Making the Case for Charismatic Leadership: The Black Intellectual


Charismatic leadership, though problematic when disconnected from the lived experience of the masses and when manifested as hierarchy, is a necessary component of the formula for mass mobilization in revolutionary struggle. The role of the charismatic leader is nuanced and manifests differently for every individual. For example, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. filled his role as charismatic leadership by prioritizing, uplifting, and emphasizing morality. Almost all of Dr. King’s rhetoric appealed to society’s sense of morality. Though he was a public intellectual, his activism and organizing was not centered on logos, but on pathos. This essay is one of twelve justifications for the development of charismatic leadership and the intentional inclusion of its various manifestations.


In the movement for Black liberation, there must be folks (activists, organizers, teachers, healers, mothers, sisters, daughters, brothers, fathers…) who put their minds on the task of struggle. There is much to be done to set us on the path to freedom and among those things is intense intellectual grappling with the complexities of oppression. It is through this philosophical pondering that we are able to come to the powerful place of naming the things that we’ve always felt but have struggled to articulate because of limited access to the time it takes to think and process one’s way through the psychological and emotional trauma that oppression subjects us to. It is in the realm of naming things that the public intellectual of movement work resides.


Who are these folks? It is important to name both historical and contemporary examples of the type of charismatic leadership that focuses on movement philosophy and that takes on the task of “naming.”


An obvious historical example is W.E.B. Du Bois. Du Bois deeply committed himself to prosthelytizing Black intellectualism as a response to Black oppression. Some of his assertions were beyond problematic; his desire to develop a Black, elitist “talented tenth” among them. But what was extraordinary about Du Bois was his ability to shift the ideas of the Black academic community toward self determination and cultural and academic autonomy. He also stood his ground and held tightly to his principles despite the lack of respect and acknowledgement he received from the broader activist community. Du Bois’s writing was central in catalyzing anti-lynching efforts in the United States. In 1915, he engaged in investigatory journalism through The Crisis that exposed the egregiousness of the culture of lynching to Northerners who, then, took up the cause of anti-lynching. When he presented his paper on Reconstruction to the American Historical Association, the first Black person to be invited to do so, he stood firmly by his, then, controversial assertion that Reconstruction was a period in which Black folk developed stronger democracy, a more equitable school system, and a better system of equitably distributing resources through welfare. During his time as editor of The Crisis, Du Bois published material that, as he put it, demonstrated the “danger of race prejudice.” The articles in the journal were often pointed and inflammatory, taking to task those within and outside of the Black community who contributed to the perpetuation of Black oppression.


Though Du Bois has many contemporaries, a helpful juxtaposition is that of himself to Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Though we often imagine the contemporaries of our heroes as similar to them in outlook, personality, gender, it’s critical that we acknowledge that our leadership will begin to mirror the intersectional approach to Black liberatory struggle that the community is calling for. Gumbs is a Black, radical feminist with a Ph.D. in English, African and African American Studies, and Women in Gender Studies. Like Du Bois, she takes risks in her academic pursuits by centering Blackness and is deeply committed to “naming” facets of the Black experience. She was the first scholar to research the Audre Lorde Papers at Spelman College, the June Jordan Papers at Harvard University, and the Lucille Clifton Papers at Emory University during her dissertation research. Now, she is provost of Eternal Summer of the Black Feminist Mind, a media based community school that centers Black feminist text and ideology as critical to the Black education experience. Through her own writing, Alexis Gumbs “names” a facet of the Black experience that was largely missing from the work of her male predecessors: that of the Black, queer woman. She also picks up the mantle where Du Bois was able only to theorize in terms of using art as movement propaganda. Gumbs is the author of Spill: Scenes of Black Feminist Fugitivity and M Archive: After the End of the World. Her work, written and otherwise, focuses on how we can channel the experiences of our ancestors.


Though the Black intellectual does not, as Du Bois posited, represent the vanguard of Black radicalism in its entirety, he/she/they are crucial in the formation of charismatic leadership. Without them, the questions that weigh on our hearts but don’t make it to our mouths, may never be posed; the feelings that rush through our bodies but are never heard our felt by the broader community may never be named; and the strategies that we intuitively understand may never be fleshed out in written or oral tradition.