The Chronicle Review

Putting the 'Public' in 'Public Intellectual'

Jon Krause for The Chronicle Review

June 06, 2010

I entered graduate school in the mid-1990s, a period marked by the rise of the black public intellectual: Michael Eric Dyson, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Cornel West, and a host of other prominent scholars who became household names. Suddenly newspapers, popular magazines, and even television shows featured black intellectuals. The reaction was bifurcated. Some celebrated this development as an opportunity to elevate the discourse on social policy, especially on issues of race. But there were also complaints that this new crop of intellectuals talked too much and did too little. And some felt that by talking so much to the public, the black intellectuals risked diminishing their scholarly legitimacy.

At the time, the conversations among black students at elite graduate programs were framed around whether to become public intellectuals. But did we have the charisma or conversational skills to do this kind of work? Such a question was rarely raised. Instead we debated what kind of intellectual we wanted to be: one who sat in the ivory tower? Or one who talked to the people? There was a general skepticism that both roles could be successfully played simultaneously.

Becoming a public intellectual appealed to many of us because it seemed to provide a way of making one's scholarship more meaningful. Our ideas would be available to people in our home communities who might not ever set foot inside a university. Such a prospect was affirming. In a career where labor and education often don't lead to economic gains, it is easy to feel diminished by society. Being seen on television could cut against that nagging sense of devaluation.

Although there was a slight ebb in the amount of attention paid to black public intellectuals in the early years of this century, the limelight shines once again: The democratizing power of new digital forms of communication and 24-hour cable television news networks has renewed the role of the black public intellectual. Additionally, President Obama's election drew particular attention to the community of formally educated and politically engaged African-Americans to which he and Michelle Obama belong, a community that includes many scholars. It is at this moment of renewal that we need to rethink what it means to be a public intellectual.

I recently spent an afternoon with girls at an urban high school in Philadelphia that serves a largely black, poor, and working-class community. I am frequently invited to speak to young people, usually girls. I talk to them about academic success and offer some words of motivation. This group of girls had a stunning combination of brilliance and need. I spoke about my personal history and we discussed their interests, and our mutual inspirations. It was a different kind of public-intellectual experience. Around the same time, I gave interviews that were quoted in newspapers in the United States and Britain. Guess which "public intellectual" work felt more meaningful? I'm not suggesting that everyone would take teenagers over The New York Times, but if I had to choose, I certainly would.

For me, it's a matter of tradition. From the late-19th until the mid-20th century, it was a matter of course that African-American intellectuals engaged in public life in a multitude of ways. They developed school curriculums, worked in and for civil-rights organizations like the NAACP, and participated in civic organizations, churches, and professional societies. James Weldon Johnson, for example, author of the poem "Lift Every Voice and Sing," which was later set to music and became known as the Negro national anthem, was a principal, lawyer, ambassador, secretary of the NAACP, and one of the founders of the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers—which helped establish modern copyright law.

Anna Julia Cooper, one of the first African-American women to earn a doctorate, and author of the most important early black feminist text, A Voice From the South (1892), was a teacher and principal of the M Street High School in Washington, and also wrote on pedagogical questions alongside her contemporaries W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington. Her role as an educator and intellectual complemented her activist work against Jim Crow and gender inequality. Although the exigencies of that time created many renaissance men and women among the black intelligentsia, we can, even in these less oppressive times, be inspired by their desire to contribute in diverse ways.

Today's graduate students and junior professors who aspire to bring additional meaning to their intellectual work outside the university should embrace this broader and more democratic definition of what it means to be a public intellectual. One need not be camera-friendly or media-savvy to work for a civic or political organization. There is so much work to be done, particularly in communities of color, on a wide range of issues, including educational outcomes, imprisonment, nutrition, political representation, and unemployment.

There are many good role models. Some of my public-intellectual friends provide television, radio, magazine, or newspaper commentary, and write scholarly books that are accessible to nonacademic readers. Others raise social issues through theatrical performances, take on public-interest lawyering, work for nonprofit organizations, volunteer in public schools, write policy, and organize at the grass-roots level. Some do their public-intellectual work in prisons, while others do it at book clubs. Some are speakers and analysts, others crunch data for think tanks or social-justice organizations.

Much of this work does not come with the glamour of media recognition, but it is incredibly rewarding to receive positive feedback from people who sincerely value your time, knowledge, skills, and energy. Scholars can, moreover, easily calibrate how much time to devote to nonacademic work if it isn't driven by media schedules, leaving ample opportunities for writing, teaching, advising, job markets, tenure clocks, in the midst of relationships and other life commitments.

This year I joined the faculty at Princeton University in the Center for African American Studies, where we are developing a series of civic projects, rooted in scholarship, and conceived of as partnerships with community-based organizations. An example of this is our recently announced internship program with the Mississippi-based Young People's Project, which empowers the next generation of leaders seeking educational equity and social justice. As well, my colleague Noliwe Rooks offers a course titled "Our Struggling Schools: Race, Culture, and Urban Education," which provides students with the knowledge and skills to assess and recommend education policy and practices for local communities. Once this type of work is institutionalized, it will be even easier for individual faculty members to serve as public intellectuals without overwhelming their schedules or risking their professional development.

There are many universities where a relationship with the greater world is growing in formal and informal ways. At the University of Chicago, the Consortium on Chicago School Research works closely with the local public schools to study the best practices in teaching methods, and the Civil Rights Police Accountability Project at the University of Chicago Law School has engaged in landmark litigation protecting local citizens from police misconduct. The University of South Carolina's Institute for Families in Society has an environmental-justice project that uses action-oriented and community-based models to create meaningful interventions. A Harvard Medical School teaching affiliate, the Cambridge Health Alliance, conducts an integrated community-health program. These are but a few examples of many diverse efforts. I hope this trend continues despite the difficult economic climate at most higher-education institutions. A central goal of liberal education must be to work for the common good.

I do not wish to resuscitate old and tired debates about black public intellectuals. That it is an important role, I think, should now be a settled matter. But we need to broaden our understanding of what that role consists of, and how scholars can most effectively engage in public life outside of (and within) universities. The best of the black intellectual tradition has always been offered to both the ivory tower and the world at large.

Imani Perry is a professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton University. She is author of Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop (Duke University Press, 2004). Her next book, More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States, will be published by New York University Press next year.