding fathers had subscribed. But the new science of politics had been jarred into being by the stark disharmony between those eighteenth-century abstractions and the undeniable late nineteenth-century reality of widespread governmental corruption and incompetence amidst profound changes in society, economy, and technology—changes beyond the ken of the founding fathers. Besides the failed logical legerdemain of the Constitution's three-fifths clause on slavery, the dissonance between eighteenth-century political theory and twentieth-century political reality was nowhere more apparent than in the original failure of the Constitution, and the corollary refusal of the law, to recognize the existence of the country's most important political institution—the political party.
The living realities of party politics—the spoils system, political pluralism, organizational inertia, mass and individual emotionalism or irrationality—therefore dominated the attentions of a statistically minded new political science that its practitioners addressed less to theory of any sort than to "the intimate study of the political process, dealing with interest groups and power relations, with skills and understandings, forms of communications, and personalities." Eschewing progressivist moral reformism as analytically bankrupt, the new science of politics aligned itself with Walter Lippmann's assertion in 1914 that "before you can begin to think about politics at all, you have to abandon the notion that there is a war between good men and bad men … [and that] politics is merely a guerilla war between the bribed and the unbribed." No less pertinent to a potential shift in black political strategies, Lippman's concept of the "stereotype" as an adaptive mechanism in mass psychology and public opinion underscored the new scientific orientation away from the Newtonian model of the "rational man" and toward the driven, irrational creature of Freud and the behaviorists.
Between the 1930s and the '60s, as a group of university-trained African-American political scientists emerged, which included Ralph Bunche, G. James Fleming, Robert E. Martin, Erroll Miller, Robert Gill, and Alexander J. Walker, this new orientation to political life became a complicating facet of the ongoing tactical debates in black communities—particularly as it implicated patterns of personal and organizational leadership. The problem of leadership had preoccupied African-American intellectual life from the era of nineteenth-century abolitionism and the National Negro Convention Movement to the Reconstruction era to the turn-of-the-century Washington-Du Bois controversy and the New Negro-Garveyite clashes of the 1920s. Beginning with the Washington-Du Bois controversy, so-called conservative and radical political traditions in African-American life became intensely polarized, though in the later view of scholars such as John Brown Childs, these categories reveal less about the various competing black strategies for social change than does a focus on their underlying materialist or idealist worldviews and related cooperative versus elitist conceptions of political leadership. As became evident in the wave of crusading black political journalism between World Wars I and II, African-American social and intellectual life had been transformed by northern migration and urbanization and by a rapidly diversifying array of organizations and ideologies advocating a wide spectrum of political strategies. Leading the journalistic upsurge was the NAACP magazine The Crisis, begun in 1910 under the editorship of W. E. B. Du Bois, through whom black social thinkers "talked to white America as America had never been addressed before." Other new journals and newspapers had expanded the ideological spectrum: the anarchist Challenge, edited by William Bridges, a former Black Nationalist Liberty Party member, in 1916; the socialist Messenger —the "Only Radical Magazine in America," edited by labor leaders A. Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen, in 1917; Marcus Garvey's Negro World, the organ of the Universal Negro Improvement Association, in 1918; and Opportunity, from the Urban League, edited by the sociologist Charles S. Johnson, in 1923.
In this new communicative arena of proliferating print media, a cluster of competing but not mutually exclusive social philosophies in African-American life—several of them with antebellum antecedents—had now acquired formulaic structures and programmatic agendas: (1) liberal integrationism and "cultural pluralism"; (2) conservative bourgeois economic nationalism and black capitalism; (3) Pan-African cultural nationalism; (4) political separatism and emigrationist territorial nationalism; and (5) revolutionary nationalism. Alongside the official leadership of the rising black middle class's civil rights and racial uplift organizations, a popular tradition of millenarian cult heroes, religious revivalists, charismatic revolutionaries, and skilled confidence men had evolved. And parallel to and interpenetrating both of these from below, black folk beliefs, shifting and diversifying with migration, urbanization, and industrialization, articulated a vernacular pantheon of proto-political leadership in tales, toasts, blues, and ballads. Political manifestoes, essays, and fiction by literary intellectuals conversant with social science concepts, such as Richard Wright ("Blueprint for Negro Writers," 1937, and Native Son, 1941), Langston Hughes ("The Need for Heroes," 1941), Zora Neale Hurston (Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939), and Ralph Ellison (Invisible Man, 1952), meditated metaphorically on the problems of leadership and helped reshape the political imaginations of a growing black audience.
But political scientists like Ralph Bunche, by his own admission, "cultivated a coolness of temper, and an attitude of objectivity" grounded in Darwinian concepts of social evolution, comparative analysis, pragmatism, and emphasis on economic and psychic factors. The first black holder of a political science doctorate, and the founder of Howard University's program in the field, Bunche symbolized a new political role for African-American intellectuals; and starting in 1935 he initiated a probing critique of black organizational leadership and programmatic policies that anatomized their limitations relative to (1) a society that was only "theoretically democratic," to (2) group antagonisms that capitalist economic competition made a "natural phenomenon in a modern industrial society," and to (3) "the stereotyped racial attitudes and beliefs of the masses of the dominant population." Characterizing the entire spectrum of racial advancement organizations—from the NAACP to Garvey's UNIA—as bound to anachronistic assumptions about the nature of the modern world, Bunche's assessment marked a new divide between academic analysts and political practitioners that would become an enduring feature of African-American intellectual life, a divide made clear, for instance, in the contrast between Bunche's A World View of Race (1936), a model of economics-based evolutionary pragmatism, and The Philosophy and Opinions of Marcus Garvey (1925), with its Newtonian apotheosis of idealist nationalism and racial purity by the architect of urban black America's first mass movement. Ultimately, Bunche's worldview, elaborated through subsequent fieldwork on colonial policy in Africa, led him to play a pivotal role in the formation of the United Nations (drafting the trusteeship sections of the UN Charter in 1945) and to a Nobel Peace Prize for being the architect of the 1949 Near East accord between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.
The urban black world into which Ralph Bunche had been born, and to which Marcus Garvey had immigrated, experienced, during the years their political views were moving toward collision, a flowering of African-American architects on the most literal level. Mass migration had spurred a rising nexus of formal black city-based institutions—businesses, political and educational organizations, churches, fraternal and sororal orders—and with them the New Negro "dream of a Black Metropolis." A paying clientele had evolved for the generation of professionally trained African-American architects who had matriculated at the turn of the twentieth century in the self-help artisan curricula at Tuskegee and Hampton Institute, and later at Howard University. Before these schooled professionals a long history of antebellum slave artisans and free black "master builders" had produced a tradition of vernacular architecture in African-American intellectual life that had left traces of African spatial sense, ornamental motifs, and compositional utility on American buildings as disparate as the 1712 Dutch Jansen House on the Hudson River; various plantation mansions in Old South cities like Savannah, Charleston, and New Orleans; or the early nineteenth-century "African House" built in Louisiana for Isle Brevelle, a settlement of free people of color, by Louis Metoyer, a wealthy ex-slave who had studied architecture in Paris.
During the period from 1880 to 1900, as formal schools of architecture were being founded in America and as black institutions emerged in new southern and northern environments, the most significant American architectural achievements were not so much in monumental buildings as in railroads, grain elevators, bridges, powerhouses, dams, factories, and schools, where the focus on function helped American architects minimize the devitalizing influence of aesthetic imitation fostered by successive Eurocentric academic revivals of Greek, Romanesque, and Gothic styles. In 1892 Booker T. Washington recruited Robert R. Taylor, one of the earliest black graduates in architecture from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, to develop (without formal accreditation at the time) mechanical industries at the school; and the group of architectural students he trained, including John Lankford, Wallace Rayfield, William Pittman, and Vertner Tandy, became leading designers of the new black religious, educational, and commercial architecture. Modernist style was not yet in the ascendancy in the academy or the public sphere; and African-American architects were caught like their professional peers in the prevailing cultural schism that permitted boldly expressive engineering in bridges or commercial buildings while limiting time-honored cultural institutions at the top of the social hierarchy—the church and the college—to conventional colonial, Romanesque, or Gothic molds. Working within these constraints, Lankford became national supervising architect for the AME Church, designing such landmarks as Atlanta's Big Bethel; Rayfield became supervising architect for the AME Zion Church; and Pittman designed the Negro Building for the 1907 Jamestown Tricentennial.
Some African-American architects who had been trained outside the black college orbit, like William Moses and Julian Abele, mastered the design ethos of public sphere architecture and achieved noteworthy successes outside the black institutional milieu. Moses, awarded a degree in architecture from Pennsylvania State in 1924, won, while on the faculty at Hampton Institute, the open competition to design the Virginia Pavillion at the 1939 New York World's Fair, though this winning design was not used once his racial identity was discovered. Abele, a graduate of the Pennsylvania School of Fine Arts and Architecture, turned his flair for the Gothic revival style into a prominent career as chief designer for the large white architectural firm Horace Trumbauer & Associates in Philadelphia, superintending such projects as Philadelphia's Free Library and Museum of Fine Arts, Harvard University's Widener Library, and the designs for Duke University and the Duke family mansions. Albert Cassell, a 1919 graduate of Cornell University, planned five trade buildings at Tuskegee Institute before assuming leadership of Howard University's Department of Architecture and, deploying a Georgian style, literally transformed the physical appearance of its entire campus.
Perhaps because of the institutional constraints within which most black architects have functioned, and because of the decline of the vernacular tradition, a distinctively African-American philosophy of architecture was slow to evolve, although by 1939 John Louis Wilson, the first black graduate (1928) of Columbia University's school of architecture, hinted at the possibility in his assertion that architecture is a "lithic history of social conditions; [and] the monuments of a race—never the result of chance—survive as indices of the fundamental standards of a people, a locality, and an epoch." During the Harlem Renaissance, as a small black elite gained access to the expressive possibilities of "power architecture," the design choices made in domestic and recreational buildings by figures such as Madame C. J. Walker took on broad symbolic significance. The "cosmopolitan ideal" current among fashionable New Negroes asserted itself in Vertner Tandy's Italianate design for Walker's Irvington-on-the-Hudson palazzo, Villa Lewaro; and a counterpointing "race ideal" manifested itself in the Egyptianizing art deco ornamental motifs created for the flatiron-shaped Walker theater and business center in Indianapolis by the white firm of Rubush & Hunter. In the decades during and after World War II, as black architectural, engineering, and construction firms such as McKissack & McKissack began to win government awards for design contracts, and as educational opportunities in architecture diversified, clusters of black architects and black-owned firms developed in the large urban centers of California, New York, and the District of Columbia, with periodic calls for an African-American style and "soul" in architecture echoing the cycles of cultural consciousness in the nation's increasingly black urban centers.
As secular sources of alternative intellectual authority, all the aforementioned fields of African-American scientistic activity have experienced these cycles of black cultural consciousness in tandem with the shifts in historicism and popular and professional historiography that have figured prominently in black intellectual life during the twentieth century. The nature and intellectual contexts of American history writing in general underwent dramatic changes at the end of the nineteenth century. African-American historians grappled, as did all their peers, both with the growing secularization of ideas that undermined the providential design of older, theologically based romantic historiography and with the rise of scientific methods and standards of research that accompanied the professionalization of history writing in modern universities. Self-trained George Washington Williams, whose A History of the Negro Race in America from 1619 to 1880 (1882) constituted the first work of modern historical scholarship by an African American, bridged the old and the new worlds of historiography. His commitment to rigorous citation, to archival research, to cross-checked source materials, and to new primary sources such as newspapers and statistical and oral data placed him in the advance guard of historians. But his political partisanship, his missionary Christianity, and his optimistic faith in the discernability of God's providential design in history set him against the intellectual tendencies that were teaching sociologists, economists, political scientists, and historians alike that they could no longer reveal God's and Newton's laws or construct grand systems. Unlike Harvard-trained W. E. B. Du Bois, whose pioneering monograph, Suppression of the African Slave Trade (1896), placed its dispassionate faith in "the empirical knowledge which, dispelling ignorance and misapprehension, would guide intelligent social policy," Williams attuned his work less to reasoned pragmatism than to the rhetoric of popular inspiration—"not as a blind panegyrist" to his race, he wrote, but to satisfy with "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth," his black readers' "keen sense of intellectual hunger."
Predicated on the need to combat the pejorative Anglo-Western practice that, from David Hume to Arnold Toynbee, denied historical significance to African peoples entirely, both the academic and popular strains of African-American historiography expanded their roles in black intellectual life at the onset of the twentieth century. Such expansion built on the growing black audiences fostered by the rise of public education and mass literacy, by the awakening interest in "race history" encouraged through spreading concepts of nation and nationality, and by the emergence of a group of historical writers based in black colleges and universities or at newspapers and the journals of racial uplift organizations. In Western society generally, the period following World War I saw an explicit ideal of popular history promoted on a mass scale, with an exploding market for sweeping, unflinchingly speculative accounts written in highly dramatic, nontechnical language made evident in the vast sales of H. G. Wells's Outline of History (1920), Hendrik Van Loon's The Story of Mankind (1921), and Oswald Spengler's The Decline of the West (1918–1922). Correspondingly, among nonacademic New Negro historians such as Hubert Harrison, Drusilla Dunjee Houston, J. A. Rogers, and Arthur Schomburg, an inspirational philosophy of race history asserted itself in historical essays and books that were broad in scope and speculative appeal rather than narrowly monographic, that were assertively value-laden and judgmental, and that professed the social utility and moral edification appropriate to black renaissance. Appeals to racial solidarity helped modulate in African-American communities the schism that elsewhere led academic historians to confront the 1920s' and 1930s' vogue of nonprofessional historiography with perjorative contrasts between "popular writing" and "profound systematic treatment." But at mid-century, the contrasts between the works of black academic historians like John Hope Franklin, Benjamin Quarles, and Rayford Logan and those of the "scholars without portfolio" clearly reflected the impact on the former group of the dispassionate ethos and limiting assumptions of authoritative social science methodologies, and the persisting influence on the latter of alternative intellectual authorities mentioned earlier in this article, whose "sacred values" often resided in the romantic, populist, and apocalyptic traditions of "Negro genius," "the folk," and Ethiopianist or Egyptianist revivalism.
In an attempt to characterize the evolution of historical scholarship in postbellum African-American life, John Hope Franklin has proposed the following four-generation typology: (1) a generation of largely nonprofessional historiography beginning with the publication in 1882 of Williams's History of the Negro Race, ending around 1909 with Booker T. Washington's Story of the Negro, and concerned primarily with explaining the process of adjustment African Americans made to American social conditions; (2) a second generation marked by the publication of Du Bois's The Negro in 1915 but dominated from that year forward by the books, organizational entities, periodical enterprises, and scholarly protégés of Carter G. Woodson, who produced a stream of monographs on labor, education, Reconstruction, art, music, and other topics before his death in 1950; (3) a third generation inaugurated by the appearance of Du Bois's Black Reconstruction in 1935, and impelled by the intellectual impact of the Great Depression and the World War II global crisis, to focus less on black achievements than on race relations and international contexts, authoring an impressive body of work on slavery and urban and intellectual history and closing the 1960s with a significant number of white historians in the field; and finally (4) the largest and best-trained generation, beginning around 1970, approaching comprehensiveness in their range of specializations, passionately revisionist regarding both conventional and black historiographical traditions, and buttressed conceptually and institutionally by the black studies movement and the nationwide integration of American colleges and universities.
Focused less on the developing cadre of professional historians and more on the various uses and diversifying clientele of black history, Benjamin Quarles suggests an alternative typology to describe the different publics that, by the 1970s, dictated the content and style of black history writing: (1) the black rank and file; (2) the black revolutionary nationalists; (3) the black academicians; and (4) the white world, lay and scholarly. First in this scheme, black history for the rank and file, was designed to create a sense of pride and personal worth; and it stressed victories and achievements in a "great man/woman" theory of history highlighted by heroic individuals from African antiquity to the present. Conveyed increasingly by such mass media vehicles as television and radio, magazines, newspapers, coloring books, postcards, games, and comic books, it has emphasized optimistic biographical sketches of black leaders in politics, business, athletics, and the lively arts, with special appeals to youth. By contrast, the black history espoused by revolutionary nationalists has constructed a core narrative of contrapuntal white oppression and black rebellion, has been apocalyptic and polemical in temper, and has compounded elements of Marxist, Pan-Africanist, and anticolonialist ideologies in a studiously historicized but partisan call to black liberation and nation building. Characterized more by radical interpretation than by original research, revolutionary nationalist historiography has eschewed the academic cult of objectivity as inherently conservative and typically selected topics of exploration consonant with its political objectives.
One issue in African-American intellectual life that the historiographical presence of black revolutionary nationalism crystallizes is the role of apocalyptic, millenarian, radical communitarian, socialist, Marxist, and neo-Marxist ideas and ideologies generally in the thought of black communities. Although still understudied as a facet of black intellectual life, the utopian antebellum communitarian movements in which American socialism originated—the Shaker villages, the Owenite communes such as New Harmony and Francis Wright's Nashoba, the Fourieristic phalanxes, and the like—ofttimes had black members (like Shaker elder Rebecca Cox Jackson [1795–1871], for example), even if at the margins; and they characteristically proposed a combination of socialist and colonizationist schemes to end slavery and reconstruct society. The Communist Clubs of "scientific" or Marxian socialists took more radical abolitionist stances and as early as the 1850s were inviting African Americans to join as equal members in the "realization and unification of a world republic" that would recognize "no distinction as to nationality or race, caste or status, color or sex."
Equally important, indigenous African-American dreams of independent black communities or of a "black nation"—to be achieved through internal migration, insurrection, or emigration elsewhere—date back at least to the efforts of Paul Cuffe (1759–1817) to colonize Sierra Leone. In the postbellum era given imaginative expression in narratives such as Sutton Griggs's Imperium in Imperio (1899) and organizational form in pre-Garveyite "Back to Africa" schemes such as the Oklahoma exodus of Chief Alfred Sam, they became fused with various strains of programmatic socialism popularized by Edward Bellamy's utopian Looking Backward (1888) and Equality (1897). Reformist socialism and revolutionary Marxism gained broader appeal in early twentieth-century black communities through the sermons of black socialist preachers such as George Washington Woodbey (b. 1854); through the radical journalism of Cyril Briggs's The Crusader, Philip Randolph and Chandler Owen's the Messenger ; through Hubert Harrison's public oratory, newspaper columns, and Colored Unity League; and through an expanding body of Marxist polemics and historiography written by black members of socialist or communist organizations or by Marxian academics like W. E. B. Du Bois. During the interregnum between the two world wars, the pre-Stalinist "romance of communism," which influenced American liberal intellectuals generally after the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, won the allegiance of performing artists such as Paul Robeson and black literary intellectuals such as Claude McKay, Langston Hughes, and Richard Wright. And between 1928 and 1943, grounded in party member Harry Haywood's subcommittee advocacy of a "national revolutionary" movement for black self-determination, the Communist Party of the U.S.A. based its mass appeal to African Americans on the proposal to establish an independent "Black Belt" nation in the South. Though the Stalinist era disillusioned many black radicals, as it did many of their nonblack colleagues, the apocalyptic ideological appeal of revolutionary Marxism has persisted in the post–World War II decades, revitalized in African-American intellectual life by the emergence of anticolonialist African socialism (an eclectic mixture primarily of African traditionalism, classical European Marxism, and Chinese socialism) and the Tanzanian socialism of Julius Nyerere in particular, whose ujamaa principles of family-centered communal enterprise and nationalized industries were assimilated into the Kwanza celebrations of contemporary African Americans during the apogee of Black Power–era cultural nationalism. After the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense in 1966 by Huey Newton (1942–1989) and Bobby Seale (b. 1936), its paramilitary orchestration of ideas drawn from the Marxist-Leninist corpus, from black nationalist writings, and from anticolonial revolutionary movements in Asia and Africa became the most visible manifestation of black political militancy. Along with the evolving revolutionary nationalism of Malcolm X after his separation from Elijah Muhammad's Nation of Islam, and with the cause célèbre of inmate George Jackson and academically trained Angela Davis, the Black Panther phenomenon helped create a mystique of romantic revolutionism in African-American intellectual life that, among college and university students in particular, remained intense into the 1990s.
The intensity of that mystique is one of the forces that has frequently inclined African-American academic historians to differentiate their work conceptually from that of revolutionary nationalists. Black academicians, inclined by professional training to see history less as inspiration or ideological weapon than as a discipline, have been consistently impelled, by the demand for original and controlled research, away from the obvious and well known toward the study of processes more than persons and to the identification and solution of methodological and conceptual problems apparent in the African-American past. Considering emotionally charged, highly provocative discourse to be, by convention, more the province of the poet, the orator, and the charismatic leader than the professional historian, they have characteristically tried to subordinate their private wishes and values to social science imperatives presumed to be often counterintuitive and counterideological; and they have continued to seek, in the terms of their own understandings, "balanced" treatments of the past rather than the selectively self-gratifying or politically efficacious. Among academic historians, as the uses and clientele of African-American history have increasingly involved white and non-African-American communities, lay and academic, the dual objectives of demythologizing the American past and demonstrating the centrality of black Americans in the national experience have been complicated by the broadening conceptual challenges inherent in the newer historiography of social movements, feminism, and American cultural pluralism. One sign of the intellectual maturation of African-American historical studies in the 1980s and '90s has been their growing awareness of, first, the heuristic value of diversified uses and clienteles for history, and, second, the need for cross-fertilizing perspectives, multimedia modes of presentation, and multidisciplinary methods that recognize the changing character of historical evidence and the array of new techniques and technologies available to record the human journey through time and space.
Facing the Twenty-First Century
As suggested earlier, the emergence by the mid-twentieth century of a more stable black middle class fostered the development of an African-American intellectual stratum with functions analogous to those evident in varying degrees in modern societies around the world. Historian John Hope Franklin, himself a leading figure in the generation of professional black scholars who gained prominence during the first postwar decade, by 1979 could write that the years since 1925 had seen an increase, not only in the number of black artist-intellectuals that was unimaginable a half-century earlier, but also in the styles and forms by which they could communicate. The increasing security, solidarity, and self-esteem of their work as intellectuals during "the most productive period in the history of Afro-American literature and culture" derived in large measure from their status as members of a professional intellectual class based increasingly at large, newly integrated white colleges and universities. And the foci of their intellectual activities, at least five of which seem manifest, increasingly paralleled those of intellectuals elsewhere—at the same time that conscious affirmations of difference figured more centrally in their worldview.
First, growing numbers of black intellectuals devoted themselves to creating and diffusing high culture—or a new synthesis of vernacular and high-culture traditions intended to supplant older artistic forms and mythologies. Creativity and originality in the arts and letters was increasingly perceived to be a primary intellectual obligation; and during the 1960s and '70s a "second Black Renaissance" or "Black Arts Movement"—the "aesthetic sister of the Black Power Movement"—became the focus of a concerted effort to link African-American art and politics to the currents of Pan-African intellectual activism in the Third World. Following the opening of Leroi Jones/Imamu Amiri Baraka's Black Arts Theatre in Newark, N.J., in 1965, shortly after the assassination of Malcolm X, self-proclaimed "New Breed" poets, dramatists, and fiction writers assertively manifested a self-conscious cultural nationalism, influenced partly by the poetics and varying anticolonial philosophies of Francophone black African and Caribbean artist-intellectuals such as Leopold Sedar Senghor of Senegal and Frantz Fanon of Martinique.
Larry Neal, a coleader of the movement along with Amiri Baraka, described the new attitudes toward tradition as stemming from (1) "the historic struggle to obliterate racism in America"; (2) "the general dilemma of identity which haunts American cultural history"; and (3) "an overall crisis in modern intellectual thought in Western society, where values are being assaulted by a new generation of youth around the world as it searches for new standards and ideals." Blending the aesthetic postulates of Francophone négritude, the rhythmic lyricism of contemporary blues-derived "soul" music, and the warrior ethos and scatological invective of urban street gangs, Black Arts intellectuals also developed cross-cultural analogies between their imperatives and those of turn-of-the-century radical Irish Renaissance poets and playwrights who had felt compelled to modulate the influence of English literature on their own works by plunging into Celtic mythology and folklore. Leading figures in the black arts movement, dispersed nationwide in urban artists' collectives that communicated the black arts in new "little magazines" like the Journal of Black Poetry and Black Dialogue, and through independent publishing houses like Dudley Randall's Broadside Press in Detroit and Don L. Lee/Haki Madhubuti's Third World Press in Chicago, helped sponsor a proliferation of black theaters and bookstores along with a self-consciously performative intellectual style that garnered unprecedentedly large audiences for spoken word recordings like those of The Last Poets and for a new wave of highly stylized urban-based black cinema presented by filmmakers such as Gordon Parks, Melvin Van Peebles, and Gordon Parks Jr.
A second forward-looking focus of African-American intellectual activity developed as global communications and rapid transport intensified the process by which black intellectuals provided national and cross-national models of development for aesthetically sensitive intellectuals all over the world. That process acquired new significance with the expanding power of the international mass media and the emotional appeal of the civil rights and Black Power movements as paradigms for social change among marginalized groups worldwide. A diversifying spectrum of ideologies and cultural modes, associated with groups ranging from the NAACP and CORE (the Congress of Racial Equality) to the Nation of Islam and the Republic of New Africa, influenced youth and social protest movements in Britain and Eastern Europe; and as far away as India, a politico-artistic resistance movement among dark-skinned "untouchables"—the "Dahlit Panthers"—modeled itself on the feline iconography, Marxist-Leninist rhetoric, and community activism of the Black Panthers.
Third, black intellectuals assumed a programmatic commitment to developing common culture and a tradition of cultural criticism. As early as 1925 Alain Locke had described the New Negro movement as an effort to turn the common problem African Americans faced into a common consciousness and culture. William Stanley Braithwaite, W. E. B. Du Bois, Benjamin Brawley, Sterling Brown, Jessie Fauset, Gwendolyn Bennett, and Eric Walrond, among others, helped establish a magazine tradition of critical reviews of literature and the arts during the era; and Theophilus Lewis's columns in the Messenger offered pioneering critiques of African-American theater. Maude Cuney-Hare, trained at the New England Conservatory of Music, founded and directed the Allied Arts Centre in Boston in 1927, dedicating it to "discover and encourage musical, literary, and dramatic talent, and to arouse interest in the artistic capabilities of the Negro child." Superseding James Monroe Trotter's Music and Some Highly Musical People (1878), her Negro Musicians and Their Music (1936) presented the first comprehensive critical history of the diasporic black creative tradition in a single artistic medium, delineating African music from its earliest phases and explicating the New World influence of African instruments, rhythms, and dances on such forms as the Argentinian tango, the Cuban habañera, and the bamboula of Louisiana (see Dance).
Alain Locke's own annual Opportunity magazine, defined as "retrospective reviews of the literature of the Negro," from 1928 to midcentury, composed the first sustained attempt at cross-disciplinary, cross-media black cultural criticism—and provided as well an intellectual-history-in-miniature of the era. During these and subsequent decades, the growth of the black population and its dispersion through mass migration and urbanization had created a subsociety too large to be united through kinship connection or firsthand experience. The development of common culture depended increasingly on "reproductive" intellectual institutions such as schools, churches, and newspapers—through which a sense of identity and symbolic group traditions were promoted by African-American teachers, clergy, and journalists. In contrast to the youth-conscious efforts of the New Negro era, during the Great Depression and World War II years a representative group of black intellectuals, including Alain Locke, W. E. B. Du Bois, Ira Reid, Sterling Brown, Ralph Bunche, and Eric Williams, founded an elaborate project of adult education and intergroup relations called the Associates in Negro Folk Education, which, in the course of combatting adult illiteracy, was intended "to bring within the reach of the average reader basic facts and progressive views about Negro life" by publishing a series of "Bronze Booklets" on black fiction, poetry and drama, the visual arts, music, social history, and so forth.
At midcentury, Locke's call for an introspective cultural criticism that would supply the missing "third dimension" of black intellectual life was first met by Margaret Just Butcher's posthumous synthesis, in The Negro in American Culture (1956), of Locke's own cumulative explorations of African-American contributions to American music, dance, folklore, poetry, polemics, fiction, drama, painting, sculpture, education, and regional nationalism. However, with the urban rebellions and cultural nationalism of the 1960s and '70s, the ensuing clash of ideas over the concept of racial integration magnified what Harold Cruse called the "crisis of the Negro intellectual"—the problem of forging a cultural philosophy and a sense of tradition upon which a politics of liberation and a systematic criticism of the arts could be erected. The search for an irreducibly "black aesthetic" began in this context as a fragmentary critical movement grounded in separatist polemics and coalesced outside the academy under the black arts leadership of Amiri Baraka, Larry Neal, Hoyt Fuller, Addison Gayle, Don L. Lee, and Ron Karenga. The "black aestheticians" came closest to discovering a viable indigenous sense of cultural tradition in Baraka's theoretical, ethnomusicologically focused social history, Blues People (1963), and his cultural essays. But the more comprehensive and systematic achievements in cultural criticism came after the eclipse of the black arts movement, during the late 1970s and '80s, within the academy, as a generation of African-American scholars trained in the theoretical postulates and practices of structuralism, poststructuralism, deconstruction, hermeneutics, dialogics, feminism, and neo-Marxist criticism adapted these modes of analysis to African-American cultural texts and contexts. Academy-based critical theorists such as Houston Baker, Barbara Christian, and Henry Louis Gates became leading figures, as did hip-hop theorists and popular culture critics like Greg Tate, Michele Wallace, and Nelson George in avant-garde mass media newspapers and journals.
Besides the aforementioned emphases on creating art, on building cross-cultural alliances, and on developing a common African-American sense of tradition, a fourth intellectual impulse—to effect broad social change—has persisted in African-American intellectual life as a "sacred value." Continuing racial conflict has kept the degree of intellectual consensus in American society within strict limits; and the different social situations of the recipients of high culture, and the extreme discrepancies in educational preparation and receptive capacity, have fostered diverse paths of creativity and impelled a partial rejection of Western civilization's cultural values among African-American intellectuals. In the post–World War II decades, this rejection of prevailing intellectual traditions has included both nihilistic repudiation of popular or high-culture traditions tainted with ideological racism and the observance or development of an alternative stream of tradition, sometimes of suppressed or forgotten traditions of syncretized or authentic African origin. Guided by the philosophical anthropology of works such as Janheinz Jahn's Muntu: The New African Culture and Cheikh Anta Diop's The African Origin of Civilization, the theory of social change espoused in the mid-1980s by the proponents of Afrocentricity is rooted in ideological advocacy of the original unity of African culture, and in the need for a revitalizing new ethnocultural consciousness among the peoples of the modern African diaspora, as a prerequisite for a unifying politics of liberation. Although the validity of Jahn's and Diop's views have been challenged by other specialists in African studies, and though debate about the "essentialist" postulates and racialist implications of Afro-centricity has intensified among intellectuals inside and outside African-American communities, the growing pervasiveness of the concept and its texts and iconography cannot be dismissed.
Three other recent developments in African-American intellectual life merit attention with respect to concepts of social change—the growth of black liberation theology, the emergence of African-American critical legal theory, and the consolidation of black neoconservative ideology. Regarding the first of these, under the leadership of James Cone, and in dialogue with other theologians such as James De Otis Roberts, Cain Felder, and philosopher Cornel West, black religious thinkers who matured in the Black Power era have moved beyond the black church tradition of Christian ecumenism, espoused by such earlier leaders as Benjamin Mays (1894–1984) and Howard Thurman (1900–1981), and beyond the synthesis with Gandhian nonviolence effected by Martin Luther King Jr. (1929–1968). As a forerunner to contemporary African-American theologians, Benjamin Mays, a Southern sharecropper's son who rose to become a Baptist minister and president of Morehouse College, devoted part of his early career to scholarship for the Institute of Social and Religious Research and authored books such as The Negro's Church (1933) and The Negro's God as Reflected in His Literature (1938), which provided pioneering descriptions of African-American religious life "as scientifically exact as the nature of the material permits." In addition, as a religious teacher advocating Christian practice in race relations, he became one of the spiritual progenitors of the civil rights movement, urging students such as Andrew Young and Julian Bond into public service and considering "his greatest honor [to be] having taught and inspired Martin Luther King Jr." Howard Thurman, also an ordained Baptist minister, became dean of Rankin Chapel, professor of theology at Howard University, and one of the twelve "Great Preachers" of this century. But his unorthodox "inward journey" in quest of a spiritual liberation beyond race and ethnicity led him to develop a unique mystical ecumenism that drew on spiritual experiences in India (with Mohandas Gandhi), Sri Lanka, and Myanmar as well as on the cosmology of African-American spirituals and on Native American belief systems in his own ancestry. The most prolific of African-American religious writers, Thurman authored a long succession of richly metaphorical meditations on love, temptation, spiritual discipline, creative encounter, and the search for religious common ground, which influenced generations of black seminarians, among them Martin Luther King Jr.
Because King has influenced African-American intellectual life perhaps more than any other religious thinker, it is important to understand his theology of the "beloved community" as a complex fusion of African-American church traditions and advanced formal training in the philosophies of such diverse thinkers as Henry David Thoreau, Mohandas Gandhi, G. W. F. Hegel, Walter Rauschenbusch, and Reinhold Niebuhr. In James Cone's view, King's ministry of social transformation through creative, nonviolent confrontation embodied publicly the central ideas of black religious thought—love, justice, liberation, hope, and redemptive suffering—terms used in common with other Christian communities but given a distinctively black meaning by particular social and political realities. In Cone's own work, however, the preeminence King gave to love in this cluster of mutually dependent values was shifted to the concept of liberation; and in the wake of the Black Power era and under the influence of Malcolm X's nationalist, Islamicist critique of white Christian supremacism, Cone and other black liberation theologians have increasingly turned away from the texts of European Christian theology and toward African-American vernacular religion as a thematic locus. By drawing partly on the work of Latin American theologians of liberation, and by reformulating aspects of the African-American Ethiopianist tradition, they have posited a new Christocentric black theology, centered on a biblical witness of God's commitment to the poor and oppressed, which "places our past and present actions toward Black liberation in a theological context, seeking to create value-structures according to the God of black freedom." Cultivating a global worldview and sensitivities to other oppressed social groups, black liberation theologians have acknowledged the strengths and the weaknesses of traditional black theology: "For example, Africans showed the lack of knowledge black theologians had about African culture; Latin theologians revealed the lack of class analysis; Asia showed the importance of a knowledge of religions other than Christianity; feminist theology revealed the sexist orientation of black theology; and other minorities in the United States showed the necessity of a coalition in the struggle for justice in the nation and around the globe."
The import acknowledged herein of religions other than Christianity points to a related facet of African-American intellectual life—the long-lived and currently increasing role of non-Christian concepts of liberation, from Islamic, Judaic, Buddhist, Bahai, Rastafarian, traditional African beliefs, and occult traditions, among others. In developing a spectrum of relating thought that, as Cone recognizes, "is neither exclusively Christian … nor primarily African," African Americans have frequently chosen to profess other world religions or various nonconformist and free-thought beliefs ostensibly better suited to liberate them from white Christian nationalism and the maladies of modern living. As early as Edward Wilmot Blyden's Christianity, Islam, and the Negro Race in 1887, selected black religious thinkers have lauded the elevating and unifying potential of Islam, the benefits of its world civilization, and its vaunted capacity for incorporating Africans without creating in them a sense of inferiority. The perceived historic continuity with West African Islam has been a contributing factor to its appeal, just as the antecedent historical tradition of Ethiopian "Falashas" has lent Judaism greater appeal to orthodox as well as heterodox African-American converts and believers.
By contrast, the reception of Bahaism, which treats religious truth as relative, not absolute, and as evolving through successive revelations provided by prophets from many different traditions, suggests the intellectual appeal of newer religious worldviews to African-American adherents. A much-persecuted, heretical nineteenth-century Persian offshoot of Islam, the Bahai faith developed a distinctly modern theology rooted in the professedly indivisible oneness of humankind, the necessary accord of religion with science and reason, the absolute equality of men and women, and the abolition of prejudice of all kinds. As it spread to America early in the twentieth century, Bahaism distinguished itself to African Americans by identifying the race problem as a major spiritual problem and by openly sponsoring "racial amity" conferences and unification through intermarriage at a time when American Christianity remained thoroughly segregated. The Bahai faith attracted African-American artist-intellectuals as different as the philosopher Alain Locke, the Chicago Defender publisher Robert Abbott, the jazz musician "Dizzy" Gillespie, and the poet Robert Hayden, offering a vision of progressive social change through priestless, "democratic theocracy" that by 1983 saw African Americans accounting for more than 30 percent of its U.S. membership.
At some remove from the religious worldview, in the decidedly secular thought of contemporary legal theorists such as Derrick Bell, Patricia Williams, and Stephen Carter, the importance of law as a locus for social change theories has been reemphasized; and the transformative powers and limits of the law have been reconceptualized in highly original mixtures of allegory, case law, social history, and autobiographical meditation that defy the positivist conventions of the older sociologist jurisprudence. A recurrent feature of this new legal discourse is a powerful intellectual skepticism that confronts the older African-American tradition of millenarian hope with the specter of racism as "an integral, permanent, and indestructible component of this society." Among black legal theorists on both the political left and right, the law itself is seen less as an edifice of immutable truths or a blueprint for social engineering than as a chaotic mythological text; and the manifest contradictions of such legal remedies as affirmative action serve to underscore the narrowed possibilities for progressive social change through legal construction. The challenge such a perspective mounts to the activist traditions of African-American intellectual life are multiple, not the least of which is the very definition of the intellectual's proper function. Accordingly, as construed by constitutional lawyer Stephen Carter, "the defining characteristic of the intellectual is not (as some seem to think) a particular level of educational or cultural attainment, and certainly not a political stance," but rather "the drive to learn, to question, to understand, to criticize, not as a means to an end but as an end in itself."
In the wake of the civil rights and Black Power eras, the rise of a cohesive black neoconservative movement has given skeptical, iconoclastic criticism of African-American life high visibility, particularly through the scholarly writings of authors such as economist Thomas Sowell and cultural commentators Stanley Crouch and Shelby Steele. The movement has some historical precedent in early forms of black economic nationalism, capitalist and socialist, that have sought various degrees of economic and social autonomy from the larger society through (1) controlling the black segment of the marketplace through black businesses and "buy black campaigns"; (2) establishing a full-scale black capitalist economy parallel to that of the dominant society; or (3) forming black producer and consumer cooperatives or reviving preindustrial communalism. Such ideas have figured significantly in the outlooks of Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, the Nation of Islam, and others; and they defy conventional "conservative" and "radical" categorization. But as early as 1903 sociologist Kelly Miller had highlighted the ideological warfare between black "radicals and conservatives" in order to interpret the Washington–Du Bois controversy over political, economic, and educational strategies for racial uplift. Acknowledging the ambiguities therein, Alain Locke in 1925 described the psychology of the "New Negro" in part by asserting that "for the present the Negro is radical on race matters, conservative on others, a 'forced radical,' a social protestant rather than a genuine radical." And giving these psychopolitical tensions the most emphatic personal configuration, Pittsburgh Courier journalist and satirist George Schuyler, having renounced his 1920s allegiances to leftist politics, ultimately embraced autobiographically a reformulated new public identity as Black and Conservative (1966), establishing further precedent for the phenomenon of the 1970s and 1980s that saw growing numbers of African-American intellectuals joining the "neoconservative" flight from liberal-radical social philosophies and public policy.
Because conservatism has typically been identified—often wrongly—with Republican party politics, and because critics have often failed to distinguish properly conservatives from neoconservatives (the distinction is ideological more than chronological), African Americans have often chafed at the latter label. But whatever differentiates them from nominal neoconservatives, the writings of intellectuals like Sowell and Steele do share some pivotal neoconservative stances about social policy: (1) though less likely than conservatives to condemn governmental manipulation of the citizenry as fundamentally immoral regardless of the intended social improvements, they are more likely than liberals to be disillusioned by the failures of public policy and to insist that there is little public policy leverage for changing the relevant human behaviors and conditions of modern life; (2) they tend to agree with neoconservatives that the limitations of our knowledge about the consequence of any given policy, and the basic inefficiency of bureaucratic government in implementing policy, make the liberal agenda indefensible and unachievable.
Largely in accord with these stances, Thomas Sowell has elaborated the black neoconservative position in more than a dozen books that compare the economic performance of ethnic groups around the world and advocate laissez-faire economics, with minimal government regulation, as more amenable to black progress than the bureaucratic manipulations of the liberal welfare state. And in A Conflict of Visions: Ideological Origins of Political Struggle (1987), he has attempted to identify two perennial diametrically opposed visions of human nature and society, one "constrained" and the other "unconstrained," as the root of political turmoil in the modern era. The "constrained" vision with which Sowell has allied himself eschews "unconstrained" notions of human rationality and perfectibility for an emphasis on the limitations of human altruism and reason and on the pragmatic necessity for disciplined cultural traditions and a society ordered and stabilized by the free marketplace. Shelby Steele's corollary "new vision of race in America," articulated in The Content of Our Character (1990), lacks Sowell's theoretical sweep and supporting data but offers provocative speculations about the tangle of psychopathological guilt, fear, damaged self-esteemx, and false ethnic pride that, in his view, has prevented African Americans from taking advantage of real opportunities for success and misdirected their energies away from meaningful social competition and into black nationalist fantasies, chauvinistic educational enterprises, and ineffective affirmative action programs. However controversial, the arguments of Sowell, Steele, and other black neoconservatives have enhanced the sophistication of policy debates in African-American communities; and, capitalizing on the strategic and philosophical quandaries traditional liberal-radical civil rights organizations faced during the Reagan-Bush era, they have forced black thinkers across the political spectrum to consider anew the basic concepts and practical methods of social conservatism and social change.
Perhaps the most far-reaching recent developments in black intellectual life with respect to concepts of social change, however, have come through the flowering and dispersion of black feminist thought in the 1970s and '80s, building on a long tradition of African-American female leadership, creative activity, and political activism. The emergence of a cohesive and consummately skilled group of black female literary artists, in the wake of the black arts and women's liberation movements of the 1960s and '70s, helped galvanize the formation of black women's studies as an autonomous academic discipline in the middle 1970s, epitomized by the appearance in 1982 of Gloria Hull, Patricia Scott, and Barbara Smith's ground-breaking critical anthology All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave. Organized as an inter-disciplinary field of theoretical and practical study that is unified by black female perspectives on the conceptual triumvirate of "race, class, and gender," advocates of black women's studies have reconstructed an historical continuity of black feminist expression—from Maria Stewart's 1830s African-American Female Society addresses to Sojourner Truth's famous "Ain't I a Woman?" speech in 1851 to the 1890s manifestoes of Anna Julia Cooper and Victoria Earle Matthews; and from Amy Jacques Garvey's mid-1920s nationalist/feminist editorials and the Depression-era fiction and folklore of Zora Neale Hurston to the contemporary "womanist" prose, poetry, and drama of Alice Walker and her peers.
Walker's concept of the "womanist" as one who "acknowledges the particularistic experiences and cultural heritage of black women, resists systems of domination, and insists on the liberty and self-determination of all people" comes close to providing a consensual definition of the range of ideologies and praxis of black women's feminism. But the proliferation of black feminist ideas across the spectrum of lay and professional intellectual activities defies any narrow construction of its purposes and practices; and its versatility and growing popular appeal have become evident in the diverse audiences for such black feminist cultural critics as Hazel Carby, the writer bell hooks, and Michele Wallace, for popular and academic historians of black female experience such as Paula Giddings and Darlene Clark Hine, for social scientists such as Joyce Ladner, Patricia Hill Collins, and MacArthur prizewinner Sara Lawrence Lightfoot, whose Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer (1988), an intergenerational biography of her mother, the pioneering child psychiatrist Margaret Lawrence, consummates the formal valorization of black female family traditions.
As a final focus of contemporary practical and theoretical activity, black intellectuals, spurred by an expanding African-American electorate and corollary concentrations of local and national political power, have increasingly found themselves playing explicitly political roles in grassroots and electoral mobilization for city, state, and federal offices, for black third-party conventions, and for presidential campaigns such as those of the Rev. Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988 and Gov. Bill Clinton in 1992. However, inasmuch as the political elite needs the approbation and services of intellectuals but remains loath to share the highest authority with them, the separation of black intellectuals from the higher executive and legislative branches of government parallels more starkly the marginal situation of American intellectuals generally as it has evolved from the time of the Jacksonian revolution until the "New Liberalism" of Woodrow Wilson and afterward. Nonetheless, liberal and constitutional politics in modern states have to a large extent been "intellectuals' politics"—that is, politics vaguely impelled by ideals precipitated into programs. Racial exclusion has made even more pronounced for African Americans the intellectuals' major political vocation of enunciating and pursuing the ideal. And as part of the "crisis of the Negro intellectual" articulated by Harold Cruse at the height of the Black Power movement during the late 1960s, the vitiation of this political vocation among black intellectuals has been exacerbated by their problematic sense of continuity with their cultural, creative, and ideological antecedents.
Such a crisis notwithstanding, however, by no means have black intellectuals been uniformly attracted by ideological politics, even those of civil rights and Black Power. Moderation and devotion to the rules of civil polity, quiet and apolitical concentration on specialized intellectual tasks, cynical or antipolitical passivity, and faithful acceptance of, and service to, the existing order are all to be found in substantial proportions among modern black intellectuals, just as among their nonblack peers. Although their work in scientific and scholarly spheres remains subject to much stricter regulation than in the fields of expressive intellectual action, some black intellectuals have influenced realignments of the social structure, within the intellectual subsociety in particular, supplanting the incumbents of leadership roles in professional intellectual associations and garnering previously unattainable allocations of intellectual awards and prizes—one of the most noteworthy being the award of the 1993 Nobel Prize for Literature to novelist Toni Morrison. And new fields of inquiry have been pioneered by black intellectuals such as Harry Edwards in the sociology of sport and the prolific critic Nathan Scott Jr. in religious literary criticism. Nonetheless, in the closing decade of the twentieth century, the long-lived function of black intellectuals in supplying the doctrines and some of the leaders of protest and social change movements remained one of their most widely accepted and effective roles. And from the evidence of the imaginative and theoretical roles played by contemporary writers such as Octavia Butler and Samuel R. Delany in the immensely popular realm of fantasy and science-based "speculative fiction," black intellectuals in the closing years of the second millennium were poised also to help formulate and guide a global society's creative vision of its possible futures.
See also Abolition; Afrocentrism; Anthropology and Anthropologists; Architecture; Art; Black Arts Movement; Black Middle Class; Black Power Movement; Black Studies; Civil War, U.S.; Communist Party of the United States; Dance; Education in the United States; Feminist Theory and Criticism; Film; Folklore; Free Blacks, 1619–1860; Great Depression and the New Deal; Harlem Renaissance; Historians and Historiography; Identity and Race in the United States; Journalism; Kwanza; Literature; Masculinity; Mathematicians; Music; Nationalism in the United States in the Nineteenth Century; New Negro; Pan-Africanism; Political Ideologies; Politics; Race and Science; Religion; Representations of Blackness in the United States; Science; Slavery; Social Psychology, Psychologists, and Race; Sociology; Spirituality; Woodson, Carter Godwin
Banks, William M. Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. New York: W. W. Norton, 1996.
Barksdale, Richard, and Kenneth Kinnamon, eds. Black Writers of America. New York: Macmillan, 1972.
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Traditions. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1987.
Buhle, Mari Jo, et al., eds. Encyclopedia of the American Left. 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
Bullock, Penelope. The Afro-American Periodical Press, 1838–1909. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1981.
Buterfield, Stephen. Black Autobiography in America. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1974.
Childs, John Brown. Leadership, Conflict, and Cooperation in Afro-American Social Thought. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Coles, Robert. Black Writers Abroad: A Study of Black American Writers in Europe and Africa. New York: Garland, 1999.
Cone, James. "Black Religious Thought." In Charles Lippy and Peter Williams, eds., Encyclopedia of the American Religious Experience. Vol. 2. New York: Scribner, 1988.
Cruse, Harold. The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership. New York: New York Review Books, 2005.
Dozier, Richard. "Black Architecture." In Charles Wilson and William Ferris, eds., Encyclopedia of Southern Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1989.
Elder, Arlene. The "Hindered Hand": Cultural Implication of Early African American Fiction. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978.
Ellison, Ralph. Shadow and Act. New York: Random House, 1964.
Foner, Philip S. American Socialism and Black Americans, from the Age of Jackson to World War II. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977.
Franklin, John Hope. Race and History: Selected Essays 1938–1988. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
Fullinwider, S. P. The Mind and Mood of Black America. Homewood, Ill.: Dorsey Press, 1969.
Guthrie, Robert V. Even the Rat Was White: A Historical View of Psychology. 2d ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004.
Jackson, Blyden. A History of Afro-American Literature. Vol. 1, The Long Beginning, 1746–1895. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1989.
James, Joy. Transcending the Talented Tenth: Black American Intellectuals. New York: Routledge, 1997.
Loewenberg, Bert James, and Ruth Bogin, eds. Black Women in Nineteenth-Century American Life. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1976.
Logan, Rayford, and Michael R. Winston, eds. Dictionary of American Negro Biography. New York: Norton, 1982.
Loggins, Vernon. The Negro Author: His Development in America. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.
Miller, Perry. The Life of the Mind in America, from the Revolution to the Civil War. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1965.
Moses, Wilson. The Wings of Ethiopia: Studies in African-American Life and Letters. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990.
Moss, Alfred A. The American Negro Academy: Voice of the Talented Tenth. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.
Perry, Lewis. Intellectual Life in America: A History. New York: F. Watts, 1984.
Napier, Winston. African American Literary Theory: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.
Porter, Dorothy B. "The Organized Educational Activities of Negro Literary Societies, 1828–1846." Journal of Negro Education 5 (1936): 555–76.
Posnock, Ross. Color & Culture: Black Writers and the Modern Intellectual. Boston: Harvard University Press, 1998.
Quarles, Benjamin. Black Mosaic: Essays in Afro-American History and Historiography. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
Robinson, Cedric. Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
Sammons, Vivian Ovelton. Blacks in Science and Medicine. New York: Hemisphere, 1990.
Shils, Edward. "Intellectuals." In International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, 7: 399–415. New York: Macmillan, 1968–1991.
Smith, Jesse Carnie, ed. Notable Black American Women. 3 vols. Detroit: Gale, 1992–2003.
Smith, Jesse Carnie, ed. Notable Black American Men. Detroit: Gale, 1998.
Smythe, Mabel, ed. The Black American Reference Book. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1976.
Thorpe, Earl, The Mind of the Negro. Westport, Conn.: Negro Universities Press, 1961.
Wilmore, Gayraud. Black Religion and Black Radicalism. 3d ed. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1998.
john s. wright (1996)
"Intellectual Life." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 19, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/intellectual-life
"Intellectual Life." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved July 19, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/intellectual-life
Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).
Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.
Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:
Modern Language Association
The Chicago Manual of Style
American Psychological Association
- Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
- In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.