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The New Intellectuals

Black History,
American History

February 12, 1997

In 1963 when the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s "Letter from Birmingham Jail" appeared in The Atlantic Monthly (under the title "The Negro Is Your Brother"), it took its place in a long and distinguished tradition of writing by African-American public intellectuals that has been published in the magazine since the mid-nineteenth century. Like those who preceded him -- Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. Du Bois -- King wrote with moral and rhetorical force, addressing a national audience that did not recognize his full rights of equality as a citizen and human being. Unlike those before him, or after him, King wrote from a jail cell, where he was actively engaged in the nonviolent struggle for the civil rights of all Americans in which he would five years later give his life.

In recent years the study of the African-American intellectual tradition has risen to new prominence as Afro-American studies programs have proliferated and strengthened at colleges and universities throughout the country. At the same time we have seen the rise of a new generation of African-American public intellectuals -- a generation that came of age in the 1960s and 1970s and was profoundly affected by the legacy of King and other civil-rights leaders, from Medger Evers to Malcolm X. As Robert S. Boynton observed in "The New Intellectuals" (The Atlantic, March 1995): "For contemporary black intellectuals, the defining event of their lives was unquestionably the civil-rights movement. . . . Although many members of today's generation of intellectuals were too young to take an active part in the protests and marches, their belief in the necessary and intimate connection between race and politics was gleaned from these events."

Boynton pointed to contemporary writers and educators -- including Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Shelby Steele, Cornel West, Glenn Loury, Stephen Carter, Stanley Crouch, Patricia Williams, William Julius Wilson, bell hooks, and others -- who not only work within a distinctly African-American tradition but also view race as a definingly and inextricably American matter. The African-American intellectual tradition, these writers demonstrate, belongs at the center of American history.

A look back at some of the seminal essays by African-Americans that have appeared in The Atlantic should help students of American history and culture to see the tradition in which today's African-American public intellectuals stand -- a tradition they at once carry forward and transcend.

  • In December, 1866, The Atlantic Monthly published "Reconstruction," by Frederick Douglass, whose Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written by Himself (1845), is one of the enduring classics of American literature. Here, Douglass warned Congress of the potential for the de facto re-enslavement of blacks should the South's antebellum political system remain intact. Douglass exhorted Congress to pass a civil-rights amendment affirming the equality of blacks and whites in the United States.

  • In "The Awakening of the Negro" (September, 1896, Atlantic) Booker T. Washington, who later wrote Up From Slavery (1901), argued that the first priority in educating blacks should be to counteract the debilitating effects of slavery which, by utterly subjecting blacks to the whims of white masters, had disburdened blacks of responsibility for themselves. He advocated a program like the one used at the Tuskegee Institute (which he himself had founded) that incorporated manual labor and life management-skills into its design. If students learned useful trades while in school, he suggested, they would feel confident that they had something to offer and could therefore lay claim to a position in the social structure. "Friction between the races will pass away in proportion as the black man . . . can produce something that the white man wants or respects in the commercial world."

  • In "Strivings of the Negro People" (August, 1897, Atlantic), which introduced W.E.B. Du Bois to a national audience and went on to become the opening chapter of his classic The Souls of Black Folk (1903), Du Bois argued that, given the opportunity to cultivate and educate themselves, American blacks would demonstrate that they have their own distinctive and worthy contributions to make to American life and culture. "Some day, on American soil," he predicted, "two world races may give each to each those characteristics which both so sadly lack." But first, he suggested, each black youth must achieve "self-realization, self-respect. . . . To attain his place in the world, he must be himself, and not another." In "A Negro Schoolmaster in the New South" (January, 1899, Atlantic), Du Bois recounted some of his own experiences as a rural schoolteacher in Tennessee, and expressed frustration at the barriers that confronted some of his more ambitious students.

  • In "The Case of the Negro" (November, 1899), Booker T. Washington agreed with Du Bois that the ultimate goal should be intellectual and artistic cultivation. "As Professor W.E.B. Du Bois puts it, the idea should not be simply to make men carpenters, but to make carpenters men." But he argued that the most realistic means of achieving that end would be through first achieving success on a practical, material level: "I do not believe that the world ever takes a race seriously, in its desire to share in the government of a nation, until a large number of individual members of that race have demonstrated beyond question their ability to control and develop their own business enterprises."

  • Carrying on the famous debate with Washington, Du Bois argued, in "The Training of Black Men" (September, 1902, Atlantic), that training blacks for economic usefulness was not enough. Earmarking them for manual labor without the benefit of education, culture, and ideas belittled them and suggested to them and to the rest of the world that they were less than fully human. Harmonization of race relations, he said, could only occur between two self-respecting, cultured, educated races -- not between a dominant elite and a forcibly subordinated, resentful minority.

  • In 1963 author Ralph McGill had the honor of briefly interviewing Du Bois, who was then ninety-five years old. McGill's account of that encounter, entitled "W.E.B. Du Bois," was published in the November, 1965, issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

For further reading, see these collections of Atlantic Monthly articles:

  • Flashback: African-American Education

  • Politics: Race and Affirmative Action Index

    See the Flashbacks archive

    Copyright © 1997 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
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