People of African descent have been making significant contributions to the international scholarly enterprise for a very long time. In a future article, we hope to explore this history in some detail. The present article, however, concentrates on some of the most distinguished living contributors to a wide variety of disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences.
The article focuses on Africans in America — African Americans — as opposed to the larger world of Africa and the African diaspora. True, a couple of the scholars on our list were born outside the United States, but they have all made their careers in the US and teach at American universities. To all intents and purposes, they have become an integral part of the vibrant African American intellectual scene.
The list has been compiled in order to give representation to the following academic disciplines, organized into five categories (however, the categories are not represented with strict equality):
- Economics, Political Science, and Jurisprudence
- Linguistics, Psychology, and Sociology
- History, Anthropology, and Africana Studies
- Literary Theory, Philology, and Cultural Criticism
- Philosophy, Theology, and Critical Theory
Be sure to note the following criteria that we have imposed on the selection process for the list:
- No one from a STEM discipline (humanities and social science disciplines only)
- No one primarily famous for his or her artistic activity (thus Toni Morrison is represented as a literary theorist, not a novelist)
- No one primarily known for his or her involvement in government or politics (eliminating, for example, political scientist Condoleezza Rice)
- Political balance — Clearly, there are some quite radical voices issuing from the left here; but there are also some voices coming from the right
- No punch-pulling — We did not court controversy, but we did not shrink from it either; rigor, originality, and impact of scholarship, not toeing any party line, were the main criteria employed throughout
Finally, there were many competitors for each slot on this list. There is no one “right” way to do such a list — which is to say that there is no algorithm for this sort of task. That is one of the main reasons why the list is alphabetically, not numerically ranked.
Still, we are keenly aware that others, approaching the notion of “scholarship” from different angles, may come up with quite different lists. We make no claim to exclusivity. We say: Let a hundred flowers bloom!
We do claim that the scholars on our list have done extremely valuable and interesting scholarly work in the humanities and the social sciences — work which makes them highly deserving of your time and attention.
25 Notable Black Scholars
1. Kwame Anthony Appiah
Philosophy | Critical Theory | Africana Studies
Appiah was born in London in 1954 to a Ghanaian father and an English mother. The family returned to Ghana when Anthony was very young; thus, he grew up speaking Asante (a form of Twi), as well as English. The family lived in Kumasi, which is the traditional capital of the Ashanti people, among whom the boy’s paternal family held noble status. The boy’s father, Joseph Emmanuel Appiah, worked as a lawyer, and later as a member of parliament and UN representative for Ghana, which attained independence from British colonial rule in 1957. Kwame Anthony Appiah returned to England for his higher education, earning both his bachelor’s degree (first class) and his PhD in philosophy from Cambridge University. Today, he is Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. Appiah is married to New Yorker editorial director, Henry Finder.
At Cambridge, Appiah wrote his dissertation on the philosophy of language under the supervision of Hugh Mellor. His first two books were devoted to this field, as well (see below). After publishing an introductory general philosophy text, Appiah switched intellectual gears in 1992 with his next book, In My Father’s House. Part memoir and part philosophical reflection, this widely reviewed and admired book examined what it meant to Appiah to be an African intellectual in today’s world. It was his first foray into the territory of African history and cultural identity, but it already staked out the characteristic themes and basic philosophical stance that he would return to in numerous future works. Namely, in the modern world, all of us are fated to carry out a complex negotiation between our local and our cosmopolitan identities — a negotiation that ideally should be broadening and inclusive, not limiting or restrictive. Therefore, we ought to avoid thinking in terms of “us vs. them,” “the West vs. the Rest,” and so on.
In addition to the 35-odd academic books he has authored, co-authored, or edited, Appiah is the author or co-author of hundreds of journal, magazine, and newspaper articles and book chapters, both academic and aimed at a popular audience. The recipient of honorary degrees and other awards far too numerous to mention, Appiah has also lectured very widely around the world, and has published three novels and a volume of poetry.
2. Mary Frances Berry
History | Jurisprudence | Africana Studies
Berry was born in Nashville, Tennessee, in 1938. She attended segregated public schools in her home town, then studied at Fisk University for a time, before transferring to Howard University, where she received her bachelor’s degree in 1961. She took her PhD in American constitutional history from the University of Michigan in 1965, and also obtained a JD degree from the University of Michigan Law School in 1970. After teaching at the University of Maryland College Park for several years, in 1976 she was appointed Chancellor of the University of Colorado Boulder — the first black woman to lead a major research university in the US. She is currently the Geraldine R. Segal Professor of American Social Thought and Professor of History at the University of Pennsylvania.
Berry’s early work focused on the relationship between African Americans and US judicial, political, and military institutions over the course of American history. As time has gone by, her scholarly interests have broadened out in several respects. First, she has written about more recent events, in some of which, such as the US Civil Rights Commission, she has had first-hand experience of history-in-the-making. Second, she has written for a broader audience beyond the confines of Academia. And third, she has devoted increasing attention to issues relating to gender equality, in addition to racial equality.
During the late 1970s, Berry took a leave of absence from the University of Colorado Boulder to serve in government as Assistant Secretary for Education in the then–Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. After returning to academic life in 1980, she was appointed by the outgoing President Carter to serve on the US Commission on Civil Rights, a post she held until 2004. Besides her work for the US government, Berry has also participated in international campaigns for human rights and social justice. For example, in 1984 she co-founded the Free South Africa Movement, which eventually led to her being arrested during demonstrations aimed at exerting pressure on the US government to apply sanctions on South Africa, with the goal of freeing Nelson Mandela and ending apartheid. Berry has received more than 30 honorary degrees, as well as numerous other honors and awards.
3. Stephen L. Carter
Jurisprudence | Cultural Criticism
Carter was born in Washington, DC, in 1954. He received his bachelor’s degree in history in 1976 from Stanford University, where he was Managing Editor of the student newspaper. He earned his JD in 1979 from Yale Law School, where he was an editor of the Yale Law Journal. After law school, he first clerked for Judge Spottswood W. Robinson III of the US Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, and afterwards, during the 1980–1981 session, for US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. Since 1982 Carter has taught at Yale Law School, where he is currently the William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Law. His areas of expertise include contracts, evidence, intellectual property, professional ethics, ethics in literature, law and the ethics of war, and law and religion.
In additional to numerous scholarly articles published in the Harvard Law Review, the Yale Law and Policy Review, and elsewhere, Carter has become known far beyond the confines of the academic world through his writings for a popular audience. Beginning with a memoir and meditation on the role that affirmative action played in his own life, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, published in 1991, he has gone on to publish seven other non-fiction works. These books have dealt with topics as diverse as the Academy’s intolerance of religious belief (The Culture of Disbelief; The Dissent of the Governed; God’s Name in Vain), the federal judicial appointment process (The Confirmation Mess), the loss of civility from our social and political life (Civility), and the ethics of war (The Violence of Peace).
In addition to his non-fiction books, Carter is the author of seven novels. He has also published many essays on matters of public policy aimed at a popular audience, including a regular feature column that he wrote for many years for Christianity Today. He is currently a regular columnist for Bloomberg.com. Carter is the recipient of eight honorary degrees, and in 1994 he delivered the commencement address at his alma mater, Stanford University.
4. Ta-Nehisi Coates
Coates was born in Baltimore, Maryland, in 1975. His father, Paul Coates, who was a former Black Panther, owned the Black Book bookstore in Baltimore, and ran the Black Classic Press publishing operation out of his home. After graduating from high school, the younger Coates attended Howard University for several years, but left before taking a degree in order to pursue a career in journalism. From 2012 to 2014, he was appointed Martin Luther King, Jr., Visiting Scholar at MIT, and in 2014, he was Journalist in Residence at City University of New York. Coates is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence with the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University.
After several years of working as a reporter for the Washington City Paper, and following brief stints with the Philadelphia Weekly, the Village Voice, and Time, in 2008 Coates joined the Atlantic, eventually rising to the post of Senior Editor there, and writing his own regular column on their blog. He also would become a frequent contributor of op-eds and longer essays to the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Washington Monthly, and many other prestigious mainstream media outlets. However, the single piece of writing for which he is best known is undoubtedly his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me (see below). In this best-selling and highly praised book, Coates describes growing up in Baltimore in the shadow of the Black Power movement of the 1960s, and reflects with incisiveness and elegance on the manifold ways in which life for African Americans has and has not changed since those fraught times. In addition to the three books of literary non-fiction listed below, Coates has also published several comic books and video game texts.
Coates’s voice is unique on this list in a number of respects. Not least, he represents a younger generation, which inevitably sees things differently from the way its elders did. But above all, he writes with a fierceness and grace that has earned for him, young as he is, one of the highest of all literary accolades: a true successor to the great James Baldwin.
5. Patricia Hill Collins
Sociology | Critical Theory | Africana Studies
Collins (née Hill) was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1948. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in sociology in 1969 from Brandeis University, and a master’s degree in social sciences education in 1970 from Harvard University. From 1970 until 1976, she taught in the public schools of the Roxbury section of Boston. Then, she was appointed Director of the Africana Center at Tufts University, a post she held from 1976 until 1980. In 1984, she earned her PhD in sociology from Brandeis. Collins is currently Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Maryland College Park.
Collins’s published work has focused on the intersectionality of race, class, and gender. In 1990, she published her landmark study, Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (see below). In this book, she looked at the social, psychological, and political issues of the disempowerment of black women in a wide variety ways, including through the lenses of revolutionary Marxist and feminist theory (drawing on the work of Angela Y. Davis), fiction (Alice Walker), and poetry (Audre Lorde). Her delineation of the epistemology of the way an individual’s total social identity is constructed by overlapping (intersecting) partial identities was one of the earliest interventions in the discourse which would become known as “critical race theory.” She has placed particular emphasis on the linguistic dimension of such social constructions, noting that:
Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.
Other books Collins has written have broached the possibility of reconceptualizing public education (Another Kind of Public Education) and reflected upon the vital role of public intellectuals in articulating the language in which new social and political possibilities become thinkable (On Intellectual Activism).
Collins has published widely, in the Journal of Speculative Philosophy, Qualitative Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies, American Sociological Review, Signs, Sociological Theory, Social Problems, and Black Scholar, among others, as well as in several edited volumes. Her published work has been very widely translated, anthologized, and otherwise reprinted. She is the recipient of numerous grants, awards, board memberships, invitations to give lectures and keynote addresses, and honorary degrees. During the 2008–2009 academic year, Collins served as President of the American Sociological Association.
6. James H. Cone
Theology | Critical Theory
Cone was born in Fordyce, Arkansas, in 1936. He was called to the ministry and became a pastor at the age of 16. He received his bachelor’s degree in 1958 from Philander Smith College, a historically black college in Little Rock, as well as a bachelor’s of divinity degree in 1961 from Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois. He went on to earn a master’s degree in 1963 and a PhD in 1965, both from Northwestern University, also located in Evanston. Cone is currently Bill and Judith Moyers Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York.
After writing his dissertation on Karl Barth, Cone became swept up in the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He was especially impressed by Malcolm X’s rejection of Christianity and conversion to Islam due to many Christian churches’ complicity with racism in the US. Cone has stated that his own work grew out of a desire to reinterpret Christianity in line with Malcolm’s critique. Accordingly, he cast off mainstream theological discourse in favor of his own distinctive brand of liberation theology, which he called black theology. His central claim was that the core meaning of Scripture is God’s identification with the oppressed, both the enslaved Israelites and Jesus. From this point of departure, Cone concluded that
Liberation is not an afterthought, but the very essence of divine activity.
More radically still, Cone came to believe that theology could not be a universalist endeavor, but must always be grounded in the reality of historically specific forms of oppression. He articulated the reasoning behind this claim — in the case of America — in the form of a dilemma: either God identifies wholeheartedly with the black man or else God himself is a racist. After rejecting the mainstream discourse of Western theology as, at best, irrelevant to the experience of the Black Church, Cone then went on to develop a set of alternative tools for thinking about God’s relation to “the damned of the earth” (in the phrase of Frantz Fanon), including notably the impressive body of African American song known as spirituals and the blues. Above all, Cone says, black theology must integrate the two dominant symbols of lived black experience: the cross and the lynching tree. From a black theology perspective, they are not two things; they are one and the same. The cross is the lynching tree.
To be sure, while Cone’s work has proven highly controversial, it has also had very wide resonance, both inside and outside the Black Church, and has attained the stature of something that white American theologians cannot ignore, but must come to grips with. The recipient of several honorary degrees, Cone is a member of the Society for the Study of Black Religion, the American Academy of Religion, and the Ecumenical Association of Third World Theologians, as well as being a founder of the Society of Race, Ethnicity, and Religion.
7. Kimberlé W. Crenshaw
Jurisprudence | Critical Theory
Crenshaw was born in Canton, Ohio, in 1959. She received her bachelor’s degree in government and Africana studies in 1981 from Cornell University. She then obtained her JD in 1984 from Harvard Law School, and her LLM in 1985 from the University of Wisconsin Law School. After clerking for Wisconsin Supreme Court Judge Shirley Abrahamson, she joined the faculty of the UCLA Law School. She is currently Professor of Law at UCLA Law School and also at Columbia Law School. Her fields of specialization are critical race theory and constitutional law.
Crenshaw became world-famous as the originator of the concept of intersectionality, first articulated in a paper she wrote for the University of Chicago Law Forum in 1989. In this paper, she lucidly described and defended the idea that persons belonging to two or more oppressed categories too often become invisible precisely because there is no accepted category within which to discuss their specific experience of oppression. That is because in the absence of a recognized category, a complex socially constructed identity and the sui generis experiences that may result from it have a very difficult time becoming visible to others. Crenshaw’s goal has been to change that dynamic — to raise, for example, the unique experience of black women to visibility in the eyes of both male anti-racist activists, on the one hand, and white feminists, on the other — by creating an appropriate category for thinking about that experience.
Crenshaw’s work has not only made her an academic superstar in the US; it has also won wide international acclaim — for example, it was specifically cited by the framers of the new constitution for South Africa. In addition to her teaching and writing, she has been active in a number of political endeavors. For instance, she was a member of the legal team representing Anita Hill during the 1991 Senate confirmation hearings on Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, and she co-founded and serves as Executive Director of the African American Policy Forum, a non-profit think tank with the mission of facilitating the greater influence of scholarly research on race and gender inequality and discrimination on public policy discourse in government and the media. Crenshaw has been awarded a number of visiting fellowships and lectureships, and is a regular commentator on NPR’s The Tavis Smiley Show.
8. Angela Y. Davis
Philosophy | Critical Theory
Davis was born in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1944. After spending a year at the Sorbonne in Paris, she earned her bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in French in 1965 from Brandeis University. While at Brandeis, Davis came into contact with the émigré German Marxist philosopher, Herbert Marcuse. Following two years of graduate work at the University of Frankfurt, where she studied with Frankfurt School philosopher Theodor Adorno, she entered the doctoral program in philosophy at the University of California San Diego, where Marcuse had moved in the meantime. She received her master’s degree in philosophy in 1968 from UC-San Diego. She passed the qualifying exams for her PhD that same year, and began writing her dissertation under the supervision of Marcuse, but due to unforeseen events (see below) was unable to complete it. Davis has taught philosophy, Africana studies, and feminist studies at a number of universities over the years, including UCLA, San Francisco State University, Rutgers University, and Syracuse University. She is currently Distinguished Professor Emerita, with a joint appointment in the History of Consciousness Department and the Feminist Studies Department, at the University of California Santa Cruz.
Davis is undoubtedly best known for her involvement in two events that occurred when she was still in graduate school, which received national, and even international, publicity: (1) her expulsion in 1969 from her job as an assistant professor of philosophy at UCLA on the grounds of her CPUSA membership; and (2) her arrest in 1970 as an accomplice in the violent takeover and hostage-taking at the Marin County Courthouse in San Rafael, California, by Jonathan Jackson, younger brother of Black Panther Party leader George Jackson. Aided by three other Panthers being held in cells inside the courthouse, the younger Jackson took the judge and four other whites as hostages, with the aim of demanding the release of George Jackson. During their getaway in a van, there was a shootout from both outside and inside the vehicle, at the end of which the judge, Jonathan Jackson, and two other Black Panthers were dead, and two other white hostages were wounded. Davis was accused of supplying firearms to the younger Jackson. Although three of the weapons he used were shown to have been purchased by her, due to insufficient evidence that she was aware of the purpose he intended to put them to, at her trial Davis was found innocent of all charges.
As a philosopher and critical theorist, Davis has consistently applied the theoretical prism of Marxism to the analysis of the oppression of both people of color and women more generally by imperialist-capitalist society. She has continued to be politically committed, frequently lending her support to those she feels have been unjustly accused or condemned. Indeed, in more recent years she has turned her attention especially to the injustice of what she calls the “prison-industrial complex.” She has stated that she sees radical prison reform as the great abolition movement of the twenty-first century. To this end, Davis co-founded the national grassroots prison-abolition organization, Critical Resistance.
Davis, who identifies as lesbian, has authored, co-authored, or edited the 10 books listed below, in addition to numerous interviews and several pamphlets, mixtapes, and audiobooks. She has lectured widely at universities around the world, on both perennial philosophical topics and political issues of the day. Davis, who holds several honorary doctorates, has been the subject of numerous academic studies by other authors, as well as of several films.
9. Roland G. Fryer, Jr.
Fryer was born in Lewisville, Texas, in 1977. He earned his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in economics in 1998 from the University of Texas at Arlington, and his PhD in economics in 2002 from Pennsylvania State University. He is currently the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University.
Fryer’s work has focused on determining the relative impact of the manifold forces impinging upon the lives of African Americans, through the lens of the rigorous economic analysis of hard empirical data. Throughout his career he has been closely associated with the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), the nation’s premier private, non-profit, economic research organization, now located in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and in New York City. Many of Fryer’s most influential studies were originally published in the prestigious series, NBER Working Papers (see below). Fryer’s dedication to the truth and his penchant for letting the chips fall where they may are perhaps best illustrated by the difference in the conclusions he has come to in two of his best-known papers. In an important article entitled “Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School,” (PDF) published first by NBER and then by the Review of Economics and Statistics, Fryer found that after controlling for all known confounding causal factors, the residual gap between black and white student performance on standardized tests in the lower elementary grades was most plausibly explained by quality differences between predominantly white and predominantly black public schools — a finding controversial on the political right and congenial to the left. In contrast, in “An Empirical Analysis of Racial Differences in Police Use of Force,” also published in the NBER Working Papers series, Fryer found the claim that the police are more likely to shoot black suspects than white ones to be empirically unsupported — a finding welcome to the right for which he has been severely criticized by academics and activists on the left.
The recipient of numerous grants and fellowships, Fryer is the author or co-author of some 60 peer-reviewed articles in academic journals and working paper series. Having received tenure in 2007 at Harvard at the unusually early age of 30, in 2011 he was appointed a MacArthur Fellow. In 2015, Fryer won the highly prestigious John Bates Clark Medal, bestowed by the American Economic Association upon an American economist under 40 who has made “a significant contribution to economic thought and knowledge.”
10. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Literary Theory | Africana Studies
Gates was born in Keyser, West Virginia, in 1950. He took his bachelor’s degree summa cum laude in history in 1973 from Yale University, and obtained his PhD in English language and literature in 1979 from Cambridge University. He is currently the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University and Director of Harvard’s Hutchins Center for African and African American Research.
Gates made his reputation as a literary theorist with his 1988 treatise, The Signifying Monkey (see below), in which he argues that black oral and vernacular literature should not be evaluated by criteria developed for understanding the European literary canon. Rather, criteria of evaluation for black literature must be developed internally, with a sensitivity to the historical and cultural contexts of the literature in question. In later years, Gates somewhat moderated this stance, defending the right of white scholars willing to develop the appropriate knowledge and sensitivity to work within Africana studies disciplines. He also now says that the black literary canon should not be theorized in isolation from European literature — any more than European literature should be understood as sealed off from African and African American influences. In other words, he now supports viewing Africana literature as one highly significant strand within the Western canon, rather than as something separate and apart from it. In addition to his influential academic work, Gates has written widely for a popular audience. Beginning with his memoir, Colored People, in 1994, he has attempted to bring his own personal experience as a black man in America to bear on a multitude of different issues and topics of wide public interest. Examples include his book on the eighteenth-century black woman poet Phillis Wheatley, an extensive series of classic novels by African American authors that he has edited, and the Norton Anthology of African American Literature that he edited, as well. Finally, he has brought a personal interest in genealogy to a wide audience with his books, lectures, and an award-winning television series on that subject.
Speaking more generally, Gates has put an enormous amount of energy over the years into writing for popular publications, giving interviews, and helping to produce, write, and narrate television programs — with the result that he has become perhaps the most recognizable face of Africana studies in the country. In addition to receiving numerous awards, grants, and fellowships, he sits on the editorial boards of several dozen of scholarly journals and is a board member of an equal number of professional organizations. More than 50 colleges and universities around the world have bestowed an honorary degree upon him. A 1981 MacArthur Fellow and a 1998 National Humanities Medal winner, in 1999 Gates was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters, while in 2002 the National Endowment for the Humanities selected him to deliver the prestigious Jefferson Lecture.
11. Annette Gordon-Reed
History | Jurisprudence
Gordon-Reed (née Gordon) was born in Livingston, Texas, in 1958. She received her bachelor’s degree in 1981 from Dartmouth College, and her JD in 1984 from Harvard Law School, where she worked on the Harvard Law Review. She is currently Charles Warren Professor of American Legal History at Harvard Law School, Professor of History in the Department of History at Harvard University, and Carol K. Pforzheimer Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study. After a period of time spent in private legal practice, first as an associate with law firm of Cahill, Gordon & Reindel in New York City, and then as legal counsel for the New York Board of Corrections, Gordon-Reed returned to Academia, teaching first at New York Law School and later at Rutgers University. In 2010, she returned to Harvard with a joint appointment in history and law. In 2014, she was appointed Harold Vyvyan Harmsworth Visiting Professor in Queen’s College at the University of Oxford.
Gordon-Reed is best known for her ground-breaking work on the Hemings family of slaves who were owned by Thomas Jefferson and lived on his Virginia plantation, Monticello. In many research articles and three best-selling books, she reviewed earlier historical research and advanced new arguments in support of the thesis that Jefferson’s slave Sally Hemings was the mother of as many as six of his children. After an initial period of skepticism on the part of established white historians, Gordon-Reed’s work on the complex relationship between Jefferson and Hemings has by now become very widely, if not universally, accepted by the academic historical community. In addition to her work on Jefferson and the Hemingses, she has published widely on many other topics of early American history, including a book on Lincoln’s Vice Present and seventeenth President of the US, Andrew Johnson. She also assisted the prominent civil rights activist Vernon Jordan in writing his memoir.
The recipient of several honorary degrees, as well as a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2009 and a MacArthur Fellowship in 2010, Gordon-Reed received both the Pulitzer Prize for History and the National Book Award for Nonfiction in 2009 for her book, The Hemingses of Monticello. In addition to her books, she is the author of numerous peer-reviewed articles in edited volumes and in such academic journals as Foreign Affairs, Journal of American History, and William and Mary Quarterly. In 2010, Gordon-Reed received the National Humanities Medal, the nation’s highest award in the humanities, in a ceremony at the White House.
12. Angela P. Harris
Jurisprudence | Critical Theory
Harris was born in 1961. She received her bachelor’s degree in English in 1981 from the University of Michigan and her master’s in sociology in 1983 from the University of Chicago. She earned her JD in 1986 from the University of Chicago Law School. After taking her law degree, she clerked for Judge Joel Flaum of the United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, and then worked as an associate for Morrison & Foerster in San Francisco. Returning to Academia in 1988, she joined the faculty of the University of California Berkeley School of Law. From 2011 until her retirement in 2017, Harris was Distinguished Professor of Law occupying the Boochever and Bird Endowed Chair for the Study and Teaching of Freedom and Equality at the University of California Davis School of Law, where her areas of teaching expertise included critical race theory, feminist legal theory, and criminal law.
A former Research Affiliate with UC-Davis’s Center for Poverty Research, Harris is the author of a number of widely reprinted and influential articles and essays in critical legal theory, feminist legal theory, and critical race theory. Prominent among many other notable interventions is her contribution on “Critical Race Theory” to the International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences. Harris has authored, co-authored, or edited some 10 books (see below), and has contributed numerous essays to volumes edited by others, in addition to publishing articles in such high-prestige peer-reviewed journals as Fordham Law Review, Stanford Law Review, and California Law Review.
Harris has also been extremely active professionally, having helped to organize or having participated in a great many colloquia, seminars, and workshops on feminist legal theory and critical race theory, at which she has delivered scores of invited talks and lectures. In 2003, she received Berkeley Law School’s coveted Rutter Award for Distinction in Teaching.
13. Ephraim Isaac
Biblical Philology | Africana Studies
Isaac was born in Ethiopia in 1936 to a Yemeni Jewish father and an Ethiopian mother of the Oromo ethnic group. He was raised in Ethiopia, but came to the US for his higher education, receiving his BD (Bachelor of Divinity) degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1963 and his PhD from Harvard University in 1969. He subsequently taught at Harvard, as well as several other universities, including Bard College, Howard University Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Princeton University. He is currently Director of the Institute of Semitic Studies in Princeton, New Jersey.
Isaac is a polymath who is proficient in some 17 ancient and modern languages, including most of those of Europe and the Near East, as well as many of those of Ethiopia and the Horn of Africa. He is one of the foremost experts in the world on Ge’ez, the ancestral form of the South Semitic languages spoken in present-day Ethiopia (including Amharic, Tigrinya, and Tigre), which became the chief liturgical language of the Christian churches of Ethiopia beginning in the fourth century AD — a status it still enjoys to this day. Thus, Ge’ez is analogous to Latin with respect to the pre–Vatican II Catholic Church and Old-Church Slavonic with respect to the Russian Orthodox Church. Isaac has published widely in the field of translations from the Hebrew Bible into Ge’ez, especially in the pseudepigrapha literature, including notably editions and translations of two works that are wholly extant only in Ge’ez: the Book of Enoch and the History of Joseph. In addition to his work in biblical philology, Isaac has also been a leader of Africana studies in the US, having founded the Department of African and Afro-American Studies at Harvard University in 1969, and taught many courses in African history and philosophy.
Isaac is also well known as an activist who has worked tirelessly over many years for peace in the Middle East, in his own war-torn native land, and elsewhere. He is a long-time associate of the Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding, as well as a member of the Committee, a group of respected Ethiopian elders who work for reconciliation among the various ethnic groups within Ethiopia and between Ethiopia and her neighbors. A former Fellow of the Institute of Advanced Study in Princeton, Isaac holds honorary doctorates from the City University of New York and Addis Ababa University. He is Co-Editor of the Journal of Afroasiatic Studies, a post he has held since 1985.
14. Kobi K.K. Kambon
Psychology | Critical Theory
Kambon was born Joseph A. Baldwin in Jasper, Alabama, in 1943. He received his bachelor’s degree in psychology from DePaul University in 1969, his master’s in abnormal psychology in 1971 from Roosevelt University, and his PhD in personality and social psychology from the University of Colorado Boulder in 1975. Until his retirement in 2014, Kambon was Professor of Psychology and Chair of the Psychology Department at Florida A&M University.
Writing as Joseph A. Baldwin, Kambon made his mark on the field of black or African-centered psychology with his landmark 1984 paper, “African Self-Consciousness and the Mental Health of African-Americans.” In this paper, as well as in many subsequent articles and books, Kambon argues that there is an innate biological component to the social construction of human personality — including cosmology or way of viewing the world and relating to it — which correlates with race. According to this idea, when an African individual is socially conditioned to accept the alien European worldview, psychopathology and self-hatred are the inevitable result. Kambon argues that, since African Americans are conceptually incarcerated — imprisoned within a distorting alien cosmology — the obvious solution to this problem is the development of an African-centric psychology aimed at helping individual African Americans transition from the mental prison imposed by a white conceptual scheme to the liberating black cosmology that is natural to them as people of African descent. To this end, Kambon has worked tirelessly to promote African self-consciousness, and has even developed an Africentric personality inventory to help in evaluating one’s progress toward the goal of liberation into authentic black consciousness. He has also warned against less radical approaches to black psychology, which mix Eurocentric and Africentric psychological perspectives, as potentially damaging to African American patients.
Although Kambon’s ideas are highly controversial, they have had a palpable impact on the field of black psychology. He has published more than 60 scholarly articles in edited volumes and peer-reviewed journals, and is a past National President of the Association of Black Psychologists.
15. Edmond J. Keller
Keller was born in St. John the Baptist Parish, just west of New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1942. He received his bachelor’s degree in government in 1969 from Louisiana State University in New Orleans. He earned his master’s degree in political science in 1970 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and his PhD in political science in 1974, also from Wisconsin. Until his retirement in 2013, Keller was Chair of the Department of Political Science, Director of the Globalization Research Center-Africa, and Director of the James S. Coleman African Studies Center at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He is currently Distinguished Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at UCLA. In addition to UCLA, he has taught at Indiana University, Dartmouth College, the University of Wisconsin, Xavier University (New Orleans), and the University of California Santa Barbara.
Keller specializes in comparative politics; his area of particular interest is Africa. He has been a visiting research scholar at the Institute for Development Studies in Nairobi, Kenya, the Bureau of Educational Research (also in Nairobi), the UN Economic Commission for Africa, the Africa Institute of South Africa, and the UC-Berkeley Institute for International Studies. In addition, he has done public policy work with the UN, and consulted on African Development, regional security issues, public policy, and the process of political transitions in Africa. In 1990, Keller gave testimony before the US Congress Joint Committee on Hunger and Foreign Affairs on the “Politics of War, Drought and Famine in Ethiopia.”
Keller is the author or co-author of more than 50 peer-reviewed articles in edited volumes and journals, and is the author or co-editor of some 10 books (see below). During a long career of distinguished service, he has sat on the editorial boards of around a dozen academic journals and on the boards of directors and advisory committees of a great number of academic and governmental bodies, both US and international. In 2008, Keller received the Distinguished Africanist Award bestowed by the African Studies Association.
16. Randall L. Kennedy
Jurisprudence | Cultural Criticism
Kennedy was born in Columbia, South Carolina, in 1954. The family moved to Washington, DC, where Kennedy graduated from St. Albans School. He received his bachelor’s degree in history in 1977 from Princeton University. Appointed a Rhodes Scholar, he studied history at Oxford University for two academic years (1977–1979). He then earned his JD degree in 1982 from Yale Law School. After obtaining his law degree, Kennedy clerked for Judge J. Skelly Wright of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit during the 1982–83 term, and for US Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall during the 1983–84 term. Kennedy is currently Michael R. Klein Professor of Law at Harvard Law School.
Kennedy has taught courses in the areas of contracts, freedom of expression, race relations law, civil rights legislation, and the Supreme Court. His published work — most of which addresses the intersection of racial discrimination and the law — is noted for dispassion, lucid argumentation, and an effort to give due weight to opposing points of view. For example, he has argued that due to ongoing unfairness in the way the criminal justice system is administered, affirmative action may be a rational form of redress in many cases. At the same time, he acknowledges the fact that blacks commit a disproportionate amount of the crimes against persons and property that are most feared by citizens of all races, and that this reality should not be simply ignored. Kennedy regularly delivers public lectures all around the country, in which he urges black audience member not to give in to pessimism — we have already come a long way in pursuit of racial justice compared to where we were a couple of generations ago — and white ones to avoid complacency — we still have a long way to go. Such even-handedness has sparked controversy, including the charge that he is a “sellout” — a claim that Kennedy wrote an entire book (Sellout; see below) to explore.
While Kennedy has been widely praised as one of the most valuable voices in the public debate surrounding race in this country, several of his public appearances — including notably his commencement address at Occidental College in 2016 — have been met by vigorous public protests on the part of student and faculty social justice activists. However, while continuing to call the shots as he sees them, Kennedy remains emphatic on one point that he shares in common with his harshest critics:
Obviously there are all sorts of ethnic, racial conflicts in American society, but there’s one that is deeper than all the others and that’s white/black racial conflict.
In addition to his six books (see below), Kennedy has written a large number of articles, both for peer-reviewed journals and for popular publications such as the Atlantic, Harper’s, the American Prospect, and others. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and a Member of the American Philosophical Association.
17. John H. McWhorter
Linguistics | Cultural Criticism
McWhorter was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in 1965. He attended Friends Select School in Philadelphia, and took early admission to Simon’s Rock College, skipping the eleventh and twelfth grades. He obtained his bachelor’s degree in French in 1985 from Rutgers University, and his master’s degree in American studies from New York University. He earned his PhD in linguistics in 1993 from Stanford University. For many years, he taught linguistics, first at Cornell University, then at UC-Berkeley. McWhorter left his tenured position at Berkeley and accepted an appointment as Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature in the Center for American Studies at Columbia University in order to be in New York City, which is the epicenter of his career as a public intellectual (see below).
McWhorter has taught courses on many subjects, including linguistics, American studies, philosophy, and music history. However, his major academic work has been in linguistics — specifically, in creolization, the process by which a pidgin (a mixture of two or more languages learned by adults, often for trading purposes) becomes a creole (the native tongue a group of people that is descended from a pidgin). He is best known to the general public, however, as a popularizer of linguistics, and especially as a cultural critic. In the former capacity, one of his main themes is countering the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, according to which human thought itself is strongly shaped by language (The Language Hoax, 2014). Another is countering the notion that language is static, and that forms of language associated with minority cultures are somehow inferior to the mainstream cultural form (Word on the Street, 1999; Words on the Move, 2016; Talk Back, Talk Black, 2017). In the latter capacity of general cultural critic, McWhorter has entered more controversial territory by discussing black self-sabotage (Losing the Race, 2000) and by advancing a moderately conservative viewpoint on such sensitive topics as racial profiling, affirmative action, the reparations movement, and the corruption of certain older Civil Rights–era activists like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton (Authentically Black, 2003).
McWhorter has published very widely in both peer-reviewed academic journals and the popular press, including Time, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, the Washington Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the New Republic, Forbes, and City Journal. He is the author of some 18 books (not counting audiobooks and DVD courses), many aimed at a popular audience. McWhorter also makes frequent appearances on radio and television talk shows and other programs.
18. Toni Morrison
Literary Theory | Cultural Criticism
Morrison was born Chloe Ardelia Wofford in Lorain, Ohio, in 1931. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English in 1953 from Howard University, and her master’s, also in English, in 1955 from Cornell University. After teaching for some years, she began working as an editor for Random House, where she rose to become Senior Editor of the fiction department. From that position, she championed the publication of many African and African American writers, including Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, and Toni Cade Bambara. She published her first novel, The Bluest Eye, in 1970. A stream of highly acclaimed novels followed, including Beloved, considered by many her masterpiece, which in 1988 won both the Pulitzer Prize and the American Book Award. In 1993, Morrison was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Altogether, her work as a literary artist includes 11 novels, two plays, an opera libretto, and several children’s books. Morrison is currently Robert F. Goheen Professor in the Humanities, Emerita, in the Department of African American Studies at Princeton University.
In addition to her distinguished career as a novelist, Morrison has also pursued a parallel career as a teacher, literary theorist, and cultural critic. In the latter capacity, she has published numerous essays on a wide variety of topics, and has edited a large number of volumes by other writers. Her two most important collections of essays are Playing in the Dark (see below) and The Origin of Others. She has also published monographs on topical issues of the day, including Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power on the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy, and Birth of a Nation’hood on the O.J. Simpson case. Morrison has also been heavily concerned with freedom of publication issues around the world, as is evidenced by another collection of writings she has edited entitled Burn This Book: PEN Writers Speak Out on the Power of the Word. Two volumes of edited conversations with her have also been published. To all of her non-fiction writing, Morrison brings the rhetorical grace, the commanding authorial voice, the profound insight into human nature, and above all the infinite capacity for empathy of a literary artist of the highest caliber.
In addition to the awards and prizes already mentioned, Morrison has won a great many other honors, both here and abroad. Her work has been very widely translated, and her achievement has been recognized with many honorary degrees and memberships in professional and national academies, both American and foreign. For instance, in 2010 she was made an Officer of the French Légion d’Honneur. In recent years, the study of Morrison’s work by other scholars has become a literary industry unto itself. In 2012, she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. In 2016, Morrison won the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction, while that same year she was also appointed to the prestigious Charles Eliot Norton Professorship in Poetry at Harvard University.
19. Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe
Sharpe was born in New York City, but was raised in Virginia. She earned her bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 1988 from North Carolina Wesleyan University. She holds three master’s degrees: in applied mathematics from Clark Atlanta University (1992); in operations research from Stanford University (1994); and in economics from Claremont Graduate University. She obtained her PhD in economics/mathematics in 1998, also from Claremont Graduate University.
After obtaining her PhD, Sharpe taught at a number of colleges and universities, including Barnard College, Bucknell University, Columbia University, Duke University, and the University of Vermont. From 2009 until 2012, she served as Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Business and Economics at Bennett College. She is the co-founder of the Diversity Initiative for Tenure in Economics (DITE), which she served as Associate Director from 2008 until 2014. During the 2008–2009 academic year, she was also Institute of Higher Education Law & Governance Fellow at the University of Houston Law Center. In 2016, Sharpe founded the Women’s Institute for Science, Equity, and Race (WISER), which she currently heads.
Sharpe’s work as an economist lies primarily at the intersection between labor economics and feminist economics. More specifically, she has paid particular attention to the academic labor market as it relates to African American women. And within this special emphasis on the university as a professional milieu, she has further focused on black women in the STEM fields. However, from time to time her research has ranged far more widely, reflecting her broad concern with the causes of poverty globally. For example, she has co-authored a study on the wage differential between urban and rural-urban migrant laborers in China, as well as the article on global poverty for an important new encyclopedia on gender and sexuality studies. Moreover, the institution Sharpe founded and serves as President, WISER, is the first think tank to focus solely on the social, economic, cultural, and political well-being of women of color.
Sharpe has co-authored or co-edited two books (see below), and authored or co-authored many peer-reviewed articles, which have appeared in the American Journal of Economics and Sociology, the Review of Black Political Economy, and the Journal of Diversity in Higher Education, among other places. She has also co-authored chapters in five prominent edited volumes, in addition to the encyclopedia entry mentioned above.
20. Thomas Sowell
Economics | History | Political Science
Sowell was born in Gastonia, North Carolina, in 1930. He had to drop out of high school to earn money, but after a stint in the US Marine Corps during the Korean War and a couple of years of night classes at Howard University, he got high marks on the College Boards and was accepted by Harvard University, where he took his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in economics in 1958. He received his master’s degree in economics in 1959 from Columbia University, and his PhD in economics in 1968 from the University of Chicago. Subsequently, Sowell taught at a number of universities, including Cornell, Howard, Brandeis, and UCLA. Since 1980, he has been a Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where he is currently the Rose and Milton Friedman Senior Fellow on Public Policy.
Sowell is one of the most influential classical or free-market economists writing today. His many books are models of clarity of thought and exposition, and he largely succeeds in his goal of making the often-difficult concepts of economics accessible to a wide reading public. His classic textbook, Basic Economics (see below), is now in its fifth edition. In addition to his work as an economist, Sowell is deeply learned in both history and political theory, and brings his expertise in all three fields to bear on a broad spectrum of social issues. Generally speaking, he is skeptical of government efforts to influence society for the better, pointing to the unintended consequences of government programs, as well as the fact that government agencies tend to put their own welfare above that of the clients they exist to serve. He does not like political labels, but has stated that he feels most affinity with the libertarian position. In a hard-hitting trilogy of books (A Conflict of Visions, The Vision of the Anointed, and The Quest for Cosmic Justice), Sowell passes harsh judgment on intellectuals who derive a sense of their own moral superiority from their utopian schemes, though they themselves will not have to live with the too-often harmful consequences of those schemes. In addition to his many books on economics and cultural criticism, he has written an engaging memoir (A Personal Odyssey).
Sowell has published many articles in peer-reviewed journals, as well as more than 40 books for both academic and popular audiences, several of which have been translated into foreign languages. His writing, which is characteristically sharp, pithy, and replete with well-turned phrases, has been widely mined for captivating quotations. For several decades, Sowell wrote a nationally syndicated column that appeared in dozens of newspapers and magazines, including Forbes, National Review, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Jewish World Review. In 2002, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal.
21. Claude M. Steele
Steele was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1946. He earned his bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1967 from Hiram College. He received his master’s degree in psychology in 1969 and his PhD in psychology in 1971, both from Ohio State University. Having taught psychology for nearly 40 years at various institutions, including the University of Washington, the University of Michigan, and Stanford University, Steele served as Provost of Columbia University from 2009 until 2011, and as Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost of UC-Berkeley from 2014 until 2016. He is currently I. James Quillen Endowed Dean, Emeritus, at the Stanford Graduate School of Education and Lucie Stern Professor in the Social Sciences, Emeritus, at Stanford University.
Steele’s early work as a social psychologist centered around the study of addiction, especially alcohol abuse. However, he is best known for his ground-breaking work on stereotype threat, a concept he originated in a much-cited paper from 1995. Stereotype threat (also known as stereotype vulnerability) is a fear or anxiety that may be triggered in specific situations in which individuals perceive themselves to be in danger of conforming to a negative stereotype attached by society to the ethnic, religious, racial, gender, or other social group to which they belong. In principle, any social group may experience stereotype threat under the right circumstances, but as a practical matter, the concept has been most often applied to the situation in which a black person experiences failure anxiety in the context of academic performance in a school setting — not due to any doubt about their own individual ability, but out of a fear of fulfilling others’ stereotyped expectations of them. This experienced anxiety may then itself lead to poor performance, making stereotype threat into a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. There has been some discussion in the literature about the prevalence and seriousness of stereotype threat, and some questions have been raised about the empirical validity of the studies upon which Steele based his conclusions. However, on the whole, the psychological community has taken his highly original ideas on board, and they have become a mainstay of the analysis of the social psychology of race.
Steele has written one book for a popular audience (see below), and is the author or co-author of around 80 articles published in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. He has received some 15 grants from various foundations, notably the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Steele has received honorary degrees from many universities, including the University of Chicago, Princeton, and Yale. He is a Member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, and the American Philosophical Society.
22. Niara Sudarkasa
Sudarkasa was born Gloria Albertha Marshall in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in 1938. After taking early entrance to Fisk University, she transferred to Oberlin College, where she studied anthropology and English, earning her bachelor’s degree there in 1957. She obtained her PhD in anthropology in 1964 from Columbia University. She taught at New York University and the University of Michigan before moving to Lincoln University, where she served as President from 1987 until 1998. Sudarkasa is currently Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
For her doctoral dissertation, in 1961 Sudarkasa traveled to Nigeria to do field work on the Yoruba language and culture. While in Nigeria, she attained a working conversational knowledge of Yoruba. She returned to West Africa in the late 1960s to do more research, this time focusing primarily on migration and trade, in Nigeria, the Ivory Coast, and elsewhere. Subsequently, her research interests shifted to the role of women in trade and in economic activity more generally (Where Women Work — see below). She has also addressed the question of “the status of women” from a more theoretical angle, especially as it relates to African societies. More recently, she has studied similarities in women’s roles within extended family structures in both African and African American settings (Extended Families in Africa and the African Diaspora). In 2001, Sudarkasa received the signal honor of being recognized as a Chief of the historic Ife Kingdom of the Yoruba people.
During Sudarkasa’s tenure as President of Lincoln University, a historically black university near Philadelphia, the school increased enrollment, beefed up its academic and international programs, and launched an ambitious minority recruitment effort. Unfortunately, in 1998 she was forced to step down as President as a result of charges of financial mismanagement that occurred on her watch — charges that she has strenuously denied, and has rebutted at length in her own published account of the incident (When Politics Drive an Audit). The recipient of some 13 honorary doctorates, Sudarkasa has published nearly a dozen books, pamphlets, and reports, in addition to numerous peer-reviewed articles for scholarly journals. She sits on the board of directors of a number of academic and professional organizations, including the Academy for Educational Development.
23. Beverly Daniel Tatum
Tatum (née Daniel) was born in Tallahassee, Florida, in 1954. She earned her bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1975 from Wesleyan University. She took her master’s in 1976 and her PhD in 1984, both in clinical psychology and both from the University of Michigan. Later on, the also received a master’s degree in religious studies from Hartford Seminary. After teaching for a time in both black studies and psychology departments at UC-Santa Barbara and elsewhere, she was hired by Mount Holyoke College, where she taught psychology for a number of years before moving into university administration, eventually attaining the office of Acting-President of the College. In 2002, Tatum was appointed President of Spelman College, the oldest historically black women’s college in the country, a position she held until her retirement in 2015. In 2017, she was named the Mimi and Peter E. Haas Distinguished Visitor at the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. Currently, Tatum, who holds the title President Emerita of Spelman College, focuses on her work as an author and lecturer.
Tatum’s career as a clinical psychologist has been largely devoted to exploring the way race impacts people’s self-understanding, particularly in relation to education. More specifically, she has been in the forefront of arguing that racial differences are something young children notice on their own, and that it is better to discuss them openly and honestly than to pretend they do not exist. In a widely cited article published in 1992, she explained that she felt personally called to facilitate constructive discussion of race in the classroom, despite the discomfort this may cause both teachers and students:
I was convinced that helping students understand the ways in which racism operates in their own lives, and what they could do about it, was a social responsibility that I should accept.
To this end, she has taught a course entitled “The Psychology of Racism” for 18 years at several different universities. Both her book, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? (see below), and the public lectures she has delivered all over the country, have been largely based on insights she developed through teaching this course. Tatum has also been influential in applying William E. Cross, Jr.’s Racial Identity Development theory as an appropriate lens for interpreting the process by which racial self-consciousness is formed in young people over time.
The recipient of numerous grants, fellowships, and awards, Tatum has published three books, as well as many articles in peer-reviewed journals and edited volumes. She has served on the boards of numerous public and governmental organizations. In 2014, the American Psychological Association (APA) gave Tatum its Award for Outstanding Lifetime Contribution to Psychology.
24. Cornel West
Philosophy | Religion | Critical Theory
West was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, in 1953, but grew up in California. He received his bachelor’s degree magna cum laude in Near Eastern languages and civilizations in 1973 from Harvard University. He earned his PhD in philosophy in 1980 from Princeton University. He subsequently taught at Yale University, Union Theological Seminary, the University of Paris, Harvard University, Princeton University, and elsewhere. He is currently Professor Emeritus at Princeton University and Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University, with a joint appointment at Harvard Divinity School and in the Department of African American Studies there.
West has had two careers: an early career as a conventional (if radical) philosophy professor and a later career as one of the most visible African American public intellectuals in the US. The continuity between these two careers lies in his basic orientation towards a radical Marxist-inspired critique of racism within the broader context of capitalist imperialism. In his first career, he published several books in the accepted style of analytical philosophy, though his topics ranged from revolutionary Christianity to Marx’s ethical thought. During this early phase of his career, West was also a close student and critic of the American pragmatist and French-inspired postmodernist strains of thought.
Then came what one might call West’s “prophetic turn” (around 1993, more or less, with the publication of Race Matters — see below), when he began not just to analyze radical prophecy in order to understand it, but to practice it in order to change the world (in line with Marx’s eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach). During this phase of his career, he sought a more committed style of philosophical engagement, often extending his radical critique of American society and politics to the Democratic Party itself, and even to former President Barack Obama, whom West once famously called:
…a black mascot of Wall Street oligarchs and a black muppet of corporate plutocrats. And now he has become head of the American killing machine and is proud of it.
West’s willingness to speak truth to power in the most incendiary terms has won him a wide and devoted following far beyond the confines of academic philosophy — and also caused controversy. Moreover, his increasingly committed prophetic stance has created difficulties for him personally, notably regarding his highly publicized 2005 dispute with Harvard University.
West is the author, co-author, or editor of more than 30 books, and is co-creator with BMWMB of an album of hip-hop music. He has published many articles in peer-reviewed journals, as well as a large number of essays and op-eds in the popular print media, in addition to the countless interviews he has given to practically all the major radio and television media. For several years he co-hosted a talk show, Smiley & West, with Tavis Smiley. West maintains a busy lecturing schedule, having appeared at universities and other venues around the world. In 1993, he won the National Book Award for Prophetic Thought in Postmodern Times.
25. William Julius Wilson
Wilson was born in Derry, Pennsylvania, in 1935. He received his bachelor’s degree in sociology/history in 1958 from Wilberforce University. He earned his master’s degree, also in sociology/history, in 1961 from Bowling Green State University, and his PhD in sociology/anthropology in 1966 from Washington State University. He then taught sociology for a time at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In 1972, he moved to the University of Chicago, where he eventually attained the title of Lucy Flower University Professor and Director of the university’s Center for the Study of Urban Inequality. In 1996, Wilson was appointed Malcolm Wiener Professor of Social Policy at Harvard University, as well as Director of the Joblessness and Urban Poverty Research Program at the Malcolm Wiener Center for Social Policy there. Since 1998, he has been Lewis P. and Linda L. Geyser University Professor in the Department of Sociology at Harvard University, the position he currently holds.
In his work as a sociologist, Wilson has primarily addressed the problem of understanding why poverty and inequality of opportunity are such stubborn realities in the lives of so many African Americans in spite of 50 years of government programs aimed at alleviating these conditions. His analyses have always been multi-causal. He stresses that we should not be asking whether systemic historical, socioeconomic, and political factors are paramount, or whether cultural factors are of greater significance. Instead, he argues that structural and cultural factors both contribute significantly to the problem, and that therefore we should be asking how both sets of factors interact to bring about continuing unjust and unequal outcomes in the lives of black people. Wilson’s efforts to convince us to put an end to over-simplified, polarized, and politicized thinking about this problem extend well beyond his role as an academic sociologist; they also reflect his deep concern with the wider policy implications of his fine-grained and sensitive sociological analyses.
Wilson is the author, co-author, or editor of some 14 books, as well as approximately 175 peer-reviewed articles and chapters in professional journals and edited volumes. Several of his articles have been widely excerpted in textbooks and other publications. Wilson, who has presented papers or been a discussant at scores of professional meetings, has also delivered invited lectures at some 400 colleges and universities around the world. He has sat on the boards of a great many academic organizations, and received numerous awards, grants, fellowships, and honorary degrees. A member of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Education, the American Philosophical Society, and the British Academy, in 1987 Wilson was appointed a MacArthur Fellow, and in 1998 he received the National Medal of Science.
26. Lerone Bennett, Jr.
History | Africana Studies
Bennett was born in Clarksdale, Mississippi, in 1928 and attended segregated schools under the then-reigning Jim Crow regime in the American South. He received his bachelor’s degree from Morehouse College in Atlanta in 1949. While pursuing graduate studies at Atlanta University, he began working as a journalist for the Atlanta Daily World newspaper. In 1952, he moved to Chicago, where he became City Editor for Jet magazine. Two years later, he moved over to Ebony magazine, also based in Chicago, where he served as Senior Editor, and later as Executive Director, for decades until his retirement in 2005.
Bennett first made his mark as a historian with his landmark book Before the Mayflower (see below for publishing details), recounting the history of people of African descent in the United States in a comprehensive way, from the year before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth until the year of the book’s publication in 1962. Nothing quite like this book had ever been attempted before, and Bennett carried it off so well that it very quickly became a classic, appealing equally to the historical professoriate and the lay black reading public. From his perch at Ebony (all of his books were initially published by Ebony’s publisher, Johnson Publishing Co.), Bennett was ideally placed to have a maximum impact on the African American community far beyond the then-narrow walls of American university history departments. Other notable books he published during the formative decade of the 1960s include the first full-scale biography of Martin Luther King, Jr. (What Manner of Man), and seminal studies of the nascent Black Power movement. Several of his more wide-ranging historical works, such as The Shaping of Black America and Wade in the Water, provided models that were influential for the Black, African American, and Africana Studies movements of the 1970s and subsequent decades.
As a historian who followed an unimpeachable scholarly methodology, while maintaining complete independence from the Academy, Bennett was perhaps freer to speak his mind than if he had pursued a more conventional career. His penchant for outspokenness was especially evident in the controversy sparked by his 2000 book Forced into Glory, a study of Abraham Lincoln’s personal racism and the circumstances surrounding the Emancipation Proclamation. That book’s well-documented deconstruction of Lincoln’s reputation as the “Great Emancipator,” as well as its take-no-prisoners style, generated waves within the American historical profession that can be felt to this day. Bennett is the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and awards, including the Carter G. Woodson Lifetime Achievement Award bestowed by the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.
NOTE: We received word that Lerone Bennett, Jr., had died on February 14, 2018, after this article had been written, but before it was published. See the New York Times’s obituary of this outstanding historian’s life and work.
2. James H. Cone, A Black Theology of Liberation. New York: Lippincott, 1970; p. 64.
3. Kimberle Crenshaw, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” (PDF) University of Chicago Legal Forum, Volume 1989, Issue 1, Article 8.
4. Roland G. Fryer, Jr., and Steven D. Levitt, “Understanding the Black-White Test Score Gap in the First Two Years of School,” Review of Economics and Statistics, 2004, 86: 447–464.
5. James D. Wright, ed., International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2nd ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2015.
6. Ephraim Isaac, “(Ethiopic Apocalypse of) Enoch (Second Century B.C.–First Century A.D.),” in James H. Charlesworth, ed., The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, Volume 1: Apocalyptic Literature and Testaments. New York: Doubleday & Co., 1983; pp. 5–90.
7. Ephraim Isaac, “The Ethiopic History of Joseph, Translation with Introduction and Notes,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, April, 1990, 3(6): 3–125.
8. Joseph A. Baldwin, “African Self-Consciousness and the Mental Health of African-Americans,” Journal of Black Studies, 1984, 15: 177–194.
9. Joseph A. Baldwin and Yvonne R. Bell, “The African Self-Consciousness Scale: An Africentric Personality Questionnaire,” Western Journal of Black Studies, 1985, 9(2): 61–68.
11. Li Zhang, Rhonda Vonshay Sharpe, Shi Li, and William A. Darity, Jr., “Wage Differentials between Urban and Rural-Urban Migrant Workers in China,” China Economic Review, 2016, 41: 222–233.
12. Rhonda V. Sharpe and Kendall Swanson, “Poverty in Global Perspective,” in The Wiley-Blackwell Encyclopedia of Gender and Sexuality Studies, 5 volumes. New York: Wiley-Blackwell, 2016.
13. Claude M. Steele and Joshua Aronson, “Stereotype Threat and the Intellectual Test Performance of African Americans,” (PDF) Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1995, 69: 797–811.
14. Niara Sudarkasa, “‘The Status of Women’ in Indigenous African Societies,” Feminist Studies, 1986, 12: 91–103.
15. Beverly D. Tatum, “Talking About Race, Learning About Racism: The Application of r\Racial Identity Development Theory in the Classroom,” (PDF) Harvard Educational Review, 1992, 62: 1–25.
16. Chris Hedges, “The Obama Deception: Why Cornel West Went Ballistic” (Truthdig, March 16, 2011)
17. Cornel West, “Why I Left Harvard University,” Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, 2005, 47: 64–68.