A Black Intellectual′s Odyssey

From a Pennsylvania Milltown to the Ivy League

A Black Intellectual′s Odyssey

Book Pages: 224 Illustrations: 14 illustrations Published: August 2021

African American Studies and Black Diaspora, General Interest > Biography, Letters, Memoirs, Pedagogy and Higher Education

In 1969, Martin Kilson became the first tenured African American professor at Harvard University, where he taught African and African American politics for over thirty years. In A Black Intellectual's Odyssey, Kilson takes readers on a fascinating journey from his upbringing in the small Pennsylvania mill town of Ambler to his experiences attending Lincoln University—the country's oldest HBCU—to pursuing graduate study at Harvard before spending his entire career there as a faculty member. This is as much a story of his travels from the racist margins of twentieth-century America to one of the nation's most prestigious institutions as it is a portrait of the places that shaped him.

He gives a sweeping sociological tour of Ambler as a multiethnic, working-class company town while sketching the social, economic, and racial elements that marked everyday life. From narrating the area's history of persistent racism and the racial politics in the integrated schools to describing the Black church's role in buttressing the town's small Black community, Kilson vividly renders his experience of northern small-town life during the 1930s and 1940s.

At Lincoln University Kilson's liberal political views coalesced as he became active in the local NAACP chapter. While at Lincoln and during his graduate work at Harvard, Kilson observed how class, political, and racial dynamics influenced his peers' political engagement, diverse career paths, and relationships with whites. As a young professor, Kilson made a point to assist Harvard's African American students adapt to life at a white institution.

Throughout his career, Kilson engaged in pioneering scholarship while mentoring countless students. A Black Intellectual's Odyssey features contributions from three of his students: a foreword by Cornel West and an afterword by Stefano Harney and Fred Moten.


“A challenging, original, and exacting intellectual, Martin Kilson was also a generous, supportive teacher and mentor. His unforgettable voice permeates this memoir, which recreates the world as he found it and then transformed it. The field of African and African American Studies owes a profound debt to his unyielding demand for scholarly rigor and also to his faith in its centrality to higher education.” — Henry Louis Gates Jr.

“As the first African American tenured professor at Harvard, Martin Kilson, marked a symbolic milestone in American higher education as part of a founding generation of Black professors in prestigious White institutions. This status makes him into a figure of historic import, so that how he saw himself becomes not just one man's story, but an indexical way of thinking about one's place in American life in a particular time and place. Intensely personal, A Black Intellectual's Odyssey is an important intellectual text.” — Nell Irvin Painter, Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University


Availability: Not in Stock
Price: $32.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Martin Kilson (1931–2019) was Frank G. Thomson Professor of Government Emeritus at Harvard University. He wrote and edited several books, including The Transformation of the African American Intelligentsia, 1880–2012, which won the 2015 American Book Award. He was a Fellow of the American Academy Arts and Sciences, a Guggenheim Fellow, a member of the Council of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and a long-time member of the Editorial Board of Dissent.

Cornel West is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University.

Stefano Harney and Fred Moten are two of Martin Kilson’s many students. They are authors of The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study and All Incomplete.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Foreword. The One and Only Martin Kilson / Cornel West  ix
Preface  xiii
Acknowledgments  xi
1. Growing Up in a Northern Black Community, 1930s–1940s  1
2. A Helping-Hand Ethos and Black Social Life, 1920s–1960s  12
3. Melting-Pot-Friendly Schools in My Hometown, 1920s–1960s  29
4. Black Youth and Social Mobility, 1920s–1960s  40
5. Ambler: A Twentieth-Century Company Town  58
6. Lincoln University, 1949–1953, Part I  77
7. Lincoln University, 1949–1953, Part II  96
8. Harvard: Graduate School and Teaching  119
9. Maturation: Research and Scholarship  134
Afterword. Notes on Professor Martin Luther Kilson's Work / Stefano Harney and Fred Moten  161
Selected List of Martin Kilson's Writings  173
Notes  177
Bibliography  187
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-1329-7