Free Press’ Riley looks to encourage next wave of female intellectuals

BY Vershay Burks



March 12, on a Thursday evening, Engineering room 220 of UDM was filled with a mixed group of about 20. Some were students, most were professors and others may have been reporters.

Sitting in the room you could hear the constant “snap” of a camera from the photographer taking pictures from every angle possible in that room.

In the front row sat Detroit Free Press columnist Rochelle Riley, whose talk the group was patiently anticipating.

UDM Prof. Dr. Terri Laws, director of the African American Studies program, introduced the topic of “Black Women Intellectuals.”

Laws described black intellectuals as “passionate inventors of ideas and arguments.”

“Intellectuals may not literally believe what they’re saying … but they do believe what they’re saying really does matter,” she said. “They free themselves to speak what does matter.”

When it was Riley’s time to speak, a round of applause erupted as she walked to the podium.

“So (when) I got the invitation to speak and was told the topic, I said, ‘Oh, so she (Laws) wants to talk about the few’,” she joked.

Riley described what she found when preparing for the topic.

 “What I did in studying for this topic, which was very interesting to me, was to read about the history of public intellectualism about women of any color…,” she said. “Some of it was quite interesting; some of it was quite infuriating.

“I decided, well, the first thing I need to do is just to look at public intellectuals. Who are some of the best ones and who declared them so? And then I decided okay that’s enough of that, because they’re all men, let’s look at some of the women.”

She listed Gertrude Stein, Dorothy Parker, Simone de Beauvoir, Simone Weil and Mary McCarthy as some of the women intellectuals from the past.

“Every time I read articles about public intellectuals, I don’t see the names of people who look like me,” said Riley.

She said she could not understand why it was so difficult to find any black women intellectuals throughout history; she knew that such women existed.

Riley explained that her quest for these women was harder than she expected it to be, and when she found them, she discovered that these intellectuals are virtually unknown by many people today.

“I was really amazed by the level and the plethora of material that is out in the universe and we don’t recognize it and embrace it in a big way. We are losing some amazing voices,” she said.

She explained how looking back and remembering those voices in history, in relation to the present and future, is important, and can help a woman find her own voice.

“You do have a right to have a voice,” she said. “You do have a right to find that voice, and make sure that you know enough to use it in a very authoritative way. It doesn’t have to be a big voice to be powerful, but you do have to engage.”

Riley added, “I just want to see more young voices.”

Going back to her original topic of the unknown black women intellectuals, Riley declared her own self to be an intellectual. Later posing the rhetorical question: “To whom am I looking to declare me an intellectual?”

Riley is also an activist, a journalist, a mentor to 22 women across the country and a Detroit crusader.

So who decided which black women qualify as public intellectuals?

“It’s any women of any color who decide they want to stand and spread the gospel about people, places and things that people should know,” she said. “So that means that if there is a white intellectual, who is a woman, who wants to tell people the story of Sojourner Truth, I think that’s powerful. And if there’s a black female public intellectual, who is only gaining her voice because of a loss or because of something found, and she develops an audience, I want to celebrate her, too.”