What It Means to Be a Public Intellectual

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with what is around you.
Facebook

Last night my wife and I went out for dinner. Our server was French, a fact that allowed us to spend a few moments practicing the language. When the server left, my wife said, "It's everywhere." Indeed. Some years ago I decided to learn French. It turns out that means more than talking to people, reading books or watching movies. It means understanding the difference between a definite and an indefinite article, the deeper meaning behind "Prêt A Manger" or "Le Pain Quotidien," or the fact that the language you take as foreign is actually "everywhere"—on the buses and trains, on the lips of mothers remanding children, out the mouths of cab-drivers yelling at each other. 

These are Rumsfeld's "unknown unknowns"—not simply a lack of answers, but an obliviousness to questions.  The awareness of this is humbling and euphoric: If French is "everywhere," how many other things are "everywhere?" What does "everywhere" even mean? At that moment one realizes that it isn't the cool facts which wise you up, but the awareness of a yawning, limitless, impossible ignorance. 

Yesterday Dylan Byers, Politico's media reporter, sent out this tweet:

He was then asked to offer suggestions of his own. Byers didn't immediately answer. After being berated for an hour and a half he decided he should: 

Byers's contenders were all white men and a white woman disqualified on account of death. This was caricature—a pose not wholly unfamiliar to Byers—and it was greeted with all the mockery which #blacktwitter so often musters. But black people—and #blacktwitter—mostly laugh to keep from crying. 

This began because I claimed that Melissa Harris-Perry is "America's foremost public intellectual." I made this claim because of Harris-Perry's background: Ph.D. from Duke; stints at Princeton and Tulane; the youngest woman to deliver the Du Bois lecture at Harvard; author of two books; trustee at the Century Foundation. I made this claim because of her work: I believe Harris-Perry to be among the sharpest interlocutors of this historic era—the era of the first black president—and none of those interlocutors communicate to a larger public, and in a more original way, than Harris-Perry. 

Now Melissa Harris-Perry neither needs (nor likely much cares about) my endorsement. Regrettably, there's no cash attached to the "TNC Public Intellectual Prize." Moreover, other people will make other cases. What sets Byers apart is the idea that considering Harris-Perry an intellectual is somehow evidence of inferior thinking.

I came up in a time when white intellectuals were forever making breathless pronouncements about their world, about my world, and about the world itself. My life was delineated lists like "Geniuses of Western Music" written by people who evidently believed Louis Armstrong and Aretha Franklin did not exist. That tradition continues. Dylan Byers knows nothing of your work, and therefore your work must not exist.

Here is the machinery of racism—the privilege of being oblivious to questions, of never having to grapple with the everywhere; the right of false naming; the right to claim that the lakes, trees, and mountains of our world do not exist; the right to insult our intelligence with your ignorance. The machinery of racism requires no bigotry from Dylan Byers. It merely requires that Dylan Byers sit still. 

We suffer for this. So many people charged with informing us, with informing themselves, are just sitting still. 

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Politics

From This Author

Just In