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The Black Scholar (TBS), one of the "leading journals of black culture and political thought in the United States", was founded in 1969 by Robert Chrisman and Nathan Hare. Its associated Black Scholar Press has published books since the 1970s.
Now in its 43rd year of publication, The Black Scholar is produced under the editorial direction of Editor-in-Chief Laura Chrisman along with Senior Editors Robert L. Allen, Louis Chude-Sokei, and Sundiata Cha-Jua, and Executive Editor Maize Woodford. The NAACP’s Crisis and the Journal of Negro History (now known as the Journal of African American History) are the two black journals that have been publishing for a longer period of time. TBS is currently published quarterly by the Black World Foundation, an Oakland, California, non-profit educational organization, in association with Paradigm Publishers in Boulder, Colorado.
Robert Chrisman (1927–2013), Nathan Hare, and the late Allan Ross were active in the 1968 ideological battles at San Francisco State. As a consequence, Hare was fired and Chrisman was removed from tenure track as a professor. A year later, in November 1969, Chrisman, Hare and Ross founded The Black Scholar: A Journal of Black Studies and Research. In addition to the founding members, some early members of the editorial board included Shirley Chisholm, Imamu Baraka, Angela Davis, Dempsey Travis, Max Roach, John Oliver Killens, Ossie Davis, Shirley Graham Du Bois, Ron Karenga, and Lerone Bennett.
Nathan Hare left The Black Scholar in 1975. In his open letter of resignation, Hare accused TBS’ other board members of sabotaging his contribution in order to further a black Marxist agenda. He pinpointed the shift as occurring after Robert Chrisman and Robert Allen went to Cuba in 1973. Thereafter, he asserted, the journal was less inclined to publish black cultural nationalists. Hare’s resignation led to a resignation from Charles Hamilton. The remaining members denied Hare's allegations, calling them “red-baiting and smearing.”
The controversial split garnered a range of public reactions. The New York Times covered the story in an article titled "Ideology Dispute Shakes Black Journal", while the New York Amsterdam News headline read "Black Reds Take Over Black Scholar!"
A special issue of The Black Scholar entitled “The Black Sexism Debate” (Vol. 10, No. 8/9, May/June 1979)—one of the first public scholarly forums about sexism within the African-American community—attracted a lot of controversy due to the contradictory positions on gender equality it presented. The issue featured responses from feminists, intellectuals, and artists to Robert Staples’ controversial essay “The Myth of the Black Macho: A Response to Angry Black Feminists,” which had been published in the previous issue of TBS and criticizes Michele Wallace's and Ntozake Shange's work. The editors of the journal viewed the issue as a means of clarifying the relationship between black men and women while also forging solidarities among them.
Over a decade later, when millions of people were fascinated by Clarence Thomas’ confirmation to the Supreme Court, TBS compiled a special issue in which scholars and historians weighed in on the issues of sexism and racism in the Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill controversy (Vol. 22, No. 1/2, Winter 1991-Spring 1992). The essays were later published as Court of Appeal: The Black Community Speaks Out on the Racial and Sexual Politics of Thomas vs. Hill, in 1992.
More recently, two special editions on Barack Obama’s impact on race relations in America – Vol. 38, No. 1 (Spring 2008) and Vol. 38, No. 4 (Winter 2008) – were published in 2011 as an anthology entitled The Obama Phenomenon: Toward a Multiracial Democracy. In the anthology, scholars from an array of fields, including political science, sociology, theology, journalism, and law, critically analyze Obama’s relationship with the media, race relations during presidential campaigns of the 1960s, the American public’s perception of first lady Michelle Obama, and the broader social implications of America’s first black president.
TBS has also explored black American issues through engagements with questions of black transnational solidarity. Perhaps most notably, TBS published a special issue on Cuba in 1977 featuring essays from artists, activists, and intellectuals alike which focused on their impressions of the revolutionary society after visiting the island through the initiative of the journal’s board.
The Black Scholar was founded with the principle that all black authors, scholars and activists could take part in dialogues within its pages. It has retained its non-discriminatory policy of publishing intellectuals from a variety of professions outside of academia. For example TBS has featured US Congress representatives Shirley Chisholm, Ron Dellums, Barbara Lee, and activists such as Julian Bond, Herb Boyd, Amílcar Cabral, Eldridge Cleaver, Nawal El Saadawi, Cheddi Jagan, Julius Nyerere, Bobby Seale, and Kwame Ture (Stokely Carmichael).
Additionally, TBS has been dedicated to finding and developing new talent while also continuing to publish established authors. Creative writers that include Opal Palmer Adisa, Margaret Walker Alexander, Amiri Baraka, Dennis Brutus, Frank M. Chipasula, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez, René Depestre, Ernest J. Gaines, Nicolás Guillén, June Jordan, Jackie Kay, Yusef Komunyakaa, Audre Lorde, Nancy Morejón, Agostinho Neto, Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o, May Opitz, Ishmael Reed, Andrew Salkey, Sonia Sanchez, Ntozake Shange, Wole Soyinka and Alice Walker have been published in issues of TBS over the years.
The journal has also been noted for featuring a wide range of black scholarly talent including Derrick Bell, Horace Campbell, Clayborne Carson, Elizabeth Catlett, John Henrik Clarke, Darlene Clark Hine, Johnnetta B. Cole, Carolyn Cooper, St. Clair Drake, Katherine Dunham, E. Chukwudi Eze, Kevin Gaines, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Lewis R. Gordon, Farah Jasmine Griffin, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, Patricia Hill Collins, Joy James, Peniel Joseph, Kara Keeling, Robin D. G. Kelley, Julianne Malveaux, Manning Marable, J. Lorand Matory, Adolph Reed, Barbara Smith, Hortense Spillers, Catherine Squires, Chuck Stone, and Ronald Walters. Furthermore, TBS has been recognized for its timely and significant interviews, such as the now famous dialogs with Muhammed Ali, Maya Angelou, Arthur Ashe, James Baldwin, Octavia Butler, Alex Haley, Darcus Howe, C. L. R. James, Jacob Lawrence, Queen Mother Audley Moore, Jack O’Dell, Max Roach, Walter Rodney, McCoy Tyner, and Robert F. Williams.
The journal has featured famous essays from activists and academics alike. Angela Davis’s now canonized essay "Reflections on the Black Woman's Role in the Community of Slaves,” written while she was in prison, was first published in TBS in 1971, Vol. 3, No. 4. She was still in prison on murder and kidnapping charges linked to George Jackson’s attempted escape from the Marin County Hall of Justice when the article was printed. TBS’ archives at UC Berkeley also house the last published writing by George Jackson while he was alive (Vol. 2, No. 10, June 1971), printed just two months before his fatal attempt to escape incarceration.
Activism has always been a founding premise of The Black Scholar. As a result of student and faculty agitation and strikes in the late 1960s, a Black Studies department was inaugurated at San Francisco State University. Robert Chrisman and Nathan Hare, along with other African American faculty, were a part of the advisory board created to hire faculty for the new department. As activists in the Civil Rights Movement and the student movements of the 1960s, the founders of TBS used the journal not only as a publication informed by community activism but also as a hub for further activist work that addresses social inequality based on race, class, and gender in the United States and abroad.
Many of TBS’ contributing and advisory editors have been involved with social and political activism such as organizing a political prisoners' fund, protests against the Vietnam War, trips to Cuba in the 1970s, a trip to the Eastern Bloc in 1985, and a speaker’s bureau to arrange speaking engagements for diverse thinkers of varying disciplines and experiences in and outside traditional academia. Founder Robert Chrisman represented TBS at a conference held in Havana, Cuba where a large American delegation met with Angolan leaders Commandante Dibalo, Ogla Lima, and Pedro Zinga Baptista to become informed of the Angolan people’s plight. A few months later Chrisman represented TBS at the Angola Support Conference, which opposed U.S. and South African intervention in Angola.
The published works produced by TBS’ editors have also promoted activism by spreading awareness of racial injustices. As a result of Robert Allen’s publication The Port Chicago Mutiny, which shed light on the unjust and unsafe working conditions that black Navy servicemen sustained during wartime efforts, social activists were inspired to rectify the injustices of the events. The surviving service were honored by a group of California State Assemblymen in 1998, over 50 years after these men were charged with mutiny for refusing to work under unsafe conditions. One of the men involved also received an official pardon by President Bill Clinton.
On June 30, 2012, founding editor Robert Chrisman officially retired from his long-standing position as Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of The Black Scholar. He publicly announced his retirement in a letter published on the back page of the Spring 2012 issue of TBS. Chrisman claimed that through the creation and the dissemination of such materials TBS was able to “establish a foundation and platform for late 20th-century black criticism and scholarship."
Also in the letter, Chrisman announced his daughter Laura Chrisman, professor of African, Black Atlantic and African Diaspora Studies in the English Department at the University of Washington, as his successor. In his letter, Chrisman made reference to the transitioning direction and goals of the journal under the vision of Editor-in-Chief Laura Chrisman, Senior Editors Robert Allen, Louis Chude-Sokei, and Sundiata Cha-Jua, and Executive Editor Maize Woodford, in the light of changes in the field of Black Studies and the intellectual interests of scholars and activists within it.
He ended his letter thanking those who provided support throughout his tenure, including his executive assistant Jacki Frommé, typographer Rick Giezentaner, Pat Scott, and Conyus Calhoun. Since retiring, Chrisman completed his third volume of poems, The Dirty Wars, published in summer 2012 by Black Scholar Press, and continued to work on another volume of poetry entitled Minotaur and to work with Robert Allen on The Black Scholar archive at UC Berkeley. Chrisman died after a long illness on March 10, 2013.
Black Scholar Press is run out of San Francisco, California. It has published books since the 1970s, mostly regarding social science or poetry. Notable titles include:
The editors of The Black Scholar have published anthologies of notable articles from the journal, including:
The Black Scholar archive was endowed to the African American Writers Collection at UC Berkeley’s Bancroft Library, which is “one of the largest and most heavily used libraries of manuscripts, rare books, and unique materials in the United States,” as a means of furthering education on African-American history and social issues for future generations.
“Launched in 1978, The Bancroft Library’s African American Writers Collection contains thousands of books, manuscripts, correspondence, photographs, and other rare works by African American authors,” ranging in date from the 1790s to contemporary society. Along with TBS’s extensive archive, the African American Writers Collection also houses the NAACP Archival Project and the Records of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.