The work of African-American intellectuals is marked by the effects of the racial discrimination that limited their opportunities. Discrimination forced intellectuals to concentrate their energies and find a way to bind their creative work with their political activities. As such, the realities confronted by African Americans gave birth to a unique intellectual tradition.
Certain elementary principles are common to the experience of African-American intellectuals. African Americans all share the experiences of the forcible uprooting of their people from the African continent, followed by human bondage and the quest for freedom. All ideas and literature emanating from the African-American community express the desire for literacy, thirst for identity, pain of exclusion and the assertion of the right to create a narrative.
The African-American intellectual has had a passionate need for self-definition. Finding an identity was a crucial component of the demand for civil and economic rights. African Americans were determined to prove their merit to those who had treated them as outsiders, and this spurred their work to great heights of artistic and intellectual achievement.
The history of the African-American intellectual begins with a woman, the poet Phillis Wheatley (1753-1784). Wheatley was born in Africa but was taken to the United States where she was purchased by an important Boston family. She adopted the surname of her owners, which was customary at the time. Wheatley's experience was atypical of African-American slaves. The 18th-century poet was taught to read and write, skills she learned with tremendous speed. Wheatley not only had private quarters within the family home, but dined with her owners, too.
When Wheatley developed an illness, her owners took the advice of a physician and paid for her travel to England where she might recuperate. Wheatley's owners freed her from bondage to allow her safe passage. The Wheatley family was remarkable and unique in its humanity.
In 1773, the Wheatley family helped Phillis become the first African American to publish a book: Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Wheatley's masters were forced to prove to skeptical publishers that an African slave had the intellectual capacity to write poetry. The Wheatley family secured letters from the governor and lieutenant governor of Massachusetts attesting to their slave's mental prowess. Other important Bostonians of the time, for instance John Hancock (1737-1793), lent their support.
One other African American from colonial times is cited for his intellect: Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806), an astronomer and mathematician. Banneker was born in Maryland to former slaves and spent the majority of his life farming family land. In his spare time, he borrowed books and sought to educate himself. At the advanced age of 60 years, Banneker began to attract attention for his intellectual abilities. In 1791, Banneker began work on an almanac based on his calculations for lunar and solar eclipses. At this time, he was also appointed to assist in surveying the Federal Territory, known today as the District of Columbia. With this job completed, Banneker returned to his tobacco farm and his almanac.
When the almanac was complete, Banneker sent a copy to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state. While the almanac was produced for just six years, it was popular. The almanac was published in the United States and England in 29 separate editions.
In the 19th century, most African-American intellectuals were religious leaders. Aside from a commitment to community activism, preachers were literate and capable of analysis. Abolition became a primary cause for African-American preachers.
Henry Highland Garnet (1815-1882) was one such spiritual leader. Born into slavery, Garnet earned his freedom by escaping to New York City. Garnet was able to secure a quality theological education and became a pastor in upstate New York. However, his experiences as a slave nagged at him so that he began to speak out in favor of armed slave resistance. Garnet combined religious fervor with his message, so that abolition began to be seen as a religious movement.
Frederick Douglass (1817-1895) served the cause of abolition not as a religious figure but as a politician. Douglass spoke out about race and politics and accumulated significant influence with government figures. Douglass was also a journalist who edited and published a variety of periodicals, including The North Star, Frederick Douglass's [sic] Paper and the New National Era. Douglass became the role model for the African-American public-political intellectual.
After Douglass, the growth of African-American intellectualism seemed to break free of its bonds, as did the African Americans themselves. African-American intellectuals began to find their sea legs, beginning with W.E.B. Du Bois (1868-1963) and Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), and moving on to Alain Locke (1885-1954), a professor of philosophy at Howard University and first African-American Rhodes scholar. Modern African-American intellectuals include Langston Hughes (1902-1967), economist Robert C. Weaver (1907-1997) and Eldridge Cleaver (1935-). More recent stars of the African-American intellectual scene include writers Maya Angelou (1928-) and Toni Morrison (1929-).