AccessMyLibrary provides FREE access to millions of articles from top publications available through your library.
The year 2003 marked the 100th anniversary of W.E.B. DuBois's, The Souls of Black Folks. Throughout the country, academicians organized conferences and meetings celebrating this influential text as well as DuBois's other works, which include an additional 20 books, 15 edited volumes, and more than 100 essays, pamphlets, and articles. Clearly, DuBois lived the life of a highly productive academic scholar. He was a visible and vocal public intellectual, although he described himself as shy and reserved and unapologetically explained that he sometimes withdrew "ostentatiously from the personal nexus." (2) During the 1920s, DuBois seldom spoke to his New York neighbors, even as he "essayed a new role of interpreting to the world the hindrances and aspirations of American Negroes" as the editor and publisher of the NAACP's magazine, The Crisis. (3) Admitting that his "leadership was a leadership solely of ideas," DuBois was a gifted thinker and writer; however, his elitism strained his relationship with the Black masses. (4) Perhaps it was this kind of distance from others that Cornel West was referring to when he said, "The choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures a peripheral status in and to the black community." (5) Fortunately, marginality was not then (nor is it today) the fate for all thinkers of African descent. In fact, it is through an exploration of intellectuals who fall within the category of street scholar that we can fully see the power of ideas when they are emancipated from their too frequent dependence on linguistic jargon, empty rhetoric, and impenetrable ideological constructs. (6)
How does one become a street scholar? Or how is the making of a street scholar different from that of a professional black intellectual? The locus of the academy, is pivotal to the difference. While academic scholars use a variety of research methods to substantiate or elucidate their ideas, street scholars, are as likely to ground their ideas in the personal, antidotal, and subjective modes. Too often categorized as individuals who lack critical-thinking skills, street scholars are dismissed as offering simple solutions to complex problems. There tends to be a strong bias against them, which is ironic, considering how frequently academicians repackage street scholars' thoughts, using inaccessible language and drawing from French theorists, Western philosophers, and sometimes simply any writer who is strategically positioned within the academy.
Why do academic scholars so often feel the need to reframe the commentary of street scholars, dressing it up in abstract language and laying claim to it as their own? Barbara Christian in her seminal essay "The Race for Theory," explains that "theory has become a commodity which helps determine whether we are hired or promoted in academic institutions-worse, whether we are heard at all." (7) Unfortunately, the trend to exalt theory as the hallmark of brilliance undermines other, more narrative forms (stories, poems, songs, personal testimony, even the Socratic method of questioning) that are central to street scholars. Yet as intellectuals committed to political change, we neglect these other forms at our peril. While we can see in the academy ample evidence substantiating Christian's fear "that when theory is not rooted in practice, it becomes prescriptive, exclusive, elitish," in the work of street scholars we can witness the dynamic fusion of theory meeting practice. (8) Street scholars are driven by more than intellectual curiosity or the need to publish for fear of perishing professionally. They talk and write about what they themselves are doing socially and politically, whereas the majority of academic scholars talk about and critique what others are doing or have done. The life of the street is the primary text for street scholars. They are involved with the reports and experiences of living people, while many academic theorists are more involved with the ideas themselves.
Grounded in specific, lived realities, many street scholars are not only in the forefront of giving voice to the complicated issues of their day but are what Gramscian theorists refer to as "organic intellectuals." Rising from the masses, these are Black folks with a sophisticated level of political consciousness, who have learned from their peers and personal experiences rather than from continual formal study, and have organized to build a "counter-hegemonic" movement. (9) And their ideas and expressions, often delivered with the conviction of the prophet, not only move us, but move us to act. As political organizers, Amy Ashwood Garvey (1897-1969) and Ella Baker (1903-1986) represent the epitome of Harlem street scholars. Their political leadership and social commentary provide us a window on the Harlem freedom struggle and demonstrate the successful merging of theory and practice.
Amy Ashwood Garvey and Ella Baker are two women who rebuffed traditional expectations of middle-class black womanhood by becoming street strollers in Harlem. (10) Capturing the essence of street strolling, James Weldon Johnson has written, "Strolling in Harlem does not mean merely walking along Lenox or upper Seventh Avenue or One Hundred and Thirty-fifth Street; it means that those streets are places for socializing." (11) I would add that those streets were also a place to mature intellectually. The 1920s cultural upsurge created an atmosphere that allowed stepladder speakers to occupy busy street corners, and political meetings and lectures took place in public parks all over town. Ubiquitous human voices resounding with varieties of tone, tenor, and political perspective, echoed from the streets of Harlem and into the souls of Black folk.
An exciting political spectacle was being staged on the streets of Harlem in the twenties and thirties, and it was so inviting and enticing that Amy Ashwood Garvey and Ella Baker could not deny themselves the pleasure of being part of it. Amy Ashwood Garvey first appeared on the streets in 1918, while Ella Baker started stepping out in 1927. With its leisurely pace, strolling (a stylized repetition) allowed them to take in whatever was being said from corner to corner. Like dance, street strolling was an elaborate cultural practice, developing into a Harlem fine art. (12) Challenging the "dichotomization of verbal and nonverbal cultural practices," street strolling asserts "the thought-filledness of movement and the theoretical potential of bodily action." (13) This performative act has the capacity to produce a text, and "the text's capacity to body forth a theoretical and political orientation." (14)
Although Amy Ashwood Garvey and Ella Baker had different political …