Intellectual Pursuit: By Ignoring Our Social and Political History, We Have Impoverished Debate about 'Black Public Intellectuals.'

Article excerpt

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. …