Black Anti-Intellectualism; or “Damn, It’s Not That Deep”

An intellectual is "a man who takes more words than are necessary to tell more than he knows."
President Dwight D. Eisenhower, 1954

"And even after all my logic and my theory, I add a motherfucker so you ig'nant niggaz hear me"
-Lauryn Hill, "Zealots", 1994

Anti-intellectualism has swept our nation, my friends. The life of the mind is not at all attractive to people. We live in times where people place everything into extremes. You're either for it or against it. Democrat or Republican. Good or evil. Gay or straight. There is no middle ground. Middle ground is for the confused, the lazy, the ideologically impaired.

When people think in such stark terms, the problem becomes that it is easy to just dismiss the other side without thinking at all. Because they are "opposite" you, they are just wrong and what that really means is that they are "wrong" because they are opposite you–you fashion yourself morally and intellectually (ironically enough) in the right and because you sit there, you needn't think at all. You simply are right. This requires no serious thought.

And it is dangerous.

I find that in conversations people will say to me, "It's not that deep." I'll mention that the black character on Jack and Bobby is completely characterless and explain why. And, "It's not that deep." I'll wanna discuss why the Democrats are a fuckin' mess and how it's their fault they are loosing ground in governmnet. And, "It's not that deep." I'll see a forum on the AIDS epidemic on TV and the panelists are all black women and wonder why the conversation is gendered and racialized in that way and for what purpose. And, "It's not that deep."

John McWhorter, author of many books about Black America (including Authentically Black: Essays for the Silent Minority and Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America) defines intellectualism in the black community as solely a racialized word wherein intelligence is associated with "being white". And so then, anti-intellectualism is seen as not wanting to "be white" and, perhaps in a perversely political way, as black self-determination.

In the mainstream, many intellectuals are much more concerned with anti-intellectualism as it relates to passivity–the unwillingness to think about anything at all and the tendency to place everything in moralistic opposition. For my purposes, I am interested in this mainstream idea of anti-intellectualism as it relates to Black America. Because it exists. It is profoundly crippling and counter-productive to black self-determination.

This kind of anti-intellectualism is not about people being truly ignorant. Most people in American are intelligent, well-read (for the most part), and articulate. But they lack the desire to think critically. It is a fundamental refusal to engage in any kind of critical thinking. "It's not that deep" is an admission that one doesn't want to think about any topic beyond what is readily apparent. It stops the conversation (for what is the response to "It's not that deep" that won't result in the discussion sputtering off into a tangent?). It means that anything that is said won't register because if it's not "deep", it is not worth hearing.

But then, the question becomes, what is "deep" enough? When will it be okay to be thoughtful and wonder why people do what they do, why black people are portrayed the way they are, why pundits are not really adequate substitutes for news or true political discourse? Why isn't everything that has anything to do with representations of economic and racial minorities, life, politics, national security, "deep" enough?

Everywhere around me it seems that people are uninterested in seriously thinking about life. It's not just the political realm that is lacking. Everyday, I'm confronted with people who continually act out the socialized scripts that keep them mired in unhappiness and bad relationships. By doing this, one doesn't have to put any thought into how they behave and how they interact with others in their daily lives. And much of what is socialized is harmful, from patriarchy to black self-hatred to homophobia, and people (whether they know it or not) enact these ways of thinking and being.

A friend of mine and I had a discussion about relationships and he was talkin about how his ex would be standoffish and he would become needy almost retaliation for his ex's behavior and how this was a problem. He attributed his behavior to his essential Aries traits and his ex's to his Scorpio traits. This to me is counter-productive. It's anti-intellectual because one doesn't have to think about how they behave and just act out some arbitrary delineation of what behavior is "natural". So, of course, he repeats this behavior often in relationships.

I commented on this willingness to repeat behavior that impairs relationships and wondered why not just change the behavior. He said, "well, yea" like it was an epiphany and then immediately followed it up with "well, he has to change to". This is anti-intellectual, as well. The propensity to shift blame, to transfer agency means that you forfeit any ability to change your situation. Clearly, the ex would have to change as well for the relationship to work, but he was not the focus of the discussion.

Similarly, I have another friend who spurns furthering his education. I am not the biggest proponent of college if one is not truly ready for it as it can be detrimental, but it seemed that he was less interested in education because he couldn't conceive of education in any other form than the one in which he currently takes part–high school. He coasts through high school and the prospect of any rigorous intellectual pursuits bores him.

These two examples are what I mean when I say anti-intellectual. It's boring to think. One can't conceive of thought in anyway that is different from what they already know. And in the former example, the ability to recognize behavior and then change it is just ignored.

This is the worst kind of anti-intellectualism in Black America. We hold so many essentialisms in Black America that oftentimes we continue enacting unhealthy behavior because it's deemed "normal" or societally acceptable. There is a certain amount of leeway you have in relationships to just act stupidly because so many other people are doing it. It's okay to be act co-dependently even if you aren't co-dependent simply because you have no other ways of expressing love and affection. You overvalue the phone conversation because cellphones are such a trend as to be (erroneously) considered actual communication.

The process of changing behavior in our society is spurned. We've become intellectually lazy and that infects every other facet of life in the Black community. My generation has access to unprecedented levels of education and even the well-educated enact unhealthy behavior. And on some level, they know it. That we have a colloquialism–"It's not that deep"–that encourages the spurning of intellectual thought is telling. It's a cop-out. It's a phrase tossed out when you just don't want to think any further.

I am deeply concerned with the lazy way in which people I know seem to go about their daily lives. And I say this in response to many of these people who tell me I think too much about everything. The Aries friend told me that I have just as many unhealthy attitudes as he does. And in response I said that I was concerned and actively engaging in dialogue that calls attention to unhealthy ways of being so that I can recognize what is deficient and make steps to change it. The dialoguing, the intellectual self-check, is the first and best step toward correcting that behavior.

If, in every given interaction with his ex, he had considered whether his behavior would be off-putting, eventually he would have learned and retrained himself to behave in ways that were affirming to both himself and his ex. Because clearly, it does harm to him as well to be constantly butting heads with his lovers.

This process of rigorous self-checking is what is needed to rectify this strain of anti-intellectualism that tells people that if it takes too long to think about it, it's probably not worth thinking about in the first place. This process of rigorous self-interrogation allows one to become familiar with the ways in which one acts in unhealthy ways and then allows you to change it.

Anti-intellectualism in America takes many forms and for Black Americans our complacency, our willingness to accept mediocrity (be it in our art and our relationships) is what is deadening the mind. One needn't read DuBois and Fanon, sit in Starbucks with a laptop and black turtleneck talking about the fall of Communism to be an intellectual.

A true intellectual is someone who is engaged with their ways of being, their willingness to be critiqued and challenged, and their ability to see that there is more to life than just maintaining the status quo.

Originally written on May 3, 2005

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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