Intellectual Pursuit: By Ignoring Our Social and Political History, We Have Impoverished Debate about 'Black Public Intellectuals.'
Hanchard, Michael, The Nation
Mark 1995 as the year the mainstream white media discovered public intellectuals in black. Figures like Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks and others were identified as the nineties equivalent of another generation of emergent intellectuals: Michael Berube in The New Yorker called the arrival of the black intellectual "a development as noticeable as the ascendancy ... of the New York intellectuals after the Second World War." In a comparison with New York Jewish intellectuals in The Atlantic Monthly, Robert Boynton wrote that contemporary black intellectuals exemplify "how one ethnically marginalized group of public intellectuals has followed in the footsteps of another."
While the "emergence" may indeed be notable, there is one big problem with tracing the footsteps of the current crop of black public intellectuals to the mostly white, mostly Jewish New Yorkers of more than two generations ago. Black public intellectuals, as Adolph Reed Jr. has noted in The Fillage Voice, were alive and well, arguing over various crises within black communities in New York during the thirties, forties and fifties. Important figures like Doxey Wilkerson, a radical lawyer and Communist Party member in the forties; Marvel Cooke, the first woman to write regularly for a daily newspaper in the United States and a party member as well; and Paul Robeson and others were in New York at that time, and were engaged in progressive politics that consistently crossed barriers of race, class and gender.
It is the tension rather than the analogy between the New York intellectuals and their black counterparts that is the more pertinent issue, one that underscores the tendency of white intellectuals then and now--New Yorkers or not-to treat racial oppression as mere flotsam on capitalism's undulating surface. Harold Cruse's The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, one of several books on black intellectual ferment during this period, expressed frustration with white leftist analysis on this point. Richard Wright's Native Son conveys a similar message. Both men, it should be remembered, quit their association with the C.P.U.S.A. partly because of this.
By neglecting such political and social history, we impoverish present debate about the "state of black intellectuals." As it happens, the issues that divide and preoccupy contemporary U S. African-American intellectuals have their precursors less in the writings of Lionel Trilling, Irving Howe and Irving Kristol than in the writings and politics of Latin America and the Caribbean. People like C.L.R. Jaines oftrinidad or Rigoberta Menchii of Guatemala are more apt references.
James's major works, which include The Black Jacobins, Beyond a Boundary and Mariners, Renegades and Castaways, combine macroeconomic history, local cultural analysis and personal insight in ways that collapse distinctions between academic disciplines, as well as the "personal versus political"-- issues common to contemporary thinkers of every color in the United States. Beyond a Boundary, James's examination of the role of cricket as an expression of Afro-Trinidadian pride and as a vehicle in the formation of national culture and his own political identity, is more akin to the writings of Ralph Ellison or Larry Neal than to those of Theodor Adorno or Russell Jacoby. A Trotskyist for most of his political life, James was involved in political organizing in both Trinidad and the United States, among other places. For his efforts, he was rewarded with house arrest in his native Trinidad and with internment on Ellis Island before being deported from the United States in the fifties.
Menchu, the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Peace and a Quiche Indian woman, has been criticized by fellow indigenous activists in her country for becoming world-famous and for capitalizing on the plight of her people in her testimonial I, Rigoberta Menchu. According to her critics, she has assumed the role of "honorary indigena" at international conferences and head-of-state dinners abroad.
Menchu's dilemmas are nearly identical with that of her Afro-New World counterparts, Adolph Reed's vituperative critique of black public intellectuals in The Village Voice characterizes their role as that of servile spokespersons of the race whose job it is to interpret "the opaquely black heart of darkness for whites."
Like Menchu, Cornel West and bell hooks are often described as atomized "sellouts" because of the distance they have traveled away from their communities and toward national and international audiences, not to mention fame and fortune. As is the case with indigenous and black intellectuals in Latin America and the Caribbean, the reluctance of the dominant culture to recognize the role of the black intellectual in the United States can cut two ways. Gifted progressives can be co-opted in the process of celebration, while equally talented people are ignored and kept from the limelight (which may not, incidentally, be a bad thing). Criticisms of these figures in the United States or elsewhere in the Americas can be interpreted as expressions of jealousy on the part of detractors or as an accurate assessment of the narcotics of fame and power.
Both views, however, are superficial. They are consequences of political analyses and strategies that have not kept pace with a world that now requires social-movement participants to be as agile with television audiences as they are with AK-47s or Marxist/leninist/maoist ideology. Groups as radically committed to societal transformation as the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress have housed mass-media spokespersons, academics and intelligence experts without any contradiction. Ultimately, the difference between Menchu's situation and that of West, Dyson et al. is that, unlike Menchu, the latter have no specific constituency or constellation of organizations to answer to, which would place their actions in a political context that speaks to both local and global communities.
In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said writes, "There is no such thing as a private intellectual, since the moment you set down words and then publish them you have entered the public world." True, but why limit the category to those who write? As Jorge Castaneda writes in Utopia Unarmed, the operative definition of an intellectual in Latin America is less restrictive. In a region of the world where "societies are no polarized, and knowledge and social recognition are rare, almost anyone who writes, paints, acts, teaches, and speaks out, or even sings, becomes `an intellectual.'. . . The scope of the term is very
broad, because the activities of those it is associated with are equally diverse." And so it is in the US. African-American community, where public reflection, cultural production and social activism are often intertwined, each fundamental to any form of grass-roots mobilization in the late twentieth century.
In this perspective, last year's essays on the role of black public intellectuals omitted some key players-a class of committed people and their groups whose books (if they have managed to publish them) and speeches may never reach the bookstores or your local video shop. Such grass-roots activists and organizations are often ignored by an amorphous public, whose "intellectuals" are already defined for them. Robert Moses's work with the educational development of black youth in Boston, in addition to his lifelong involvement in civil rights struggles, is one example; Byllye Avery's work in providing black women with information and access to health services through the National Black Women's Health Project is another.
What we need are perspectives that situate an isolated speech or performance by a black public intellectual within a larger context: progressive black figures' lack of access to mainstream media and political institutions--and, ultimately, the relative inability of these intellectuals to effect political change. Black progressives need to begin discussions on how to suture the bits and pieces of coalitions around common issues plaguing black middle-class and working-class communities. Perhaps the shadows created by the institutional and noninstitutional victories of the right have limited our ability to recognize that we are all trapped in the same comer. But the travails of a few black public intellectuals are the least of our problems.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Intellectual Pursuit: By Ignoring Our Social and Political History, We Have Impoverished Debate about 'Black Public Intellectuals.'. Contributors: Hanchard, Michael - Author. Magazine title: The Nation. Volume: 262. Issue: 7 Publication date: February 19, 1996. Page number: 22+. © 1999 The Nation Company L.P. COPYRIGHT 1996 Gale Group.
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