Confessions of a ThugNiggaIntellectual

[27 March 2003]

By Mark Anthony Neal

USC professor Todd Boyd has taken some heat recently for his new book, The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop. In the book, Boyd argues that hip hop, which he views as a legitimate social movement, has usurped the influence of the Civil Rights Movement and become the “new head niggas in charge”. Boyd’s book is a bite-sized polemic; a missive that aims to reorient the conservative and staid energy of the academy with all the vim and vigor of a underground hip hop mix-tape. And it is that attitude — Boyd’s willingness to roll up hard on Civil Rights era stalwarts and the courteous contentions of the Academy — that I appreciate most in his book.

Todd Boyd, like many of his contemporaries including Robin D.G. Kelley, Michael Eric Dyson, S. Craig Watkins, Dwight McBride and Thomas Glave, are part of a generation of black male scholars who are redefining the style and influence of the traditional black male intellectual; a figure that has been influenced throughout the 20th century by figures like W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, Horace Mann, Amiri Baraka, and most recently the duo of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Cornel West. Though Boyd, Kelley, Dyson, Watkins, McBride and Glave represent radically different personalities and modes of expression, they are all responsible for creating a new space within the academy and the public sphere for black masculinity to exist as a vibrant, vivacious, virile, and versatile entity. In other words, they have given rise for young black men to re-imagine themselves within the context of the academy, and it is in this spirit that I have begun to think of myself as a “ThugNiggaIntellectual”.

Though I don’t claim to have ever been a thug and have never accepted the status of a “nigger”, the distinct New York styled black masculinity that I wear means I have known thugs and a bunch “niggers”. I share a space with them each time I’m profiled in grocery stores, or chillin’ with my homies Gramsci and Jay Z at Starbucks. Folks are seemingly fearful and disgusted at my presence, as if a nigga ain’t supposed to drink some expensive coffee and have a laptop. But it’s the latter part of that term “Thug . . Nigga . . . intellectual” that perhaps raises the most eyebrows. (“You’re an intellectual? You look like you should be working for UPS.”)

In a society that seemingly doesn’t have the language to adequately describe the value of living the life of the mind, as Cornel West describes it, there certainly isn’t much language to explain the value of a nigga like me reading and writing about organic intellectuals, the transnational import of entrepreneurial Gramscian thugs (most folks just wanna call them gangsta rappers), listening to Camron’s “Oh Boy” and sipping on an Chai latte at three o’clock in the afternoon. Meanwhile, presumably worthwhile niggers are driving buses, bussing tables, and busting rocks somewhere up state. On the real, all I got to do is walk in the door, and given the looks and stares and grunts and of course the stupid questions (“are you a DJ?”), I might as well had been thugged-out with a 9mm in one hand and the 40oz (Ole E is a thug nigga’s preference) in the other. So why complicate all of this by actually referring to myself as a “ThugNiggaIntellectual?” Because, like Posdonous said a few year ago, I’m damn complicated.

The figure of the “Thug Nigga” racializes the cuddly, user friendly thugs that have been popularized in American culture, whether in the form of the hard-boiled detectives found in the dime-store novels of a half-century ago, leather-jacket clad cartoons like Henry Winkler’s “Arthur Fonzerelli” (“Fonzie”) on Happy Days and Sylvester Stallone’s “Rocky Balboa”. Or stylishly cerebral thugs like James Gandolfini’s “Tony Soprano”. When all is said and done, the “Thug Nigga” is a dangerous nigger and America has never romanticized about its fear of angry “don’t give a fuck” niggers (see the Prison Industrial Complex). Like the real world, “Thug Niggas” who function with a gangsta’s precision — sucking the essence of possibility out of any hope that life can remain safe and normal — claiming the space of the “ThugNiggaIntellectual” is about bringing to fruition an intellectual component to the “Thug Nigga” psyche. In other words, it is a commitment to intellectually choking a “Mfer” to death, if need be.

Many young black men choose to embrace this notion of “thug-niggerdom” as a way to gain power and visibility in a society that has had designs on them from birth to use them as fill in the scrap heaps of social obscurity — whether as cab drivers, airport workers, homeless beggars or commodities within the Prison Industrial Complex. And it’s all image-real. Thugs and gangstas don’t perform in music videos or on subway rides to Brooklyn. But the image of the “Thug Nigga”, given the general demonization of black men in American society, strikes a certain cord of fear in the places where black men are neither expected to be visible or be heard. Lest of course its Charles Barkley providing commentary on TNT’s NBA broadcasts.

It was while watching the television drama Spenser for Hire nearly 20 years ago that I was introduced to the prototypical “ThugNiggaIntellectual”. Spenser for Hire was based on the Robert Parker novels about a “hard-boiled private dick-as-renaissance man” named Spenser. In the novels as well as the series, Spenser (portrayed by the late Robert Urich) had a black side-kick by the name of Hawk, who spoke Spenser’s name with a decidedly pimp-like inflection. Hawk was brought to life by the brilliant actor Avery Brooks, (who later brought black modernist style into Outer Space via Deep Space Nine‘s Benjamin Sisko) who seamlessly portrayed Hawk as menacing, crafty, restrained, thoughtful, and worldly. Fuck being a thug, in my mind Hawk was damned erudite; a kind of combination of Shaft, W.E.B. DuBois, and Billy Eskstine. Hawk was my introduction to a complex black masculinity as he relished in the duality of his existence with a sneer and some obscure spoken ditty that audiences needed to translate with their dictionaries. Hawk has been my role model ever since, even more so when I found out just how brilliant the actor Avery Brooks was in his own right.

My notion of the “ThugNiggaIntellectual” is also informed by the mainstreaming of “niggericity”. Courtesy of Randall Kennedy, there is new freedom associated with the word “nigger”; simply meaning that high profile Harvard Law School professors can write books about the word and hawk copies of that book anywhere from the pages of Entertainment Weekly to the Fox television series Boston Public, the latter of which functioned as an infomercial for Kennedy’s book, Nigger. But in many circles, Kennedy, with a nod to Ice Cube, was the wrong nigga to write the book.

While the word has a long and troubling career (so say Kennedy), the word has been given a new cache courtesy of hip hop music and Kennedy was at best significantly challenged to “represent” the sentiment of the word within the world of hip hop as witnessed by the scant three pages he spends on the issue of the word within hip hop culture. Of course hip hop artists themselves have written veritable dissertations on the word such as Mos Def’s (a “ThugNiggaIntellectual” in his own right) brilliant “Mr. Nigga”. My point here is not to help support the creation a cottage industry of “Nigger vs. Nigga” scholarship, though I am obliged to get my own flow on about the subject, but rather to point out the kinds of generational shifts that are occurring within black communities. Unlike Kennedy and a host of other folks who have been dubbed as genius interpreters of a black culture gone awry, I am part of a generation of black scholars who can legitimately claim to have come of age echoing ditties like “hotel motel Holiday Inn, say if your girl ain’t . . . enough, then you take her friend” (from “Rapper’s Delight”). I’m part of the first generation of black scholars who, like Rakim, “came in the door” with designs to do the kinds of scholarly work that was deeply personal to us — writing about black everyday life and the cultures that are embedded in those life. This was a “scholarship” that allowed very little distance from the crack-head vestibules and cheese lines that some of us were privy to.

The world began knocking on the proverbial doors of black intellectuals in the early 1990s. It wanted an explanation of Ice T, Sister Souljah, the 1992 LA Rebellion, the black aesthetics of the National Basketball Association, and OJ Simpson. In one celebrated case, said intellectuals were called upon to testify on behalf of a couple of punk-ass and weak-ass rappers (2 Live Crew) who relished in performing distasteful and misogynistic lyrics, who said they were “signifyin’” in the tradition of the great black literature. Whatever. Most of these folks translated their new found celebrity — that’s Black Celebrity Intellectuals ya’ll — into book deals, chaired professorships, speed-dialed phone calls from Charlie Rose, Ted Koppel and Brian Lamb, and some real gatekeeping power over the black masses within the academy. Ain’t tryin’ to playa-hate (that’s just “hate” for the real vernacular insiders) on nobody, because on the fo’ real, one of the reasons I do what I do is because of many of these folks. But the next generation, many of us who aren’t coming into the world via elite Ivy League schools, are laying in the cut, getting our grind on, keeping our ears and eyes to the street — which is the one thing you can’t do when you’re on a seemingly endless book and lecture tour, save the occasional tragedy of having to watch videos on BET.

But I’m not gonna pretend that my own ability to authentically “keep it real” (as if the hood that I came up in is the same as the hoods cats are coming up in now, cause it ain’t like I live in the ‘hood no more) is any different than the folks I hold up to scrutiny. Outside of actually impacting the lives of some of my students, I have real reservations about whether the work I do, even as I represent for the “niggas who ain’t here”, (shout to that bomb-ass classic Cooley High) impacts the lives of “Pookie” and “Nay-Nay” who are not simply “texts” to be deconstructed and critiqued (even as they are constructed and critiqued for mass media consumption), but fo’ real folks tryin’ to hold it down in Ghetto, America. For sure I know Pookie and Nay-Nay, been known them, see them every time I roll back to the PJs to check mom and pops, but for damn sure Pookie and Nay-Nay ain’t tryin’ to know me.

They ain’t ever gonna read any of my books and couldn’t give a shit about post-structuralist analysis if that don’t translate into dairy (as in chedda) for Huggies, Kool-Aid, and them $15 cans of baby formula that are on the shelves in the suburbs, but behind a locked glass case in the ‘hood. And yeah I can get all erudite about the irony that Nay-Nay would rather “buy” chemical approximations of real dairy products than give her child her own breast milk for free and how chemical corporations, make real dairy (major chedda) exploiting Nay-Nay’s lack of accessible health-care and information, the fact of the matter is nothin’ I could do, short of buying a can of formula for her myself, is gonna address the real time issues that Pookie and Nay-Nay face on the daily. I’m all too aware that even my status as an authentic ghetto denizen who came up in the world and now espouses progressive social and cultural commentary, can easily be interpreted as little more than a hustle. It’s not like being the crazy Lefty don’t get you book contracts, either.

At other times, being a “ThugNiggaIntellectual” is about always remembering the truth that I ain’t even supposed to in academe. There was simply nothing in my upbringing and my family life or in my community that would ever suggest that I was supposed to flow easily through scholarly and academic spaces. The most vivid memories of my earliest days of graduate school were of hearing horror stories about young black folks with spankin’ new Ph.D.s in hand, who were immediately interrogated and challenged by whites students, who felt as though their education would be diminished because of the black body — the nigger — in the front of the room. It was a stark reminder of Malcolm X’s now classic diatribe that to many whites, a black man with a Ph.D. is still a “nigger”. And I’m not gonna pretend that in post-liberal America there haven’t been times when I rolled into the class room on the first day of class and somebody in the house quietly uttered “who’s the nigger?” I’m the nigga that gonna intellectually choke the living shit out of you.

Of course the flip side finds some black students who think a common racial heritage translates into a lack of expectations on my part, as if being in the black man’s class is supposed to be a reprieve from rigor. John McWhorter got it all wrong in Losing the Race. Black students didn’t underachieve in his classes in a vacuum. They were not simply anti-intellectual. They had bought into the common perceptions, shared by some of their white counterparts, that black intellectuals and academics don’t mean shit and thus they don’t deserve the same respect and courtesy that some of their white professors do, especially if said black intellectual is teaching in “Black Studies” and hasn’t been on BET. And yeah, I could publicly lament in the pages of the Wall Street Journal that my students’ bad impressions of my intellect are because of Affirmative Action, like some of my punk-ass, Negrotarian colleagues on the Right (you gotta be careful these days, lest you get accused of being a playa hater). But I ain’t turnin’ my back on “opportunity” cause it ain’t like there are a bunch of niggas like me rolling thru the halls of Academe.

In some regards this whole “ThugNiggaIntellectual” stance is about black intellectual etiquette. Many of my elder black academics had to shovel Brazil nuts (what they call “nigger toes” in the south) and displace the rage of witnessing undercover, closed door name calling and credential scrutinizing. For sho’, a bunch of us new-breed younguns butt heads with these cats all the time. I was a brand new, ready for the exploitin’ Ph.D. when I trekked down to a little Negro school in Louisiana (nicknamed “the little engine that could” for the number of students they send on to medical schools). I was full of the belief that I would impact young black minds. As one of the youngest folks on the yard, I relished the rapport I had with my students, some of whom were less than a decade younger than me. It was my first real experience teaching classrooms filled with black students and I loved having a space where I didn’t have to translate every nuance of black ghetto vernacular to audiences that on some level would never get it. It was during this time that an administrator at the university tugged my coat, yanked it really, to query me about my rather . . . hmmm, how shall I say it . . . “gleeful” use of ghetto vernacular in the classroom.

On the real, we can sugarcoat the realities of the black experience to our students all we want (yes, slavery was terrible!), but when dealing with a generation of folk (myself included) that has lost all sense of nuance (courtesy of television and video games), somehow the phrase “No! The shit was fucked up!” resonates in a way that John Hope Franklin, the dean of modern black historians, can never get to. And I stepped to homie administrator just like that and spent 20 minutes or so talking about Baudriard and bunch of the other fly-ass French theorists, and she was shut-down — what the young folks call “shook” — for the rest of our meeting (“I mean what kind of impression are you making on these young folks by using such language?”). An naw, it ain’t about dumbin’ shit down, but remembering that language (and ideas for that matter) are fluid and my presence at the front of the classroom don’t mean much if I don’t have the ability flow with folks that have no real interest in post-modern theory or cultural studies before they rolled up into the classroom. And the reality is that there are always gonna be folks in the classroom who ain’t gonna feel free to speak ‘cause some dumb-ass told them that their opinion don’t matter if they can’t talk like “normal” people do. I’m like, step to the mic (“who’s world is this? It’s mine, it’s mine, it’s mine . . . ” — Nas) and if you need to know what the boundaries of diction are, listen to my reformed ghetto-ass. I was rocking that whole “TF” as “F” sound well into my teens (as in “toof” instead of tooth).

In my best moments, I hope that I am inspiring a generation of young students — emergent scholars — to imagine themselves as scholars and intellectuals, without having to trade on the things that make them diverse and idiosyncratic beings in the first place. And while I am not at all claiming that style, in this case the style of a self-described “ThugNiggaIntellectual”, takes the place of disciplined study and trenchant scholarship. The fact of the matter is that we don’t all have to ascribe to some dated Victorian-era version of black intellectual life — an era when folks had to act and dress as if they were above the world, in order to be taken seriously by their white (and black) peers in the world.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/criticalnoire030327/