The Clashing of Black Public Intellectuals, Nothing New There

Illustration for article titled The Clashing of Black Public Intellectuals, Nothing New There

Debates have been circling lately regarding black leadership and public intellectualism. Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell recently wrote a piece for CNN that slams Tavis Smiley's inadequate critiques of Obama's treatment of race. She also gets at Smiley's "soul patrol"-which includes Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and Dick Gregory-for their roles in his documentary "Stand." She feels Smiley and friends appropriate Martin Luther King's legacy and "implicitly claim that they, not Obama, are the authentic representatives of the political interests of African-Americans."


Spelman professor William Jelani Cobb, chimed in on what he called the "Obama Wars" among intellectuals. He wrote on his blog, "Conflict produces progress. Or, more specifically, the competitive market of ideas forces everyone to step up their thought game."

All this talk aligns with a growing interest in Hubert Harrison, a figure not typically studied in school or talked about in contemporary discourse. A new biography, "Hubert Harrison: The Voice of Harlem Radicalism, 1883-1918" (the first of two volumes) by Jeffrey B. Perry, a self-described "working class scholar," intends to rekindle the work, life, and politics of a forgotten thinker.

During the early twentieth century, the Caribbean-born Harrison was an outspoken, complex intellectual. He was a union organizer and former postal worker. He was also a prolific writer well-versed in international affairs. He didn't go to college, yet made learning a life-long journey.

A gifted orator, who was known to leave audiences spellbound, Harrison sought to get African Americans to cultivate race consciousness. Regularly, he found himself at odds with the perspectives of the black leaders of the time and would openly criticize them. Case in point, Harrison advocated education of the masses, versus Du Bois' Talented Tenth theory. He urged black leadership to "come down from the Sinais and give it [education] to the common people." Harrison's criticisms of the black church and what he considered "Negro conservatism" didn't add to his popularity.

These oppositions didn't undermine his personal commitment to fighting white supremacy and tackling race and class struggles. After being forced out of the Socialist Party—he was also anti-capitalism—Harrison helped to develop the New Negro Movement, an influencer to the Garvey movement, and he served as editor of the "New Negro" newspaper.

Equally compelling was his unabashed love for books and reading. He felt that people needed to "get the reading habit." His efforts to get people to "Read!" were reinforced by his work as an editor of a book review section in a black newspaper, a position he's considered to have been the first to hold. He also helped to revitalize what is now Harlem's Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. He was adamant that "Negroes must take to reading, study and development of intelligence as we have never done before." He thought learning should take place, "not only in school and in college, but in books and newspapers, in market-places, institutions, and movements."


Naturally, Harrison wasn't without his own issues, which Perry points out. Harrison's reliance on science and rationality to explain and possibly solve social problems during a time when the sciences asserted racist beliefs made him seen contradictory.

Also Perry notes, "His views on women and gender oppression were, at times, as Bill Fletcher, Jr. of the Black Radical Congress suggests, not up to the level of ‘his otherwise radical approach to life and politics.'"


But, with this current evaluation of black public intellectuals and leaders, Harrison's life, which ended in 1927, can offer unique insight. Where he would stand today among the ranks of black leadership and public intellectualism is unknown. Perhaps he wouldn't necessarily care about status, as long as the ideas and the people continued to grow?

By examining the mind, talent, varied interests, achievements, challenges, contradictions, and complexities of a voice that's been overshadowed, "Hubert Harrison" shines light on a notable figure in American history.


is a writer, speaker, author of books for adults and youth, and the book columnist for The Root. Her most recent book is \"The Message: 100 Life Lessons from Hip-Hop’s Greatest Songs.\" Visit her at