As a concept that pertains to language, the vernacular has a history that dates back centuries. The concept of the vernacular intellectual is, however, of much more recent vintage. It first entered the lexicon in 2003 with Grant Farred’s work, What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Farred’s term vernacular intellectual derives from a critique of Antonio Gramsci’s (1891–1937) notion of traditional and organic intellectuals; in his famously democratic pronouncement, “all men are intellectuals,” Gramsci distinguishes between traditional and organic intellectuals (Gramsci 1972, p. 13). The former are those trained primarily as ecclesiastics, initially rooted within the medieval church; the latter are those who locate themselves more firmly within the political apparatuses of their society—thinkers organic to their class, their political party, or the state bureaucracy.
The vernacular intellectual represents a reconsideration of the category intellectual. It is premised on the critical expansion of the category in that it proposes that the work of thinking assumes many guises and cannot be restricted to the formally educated classes. According to this reconception, the vernacular intellectual is an individual whose interventions into how a society thinks about itself—its politics, race, justice—are significant in part because of the person’s identity and position. The vernacular intellectual represents a form of critical social engagement that demonstrates the intellectuality, or thought processes, of subaltern life.
The vernacular figure redefines who is understood to be an intellectual, challenging the restriction of the term intellectual to those trained by conventional intellectual means—accredited by the university system, by café or soiree society, or by political parties. This means that the vernacular intellectual may not be widely known, or not known at all, to wider society. This is because the vernacular intellectual generally emerges from the ranks of the subaltern classes and speaks the language of those constituencies, articulating a politics that is often, but not always, incommensurable with that of dominant society. The vernacular intellectual is not necessarily a figure who espouses a radical politics. The issue of language, including how the vernacular intellectual speaks and his or her vocabulary, metaphors, and idioms, is thus critical to the construction of the vernacular intellectual.
Cultural figures such as the boxer Muhammad Ali (b. 1942), the reggae singer Bob Marley (1945–1981), the singer Grace Jones (b. 1952), the rhythm and blues singer James Brown (c. 1933–2006), and the tennis player Martina Navratilova (b. 1956) all represent, in their different articulations, the vernacular intellectual. They speak particular truths to power: about race, anti-colonialism, poverty, oppression, sexuality, and subaltern pleasure. The vernacular is, therefore, most audible in popular culture: in the music, the articulations of sportspersons, and popular expressions.
When Muhammad Ali famously declared in 1966, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong,” he was doing considerably more than making public his own refusal to be drafted into the U.S. military. Through this statement, Ali simultaneously critiqued America’s internal racism and its international imperialism and linked one to the other, demonstrating how the vernacular intellectual can make interventions into the public sphere in a highly idiomatic yet resonant language. The vernacular intellectual is, in essence, that cultural figure who addresses the political but whose critiques are almost never recognized as the work of an intellectual.
SEE ALSO Ali, Muhammad (USA); Anticolonial Movements; Bureaucracy; Credentialism; Gramsci, Antonio; Imperialism; Intellectuals, Organic; Racism; Resistance; Vietnam War
Farred, Grant. 2003. What’s My Name?: Black Vernacular Intellectuals. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.