Black Public Intellectuals and Civil Society in Comparative Perspective
Black Public Intellectuals and Civil Society in Comparative Perspective
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter explores another dimension of the culture/politics conundrum: the 1990s debates about black public intellectuals in the United States. It places the mid-1990s debates about black public intellectuals within a hemispheric perspective, expanding the contours of its polemics beyond the borders of the United States to illustrate the American part of the discussion of what it means to be a public intellectual, black or otherwise.
In the 1990s, the term “black public intellectual” was used with some regularity to define and characterize a handful of then forty-something black academics whose increasing ubiquity in the public sphere as commentators and pundits generated intense debate in elite public discourse and in the rarified corners of U.S. academy. The mere presence of figures such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, and others in mainstream television, radio, and newspapers in the United States seemed to signal a new, and in some ways unprecedented era of a black critical presence in public fora, beyond the more restricted circuits of black mass media outlets. The fact that these and other black public intellectuals were not entertainers or sports celebrities also provided some sense of an opening: perhaps whites in the United States were now ready to consider the possibility that U.S. African American intellectuals, might actually have some interesting things to say about the United States and its place in the world, and not just black communities. The heat and polemics surrounding these very public figures have now subsided, and it should be clear to almost anyone who paid attention to the debates about black public intellectuals that while a handful of emergent and now prominent figures appear regularly on talk show circuits, syndicated radio shows, and in newspaper columns, few actually inform or influence government political, economic, or social policy. It could be argued, quite persuasively, that contemporary black critical voices now have less influence in the U.S. body politic than at any other point in U.S. history. This is a consequence of at least three (p.134) key factors: first, the perceptible shift in public discourse and political culture to the ideological right. Most black intellectuals and political actors remain to the left on a left-right continuum. Second, the vanishing presence of an actual left in public debate, with the proliferation of media conglomerates and monopolies that either accommodate or promote the nation’s rightward shift, further contributes to the diminution of the black public intellectual. Third, as at least one commentator has suggested, the crisis of black politics is at least partly to blame. To suggest that black public intellectuals are nonetheless influencing critical debate and political culture in black communities is to imply, in a fundamental way, that not much has changed. Discursive segregation in the exchange of ideas and commentary can still be correlated with the larger processes of segregation in U.S. civil society.
The contours of the debate about black public intellectuals are instructive, however, in the manner in which they foreground certain themes and not others (celebrity rather than ideas for example). The overall level of rigor of these debates was disappointing, and not because of the lack of complexity of the subjects themselves (though some suggested that this was, in fact, part of the problem), but due to the manner in which black public intellectuals as a category or type of intellectual were read. Larger questions and issues at stake were, for the most part, ignored: the relationship between the intellectual and civil society, and some comparative perspective on how so-called black public intellectuals look when considered alongside public intellectuals of other times and places outside the United States1 This chapter, which is a revised and expanded version of articles and essays I wrote on the topic of U.S. African American public intellectuals in the 1990s, can be read as an attempt to respond to two questions: what does it mean to be a black public intellectual in a society that has historically been quite suspicious of intellectuals of any sort (e.g., Adlai Stevenson, John Kerry)? What does it mean to be a public intellectual in a polity that values its intellectuals less than any other advanced industrialized country that proclaims itself a liberal democracy; less than even many not-so-liberal polities of what used to be referred to as the “Third World”? My response to these two questions can be read as an exploration of the third factor, what is often referred to as “the crisis of black politics,” and the topic of how black public intellectuals as a category and concept obscures larger global, diasporic, and transnational themes of black politics.
While many of the articles compared the proliferation of black public intellectuals to the generation of emergent Jewish intellectuals in the post-World War II period, not one article attempted to compare black public intellectuals (p.135) to their counterparts in the rest of the hemisphere, in Latin America, or the Caribbean. The U.S.-centric cast of this debate highlighted the manner in which the political imaginations and realities of our many, diverse neighbors of the Americas remain neglected, even though the formation of nation-states in Latin America and the Caribbean, legacies of racial slavery, and the severing of the colonial umbilical cord through anticolonial revolt provide greater symmetry for a comparative perspective on the sociological and political location of black public intellectuals in the contemporary United States.
As politics in the United States has increasingly been reduced to public opinion surveys, congressional debate, and electoral competition, rather than a more republican conception of politics as sophisticated, popular participation and engagement with the issues of the day, we would do well to consider that some of the most compelling black public intellectuals in U.S. history did not hold public office or appear regularly on TV and cable news networks. Figures such as Fannie Lou Hamer, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Marvel Cooke, Ella Baker, and even A1 Sharpton developed constituencies without ever holding public office. We would do well to consider that contemporary U.S. political culture is further removed from world opinion than it has ever been on a range of issues from nuclear disarmament and the prosecution of war to nationalism and transnational cooperation (critiques from within this segment of the U.S. African American community often were in dialogue with critics outside the United States on U.S. foreign and domestic policies). One of the aspects of U.S. African American experience that distinguished the black population from its white counterparts was its paradoxical location as a marginalized group within a powerful nation-state. This paradoxical location remains, I believe, a key defining feature of U.S. African American political participation in deliberation and debate in society, civil society, and in more global, multinational public spheres.
The paradoxes of U.S. African Americans’ marginal presence in the body politic of the United States helps us contextualize the contours of black politics in relation to formal, national macropolitics, cultural politics, and the world at large. The polemics about black public intellectuals were framed in entirely domestic and racial terms. Only when we consider black public intellectuals’ relation to institutions of power and authority do we begin to broaden our perspective on the predicaments faced by any public intellectual, regardless of color or nationality, in a polity that is at once open and closed to them. Political actors from historically marginalized groups, and not just in the United States, have often spoken to civil society, but not within civil society, when formal channels for debate in civil and political society are barred to them.
(p.136) The outsider status of most black public intellectuals in U.S. history can be tracked through the spaces from where their struggles for voice and civil equality have often been launched, vantage points that were not designed for direct political engagement—the concert hall or musical lyrics, the press conference following a major sporting event, and, indeed, the university lecture hall. Eartha Kitt’s blacklisting in the 1960s for her negative comments about the Vietnam War, the withdrawal of Paul Robeson’s passport in 1951, and Muhammad Ali’s loss of his heavyweight championship in 1965 because of his refusal to be inducted into the U.S. army are just three examples of black public figures whose celebrity did not shield them from state sanctions against their livelihood when they voiced political opinions that were divergent from dominant norms.
Their impact and outreach were limited by their politics, not their vocations. The curtailing of their activities signaled their relative powerlessness and the uncomfortable distance between white political elites in institutions of power and black spokespeople for the race who, by and large, remained on the outskirts of dominant political institutions. The sanctions imposed upon these figures pinpoint the coordinates at which public discourse and state power intersect. The relative powerlessness of black public intellectuals and the larger crisis of black politics are themes that lurked behind debates concerning the role, virtues, and alleged decline of the black public intellectual in the United States. These themes went largely unacknowledged. Consequently, any consideration of what the characterization “black public intellectual” means for present-day black politics was largely absent. Instead, the celebrity status of certain individuals, with little attempt to place them in cultural contexts larger than their idiosyncrasies, flaws, and personalities, was a major preoccupation of most assessments of figures identified as black public intellectuals.
I Black Intellectuals and the Limitations of the New York Left Paradigm
These accounts of the rise and emergence of black public intellectuals in the 1990s tended to focus on the three seemingly novel aspects of their formation and presence: their resemblance to an earlier generation of Jewish left intellectuals of the 1940s and 1950s, their relationship to postmodernism, and their celebrity status. The three most substantive articles about the state of black public intellectuals were Michael Berube’s New Yorker piece,2 Robert Boynton’s ruminations on the new generation of black intellectuals under age forty-five (p.137) in the Atlantic Monthly,3 and Adolph Reed’s sustained critique in the Village Voice.4 Berube’s and Boynton’s articles utilize the New York, largely Jewish left of postwar New York as the comparative referent for their discussion of people like Michael Dyson, bell hooks, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., as well as black ideological and cultural conservatives such as Thomas Sowell and Stanley Crouch, respectively. There are obvious, albeit superficial similarities. Both groups cut their political teeth upon a dominant ideological current within their respective communities (Marxism for Jewish intellectuals, cultural nationalism for blacks), only to discard or drastically qualify their ideological—often doctrinaire—positions.
Boynton emphasizes the role of racial difference as a line of demarcation separating black and Jewish intellectuals of these two very different time periods. Both Berube and Boynton note the societal transformations brought about by the civil rights movement and grudgingly administered by the U.S. government. Although both cadres had their respective shetls, crucibles of learning that combined experiential knowledge of the outsider with rarified academic training, they lived in different neighborhoods and in different times.
Most accounts of the New York left (not only Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals) fail to mention that there were black public intellectuals, academic and otherwise, who were alive and well in New York from the 1930s through the 1950s. Only Reed’s Village Voice article notes this fact.5 Important figures like Ben Davis, a radical lawyer and Communist Party member in the 1940s; Marvel Cooke, the first woman to write regularly for a daily newspaper in the United States and a Communist as well; Paul Robeson, and others were in New York during this period. There are enough histories of strategic and substantive relations between the black and white left in New York City, beginning with the Popular Front and “Double V” campaigns against foreign fascism and domestic state and capitalist racism to forgo their reiteration here.6 Amidst the genuine solidarity between figures like Herbert Aptheker, Paul Robeson, John Apt, and Doxie Wilkerson during this period, there were also uneasy relations between some white and black leftists due to the reductionist manner in which the former cadre—like many leftists then and now—treated racial oppression as mere flotsam upon capitalism’s undulating surface.
As noted by George Fredrickson, Robin Kelley, and Nell Painter, Communists, black and white, had multiple, often conflicting motivations for fostering interracial alliances in response to white supremacist, paramilitary, as well as more liberal but nonetheless racist organizations. Fredrickson, Gerald Horne, Martha Biondi, and others have also provided useful correctives to the historiography of black left/Communist alliances, through their examination of (p.138) movements and organizations of interracial alliance in response to local conditions of U.S. racism, rather than directives from the Comintern. In realpolitik terms, the economic determinists were no economic determinists. Nevertheless, certain segments of the white left have tended to prioritize class as an organizing principle for all forms of social struggle, eliding the obvious fact that in a society such as that of the United States, intraclass coalition between white and black workers was often frustrated or a complete fantasy due to the depth of white working-class bigotry toward their black working-class counterparts. Black leftists have struggled with white leftists over the importance of racism in maintaining capitalist dominance in the United States, formally and informally, from the much of the twentieth century.
The most relevant point here for an examination of black public intellectuals in some historical perspective is that with few exceptions, black public intellectuals in the United States, by virtue of the unique conditions of their formation, operated at the boundaries of society and civil society, of social movements and political parties and, of subjecthood and citizenship. Whether we are considering Sojourner Truth or Marvel Cooke, Frederick Douglass, or Martin Delaney, W. E. B. Du Bois or Marcus Garvey, or, more recently, Barack Obama or Jesse Jackson Sr., their alliances and the limitations of their power and influence were conditioned by their unique political/sociological location in U.S. society. Ultimately, it was their politics, and the politics of the domestic and international context surrounding them, that made them “public intellectuals.” This is an important point to keep in mind as we consider the most contemporary generation of black public intellectuals.
Since the concept of a public intellectual is not, at least in its origin, “home grown,” we can at least consider the ways in which the practice or performance of a public intellectual in the United States may differ from public intellectuals in other national societies. We could also consider how U.S. African Americans, given their minority status, may in fact share certain political and sociological characteristics with minority public intellectuals in other national societies, if not their own. The comparison between the white Jewish left, white left internationalists more generally, and black public intellectuals has its virtues as an initial means of understanding the formation of a vanguard of intellectuals and public activists among a historically marginalized group. Yet beyond this starting point, the comparison grows unwieldy. First, as Berube notes, U.S. racism has forestalled the transformation of the general U.S. African American population into just another ethnic group that, despite the lingering presence of anti-Semitism in the United States, Jewish U.S. citizens have ostensibly become. The New York, largely Jewish left, were emigrants from the Old World and operated within a (p.139) U.S. political culture of political parties, trade unions, social movements, and political ideologies that resembled their European predecessors and contemporaries in form, if not content. Jewish intellectuals and common folk could and did participate in civil society (voting, elected office, assembly, and other modes of formal political participation) long before U.S. African Americans as a group could, which amounts to another symbol of Jewish incorporation into the body politic of the United States, anti-Semitism notwithstanding.
If we consider not their putatively racial status, but focus instead on their political status, U.S. African Americans have been native-born foreigners, struggling over the course of three centuries for equal participation in the body politic. Thus, in two important respects, black public intellectuals, mostly nonacademic until the latter half of the twentieth century, had a very distinct relation to the formal public sphere of white society. This is true not only for black intellectuals in the United States but also for black and mulatto political and social activists throughout the New World. In this respect at least, the genealogy of black public intellectuals is quite distinct from Jewish or other white ethnic groups who came to dominate or at least have a presence in U.S. political culture. In the absence of an actual political sociology of the black intelligentsia in the United States of the sort that Martin Kilson has been working on for a number of years, what I am suggesting here is provocative but ultimately tentative. Nevertheless, it could be argued that U.S. African American intellectuals combined features of the political sociology of Caribbean and Latin American public intellectuals and political actors, regardless of phenotype. Black public intellectuals might share more commonalities with generations of public intellectuals operating under colonial and racial regimes than the public intellectuals of Euro-U.S. political culture.
II Adolph Reed and the Crisis of Black Politics
Of the three commentators mentioned, only Adolph Reed, the political scientist and left activist, sought to situate the current crop of black public intellectuals within an analysis of black macropolitics. Tellingly, he does not rely upon the black/Jewish comparison and instead outlines a critical genealogy of black political debate, analyzing the parameters of black participation in national politics and criticism on their own historical and epochal terms. Reed provides insight into what could be characterized as a black public sphere over the course of the twentieth century, where informed individuals participated in reasoned debate about the condition of their communities.
(p.140) While Reed does not utilize the concept of a public sphere, he discusses the impact of desegregation upon black journals and the demise of a racially specific audience for the black intelligentsia. Within the vise grip of McCarthyism, he explains, the black public sphere shrank even more. Subsequently, integration provided black thinkers with a larger theater, but fewer roles to play in media vehicles dominated by whites.
At this point, however, Reed’s analysis takes a turn that unfortunately blunts his critique. He pays greater attention to the personal foibles of certain individuals and the cottage industry-like interactions between them, than the national political culture of the period in which contemporary black intellectuals were spawned. Ironically, Reed is deeply implicated within his own critique, in the sense that all intellectuals, whether anointed with the title of public intellectual or not, are public. As a regular contributor to The Nation and other left journals on matters of race, Reed himself is embedded in the national, popular tendency to treat the singular perspective of one black individual as the community perspective writ large, a quandary that has existed for black writers ever since they began writing with a white audience in mind, since the late eighteenth century (Phillis Wheatley) at least.
While Reed may dislike the manner in which certain black intellectuals relate to a white public, he (like the rest of us) is often placed in the role of racial translator, one of the consequences of the paucity of critical discourse in the public realm. Reception and consumption is a related though distinct dimension of black intellectual production. Neither the segment of the black public intellectual cohort who are the source of Reed’s frustration, nor the larger community of intellectuals of which they are a part, have much control over how they are read. Reed’s article does, however, raise a fundamental question about the relationship between black public intellectuals and black politics: to what political communities do black public intellectuals belong?
A 1992 article written by Rev. Eugene Rivers of Boston, entitled “Black Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” posed this question, but in so doing conflated racial community with political community, a concern I address in the concluding chapter to this book. The question embedded in the article and title was what relationship and responsibility do black public intellectuals of any sort have to poor black communities plagued by the social malaise of drug addiction? A 1994 conference inspired by Rivers’s article brought together Glenn Loury, Cornel West, bell hooks, and other black public intellectuals. Both the conference and the article are emblematic of the various tightropes of relevance black public intellectuals have been required to tiptoe across. As pointed out by Robin Kelley, part of the problem with the framing of such a (p.141) conference is the presumption that black public intellectuals have more ability to stem the then—and now—crack plague than white intellectuals.7 Is it the black public intellectual’s responsibility, as opposed to the welfare state, to provide social and healthcare services to black or any other crack addicts in U.S. society? If crack addiction is a clinically defined form of drug dependency, then it is not immediately apparent how intellectuals who are not drug counselors or medical doctors can alleviate or eradicate drug dependency. Black public intellectuals, like other black middle-class professionals, have had to provide defenses for their personal success amidst high black unemployment, urban violence, and whatever else has been deemed to be a “black problem,” as if their successful dance with U.S. capitalism and racism required them to explain why they had become neither middle managers, athletes, nor crack-heads. Perhaps Foucault’s description of the demise of the general intellectual, and the emergence of the specific intellectual, is a useful way of considering the limitations of contemporary black public intellectuals to address every and all social problems black communities face.8 One distinction between black public intellectuals of the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries in the United States and those of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is the increasing specialization of both intellectual and political labor. This is a consequence of the rise of literacy, mass media, and increased professional specialization in the United States, not just among U.S. African Americans.
Given the emergence and proliferation of specific intellectuals, it is a bit unrealistic and superficial to expect black public intellectuals to be all things to all people, whether in black communities or elsewhere. Leftists and conservatives have pointed to the materialistic aggrandizement of certain black public intellectuals as examples of co-optation. While certain individuals may have gotten much wealthier as a result of their punditry, we should also consider their success in light of the contradictions and antinomies of a class-based society, and the presumed role that black elites are supposed to play in the betterment of black communities. One of the unexplored presumptions of the conference’s main themes was that black public intellectuals and their wealthy or middle-class counterparts in black communities are expected to provide for their more impoverished or drug-addicted brethren in ways that the state and other sectors of U.S. society and civil society presumably do not. I believe that such a presumption may give more insight into the expectations that black public intellectuals and celebrities can provide solutions to problems of social welfare that the state, private organizations and initiatives cannot. If so, then this tells us more about black expectations from civil society and society at large, than it does about black public intellectuals. In a society where the (p.142) state has increasingly retreated from public life, private capital, foundations large and small, religious-based community organizations, and inviduals have sought to fill the gap created by the state’s retreat from supporting and equitably distributing social services, access to medical care, housing, and solutions to a range of other societal ills. This larger context enables us to better situate the so-called crisis of the black public intellectual, as well as the precarious location of the black middle classes, who have been chastised in many circles for not doing enough for the black poor.
Never in the history of capitalism have the middle and upper classes of any ethnic group or national minority been expected to assist in the socioeconomic advancement of their working-class counterparts, yet there is the asumption that middle-class blacks—black public intellectuals among them—have a special role to play in helping communities that white elites, private businesses, public corporations, and the U.S. government have long abandoned. The left, in particular should be careful in joining this chorus, since this smacks of voluntarism of the worst kind, wherein individual will is meant to compensate for the absence of coherent state policies and practices of social welfare. Neither black intellectuals nor black middle classes more generally are in positions of power and authority to determine how tax revenues are spent, which businesses move in and out of neighborhoods, and what infrastructures should be in place to improve the lives of black poor. No mere assortment of intellectuals, white, black, or otherwise, can ever resolve these problems.
The absence of similar accusations and debates involving white ethnic communities, as well as Latinos and Hispanics, provides some clues to the peculiar set of demands and expectations heaped upon black public intellectuals. Could anyone imagine the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Jeanne Kirkpatrick, or Sean Penn participating in (much less attending) a conference entitled “Irish Intellectuals in the Age of Whiskey” in order to be chastised for not doing enough to address alcoholism in Irish-American communities? Class flight, not just white flight, is a core part of the U.S. success narrative.
Reed, however, is no conservative, and attempts to address a more substantive problem that has plagued left debate for at least thirty years. Reed’s anxieties stem from a belief that the recent crop of cultural studies specialists and postmodernists are obsessed with the circulation of capitalist production—the marketing of goods, libidinal impulses, and music as the cultural artifacts of authentic blackness—while ignoring issues like electoral gerrymandering and disproportionate unemployment. Berube echoes a similar discomfort at the end of his article.
(p.143) In his concluding ruminations on the current crisis, Reed asserts that blacks “should be in the forefront of the fight against ratification of the balanced budget amendment, crafting responses to the so-called tort reform, and finding ways to counter the assault on the Bill of Rights.”9 And so they should. Reed correctly assaults one of the lacunae in some (not all) forms of cultural analysis; the absence of sustained investigation of institutional forms of power, and the assumption that discourse is all. Both Reed’s and Berube’s worries, however, reflect an ongoing debate at cross-purposes not only between black social scientists and humanities scholars but also between structuralist and poststructuralist understandings of power.
Debates on tort reform, on the other hand, do not typically address issues of white supremacy, racial inequality, or black subordination, regardless of the race of debate participants. If racism has an enduring role in the structuring of social life in the United States, then its impact can be witnessed and experienced across a range of political, cultural, and economic phenomena, from redistricting to rap music. Rather than prioritize one form of analysis and political activism over another, as Reed does, there should (could?) be more synthetic and integrative analysis of the role of racism in national life.
Reed’s dismissal of cultural studies and popular culture leads him to dismiss their subjects of analysis as well, including youth culture in general, and black youth culture in particular. Reed states near the end of his essay that black youth are “the least connected, the most alienated, and the least politically attentive cohort of the black population,”10 which for Reed is proof of their political and scholarly irrelevance. It should be recalled that the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) of the 1960s was replete with alienated, disaffected youth who became the shock troops, key strategists, and thinkers of the civil rights and Black Power movements. Had scholars and activists of the civil rights movement considered the disaffection and alienation of black youth as grounds for dismissal of these young, aggressive uncouths, we would have had a very different type of civil rights movement and, consequently, a very different national history.
III The New World and the United States
How do U.S. black public intellectuals look when compared with their counterparts in other parts of the world? In class, racial, and status terms, many Latin American and Caribbean public intellectuals were marginal figures in relation to colonial administrators, white elite criollos or creoles, and Europeans from (p.144) the metropolitan center. National intellectuals in places like Cuba, Guatemala, Argentina, Trinidad, Jamaica, and Brazil worried over the juxtaposition of Old World traditions and New World realities in ways that most New York or other white leftists never had to, beginning with the movements toward national independence in the early nineteenth century. While Latin American and Caribbean nations certainly had (and have) racial and ethnic inequalities, the mélange of cultural differences became ingredients for the constitution of national identity. Afro-inflected expressive cultures were constitutive cultural components of national identity in various New World nations (salsa, samba, tango, West African religions) by the 1940s (earlier in some places), in contrast to their largely regional and urban influences of jazz and blues in the United States by this time. In macropolitical terms, the independence wars in many Latin American nations were directly tied to the fate of Afro-Latin peoples, since the freedom of African and African-derived slaves was often directly tied to their participation in wars of national liberation. Afro-Latin participation in wars of national liberation helped usher in an era of abolition and emancipation, but not necessarily political and economic freedom. Afro-Latin populations have often fit uneasily in the national portraits of racial harmony depicted by intellectuals in Cuba, Brazil, Venezuela, and Ecuador. The pronounced cultural presences of Afro-Latin America in language, foodstuffs, music, and art, defined as national popular culture, can be contrasted with the economic and political marginalization of Afro-Latin peoples. On the other hand, U.S. African American culture has received belated recognition as an integral component of U.S. popular culture.
Common to the African-descended populations of Latin America and U.S. African Americans, however, are the disjuncture of cultural and macropolitical representation. The appropriation of African religious and musical expression, when combined with indigenous and European influences, would serve to erase distinctions between high and low cultures in many Latin American and Caribbean nations by the middle of the twentieth century. C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary exemplifies the kind of cultural analysis that has served as a prototype for forms of critical ethnography and theory subsequently advocated by students of cultural studies, poststructuralism, and postmodernism. His examination of the role of cricket as a conduit for disparate ethnic groups, an anchor for national identity, an expression of Afro-Trinidadian pride, as well as a transport toward his own political awakening is more akin to the writings of a Ralph Ellison, Alejo Carpentier, or Roque Dalton in at least one crucial respect. James’s Beyond a Boundary was, if nothing else, a chronicle of national identity formation and the role of popular culture (the spectator (p.145) sport of cricket) in producing a national imaginary and of Afro-Trinidadian intellectuals and sportsmen who would seek to transform the colony into an independent nation.
This is not to suggest that James anticipated postmodernism, but to suggest that James and many other black modern intellectuals who were also political activists had their own ideas about the relationship between racial slavery and capitalism, enough to question the universalizing presumptions in Hegel and Marx, the lofty idealism of a John Stuart Mill, the skepticism about civil society found in Rousseau, and the racism or ethnocentrism rampant in the writings of these and other Euromodern intellectuals. The skepticism about Western modernity found in the writings of Frantz Fanon and Richard Wright, two more black public intellectuals from different places and times, provides enough material to develop an archaeology of sorts of black public intellectuals whose suspicions about the West’s sense of itself as a coherent, universalizing project appear well before postmodernism. This is merely to put forth the possibility that even for figures like bell hooks, Cornel West, and Michael Eric Dyson as contemporary black public intellectuals, their predecessors in the black world provided, at the very least, a more conflicted, ambivalent reading of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment than they have been given credit for. Black public intellectuals, therefore, both inside and outside the United States, have arrived at participation in public spheres of white-dominated civil societies and institutions on paths distinct from white ethnics, even if there has been a fellow-traveler quality to their sojourns into the public sphere.
James’s work, though exemplary, is also paradigmatic of a black intelligentsia of the New World through most of the twentieth century who sought to self-consciously situate their writings, art, and activism in national and transnational terms. As Cedric Robinson’s historical archaeology of the black radical tradition suggests to us, the black critical intelligentsia in the twentieth century, of which James is a part, had sources and motivating factors both identical to and distinct from their Euro-U.S. counterparts in the white radical traditions of the modern West. As I have analyzed in chapters 7 and 8, black transnational political actors—one type of public intellectual—have articulated substantive concerns about their politically marginal status in specific nation-states, as well as the more general condition of people of African descent globally, further distinguishing them as political actors from their national white counterparts.
One commonality among African American public intellectuals in the Americas is the documentation and conservation of black popular cultural traditions as sites of political and normative independence from white, elite-dominated (p.146) national norms and popular culture. The importance of the popular—as a site for cultural fusion—emergent national solidarity, and the recognition of the role of African slaves and their descendents in the material and cultural development of a national society, have been a preoccupation of not only world historical figures like James, Du Bois, and Alain Locke but also less known African American figures such as Abdias do Nasicimento, Wilson Harris, Walter Rodney, Susannah Baca, and Nancy Morejon of Peru and Cuba respectively. Part of the reason for this is surprisingly easy to decipher. The realm of indigenous national popular culture, ranging from the steel drum and cricket teams in Trinidad and dread culture in Jamaica to Santeria in Cuba, provided the space for black intellectuals and artists to carve out their unique role in an evolving national cultural formation, amidst the racial formation of colonial and postcolonial society, at the same time that they, and other citizen-subjects, were treating and identifying their music, religion, sport, poetry, and prose as national culture throughout the New World. Negro spirituals were not quite the same thing as spirituals sung in white church congregations; the cricket played in Trinidad was not the same as that played in India or Britain; Santería is not quite Voudun, Candomblé is not quite Western Christianity, and so on. Within colonial, apartheid, and racially exceptionalist societies ranging from the United States to Brazil and Venezuela, there was a relative absence of a space within civil society for African Americans to not only engage with the issues of the day but also compete with their white, Creole counterparts for formal positions in macropolitics and political representation. These African American intellectuals made the space and practice of culture resonate with macropolitical possibilities at a moment when the spheres of political society (the state) and civil society (the elite-driven public sphere) were largely denied them.
African descended cultural forms, their practitioners, and the spaces in which they operated and thrived would be considered popular rather than radical, as long as the cultural and macropolitical spheres remained discrete. This was unlike Jewish intellectuals in the United States, whose Judaism, whether practiced or not, was linked to a specific set of texts that constituted the “Jewish” in Jewish intellectual. Black public intellectuals had no such texts. Such texts had to be created and invented, often out of existing texts (such as the Bible or the Koran).
If, at any time, the cultural sphere was utilized by slaves and former slaves as a site for the articulation of dissent, mobilization, or rebellion (Boukman and St. Domingue, Paul Bogle’s revolt in Jamaica), the cultural sphere was transformed into a space of danger to the interests of white elites. This is as (p.147) true for the history of black cultural and political articulation in the United States as it is for Haiti or even Brazil. Hence, someone like Pelé in Brazil could be lauded by the Brazilian elite as an expression of cultura brasileira in the late 1970s while criticized at the same time by segments of the black movement in Brazil for not accurately representing the interests and concerns of black and brown Brazilians. What interests me here are the ways in which the application of the concept of representation is not an electoral one, while the expectations of a sort of racial or constituency representation remained, despite the fact that in the 1970s, Brazilians of any color could not vote for politicians or political parties of their choosing. Muhammad Ali, to provide another example from sport, was referred to as “the people’s champion” after being stripped of his heavyweight title in 1965. In both examples, the issue of a popular, non-electoral representation highlights the politics/culture division and its distinctive configuration in black public spheres.
This takes us further into more analytic and even philological territory concerning the very term “public.” To what “public” do contemporary black public intellectuals belong? Ultimately, if being an intellectual is at least in part a social activity, isn’t the “public” in the term “black public intellectual” redundant?
The public, the popular and the people, as we know from both political theory and the examination of the notion of the popular in the crafting of constitutional law, is plural, and not always ideologically radical or lowercase republican. What distinguishes black publics and, by implication, black public intellectuals, is that they have evolved and emerged first in the social spaces of white-dominated societies, rather than the political spaces of white dominated societies. What makes societies civil, in a Hobbesean sense, is the Euro-U.S. presumption that there could be institutions and places in a society where macropolitics could be conducted based on the rule of law, deliberation, and competition, rather than raw power, coercion, and violence. For abolitionists and civil rights activists, engagement with the issues of the day, with the political institutions and elites of civil society, was fraught with violence. The granting of suffrage and political independence in former colonial societies, and the extension of voting rights privileges to black populations without property or other conditional clauses in places like the United States or South Africa, represented the first instance of movement from the informally to the formally political for former slaves and colonials.
The granting of suffrage helped auger an era where the concept of politics in black public spheres would more closely resemble the concept of politics defined by white elites, namely, the politics of state. Prior to this moment, black (p.148) political actors who engaged in public debate did not necessarily do so in civil society. Moreover, they experienced liberal democratic regimes and politics as resolutely authoritarian or even totalitarian polities in relation to matters of black equality. Thus, what would be considered extraordinary “exceptions” to liberal democratic, popular, representative political traditions in the ways normally framed and categorized by political scientists (fascism or authoritarianism, for example) in Western political traditions were more often than not the “normal” conditions under which black political actors engaged with the macropolitics of white civil society.
In the transition from informal to formal politics, black public intellectuals and political actors more generally were thus faced with the quandary of representation in a new form: should they continue to employ the techniques of politics associated with the era of formal political exclusion, or should they adopt the tactics and strategies of politics associated with formal politics of the elites of their national societies? It is no accident then that the first generation of black public intellectuals in colonial and apartheid societies became the elite in their own communities, and not in the elite sphere of white political and civil society. In terms of macropolitics, then, “crossover” should have a dual connotation, from black, colonial, and apartheid spaces to white ones; from black political rhetoric and repertoires to more “mainstream” ones. This is why, in some fundamental ways, A1 Sharpton is both an anachronism and a nonelected “representative” of a small constituency of U.S. African Americans, for his political style represents another, earlier—though not necessarily worse off—era of black politics in the United States.
The routes, therefore, to representation as black public intellectuals are quite distinct from the paths of Euro-U.S intellectuals who have been defined as public intellectuals within civil societies defined by white elites. Therefore, when Berube explains the distinctive cultural features of black public intellectuals in terms of the encounter between black nationalism and postmodernism, I grow suspicious, because this form of intellectual and activist genealogy cuts off the prior context of black intellectual and political formation.
In macropolitical terms, it could be argued that New World academics and writers have had far greater impact upon public discourse in their own countries over the course of the twentieth century than their U.S. counterparts have had. In the process of national cultural development, Latin American and Caribbean intellectuals have long ago pulled back the transparent curtain separating “academia” from “real life,” which is why, from a hemispheric perspective, the straddlings of a few black public intellectuals in the United States are nothing new. When one thinks of public intellectuals like Walter Rodney (p.149) in Guyana, Octavio Paz in Mexico, Norman Girvan or George Beckford in Jamaica, and a slew of other intellectuals in other parts of the Americas, one is struck by how Latin American and Caribbean intellectuals have played a greater role in public discourse than their counterparts in the United States, regardless of their ideological positions.
The ambiguities of black public intellectuals in the United States resonate with the dilemmas of their New World counterparts in other ways as well. Rigoberta Menchú, the 1992 Nobel Laureate for Peace and a Quiche woman from Guatemala, has been criticized by fellow indigenous activists in her own country for becoming world famous and capitalizing upon the plight of her people in her testimonial I Rigoberta Menchú. According to her critics, she has assumed the role of “honorary indigena” at international conferences and heads-of-state dinners in foreign countries.11 How different—or warranted—is this criticism from the accusations hurled at Cornel West, bell hooks, and Michael Dyson for their purported betrayal of a black public?
Like Rigoberta Menchú, black public intellectuals of the present day must leave the confines of their communities in order to make their plight more identifiable to a larger, presumably liberal audience. Menchú’s testimonial exemplifies the contradictions between cultural revelation and cultural preservation that have plagued intellectuals of many minority and oppressed groups including, but not limited to, black, Jewish, and indigenous intellectuals. In order to give evidence of the slaughter and oppression her people have experienced at the hands of white landowners, she must write a book about her community’s ways and values. She notes, however, at several times in the testimonial that her community’s cultural practices must be kept secret and discussion of them is viewed as betrayal.
In this sense, Menchu’s dilemma is quite similar to the paradoxes of her U.S. African American contemporaries and African American predecessors; in order to embody the travails of one’s community, intellectuals belonging to marginalized ethnic or racial groups must travel some distance from them to make their concerns “public,” which may place them at a distance from the people they claim to represent, or at least, identify with.
Common to all of the aforementioned public intellectuals in Latin America or the Caribbean is the history and risk of state sanction. Whether it is James’s house arrest imposed by his former protégé Eric Williams in 1965, Roque Dalton or Walter Rodney’s assassinations in Salvador and Guyana respectively, or the murders of Chico Mendes in Brazil or Cardinal Oscar Romero in El Salvador, the ability of public intellectuals to speak on the issues of the day without fear of state or paramilitary reprisal is a barometer of the safe vibrancy of a (p.150) civil society. While no shortage of death threats and other kinds of threats have been directed at several of the contemporary black public intellectuals in the United States, their ability to participate in the major, mainstream media outlets without fear of sanction for their participation (as opposed to what they have to say) may signal something about U.S. liberal democracy at present: either the country has reached a political maturity regarding black participation in the public sphere or the country has reached a stage of consumerism and commodification of celebrity where the statements of a few black individuals in any public forum, in the end, are examples of largesse. This is not to suggest that black public intellectuals have nothing important to say, but to inject some comparative (temporal and spatial) perspective so that we might understand that the stakes for black public intellectuals in the United States are quite different now than they were twenty or thirty years ago. For public intellectuals operating in much more politically restrictive circumstances in other parts of the Americas and the world, the stakes for speaking out on the issues of the day continue to be more dangerous.
A comparative perspective on the dynamics of cultural and institutional politics and the dangers of ignoring cultural dimensions of political life is in order here. As Stuart Hall has argued, since the 1980s and the weakening of the welfare state in advanced industrialized nation-states like France, Britain, and the Netherlands, rightist social movements have been able to gain significant advantage over liberal-left coalitions by commandeering the terms of public debate over issues of social welfare and immigration. Objective facts of social policies aimed at helping the poor and minorities, as well as the changing nature of the international political economy, are obscured and discounted by a mountain of rhetoric and misinformation. Nationalist-xenophobic rhetoric has revolved around issues of family, racial purity, immigration, and biological and cultural justifications for the poor remaining poor. This is the outcome of political and cultural struggles in which center-right coalitions have gained the upper hand, beginning with the Thatcher and Reagan administrations of the 1980s. Such is the case with welfare and affirmative action debates in the United States.
In left academic circles, sectarian squabbles between structurally and culturally based approaches have been a recurrent theme in social theory and activism ever since people first quoted Marx. Again, a less U.S.-centered view on such matters is instructive. The inaugural debates in the British journal The New Left Review, founded in 1962, featured advocates of both sides of the economics versus culture debate. This debate resurfaced in exchanges involving Stuart Hall, Bob Jessop, and others over the relevance of qualitative analysis in general, and cultural studies in particular, the 1980s.12 Such debates are not (p.151) limited to The New Left Review or the left in Britain, but occurred in many postindustrial societies at the end of the twentieth century. The challenge to mobilize popular groups no longer socialized in traditionally understood working-class environments, labor and culture, amidst clamor about globalization, immigration, and multiculturalism, was and is the common crisis affecting the left in much of Europe as well as the United States. At stake is the continued relevance of left critique and discourse in public life.
IV Public Intellectuals of Various Hues
When considered more abstractly, the debates about black public intellectuals in the 1990s could have provided an opportunity to examine how public intellectuals from minority or emergent public spheres become barometers of the tensions and forms of interaction between regimes, dominant and subordinate groups, and national political cultures. The tensions between Rigoberta Menchú and other indigenous activists can, on one level, be attributed to jealousy, backbiting, the narcotics of fame and power, and other human failings. These tensions can also be viewed as the limitations of strategies for collective action and change that have not kept pace with the multimediated world that requires oppositional movements to be public relations specialists and political actors simultaneously. Strategies for collective action in a multimediated world require community activism that forces intellectuals to inhabit distinct, often contradictory positions for the purpose of macropolitical aims.
In Representations of the Intellectual, Edward Said writes that “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.”13 This broadens the category of the public intellectual to include those who engage in debate and political action with fellow citizens, yet it also limits the category to those who write. Grassroots organizers, nurses, and grandmothers in communities across this country engage in sustained collective action against the burning of books, antiabortion guerrillas, paramilitary terrorists (homegrown and foreign), and teenage violence. They too are public intellectuals but operate within a distinctive public realm in which they are highly visible to some and invisible (for lack of celebrity) to others. They operate in what Nancy Fraser has called micropublic spheres, an idea that suggests multiple publics. Transnationally, groups as radically committed to societal transformation as the Irish Republican Army and the African National Congress housed mass media and intelligence experts within their organizations without contradiction.
(p.152) How to mobilize? With different types of public intellectuals there is the possibility that some public intellectuals operate in different public realms, and that some intellectuals are more public than others. Perhaps a more appropriate reflection upon intellectual engagement in public life is Michael Walzer’s The Company of Critics, rather than Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals. Although there is only one female intellectual and no nonwhites in Walzer’s book, he surveys intellectuals actively engaged in public debate in a variety of societies both inside and outside the West, not just in northwestern Europe or New York City. Walzer uses the term “social critic,” rather than “public intellectual,” to categorize those written about in his book. Their publicness is assumed, not lauded. By depriving the term “public intellectual” of its sexiness, we can recognize that public and organic intellectuals are not always one and the same.
For this reason, the category of the public intellectual needs to be broadened in public debate to include a class of committed people and their groups whose books (if they have them) and speeches may never reach the bookstores or your local video shop. Grassroots activists and organizations who fit into this latter category run the continuous danger of being ignored and neglected by an amorphous public whose intellectuals are already defined for them. What is at stake here are definitions of leadership (another category that overlaps with public intellectual but is not its coeval) and who comes to define them.
Part of the confusion about what constitutes a black public intellectual concerns a more general quandary about where and how to locate black politics. Previous generations of black public intellectuals could be identified with a mass movement, party, or particular tendency, inside or outside civil society. Much of the discussion about contemporary black public intellectuals has invariably focused on their relation to mass media and their audiences, mass publics rather than constituencies of either social movement or state politics. Guy Debord’s prescient Society of the Spectacle characterized in social theory what we currently witness in U.S. mass culture and politics: political conflict is transformed into amoral spectacle. Protest, normally associated with group demands for justice, is translated into individual pleas for attention. As so beautifully characterized in the work of Michael Paul Rogin, macropolitics is transformed into national sessions of psychotherapy; calls for justice are replaced by calls for healing.
Yet the era of cheap psychologizing in U.S. politics may soon be over, replaced by the age of homeland security, where political positions and ideologies are assessed solely in relation to the U.S. state’s war against terror. Will the (p.153) current crop of highly visible, well-paid black public figures become enemies of the state and nation at war with “terrorists”? This is for the state, not black public intellectuals or their fans or critics to decide. The United States may yet return to an era when some of its best and brightest citizens, regardless of national or cultural origin, will be chastised, brought under surveillance, or incarcerated for being patriots, in the Orwellian sense, and not nationalists. Given this now very real possibility, the early twenty-first century could be an appropriate moment for black institutions, organizations, and common folk to distinguish between black public intellectuals and black political actors. The strengths and weaknesses of individual black public intellectuals are mostly irrelevant without any consideration of the larger political struggles they engage in, whether in the academy or in black communities. What is needed are prescriptive cultural analyses that could enable black progressives to begin discussions on how to suture the bits and pieces of coalitions together around common issues plaguing both black middle-class and working-class communities. The notoriety of a few black public intellectuals is symptomatic of the largesse of consumer capitalism in the United States, with its commodification of political marginality—not the deepening of participatory democracy—as market niche. The travails and celebrity of a few black public intellectuals are the least of our problems. It’s time for discussions of black intellectuals to move beyond mere entertainment, for whites and nonwhites alike. A coherent political project awaits. Chapter 6 explores a more recognizable form of socio-cultural protest, the rebellion, this time in fictive form, yet also in search of a coherent political project, a project of macropolitics.
(1.) Belated articles by Eduardo Mendieta and Eddie Glaude address some of the modular and comparative implications of the debate about black public intellectuals for thinking about Latino intellectuals. See Eduardo Mendieta, “What Can Latinas/os Learn from Cornel West? The Latino Postcolonial Intellectual in the Age of the Exhaustion of Public Spheres,” Neplanta, Vol. 4, No. 2 (2003): 213–235; and Eddie Glaude, “On Mendieta’s Latino Public Intellectual,” Nepalta: Views from the South 4, no. 2 (2003): 257–261.
(2.) See Michael Berube, “The New Black Intellectuals,” The New Yorker (January 1995), PP. 73–80.
(p.281) (3.) Robert Boynton, “The New Intellectuals” in Atlantic Monthly 275 no. 3 (March 1995): 53–70.
(4.) Adolph Reed, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?: The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual,” Village Voice (April 11, 1995): 31–36.
(6.) Martha Biondi, To Stand and Fight (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003).
(7.) See Robin D. G. Kelley, Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class (New York: The Free Press, 1994).
(8.) See Cornel West, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual” in The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, No. 2 (Winter 1993–94): 59–67; Michael Foucault, Politics, Philosophy, Culture: Interviews and Other Writings, 1977–1984, trans. Alan Sheridan, ed. L. D. Kritzman (New York: Routledge, 1988).
(9.) Reed, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker?” 36.
(11.) Rigoberta Menchu, I Rigoberta Menchu, ed. Elizabeth Burgos-Debray, trans. Ann Wright (London: Verso, 1984).
(12.) Tom Ling, Kevin Bonnet, Simon Bromley and Bob Jessop, “Thatcherism and the Politics of Hegemony: A Reply to Stuart Hall,” New Left Review 153, no. 1 (September-October 1985): 87–101.
(13.) Edward Said, Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Pantheon, 1994).