The Atlantic Monthly, March 1995
ONE of the few things most intellectuals will agree on in public is that the age of the public intellectual is over. By and large, American intellectuals are private figures, their difficult books written for colleagues only, their critical judgments constrained by the boundaries of well-defined disciplines. Think of an intellectual today, and chances are he is a college professor whose “public” barely extends beyond the campus walls.
This was not always the case. Originally an intellectual was someone who was very much engaged in the public realm; the term itself was coined to describe those who waged the campaign in defense of Captain Alfred Dreyfus in 1898, Emile Zola among them. Further designating an intellectual as “public” would have struck a late-nineteenth-century listener as tautological, if not absurd. By then the core elements of a definition of the public intellectual were already in place: he was a writer, informed by a strong moral impulse, who addressed a general, educated audience in accessible language about the most important issues of the day.
That the charges against Dreyfus stemmed from anti-Semitism lent those intellectuals defending him an aura of Jewishness, and this association with the word was strengthened when the Jewish immigrants on New York’s Lower East Side who gathered together in the early 1900s to study American literature also called themselves intellectuals.
Today our image of the public intellectual is locked safely in the past, associated almost exclusively with the literary and social critics who gathered around the Partisan Review in the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Such writers as Philip Rahv, Edmund Wilson, Lionel Trilling, Alfred Kazin, Irving Howe, and Daniel Bell formed the core of the New York Intellectuals, a group famous for its brazen style, which Howe once described as a combination of “free-lance dash, peacock strut [and] knockout synthesis.”
The world of the Partisan Review was one in which ideas mattered and battles were waged in small, well-read journals–the historian Richard Hofstadter called the Partisan Review the “house organ of the American intellectual community.” The favored form of expression was the literary essay; although wide-ranging and often demanding, it was free of technical jargon. Composed with the care of the expert and the passion of the anti-specialist, these essays moved easily between literary and political judgments before bringing them together in a larger moral conclusion. As cultural radicals, the New Yorkers synthesized socialist politics and literary modernism, internationalizing the culture of America by bringing the best of European arts and letters to its shores. They also held convictions about the primacy of high culture and the special role of the intellectual in society.
Their seemingly endless debates–over communism and the viability of an anti-Stalinist left, and, later, over competing forms of anti-communism–echoed the succession of political challenges confronting America, a sympathetic resonance that in turn gave these writers an influence far exceeding their numbers. Oppositional figures who prized their place on the margins, dissenting from conventional wisdom (“even when they agreed with it,” Kazin noted), they believed that being seduced by mainstream culture was the greatest evil that could befall a true intellectual. “Alienation,” Howe recalled, “was a badge we carried with pride.”
Chronicled and romanticized in a flood of biographies and memoirs, the New York clan has become a veritable gold standard for public intellectuals. Now more praised than read, its members are literary curiosities in the museum of culture; even their most important works-Wilson’s To the Finland Station, Trilling’s Liberal Imagination, Kazin’s On Native Grounds, Bell’s The End of Ideology, Rahv’s Image and Idea–are largely ignored or out of print.
The public intellectual’s death knell was sounded by Russell Jacoby in his book The Last Intellectuals (1987), an indictment of contemporary academic irrelevance which argued that the New Yorkers were not only America’s greatest public thinkers but also its last. Academic specialists, rather than sophisticated generalists, now dominated intellectual life, leaving us duller for the loss. “One thousand radical sociologists, but no [C. Wright] Mills; three hundred critical literary theorists but no Wilson,” Jacoby lamented. “If the western frontier closed in the 1890s, the cultural frontier closed in the 1950s.” With its fashionably apocalyptic title and nostalgic tone, Jacoby’s book was a hit, sparking a heated debate (“Hey, what about us?” cried an army of radical academics of every political stripe). Yet even though individual thinkers here and there were cited against Jacoby’s thesis, a consensus soon formed that the era of the public intellectual was indeed over.
But no sooner had the last opinion piece about Jacoby’s book been written than another group of intellectuals began getting quite a bit of attention. If they didn’t conform precisely to Jacoby’s ideal of the public intellectual–which bears so close a resemblance to the New Yorkers that it is difficult to use as a general definition–they were at the very least developing a significant presence by consistently and publicly addressing some of the most heavily contested issues of the day. The differences were striking, though: Whereas Jacoby’s intellectuals were freelance writers based in New York, most of this group is ensconced in elite universities across the country. Whereas the New Yorkers were predominantly male and Jewish, this group includes women and is entirely gentile. In contrast to the New Yorkers, who were formed by their encounters with socialism and European culture, these intellectuals work solidly within the American grain, and are products of the political upheaval of the 1950s and 1960s. And, most significant, they are black.
A COMPLEX FATE
WHEN the best-selling author Cornel West, now a Harvard professor, and the critic Stanley Crouch appeared on The Charlie Rose Show to discuss the connection between race and cities during the Los Angeles riots, they contributed to a tradition of urban social philosophy which originated with Lewis Mumford. When Henry Louis Gates Jr., also of Harvard, denounced black anti-Semitism on the New York Times op-ed page, he no doubt reached a wider audience than Norman Podhoretz ever did with similar pieces on black-Jewish relations. When Stephen Carter, of Yale, appeared on the Today show to talk about the intricacies of competing affirmative-action policies in the wake of Justice Clarence Thomas’s nomination, he took his place alongside Lionel Trilling and Alfred Kazin in explaining the travails of a successful minority figure in a WASP-dominated culture.
Toni Morrison, whose fiction and criticism regularly (and simultaneously) sit on best-seller lists, wins both Nobel and Pulitzer prizes; the Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson’s study of freedom wins the National Book Award; Shelby Steele receives the National Book Critics Circle Award for his best-selling meditation on race; David Levering Lewis wins a Pulitzer Prize for his biography of W.E.B. Du Bois; the essayist Stanley Crouch receives a MacArthur “genius” grant; West, Gates, Morrison, and Steele all get six-figure offers for their next books. Add to these names thinkers such as Patricia Williams, William Julius Wilson, bell hooks, Houston Baker, Randall Kennedy, Michael Eric Dyson, Gerald Early, Jerry Watts, Robert Gooding-Williams, Nell Painter, Thomas Sowell, Ellis Cose, Juan Williams, Lani Guinier, Glenn Loury, Michelle Wallace, Manning Marable, Adolph Reed, June Jordan, Walter Williams, and Derrick Bell, among others, who appear in magazines and newspapers and on television programs around the country, and one begins to suspect that we are witnessing something bigger than a random blip on the screen of public intellectual culture.
In addressing a large and attentive audience about today’s most pressing issues, these thinkers have begun taking their places as the legitimate inheritors of the mantle of the New York Intellectuals. Street-smart, often combative, and equipped with a strong moral sense, they, too, have a talent for shaking things up. This is not at all to say that the current constellation represents America’s first black public intellectuals, which would be to ignore the tremendous contributions of such figures as Alain Locke, W.E.B. Du Bois, St. Clair Drake, E. Franklin Frazier, John Hope Franklin, and many others. Rather, the claim is that although opinions may differ about the work of individual contemporary authors, as a group they are indisputably receiving extraordinary attention, especially considering the marginal role of the intellectual in America. Nearly all between the ages of roughly thirty-five and fifty-five, the new black intellectuals have achieved a level of recognition usually reserved for near-emeritus figures with numerous books behind them and few years ahead.
How have they become so popular? In addition to their individual achievements and talent, a number of external factors have helped give them prominence. Four are particularly important: They have unprecedented access to the mass-circulation print media. They have been sought out by the electronic media, and shows like Nightline, Today, and The Oprah Winfrey Show give them extraordinary visibility. Those who are professors-and most are–have used their prestigious university positions to extend their influence beyond the academy. And, finally, they have benefited from America’s current concern about race, serving as experts on everything from the L.A. riots and affirmative action to the nominations of Clarence Thomas and Lani Guinier, and anything having to do with Louis Farrakhan. They have, indeed, benefited from post-Cold War America’s shift in attention from ideological movements abroad to racial issues at home. The central place that the New Yorkers held by virtue of Cold War America’s fixation on communism is now occupied by black intellectuals in a society obsessed with race. Surprisingly, given their newfound prominence, a number of contemporary black thinkers who aspire to be public intellectuals find themselves in a genuine quandary. Having distinguished themselves by their analysis of racial subjects, they must now widen their scope and address broader political questions; having received accolades as academic specialists, they must now address a general audience. Secure in their place at the center of mainstream intellectual culture, they must now endure the criticisms of those who accuse them of having shed their “authentic” minority identification and of selling out. Today’s African-American public intellectuals are juggling a dizzying number of often conflicting identities and allegiances.
If it is the intellectual’s job to pose unanswerable questions, the particular burden of the American intellectual–at least since Emerson–is to reflect on what it means to be an “American.” Americans, as Henry James once wrote, have a complex fate, which manifests itself differently in successive generations. An essentially protean concept, the idea of Americanness is revised and updated as each ascending ethnic group fashions a definition that will encompass it. A similar process of reinterpretation is involved in defining what it means to be an intellectual. The New Yorkers devoted much of their careers to grappling with the demands of being both American and intellectuals, as well as to pondering the significance of their Jewish identities in their work. The current focus by many black thinkers on the significance of their American citizenship is further proof that they are reviving America’s rich public-intellectual tradition.
Like so many stories these days, this one is about blacks and Jews–or, more precisely, about how one ethnically marginalized group of public intellectuals has followed in the footsteps of another. The suggestion that contemporary black thinkers are heirs to a tradition best known for its Jewishness, at a bad time for relations between the two groups, is ironic. At first glance it might even seem that the cultural differences separating them so far outweigh their intellectual similarities that it would be wise simply to agree with Jacoby that the age of the public intellectual is indeed over.
Another possibility, however, is that the conventional definition of the public intellectual, as formulated and popularized by Jacoby, is itself obsolete. For all their influence, the New Yorkers spoke to a small literate public that, like them, is largely gone. In its place has emerged a larger educated public whose post-Cold War concerns about race, gender, and economic security have little to do with the ones that shaped the world half a century ago. If we take seriously the requirement that a public intellectual’s relevance be to the educated public he serves, and if we admit the existence of such a public today (fragmentary though it may be), it is incumbent on us to take a closer look at the public thinkers we have, rather than mourning the ones we don’t. In chronicling the demise of a particular constellation of thinkers, Jacoby got it half right. What he missed, however, was the emergence of a new public and the new public intellectuals who speak to it. Black intellectuals are important not only because they address an emerging set of public concerns but also because they provide a viable, if radically different, image of what a public intellectual can be.
BLACKNESS AS THE
RECENTLY several black intellectuals have been redirecting their attention from race-based identity politics to the importance of American citizenship for race relations. That is, they have thought less exclusively about the meaning of “blackness” and more inclusively about what it means to be an African-American–taking pains to scrutinize both sides of the hyphen. Most important, by pointing out the pitfalls of rigid identity politics, they have sought to distance themselves from the notion of victimization that has so dominated race-and ethnicity-specific rhetoric, whether formulated by blacks or by whites.
This shift is reminiscent of one Ralph Ellison described as having taken place in Jewish literature. “What the Jewish American writer had to learn before he could find his place was the American-ness of his experience,” Ellison wrote. “He had to see himself as American and project his Jewish experience as an experience unfolding within this pluralistic society.” Only then, Ellison explained, could the Jewish writer “project this variant of the American experience as a metaphor for the whole.” He predicted that black writers would eventually do the same. If Ellison was right and contemporary black intellectuals are moving toward a more pluralistic model, then perhaps a figure like Irving Howe, rather than one like Malcolm X, is standing at the end of the road that black thinkers are now traveling–leading one to wonder whether black and Jewish public thinkers have more in common Olan is ordinarily thought.
Anyone who steeps himself in the writings of these groups knows that there is no such person as the New York Intellectual or the black intellectual; the designations are necessarily crude and describe certain figures much better than others. Any broad assumptions one makes about the ideological agreement within either group quickly dissolve once one begins unpacking individual substantive positions. But for all their imprecision, these broad groupings are important, if only because they provide a cultural context for a particular thinker’s work; at some level his or her thought will always be perceived as being distinctly black or Jewish. Wheeas a university professor can locate himself with some precision within a disciplinary matrix, a public intellectual must often wear a label not of his own choosing.
The paths that black and Jewish thinkers have taken to resolve their feelings toward America–their cultural journey from the margin to the center-have been decidedly different. Although the New Yorkers are perhaps best known for their Jewishness, when one looks closely at their work one finds that it wasn’t until relatively late in their careers that they made their ethnic heritage a conscious component of their intellectual lives. In contrast, most black public intellectuals have had the concept of blackness at the very center of their thinking from the start. This is not to say that they have a common attitude toward their racial identity but only that blackness was the beginning (and for some the end) of their intellectual journey.
Whereas it took the New Yorkers a lifetime to balance the competing claims of Jewishness and American citizenship, today’s black intellectuals, coming of age somewhere between the civil-rights movement and the Reagan backlash, were thrown into racial-identity politics from the very start. One might say that whereas the New Yorkers spent a good part of their careers discovering their Jewishness, African-American intellectuals were, in an existential sense, born black. The most important conviction these two groups share, however, is that we can understand the larger world only by struggling first with the fundamental question of who we are.
THE very fact of being an American packed an extraordinary wallop for the New York Intellectual. “I was the first American child, their offering to the strange new God,” Kazin wrote, discussing his Russian immigrant parents. “I was to be the monument of their liberation from the shame of being what they were.” Paradoxically, this new America was little enjoyed by the immigrants themselves; that privilege was for their children. In addition to being their families’ first “real” Americans, this first generation received a double inheritance-they were the children of immigrants and of Jews. Trying to reconcile these allegiances with their American identity proved so emotionally difficult for many that they simply abandoned both, choosing instead to lead lives that were culturally and religiously assimilated.
The New Yorkers were also thrown into a world thick with leftist politics. For intellectuals coming of age before the collapse of the Socialist International, the idea of a brotherhood of man carried tremendous weight. “Everybody I knew in New York was a Socialist,” Kazin remembered in a memoir. As a fourteen-year-old, Daniel Bell handed out political leaflets on street corners, while at City College bitter disputes raged between the Trotskyites of Alcove 1 and the Stalinists of Alcove 2. “What happened at Berkeley, once in a lifetime,” Meyer Liben wrote, “might happen…at City every Thursday between 12 and 2 in the afternoon.”
As intellectuals, they adopted a cosmopolitan style; as writers, they sought a place in the tradition of American literature. Being Jewish didn’t play much of a role in either pursuit. “The New York intellectuals,” Howe wrote, “were the first group of Jewish writers to come out of the immigrant milieu who did not define themselves through a relationship, nostalgic or hostile, to memories of Jewishness.” Howe was undoubtedly correct. Indeed, it was hardly an accident that the New Yorkers chose to cut their intellectual eyeteeth on the classics of the WASP canon, with Howe composing studies of Sherwood Anderson and Faulkner, Trilling writing on Matthew Arnold and E. M. Forster, Kazin on late nineteenth-century American literature, Rahv on Henry James, and Sidney Hook on American Pragmatism. So far were the New Yorkers from embracing their Jewishness that Norman Podhoretz has recalled that while he was a student of Trilling’s at Columbia University, he was “disgusted” by “the idea that because a man happened to be Jewish it was incumbent upon him to study Jewish culture.” After the war, upon learning about the horrors of the Holocaust, the New Yorkers began the long process of confronting their Jewish heritage. “We could no longer escape the conviction that, blessing or curse,” Howe wrote, “Jewishness was an integral part of our life.”
Irving Kristol explored his Jewish identity by writing about the state of Israel; Kazin expressed his in his memoirs, one volume of which he titled simply New York Jew. Leslie Fiedler argued that Jews, caught between America and Europe, offered a unique perspective on the quandary of the American artist. Studying Maimonides, Bell uncovered powerful political themes and declared that “to be a Jew is to be part of a community woven by memory.” In the fifties and sixties Howe edited collections of Yiddish literature, and in 1976 he published the best-selling World of Our Fathers, a history of Eastern European Jews in America. The grandsons of Hasidim, Podhoretz observed, had traveled “through Wordsworth in order to get to the shtetl.”
Writers like Howe, Kazin, Bell, Harold Rosenberg, Clement Greenberg, and Paul Goodman were moved to speculate about the complex ways in which their Jewish identity meshed with their American one. To Isaac Rosenfeld, Jews were suited to be social critics because they were “specialist[s] in alienation.” Rosenberg developed the idea of the “partial Jew,” who, although a product of his Jewish past, could also borrow from other traditions. Howe was drawn to a form of secular Jewishness whose combination of cultural familiarity and intellectual marginality “seemed to speak back to me as no other culture quite did.” Kazin described life as a Jewish outsider as being “at the heart of things.” He wrote, “I hugged my aloneness…as a sign of our call to create the future.” Where once a passion for socialism had provided potent fuel for their thinking, now a rediscovered sense of Jewishness supplied a similar kind of inspiration.
THE PERSONAL IS THE HISTORICAL
FOR contemporary black intellectuals, the defining event of their lives was unquestionably the civil-rights movement. Playing a role that Marx believed was the exclusive property of the proletariat, African-Americans in the 1950s and 1960s were nothing less than the revolutionary subjects of history. However else one judges the legacy of those decades, one must surely agree with Stephen Carter when he argues that “the massive change in the legal and social status of black Americans was perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of the sixties.” Although many members of today’s generation of intellectuals were too young to take an active part in the protests and marches, their belief in the necessary and intimate connection between race and politics was gleaned from these events.
Shaped in response to a movement that explicitly used the rhetoric of citizenship to articulate its demands for political equality, this generation’s conscious racial identity was qualitatively different from those of the generations that preceded it. Although this group’s fate as Americans was still complex, it was a complexity in which the ideas of blackness and American citizenship sat in a determinate–if uneasy–relationship to each other. The Brown decision in 1954, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and other legislation combined to create the conditions for a notion of African-American citizenship that was a radical break from the past. Even in the face of brutal and persistent racism, to be black and American was now also to be legally empowered. The very concept of rights, the legal scholar Patricia Williams argues, “feels new in the mouths of most black people. The concept of rights, both positive and negative, is the marker of our citizenship, our relation to others.” In this sense, young black intellectuals in the early 1970s understood the possibly beneficial and augmenting connection between their ethnic and American identities.
Like the New Yorkers, these black intellectuals were born into a world fundamentally different from that of their parents, a world whose increased opportunities they did not themselves have the burden of bringing into existence. “Less than four years after my birth, something happened that would indelibly mark me and my peers for life,” Gates has written of the Brown decision, “something that would open up another world to us, a world our parents could never have known.” This is not to say that the black intellectuals grew up, or are now, entirely free of America’s racist legacy, but only that they were spared the most brutal legally sanctioned impediments that their parents had taken for granted; the struggling continued, but a dramatic breakthrough had been made. Irving Howe observed that the second generation of New Yorkers “came late,” in the sense that they missed the battles of the 1920s, fought in the name of modernism and radicalism; similarly, there is a sense of belatedness among this generation of black intellectuals.
Post-Malcolm X, post-Martin Luther King Jr., the younger among them came of age at a distinctive period in the history of race relations: between the time of an inclusive movement, which appealed to what Stanley Crouch calls the “commonality of American concern,” and that of a separatist one, which held that blacks could survive only apart from white society. So situated, they enjoyed the fruits of both the civil-rights and the black-nationalist vision without being entirely beholden to either. In this context they developed a hybrid form of racial rhetoric that brought together the lessons of black self-esteem and a belief in the importance of citizens’ rights.
This link provided a unique context for a number of political and intellectual developments. One has been the inclination of black thinkers–regardless of their training–to become “race experts” by virtue of their being black. This has been encouraged by those in the media (and elsewhere) who ask them to represent the “black perspective” on any given issue, the assumption being that all black experience has an essential nature–a simplistic assumption that would never be applied to whites.
The belief that there exists an organic connection between one’s intellectual sensibility and one’s race has not been uncommon. Henry Louis Gates recalls how, as a graduate student in English, he felt a responsibility to study black literature by analyzing what he “thought it was saying to me about the nature of my experiences as a black person living in a historically racist Western culture….[as if I had] embarked upon a mission for all black people.”
Among the most striking characteristics one notices in the work of many black intellectuals is how much is written in a deeply personal style, a style usually eschewed by academics. Coming from very different ideological perspectives, Stephen Carter, Shelby Steele, bell hooks, Patricia Williams,
Derrick Bell, and others have devoted much of their work to exploring what the literary theorist Houston Baker calls “the African-American autobiographical moment”–in a genre dubbed “autocritography” by Gates, whose most recent book, Colored People, is, fittingly, a memoir.
“It is the birthright of the black writer,” Gates suggests in a review for The New Yorker of the journalist Nathan McCall’s memoir, Makes Me Wanna Holler, “that his experiences, however personal, are automatically historical.” In the work of the most talented writers, this personal style carries a certain revelatory power, as in James Baldwin’s marvelously introspective, brooding essays. But not all intellectuals are gifted writers, and for many black thinkers this historical burden is simply too much, resulting in a personal writing style that is merely self-involved. Starting from the fact of their racial identity, some have been reluctant to moue much beyond it–an aesthetic that is more admirable in a belletrist than in a wide-ranging public intellectual.
THE New York Intellectuals’ postwar rediscovery of their Jewish identity dovetailed neatly with their new found ease with America–an attitude indicated by the 1952 Partisan Review symposium “Our Country and Our Culture,” a cozily patriotic title that would have been unthinkable even a few years earlier. This closer identification with America had many sources, not least among them the intensifying Soviet threat. As socialism was eclipsed by anti-communism, Cold War liberalism, and eventually, for some, neo-conservatism, the once-marginal New Yorkers found a place at the very heart of the culture from which they had formerly felt so estranged.
After all, for all intents and purposes, they had won: their preferred modernist authors were fixtures in the canon, Stalinism was discredited, America was more internationalist, anti-Semitism had abated, and intellectuals were considered an important and distinct class. On a more personal level, they had successfully asserted their place as Americans; by mastering the American WASP literary and cultural canon, they had transformed it. Jews, Podhoretz remembered, were “all the rage.” In order to come to terms with their Jewishness, they had conquered the culture of gentile America; in order to reconcile themselves with their Americanness, they had rediscovered their Jewish origins. What emerged was a distinctive hybrid: an intellectual with a strong attachment to both his ethnic and his national roots.
The publication of Podhoretz’s Making It, in 1967, marked the end of the era. Part memoir, part meditation on the intellectual’s lust for success, Making It was a declaration of independence from those thinkers who, Podhoretz believed, were ashamed of their secret longing for bourgeois fame and fortune. In contrast to the first generation of New Yorkers, Podhoretz was skeptical about the value of the public intellectual’s traditionally marginal position in society; he wanted to dine at the White House without being ashamed to admit he enjoyed it.
Although Podhoretz’s position was brashly articulated, it was nevertheless characteristic of the rapprochement that was taking place between the New Yorkers and American society at large. It was no longer so clear just what the benefits of marginality were. Barely fifteen years after Trilling was (grudgingly) made the first Jew with a permanent position in Columbia’s English department, the New Yorkers discovered that universities were eager to have them, and that a productive intellectual life could be found there–even for those, like Howe, who continued to rail against the university’s corrupting and stifling influence. It was not long before Bell would observe that for the first time, America’s cultural elite was composed almost entirely of academics. Bell and Nathan Glazer were hired by Harvard, Howe and Kazin by City College, Rosenberg and Saul Bellow by the University of Chicago; even the Partisan Review’s fiercely independent co-founder, Philip Rahv, took a job at Brandeis. Although still a cultural force to be reckoned with, the New York Intellectuals were by the mid-sixties nearly all safely ensconced in the university.
WHAT COUNTS AS CULTURE
AND this was pretty much what the intellectual landscape looked like when many black intellectuals arrived at newly integrated universities in the late sixties and early seventies-the university-bound public intellectual was the rule, not the exception. For aspiring black intellectuals, role models were more likely to be found on a university faculty than in the cheap cafeterias of Greenwich Village.
As elite private universities finally opened their doors to black students, in the late sixties and early seventies, blacks’ previously token representation suddenly soared–from three at Harvard in the class graduating in 1948, for example, to forty in the class of 1969, to nearly a hundred in the freshman class entering the following year. Afro-American-studies programs were established on campuses across the country in response to student protests, thereby sending out a signal that universities were willing to transform themselves by taking into account the perspectives of different racial and ethnic groups.
Arriving on campus as the influence of the radical Black Panthers was cresting, today’s younger black intellectuals were more moved than formed by their nationalist ideology. By the time they were old enough to engage the Black Power movement themselves, the arguments were beginning to sound a little old. After flirting with the debate over various ideas of “comparative blackness,” Gates came to the conclusion that for him, blackness was “not a material object, an absolute, or an event” but only “a trope.” He expands on this insight in Colored People: “I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time, but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color.” With the rhetoric of civil rights as a first language, many black thinkers developed a sophisticated sense of their racial identity, more informed by history and politics than by racial metaphysics. “Race’ is only a socio-political category,” Gates writes, “nothing more.”
Outstanding students who ten years before would most likely have become political activists instead pursued academic careers. As a result, many developed an intellectual style with a decidedly activist edge; in the university but not completely of it, theirs is scholarship with a social purpose. This generation of public-minded academics, while notable, is hardly the first to have straddled the worlds inside and outside the university–John Dewey, William James, Sidney Hook, and C. Wright Mills are all figures whose scholarship and activism also exerted a strong mutual influence. What distinguishes these new public intellectuals from those of the past, however, is that their desire to transcend the academy was motivated almost solely by an interest in race.
The birth of black studies was a particularly important development, because it provided the institutional as well as the intellectual power base that would later prove helpful when black intellectuals began teaching at the elite universities they had attended. This was the first generation of black scholars to progress almost entirely outside traditionally black institutions like Howard and Morehouse, and it adopted a more optimistic attitude toward the possibilities afforded by an academic life. Whereas the New Yorkers had once feared that university affiliation would deprive them of their intellectual independence, Oley had come to see that it also gave them tremendous freedom and benefits. Today’s black intellectuals have learned from the New Yorkers’ experiences. Presented with few intellectually rewarding alternatives, black intellectuals sensed from the beginning that the university, despite its flaws, could be valuable in helping them gain respectability for their views in a credential-obsessed society and in extending their intellectual authority beyond the academic world.
They discovered that the new, more loosely configured university of the 1970s and 1980s in many cases actually encouraged interdisciplinary thinking, pace Russell Jacoby, who believes that academia is inherently incapable of producing intellectual generalists.
With the creation of black studies came institutional power, as black intellectuals were able to allocate funds, recruit faculty, and establish a curriculum. If only in financial terms, today’s black intellectuals wield more power than the New Yorkers, whose underfunded journals were perpetually teetering on the brink of extinction, ever did. Henry Louis Gates is a good example of such cultural empire-building: Having held increasingly influential teaching positions at Yale, Cornell, and Duke, he currently heads the Afro-American studies program and the Du Bois Institute at Harvard, co-edits the cultural-studies journal Transition (under the auspices of his academic publisher, Oxford University Press), and is the editor of the forthcoming Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature, the mammoth Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers, and Lift Every Voice, a cultural history of the African-American experience, to be published by Random House. He is also a frequent contributor to The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Nation, Newsweek, and The New Republic.
A number of black academics have created their own programs and thereby expanded their cultural legitimacy in ways precisely tailored to their backgrounds. There is little doubt that today it is the university, rather than independent cultural critics, that determines, Gates writes, “what counts as knowledge, what counts as culture.” Black thinkers who want to make changes in the wider public-intellectual culture have a better chance working from within the university than outside it.
This shift in intellectual strategies has also been encouraged by the loosening in our social definition of what counts as culture in the first place. It is difficult to imagine any contemporary combatant on the culture front putting forward Clement Greenberg’s brazen defense of the “general agreement among the cultivated of mankind over the ages as to what is good art and what is bad.” Whereas an unshakable belief in the importance of high culture was central to the New Yorkers’ mission, black thinkers have followed the general trend of blurring (if not eradicating) the high-low distinction and incorporating popular and mass culture in their scholarship. Thus Gates writes about situation comedies for The New York Times, and the former Modern Language Association president Houston Baker writes an entire book analyzing rap music. For them, as for most others, culture is the complex world we live in, encompassing everything and everyone from T. S. Eliot to Ice-T.
Which is not at all to say that black intellectuals uniformly take such an inclusive attitude toward culture; indeed, despite periodic complaints about “black censorship,” the very lack of consensus concerning politics, ideology, or aesthetics is precisely what has given the black intellectual community’s debates such vitality. For instance, the Harvard law professor Randall Kennedy, in his intellectual journal Reconstruction, recently wrote a scathing review of Baker’s Black Studies, Rap, and the Academy, a book in which Baker argues that black scholars have a responsibility to study rap music with as much seriousness as they would any other art form. Baker criticizes “instant experts” who breezily comment on popular cultural forms despite their lack of qualifications to do so. Kennedy was unconvinced by Baker’s argument and suggested playfully that Baker’s book might be little more than an “elaborate parody” of black scholarship written by the editors of conservative publications like Commentary, The New Criterion, and The Wall Street Journal.
In general, we expect less from art these days, and high culture in particular does not play the transformative role once envisioned for it. The New Yorkers championed high culture in the romantic hope that the masses, once freed from their oppression, might demand the best. The New Yorkers considered themselves oppositional figures who were defending aesthetic standards, not as elitist intellectuals but as engaged citizens who believed in the redemptive power of art. Few intellectuals have such illusions any longer.
But this casual relationship to mass culture entails a further difficulty concerning the black intellectuals’ self-definition: given how comfortable they are with the mainstream, are they really “oppositional” figures? Is it even important for today’s public intellectuals–black or white-to be dissenters, or can the dissenting aspect of their public role be dispensed with? The answer to this may ultimately be the most important contribution that black intellectuals make to the dialogue about the appropriate role for American public intellectuals; in the end, their success in the mainstream might be most important as a sign to others that “making it” is possible. It is doubtful whether a public intellectual can be engaged in anything resembling traditional Kulturkampf while appearing on shows like Nightline and Today. Whether that matters is another question. The quandary of the contemporary black intellectual is how to be both an insider and an outsider at the same time, how to balance the requirements of truly independent thinking with the inherently coopting demands of mass public culture.
BEYOND IDENTITY POLITICS
A PART from the societal changes that have helped black thinkers attain their prominence–the national obsession with race, the transformation of the university, the openness of the mainstream and electronic media–certain black thinkers have gained further attention because of the way in which they talk about race, employing a rhetorical paradigm that has often put them at odds with their colleagues. This subgroup includes, but is by no means limited to, Cornel West, Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Glenn Loury, Stephen Carter, and Stanley Crouch.
Central to this new paradigm is the explicit rejection of identity politics and the victimology that so often lies at the heart of efforts to mobilize the allegiances of racial or ethnic groups. In general, identity politics is based on the belief that social groups have certain essential characteristics that extend to all their members. It can take the innocent form of wearing a KISS ME. I’M IRISH button on Saint Patrick’s Day, but it can also define a group’s essence so narrowly that it isolates its members from the rest of society, degenerating into what the sociologist Todd Gitlin describes as “a grim and hermetic bravado celebrating victimization and stylized marginality.” The inevitable logic of identity politics, these black intellectuals argue, leads a group to envision itself as necessarily alienated from American culture at large, and to define itself in its very essence as being victimized by the ideas or structures it opposes. For example, surveying the legacy of the Black Power and Black Aesthetic movements’ attempts to dislodge the hegemonic idea of whiteness and replace it with an equally restrictive concept of blackness, Gates concludes that in the end these efforts yielded little more than “a gestural politics captivated by fetishes and feel-bad rhetoric.”
In rejecting the ideological straitjacket of identity politics, these thinkers are asserting the fundamental right of African-Americans to think differently from one another. As Toni Morrison wrote after the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill battle, “The time for undiscriminating racial unity has passed.” By distancing themselves from extreme forms of identity politics–characterized by the xenophobia and anti-Semitism of demagogues like Leonard Jeffries and Louis Farrakhan these intellectuals have begun to transform the debate over race. By explicitly rejecting victimization as a basis for African-American identity, they expand the conversation to include a greater spectrum of voices in the debate over what it means to be an American citizen.
This is not to say that their rejection of the rhetoric of victimization implies that they share a unifying political vision (they don’t), but the shift away from racial essentialism bridges ideological differences, with the more conservative thinkers, like Carter, Loury, and Crouch, being as likely to invoke the language of citizenship as left-leaning liberals like West, Morrison, and Gates. Nor does it entail a blindly pro-American stance. The significance of this approach is simply that it considers race to be a manifestation of a larger American project; it conceives of the problems of African-Americans as inseparable from the problems of America. With race and citizenship as twin points on their moral compass, these thinkers alternately view the issues raised by one perspective from the position of the other.
WE GO DOWN TOGETHER
CORNEL West is the nimblest and most visible advocate of this approach, employing a dramatic oracular style that draws freely on the righteous rhetoric of the black church along with the rights-based language of progressive liberalism. Previously a professor of religion and the head of Princeton’s Afro-American studies program, West was recently lured to Harvard, where he had earned his bachelor’s degree (his doctorate, in philosophy, was from Princeton). In Race Matters, his best-selling collection of essays, West lays out a distinctive political-philosophical vision, rejecting ethnic nationalism and exploring the subtle connections between marginalized groups-blacks and Jews, for instance–who have deeply rooted common interests that, he argues, ought to bring them together. He criticizes both liberals and conservatives for viewing black people as a “problem people,” rather than as “fellow American citizens with problems.” If we go down, he warns, we go down together. As an alternative to racial reasoning, he suggests a framework that starts with a “frank acknowledgement of the basic humanness and Americanness of each of us.” One would view the civil-rights movement, for instance, “not as an affair of skin pigmentation and racial phenotype but rather as a matter of ethical principles and wise politics.”
Although critical of the civil-rights movement’s legacy, Glenn Loury, a conservative economist now at Boston University, who rose to prominence in the mid-1980s for his anti-affirmative-action stand and his advocacy of various self-help strategies, also contends that citizen-based commonality can overcome differences in race and class. “Conservatives are wrong to simply incant the ‘personal responsibility’ mantra, if they are not also prepared to help people who so desperately need to be helped,” Loury has written.
“Those people” languishing in the drug infested, economically depressed, crime ridden central cities-those people are our people. We must be in relationship with them. The point here transcends politics and policy. The necessity of being engaged with the least among us is a moral necessity. We Americans cannot live up to our self-image as a “city on a hill,” a beacon of freedom and hope for all the world, if we fail this test.
Arguing for a position somewhere between West’s and Loury’s, Stephen Carter inveighs against the racial essentialism found in the forms of affirmative action that use race as a proxy for disadvantage–a policy that implies that to be black is automatically to be underprivileged. A product of Stanford University and Yale Law School, who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, Carter teaches law at Yale, where he specializes in constitutional law and the relationship between politics and society. His most recent book is The Confirmation Mess, a critical study of the confirmation process for judgeships and other offices.
His popular and controversial first book, Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, spelled out Carter’s doubts about the role of affirmative action in determining African-Americans’ place in American society. In it he objected to affirmative-action policies that use skin color as a clumsy shorthand for specific social and economic characteristics, so that even universities that recruit primarily middle-class and well-off blacks can claim they are helping African-Americans in general–a practice for which Carter puts the blame on a society that wants its “racial justice cheap.” In this book–a memoir-like declaration of independence from the black intellectual status quo in the tradition of Podhoretz’s Making It–Carter offered a vision of racial solidarity based on common aims rather than ideological uniformity.
He continued his attack on essentialist thinking in his second book, The Culture of Disbelief, in which he called for a public sphere capable of admitting religious Americans with their sacred beliefs intact. In both books Carter showed how American democracy suffers when its citizens are reduced to stereotypes, whether along racial or religious lines. Striking a delicate balance between ethnic background and national identity, he compared the use of the term “African-American” to efforts made by other hyphenated ethnic groups: “It is a desire to move towards a dualism that says, I am fully American and I fully celebrate my heritage, something that can be mediated only by citizenship.”
Far from embracing a so-called color-blind vision of society, these authors celebrate their racial particularity while simultaneously demanding that blacks be given their full rights as citizens; for them, the one need not undercut the other. This theme is especially clear in the work of Stanley Crouch. A wide-ranging cultural critic, Crouch writes about jazz, literature, and politics. He was a co-founder of Lincoln Center’s jazz program and is currently finishing a novel and a biography of Charlie Parker.
The idea of American citizenship is Crouch’s intellectual lodestar, as is evident throughout his award-winning collection Notes of a Hanging Judge, in which he frequently attests to his “deepening confidence in the imperatives of the American social contract.” For Crouch, politics must involve African-Americans “not as outsiders but as voters, taxpayers, and sober thinkers.” To treat blacks as if they lived apart from America, he argues, is patronizing and ultimately destructive. Crouch extends the citizenship framework even to his criticisms of pop culture: “The fact that Michael Jackson not only is a person of African descent but is also an American should never be excluded from a discussion of his behavior,” he writes of the performer’s penchant for perpetual self-creation. “The American dream is actually the idea that an identity can be improvised and can function socially if it doesn’t intrude upon the freedom of anyone else.”
This group is retrieving an intellectual tradition whose origins are in the works of Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray, and James Baldwin–an influence they acknowledge freely. Sometimes referred to as the “integrationist” tradition, its most powerful expressions-Ellison’s Invisible Man and the essays in Shadow and Act and Going to the Territory; Murray’s The Omni-Americans; Baldwin’s Nobody Knows My Name–for a time fell out of favor because of the dissonant note they struck against the ascendant black nationalism of the sixties and seventies. Today, for intellectuals trying to navigate between the Scylla of feel-good racial boosterism and the Charybdis of nihilistic pessimism, this tradition provides a perspective on the black experience that is at once hopeful and sober. “The story of the Negro in America is the story of America,” Baldwin wrote, though he hastened to add that the story is often not a pretty one.
For all their differences, Baldwin, Murray, and Ellison shared an unshakable belief in the essential Americanness of the African-American experience. Their tradition offers an alternative to Afrocentrists like Molefi Asante and Leonard Jeffries, who portray African-Americans as little more than unwelcomed visitors in a hostile land, and to conservatives like Shelby Steele and Thomas Sowell, who imply that blacks must prove themselves worthy of full citizenship in an idealized America.
Ellison argued in his essay “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” that blacks, constitutive of Americanness rather than candidates for it, are the moral center of America’s complex hybrid culture. They push democratic culture toward fruition, with the most obvious test being “the inclusion–not assimilation–of the black man.” America “could not survive being deprived of their presence because, by the irony implicit in the dynamics of American democracy, they symbolize both its most stringent testing and the possibility of its greatest human freedom,” he wrote. Toni Morrison’s best-selling book of essays, Playing in the Dark, can be read as an extended meditation on Ellison’s belief in the centrality of African-Americans for American literature. “The presence of black people is inherent, along with gender and family ties, in the earliest lesson every child is taught regarding his or her distinctiveness,” she writes. “Africanism is inextricable from the definition of Americanness.” Ellison wrote, “Whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.”
Baldwin, too, highlighted the importance of conceiving of the African-American first and foremost as a citizen: “as American as the Americans who despise him, the Americans who fear him, the Americans who love him–the Americans who became less than themselves, or rose to be greater than themselves by virtue of the fact that the challenge he represented was inescapable.”
This retrieval of Baldwin, Ellison, and Murray takes place at a time when a variety of black nationalisms have become increasingly popular-a development that poses a question about the “organic” connection of these middle-class intellectuals to the wider African-American public.
Seventeen years after the sociologist William Julius Wilson argued that in the economic sphere class had become more important than race in determining black access to privilege and power, these thinkers must take into account the fact that well over a quarter of African-Americans today are, like themselves, middle-class-up from less than five percent before the civil-rights era. Their move away from racial essentialism is undoubtedly as much a response to the growth of the black middle class as it is an attempt to empower the other 75 percent or so of African-Americans, who now bear the brunt of economic hardship and racial discrimination. That a large portion of the public these intellectuals are addressing is white further complicates their attempt to create an identity for themselves that balances their various racial, political, ideological, and class allegiances.
THE WRITERS WE NEED
IF black intellectuals in fact make up a new group of public intellectuals, they are nonetheless strikingly different from the public intellectuals of the past. Their sights having been trained so closely on America’s peripatetic mainstream culture, their work often possesses a similarly transient feel: after all, a critic is only as substantial and profound as the subject he chooses to criticize. There is a sense in which the story of the public thinker over the past seventy-five years has been one of gradual decline, as each successive generation has found itself with less independence than the previous ones. Coming immediately after the last generation of New Yorkers, who spent their final years as academics, black intellectuals may differ more in the degree to which they have been co-opted by the mainstream than in the way they have been. What is most interesting in the comparison between black and Jewish thinkers is not so much their different origins but rather how similar their trajectories as university-bound public intellectuals have been. It might be said that black thinkers picked up the larger story of the public intellectual at the point where the New Yorkers left off.
Although black intellectuals have received an enormous amount of attention in the media, the academy, and beyond, it remains to be seen whether they will have an enduring impact on American culture at large. In a thoroughly consumerist society, where anything can be marketed, it must be asked how much of their prominence is due to the cynical exploitation of the same kind of multicultural advertising niche that gave us the “United Colors of Benetton.” Have black thinkers been so assimilated that they will find it difficult to keep from becoming mere pundits or intellectual celebrities? In securing places for themselves at the center of the elite academic world and in the mainstream media, have they forfeited their claim on the public intellectual’s traditional oppositional stance? Having gained wide recognition through the disposable media of op-ed pieces and talk shows, will they leave enough substantial work behind? Have black thinkers compromised their legacy with “academic hucksterism and instant-expert witnessing,” as Houston Baker suggests? Have they inadvertently traded principled Kulturkampf for appearances on Nightline? As public intellectuals gain greater access to mainstream culture, do they become more important thinkers, or only better known?
By taking race as a primary subject at the start of their careers, black intellectuals often personalized their scholarship in a way that would have made the young Jewish New Yorkers squirm. Although such a reaction might say more about the deep psychological conflicts of the New Yorkers than about the work of African-American intellectuals, it leads one to wonder whether the near-exclusive focus on race will lend their thinking the powerful moral direction one sees with West, Morrison, and Gates, or will merely mark the limits of their “expertise.” In other words, will their race fixation deprive them of the very intellectual breadth that is the trademark of the public intellectual? In his Notes of a Native Son, Baldwin reflected on the personal nature of his work: “I have not written about being a Negro at such length because I expected that to be my only subject,” he explained, “but only because it was the gate I had to unlock before I could hope to write about anything else.” Perhaps a similar impulse is working itself out among black intellectuals today.
American culture is extremely fickle, alternately celebrating and neglecting its most venerable figures before finally giving them the recognition they deserve. Melville, Faulkner, Henry Adams, Charles Sanders Peirce, William James, Dewey, and Emerson all languished in the dustbins of history for many years at a time before being rediscovered and woven back into the canon–perhaps only to be forgotten again. If they endure, they do so because in their protean complexity they pose fundamental questions that speak to future generations, and also because they produced voluminous bodies of work, containing all the contradictions and lacunae that accompany lifetimes of sustained, imaginative thinking. Indeed, although the New York Intellectuals are currently enjoying something of a revival, it is not at all clear which of them will leave a lasting legacy for American arts and letters. Of the New Yorkers, ironically enough, most of the writers who almost certainly will have a place are black–Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and Richard Wright, all of whom were published in the Partisan Review.
If today’s black intellectuals have not yet–with the exception of Toni Morrison’s extraordinary novels–produced a body of work that will sustain itself through the Darwinian selection process of American culture, there is no reason to believe that they won’t. They are relatively young, and a number seem to be just hitting their stride. After all, it wasn’t until John Dewey (perhaps the model of the academic public intellectual) was in his sixties that he wrote The Public and Its Problems, Reconstruction in Philosophy, and Experience and Nature–his most important and most characteristically “public” books.
Of the factors that separate black and Jewish intellectuals, perhaps the most profound is their different attitudes toward what Howe once called “the American Newness”–the sense of unbounded hope and possibility which found such powerful (if critical) expression in Emerson. Of all the complex emotions one detects while reading the collected works of the New York Intellectuals, it is finally their profound gratitude that comes through most clearly: their existential indebtedness to America for sparing them the hardship that their immigrant parents and grandparents suffered, and for offering them the quintessential American gift–the possibility of self-transformation.
In this respect the New Yorkers drew more on their immigrant roots than their Jewish ones, and as immigrants they looked upon the new country as being somehow theirs, a blank canvas on which to paint their vision of the future. After the war, when the New Yorkers rediscovered their Jewish heritage, they retrieved a religious tradition that was intertwined with the immigrant optimism and determination of their youth–an ethic that many American Jews still consider an essential part of their collective identity.
For African-Americans–from their origins in slavery to the final stage of their legal emancipation, barely thirty years ago–”the American Newness” has something of a hollow ring. In their history the figure of the grateful immigrant is not to be found. “I am not a ward of America,” Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time. “I am one of the first Americans to arrive on these shores.” Apart from dedicated Afrocentrists, most black intellectuals think of themselves as quintessential American hybrids, or even “Negroes,” to use the word preferred by Ellison and Crouch. That the experience of African-Americans has too often been judged by the standards of the romanticized immigrant narrative has caused much pain and conflict between blacks and Jews. If racial rhetoric shifted to a more citizen-oriented model, maybe some of these misunderstandings could be avoided.
Perhaps the style of black public intellectuals can best be appreciated in light of the distinction Daniel Bell once drew between the scholar and the intellectual. The scholar, he wrote, finds his place in an established tradition, adding to it piece by piece as one might to an elaborate mosaic. In contrast, the intellectual “begins with his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities”–and in so doing uses himself as a litmus test for the way society regards its citizens.
If African-Americans are “the canaries in the coal mine,” as Gates believes, it may in fact be the responsibility of black public intellectuals to err on the side of the personal. Although they may not be the public figures that those who still pine for the halcyon days of the Partisan Review want, at a time when W.E.B. Du Bois’s “color line” is still the greatest challenge to American democracy perhaps they are the ones we need.