The New Black Intellectuals

The New Black Intellectuals

The negro intelligentsia in the United States has recently faced several critical points in its evolution. These crises have been both sociological— including a new social composition, shifting intellectual activities, a changing relationship to whites—and indirectly political, as the Negro lower classes express their violent estrangement through urban riots and demand black separatism or nationalist political leadership.

These two dimensions are intimately related; for it is the addition of persons from the lower classes that has changed the social composition of the Negro intelligentsia and led to the pressure for nationalism or separatism. As this composition changes, there are new claimants to Negro leadership, who transform traditional emphases within the black intellectual community. Formerly, activities were carried out through the NAACP, the Negro Medical Association, or other professional groups; at Negro colleges; and in closely knit groups of middle- to upper-class literati (e.g., the Harlem Renaissance movement of the 20s and 30s). Now, intellectual activity is found more and more on the street corner, among popular groups with charismatic leaders, or in community organizations —often funded by the Office of Economic Opportunity. This shift is not complete; but it already indicates a major change in the character of the black intelligentsia.

A black intelligentsia first appeared in the United States during the late 19th century. From then until almost the present day, the middle and upper class of the Negro community formed the main social base of this group.’ An illustration is the data we have on 40 Negro writers who were members of the Harlem Renaissance movement: 55 percent came from professional homes and 45 percent from solid middle-class, white-collar families. 2 Persons of similar background dominated law, medicine, college teaching, and other professions. Because the social structure of the Negro intelligentsia conditioned its intellectual style and ideology, an establishmentarian intellectual style and political outlook prevailed. Because of the racism in American life, Negro professionals practiced largely within an all-Negro context: lawyers and doctors, for example, had their own law and medical associations, which serviced their members in dealing with white society. As a rule, these associations were viewed as stopgap or transitory agencies, for Negro doctors and lawyers hoped ultimately to integrate, both as professionals and members of the middle class, into white institutions.

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