The Gatekeepers: The Burden of the Black Public Intellectual by Mychal Denzel Smith

The World Turned Upside Down

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Black intellectuals wind up offering mainly white audiences a “foreign experience” to savor from a comfortable distance.

“Freed from the need to talk to white people, what might James Baldwin have prophesied?”

Toward the end of the Obama presidency, the work of James Baldwin began to enjoy a renaissance that was both much overdue and comfortless. Baldwin stands as one of the greatest American writers of the twentieth century, and any celebration of his work is more than welcome. But it was less a reveling than a panic. The eight years of the first black president were giving way to some of the most blatant and vitriolic displays of racism in decades, while the shooting deaths of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and others too numerous to list sparked a movement in defense of black lives. In Baldwin, people found a voice from the past so relevant that he seemed prophetic.

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