June Jordan and the New Black Intellectuals

By MacPhail, Scott | African American Review, Spring 1999 | Go to article overview

June Jordan and the New Black Intellectuals


MacPhail, Scott, African American Review


In Race Matters, Cornell West states that "the time is past for black political and intellectual leaders to pose as the voice for black America." The contemporary black political and intellectual leader should "be a race-transcending prophet who critiques the powers that be . . . and who puts forward a vision of fundamental social change for all who suffer from socially induced misery" (70). If we are to believe a series of articles in popular American magazines,(1) a whole generation of African-American intellectuals is making the transition from experts on race matters to the more broadly defined role of the public, national intellectual, and in the process redefining "what it means to be an intellectual in the United States" (Berube 73). Whether or not these "new intellectuals," as Robert Boynton names them in The Atlantic, are or should be "race-transcending," or if they are reincarnations of the black spokespersons whose time West says is past, has spurred some acrimonious debate. Adolph Reed argues in The Village Voice that these public intellectuals trade on their blackness to gain authority with their white, academic audience, while blacks look to these intellectuals and their success at garnering a white audience for models of how to "make it" in the white world. Thus the new black intellectuals can use their roles as certified black spokespersons "to avoid both rigorous, careful intellectual work and protracted committed political action" (Reed 35). And Sean Wilentz similarly claims that these black writers are really a product of the needs of left-leaning white critics who find in the fact of their popular colleagues' blackness "the chance to affirm their anti-racist bona fides" (294). For Reed and Wilentz these "new" black intellectuals are not something new at all, but are rather the same old token blacks gaining prestige by explaining blackness to whites. Michael Berube, Robert Boynton, and others, however, argue that the sudden visibility of a group of black thinkers is a sign of changing American concerns and values, and the diversity of perspectives within this group signals a turn away from the Negro spokesperson to a new complexity in the role of the African-American intellectual. At the center of these competing interpretations of the media attention lavished on the "New Black Intellectuals" are different understandings of the African-American intellectuals' audience, purpose and, responsibilities.

Thirty years ago Harold Cruse, in The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, argued that the role of the black intellectual is necessarily dual in nature: "The Negro intellectual must deal intimately with the white power structure and cultural apparatus, and the inner realities of the black world at one and the same time" (451). Cruse's call for a synthesis of the intellectual relationship with and responsibility to both a black and a white audience, like West's race-transcending prophet, echoes the turn-of-the-century argument and rhetorical project of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk, in which Du Bois famously defined the African American as possessing a double-consciousness, as being split between an essential sense of self and an identity reflected back through the power of the white gaze. Du Bois's difficult task, and the task of all African-American intellectuals that follow him, is to address both aspects of this definition. As Du Bois wrote in his critique of Booker T. Washington, racial inequality is not a problem that can be located within and solved by a single race, "when in fact the burden belongs to the nation, and the hands of none of us are clean if we bend not our energies to righting these great wrongs" (94). Du Bois's worry was that Washington was focusing too much on what blacks could do to address their situation, thus letting the white power structure ignore its responsibility for the "Negro Problem." Today, critics like Reed and Wilentz wonder if the new black intellectuals are gaining their national reputations at the expense of losing sight of the inner realities of the black world. …

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