The state of Black intellectual history

The Chronicle of Higher Education talks with Vanderbilt University historian Brandon Byrd about his recent article “The Rise of African American Intellectual History.” Here is a taste of the interview:

An old-guard intellectual historian like Perry Miller depended almost exclusively on the writings of clergymen and philosophers. But a lot of intellectual history since then has tried to reconcile a focus on the elite production of ideas with the intellectual commitments of regular people. How does that play out in African American intellectual history?

It would be a mistake to represent all African American intellectual history as being a sort of non-elite, counterhegemonic project. A lot of scholars of African American history are writing about professional thinkers. So that’s not really that far afield from what a lot of intellectual history traditionally has looked like.

Right. And you mention that Earl Thorpe, one of the heroes of your Modern Intellectual History essay — we’ll get to him later — worried that his work was compromised for that reason.

By a middle-class bias.

So that’s a risk of all intellectual history, including African American intellectual history.

Absolutely. And there’s a patriarchal bent to it, too. Privileging elite subjects, literate subjects, formally educated subjects — a lot of those are men. So in that, there has traditionally been an overlap between African American intellectual history and intellectual history writ large.

But practitioners of African American intellectual history were certainly at the vanguard of the “social turn,” of history from below. Of really thinking about what history looks like for the vast majority of the population — of workers, of laborers, of enslaved people. I’m thinking of scholars like Herbert Gutman and John Blassingame.

At the same time, some intellectual historians — white intellectual historians in Europe and the United States, primarily — felt that social history was an aggressive field challenging their dominance: Chicano history, African American history, women’s history. But the practitioners of those histories are not making that cleavage. They’re showing the synergies between social history, intellectual history, and cultural history.

The history of enslaved people, for example, is not just a social history. It’s also an intellectual history, because it’s about how enslaved people are thinking about their lived experiences.

Read the entire piece here.