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  • Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America: A Historical Perspective ed. by Brian D. Behnken, Gregory D. Smithers, and Simon Wendt
  • Brandy Thomas Wells
Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America: A Historical Perspective. Edited by Brian D. Behnken, Gregory D. Smithers, and Simon Wendt. Margaret Walker Alexander Series in African American Studies. (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. Pp. vi, 244. $65.00, ISBN 978-1-4968-1365-7.)

Black Intellectual Thought in Modern America: A Historical Perspective joins a reinvigorated conversation about black intellectuals and their complex range of ideas. This interdisciplinary book moves beyond the common discussion of popular liberals, who are most visible during frenzied moments, to the margins, where radical, feminist, Marxist, and conservative black intellectuals have largely been cast. Expanding the theoretical and historical underpinnings of black intellectualism, the volume aims to "complicate how black intellectualism is academically and popularly understood" (p. 9).

Gregory D. Smithers opens the text with an overview of black intellectual thought from the late eighteenth century to World War II. Smithers explains that from the 1800s, black intellectualism was rooted in Christianity, abolitionism, and liberal ideas, broadly defined. This tradition was joined by other forms of thinking, including black Marxism and black feminism. As black intellectuals sought to mitigate the complexities of race and racism and to accomplish their own aspirations, they remained a diverse and complex group.

In providing readers with "a genealogy of black Marxism," Minkah Makalani challenges a discussion that has often been limited to the Communist Party of the United States during the Cold War (p. 38). After providing a rich historiography of black Marxist writing and thought, Makalani follows Frantz Fanon in stretching the definition of Marxism to make room for discourses on coloniality. Readers are introduced to Amílcar Cabral, whose thinking did not stop at imperialism but also addressed cultural revolution. Makalani closes the essay by considering the abandonment of this cultural nationalism in the sectarian turn in U.S. black Marxism.

Brian D. Behnken's essay broadly considers black liberalism. Behnken grants attention to the life work of James W. C. Pennington, Carter G. Woodson, and Marion Thompson Wright, since scholarly activity was considered the best means of changing white perspectives. If black liberals' desires could be summarized as possessing a singular goal, Behnken makes clear that "racial change was it" (p. 81). Even so, Behnken rightly shows that black liberalism has undergone many iterations and defies neat categorization.

Danielle L. Wiggins provides what could be called a companion essay to the preceding chapter. Correcting a false view that the black conservative tradition began after the civil rights era, Wiggins uncovers a "conservative radicalism" from the time of seventeenth-century black thinkers (p. 111). Although the number of black conservatives declined during the New Deal, Wiggins shows that this intellectual tradition remained deeply rooted. In the 1970s and 1980s, black neoconservatives "united in a shared critique of American liberalism and [End Page 493] the active role of the state" in black life (p. 115). Though marginally accepted among the New Right, black neoconservatives have shaped the parameters of discussions of black culture, education, welfare, and affirmative action.

In an enthralling essay, Benita Roth turns her attention to black feminist intellectuals. She examines the views and arguments of black women communists concerning the triple exploitation faced by black women. The arguments of Claudia Jones and others were resurrected in the 1950s and 1960s, as black feminist scholars, through writing and organization, challenged racial and gender oppressions. In weighing Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw's recognition of intersectionality, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the need for a "Say Her Name" campaign, Roth well articulates that no matter how consistent this intellectual tradition has been, many black feminists have been rendered invisible, as if there is only room for a few luminaries at once.

Simon Wendt analyzes black nationalist thought from the 1950s through the 1990s by paying attention to black "paraintellectuals," thinkers who reached larger audiences by speaking and writing about black politics from their lived rather than learned experiences (p. 171). This contribution highlights the predicaments and complexities of these thinkers, who attempted to create postcolonial ideologies that were inextricably linked to Anglo...


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