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Mark Anthony Neal

MAN—also known as
Mark Anthony Neal

Confessions of a ThugNiggaIntellectual

By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music and Cultural Critic

Talk about MAN's essay and the politics of being Black! Click here.

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 f*ck’ niggers (see the Prison Industrial Complex)…”

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, John L. Jackson, Jr. 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, Jackson 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 of "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 Fiddy's "P.I.M.P." 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 f*ck" niggers (see the Prison Industrial Complex). 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 it's Charles Barkley providing commentary on TNT's NBA broadcasts.

At times, being a "ThugNiggaIntellectual" is about always remembering the truth that I ain't even supposed to be 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 White 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 sh*t out of you.

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.

Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books, including the just published Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation. Neal is also the co-editor (with Murray Forman) of the forthcoming That's the Joint!: A Hip-Hop Studies Reader. He recently joined the faculty at the University of Texas at Austin as Associate Professor of American Studies. He is currently writing a book on Black masculinity tentatively entitled NewBlackMan.

-- September 12, 2003

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