The concept of ‘black intellectual’ is one of those obscure, oft-maligned terms that’s become a staple in pop culture discussion over the past decade.
It’s a term that’s been used to describe a certain type of artistic expression, but it’s been almost completely glossed over in discussions of the Black creative class since the early 2000s.
In some cases, it’s even been described as a synonym for ‘black male’ or ‘black woman’ (though the latter is often seen as a reductive characterization of both), and its origins can be traced back to the early 1990s when “black intellectual” was used to identify an African American artist.
“Black intellectual” is an important part of the history of black artists, but the term has often been misunderstood.
To learn more about how black intellectual was used in the 1960s, and how it was defined by a white audience, I spoke to the authors of the book Black Intellectual: An Essay on Race, Gender, and Intellectual Property.
Black Intellectual is not the first academic book to explore the history and definition of the term, but its impact on contemporary race relations is unmatched by any other.
In an interview with New York magazine in 2014, artist, essayist, and writer Kwame Anthony Appiah explained how the term emerged from his work.
“The first thing that I did was make a painting of black people in the ’70s, because the only way I could see myself in the painting was from a distance,” Appiah said.
“That was the first time that I saw myself.
And the idea that I was part of this African American tradition was like, oh, okay, I can see myself from that distance, and that made it feel real.
And it’s like, this is my own painting.”
The idea of ‘the Black intellectual’ as an umbrella term for Black artists was popularized by a 1994 article by journalist and writer Mark Oppenheimer.
Oppenheim, whose work has also been published in the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Atlantic, argued that black intellectuals were the “original black artists.”
“Black intellectuals have been in the forefront of the movement to end the racial oppression of African Americans,” Oppenheres piece stated.
“These artists are responsible for transforming the world, for creating new modes of consciousness, and for helping create a better, more just, more compassionate society.
In this way, they have a crucial role in helping to end this suffering.”
In the article, Oppenheiser claimed that “black intellectuals are the ‘first black people’ to discover that they are part of a ‘black culture,’ and that their art, poetry, music, and ideas were the source of a new world.”
Oppen he explained that the term Black Intellectual “explains the concept of a black culture that has evolved in response to the world around them.”
It was in this context that Oppen’s piece, in which he referred to the “first black person” as “an African American man” and “a Black man who is the first black person to discover his culture,” was a seminal moment in black intellectual history.
While Oppenheires piece did not define “the Black Intellectual” as an abstract concept, it is clear that the concept was being used in a very specific way at the time.
Black Intellectual was defined as the “concept of art as a vehicle for the formation of new modes and consciousness that are more inclusive of the world,” according to a 1995 study published in Journal of American Cultural Studies.
This definition, however, ignores the way that Black Intellectual and its other cultural manifestations have been historically used.
Oppyheimer argued that the word “Black Intellectual” came into use to refer to a variety of cultural forms, including “Black art,” “Black music,” and “Black theater.”
These forms of cultural expression were “the result of the collective efforts of Black artists, poets, actors, musicians, writers, filmmakers, and others to transform an already existing body of knowledge, to transform black culture and the world in ways that are new and, above all, to create new modes that were previously invisible.”
In the 1950s, the term “Black musical” was first coined by poet and singer Marlon James in his essay, “Black Musical,” which he wrote while living in New York.
James used the term to describe his own “singing” experiences and the experiences of his friends in the Harlem music scene.
In 1962, James was interviewed by the New Republic about his work in Harlem, and he used the phrase “Black musicians” to describe the Black artists he knew.
“It’s not enough to call a group of musicians Black or Black musicians Black,” James said.
“‘Black musicians’ is what it’s really all about: The Black musicians.
You know, we call these artists Black, because we want to be able to say that