Dr. Brittney Cooper is an assistant professor of Women’s Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University and founder of Crunk Feminist Collective. Dr. Cooper doesn’t bite her tongue when it comes to writing about disparities about public scholarship, as well as the differences between the attention bestowed upon white intellectuals and black intellectuals.
In a recent piece for Salon, Dr. Cooper discusses what she calls the “war on black intellectuals”.
Since January, white male journalists have spearheaded a public lamenting of the dearth of American public intellectuals, by which they mean, academics who write accessibly and make an attempt to stay “in touch” with the masses who exist outside the Ivory Tower. First Dylan Byers at Politico lampooned Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates for calling Melissa Harris-Perry America’s foremost public intellectual. Then Nicholas Kristoff wrote “Professors, We Need You” in the New York Times, in which he argued that “Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Moreover, he inexplicably proclaimed that “academics have been slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook.”
Which academics does he mean, exactly? I joined Twitter because a disproportionate number of young professors of color had taken up residence there. Melissa Harris-Perry herself built a significant public following before she ever had a TV show by blogging and tweeting on a regular basis.
Then late last month, Joshua Rothman published a defense of Kristof with a piece at the New Yorker called “Why Is Academic Writing So Academic?” Rothman argued that the problem is not a lack of engaged scholars but rather with the academic enterprise itself: “Academics may write for large audiences on their blogs or as journalists. But when it comes to their academic writing, and to the research that underpins it — to the main activities, in other words, of academic life — they have no choice but to aim for very small targets.”
Dr. Cooper goes on to explain that, like herself, many of the black people who are considered public intellectuals are balancing not only trying to do work to achieve tenure but also trying to gain an audience, similar to their white counterparts.
The fundamental problem with Byers, Kristof and Rothman, then, is not lack of sufficient academic models, but rather that when they say “intellectual,” they mean “white male intellectual,” and in a few instances, white women, too. The refusal to acknowledge that white men are not the only folks responsible for creating knowledge makes it easy to run roughshod over the histories of black women knowledge creators and academics who tried to hip us to the political realities of academese long before some of these people were even born.