William Banks. Black Intellectuals:Race and Responsibility in American Life. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1996
Subject: Review: Black Intellectuals (Phelan)
Subject: Review: "Black Intellectuals" (Clark)
From: Douglas Stephen Phelan
Subject: Review: Black Intellectuals (Phelan)
Black Intellectuals:Race and Responsibility in American Life. William
Banks. W.W. Norton & Company, Inc. 1996
Reviewed by: Doug Phelan
Thomas Johnson, a slave from Virginia, explained how he learned how to
read and write:
...I went home and began to learn from this book how to write....but
another problem presented itself - I could not spell. At night when the
young master was getting his lessons, I used to chose some word I wanted
to know how to spell, and say, "Master, I ll bet you can t spell looking
glass. He would spell it. I would exclaim, "Lor s o er me, you can
spell nice." Then I would go out and spell the word over and over again.
I knew that once it was in my head it would never be out again.
The role of the black intellectual has changed dramatically since
the days of slavery. The days when intellectuals had to hide behind doors just
in order to learn how to read are long behind us, and now the challenges
facing the black intellectuals are not just from other segments of
society, but also from within their own ranks of leadership where different
ideals of what a black intellectual s responsibility are. In his book
entitled "Black Intellectuals", William M. Banks discusses the
emergence of the black intellectual, and follows their progression into the
Banks argues that the black intellectuals have had to live up to a
standard not only placed upon them by the black population, but also from
the ranks of the white population themselves. Blacks were considered
mentally inferior buy many of the white population including President
Jefferson, who, according to Banks, believed that blacks were mentally
inferior to whites. Benjamin Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of an almanac
he wrote, and Jefferson dismissed it, suggesting that the black mans friend
must have written the book.
Banks discusses the Talented Tenth , a term coined by Henry Morehouse,
referring to the individuals of the black community who would be
considered the intellectuals. It was their responsible to serve the
rest of the black community, teaching the teachers that would teach the
population. W.E.B. DuBouis agreed that a cadre of black leaders was needed
to guide the masses, that through education the black people will excel.
Booker T. Washington saw it another way, that industrial schools was the
way to go. Surprisingly, Washington sent his daughter to a school of
higher learning , a type of school he would criticize for not being the
answer to the problem. These differences turned into the black radicals,
who pushed for black power and black is beautiful versus other black
intellectuals, like Martin Luther King, who was making excuses to the
rest of the country for the black activists behavior. Banks makes a clear
distinction between the black intellectual and the black activist, by
referring to King as sometimes being the activist and sometimes being the
Henry Lewis Gates at one time had W.E.B. DuBouis as his hero, his role
model. Gates suggested that DuBouis writings was limited to his
imagination, and that his imagination was limited to his learning. Gates
criticizes DuBouis for studying sociology, wishing he had study sometime
that would not limit his imagination, such as philosophy.
Adolph Reed, a black intellectual, suggests that some black
intellectuals were writing what the white conservative wanted to hear. As Reed puts it,
these black intellects were hustlers. Suggesting Thomas Sowell wrote
Ethnic America because it would carry an impressive symbolic message
against the liberal black intellectuals. According to Reed, just what the
white conservatives wanted to hear. Placing of carefully selected black
individuals to positions of faculty at prestigious institutions to portray
a false message of non-discrimination. William J. Wilson enraged
the circle of black intellectuals by publishing a study that suggested
that race was becoming less a factor in the success of the black people.
Starting in the 40 s, opportunities for blacks began to increase.
Black scholars were getting more articles printed and schools were opening up to
black students. Brown v. Board of Education opened up an argument that
continues today: segregate or integrate? Many black intellectuals
believe that a black pupil is best taught by black teachers, others feel
blacks must learn to conform with the rest of society. The old Booker T.
v. W.E.B. debate. W.E.B. felt that the black man should integrate into
society, adapt. Booker T. believed that the black child was best served if
taught by black teachers in black schools.
As Brown v. Board of Education created debate, so did the movement
after the Civil Rights Amendment. The Black Power and Black is Beautiful
movements saw black intellectuals split with black activists. Martin
Luther King v. Malcolm X, another time, same debate. Should the black
society participate separately in society, or together with the rest of the
minorities? Malcolm X even went so far as to ask for a piece of land and
support for 25 years so the black people could separate from the United
States. Malcolm X saw the white man as the devil. Malcolm X realized that
his audience was the black people, the same people he represented. Many
black intellectuals were confronted with the problem of representing the
black people, but trying to satisfy a white audience. Much of the division
of the intellectuals is based on this problem. The black
intellectuals did not present a united front because there are
differences in how intellectuals think the front should be. The liberal
activist sees the black intellectuals catering to the white audience as
Banks does a good job of covering many of the black intellectuals, and
does so in somewhat of a chronological order, until Banks starts to
describe the 1960 s. During this time he drifts back to the 40 s even to
the days of slavery, and then jumps right back to the 60 s. Banks even
jumps ahead to the 80 s. I had trouble following him for the last quarter
of the book. Banks did talk about hundreds of black intellectuals,
never spending more than 2 pages on a specific intellectual. There are
time when Banks gives his opinions in a quiet way, for instance when he
criticizes Booker T. Washington and the stance he was taking against W.E.B.
DuBouis. This interjection helped to make the book more interesting, and
even easier to follow.
The one aspect of this book that Banks points out and continually
provides support for is the fact that the black intellectuals have split in how
best they can serve their people. Even today, the Booker T v. W.E.B.
argument is alive and well. The argument is widening, now people like
Adolph Reed is accusing people like Cornel West and bell hooks of being
hustlers, exploiting the problems of the black race for money. This idea
of racism is something that the black individual understands well, while
many white individuals have never really experienced it. After World War
II, Banks printed a piece about a black man that came across a Jewish man
in college. The Jewish man told the black man your just like me, we have
both been discriminated against. The black man could not believe he said
this, in fact he resented it. Some black intellectuals feel that the
black people should distance themselves from any other group of people.
For example, the blacks and the Jews fought hand in hand for many years
until the Affirmative Action movement. The two groups went their separate
ways, the blacks felt the Jews benefited greatly from the Affirmative
Action, at the cost of the black people. Opportunities for black
individuals are becoming more available, and without discrimination as a
factor. More and more black people are entering the political arena, where
they can make a difference. As Banks points out on numerous occasions
during the book, the black intellectuals to this day are still splitting
on how best they can lead their people. Some say enter the mainstream,
become a politician, while others suggest that is just being an "uncle Tom".
You can almost look at Banks book as a history book of the role of the
black intellectual. You can follow the paths the intellectual took
throughout the history of the United States. You can also find just about
any of the black intellectuals in this book. This book will help you
understand the emergence of the distinct but different points of views of
the black intellectuals as well as from the black activist. Banks is
not one sided in his discussions, and he gets his opinions across
discretely. In a day when the black intellectuals are finally getting
the recognition the so deserve, writers like Banks do them justice. From
the slave that manipulated his master in order for him to learn hoe to read
and write, to the great thinkers like DuBouis, Washington, and King, the
roles of the black intellectuals have paved they way for the current
role of toadies black intellectual. Today s Talented Tenth has much more
opportunity to get their ideas and messages out to the black public.
Today s Talented Tenth have much more respect than did their
predecessors. The next generations Talented Tenth will probably enjoy
much more respect than today s are. This cycle would have not been
possible without the leadership and guidance of the original Talented
Tenth . Banks gives this group credit where credit is deserved.
From: Timothy Alan Clark
(by way of Gary Klass )
Subject: Review: "Black Intellectuals" (Clark)
"Black Intellectuals" by William Banks
Tim Clark E-Mail at email@example.com
There are thousands of books detailing the creation of our country
and the great minds behind its creation. William Banks, however,
illustrates a problem with all the books we've been reading for all these
years. Although these books make mention of great black thinkers like
W.E.B. Dubois and Booker T. Washington, they fail to give credit to other
great black minds. Now more and more black intellectuals are beginning to
surface. Who are these people and why are so many of them just now
breaking into mainstream American literature? These are two questions
William Banks set out to answer in his book
Banks provides a detailed history of black intellectuals, and
provides a variety of reasons why he feels they were slow to rise to the
surface. He begins by discussing the culture of West Africa, the
birthplace of many of the original slaves, explaining how societies in
West Africa did not rely on reading and writing. West African socieities
were verbal societies. They did not rely on sacred books to pass down
their culture, they passed on their history through stories, lectures, and
songs. For that reason, many of the original slaves were not over
interested with reading and writing, and no white slave owner was ready to
educate the slaves. Banks states that he believes literacy threatended
the control and survellence slave masters had over their slaves. Therefore
they were not over anxious to educate them and began passing laws
preventing such acts.
Banks definitly places his early focus on education, and the
extreme measure blacks had to go to obtain an adequate education. He
examines the early black public schools in the North illustrating the fact
that black schools were often taught by undereducated teachers and often
housed far more student than did white schools. This led many blacks to
seek careers in education, nad brought about one early conflict facing the
black intellectuals. Black teachers educated in the N0orth had to decide
if they were to stay in the North where their freedoms wre more protected,
or if they should return to the South to try and reach more black families
and better their race as a whole. This problem faced by many black
intellectuals was a theme throughout the book. Throughout history, black
intellectuals were faced with the choice of either being viewed as an
"Uncle Tom" for thinking of themselves and not the betterment of their
race, or they could strive to make their race better and risk the
possiblility of jeopardizing the chance for them to be accepted into the
mainstream intellectual movement.
Banks also examines some early animosity between black
intellectuals. He focuses a lot on W.E.B. Dubois and his battles with
Booker T. Washington. Again Banks uses education to distinguish between
the two intellectuals. he examines Dubois's idea of the "talented tenth,"
and the idea of vocational education for most blacks. Banks demonstrates
how black intellectuals and their quarrles with each other also lent to
the suppression of early black intellectuals. He tells of instances when
Booker T. Washington used his enourmous political power to have certain
black publicatons completely wiped out because they were printing articles
contrary to Washington's beliefs.
Forced comformity, whether it be from Booker T. Washington, or the
white majority, was a major issue examined by Banks throughout the book.
Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Dubois had different views on the amount
of conformity blacks should be willing to endure. Washington felt it was
necessary for blacks to conform to certain white expectations and resist
the urge to print some literature that may have more accurately depicted
the black struggle, but wasn't what the white readers wanted to read.
While both were fighting for racism, their methods were extremely
Banks discusses Ethnic Identity at great length as another
roadblock encountered by black intellectuals beginning in the early 19th
Century. Blacks had to make a choice on how they revealed their
blackness. Black intellectuals were faced with a confusion of how to
remain true to their identity, and at the same time keep some remanants of
racial cohesion. Banks explains how this begins to change with the Civil
Rights movements of the 1960's and 70's. Banks examines the idea of
"black is beutiful" brought about by the black power movement of this era.
Banks looks at some of the confusion brought about by sayings such as
this. Were blacks saying that white wasn't beutiful? Banks explains that
many American began to "retreat from the principles of racial equality,"
during this time. Banks gives a good example of the confusion facing many
young black intellectuals at this time, with a quote offered from a young
Yale student in the late sixties: "I thought damn! I'm just Uncle Tom up
here. I don't know anything about how I should function. Are you
supposed to wear an Afro? Wear dashikis only? Give a special handshake?
Date white people? Listen to a certain music? Ice your white friends? I
was worried, and very anxious to be accepted by my community, because I
had always been accepted before and would find rejection bothersome."
In his discussion concerning the 1960's and 70's, Banks makes a
strong argument for the black militant movement. In this portion of the
book Banks describes how many black intellectuals viewed this militant
movement as just as valuable, if not moreso, than the early work done by
the abolitionists and other like Dubois and Washington. Banks identifies
Benjamin Quarles, a black writer whose first book was published in 1948.
In 1982 Quarles publicly acknowledged a professional debt to the
"rambunctious young activists" in the black power movement. Quarles toes
on to say that these black intellectuals had books that weren't selling
until these young activists placed the black consciousness movement in the
If I was to note one problem I could find with the book, it would
be the fact that Banks is very hesitant to take a stance on any of the
controversial topics or decisions he uncovers. Throughout the book, Banks
identifies both sides of these arguments. Banks himself though never
reveals which side, if any, he would side with. On the issue of
conformity for instance, Banks never tells us how much he feels a young
black author should conform to the ideals of the white media. Insight
from a black author such a Banks could be very helpful in this book. Banks
himself is one of these black intellectuals, it would be very beneficial
to hear how he dealt with the issues he faced. Although Banks is
obviously choosing to write more of a history of black intellectuals, some
personal insight or personal experiences would have been informative.
One confusing aspect of the book, is the constant jumping around
that Banks does. He is throwing names at you from all directions. Since
Banks is wishing to get recognition for as many black intellectuals as
possible, he doesn't spend as much time with each individual author as he
could of. He attempts to balance this out with somewhat of a "glossary of
intellectuals" in the rear of the book. This list is helpful, but
following Banks throughout the book as he skips from one author to the
next is none the less confusing.
From a historical and educational standpoint, this is one of the
best books I have read detailing black intellectuals and their struggle.
I learned of black writers, artists, and educators that I had never heard
of. Black men and women who were instrumental in the forming of this
country we now live in, who for some reason were and are left out of our
history books. Banks is obviously unmatched in his knowledge of black
intellectuals, and the struggles they've endured.