|MAN—also known as
Mark Anthony Neal
Confessions of a ThugNiggaIntellectual
By Mark Anthony Neal
SeeingBlack.com Music and Cultural Critic
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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
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
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
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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