So What Determines A “Foremost Public Intellectual”?

I have never been a huge fan of the weekend MSNBC show that bears Melissa Harris-Perry’s name. At times I have found the show to be frankly self-congratulatory, often indulging in the glow that comes with being given one of the strongest platforms on one of the biggest networks in the country. I’ve always believed Harris-Perry to be a bit reckless in her commentary, especially after she bashed the President for venting what she called his “daddy issues” as he talked about the need for answers to gun violence to begin at home.

That said, I joined in the chorus of people that stood with the Professor, defending her from the heckling of Right-wingers and conservatives that wanted her erased from the network, and watched Harris-Perry’s very heartfelt (and frankly unnecessary) apology. Seeing as though the Right has enjoyed success in getting people of color fired from MSNBC after laying out their bigotry in simple terms (ask Martin Bashir or Joseph Williams about that), Harris-Perry was in very real danger of losing her job over a joke, especially once Joe Scarborough sub-tweeted about Mitt Romney’s adopted Black grandson on his Twitter account.

In terms of platforms and places of ascent, Melissa Harris-Perry is arguably the most important public intellectual we people of color have. She is one of the first cable news network hosts to give regular spaces to conversations about race, social constructs, and women’s rights as they directly apply to minorities. Her devotion to the arts is impeccable, having introduced the world to a broad musical spectrum that includes Chicago’s McGill Brothers, New Orleans’ Big Freedia, and a personal favorite of mine, New York’s Jean Grae.

With all of this under her belt (as “just a weekend TV host”!), and with a very extensive list of academic credentials, is it fair to assume that Melissa Harris-Perry should be given the title of “America’s Most Foremost Public Intellectual”, as Ta-Nehisi Coates did earlier this week? Shall we now end all our searching and wondering at who would assume this role now that Coates, arguably this country’s greatest essayist on race, has deemed her thus?


For starters, Coates contradicted his own declaration, with this statement:

There may well be intellectuals with more insight. And there are surely public figures with a greater audience. But there is no one who communicates the work of thinking to more people with more rigor and effect than Harris-Perry.

To be declared “foremost”–defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “first in a series or progression”–one must argue that the smarts of the one being declared chief intellectual are superior above all, regardless of the area of study and/or expertise. Harris-Perry, while indeed incredibly smart in matters of the social sciences and racial justice, would not be my first choice in understanding neuroscience, biochemistry or medicine; it’s just simply not what she does. In this, Coates does indeed betray his intellectual credibility, which Dylan Byers accused him of doing in a tweet that got him excoriated.

Secondly, without any clear guidelines set, anyone can be America’s Foremost Public Intellectual. The very term is subjective, open to anyone’s set of rules, biases and opinions. Do we count only academics? Do we leave out journalists? How about musicians, comedians and artists? Is the size of the figure’s Amen Corner (aka Twitter follower count) a contributing factor? Is said figure a head of state, in which case America’s Foremost Public Intellectual would be Barack Obama?

Finally, if there were anyone qualified to determine who America’s Foremost Public Intellectual is, it’s certainly not Dylan Byers, a hack that took part in conflating the idea that Barack Obama fabricated people that appeared in his autobiography, Dreams of My Father. Perhaps that qualification should instead go to Coates, who has written some of the greatest, most thought-inducing essays on racism and bigotry (even when they meander nearly endlessly about himself), yet proudly declares it not his job to “…help others with their racism.” See the problem here?

A blogger I know who goes by the Twitter handle @ReignOfApril wrote this last year, which sums up what happened here:

It is well known that certain events or words will trigger issues for people. It seems that happened here.  Once those triggers are activated, it is hard to keep listening to anything else that has been said or even stay in the moment. When you set your mind to what you expect to hear and bring along personal baggage that perhaps has not been resolved, misunderstandings and misinterpretations can occur.

While flattering to think of Melissa Harris-Perry in such a light, I cannot imagine that she would even want such a lofty title. This is neither the “machinery of racism” at work here, nor is there evidence of “inferior thinking” on anyone’s part; this episode in journalistic bravado is nothing more than typical “Who’s the Best?” talk overheard in barber shops and corporate water coolers around the country.

Which sounds like both Byers and Coates need to “grapple with the everywhere” and cover deeper issues than measuring intellects. I doubt their individual “brands” will let them do otherwise.


One Reply to “So What Determines A “Foremost Public Intellectual”?”

  1. As a fan of Coates and MHP and avid resident of nerdland I don;t have to agree with all that you said to appreciate your opinion and insights. Too often I think we are not taught ( or given public examples) how intelligent dialogue across viewpoints stimulates critical thinking. Thanks Isaiah…..keep it up!

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