Intellectuals and the Black Community: A conversation with Dr. Brian Johnson

We know that education and information play a paramount role in reforming people and communities. We recently had the privilege to ask the newly anointed President of Tuskegee University, Dr. Brian Johnson, about Ferguson, the role of intellectuals in the black community and the lasting impact of Dubois and Booker T. Washington.

A Conversation

1.Tuskegee has such rich heritage. How does it feel to be in the order of men that start with Booker T Washington? How would you describe your feelings upon receiving the news?

In all earnestness, when I began the process—even until being named a finalist—I was completely unaware that I would be only the 7th President from Tuskegee’s founding principal and president Booker T. Washington. I had obviously researched the institution’s history and, more importantly, its current environment but charting my own legacy in such a lineage was far removed from my thinking. However, upon learning of my selection on April 28, 2014, the sense of enormity—no, responsibility—came upon me, and I understood that I was simply being given an opportunity to become a steward in this lineage. At the same time, a sense of immense peace and comfort came upon me when I noted several parallels with Mr. Washington’s life and my own. Although there are vast differences between the 19th Century and 21st Century, there are many similarities in the challenges and opportunities he encountered and that I am now encountering. In my mind’s eye, Washington was pre-built for the age in which he lived and in many ways I have been fashioned for the present.

2. What do you hope to accomplish in your tenure? What is success to Dr. Johnson?

As indicated on the university’s President’s website, Aligned to its historic Mission and Strategic Plan, Tuskegee University will become an “Outcomes-Oriented Organization” with a special emphasis upon the following (5) areas:

  1. Creating a Student Centered Culture: Student Success, Student Engagement and Parent-Student Satisfaction
  2. Fully Inaugurating 21st Century Higher Education at Tuskegee University: (Through) Innovative and Expanded Academic Programming and Instruction, Infrastructure and Technology
  3. Possessing Efficient Resource Management: Data-informed decision-making and Effective Human Resource and Personnel Management
  4. Obtaining a Marked and Increased Enrollment: Recruitment, Retention and Persistence
  5. Fostering a Culture of Advancement and Development: Diverse Portfolio of Fundraising

Success to me is having a pre-eminent institution of higher education—HBCU or otherwise—that produce graduates who are properly aligned with Tuskegee University’s mission and motto. Graduates who reflect the highest standards of “knowledge, leadership and service.” In 1915—after 34 years as the founding principal and president of Tuskegee Institute—Booker T. Washington had an enrollment of 1500~students. Nearly 100 years since his passing, the enrollment has only doubled. Success for me at the end of my tenure would be to not only engineer a substantial enrollment increase of 10,000-plus students (F.T.E.) but the quality of this increase would be equally evidenced in such a manner that the eminence and renown of this historic institution is restored. Hence the motto of the 7th Presidency of Tuskegee University is as follows: #TrustTheTuskegeeTrajectory #TrustTheTuskegeeTradition.

3. How do you utilize your faith in a secular university environment?

I find the term “secular” increasingly problematic in the times we are now living. Nevertheless, my favorite quotation is taken from one of Martin Luther King’s graduate papers. In it, he writes, “The ultimate solution is not intellectual but spiritual. For after you climb atop of the speculative ladder [of reason] you must leap out into the darkness of faith.” As you may be aware, my academic background is that of 17th-19th Century American literature. Frankly, I am closet historian, which is why my methodology involved Book History and New Historicism.

All the same, I have a deep affinity and appreciation for the writings of the Puritans, Republic/Enlightenment thinkers, Transcendentalists and Abolitionists and what each of these groups have taught me is that the role of deeply personal faith and learning (reason) was integral in the formation in the greatest and most eminent personages in world and American history. As Thomas Jefferson alluded to, faith in no god, “one God or twenty gods” drives men and women unwittingly, but the expression of one’s faith in the Republic ought to be an expression that honors and respects both one’s self and others. In this sense, John Dewey’s sentiment that a higher education and a university is place filled with many rooms is precisely how I exercise my faith within a university environment. It matters not what room my reason enters into for my heart—my faith—is what both undergirds and sustains me within any philosophical or theological room. My faith frees me to discuss anything, at anytime and anywhere without harm or injury to me or another because the purity of faith—a sincere faith—recognizes truth in any tradition.

One of my favorite Psalms speaks to this idea: “I have seen an end of all [human] perfection: But thy word is exceeding broad.” Psalm 119:96 To be frank, I have not encountered any philosophical, religious or historical treatise broader than my personal faith. The truth of any tradition only serves to strengthen my faith. Beyond this, I believe in a living faith. I think words and works ought to be synonymous. And the union of these two is the clearest indicator of what one’s faith is—not thee profession of faith. If one preaches love, one ought to live and act out such a love, which according to my faith encompasses love for all mankind, even one’s enemies.

4. How can intellectuals engage their communities?

Since graduate school I have believed in the notion of “serviceable scholarship.” This term “intellectual” has recently become synonymous with a professor within the academic (university). Intellectuals within any academic discipline are trained to—first and foremost—have as their primary audiences their colleagues within the discipline. This training often makes our writings esoteric speaking only to members of the academy. I believe in much the same way as our STEM colleagues engage in research with a view towards practical application for the public, intellectuals within the arts, humanities and history ought to continuously seek to accomplish this. Cornel West’s early writings and George Marsden’s writings—among many others both historical and contemporary—have shaped my thinking on this matter. The supreme challenge for intellectuals is the need for “bread”-salary and monies. It is very difficult for aspiring intellectuals to achieve tenure and long term employment within the academy (university) with a view towards serviceable scholarship in many fields. There is a real threat that such scholarship may not appeal to their colleagues who play a significant role in the peer-review process for their longevity in the academy. All the same, I believe that the times necessitate bold and visionary scholarship from our finest intellectuals and no such scholarship that has real and substantive benefit to both the public and the academy will leave a man or woman unemployed. Hence, in the 21st Century, there is a real likelihood that the finest intellectuals will not be found in the professoriate. And this would be no new phenomenon.

5. What made you write a book about W.E.B. Dubois, and why is he still relevant today? Knowing the tension between Dubois and Washington, how did they help one another, and how can we learn from their relationship?

I have written and edited two books on W.E.B. Du Bois—Du Bois on Reform: Periodical Based Leadership for African Americans (2005) and W.E.B. Du Bois: Toward Agnosticism 1868-1934 (2008). And while many have noted a supposed irony that a Du Bois scholar would be named to head Booker T. Washington’s Tuskegee Institute (University), it is lost upon many that the two collaborated on a jointly published work along with other eminent African Americans, they corresponded with one another, and Du Bois taught briefly at Tuskegee. All the same, my work centers around one of the most oft-missed streams of African American writing in our entire canon: Reform writing. Unlike protest writings that include advocacy on behalf of African Americans and direct contestation against hostile and discriminatory forces and policies, there has always existed a long forgotten discourse of reform writings—dated back to the earliest late 19th Century—directed towards African Americans about what must be done within the community for its own needs. When I began my dissertation work on W.E.B. Du Bois—my dissertation was completed in 2003 precisely 100 years after Du Bois’s most famous publication The Souls of Black Folk (1903)—Bill Cosby was being criticized for directing his talks towards African Americans. In part, this inspired me to look backwards at the writings of Du Bois, Washington, Maria W. Steward, Alexander Crummell, members of the American Negro Academy , Charles W. Chesnutt among many, many others. I recognized that this tradition of looking within has always been present.

Moreover, from the earliest writings in the American literary tradition in the 17th, 18th and 19th Century with figures such as the Puritans, John Cotton, Benjamin Franklin, Jonathon Edwards and Harriet Beecher Stowe among many, many others, there has always existed this persistent theme of utilitarian reform that has played a prominent role in the configuration of America. I say all this to point out that both Du Bois and Washington were consumed with improvement of African Americans from within as well as the challenges that confronted their communities. I think situating the work of both of these stalwarts within this tradition of reforming the community from within is the way in which one understands how to resolve the tensions between the two. Both men had their versions of reform—Du Bois through scholarly and periodical writing and Washington through economic and institution building. My only wish was that they might have integrated their work more but hindsight affords me a view that would be unfair to project onto the two. Perhaps, here in the 21st Century, the two seemingly competing views may come together here at Tuskegee University in a manner unwitting to either of them.

6. What is a successful college career in your observation? How can a student best use his/her time in college?

In addition to graduating 4th in my class, I served as Sophomore Class president, SGA vice President, Judicial Board, Lyceum speakers committee and I joined a fraternity. I sat with eminent visitors, speakers and college presidents. I led student protests. I participated in 3 summer experiences at a major research university including a post-baccalaureate experience. I studied abroad in Florence, Italy. (And, yes, I partied as well.) Most importantly, I met my future bride. A successful college career ought necessarily include both successes in the classroom and beyond the classroom. Grades are often the key to getting into the door. But the accompanying poise, social skills, and leadership qualities is what keeps one within the door and this is often learned beyond the classroom. True “Student Success” is a marriage of both the classroom and the experience beyond the classroom in a university environment.

7. Are HBCU’s still needed?

Unashamedly and unabashedly—YES. I find it strange that these questions are never put to other majority institutions. I have worked at 4 PWI’s and I serve on a PWI board of trustees and Tuskegee University is as strong—and frankly stronger—than any of these institutions in any number of documentable facets. Beyond this, the single-greatest producers of African American J.D.’s, Ph.D’s and STEM graduates are HBCU’s who produced the undergraduate degree recipients that go on in many cases to Predominantly White Institutions for graduate or doctoral study. There is a certain kind of crassness and disregard in many ways that is only done so with respect to HBCUs in raising such a question. Without the economic defense and majority influence that similarly situated PWI’s possess, HBCUs—particularly its presidents—are subject to a constant barrage of questions from both within the communities they serve and without because one can do so without regard for societal retribution. In other words, one knows that the question can be asked in a way that it cannot be asked of any other PWI institution.

There is simply not enough space here to recount the triumphs of HBCUs as harbingers of hope even in the midst of an increasingly pluralistic society where African Americans are now invited to PWI institutions but still do not have their personal, social, intellectual and spiritual heritages affirmed or even acknowledged. I hope to answer this question in the future by demonstrating the institution’s outcomes that in many categories surpass our PWI counterparts, and it is my hope that these queries, which often contribute the narrative of “dying” HBCUs will change to talk about the important work they are doing. I hope that these queries would also be turned to discuss the incredible odds—both historic and current—that these institutions have not only confronted but have overcome.

8. Would you mind giving us your thoughts on Ferguson in the line of questions? What are you overarching thoughts and how do we move forward?

As you may be aware, I grew up in inner-city Durham, North Carolina where the murder and shooting of young African American men is so commonplace that it is numbing. (I personally knew many of these young men and their mothers and families.) When I think of the recent support for the families of young men who have been shot and killed by either the police or members of non-African American races, I was initially panged deeply because I can distinctly remember no such outcries when my African American men are gunned down daily and their families have no means to pay for their hospital bills or funerals.

Notwithstanding, I understand that the systemic, historic violence perpetuated within the African American community has a long history dating back to the days of slavery, the hangings and lynchings of the 1920s-1950s—including the infamous “Red Summer” of 1923—and the unjust “Jim Crow” laws of 1950s and 1960s has created a deep-seated and seething mistrust among African Americans towards non-African Americans for what appears to be a callous disregard for the historic experience of African Americans in America. And sadly, I also believe that the violence perpetuated within African American communities daily is an outgrowth of this failure to come to terms with the many unacknowledged tragedies that African Americans have experienced in this great country. From the breakdown of African American families to economic inequities created based upon historic injustice, we are at a point that was prophetically articulated by Lyman Beecher Stowe: “Here in America, we are all, in the end, going up or down together.”-Lyman Beecher Stowe (1916)

All the same, we have come to the point of having too many arm-chair quarterbacks, social media pundits, and news reporters who question and criticize public leaders for what they should be doing as opposed to examining what everyone should be doing. I am a husband. I am a father of two African American sons. I am basketball coach within the community to children of many races. I am a university President with 3000-plus students who I will influence one way or the other by my life. (And this list of “I am” can go on and on.) I would have everyone—including myself—to be able to say when the question of Ferguson is posed to others: “What we should be doing is what I am doing. My life speaks for me.”


Dr. Brian L. Johnson


Dr. Brian L. Johnson is the seventh President of Tuskegee University.He received a Ph.D. in 17th-19th Century American literature at The University of South Carolina at Columbia (2003), a M.A. in English from The University of Wisconsin-Madison (1998) and a B.A. in English from Johnson C. Smith University (1995).

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