TED Talks Be Damned; Or, How I Learned to Build Bridges in American and African American Intellectual History

Richard Newman

Among the many things I worried about in writing a revisionist essay on Black intellectual history in the early republic, nothing was more concerning than my use of a single phrase: “thought leader.” What was I doing, giving a TED Talk? (My recent essay in the winter 2023 JER forum on intellectual history began as a conference paper at the 2018 Cleveland SHEAR, so I first imagined it that way, with a snappy introduction and all.) Yet no matter how much I tried to lose the term, I kept coming back to “thought leader” as an apt means of describing not just Black thinkers but the ramifying nature of their work in American society and politics between the Revolution and Civil War. As my article showed, recapturing the dynamic meaning of Black thought leadership requires looking at the way that everyday African Americans shaped, and were shaped by, the main currents of American intellectual life after 1776. Whether in religion, reform, education, science, or technology–to say nothing of debates over rights and liberty—Black thought leaders framed the history of ideas in the United States from the nation’s founding onward.

Frederick Douglass sitting at a desk in his library, with his back to the viewer.

Frederick Douglass in His Study at Cedar Hill, Photograph
c 1890. From Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, FRDO 3886.

While I have been working on African American reform for many years, my essay actually flowed from a team-teaching experience with a philosophy professor that put my own ideas to the test. This was the original introduction to my SHEAR paper, which I took out of the article (because, again, it seemed too TED-talky). But it better explains the purpose of my broader project of bringing together Black and white intellectual worlds, both in the early republic and beyond.

About twelve years ago, I co-taught a class called “John Brown’s America” with a colleague in the Philosophy Department at Rochester Institute of Technology. It was an amazing experience, partly because of the friendship we developed but also because of the sparks that flew. Without really planning it, we fell into a pattern each class: I did the history (here’s John Brown’s background) and he did the philosophy (let’s talk about the idea of revolutionary change!).

Another way of putting it was that he seemed to be having fun philosophizing while I served as the proverbial straight man in a comedy routine.

In truth, I didn’t mind. It was his class to begin with, and he had a brood of philosophy majors who just loved, well, doing philosophy. But that also meant following philosophical discourses that put certain “thinkers” first: (white) Transcendentalists, (white) radical reformers, (white) legal minds. I learned a lot but there was a tension in the room about the flow of ideas and the making of social change.

Indeed, just a few weeks in, I wondered: did we have it backwards? If we really wanted to understand John’s Brown’s America, then we would have to put Black thinkers up front, not just in terms of rationalizing slave rebellion but explaining Brown’s own broader philosophical goal of creating a just world after revolutionary change had occurred.[i] I began inserting perspectives that constituted an “alternate” intellectual history of mainstream antebellum thought. We talked about the “enslaved enlightenment” occurring alongside the Haitian Rebellion and its long-term impact on both Black and white abolitionists in America.[ii] We discussed the philosophy of the slave narrative genre, which (as I argue in the JER article) critiqued not just slavery but broader notions of democratic faith in nineteenth-century society.[iii] And we discussed Black runaways’ understanding of free-soil geographies as a formative part of sectionalism and the coming of the Civil War.[iv] The point was not simply to add these perspectives but to challenge the very terms of philosophy and intellectual practice we used to understand John Brown’s America. Just who was a “thought leader” in a nation already at war over its founding ideas? Here, I wanted philosophy students to see African Americans as central players in that battle.

Lysander Spooner photographic portrait.

Lysander Spooner, from Wikimedia Commons

Of course, such pedagogical interventions will hardly surprise JER readers. Indeed, as I indicate in my essay, my own debt to the many scholars–including fellow panelists—who have crafted alternate intellectual histories of early America remains profound. But there was another part of my argument that I hope doesn’t get lost: the interactive nature of Black thought leadership. To my eyes, Black intellectual history has been driven as much by dialogue as dissent. Whether it’s Martin Luther King, Jr.’s elaboration on theologian Paul Tillich’s understanding of “Christian existentialism” in the twentieth century, or Frederick Douglass’s uses of Lysander Spooner’s antislavery constitutionalism in the nineteenth century, Black thought leaders have often tried to absorb and deploy ideas percolating around them. King wrote his Boston University dissertation, in part, on Tillich, and he later hailed him as an intellectual hero whose “Christian existentialism gave us a system of meaning and purpose for our lives in an age when war and doubt seriously threatened all that we had come to hold dear.” [v] So too did Frederick Douglass cite the importance of the Massachusetts legal critic Lysander Spooner, who argued that the Constitution undermined (if it did not vanquish) slavery.[vi]

Interestingly, in the John Brown class, Spooner became a bridge of understanding—someone my colleague had been studying closely for several years and someone I read as an important influence on Frederick Douglass’s embrace of antislavery constitutionalism. For our students, it was important to see such connections, for they showed that philosophy and intellectual history are (or should be) capacious vehicles, not hermetically sealed categories. To truly understand “John Brown’s America” meant looking at the dialogue between Douglass and Spooner too.

In our own highly fractured and fragmented world, it is just as critical to build bridges of philosophical understanding. Indeed, if the point of philosophy is not just to understand the world but change it, then building intellectual bridges is more important than ever.


Endnotes

[i] On Brown’s broader vision, see John Stauffer and Zoe Trodd, Meteor of War: The John Brown Story (Cambridge, MA, 2004).

[ii] Laurent Dubois, “An Enslaved Enlightenment: Rethinking the Intellectual History of the French Atlantic,” Social History 31 (Feb. 2006), 1–14.

[iii] Sam Worley, “Solomon Northup and the Sly Philosophy of the Slave Pen,”

Callaloo 20 (Winter 1997), 243–59.

[iv] See Newman, “Free Soil, Fugitive Slaves, and the Making of Pennsylvania’s Anti-Slavery Borderland,” in Free Soil in the Atlantic World, ed. Sue Peabody and Keila Grinberg (New York, 2015), [need page span for chapter].

[v] See the online entry on “Paul Tillich” at the Martin Luther King Jr., Research and Education Institute, Stanford University: https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/tillich-paul.

[vi] “Is the Plan of the American Union Under the Constitution Antislavery or Not? A Debate Between Frederick Douglass and Charles Lenox Remond in New York…May 20, 21, 1857,” Frederick Douglass Papers, Digital Edition, note #3, at: https://frederickdouglasspapersproject.com/s/digitaledition/item/8862.

30 January 2024

About the Author

Richard Newman is a professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology and the author of several books on American and African American history, including Abolitionism: A Very Short Introduction (2018).

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