Scholarship or Activism: Which is More Important?

On social media and panel discussions, we often debate  “Which is more important, scholarship or activism?”

One’s answer to that question usually stems from their own experiences and strengths. Those people stronger or more experienced in the realm of intellectual pursuits, typically privilege scholarship. Those more experienced in activism/organizing, tend to privilege that area of expertise.

I am fortunate to have the benefit of extensive experience/training in scholarship, institution-building and activism. I began as a serious student seeking knowledge of our history, contributions and world experience. That study compelled me to become active in grassroots activism, consciousness-raising and building independent institutions. Seeking to be a more effective activist, I began focused study of the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and African Independence Movement. In other words, study and analysis fueled activism which again fueled study. Ideally, we go through continuous cycles of study and application, each one influencing the other.

From these vantage points, I realize that ALL components are CRUCIAL to the project of Black Liberation. Study and analysis without application is empty and abstract; Activism without study is impulsive, ineffective and misdirected. Doing either without creating independent institutions to promote lasting consciousness and organizing, is futile. Most serious leaders/revolutionaries appreciate and understand this. Somehow this point is lost on many of us….

Scholars, how can you determine if your theories or conclusions are accurate or effective without activists applying or implementing them?

Activists, isn’t it true that the ideas/analysis and revolutionary theories which fuel your activities were conceived and articulated by thinkers? (i. e.. Marx, Lenin, Fanon, DuBois, Garvey, Friere, Malcolm, Huey, Asante, Nkrumah, Che, Baker, Karenga, Lourde, Baldwin, Ghandi, King, etc. ).

Without creating schools, organizations and institutions, how will we insure that these ideas and activities are implemented and that they continue and expand after we die?

We must end overly-rigid and simplistic thinking or we will rot from within and perpetuate an endless cycle of confusion and political. Inertia. I respect and appreciate scholars, activists, and scholar-activists. Maybe we all should learn to do the same…

A different but related topic concerns our sometimes limited view of leadership. We must avoid the practice of treating important Black political figures like rap artists by attempting to place them on “Top Five Greatest” lists or by describing them in simplistic “good/bad/right/wrong” terms. We cannot afford to be intellectually lazy.. This means we need to understand nuances and complexity of ideologies and those advocating them.

Rather than participating in such irrelevant and insulting exercises, why not mimic the human body? After we consume food, our bodies absorb and utilize important nutrients and discard other things as liquid or solid waste. Only when sick and damaged, does the body reject what is useful and retain what is toxic.

Think of how powerful and effective we’d become if we operated in this manner pertaining to our leaders/organizations of the past. We can respect and value our leaders even as we critique them.

We can also disagree with leaders over certain views or practices yet still recognize and embrace, evaluated, compared and implemented. We absorb those ideas or methods that we find useful and discard those we deem questionable. And we do this without regard for whether we “like” or totally agree with this or that leader.

Supporting one leader does not require us to reject another. One leader or scholar might influence us more than others, or have an analysis that deeply resonates with us. None of these scenarios precludes us from appreciating other warriors and leaders. DuBois and Garvey, US and the Panthers, Elijah and Malcolm all had conflicts with one another. Some were legitimate, others were instigated by outside forces. If we take sides in those past conflicts and participate in either-or politics, we miss the point entirely. I personally appreciate and learn from all of these individuals. Our focus as I see it, is to learn from and utilize them all, not to rehash decades-old ideological conflicts which only deepen division and distrust. Ideology should not in prison us, it should set us free…..


Agyei Tyehimba is an educator, activist and author from Harlem, N.Y. Agyei is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. In 2013, he wrote The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook, teaching Black student activists how to organize and lead. In April of 2014, he released Truth for our Youth: A Self-Empowerment Book for Teens. Agyei has appeared on C-SpanNY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Currently, Agyei is a member of the Black Power Cypher, five Black Nationalist men with organizing backgrounds, who host a monthly internet show addressing issues and proposing solutions. He runs his own business publishing books, public speaking, and teaching Black people how to organize and fight for empowerment.

Agyei earned his Bachelor’s Degree in sociology from Syracuse University, his Master’s Degree in Africana Studies from Cornell University, and his Master’s Degree in Afro-American Studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak or provide consultation for your organization, please contact him at

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s