Vol. 1 No. 4 2008


Misplaced Modifiers

A Dissection of Black Intellectuals That Bears Dissecting

Reviewed By Herb Boyd

"When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my gun," Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler's closest associate, reputedly said. My reaction to the words "Black intellectual" is not that extreme, but they do get my attention.

I first saw these words on the cover of a book back in 1967, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual, only then its author Harold Cruse, had a different nomenclature for the race. The book left an indelible impression, mainly because of Cruse's disclaim for the lives and legacies of scome of my favortie writers and artists -- James Baldwin, Dr. John Henrik Clarke, John Oliver Killens, Lorraine Hansberry and the intimitable Pale Robeson.

Given his relentless assault -- that I deemed unfair -- it was hard to agree with some of Cruse's more slaient conclusions. Ergo, the enemy of my idols was my enemy, and in several places I've attempted to excoriate him with the same vigor and passion he used in skewering the icons of my life.

Reading Houston A. Baker's Jr.'s Betrayal--How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, I am reminded of the distate I had for Cruse, and for a few of the same reasons. Most disturbing is Baker's dismissal of Cornel West and I found it strange that he could include West, essentially a "structuralist," in the same category with authors John McWorter, Ward Connerly, Armstrong Williams, Stanley Brouch, Shelby Steele and other "behaviorists" on the right. (Baker defines the structuralists as those who view the system as the problem, while the behaviorists believe Blacks are almost equally accountable for their social and political predicament).

It is under the rubric of "Black public intellectuals" that Baker brings his argument and while much of his thesis can be aptly applied to two or three on this select list, to chastise West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. seems to be without merit; particularly since he rests his case on the basis of one book from each writer, though the two join forces in The Future of the Race.

For Baker to use Gate's memoir Colored People (Knopf 1994) as the text to conclude that the Harvard scholar turned his back on the Civil Rights Movement, is tantamount to saying that James Weldon Johnson's 1927 novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man is a template to the facts of his life. If Gates is to be properly reprimanded fot his politics, or lack thereof, then it should be done within the context of his ruminations on ideology and philosophy. To some degree, Baker is right about the minstrelsy that is contained in the memoir and that should have been clue enough of the less than serious projections from Gates and thus given light regard.

That Baker chosses to deduce something politically poignant from Gares' lampooning and satire and his oftern tongue-in-cheek manner is to miss the point entirely. There are other more pertintent places where Gates has revealed his penchant to ignore certain Black intellectuals, especially Black nationalists.

A memoir from Gates and his long essay in The Future of the Race (Vintage 1997) is not enough to condemn him nor is West's essay in the book sufficient text to summarize the charismatic intellectual's warp and woof in the public discourse.

The Cornel West Reader, (Basic Civitas Books August 2000) Prophetic Fragments: Illuminations of the Crisis in American Religion and Culture, (William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company August 1993) are better testaments to West's prowess as a thinker and to his stand in relationship to the Civil Rights Movement and many of its prime movers.

West has been a vocal, uncompromising opponent of empire, structural capitalism and White supremacy, and just because that message doesn't resonate with the same frequency and same urgency in The Future of the Race does not mean it is missing from his arsenal.

One of Cruse's gravest mistakes was to attack Baldwin and others because he believed they had failed in their mission as race leaders. But if you didn't set out to be a race leader, then how are you a failure? That's akin to charging an electrician with being a failure as a carpenter. To charge that Gates and West have abandoned the Civil Rights Movement is ridiculous without taking into account the full extent of their work. I wonder how Baker would feel if he were taken to task and chided that his book on the Harlem Renaisance was not definitive.

Determining who is a Black public intellectual is not easy and the problem is compounded by the word "betrayal." This is a very strong word, implying that Gates, West and others are a gaggle of Benedict Arnolds, race traitors who have done irreparable damage to the struggle for justice and equality.

Cruse talked about the crisis and Baker talks about the betrayal. At this point what might be increasingly valuable is a book that would give a positive spin to the plight of Black intellectuals, much like the one William M. Banks authored several years ago: Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. (W.W. Norton & Company; 1996).

A book such as that could dwell on the ideas of Gerald Horne, Patricia Williams, Barbara Ransby, Bill Fletcher, Ron Daniels, Peniel Joseph, Angela Davis, Earl Ofari Hutchinson, Robin Kelley, Glen Ford, Amiri Baraka, Sam Anderson, Rosemari Mealy, Quincy Troup, Playthell Benjamin, Yvonne Bynoe and a coterie of emerging Black intellectuals just below the radar screen, never called on by the Op-Ed pages of America.

Baker is a deep thinker and has raised a number of provocative questions, just like Cruse. But also like Cruse, it's one thing for him to raise questions and quite another for him to present rational answers that have some basis in reality.

Herb Boyd, a journalist and author of Baldwin's Harlem, is senior editor of Neworld Review.

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