Lifestyles of the Rich and Tenured?: The Black Public Intellectual Under Siege

SUNY-Albany Professor Mark Anthony Neal examines the Black Public Intellectuals of the 1990s as well as the “Post-Soul Intelligentsia” in his new book Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, just published by Routledge.

During the opening weeks of the new year, there was considerable attention paid to the cohort of black public intellectuals who reside in the “ivoriest” of Ivory Towers at Harvard University. In the case of Randall Kennedy, such attention was planned as the legal scholar began to promote his new book, Nigger: The Strange Career of a Troublesome Word. Kennedy’s book offered a unique opportunity for the larger culture to seriously examine the most prominent racial epithet in American history, and perhaps begin a real discussion about the white supremacist practices that the word symbolically shorthands, not the vulgarity of the word itself.

But Kennedy’s book was overshadowed — trumped, really — by a very public dispute between Harvard’s President, Lawrence Summer, and the “pre-eminent” Black Public Intellectual, Cornel West. According to Senior faculty members at the University and sources close to West, in an October meeting with West, Summers “chided” West for recording a “rap” CD, for his prominent role in Al Sharpton’s likely Presidential bid in 2004, for his overly accessible scholarly work, and for grade inflation. In Summers’s defense, he had similar “critical” discussions with other Harvard University faculty, particularly with regards to grade inflation. But Summers’ purported comments and the various schools of response to the controversy raise troubling questions about general perceptions of black intellectual production, the increasing gaps-real or perceived-between elite black intellectuals and the larger black public whom they “speak” for, and the often bankrupt strategies of mainstream Civil Rights activists and sycophantic black conservative commentators alike.

Cornel West began his scholarly career a little more than 20 years ago as a self-defined “post-modern” Marxist black philosopher. At that time there was literally no public language to support even the idea of Cornel West and the generation of black “post-structuralist” and feminist literary and cultural critics and theorist that emerged during the late 1970s and 1980s. Names like the late Barbara Christian, Houston Baker, Jr., Hortense Spillers, and Henry Louis (Skip) Gates, Jr. were simply not part of the public lexicon, particularly in relation to the ebbs and flows of everyday black life in America.

Nevertheless many of these figures would emerge as powerful forces within the American Academy, with Gates emerging as the prominent one with his groundbreaking study, The Signifying Monkey, published in 1988. During this period, West published three philosophical tomes: Prophecy Deliverance: An Afro-American Revolutionary Christianity (1989), The American Evasion of Philosophy: A Genealogy of Pragmatism (1990), and The Ethical Dimensions of Marxist Thought (1991). He also published Prophetic Fragments (1988), a collection of short essays that more easily distilled West’s idea to a prophetic democratic vision. Scholarly in his work, West’s real power came from his lay-preacher style that was part Emersonian, (DuBoisian) and Franklin-ian (as in Rev. CL, Aretha Franklin’s father). As West admitted in an 1990 interview with Bill Moyers (A World of Ideas), he believed that the “vocation of the intellectual as trying to turn easy answers into critical questions and putting those critical questions to people with power.” (Prophetic Reflections, 103) On the brink of intellectual stardom, West was described by Robert Boyton (who would later write an influential essay on the Black Public Intellectual for Atlantic Monthly) as bringing “religious zeal to intellectual issues” and making the “life of the mind exciting.” (New York Times Magazine, Sept. 15, 1991)

West’s initial breakthrough to popular audiences came with Breaking Bread: Insurgent Black intellectual Life (1991), his collaborative “conversation” with bell hooks that was published by South End Press in 1992. hooks already had a rather prolific career, specializing in presenting “popular” black feminist theory and criticism to “alternative” audiences in books like Ain’t I A Woman (1981) and Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black (1989) Arguably at the time of their collaboration, hooks was the more visible of the two. Breaking Bread primed West for the widespread acceptance of Race Matters (Beacon Press, 1993), a collection of very accessible essays on race and African-American culture. The book officially ushered in the era of the Black Public Intellectual. Nattily dressed in Navy three-piece suits and even nattier (not nappier) afro, West became the poster boy for generation of black scholars, including the aforementioned Gates and hooks and others such as Michael Eric Dyson, Patricia Williams (who writes consistently brilliant articles for The Nation), Todd Boyd [the forthcoming The New H.N.I.C.: the Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop), and Tricia Rose (author of the groundbreaking book on hip-hop, Black Noise: Rap Music and Black Culture in Contemporary America (1994)], who seeming sole purpose for mainstream (literate) white America was to interpret the signs and sounds of hip-hop, black youth culture, the OJ Simpson trial (which made Dyson a star), the Million Man March, and the murders of Tupac Shakur and The Notorious B.I.G. (Biggie Smalls/Christopher Wallace). While this generation of black public intellectuals has been alternately celebrated and scorned, they were not a “new” phenomenon, as some argued in the mid-1990s, but rather the latest of a long tradition of Black Public Intellectuals that included seminal figures such as Ida B. Wells Barnett, W.E.B. DuBois, and the legendary C.L.R. James.

At the time of Race Matters‘ publication, West was directing the Afro-American Studies program at Princeton. By 1996, West was firmly ensconced as a member of the “Dream Team”, the collection of black scholars that comprise the faculty of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for Afro-American Research. This group now includes folks like Gates, who runs the institute, West, sociologist William Julius Wilson (The Truly Disadvantaged, 1987), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, and recent additions Michael Dawson and noted post-colonialist, Homi Bhabba. The DuBois institute is synonymous with the field of African-American studies; often eclipsing the profile of equally important programs/department like those at Yale, NYU, Duke, Berkeley, Columbia, and Brown. According to Jacqueline Trescott in a 1996 article on the Institute, the “Dream Team” was “in terms of critical mass . . . the most prestigious group of black intellectuals since Thurgood Marshall gathered his team three decades ago” in preparation for Brown vs. Board of Education. (Washington Post 2.26.96) In the article, Black Issues in Higher Education publisher, Frank Matthews, admitted that the stakes were high: “We have the right to expect something from them in terms of solutions . . . some answers to the very vexing problems we have — from freedom of speech and rap music to how do we deal with AIDs crisis. We have to expect more than business than usual.” (Washington Post, 2.26.96) While the Institute has fallen short of such lofty expectations —how can any individual department be expected to change the world? — its high visibility has had, generally speaking, a positive impact on the field of African-American Studies. While Gates wields real “gatekeeper” power within African-American Studies, it is West who has been the most visible embodiment of the DuBois Institute and African American Studies.

It is against this back drop that Lawrence Summers, former Treasury Secretary in the Clinton Administration and brand new President of Harvard University, sat down with West in October of last year. Though the exact details of the meeting remain somewhat vague it is clear, as reported initially in The Boston Globe (12.22.01), that Summers took some issue with the grade inflation in West’s intro class in African-American Studies (apparently a wide spread problem at the University), his proclivity for producing books for general non-scholarly audiences (Summers apparently had only read Race Matters), and his recording of Sketches of My Culture, a spoken-word CD that has been mistakenly defined (repeatedly) as a “Rap” CD. Summers apparently also chided West for heading Al Sharpton’s presidential exploratory committee, though there is some dispute about this aspect of their conversation. After the story broke in late December, the reactions were swift. The “attack” on West inflated with the larger issue of Harvard’s commitment to Affirmative Action leading to the battling Reverends Sharpton and Jackson (in mortal combat over leadership of the mainstream Civil Right Movement) to enter the fray.

In a phone conversation with The Boston Globe, Jackson asserted that the “tension at Harvard is having an impact across the country . . . It is America’s flagship university. And the tension at Harvard over the equivocation or lack of clarity about affirmative action and inclusion is very disturbing.” (Boston Globe, 12.31.01) In a separate conversation with the same paper, Sharpton stated that he didn’t want to see faculty members “intimidated” (Boston Globe 1.1.02) Given the myriad of crises faced by people of African Descent in the United Sates, crises such as police brutality, racial profiling, the erosion of civil liberties, lack of meaningful health care and a near state of economic depression in some black communities, particularly after “9/11”, the decision of Sharpton and Jackson to use whatever political and social capital they possess to mediate a dispute between an elite Ivy League President and a six-figure elite Black Public Intellectual, seems particularly problematic. One has to wonder if either would extend the same energy in support of black faculty and staff at Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), who, depending upon the institution, are treated as little more than chattel. But to raise questions about black faculty who are “intimidated” by gatekeepers within black institutions is to risk access to and influence within those very institutions. No politically astute black mainstream politician is willing to do that.

In a another questionable response, The Tom Joyner in Morning Show initially reported that Harvard was attempting to “fire” Cornel West. West is, of course, a tenured University Professor at Harvard (one of 14 at the institution), who short of being convicted for a role in the 9/11 attacks, is not likely to be “fired” by the institution, as is the case with most tenured professors. The mistake on Joyner’s part speaks to the fact that the general public has very little understanding of the ebbs and flows of academic life, though that didn’t keep the show from mounting one of their famous “air-advocacy” campaigns in support of West. The “air advocacy” campaigns (the hosts urge listeners to fax and e-mail complaints/protests), which are largely the brain-child of commentator and National Public Radio (NPR) host Tavis Smiley, are a mixed bag. On the one hand, they have been instrumental in assisting flood victims in North Carolina and pushing through of the appointment of Roger Gregory to the Federal Courts. On the other hand, the campaigns have been bogged down in symbolic minutiae such as protesting the flying of the confederate flag in South Carolina (as opposed to actually helping to address the economic and educational inequities in the state). Accordingly, it was on the debut edition of Smiley’s NPR show in January, that West first spoke publicly about the fray, acknowledging that he doesn’t “tolerate . . . disrespect, being dishonored and being devalued.” (Washington Post, 1.7.02) Again, one has to wonder that if this was another era, and Smiley and Joyner were positioned as they are now, whether that would had extended such forums to the Institute’s namesake, W.E.B. DuBois, when the influential black intellectual — the template for the tradition, really — was carted out in front of McCarthy’s House Un-American Committee (HUAC) in the early 1950s and asked to renounce his ties to radicalism. The mainstream NAACP, which DuBois helped to create, had cut their ties with him in the late 1940s.

The efforts to rally around Cornel West are likely unprecedented in the history of the black intelligentsia in the United States, with only the early 1990s controversies surrounding the suspect Afrocentric “scholar”, Leonard Jeffries, coming close. The sudden attention towards the Black Intelligentsia raised consciousness among the black masses about the role of black intellectuals in their lives. During an extraordinary three-hour call-in program broadcast on C-Span 2 in early January, West fielded a wide array of questions about himself and the field of African-American Studies. One caller raised the question as to why scholars such as West and others teach at elite “white” institutions instead of teaching at Historically Black Universities and Colleges (HBCUs). West did what so many of us know as the post-structuralist two-step (I’ve done it more than a few times), with a lot of references to “teaching loads”, “research budgets”, and “financial rewards”. Of course, many of these HBCUs, especially elite institutions like Howard, Hampton, Spelman, Morehouse, and Fisk, were largely responsible for nurturing most of the black intelligentsia well into the 1980s.

With the “integrating” of traditionally “white” universities and colleges post-1970, there has effectively been a brain drain of the best and brightest black thinkers. They have been effectively integrated out of black institutions. Still, more than half of the black Ph.D.s produced in the United States are products of HBCUs, and those Ph.D.s most often pursue careers at HBCUs. In some cases, those faculty members are forced into a state of peonage, where they teach 8 and 10 course loads (in comparison, most faculty at public and private research institutions teach 2-4 courses a year), leaving them unable to become productive scholars and thus making them less marketable to other institutions. This reality has broader implications beyond HBCUs when the experiences of community college faculty and adjunct faculty are more closely examined. There is effectively a two-tier system of higher education, where students and faculty at elite research institutions simply derive greater rewards than those at non-research (teaching) and community colleges. Courtland Milloy makes such a point in his biting commentary about the lack of “elite” black intellectuals in Washington, DC, as he opines that the reason “Gates and West give for considering leaving Harvard is that they don’t always feel respected. However, the discomfort they are experiencing ought to serve as a reminder of how much worse it must be for blacks who have no power to leverage.” (Washington Post, 1.09.02)

Part of the leverage that West possesses is a long standing offer to return to Princeton. Part of the public discourse surrounding his flap with Summers has been this threat by West and fellow dream-teamers, Gates and K. Anthony Appiah, to leave Harvard. Although Gates does not have a formal offer from Princeton, Appiah has just recently accepted a new position at Harvard, with increasing speculation that West will follow suit. This is part of the academic star system: elite scholars are recruited from one elite institution to another all of the time, and the dream team is no different. In her scathing critique of Gates in the Village Voice (1.16.02), Thulani Davis suggests that the controversy was little more than a “power play” on the part of West to help him secure a more lucrative deal from Harvard. While such tactics are not unusual (some elite scholars pursue offers from other institutions for just that reason), Davis notes that in this instance, West’s power moves may create a “backlash for academics, black and white, in African American Studies all over the country.” She adds that “These thousands of scholars, some doing brilliant and unheralded work, have struggled for respectability for years, and they don’t need the kind of fallout that comes when privileged men call the race troops to arms for no greater reason than to enhance their already cushy careers.” In Davis’s essay, NYU historian Robin D.G. Kelley [Race Rebels (1994) and Yo Mama’s Disfunktional (1997)] raises the question that “if the president of Harvard could bring the country’s top Afro-American department down a notch, I can’t imagine what deans might do at other institutions where there is no respect for what we do.” (Village Voice, 1.16.02)

Barely two weeks after The Boston Globe first broke the story, Summers apologized for the controversy, affirming his commitment to “create an ever more open and inclusive environment that draws on the widest possible range of talents.” (Washington Post, 1.3.02) Summers was, of course, within his right to try and hold his faculty accountable — college and university Presidents regularly do this — but this particular incident with West is unique because of West’s profile and the historic devaluation of black intellectual thought (and more explicitly, the devaluation of the intellectual capabilities of people of African descent) and more recently, a general skepticism about the rigor and significance of African-American Studies and its various incarnations (Black Studies/Africana Studies). But there was a general consensus, especially among right-leaning commentators, that Summers had capitulated to the “evil” forces of white liberal guilt, political correctness, black victimology, and old-school race pimping. In this regard, the very backlash that Davis and Kelley suggested, became real-time narratives in press organs like National Review, The Wall Street Journal and even the “liberal” New York Times Magazine. Roger Kimball, for instance, made such a point in National Review, where he argued that Summers “learned . . . that if he dares to criticize black professors at Harvard, he will face the wrath of The [New York] Times, Jesse Jackson, and the whole steamroller smear machine of racialist political correctness . . . It is the text book of liberal intimidation at work.” (National Review, 1.28.02)

Post-apology commentary about the West-Summers fray ranged from public examinations of West’s income to public lectures (Rob Dreher in National Review, 1.1.02) and general perceptions that West, et al, was “crying wolf”. In the very New York Times Magazine that Kimball accused of liberal bias, Kate Zernike wrote an article on the controversy titled, “Can Crying Race Be Crying Wolf?”. In the Sunday Times (London), Andrew Sullivan derisively titled his commentary on the flap, “When Being Black is an Excuse for Taking the World for a Ride”. In the article, Sullivan states that West is “phenomenally rich . . . it’s hard to argue that he is a victim of the racist, sexist, homophobic, bourgeois elites he so often invokes and condemns.” The basic premises of both articles are that West economic status supercedes not only his feelings of insult in the aftermath of Summer’s comments, but that it also bankrupts, in their minds, his more legitimate disgust at racial, sexist, and queer discrimination and economic exploitation. Both essays exhibited a profound ignorance of the black intellectual traditions in general and more specifically, a fundamental understanding of the field of African-American Studies.

Nowhere was such ignorance more profound than in National Review contributing editor John Derbyshire’s ridiculous article, “Af-Am Nonsense.” (National Review, 1.11.02) Early in the article, Derbyshire admits suggesting that he was a “modest authority” on the subject of the dispute, because he “once read a book by Cornel West . . . standing in the aisle in one of the bookstores on midtown Fifth Avenue in New York.” He adds that “Race Matters was a small book, I am a fast reader, and I won’t swear that I read every word. I read enough, though, to know that the book was irredeemably awful . . . it was so badly written and constructed that you couldn’t tell what it was trying to say.” (National Review, 1.11.02) The reality that he might have been ignorant of the field of African-American studies is lost on Derbyshire, who felt he could and should legitimately critique a book that he skimmed while standing in line at a Barnes and Noble store, a book written by a scholar in a field of study that he has no real knowledge of. (I guess we can call this “white privilege”, the same thing that Summers articulated when he critiqued West for a CD Summers hadn’t listened to.) Derbyshire in fact latter admits that, “like most non-blacks”, he “always thought that ‘Afro-American Studies’ is a pseudo-discipline, invented by guilty white liberals as a way of keeping black intellectuals out of trouble and giving the a shot at holding professorships at elite institutions without having to prove themselves in anything really difficult.” (National Review, 1.11.02) It is exactly this kind of uninformed and condescending BS that West was reacting to in the first place.

In Breaking Bread, West writes that the “central task of postmodern Black intellectuals is to stimulate, hasten, and enable alternative perceptions and practices by dislodging prevailing discourses and powers. This can be done only by intense intellectual work and engaged insurgent praxis.” (145) West’s quote has effectively became a mantra for a whole generation of black intellectuals, particularly those who work in the fields of Cultural Studies and Critical Theory. In other words, it has been partly the job of these scholars to render traditional discourses of black life and culture as unrecognizable from those traditions in an effort to create a space for alternative visions of black life and culture, on the one hand countering white supremacist doctrine and on the other, challenging the hegemony of mainstream black institutions. The written work of scholars such as Hortense Spillers, Houston Baker, Jr., Paul Gilroy and Michael Awkward, as well as the public lectures of West and Michael Eric Dyson, are text-book examples of how difficult it can be to follow many of these themes. Some would recognize this as representing a certain complexity of thought among these scholars or at least, an over-reliance on post-structuralist jargon. Derbyshire just calls it “bad” writing.

Race Matters was a particularly perplexing book for some readers, because it attempted to “shorthand” some of West’s more erudite commentary. In short, if the goal of Beacon Press and even West, was to make Race Matters a “best-selling” commentary on “matters of race”, then that would most likely be achieved via a 150-page book as opposed to a 500 page one. It is well known within the field of African-American studies that Race Matters was heavily edited for just that reason — to make West a viable cross-over star. This is not to say that 500 page non-fiction books cannot be best-sellers, but 500 hundred page, non-fiction books by black intellectuals might be a difficult sell for audiences who are largely unaware that a black intellectual tradition exists. Such readers probably regard public figures like Jesse Jackson, Louis Farrakhan, Magic Johnson, and Ja Rule as being the most visible purveyors of black intellectual thought.

The reality is that even in the era of the Black Public Intellectual, black thinkers and artist are rarely allowed a “public complexity”, but rather, they are reduced to the smallest possible “racial box” in order to sell them and their ideas to a mainstream audience, black and non-black, who have never thought of “blackness” as being complex at all. Thus there is no language, for example, to think of Jay Z as a “entrepreneurial Gramscian thug” instead of just a “gangsta rapper”. In this environment John McWhorter’s largely anecdotal Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000) is hailed as a “brave intellectual achievement”, instead of just a collection of uncritical perceptions about black life. The small space allowed Black Public Intellectuals was made painfully clear a few months ago, when Michael Eric Dyson appeared on Book Notes with Brian Lamb to promote his latest book, Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. Admittedly, Lamb’s audience is not the type that would be familiar with Shakur or Dyson for that matter, but rather letting Dyson do his thing, when given time and freedom, he can “perform” like the good Rev. Green-Dyson. Instead, he was reduced to answering simply inane questions from Lamb like: “What’s a homie? . . . OK, then what’s a ho (whore)? Then what’s a bitch?”

In his article, Derbyshire doesn’t grant black intellectuals and the field of African-American studies much complexity. Of the presence of the German born literary critic at the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, Derbyshire writes, the “presence of Prof. Sollors is encouraging, suggesting that this is not entirely a boondoggle for otherwise-unemployable black intellectuals.” (As an aside, Derbyshire rails against the fact the institute was named after a communist, again showing his ignorance about the complexity of even Du Bois’s legacy). In other words, the department can only be validated by the presence of a “white” and therefore presumably “objective” scholar. Derbyshire finally suggest that African-American studies is bankrupt because it doesn’t engage in a formal mode of peer review. He writes, “You publish a paper in a learned journal, or read it at a scholarly conference, and scholars in your field then scrutinize it. Does this actually happen in ‘Afro-American Studies’? My guess is that it doesn’t.

Derbyshire should guess again. Phylon and the Journal of Negro History were pillars of black intellectual life for much of the first half of the 20th century. Even today, journals such as African American Review, Callaloo, Black Renaissance/Renaissance Noire, The Western Journal of Black Studies and Transition (which is housed at the Du Bois Institute), as well as “non-black” journals such as Social Text and Public Culture (which published a ground-breaking issue on the “Black Public Sphere” in the mid 1990s), are some of the places where black scholars do in fact face rigorous forms of peer review. Clearly, there was no form of peer review for Derbyshire before he provided such an ignorant and condescending commentary on the field of African American Studies.

While Derbyshire can ultimately plead ignorance, Shelby Steele presumably knows better. Thus, his mean-spirited diatribe against West, et al, in The Wall Street Journal (“White Guilt=Black Power”, 1.8.02) is not so easily dismissed. There is a long history of difference between West and Steele, who are the most visible poles of liberal and conservative ideology in blackface. Currently a research fellow at the hyper-conservative Hoover Institution, which also houses fellows Thomas Sowell, Dinesh D’Souza and National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, Steele, who is trained in literature, earned the National Book Critic’s Circle Award for his largely anecdotal The Content of Our Character: A New Vision of Race in America (1990). (Steele is John McWhorter’s intellectual father.) Steele has been the consistent voice of blackface commentary against Affirmative Action and Multiculturalism. In classic form, Steele used the West controversy to attack white liberal guilt. In the article, he describes West as an “academic lightweight.” (To put his statement in perspective, Steele has published two books, while West has written or edited close to twenty. As my momma would be apt to say, this is the “pot (cast iron) calling the kettle black”.) Steele’s argument is that West is a University Professor at Harvard only as a function of Affirmative Action policies. Of course, Steele doesn’t openly discuss whether he is only allowed a voice at The Wall Street Journal because he, too, is a mediocre scholar who has been given a “conservative pass” — because he is the most visible (and decidedly uncritical) apologist for black ambition.

Steele goes on to describe “white guilt” (which he accuses of Lawrence Summers) as “best understood as a vacuum of moral authority . . . it means whites lack the authority to say what they see when looking at blacks and black problems.” (Wall Street Journal, 1.8.02) Apparently, Steele is unaware of the moral authority of white (and black) law enforcement officers, who racially profile black and Latino/a people throughout the country. I’m pretty sure that the family of Amadou Diallo (an unarmed man who was shot to death by New York police) or Sherae Williams (who was “quietly” beaten by NYPD officers), would agree that there is a vacuum of moral authority and privilege among whites. While I concur to some degree that Jackson and Sharpton function as enforcers of white guilt and silence, I am hard pressed to find examples where that has translated into real institutional or political power.

Now, thanks to this debate, America has some idea of the Black intellectual tradition, though figures like Steele, Derbyshire and Kimball will have you believe that it is at best “mediocre”, and at worst bankrupt. On the other hand, “spokespersons” such as Sharpton, Jackson and Joyner/Smiley have in some way undermined the self-critical functions of the black intelligentsia. As if in the name of brokering perceptions within the mainstream, there is really some connection to their efforts and the work being produced in the field of African-American Studies. This is simply not the case, unless you count the recent Hip Hop Summit. One hopes that such energy will be used in the future to support the efforts of those folks who actually do meaningful, scholarly work in the field, instead of supporting those who show up regularly on Nightline, Charlie Rose, and C-Span 2. With such support for African-American studies and scholars, the kinds of attacks on the tradition made by the folks identified above will be seen as nothing more than racist attacks on the intellectual capabilities of the black community. For they are certainly not insightful commentary.

PopMatters is moving to a new hosting company to resolve our tech issues. Thanks for your patience.
PopMatters is moving to a new hosting company to resolve our tech issues. Thanks for your patience.