Theme: Intellectual Activity Outside of the Academy: Self-Trained Thinkers, Activists, and Artists in the African Diaspora
Introduction / Theoretical Statement:
Since the end of the Second World War, African Diaspora Studies has endured the rites of passage and established a permanent presence in American and international scholarship. In the past few years, this field has expanded to accommodate an array of topics exploring Black life and culture while simultaneously attracting talented academics to promote the craft.
Prior to these developments and long before African Diaspora Studies
was recognized as a legitimate discipline, a small group of Black scholars,
professionals, lay historians, and street orators championed the history
of the race. They initiated research projects, collected evidence of Black
achievement, published manuscripts, participated in activist politics,
produced racially conscious art, and blended within the cultural structures
Our Mellon Research Workshop will investigate the growth and evolution of self-trained Black intellectuals, activists, and artists from the late nineteenth century to the 1970s. These people functioned as lay historians or cultural carriers within the context of their communities. They participated in an international commerce of Pan-African ideas, debated the destiny and direction of race struggle, and usually demonstrated a passionate interest in the history and liberation of African people.
Traditional academic life has removed the intellectual from the community. One outcome of this situation is that certain information or knowledge eludes the academy and university-trained thinkers. Unique ways of thinking are often discredited and excluded from the marketplace of ideas simply because the advocate was not certified by those who controlled the credentialing process. The Italian theorist, Antonio Gramsci, has best articulated the consequences of this situation. Social conflict, according to Gramsci, can produce people who have functioned similarly to university-trained intellectuals. He identified such people as “organic intellectuals.” This term will help us to focus upon what is representative and significant in the lives of self-trained intellectuals outside of the academy. In Gramsci’s opinion, “organic intellectuals direct the ideas and aspirations of their class even though they hold no formal status or employment as ‘intellectuals’.” While traditional scholars have been sustained by universities, patrons, or particular institutions, “organic intellectuals learn about the world by trying to change it, and they change the world by learning about it from the perspective of the needs and aspirations of their social group.” Gramsci’s description of the “organic intellectual” accurately depicts a neglected but important theme within African Diaspora Studies.¹
Throughout the academic year, our Mellon Research Workshop will examine the ideas, contributions, struggles, political activities, worldviews, and cultural ambiguities of a select community of self-trained intellectuals and the institutions / networks they created. This research endeavor is largely an uncharted historical terrain that has rarely been navigated by scholars of the African Diaspora. We also believe that this approach will also provide a broader social context for interpreting the contribution of self-trained intellectuals to the “’sociology of knowledge’ – the use and manipulation of knowledge as a scarce resource in the authoritative allocation of values in a society.”²
Our Mellon Research Workshop will focus upon a set of particularly pertinent questions that will guide our general investigation of each research topic. These include the following objectives: Did self-trained intellectuals employ the discipline of history in different ways than their university-trained colleagues? Did they raise different questions about the nature and meaning of Black struggle? What factors contributed to their participation in a triangular trade of Pan-African ideas among the United States, Africa, and the Caribbean? How and when did self-trained thinkers utilize activist politics or cultural / artistic weapons to mobilize working-class protest? What role did Black women play and did they face special problems that inhibited their participation in the community of self-trained intellectuals? Can we detect a specific methodology employed by self-trained Black thinkers? Did a unique spatial ethos contribute to the effective use of street corner meetings in Black urban communities?
¹ Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, edited and translated by Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (New York: International Publishers, 1971), 1-3 and 9-10; George Lipsitz, A Life in Struggle: Ivory Perry and the Culture of Opposition (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988); and Jerome Karabel, "Revolutionary Contradictions: Antionio Gramsci and the Problems of the Intellectuals," Politics and Society, No. 6 (1976), 123-172.
² CAAS Newsletter, Vol. 2, No. 1, UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies (November, 1977), 2; and Martin Bernal, Black Athena: The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization, Vol. I: The Fabrication of Ancient Greece, 1785-1985 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, `1987), xii.