Wisdom Watch: Martin Kilson On Black Leadership

Martin Kilson, the Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government Emeritus at Harvard University, has studied and lectured about black leadership and what that means today. Host Michel Martin speaks with Professor Kilson for more about this topic and his series of lectures for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard.

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I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, being good to your wait staff at a restaurant means more than just being polite when you place that special order for a party of eight. A commentary from our departing intern, Danielle Gerson. That's coming up in just a few minutes.

But, first, it's time for our wisdom watch. That's the part of the program where we hear from those who've made an impact through their work. Today a conversation about black leadership. Now, recently we told you about a spat involving two prominent African-American activists. The broadcast personality Tavis Smiley and the civil rights leader, the Reverend Al Sharpton.

Now, the spat started because Smiley criticized Sharpton and others who attended a small meeting with President Obama. Smiley argued that current civil rights leaders were not pressing the White House hard enough to advance the interest of black citizens who, he said, are being crushed by the current economic downturn.

Reverend Sharpton vehemently disagreed. And the two men went on to host two different conferences in recent weeks, involving leading black figures, to talk about ways to advance the interests of black Americans. Now, this caught a lot of attention because it played out over the airwaves. But it turns out this is not new.

For decades, African-Americans have been debating the best strategies for the community to advance and who best to lead this community. Recently, Martin Kilson, the Frank G. Thomson professor emeritus at Harvard University has been giving the matter of black leadership considerable thought. He prepared a series of lectures for the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard. The series and the institute are named, of course, for the noted socialist and civil rights advocate.

Professor Kilson was the first African-American faculty member to teach at Harvard when he became a lecturer there in 1962. And he was the first African-American to gain a full professorship at Harvard College. So we thought his insight would be particularly interesting at this time. And he's with us now. Welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Professor MARTIN KILSON (Harvard University): Thank you very much for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Now you recently delivered a series of three lectures on the black intelligentsia and the patterns of the black intelligentsia. And when you use that term, what do you mean by it?

Prof. KILSON: Oh, I just mean something quite straightforward, namely the black professional sector, those blacks how have had that marvelous opportunity in 20th century American society to enter colleges or to enter some other post secondary institution and to advance their skills, their knowledge basis and their function. Therefore, in overall American society, especially as it relates to African-Americans.

MARTIN: And you make the point that among the African-American community, for example, that one doesn't have to have what you called formal knowledge producing credentials to be a member of the intelligentsia.

Prof. KILSON: That's right. There's always been a kind of ad hoc dynamic. It's been open-ended, as it were. There's no rigid gatekeeper. Is that the way to think about it? There's no rigid gatekeepers. It's been - sort of open-ended. So, you know, you might be a black chauffeur, a waitress, a black maid, you know, a black artisan, black carpenter and you wake up one morning and something tells you in your inner self that there's a function to be performed regarding some issue, some problem, some need that the overall black American community has yet to fulfill, yet to solve. And you become a black intelligentsia person in the sense that you'd perform that function, okay?

MARTIN: But you also made the point that in the early years of the 20th century, for example, that leadership was very stratified by color, caste, hierarchy, which you would agree that many people find hard to think about or imagine today.

Prof. KILSON: Sure, right. Well, these two things of course are not contradictory. The use of color hue has been one of the ways of protecting those who want to be protected or overprotected. And, yes, we've had our versions of it and they're deep. They go back into slave society where white slave ownership males produced literally hundreds of thousands of the offspring who were light skinned, brown skinned, like my ancestors. I'm from negroes of that color hue. Once they get into modern American society, they attempt to use color hue patterns in a regressive way.

MARTIN: But you also pointed out that that changed by the '30s and the '40s. Why did it change?

Prof. KILSON: Because members of the male past and the professional sector who come from families who use color hue and color caste pattern to both reinforce their own status and thereby, to exclude others from adequate entry, these offsprings decided that this was foul. Color caste is disrespectful of the honor of black folks. We will change - and they changed it, thank goodness.

MARTIN: One of the things that we were interested in talking to you about is this whole question of whether black leadership is doing right by African-Americans in general.

Prof. KILSON: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: And you find that, from your vantage point you say, actually, yes. For the second decade of the 21st century, you said: I think its valid to say that measured on a scale of 0 to 100 percent, W.E.B. DuBois' Talented Tenth, that is the African-American professional class or intelligencia, has served the majority of 20th century African-Americans reasonably well.

Prof. KILSON: Oh yeah.

MARTIN: Now why do you say that?

Prof. KILSON: I think that - I say that only because that's what the evidence allows me to say. That's what the evidence tells me to say. It has done reasonably well. And if you alter that qualifying phase, reasonably well, in light of the enormous constraints, the enormous barriers throughout the 20th century against what I call the agency capacity of the black professional in middle sectors to help the weak, working class and the weak lower class, theyve probably done even better than reasonably well.

MARTIN: But I'd like to ask you why you think this view persists among some and it's a kind of an ongoing theme in some quarters that these educated, advanced people have not or have distanced themselves?

Prof. KILSON: Well one, it's just empirically not true. In general, the black middle class and the black professional sector have not distanced themselves. Partly, I think, because the tenacity, the organized systemic, both institutional depth and ideological depth of racism has not allowed people like you and me, Michel Martin, to distance ourselves too much, okay? That's one factor. But another factor is what I would call an intrinsic or internal intellectual factor, the prophetic social Gospel Christian discourse which says your weaker brothers and sisters are your obligation.

Now, people differ. Some say that should've been done at a 100 percent scale, from zero to 10. It should be done in 10. Well, that's just nonsense. The real world doesnt operate that way. WASPs havent done that for white Anglo-Saxons who live in the Appalachian side of American society, who are the rednecks, as black people called them when I was growing up, which is, of course, 75 years ago. Black people called the weak white working class white trash or rednecks, and they often called themselves that.

And the WASP elites haven't been effective at the scale of 10, neither have Jewish-American elites or Italian-American elites or Irish-American elites or any other of our American ethnic group professional and middle sectors have not helped the weaker at 100 percent, so why should we expect our, you know, much weaker middle class and professional class sector to perform at 10, at 100 percent?

MARTIN: If youre just joining us, youre listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin and we're having a Wisdom Watch conversation with Professor Martin Kilson, professor emeritus at Harvard University. He was the first African-American faculty member at Harvard College. And we're talking about black leadership.

And can I ask you your take on the issue that began our conversation, this discussion has taken on a kind of a wider meaning for some people between Tavis Smiley and the Reverend Sharpton over this whole question of whether our first African-American president should have a special - a similar special obligation - to African-Americans and whether these traditional civil rights leaders are advancing aggressively enough the interests...

Prof. KILSON: Right.

MARTIN: ...of African-Americans. What's your take on that?

Prof. KILSON: My position is, you must always let many flowers bloom. That's how black middle classes and the professional sectors have finally found and finally find the right route - the most viable route, right, in that sense -the most effective route for helping the weaker sectors of African-American society. So we're in a situation where many flowers are still blooming, which is to say that there are many ways to solve the multilayered and nasty problems that are still facing black American society. So I support the fact that Reverend Sharpton and Tavis Smiley are challenging these issues, facing these issues from different vantage points.

And they're correct, an African-American president has an obligation. I believe that and I think the African-American president believes that too, although, he cannot articulate that as you and I are articulating it here or as Reverend Al Sharpton and as Tavis Smiley had been articulating it.

President has constraints. You know, anyone who's got any basically knowledge, any knowledge about how the American presidency works, know that a president has constraints. And if youre an African-American president you have a special set of constraints. They're freer than the president. But it's important to put pressure on the president.

MARTIN: Is there, as I imagine, you spent a very great deal of time talking about black leadership, the form that it's taken over decades and who is drawn into leadership, what constitutes leadership, what forms leadership should take. Is there something over the course of developing these lectures that you found particularly surprising or noteworthy that you would hope that people would come away from your inquiry with?

Prof. KILSON: Well, yes. Well, one thing, one thing that's fascinated me is the continuity among the black middle class and professional sector of recognition that someone among our sector, some elements among our middle class and professional sectors must always give attention to the problems of the weak. So that has fascinated me. That understanding is intact and I say to myself all the time, thank goodness it's intact.

And the second thing that has fascinated me is the fact that the female sector in African-American life is now at parity or even above parity in its formal professional skills, capacity to contribute to black leadership and to black intelligencia and to black professional class functions, has always contributed. But like all American groups, women have always had a lesser capacity to do that because theyve had lesser opportunities to do that. That has shifted.

As of 2006, between 60 and 70 percent of the black professional, these now go black women and similarly for entry into colleges and entry into professional schools. That's a major metamorphosis. It's something to be celebrated. I celebrate it. And I was glad I was able to bring that little piece of crucial data into the last lecture that I gave two weeks ago.

MARTIN: And finally, what we like to ask out notable deep thinkers, which is, do you have any wisdom to share?

Prof. KILSON: Well, I have one kind of wisdom. Namely: It's much better in the inner scheme of things human, it's much better to outreach to the needs of others than to be obsessed with your own personal circumstances. To give a helping hand to the human condition, if you will, it's much better. I pray that more of us will be able to do that as America penetrates the 21st century.

MARTIN: Martin Kilson is the Frank G. Thomson Professor Emeritus at Harvard University. And he recently delivered the 2010 W.E.B. DuBois lectures at Harvard University and he's drawing from his work there to talk with us today. He's joining us from the studios at Harvard University.

Prof. Kilson, we thank you so much for speaking us.

Prof. KILSON: Well, I thank you so much for giving me the opportunity, Michel Martin. Thank you very much.

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