Black Boys in Crisis: Championing Intellectual Personalities

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

Recently, a spate of videos surfaced on YouTube and elsewhere by people purporting to prove that the Earth is flat. Among those beguiled by the videos was successful rapper Bobby Ray Simmons, Jr., who goes by the stage name B.O.B. He posted tweets and photographs repeating some of the faulty logic used by the flat-Earthers.

Neil deGrasse Tyson, the astrophysicist who hosts the show Cosmos, took B.O.B. on, countering his arguments on Twitter and then performing a delightful freestyle on The Nightly Show with Larry Willmore. During the show, Tyson said, “Listen B.B.B, once and for all. The Earth looks flat because, one, you’re not far enough away, at your size. Two, your size isn’t large enough relative to Earth to notice any curvature at all. It’s a fundamental fact of calculus, and non-Euclidean geometry—small sections of large curved surfaces will always look flat to little creatures that crawl upon it,” using classic dissing language in tandem with a solid scientific explanation. Tyson ended with a mic drop, saying, “By the way, this is called gravity!”

Tyson, who earned his doctorate at Columbia and did research at Princeton, has become a prominent science communicator, on Cosmos as well as other platforms. He is in demand as a public speaker across the nation. What Tyson was able to do in taking on B.O.B. was couch his scientific knowledge inaccessible, meme-worthy language, and his takedown was widely disseminated across the web. Tyson is a rare example of a prominent African American in the sciences, and he often talks about the obstacles he faced, and still faces, as a black man in a predominantly white field.

Cornel West, the Princeton philosophy professor, and the author has similarly used popular media to spread his ideas on race and justice. He appeared in the movies The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, and has put out several spoken-word albums, including Street Knowledge and Never Forget, performing with a hip hop group.

Though Tyson and West will probably never reach the level of adulation achieved by Lil Wayne or Steph Curry, their outspokenness and willingness to use vernacular idioms and popular media in transmitting their ideas offer black boys the intellectual role models they desperately need. For a black boy who sees Tyson or West talk, suddenly the world is a larger place: a place where he could become an astrophysicist or a philosophy professor.

The focus on intellectuals rather than athletes and entertainers should begin at home and be furthered in the classroom. For many prominent intellectuals, the seed of their interest was sown by a single encounter with a personality in their field: for Tyson, this was Dr. Mark Chartrand III, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, whose zeal for communicating scientific knowledge inspired Tyson.

For West, it was black theologian James Cone. For Charles R. Johnson, National Book Award–winning author of Middle Passage, it was an encounter with writer and cartoonist Lawrence Lariar, who educated him via correspondence. For a black boy who has had a limited upbringing, simply providing exposure to prominent thinkers, inventors, and writers can open the window onto a universe of knowledge.

Do you think that championing intellectual personalities will help black boys diversify their career options, as opposed to blindly choosing sports or entertainment?

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