The Rise of the Modern Day Black Public Intellectual

By: Solomon Comissiong

The great Pan-African and scholar W.E.B. Dubois spent most of his life actively working to improve the social conditions that plagued African Americans during the 20th century. During his life, America was, as it still is, a cesspool of institutional racism and injustice. Despite his countless accomplishments, Dubois tirelessly worked on behalf of African people worldwide. Beyond authoring masterpieces such as The World and Africa he significantly contributed to organizations like the NAACP, Pan-African Congress, organizing five Pan-African Congresses, the Council of African Affairs, as well as his work on the Stockholm Peace Petition.

The higher he ascended, professionally and publicly, the more he used his platform to fight against white supremacy, social injustice and institutional racism. He clearly knew that there was significant responsibility that came with his rise in visibility. Even though he was the first African American to receive a PhD from Harvard, he never let it define him or make him feel as though he was indebted to the predominately white elitist institution.

Harvard did not give him a PhD, he earned it. He, like Carter G. Woodson (the father of black history in America), fully understood the goals of most white academics who were associated with the education of African Americans, whether it was on predominately white institutions or on the campuses of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Their goals of co-opting the mind of the black scholar or stifling any potential radical thought became crystal clear to both Dubois and Woodson. In 2010, not much has changed on the campuses of “higher educational” institutions throughout the country.

So-called Scholars like that of Henry Louis “Skip” Gates have willingly allowed themselves to be used as pawns by their institutional “handlers”. It is hard to say that his mind was ever co-opted when he clearly offered it to the puppeteers who pull his strings. Fame and hefty paydays were/are what Skip Gates seeks. His loyalty to the elites who run Harvard, as well as his mainstream work regarding race, is blatantly apparent. Gates and his ilk are the cookie cutter mold, for an acceptable black academic, that many white institutions seek to promote, as well as some conservative leaning HBCUs. His mainstream research and attacks on progressive/radical black academics, like the late John Henrik Clarke, speak volumes to where his allegiances rest. In terms of academic work and contributions to Pan-African Studies, there is no comparison between Gates and Clarke. Clarke’s work is paralleled by few—Henry Louis Gates in not among those few. Gates’ work and image is heavily promoted by “mainstream” America because his work reflects that which “mainstream” America deem acceptable and what makes them comfortable. Clarke’s work, on the other hand, was soundly academic, avant garde, African Centered and radical. And it is for those same reasons why John Henrik Clarke as well as his work, are seldom, if ever, supported or promoted by “mainstream” elitist institutions. Their mission, much like the institution of racism throughout America, is to suppress progressive oriented scholarly work, especially when it is not Euro-centric focused. The work of African centered scholars like John Henrik Clarke, Yosef Ben-Jochannan, Ivan Van Sertima, and many others, has been systematically suppressed by pretty much every “mainstream” white dominated institution in America. Their scholarship irrefutably details African contributions to society in a way that takes away from the European-centered myth that white people are the fathers/mothers of civilization, technology, religion, philosophy and education, among other things. In essence, the work of people like John Henrik Clarke exposes the truths regarding a wide range of history that has been altered by white academics, puppet black academics and the institutions they work, for to create a slanted and erroneous white supremacist ideology.

Carter G. Woodson and W.E.B. Dubois spent their careers meticulously researching history to delineate and highlight Africa’s, and her people’s, rightful place within it. Their work was far from “mainstream”, for what should now be obvious reasons. To the chagrin of many white academics, Woodson and Dubois’ loyalty was with black people. Their commitment and devotion to the black community was understandable considering the hell African Americans were catching, and quite frankly, continue to catch till this day. With access to valuable resources gained from their scholarship, they consistently and constructively gave back to the black community. Their scholarship was not in vain nor was it to intellectually masturbate at the beck and call of the highest bidder.

Although W.E.B. Dubois became identified as a black public intellectual, he proudly identified with being a Pan-African. Pan-Africanism simply put is the mass unity of people of African ancestry throughout the world, no matter what they reside. In essence it is an ideology which embraces the unification of black people around universal goals such as: ending white supremacy, ending colonization/neo-colonization, striving for self-awareness of culture, history, and self-government. Pan-Africanism is the ongoing struggle for the liberation of African peoples worldwide. Heavily influenced by the likes of Henry Sylvester Williams, Marcus Garvey, Kwame Nkrumah, W.E.B Dubois, and many others; Pan-Africanism continues to be embraced by Africans worldwide. The author is unapologetically a Pan-Africanist.

Much of Dubois’ life was dedicated to Pan-Africanist causes. Unlike the so-called black public intellectual of 2010, Dubois and Woodson were far more connected to the everyday African American. Their connectedness to the everyday African American is a significant reason why their work continues to constructively serve black communities. What a long way we have come where now many African-Americans, with the highest levels of documented “education”, parade themselves around from one corporate media outlet to the next. They are nothing more than high priced media “strumpets”. Much like the scourge of institutional racism within America, they are everywhere their white corporate media “pimps” strategically place them. Unlike many women who have been forced into prostitution predicated on unnecessary societal conditions; most modern day black public intellectuals willingly allow themselves to be used by whoever is willing to sufficiently pay them.

The list of their corporate and mainstream “johns” include, but are not limited to, the commercial media, elitist educational institutions, as well as various mainstream political organizations. The mental disease they are paid to spread is that of obfuscation. And because they are methodically propped up everywhere from CNN to MSNBC to Fox “News”, their voluntarily watered down rhetoric on everything from social issues to hip hop culture to historical figures, works to psychologically confuse the masses. For instance, the African American scholar Michael Eric Dyson can often be seen on CNN and MSNBC. He has a large base of younger fans, due in large part for his affinity to weave hip hop references into his speeches and writing. There is nothing wrong with that on its basis, however when one begins to use hip hop as merely a gimmick to curry favor with younger, predominately black audiences, and without critically engaging them to question the oppressive system by which they live under; that is where the author has a problem. If Dyson were to take a strong position against the corporate media that continually suppresses and blatantly omits the most critically engaging and resistance oriented artists; a great deal of attention would be directed toward these corporate media “drug dealers” that peddle only the most psychologically deleterious lyrics. Their intention is to further co-opt the minds of millions of black and brown youth to ultimately keep them inside of the socially limited “boxes” they have worked so hard to create.

Hip Hop culture, especially during the ‘Golden Era’, has provided black and brown youth with a platform to speak out against white supremacy, social injustices, and institutional racism. However, in the age of the blood sucking corporation, hip hop music has been co-opted by the white media giants as a means to getting rich off of an African American creation, all the while filtering out any strains of resistance to the systems (capitalism, institutional racism, and white supremacy) that systematically destroys their communities. The author would be a hypocrite if he were to frown upon the use of hip hop as a tool to critically engage audiences, especially youth of color. The author frequently uses hip hop to do everything from engage youth academically, to understand complex social issues, hone critical thinking skills, as well as to teach African/Black history. However, Dyson has developed a skill at using hip hop much like the corporations do, as an attention-grabber. He floats around the likes of CNN and MSNBC speaking about hip hop (among other things) without ever mentioning the nefarious influence the corporate media has had on the cultural art form. But then again why would he; those same media outlets that pay him are a part of the Big Media world. They don’t prop him up to criticize their power structure and the negative role they play within this illusionist democratic society.

Despite his self proclaimed affinity for some underground rap, Dr. Dyson has made inferences that the reason many “underground rappers” don’t get played has something to do with their beats not being as good as those of corporate backed rappers. He very well knows that this could not be further from the truth. Dr. Dyson is far too intelligent a man to not understand this about the corporate media’s relationship to hip hop. What he does not say about hip hop’s relationship to the corporate media speaks louder than his ability to quote numerous lines from various rap songs. The mere fact that we refer to progressive rappers as “underground” admits to the fact that they have been suppressed and forced under. Their beats have little to do with it; however their thought provoking lyrics have everything to do with their systematic suppression. The black rapper that radically speaks out on social issues (much like the black academic that does the same) will have every attempt made by mainstream institutions to limit their range to communicate their thoughts to the masses.

Many modern day black public intellectuals have been trained rather well by their corporate handlers to stay well within the limited parameters of the proverbial “box”. Rocking the “boat”, bucking the system, or challenging the white “power” structure is far from consideration. The present day corporate backed black public intellectual knows very well that at any given moment they can get cut off the nipple of those media outlets which prop them up. This could potentially lead to a loss in book sales, public speaking engagements, or future mainstream endeavors and unsavory business deals and connections. Because they have very limited day to day contact with the black community, selling out for a potential paycheck is a rather easy thing to do. They have little to no principles and can be spotted miles away.

As people often say at awards ceremonies when accepting their accolades, “There are so many people I could thank at this time however I simply cannot fit them all in. Therefore, out of fear of missing someone, I would like to thank everyone who helped me receive this award. You all know who you are.” This author, however, does not wish to thank any of the corporate backed black public intellectuals (those who are paid very well by the corporate media to NOT speak progressively on systemic issues within black communities and the root causes that serve to perpetuate them). There are far too many to name within this essay, however they are very easy to identify. They are the likes of Peniel Joseph who has recently penned a book entitled, Dark Days, Bright Nights:
From Black Power to Barack Obama
which somehow tries to make the claim that Barak Obama is linked to or is a residual offspring from the Black Power Movement. Barak Obama’s willingness to scurry away from any black social issue is completely antithetical to what the Black Power movement was largely about. Placing Barak Obama on the cover of his book along with Malcolm X is as blatantly insulting as the Barak Obama and Martin Luther King tee-shirts. There is no comparison between the likes of Malcolm X and MLK and Obama. The first two were human rights activists and prophets, where the later is a war time president who believes in no targeted programs to uplift black communities. Recently Peniel Joseph was intellectually dismantled by Dr. Jared Ball on his ( community based public radio show. What happened to Dr. Peniel Joseph on Dr. Ball’s show is a major reason why it pays (literally and figuratively) some of these frauds to stick to the white liberal corporate media circuit as opposed to community based programs.

This steadily expanding group, along with the so-called “black leaders”, can frequently be found parroting their limited views on any number of white owned corporate stations. However, they can also be spotted on Cathy Hughes’ TV-One or Radio-One media outlets. They seldom, if ever, offer any kind of progressive, radical, or targeted plan to uplift African Americans from up under the heel of the  institutionally racist policies of America. Ostensibly they share that commonality with the first black president of the US.

The so-called black public intellectuals offer no progressive application of their research or resources towards ending any one of the many social issues plaguing black America. Within the last several months a who’s who list of so-called black public intellectuals and luminaries signed onto a letter entitled ACTING ON OUR CONSCIENCE
that publically castigates Cuba for an unequal standard in regards to race relations and the treatment of Afro-Cubans. Cuba is not perfect nor is the US. Cuba is actively working towards closing its racial gap, however within the US the gap of inequality continues to widen. Far more blacks are incarcerated within the US, even by proportion to population, than in Cuba. Police brutality and lack of health care within black communities run rampant in America. Cuba places people before profits especially regarding its world-class health care system. Afro-Cubans live longer than African Americans. The US unjustly warehouses countless black political prisoners. In America black communities continue to catch the wrath of police terror and institutionally unequal public schools. Cuba selflessly offered support to people in New Orleans immediately following Hurricane Katrina while the US government waited five whole days before it responded. Cuba sent over 325,000 troops into Southern Africa to help black Africans liberate themselves from the deadly yoke of white colonization. During this time, the US government openly supported the likes of the white South African apartheid regime and its proxy death squads. Cuba has long been more of a friend to Africans, throughout the Diaspora, than the racially challenged United States. Instead of signing an open letter castigating their own government for its horrific record on the treatment of African Americans; black public intellectuals like Dr. Carlos Moore and Dr. Julianne Malveaux (and many others) are more than willing to do the work of the imperialists who prop them up, pay them, and advance their shallow careers. Openly challenging the US government on a wide range of injustices targeted at black communities would fall last on their list of things to do, if it ever made their list at all. Self aggrandizement is one of the things these folks do best.

The corporate backed black public intellectual would much rather discuss these issues on panel after non-constructive panel. They are similar to the amoral American pharmaceutical industry where there is more money in the sickness sustaining drug rather than the actual cure. They could seriously raise the specter of public consciousness on any range of social issues with the platforms they are given. And this is the major reason they can frequently be found riddled throughout the corporate media—because they refuse to offer any targeted solutions or criticism of the status quo that sustains various social issues in perpetuity. Their scholarship often goes hand in hand with their public persona—weak, mainstream and theatrical. This kind of approach rewards them with tenure, fame and corporate book deals. Meanwhile, the truly brilliant, progressive and African centered black scholars are systematically marginalized, suppressed, and have to struggle for tenure. The corporate media is noticeably afraid of these solutions oriented brothers and sisters, which is why they are never invited to give their input on a range of black issues. For their input would challenge the very existence of the corporate media.

Unlike the corporate backed black public intellectual; I wish to thank the African centered, radical thinking and progressive black scholars who, like Woodson and Dubois, dedicate their research and scholarship to the amelioration of black communities. They have records of working with the grassroots movements in connection to their activism. They, too, are far too many to mention, although if you live within the mainstream you probably wouldn’t know.

The issues surrounding the black public intellectual, as well as the white co-optation of those black scholars most willing to sellout, is not a new one. Carter G. Woodson said it well in his seminal work, “The Miseducation of the Negro”, when he stated:

“Real education means to inspire people to live more abundantly, to learn to begin with life as they find it and make it better, but the instruction so far given Negroes in colleges and universities has worked to the contrary. In most cases such graduates have merely increased the number of malcontents who offer no program for changing the undesirable conditions about which they complain. One should rely upon protest only when it is supported by a constructive program.

Unfortunately Negroes who think as the author does and dare express themselves are branded as opponents of interracial cooperation. As a matter of fact, however, such Negroes are the real workers in carrying out a program of interracial effort. Cooperation implies equality of the participants in the particular task at hand. On the contrary, however, the usual way now is for the whites to work out their plans behind closed doors, have them approved by a few Negroes serving nominally on a board, and then employ a white or mixed staff to carry out their program. This is not interracial cooperation. It is merely the ancient idea of calling upon the “inferior” to carry out the orders of the “superior.” To express it in post-classic language, as did Jessie O. Thomas, “The Negroes do the `coing’ and the whites the `operating.’

Solomon Comissiong is an educator, community activist, author, public speaker and the host of the Your World News media collective ( Solomon is the author of A Hip Hop Activist Speaks Out on Social Issues He can be reached at: