Here’s a list of Black folks who’ve most impressed me with the power of their brains and the depth of their abilities:
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1) Al Sharpton: Rev. Al and I fight … all the time – the fights are usually over President Barack Obama – but I have to give respect where it’s due. Sitting and speaking with Rev. Sharpton is one of the most-fascinating experiences I’ve ever had. Every sentence is a goldmine of understanding on politics, celebrity life, civil rights, and everything else. I’ve rarely seen anyone with the ability to process information as quickly or manage as many relationships as Rev. Sharpton. Had he not been a Baptist minister, Rev. Al could have easily been a professor.
2) Yvette Carnell: Political analysis Yvette Carnell has a mind so sharp that she can cut your head off from 20 feet away. A student of philosophy and political science, Yvette can understand the intricacies of modern politics and social commentary in ways that are rarely seen in public discourse. As our community works to find ways to incorporate more Black women into the leadership structure, I expect Yvette to be one of the great thinkers of our generation.
3) Marc Lamont Hill: I met Columbia University professor Marc Lamont Hill five years ago. To this day, I’ve rarely seen anyone with the ability to think so swiftly and then back up his thinking with sheer hustle. Marc started with almost nothing and created opportunities out of thin air. He spars with Bill O’Reilly with the discipline and skill of a Kung-Fu master, sneaking in brutal jabs and counter punches as if he were starring in a Bruce Lee movie. I don’t know Marc’s IQ, but I expect that he’s smarter than the average brother.
4) Barack Obama, I mean, Michelle: As an American, I am happy to have Barack Obama as my president. As a black American, I would rather have Michelle. My speculation is that the source of tension between Michelle Obama and President Obama’s advisers (as stated in the recent book by New York Times writer Jody Kantor) is that Michelle is a brilliant leader trapped in a First Lady’s body. She’s not meant to simply read books to school children and appear on Nickelodeon episodes. She’s meant to be in the driver’s seat.
5) Michael Eric Dyson: I still remember the day when I saw scholar Michael Eric Dyson for the first time on BET 17 years ago. From that moment, I wanted to become a public scholar. The man spit four syllable words with the skill of the greatest Brooklyn MC and dropped knowledge like a piano being tossed off a 10-story building. Mike is one of the great scholars of our day, and it wasn’t by coincidence.
6) Wendy Williams: I’ve been on media personality Wendy Williams’ radio show about six times. As ghetto-fabulous, raunchy, and trifling as she can be, I could see her brilliance from our first interaction. Beyond the “interesting” public persona is a sharp, cool, calculated businesswoman who knows how to work her brand. She was chased out of the New York media market only to come back years later and take it by storm. Those neurons in her skull made it all possible.
7) Harry Belafonte: Do you know anyone else who can flow, fight, and articulate this well at the age of 84? I thought not. The only word that comes to mind when I think about singer and social activist Harry Belafonte is “deeyamm.”
8) Cornel West: When I ask myself, “What would Jesus do?” I look at American philosopher Cornel West. When I think about the greatest modern day embodiment of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (another activist, scholar, and man of God), I look at the man with the crazy hair and black suit. Cornel has lost a significant amount of money from his willingness to put it all on the line to stand up for black, brown and poor people. Unfortunately, too many of us are afraid to stand with him.
9) Dr. Julianne Malveaux: Right after seeing Michael Eric Dyson on BET and deciding to become a public scholar, I read “Sex, Lies and Stereotypes” by Bennett College President Dr. Julianne Malveaux. Few of us fully understand how hard it is to get through a PhD program in Economics at MIT, but Dr. Malveaux knows this well – imagine studying 12 hours a day, seven days a week and still not being prepared for the exam. Julianne is the new Dorothy Height and the woman who should be leading all of us into the 21st century.
10) Rev. Jesse Jackson: How a man fights on an issue every day for 45 years straight is beyond me. Rev. Jackson has never flinched, buckled, folded or lost focus. He’s faced the haters, the conspirators, and those who want to see him fail only to emerge victorious every time. He’s even been listed as one of the top three men on earth most likely to be assassinated. Even after making mistakes, he gets right back up and keeps going as if the blip on the radar screen wasn’t even a real blip. I learn a lot from watching Rev. Jackson and know with almost complete certainty that I could never replicate what he has accomplished.
That’s my list, love it or hate it. But I argue that these individuals help form the body of black intellectual icons of this decade. There are others out there, some whom are just as good. It is my hope and expectation that they will use these models as examples of how Black people do it in the 21st century. All of us are meant to be great.