Thinking About “Beyond Respectability”, Public Intellectualism and the “School of Social Conditions”

Although I’ve opted to share another text rather than Beyond Respectability, I can’t help but feel that maybe our class has missed out on something by not touching on this text in a more direct way. Certainly, there is much to this material to which I think our cohort would have connected in terms of Cooper’s discussion about community literacies, as well as the centering of black women’s intellectual contributions. More than that, I think it could be to the benefit of many of us in this space to take Cooper’s call for us to take the work of black women intellectuals off the shelves and engage it—not just keep it and protect it, but think with it, challenge it, look at the world with it as a lens…

That last point of mine, which refers to the introduction in which Cooper describes how she came about embarking on this project, is important to me in thinking about black intellectualism as a manifestation of activism—and its relatedness to what female rapper Brittney “BbyMutha” Moore was talking about when she tweeted: “F**k a family secret.”

In that instance, Moore was talking about family secrets in relation to sexual or other such crimes committed by men—and the complicity of certain black communities which seek to protect the broader “Black Community” by concealing or refusing to engage with certain realities in order to project a palatable, harmonious image of unity. To me, what Moore describes is obviously problematic for its complicity in the continuation of and lack of justice in relation to sexual violence—but it also speaks to a certain “essentialization” of black experiences that, in an attempt to “protect”, results in erasure.

I fear that something similar—minus the element of sexual violence to an important extent but certainly not devoid of some level of misogyny—happens in discussions about Black public intellectualism, varying as these discussions pertain to men and women. As Cooper notes in her introduction, our efforts to protect the memories of Black intellectuals in general can sometimes prevent us from critically engaging with works, ideas, histories which could otherwise benefit from rigor. I’m wondering now: how can I be bolder in dealing with the works of my Black intellectual forebears; how can I remix their theories, challenge them, call into question their histories and “come at them” while remaining respectful? How can I stand on their shoulders and lean on their credibility while at the same time acknowledging their limitations? In what ways might such an approach be damaging—or perceived that way?

I think the answer to that lies—at least in part—in what we’re doing in class. Cooper discusses the formation of Black intellectualism (among women) taking place in “clubs”, which our weekly seminar I think resembles in some way, particularly as we discuss matters that are not only academic but also deeply personal… or what Williams refers to (I’m paraphrasing) as literacies derived from “schools of life and living”. Thinking about he seminar as a space where we can talk about these things safely, and dig deep into the thinkers we’re working with without a need to protect them, I think, might better situate us to take them out of this classroom with us and into our other work.

Not only that, but also: I just think it would be nice to share with the class what tradition it is they’re walking in.

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