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Black Intellectualism

The Duty of Public Black Intellectualism

While taking a mass communication class last semester, I learned the average person reads at around a sixth grade reading level.

Think about that for a moment, a sixth grade reading level, which means if I am writing to the average person even about complex and multifaceted issues, I must retain the ability to condense and bring the language to a point to where it is accessible for the everyday person to read, understand and apply. It doesn’t matter if the topic is White Supremacy or the current logjam of a presidential race, if they cannot understand and grasp the concepts I write, then my words are no longer a public benefit. My words, then, become intellectual oppression. If my language stays elevated, then I function as a tool of a paradigm that is commonly called “The Master’s House,” which is a metaphor for the structural racism and biases that function within the system of White Supremacy.

The “Master’s House” has tools, most commonly referred to when one wants to pursue advanced degrees. These tools may include training, connections and access to people who outside of the academic domain would be inaccessible. The benefit of these tools cannot be overstated, however, those who enter must be sure not to become comfortable with its trappings or normalized to its benefits. Someone accessing these tools is a matter of privilege that isn’t shared by the majority.

It doesn’t matter if the topic is White Supremacy or the current logjam of a presidential race, if they cannot understand and grasp the concepts I write, then my words are no longer a public benefit.

Within academia, specifically black academia, there seems to be a trend of proving oneself to be the most intellectually superior. A popular version of this pissing contest is writing “hit pieces” on other influential Black intellectual. [1] The goal here is to use as much intellectual jargon as one can fit into ten thousand words of petty arguments and statements that show a different light of the target’s writings.

Another form of intellectual competition is issuing paternalistic or demeaning statements from men which are sometimes hidden in a larger critique. [2] In this critique, Dr. West criticizes Coates for not being focused enough on an all too American agenda of inflicting pain and suffering on black and brown bodies throughout the world. He also chided Toni Morrison for likening Coates to James Baldwin. West of course, uses elevated language and some academic jargon which would indicate on some level that this critique of Morrison’s opinion was not intended to be understood or utilized by those outside of academia.

West’s critiques are an illustration of a broader issue. While using intellect to compartmentalize and analyze complex situations, many fall victim to the idea they have to be the smartest person in the room. Its purpose is not intellectualism inasmuch as it’s about putting on airs to be perceived by others (usually white media) as the go to black voice for cultural and political analysis. A truer measure of one’s academic credentials, however, is not the ability to hide substance in excrement, but the ability to make the confusingly complicated plain and simple for the audience in attendance and or worldwide. I would caution anyone who fancies him- or herself a thinker to be very careful when crafting arguments and statements that will have to be received by a wider audience than their academic peers.

While using intellect to compartmentalize and analyze complex situations, many fall victim to the idea they have to be the smartest person in the room. Its purpose is not intellectualism inasmuch as it’s about putting on airs to be perceived by others (usually white media) as the go to black voice for cultural and political analysis.

This is not to say you dumb it down. Albert Einstein, paraphrased, said if you cannot explain it simply you must not understand it completely. [3] In academia, language use can become a barrier to understanding if the person doing the speaking or the writing is not careful to include the audience in the crafting of an argument. If language is being used to conceal something of importance to the American public, then it is the duty of the intellectual to bring down this elevated language to specific terms the average American can understand and put into practical thought.

What good is a public intellectual who engages in the same sins as those who wish to conceal concepts? Language should not be a barrier to a basic understanding of a complex issue. In fact, this is a service that an intellectual can reasonably be expected to perform. What they should not do, however, is to elevate their language to a state of uselessness. The public isn’t as interested in what you know as they are about how what you know will affect the way that a complicated problem is handled on their end.

It’s part of the intellectual’s duty to deconstruct a vocabulary rooted in the oppression and political illiteracy of its target audience. It is not their job to further confuse or dazzle with words while people get nothing from their pronouncements. Academia and the intellectuals it produces should not function in the interest of concealment, but revelation. The language used should not be used to abuse and subjugate by anyone, much less those who are supposed to be fluent in the duality used to construct some arguments.

Your job as intellectuals is not to burden others with useless and unintelligible jargon. I would hope you don’t use “The Master’s Tools” to rebuild oppression under a different standard. I would hope you don’t use your training to further the ends of those who would gain from the further suppression of a certain class. I would hope that your words are grasped by the majority when a minority wants to use ignorance to continue this country on a path towards self destruction. I would hope that you would create arguments that liberate people from the yoke of misunderstanding. I would hope you stand for the freedom of the masses and not the rule of the few, even if those few cash your checks.

Do not abandon your post as the vanguard between political posturing and intellectual accountability.

That is where we need you.


[1] The Ghost of Cornel West
[2] In Defense of James Baldwin
[3] “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”

By Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson studies English at Sam Houston State University. In his spare time, he likes to visit museums and listen to music. He has self-published two collections of poetry and has written several short stories.