Thinking out Loud: Black Intellectuals Focus on Popular Culture

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Thinking Out Loud: Black Intellectuals Focus on Popular Culture.

by Mary-Christine Phillip

African-American speakers are the newest sensation on the campus lecture circuit. After years of being locked out, their invitations are no longer limited to occasions during Black History month.

Demands, specifically for the new "public intellectuals," are great.

"One of the hottest speakers on the circuit, without doubt or question, no matter what section of the country, is Cornel West," says Helen Churko, director of development and senior account executive at the Royce Carlton agency in New York, which arranges his lecture schedule.

West, whose fees jumped from $4,500 to $15,000 per lecture after publication of his book, "Race Matters," "is one of the hottest speakers in America, bar none. He takes the fervor of a minister and the intellect of the highest level of academe and smashes them together," says Churko. "Academics love to hear him, and students feel that he understands them. He is a bridge builder."

What makes today's Black intellectuals such hot commodities? A number of factors, according to observers. They are ambitious, in the sense that they are constantly publishing, and they are not single-focused.

"A much greater range of opinions has developed among Black intellectuals. They go from nationalism to liberalism to neoconservatism, and this has made them interesting and unpredictable spokesmen of these issues," says Morris Dickstein, director of the Center for the Humanities at the Graduate School of the City University of New York.

They are also bluntly addressing a host of contentious issues ranging from racism to the economy, public policy to rap music, cultural theory to popular culture.

"One has to be involved in popular culture," says Patricia Williams, a Columbia University law professor and a leading theorist on race and gender. "The myths of popular culture so drive people's perceptions. There has to be serious engagement with things like the myth of the welfare mother in order to see the enormous clash between that kind of mythologizing and realities.

"Grappling with that is not just grappling with myth in some kind of literary sense. It's grappling with narratives the media put out, narratives politicians use. It's grappling with narratives the media put out, narratives politicians use. It's grappling with advertisers, and with all aspects of how we include and exclude people in housing markets and everything else."

For the most part, the new Black intellectuals are cultural pluralists, rather than nationalists in ethos, and they prize diversity in this, an era of multiculuralism. The force that characterizes them, but also sets them apart from older intellectuals, Black or white, is their engagement with popular culture as an object of scholarly investigation. They speak and write on music, film, cinema and other aspects of popular culture.

"The names of people I hear associated with 'public intellectuals' are people who are seriously attempting a politics of inclusion," says Williams. "It's not just women, but it's Asian American writers, South Asian writers and Jewish writers. There is enormous hybridity that is part of the debate. This is a very inter-cultural debate."

Williams, who is often mentioned in the media as one of the public intellectuals, says that what she and other scholars are doing is "bringing some of the theorizing that often gets done in too-sheltered academic environments to a larger discussion table."

Dr. John Hope Franklin, the James B. Duke Emeritus Professor of History at Duke University and one of the nation's leading scholars, highlights other distinguishing features of these new thinkers. They include their lack of attachment "to movements, crusades or struggles ... and their more theoretical way of thinking. In addition, they are also younger than any group that has become as prominent as they have become. …