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Organic intellectual: Robert Chrisman and the construction of a black radical scholar's activist legacy.

The first black prisoners in America were the Africans brought to these shores in chains in 1619.

Robert Chrisman, "Black Prisoners, White Law," The Black Scholar, Vol. 2, No. 8/9, The Black Prisoner (April/May 1971), p. 44.

The task of the black intellectual is vision, in both senses of the word--vision in the sense of seeing what exists and vision in seeing what should exist and has existed. Robert Chrisman, "The Crisis of Harold Cruse,"

The Black Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 1, The Culture of Revolution (November 1969), p. 79.

Some truths remain hidden in plain sight, largely because only a small number of people are willing to speak the obvious. Let me offer a few truths about Black Studies and black radical politics since the late '60s: Robert Chrisman was a giant; he was John Henry. His pen was his hammer and The Black Scholar was his anvil. Through both scholarship and struggle, he helped forge the transdiscipline known variously as Black, African-American, and Africana Studies, and the revolutionary perspective referred to as black radicalism. Indeed, The Black Scholar was the first journal of the new discipline. Through its pages, initially with Nathan Hare and later with Robert Allen, Chrisman shaped the discipline and the discourse on the politics and culture of black radicalism for two generations.

Robert Chrisman was an African-American organic intellectual. He represented what Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci called "the thinking and organizing element" of a "fundamental class." The contradiction of the African-American condition in the United States complicates Gramsci's general notion. Consequently, Chrisman was not a classic "organic intellectual," in the Gramscian sense, but rather, by his own terms, he was an organic intellectual of the "captive formation of black America." Neither was he a traditional "race man"; Chrisman worked at the intersection of race and class consciousness functioning as a theorist and organizer for the interests of the black working class. (1)

Most of his life he operated outside of academia in the independent institutional sector of what Michael C. Dawson called the black counterpublic. For forty years, he published and edited The Black Scholar as an autonomous nonsectarian black radical journal. Unconcerned with appealing to the conscience of power, Chrisman followed the injunction of Amilcar Cabral and spoke truth to the people. Oh, he condemned the ravages of oppression--racial and gender-based--and viewed the normal workings of capitalism as inhuman, but because he educated and organized the people, he was not a public intellectual, but rather the paradigmatic black scholar activist. He both produced engaged scholarship and organized around the burning issues of his lifetime. (2)

The wide-ranging editorials and essays reprinted here cover Chrisman's urgent ruminations on Black Studies, the African American condition, US capitalist media, and liberation struggles across the African-Diaspora and what used to be called the third world. As a founder of black/Africana studies, Chrisman not only chronicled the transdiscipline's development, but he also rendered interpretations of seminal work as well as proposing a direction for the discipline itself.

The role of the black intellectual was an ongoing problematic that Chrisman wrestled with throughout his career. Here, we find him grappling with it as early as 1969 in the cleverly named "The Crisis of Harold Cruse," and again in 2005, in his most developed analysis of Black/Africana Studies, "Black Studies, the Talented Tenth, and the Organic Intellectual." (3) Harold Cruse's deeply flawed yet often captivating classic, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, stimulated Chrisman's initial engagement with this question. He published one of the first, if not the first critique of Crisis, thereby initiating what would become a hallmark of The Black Scholar: timely, principled debate.

Cruse's broad, innovative, multiple-genre, fascinating, and often incisive text has confounded many. His highly personal and often malicious assessment of blacks' encounter with Marxism obscured his continuing commitment to socialism. Chrisman was the first to penetrate its mystifications. Chrisman's keen analysis exposed the confused and contradictory character of Cruse's magnum opus. He took Cruse to task for failing to define his basic concepts, vicious scapegoating, and ignoring the existing African-American culture that was forged from the stubborn survivals and creolization of African ethnic cultures with European and indigenous cultures. Interestingly, Langston Hughes, whom Cruse crudely and cruelly derided, understood African-American culture as the creation of the "low-down folk," the black working classes; in contrast, Cruse believed "intellectuals and artists," the petty bourgeoisie, created culture. Of Cruse's argument, Chrisman simply and pointedly declared, "It is an elitist theory--and a foolish one." In addition, to his thesis of cultural nationalism, the most influential idea to come out of Crisis was Cruse's reduction of African-American history to a "conflict between integrationist and nationalist forces in politics, economics, and culture." Cruse's reductionist formulation established the dominant paradigm for understanding African-American history, especially of the black liberation struggle. Thanks to Manning Marable, Robert C. Smith, Patricia Hill Collins, Michael C. Dawson, and others, we now know black resistance to racial oppression had a much broader ideological repertoire. Yet, despite going unappreciated for decades, Chrisman's most important critique of Cruse was his demolition of that erroneous thesis. (4) Chrisman summed up his critique of Cruse, writing: (5)
   Integration and segregation are concepts
   defined by this establishment as means of
   dealing with a malcontent black population.
   One cannot accept the conceptual
   framework of the oppressor and find in it
   a ladder to freedom. To accept the oppressor's
   definition of the black condition is
   to continue the colonization of the mind
   which cripples so totally. That is the crisis
   of the black intellectual, and it is the particular
   crisis of Harold Cruse.

Chrisman's challenge to Cruse's fundamental theses identified his leftist orientation and presaged an ideological divide among The Black Scholar's founding intellectual activists, which led to Hare's departure in 1975.

By his 2005 intervention in Black Studies, Chrisman's race-class analysis was well developed. In "Black Studies, the Talented Tenth, and the Organic Intellectual," he demonstrates his knowledge of and allegiances to the Black Intellectual Tradition and Marxism. Not only does he offer his most developed critique and conceptualization of Black Studies, but also, equally important, he extends the argument developed in E. Franklin Frazier's 1957 essay "The Failure of the Negro Intellectual" by incorporating a Gramscian approach to popular education and social struggle. In many ways, Chrisman's analysis pays homage to Frazier. It is equally bold, piercing, and unsparing in its criticism of the black intelligentsia of its era. At first glance, it may appear as a step back toward Cruse (early Du Bois, et al.) and notions of the primacy of the intellectual. However, this line of argument is mitigated by his adoption of Gramsci's broad definition of an intellectual and his commitment to build on the "intellectual, cultural, and social resources of the people themselves." (6) Chrisman's move left sharpened his vision. It allowed him to see beyond the black elite's myopic desire for white privilege, the mind-numbing gadgets of consumer culture, and the adoption of the market's logic.

Though thus far neglected as a subject of scholarship, Chrisman was an astute observer of the African-American condition. Of C. L. R. James, the martyred Guyanese revolutionary, Walter Rodney once asked, "How come that C. L. R. James was so prescient as to perceive the significance of all these 'African revolts' in 1938?" Substituting different specifics, the same can be asked about Robert Chrisman. How come Robert Chrisman was able to see so deeply into his conjuncture, to see so deeply into the souls of black folk? Why was he blessed with such vision, in both senses of the word, to observe the past and present--to clearly see the historic and contemporary structural and ideological components of racial oppression and the multiple forms of blacks' resistance and to envision the future--to perceive black people's hopes and dreams, and aspirations for a world free from oppression? (7)

What is so striking about Robert Chrisman's social and political essays and editorials is not just that they are insightful, often profound interrogations and observations of the moment of their creation, but rather that they often foreshadow contemporary concerns. In this regard, "Black Prisoners, White Faw" is paradigmatic. Writing in 1971, well before critical race theory or the prison abolition movement, Chrisman observed, "In the literal sense of the word, we are out-laws.... Being outside the law, black Americans are either victims or prisoners of a law which is neither enforced nor designed for us--except with repressive intent." (8) However, Chrisman does not stop the analysis there; he complicates it, writing, "To maintain that all black offenders are by their actions politically correct is a dangerous romanticism.... But it must be understood that the majority of black offenses have their roots in the political and economic deprivations of black Americans by the Anglo-American state, and that these are the primary causes and conditions of black crimes." (9) Many might argue that Chrisman's language is "sixtyish," that it betrays the zealousness of the turbulent decade, that typical of that moment his analysis overreaches; yet, forty-two years later, nearly 1 million African Americans are incarcerated, largely due to a phony and discriminatory "drug war." Meanwhile, the murder of Trayvon Martin, and the convictions of Marissa Alexander and Trevor Dooley, demonstrate that "Stand Your Ground" and "Conceal and Carry" laws "were not designed for us" and affect black people only with "repressive intent."

To fully understand the revanchist nature of the current historical moment, we need to revisit the horrors of Ronald Reagan's counterreformation. Private anti-black racial violence soared during the Reagan regime. Revanchist anti-black, racially motivated hostility became so prevalent during Reagan's two terms that in 1990, Congress enacted the Hate Crimes and Statistics Act. In the midst of Reagan's dress rehearsal for the current right-wing rollback of civil rights, evisceration of the public sector, attack on women, assault on unions, and war on Afro-America, Chrisman perceptively noted the significance of his assailment of the nonprofit sector. In a concise discussion, Chrisman elaborated how the Reagan administration used such mundane and apparently innocuous measures as raising postage rates to minimize the impact of the social justice nonprofit sector, particularly radical print media. Reagan's policies weakened the black counterpublic and launched the "new nadir" of African-American immiseration.

The current assault on black America is motivated by several factors, chief among them being the darkening of the US, racial and ideological antipathy toward President Barack Obama, and a surging inequality. Over the past three decades, the white middle class has seen its wealth stagnate, while that of the white working class has regressed. A recent general social survey by the Associated Press and the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research revealed that whites are more pessimistic about the economy than are blacks and Latinos. In 2012, 71 percent of blacks and 73 percent of Latinos, compared with 46 percent of whites, believed they had a "good chance of improving" their economic situation. At first glance, this seems counterintuitive; since 2005 blacks have lost 43 percent of their net wealth while that of whites has declined by only 15 percent. However irrational, since 2010, whites' faith in the future has fallen behind that of blacks. As late as June 2004, 40 percent of whites believed the government should "play a major role" in "improving the social and economic position of blacks"; by August 2011, whites favoring government intervention had fallen to 19 percent. (10) Predictably, many whites blame affirmative action rather than financialized global racial capitalism for their plight. In light of this, the question Chrisman posed in 1995 is still relevant: "If there is such a palpable decline in black employment and income, how can affirmative action be accurately viewed as a set of black racial privileges that erodes the white American's chance for economic and educational advancement?" (11)

In addition to writing on the conditions and politics of "the captive formation of black America," Chrisman, an ardent pan-Africanist and internationalist, explored the struggle for human dignity in Grenada and Zimbabwe. "The Struggle in Grenada," his editorial on Grenada, conveys sadness and a soberness not found in the other editorials and essays collected in this volume. Chrisman's humanity is most apparent as he tries to make sense of the internal discord that facilitated US imperialism's overthrow of the New Jewel Movement's nascent experiment in socialism. He mourns the loss of Maurice Bishop, the revolution's young, charismatic leader. And he condemns the sectarian certitude that inspired and rationalized Bernard Coard and Hudson Austin's irrational inhumane actions.

Not surprisingly, during the middle years of the first decade of the new millennium, many former US supporters of the Zimbabwean Revolution turned against the Zimbabwe African National Union, the country's leading party, and its elected leader, President Robert Mugabe. Chrisman sees through the fog. He cogently argues that in this situation, "democracy" means opening the domestic economy to control by global capital and surrendering self-determination to the US-led white Western imperialists. In "Zimbabwe: The Long Struggle," Chrisman is concerned primarily with the machinations of financialized global racial capitalism, led by the US. He exposes the destabilization tactics that undermined Zimbabwe's self-determination--Britain's refusal to uphold its agreement to underwrite the buyout of the 1 percent of white farmers who controlled 70 percent of the land, neoliberal International Monetary Fund (IMF)-imposed structural adjustment policies that ravaged the country's public sector, including the health care industry, exacerbating the spread of HIV/ AIDS, economic sanctions, and a constant propaganda campaign designed to instigate dissension and isolate Zimbabwe.

Chrisman's dedication to an internationalist perspective was not limited to the African Diaspora. In the two articles on mass media, he demonstrated his interest in the third world as well. He first examined the role of the media in US imperialism back in 1983 and explored the topic again in 2008. He covers much ground in these articles. "The Role of the Media in US Imperialism" is a speech given in Mexico City at the "Dialogue of the Americas" conference. Chrisman surveys the rise of the mass media in the US during the late nineteenth century, and the industry's subsequent monopolization. He highlights its role in instigating the Spanish-American War to demonstrate its relationship to US imperialism. After criticizing the monopoly media's distortion of real existing social relations, Chrisman outlines a practical policy of resistance. Twenty-five years later, he is still deeply concerned with developing a strategy to counter capitalist mass media. Here he charts the transformations of globalization, citing the rise of computers, electronic communication, and their conversion into " a generative force" for capital accumulation. In both pieces, Chrisman calls for the maintenance of public media and the expansion of imaginative forms of cultural performance, including revitalizing mass media forms from previous eras.

While just a sample of Chrisman's voluminous work, these editorials and essays reveal several core concerns and approaches. Chrisman was a humanist, deeply concerned with the human condition. He was a black radical, a revolutionary who interpreted the world from a race-conscious socialist worldview. He struggled to define the exact nature of African Americans' relationship to the US state, which he broadly understood as involving what can be called racial oppression within a system of capitalist exploitation. Chrisman was as much a pan-Africanist and internationalist as he was a fighter for self-determination and social transformation for African Americans. Black/Africana studies was the site through which the radical Chrisman was unleashed, if not birthed, thus revolutionizing its theory and praxis remained central to his agenda. Finally, in the current period, Chrisman believed the most important role of struggle was to protect, revitalize, and extend the public sector.


(1.) Chrisman was attuned to gender and strongly opposed the oppression of women, but as he was born slightly before the baby boomer generation, gender was less central to his intellectual concerns. In an editorial, "A Critique of the Sexual Revolution," Chrisman offers his assessment of the Western white women's liberation movement. See, inside front cover, The Black Scholar, Vol. 9, No. 7, Blacks & the Sexual Revolution April 1978). Robert Chrisman, "On Robert L. Allen's Black Awakening in Capitalist America: The Black Middle Class, Forty Years After," The Black Scholar, Vol. 40, No. 2 (Summer 2010), p. 49; Quintin Hoare and Geoffrey Nowell Smith (eds.), Antonio Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (New York: International Publishers, 1971), p. 3.

(2.) Michael C. Dawson, Black Visions: The Roots of Contemporary African-American Political Ideologies (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001), pp. 23-29.

(3.) Chrisman also engages the role of black intellectuals in "Globalization and the Media Industry."

(4.) Langston Hughes, "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain," The Nation, June 23, 1926, _The_Negro_Artist_and_the_Racial_Mountain.pdf; Robert Chrisman, "The Crisis of Harold Cruse," The Black Scholar, Vol. 1, No. 1, The Culture of Revolution (November 1969), p. 79; Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: Quill, 1984), p. 564; reprint, New York, 1967; Manning Marable and Leith Mullings, "The Divided Mind of Black America," Race and Class, Vol. 36, No. 1 (Spring 1994), pp. 61-72; Robert Smith, "Ideology: The Enduring Dilemma in Black Politics," chapter in Georgia Persons (ed.), Dilemmas of Black Politics: Issues of Leadership and Strategy (New York: Addison-Wesley, 1993), pp. 200-215; Patricia Hill Collins, Black Feminist Thought (Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1990); Dawson, Black Visions.

(5.) Chrisman, "The Crisis of Harold Cruse," 84.

(6.) Robert Chrisman, "Black Studies, the Talented Tenth, and the Organic Intellectual," The Black Scholar, Vol. 35, No. 2, Brown, Black & Beyond: African American Studies in the 21st Century (Summer 2005), p. 8.

(7.) Walter Rodney, "The African Revolution," chapter in Paul Buhle (ed.), C. L. R. James: His Life and Work (London: Allison & Busby, 1986), p. 34.

(8.) Robert Chrisman, "Black Prisoners, White Law," The Black Scholar, Vol. 2, No. 8/9 (April/ May 1971), pp. 44-45.

(9.) Ibid., p. 46.

(10.) NORC, "Public Mood in the U.S.: Significant Differences in Optimism Broken Down by Race," ism-broken-down-by-race. aspx; Hope Yen and Jennifer Agiesta, "Blacks and Hispanics More Optimistic than Whites," The AP--The Big Story, August 1, 2013, bigstory; Polling Report--Race and Ethnicity, June 28-July 8, 2013,

(11.) Robert Chrisman, "Affirmative Action: Extend It," The Black Scholar, Vol. 25, No. 3, Affirmative Action (Summer 1995), inside front cover.
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Author:Cha-Jua, Sundiata Keita
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 22, 2013
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