The Failure of the Negro Intellectual

E. Franklin Frazier

During the past forty years the relations of Negroes to American society have undergone fundamental changes. The tempo of these changes has been accelerated during the past two decades. The changes in the relationships of Negroes to American society have been the result of changes in the economic and social organization of American life which have in turn had their repercussions upon the Negro community and its institutions.

As a result of the changes in the character of the Negro community all the platitudes and clichés about Negroes and race relations have lost their meaning and relevance. The changes in the Negro community and American society have reached a stage where we are beginning to see in rather clear outlines the real problem of Negroes in American society.

There can be no question at the present time that the Negro must be integrated into the American community. But the integration of the Negro into the economic and social organization of American life is only an initial stage in the solution of some of the problems of the Negro.

There still remains the problem of the assimilation of the Negro, which is a more important and more fundamental problem. It is with this second problem that I am primarily concerned. But in order to clarify the issue it will be necessary to make clear the distinction between integration and assimilation. . . .

It is relevant at this point to say something concerning integration and the Negro community. . . . In the generally accepted meaning of the term, integration involves the acceptance of Negroes as individuals into the economic and social organization of American life. This would imply the gradual dissolution of the Negro community, that is, the decline and eventual disappearance of the associations, institutions and other forms of associated life in what constitutes the Negro community.

We do not expect anything approaching this to occur in our lifetime. Moreover, any discerning person will be aware of the fact that certain aspects of the organized aspects of Negro community life will be affected sooner and more fundamentally than other aspects.

For example, Negroes have always been forced to depend upon the economic institutions in the American community for employment and a living. Despite the vain hopes that Negroes have had concerning Negro business as a means to economic salvation and independence, the integration of Negroes into the industry and as white collar workers into the manufacturing and commercial institutions of the country has increased the economic welfare of Negroes and provided them with more business experience than all the so-called Negro business enterprise in the country.

On the other hand, there are certain cultural institutions such as the church and the fraternal organizations that will not dissolve or disappear. However, it has already appeared that in those sections of the country where newspapers carry news about Negroes as normal human beings and Negro reporters are employed, the circulation of Negro newspapers is declining.

I mention these facts concerning the Negro community because it is necessary to emphasize the fact that integration involves more than individuals, but the organized life of the Negro community vis-a-vis the organized white community. .  ..

How does integration differ from assimilation? Assimilation involves, of course, integration for it is difficult to see how any people or group can become assimilated without being integrated into the economic and social organization of a country.

But assimilation involves integration into the most intimate phases of the organized social life of a country. As a consequence, assimilation leads to complete identification with the people and culture of the community in which the social heritages of different people become merged or fused.

In 1908, Charles Francis Adams stated in a lecture in Richmond that the theory of the complete assimilation and absorption of all peoples because of the absence of fundamental racial differences had broken down in the case of the Negro.

The Negro, according to Adams, could only be partially assimilated or, in our language, integrated but not assimilated. When he spoke of absorption he was evidently referring to amalgamation.

In recent years there has been much talk about the integration of the Negro but hardly any attention has been given to his assimilation. There have been some wild guesses about the amalgamation or absorption of the Negro and his disappearance in 300 to 500 years. It is to the question of the assimilation of the Negro that I want to devote the remainder of this talk.

It may seem strange if I tell you that the question of integration and assimilation of the American Negro has not been considered or raised by American Negroes but by African intellectuals. Only recently at a luncheon in Washington an African intellectual spoke on the subject and afterwards asked me to write an article on the subject. But the contrast between the attitude and orientation of American Negro intellectuals and African intellectuals was revealed most sharply at the congresses of Negro writers held in Paris in 1956 and in Rome in 1959.

At these congresses the African, and I might add the West Indian intellectuals, were deeply concerned with the question of human culture and personality and the impact of western civilization on the traditional culture of Negro peoples. It was to be expected that African intellectuals would be concerned with such questions.

But the amazing thing was that American Negro intellectuals who were imbued with an integrationist point of view were not only unconcerned with this question but seemingly were unconscious of the implications of the important question of the relation of culture and personality and human destiny.

I insist that these are the fundamental questions with which all thinkers should be concerned and that it is unfortunate that Americans have not concerned themselves with these questions. The lack of interest in this important question or lack of understanding of it is responsible for much of the confusion in regard to integration which is changing the entire relationship of the Negro to American society.

As far as I have been able to discover, what Negro intellectuals have had to say concerning integration has been concerned with the superficial aspects of the increasing participation of Negroes in the economic and social and political organization of American society.

Practically no attention has been directed to the rather obvious fact that integration involves the interaction of the organized social life of the Negro community with the wider American community.

Moreover, there has been an implied or unconscious assimilationist philosophy, holding that Negroes should enter the mainstream of American life as rapidly as possible leaving behind their social heritage and becoming invisible as soon as possible. This has been due, I think, to the emergence of a sizeable new middle class whose social background and interests have determined the entire intellectual orientation of educated Negroes.

In my Black Bourgeoisie I have considered this phenomenon and it is unnecessary to go into the question here. There are certain phases of this phenomenon which are relevant to this discussion.

The first aspect is that the new Negro middle class is the stratum of the Negro population that is becoming integrated most rapidly because of its education and its ability to maintain certain standards of living. In its hope to achieve acceptance in American life, it would slough off everything that is reminiscent of its Negro origin and its Negro folk background.

At the same time integration is resulting in inner conflicts and frustrations because Negroes are still outsiders in American life. Despite integration, the middle class, in escaping from its sheltered and privileged position in the Negro community, has become more exposed to the contempt and discriminations of the white world. Thus, the new Negro middle class is confronted with the problems of assimilation and their intellectuals have not provided them with an understanding of the problems.

This lack of understanding on the part of the so-called intellectual fringe of the new middle class is due partly to the general anti-intellectualism of this class and partly to the desire to achieve acceptance in American life by conformity to the ideals, values, and patterns of behavior of white Americans.

This is no speculation on my part. Every study that has been made reveals that they think very much the same as white Americans, even concerning Negroes.

Moreover, so-called Negro intellectuals continue to repeat such nonsense as “No race has made as much progress as the American Negro in the same period and that his remarkable progress has been due to oppression.”

Yet, anyone knows that after 250 years American Negro intellectuals cannot measure up to African intellectuals.

If was the white scholar, Buell Gallagher, in his book, Color And Conscience, who showed clearly that Negroes in every part of the world where they enjoyed freedom had achieved more intellectually and artistically than the American Negro. All of this drive towards conformity to dominant beliefs and values is implicit or unconscious striving of the middle class to become assimilated.

The great difference between the orientation of the African intellectual and the American Negro intellectual is striking when one considers their starting point in their analysis of the position of the people for whom they are supposed to provide intellectual leadership.

All African intellectuals begin with the fact of the colonial experience of the African. They possess a profound understanding of the colonial experience and its obvious effects upon not only their traditional social organization, but of the less obvious and more profound effects upon the culture and the African personality.

The American Negro intellectual goes his merry way discussing such matters as the superficial aspects of the material standard of living among Negroes and the extent to which they enjoy civil rights. He never begins with the fundamental fact of what slavery has done to the Negro or the group which is called Negroes in the United States.

Yet it is as necessary for the American Negro intellectual to deal with these questions as it is for the African intellectual to begin with the colonial experience.

The American Negro intellectual is even more remiss in his grasp of the condition and fate of American Negroes. He has steadily refused to recognize what has been called the “mark of oppression.” It was the work of two white scholars that first called attention to this fundamental aspect of the personality of the American Negro. Moreover, it was the work of another white scholar, Stanley M. Elkins, in his recent book on Slavery, who has shown the psychic trauma that Negroes suffered when they were enslaved, the pulverization of their social life through the destruction of their clan organization, and annihilation of their personality through the destruction of their cultural heritage.

Sometimes I think that the failure of the American Negro intellectual to grasp the nature and the significance of these experiences is due to the fact that he continues to be an unconscious victim of these experiences. After an African intellectual met a group of Negro intellectuals, he told me that they were really men who were asleep.

All of this only tends to underline the fact that educated Negroes or Negro intellectuals have failed to achieve any intellectual freedom. In fact, with the few exceptions of literary men, it appears that the Negro intellectual is unconscious of the extent to which his thinking is restricted to sterile repetition of the safe and conventional ideas current in American society.

This is attributable in part, of course, to the conditions under which an educated and intellectual class emerged in the American society. This class emerged as the result of white American philanthropy. Although the situation has changed and the Negro intellectuals are supported through other means, they are still largely dependent upon the white community. There is no basis of economic support for them within the Negro community. And where there is economic support within the Negro community it demands conformity to conservative and conventional ideas.

Witness, for example, the vote of the National Medical Association in New York City against placing medical care for the aged under social security. The action of this group might be attributable partly to ignorance and what they conceived to be their economic interests; nevertheless, it was done under the domination of the American Medical Association which ignored the whining complaints of Negro doctors against racial discrimination

I could cite other examples which more clearly represent the absence of intellectual freedom in regard to national and international issues. Most Negro intellectuals simply repeat the propaganda which is put out by people who have large economic and political interests to protect.

Of course, Negro intellectuals are in a different position from the standpoint of employment. If they show any independence in their thinking they may be hounded by the F.B.I. and find it difficult to make a living. At the present time many of them find themselves in the humiliating position of running around the world telling Africans and others how well-off Negroes are in the United States and how well they are treated.

One is reminded of the words of Langston Hughes in his recent book, Ask Your Mama, where he says that the African visitor finds that in the American social supermarket blacks for sale range from intellectuals to entertainers. Thus, it appears that the price of the slow integration which the Negroes are experiencing must be bought at the price of abject conformity in thinking.

One of the most important results of the lack of freedom on the part of Negro intellectuals has been their failure to produce men of high intellectual stature who are respected by the world at large.

We have no philosophers or thinkers who command the respect of the intellectual community at large. I am not talking about the few teachers of philosophy who have read Hegel or Kant or James and memorized their thoughts. I am talking about men who have reflected upon the fundamental problems which have always concerned philosophers such as the nature of human knowledge and the meaning or lack of meaning of human existence.

We have no philosophers who have dealt with these and other problems from the standpoint of the Negro’s unique experience in this world. I am not talking about the puerile opportunistic rationalizations of the Negro’s effort to survive in a hostile world. The philosophy implicit in the Negro’s folklore is infinitely superior to the opportunistic philosophy of Negro intellectuals who want to save their jobs and enjoy material comforts.

The philosophy implicit in the folklore of the Negro folk is infinitely superior in wisdom and intellectual candor to the empty repetition of platitudes concerning brotherly love and human dignity of Negro intellectuals who are tyrants within the Negro world and never had a thought in their lives.

This brings me to say something of what Negro intellectuals or scholars have failed to accomplish as the intellectual leaders of Negroes.

They have failed to study the problems of Negro life in America in a manner which would place the fate of the Negro in the broad framework of man’s experience in this world. They have engaged in petty defenses of the Negro’s social failures. But more often they have been so imbued with the prospect of integration and eventual assimilation that they have thought that they could prove themselves true Americans by not studying the Negro.

Since integration has become the official policy of the country they have shunned more than ever the study of the Negro. They have remained intellectually sterile while propounding such meaningless questions as: Should Negro scholars study the Negro? Should Negro painters paint Negro subjects? Should Negro writers and playwrights write Negro novels and plays above Negroes?

This is indicative of the confusion among Negro intellectuals. But more important still, it has meant that Negro intellectuals have cut themselves off from a vastly rich source of human experience to which they had access.

It is scarcely believable that the only significant studies of Negroes in politics have been the work of white scholars. I have already mentioned other fields of interest in which scholars have made significant contributions. Of course, some of this failure has been the result of ignorant administration of Negro schools which have refused the intelligent proposals of Negro scholars.

Let us take the case of Conant’s book, Slums And Suburbs, which deals with the tragic position of Negroes in America. As long as 25 years ago I pointed out that urbanization bad changed the entire relationship of Negroes to American society and that comprehensive and fundamental research should be done on Negroes in cities. But those Negroes who have controlled the destiny of Negro intellectuals ignored this and even today no Negro college or university is concerned with this fundamental problem.

Conant’s book, which reveals the poverty, ignorance and social disorganization of Negroes, emphasizes a phase of the integration and assimilation of Negroes to which I have only vaguely referred. It deserves special attention in what I am undertaking to discuss.

Not only has Conant devoted attention to the position of Negroes in slums, but I have noted that Ashmore has published a book dealing with this problem and the frustrations of the Negro middle class.

The significance of the large proportion of unemployed, impoverished and socially and personally disorganized Negroes in cities for our discussion can not be overemphasized. It shows clearly that whereas a relatively large middle class is emerging in our cities, at the same time a large degraded proletariat is also appearing.

It reveals the wide economic and social cleavage which is becoming more manifest between the middle class and the masses of Negroes.

These Negroes have little education, practically no skills, and what is more, they have never known a normal family life. Because of their lack of socialization, they can hardly take advantage of the educational institutions, they are unprepared for employment in an industrial society, and they are unfit for normal social life.

Conant is afraid that they will become susceptible to Communist propaganda, but he does not know Negroes. If they were to become Communist their lives would be organized about objectives and goals which would have some stabilizing influence.

But most of these Negroes will become the victims of liquor, dope, and disease and they will engage in all forms of crime and anti-social behavior. Those who seek an escape from their frustration and bewilderment will not join communist movements; they will join all types of religious sects and cults, some of which will have nationalistic or racial aims.

In fact, the growth of the Black Muslim movement represents disillusionment on the part of Negroes concerning integration and a repudiation of the belief in assimilation which is so dear to the middle classes.

Recently we have been hearing about the revolt against the leaders of the Negro. The most significant symptom of this revolt has been the revolt of Negro youth against the old respectable and conventional leadership which acted as mediators between the Negro community and the white community.

The most dramatic aspect of the revolt has been the “sit-in” movements which are a direct attack upon segregation. The aim is integration and ultimately assimilation, if I gauge correctly the aims of the leaders. This seems to emphasize the failure of Negro intellectuals. They can only see assimilation beyond integration. But there are problems of American life that Negroes will have to meet in becoming integrated and assimilated and they concern the economic and social organization of American life.

I pointed out at the beginning that whatever change had occurred in the status of Negroes was due to changes in the economic and social organization of American life. American Negro intellectuals seem to be unconscious of this fact and seemingly believe that integration and ultimate assimilation will solve the problems of the Negro.

It is very important for our discussion on integration and assimilation that the leaders of the non-violence technique have gone to India for philosophical and ideological justification of their revolt against segregation and discrimination in American society.

That the technique should be non-violent is natural since Negroes, who are outnumbered by whites and threatened by the armed might of whites, could not resort to violence or revolutionary tactics.

I do not think that it represents any moral superiority on their part. Moreover, I do not think that Gandhism is really applicable to the Negro’s situation in the United States.

Nevertheless, I recognize that it achieves a certain moral respectability because of its religious basis. This is especially important where Negroes confront the guilt-ridden respectable white middle classes. In analyzing the movement and in seeking its religious and moral inspiration, we should recognize that it has its roots in the religious experiences and culture of the Negro folk.

The leaders may speak in philosophical and ideological terms that are drawn from an alien culture but the dynamics of the movement are to be found in the religious experiences of the Negroes. When Negroes are forced to face hostile white mobs, they do not sing Indian hymns, they sing Negro Spirituals and the hymns of their fathers which embodied the faith of their fathers in a hostile world.

That the Negro leaders should turn to an alien culture for the philosophical and ideological justification of their revolt shows the extent to which Negro intellectuals are alienated from the masses. It is also an indication of the failure of the intellectual leaders to perform their role in relation to the Negro. They have failed to dig down into the experiences of the Negro and provide the soul of a people.

With exceptions, and I will name Langston Hughes as a conspicuous example, they have tried to escape from the Negro heritage. It was their duty to put this heritage in history books, in novels and in plays, in painting and in sculpture.

Because of their eagerness to be accepted as Americans or perhaps sometimes because of their fear, they have written no novels and plays about Denmark Vesey, Harriet Tubman or Schields Green who went with John Brown. They have accepted supinely as heroes the Negroes whom white people have given us and told us to revere. Even today they run from DuBois and Paul Robeson.

In view of the Negro’s history, the Negro intellectual and artist had a special opportunity and special responsibility. The process by which the Negroes were captured and enslaved in the United States stripped them of their African culture and destroyed their personality. Under the slavery regime and for nearly a century since emancipation everything in American society has stamped the Negro as subhuman, as a member of an inferior race that had not achieved even the first steps in civilization.

There is no parallel in human history where a people have been subjected to similar mutilation of body and soul. Even the Christian religion was given them in a form only to degrade them. The African intellectual recognizes what colonialism has done to the African and he sets as his first task the mental, moral, and spiritual rehabilitation of the African.

But the American Negro intellectual, seduced by dreams of final assimilation, has never regarded this as his primary task.

I am aware that he has carried on all sorts of arguments in defense of the Negro but they were mainly designed to protect his own status and soothe his hurt self-esteem.

I am talking about something entirely different. I am referring to his failure to dig down into the experience of the Negro and bring about a transvaluation of that experience so that the Negro could have a new self-image or new conception of himself.

It was the responsibility of the Negro intellectual to provide a positive identification through history, literature, art, music and the drama.

The truth of the matter is that for most Negro intellectuals, the integration of the Negro means just the opposite, the emptying of his life of meaningful content and ridding him of all Negro identification. For them, integration and eventual assimilation means the annihilation of the Negro—physically, culturally, and spiritually.

Guy Johnson has written recently that in the next 25 years there will be more integration but far less than the Negro hopes for, and as a consequence there will be much frustration. Moreover, as Park once wrote, the Negro will be treated as a racial minority rather than a racial caste.

I am inclined to agree on the whole with this prediction, especially for the South. But even in the North where Negroes will achieve greater integration, I can not envision any assimilation in the foreseeable future. The best evidence of this is the manner in which the centennial of the Civil War is being celebrated. The important fact about the Civil War is the emancipation of the Negro and Lincoln’s achievement of worldwide immortality as the Emancipator—not as the savior of the Union, which was a local political event.

Yet, the nation has ignored and repudiated the central fact which is the most important element in the boosted moral idealism of the United States. The Negro is left out of the celebration both physically and as a part of the heritage of America.

The Civil War is supposed to have been the result of a misunderstanding of two brothers, white brothers, of course, and the Emancipation of the Negro is forgotten.

Confronted with this fact, the Negro intellectual should not be consumed by his frustrations. He must rid himself of his obsession with assimilation. He must come to realize that integration should not mean annihilation—self-effacement, the escaping from his identification.

In a chapter entitled, “What can the American Negro Contribute to the Social and Economic Life of Africa” in the book, Africa Seen By American Negroes, I pointed out that the American Negro had little to contribute to Africa but that Africa, in achieving freedom, would probably save the soul of the American Negro in providing him with a new identification, a new self-image, and a new sense of personal dignity.

I want to emphasize this by pointing out that if the Negro is ever assimilated into American society his heritage should become a part of the American heritage, and it should be recognized as the contribution of the Negro as one recognizes the contributions of the English, Irish, Germans and other people.

But this can be achieved only if the Negro intellectual and artist frees himself from his desire to conform and only if be overcomes his inferiority complex.

It may turn out that in the distant future Negroes will disappear physically from American society. If this is our fate, let us disappear with dignity and let us leave a worthwhile memorial in science, in art, in literature, in sculpture, in music—of our having been here.

SOURCE: Edwards, Franklin G., ed. E. Franklin Frazier on Race Relations: Selected Writings (University of Chicago Press, 1968), pp. 267-279.

Also reprinted in: Ladner, Joyce, ed. The Death of White Sociology: Essays in Race and Culture (Baltimore: Black Classic Press, 1973), pp. 52-67.

Original publication: Frazier, E. Franklin. “The Failure of the Negro Intellectual,” Negro Digest, February 1962, pp. 26-36.

Note: On a core deficiency of American sociology in Frazier’s lifetime, not limited to its treatment of race, see:

Mills, C. Wright. “The Professional Ideology of Social Pathologists,” American Journal of Sociology, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, (September 1943); also in Power, Politics and People, pp. 536-537 and pp. 551-552.

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