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"Black Intellectuals and White Audiences"


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At Public Books, Matthew Clair reviews two books that examine the fraught history of black intellectuals in the US serving as “authentic indigenous interpreters” for white Americans. Examples include W. E. B. Du Bois, Romare Bearden, Amiri Baraka, and most notably today, Ta-Nehisi Coates—all of whom in different ways were thrust into the position of “explaining” African Americans to white audiences:

Amid protests against racialized police violence and debates over the limits of free speech on increasingly diverse college campuses, a good many (often, white) progressives have been left scratching their heads. What explains the current upswell of black Americans’ frustration, just eight years after the election of the nation’s first black president? Black intellectuals like Coates—perceived to be authentic interpreters of the black experience—have been recruited to make sense of the disillusionment. That Coates is both black and a native son of Baltimore’s restless inner city only heightens his authenticity in the eyes of a white liberal public searching for answers. But even I—the suburban-raised son of two black physicians—carry a certain racial authenticity, one seemingly much desired in predominantly white academic spaces.

Where does this belief in, and demand for, racially authentic explanations of black life come from? Far from unique to this contemporary moment, the notion of a racially authentic interpretation of blackness has been a mainstay of American understandings of the role of black intellectuals for more than a century. Through different routes, two recent books explore the centrality of racial authenticity in black intellectual practice—or, the belief in a uniquely and authoritatively black knowledge produced by black scholars, writers, and artists. In his book On the Corner, Daniel Matlin considers how Kenneth Clark, a psychologist, Amiri Baraka, a writer, and Romare Bearden, an artist, variously navigated their designations as “indigenous interpreters” for white audiences in the 1960s. Similarly, in his book The Scholar Denied, Aldon Morris explores black intellectual practice, but during a time when many white audiences expressed little interest in the insights of black intellectuals, even of the preeminent W. E. B. Du Bois. Placing these books in conversation illuminates the costs and benefits of racial authenticity in the production of knowledge about black America and, ultimately, in the struggle to alter the course of American racial inequality …

For more than a century, black intellectuals from various disciplinary backgrounds and political positions have articulated their insights on racial injustices. Some have played their role as indigenous interpreters faithfully and with an unfailing optimism, while others have grown wary of bearing witness, of explaining the array of emotions and events—from tragedy and rage to humor and brilliance—that constitute the black American experience. Matlin writes that depicting oppressed people “in a manner that both witnesses the extent and consequences of their suffering and simultaneously recognizes their dignity, resourcefulness, and agency remains an intractable problem for social scientists, artists, and historians.” But the representation of black subordination—no matter how carefully constructed—must also find a receptive audience. So much black intellectual energy has been expended on convincing white audiences simply to care about the exploitation of the black poor and the alienation of the black middle classes. The receptivity of particular white audiences has fluctuated over time, and with it—in tandem, arguably—various indicators of racial inequality. Perhaps just as pressing, then, as interpreting blackness for white audiences is interpreting the causes and consequences of white attention for the rest of us.

Image of Ta-Nehisi Coates via Public Books.