Making of a black intellectual



Becoming an intellectual in any society is a chancy thing, and this is especially true for young people coming from backgrounds of disadvantage and discrimination. What were the influences that gave the child and young adult the curiosity and other intellectual qualities that led him or her to seek out new knowledge and new questions throughout high school and college? What factors helped to produce some of the specific qualities of mind that became the particular inquiring intellect of the adult? How did Orwell become Orwell, or W.E.B. DuBois become DuBois?


Several recent autobiographies are worth reading for anyone interested in knowing more about what it’s like to develop as a black man in America into a serious intellectual in adulthood. One is by Phil Richards, an emeritus professor of English at Colgate University. His autobiography An Integrated Boyhood: Coming of Age in White Cleveland is a powerful account of one man’s journey from inner city Cleveland to Yale University. And it sheds a great deal of light on the very specific chemistry of personality, stimulation, social contacts, family, and schooling that led Richards to becoming a smart, original, and rigorous intellectual.

Richards grew up in in Cleveland in the 1950s, attended Yale university as an undergraduate, and received his PhD in English literature from the University of Chicago. He became a professor of English at a top-rank liberal arts university, and An Integrated Childhood is an eloquent and honest description of his journey. He became a profoundly insightful and original thinker about very traditional topics in western culture and English and American literature. And he has challenged many of the assumptions that have become dogma within the field of African-American studies. I have had many long conversations with Phil over the past twenty-five years, and have never failed to be impressed at his insights into literature, culture, and the intricacies of today’s politics. His recent book Black Heart: The Moral Life of Recent African American Letters gives a good impression of the breath and depth of his thought.

Richards’ autobiography is personal, honest, and insightful. He writes in detail about the working class home and family in which he grew up — a mother who sought to create a cultured environment for the family, a father who worked hard and reflected carefully about the racialized society around them in Cleveland, and other relatives who presented a different side of black life. The picture that emerges is quite different from many stereotypes of life in African-American working class families in the 1950s that are often presented to us, both positive and negative. Here is an evocative passage where he describes the values system of his parents as they made their lives in Cleveland:

Before I ever heard the word, I knew that my parents were integrationists. They were what Malcolm X would later derisively call “integration-mad Negroes.” Struck by the recent triumphs of Jackie Robinson, Ralph Bunche, and Brown v. Board of Education, they imagined the imminent appearance of a cultivated, racially integrated middle-class life in Cleveland. These utopian hopes could not have been more mistaken. The possibility of a racially integrated existence had disappeared long ago with the cultivated, mulatto, elite culture that had existed during the first half of the nineteenth century. These black middle-class tradesmen, artisans, funeral directors, barbers, and entrepreneurs had lived relatively harmoniously with Cleveland whites before the turn of the century…. (6)

But by the 1950s, Richards writes, those options had all but disappeared. 

Particularly important in Richards’ childhood environment was the opposition established between the values and aspirations of his immediate family and the values and lifestyles of black Cleveland more broadly. Classical music rather than hip hop, saving rather than conspicuous consumption, and temperance rather than a free-and-easy relationship to alcohol and drugs — these were important markers in Richards’ family life. And his mother’s fortuitous circumstance of having found work as a pre-school teacher in the Park Synagogue in Cleveland gave the young Richards access to a cosmopolitan experience of Cleveland’s social world — anti-war activists, leftists, and white liberal supporters of the Civil Rights movement and their children.

The family’s involvement in the black church was a formative influence for Richards — but once again, in ways that defy stereotypes. Their involvement in Antioch Baptist Church in Cleveland embodied many of the cultural and social tensions that their existence in various neighborhoods of Cleveland presented. Here is a particularly penetrating observation by Richards the adult about his experience of the church as a child. He is commenting on the practice of the church that the congregation would hum spontaneously during the communion service. The minister objected to this practice, but it continued.

My parents disapproved of this humming also, and neither ever joined in it. At the dinner table, they could be very adamant about this; they had come to the North, they said, to find nothing but the moaning of black people. From where I sat, however, self-pitying moans were a more than appropriate response to the experience of black people in Cleveland. On the No. 48 bus going to French class in the summer, I had on Fridays seen the black maids coming home from their weekly stints with their white employers on Van Aken, on South Park, and from points east. On those days, they carried large brown shopping bags from the suburban supermarket, Heinens, filled with leftover food and their employers’ cast-off dresses and skirts. No matter who these black women had been in the South, they were now servants in Cleveland. It occurred to me then that the post-Communion music expressed wordlessly everything they could never say to their employers in the mansions of Shaker Heights. The deepest truth about Cleveland that I was learning from my family was that Cleveland’s racial truths could never be openly discussed, at least not in public by people like me. If being black, however, meant that one carried a wordless secret truth, then I would willingly be black. Why, I wondered a little angrily, did my parents not hum? (57)

The young man’s experience of Yale was no less ambiguous in the clash it represented between existing privileged elites, rising white suburban families, and newly present families of color from the various urban areas of the Northeast. 

My parents, who were still shaken by the riots in Cleveland that summer, were anxious about coming to the Yale campus, and my father had wondered whether he should put on a sport coat. He was surprised to see large crowds of casual, mild-mannered parents, many in T-shirts, carrying their children’s clothes in cardboard grocery store boxes to the dormitories. Surrounded by large old buildings, the Old Campus was what I imagined the Cleveland Heights High parking lot might look on a fall Saturday afternoon during a football game…. My classmates came to Yale rather like a group of local champions arriving at an all-state swimming meet. Yet the world that greeted them was not the world of merit but the world of privileged entitlement. (103)

And it occurred to me for the first time that for all the social baggage of my lower-middle-class background, I was free of the particular status-related anxieties borne by the truly middle- and upper-middle-class blacks educated in largely black environments. It was an oft-repeated joke in my household that, compared to our relations who were doctors, lawyers, and college administrators, we had no status. (107)

The search for a black identity was, it seemed to me, a distinctly middle-class search for those who must have the autonomy required for survival in a competitive liberal social order that devalued attachments of kinship, social status, religious affiliation, and (ironically) ethnicity. (113)

Richards’s book is interesting at many levels. Richards has an exceptional voice in his ability to put the reader into the life and mind of the smart, awkward, sometimes angry adolescent of the fifteen-year-old boy he was. He is a deeply reflective thinker on the nuances of the many strands of black culture and intellectual life that were in play in America in the 1950s and 1960s. And he seems to have real insight into the lives and experiences of the adults around him — what they cared about, why they behaved as they did. His account of the complicated persons who were his parents is particularly astute. 

The book also does a remarkable job of explicating some of the ways that Richards’ most controversial ideas may have evolved from his own experience — his mistrust of the political left, his doubts about the validity of many of the dogmas of ethnic studies, and his affirmation of the value of intellectual engagement with the broad horizons of Western and non-Western culture. When we speak of a need for more diversity within universities, this is one of the dimensions often overlooked: the need for welcoming diverse viewpoints on the significance of race, gender, and class in ways that perhaps offend the prevailing liberal orthodoxies.

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A useful collection on the social environment of black intellectuals in the social sciences is Jonathan Holloway and Keppel’s Black Scholars on the Line: Race, Social Science, and American Thought in the Twentieth Century. The introduction to the volume can be found here. Here is a brief description of their central perspective in the volume:

Brown was but one chapter in a larger historical narrative that must be better understood. Between the generation after slavery and the generation after the Second World War, black scholars played important roles in the founding, elaboration, and refinement of American social science. The groundbreaking work that black attorneys and social scientists—many of whom were trained and worked at historically black colleges and universities—pursued in Brownwas but one part of this larger development. We honor the scholarship that was related to Brown by reprinting social psychologists Kenneth and Mamie Clark’s most ambitious discussions of their research on racial attitudes. However, as our first obligation in this project is to place this well-known intellectual priority within a larger context, we showcase other black scholars’ work on different topics: migration and its effects, the structure of the black family, the disparate impact of race on economic opportunity, the relationship of cultural production and projection to debates over cultural assimilation, and so forth. (2)

It is evident that there is still much to be learned about the intellectual history of black America.

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