In January 1995 I published a little essay that almost nobody liked. Eh, that happens sometimes. It was a review essay on the then-recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals, and I wrote it quite simply because the New Yorker asked me to. I was a newly-tenured associate professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and I was surprised by the request; to this day it’s the only time I’ve written for the New Yorker. And then, within about three months of the thing’s appearance, a whole mess of people decided to weigh in on the work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals. Many of those people came to the conclusion that I had done a pretty piss-poor job of writing about the recently-published work of a couple of African-American public intellectuals; the general verdict was that I had basically written a press release, a puff piece on a bunch of lightweights and/or sellouts. But some of those people weren’t responding to me at all; they had much more important figures to go after, like Cornel West. And it wasn’t just my little essay they were responding to; my essay was bad enough, sure, but it was compounded by the appearance, in the March 1995 Atlantic, of a much longer essay by Robert Boynton. That essay was about the work of a couple of other African-American intellectuals, and, like my essay, it drew a loose analogy between contemporary African-American intellectuals and the New York intellectuals of yesteryear, so clearly there was some kind of conspiracy afoot.
By the time Leon Wieseltier had taken to the pages of The New Republic to thunder that Cornel West’s work was “noisy, tedious, slippery . . . sectarian, humorless, pedantic and self-endeared,” indeed, “almost completely worthless,” and Adolph Reed Jr., doing his usual contrarian thing, had shot back in the Village Voice that Wieseltier’s essay was a “right-for-the-wrong-reasons attack,” I could see that there was a bona fide pile-on in progress. As even the leftist Adolph Reed Jr. says about Leon Wieseltier’s essay in Even The Liberal New Republic. . . . And so, uncharacteristically, I decided to stay mostly out of the fray—until Sean Wilentz published “Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals: Notes on a Donnybrook” in the summer 1995 issue of Dissent. At the time, I was a little bit pissed off that Wilentz accused me of “liberal racialism,” and a little more pissed off that he wrote,
in 1963, it was possible to open the New Yorker and find Dwight Macdonald there descanting thoughtfully and at length about The Other America. Now in place of Macdonald there is Michael Bérubé celebrating Race Matters and works by the other new black intellectuals—a case of misjudgment, no doubt, but also a sign about more general trends in intellectual reportage. Whereas Harrington could count on tough remarks and rebuttals as well as praise, especially from his closest associates and friends, West and many of the other prominent black writers have been treated (at least until recently) to the sort of tumultuous acclaim that suffocates their better intentions.
the hype has been picked up by writers for the national media and turned into more disturbing forms of celebrity mongering—the latest example of a trend that has gripped almost every field of artistic and academic endeavor. And some of the mongering has managed to slip into some unexpected places. The grandest puff appeared last winter in a group review by Michael Bérubé that turned up in the New Yorker. . . .
Now, I admit that I have a funny reaction when people sneer at me like this and ask who let me into the club; I usually extend my hand to them and say, “it’s such a pleasure to meet you—I’m your replacement, and I have to ask you to leave.” So part of my reply to Wilentz in the fall ‘95 Dissent included my Deeply Considered Opinion that his essay was “half pot-shot, half rehash, wholly inadequate to the task,” and it closed by asking Dissent “how Sean Wilentz’s piece managed to slip into your pages.” (In the following issue, Martin Kilson chipped in, writing, “I do not think the Sean Wilentz article . . . warranted publication in Dissent.” I liked that.) But seriously, I did think it was a bit rich for me to be accused of celebrity-mongering in an essay that included passages like this:
“The proper starting point for the crucial debate about the prospects for black America is an examination of the nihilism that increasingly pervades black communities,” [West] writes in Race Matters. This is a risky position for any progressive social critic, and particularly for any black social critic who appeals for the remediation of black poverty but does not wish to present poor blacks as, yet again, passive “targets” for social reform or as participant-victims of a dysfunctional culture. West wants to generate concern about the black poor without pathologizing them (or construing the black middle class as greedy wannabes); at the same time, he wants to defend “traditional morality” and traditional institutions, like churches and schools, from that dread culture of consumption without simply reciting the neoconservative mantras— religion, family values, private associations—of our day. It’s a tricky double play, and he doesn’t always pull it off. The fact is that it’s often difficult to distinguish between conservative and progressive critiques of the social corrosiveness of consumer capital. For one thing, both points of view tend to rely on the idea of some once unalienated human community that has been violated by modernity: leftists can look back at precapitalist gemeinschaft and conservatives can long for the agrarian pastoral with more or less the same ardor. It’s remarkable but altogether fitting that West’s work turns out to make some common cause with that of the cultural conservative Daniel Bell—who “in stark contrast to black conservatives,” West writes, “highlights the larger social and cultural forces, for example, consumerism and hedonism, which undermine the Protestant ethic and its concomitant values.”
Because the funny thing was that my little essay was not, in fact, totally bereft of “ideas.” OK, they weren’t very great ideas, and yes, I admit that I opened the piece by writing “Cornel West is Teh ROxxOr Intellectual Of All Times! 1 ! 1”—but even there, I think I deserve some credit for being the first person to use “Teh” in the New Yorker. (Dwight Macdonald was actually the first to write “ROxxOr,” though few people remember this today.) But I did try to suggest a thing or two along the way, like this, for example:
What Marxism was to Lionel Trilling, Clement Greenberg, Philip Rahv, and company, black nationalism is to West, Gates, hooks, et al.: the inspiration, the springboard, the template, but also the antagonist and the goad. Just as the postwar Jewish intelligentsia largely abandoned radical politics but remained committed to rethinking America’s progressivist traditions (often by delivering scathing critiques of radical politics), the black intelligentsia of our fin de siècle has largely abandoned cultural nationalism while remaining committed to refiguring forms of African-American collectivity (often by delivering scathing critiques of cultural nationalism). But the new intellectuals have a markedly different relation to the vernacular of their time. A major part of what the New York intellectuals represented, in cultural politics, was a collocation of the politics of anti-Communism with the literature of high modernism–something that required its inventors to erect a cordon sanitaire protecting “real” culture from contamination by the kitsch, dreck, schlock, pop, and camp that surrounded it. One cannot imagine, given the past decade’s controversies over black popular culture, the new black intelligentsia adopting the same cultural politics.
Because non-black audiences are still the ones that have the power to put black artists at the top of the charts, African-American intellectuals’ uneasiness about black commercial and professional success stems in part from the long-standing fear that “crossing over” must entail selling out. It’s what leads to hooks’ attack on [Spike] Lee—the unstated suspicion that any critical or commercial success with white audiences is, de facto, political failure. [hooks had argued that “Lee’s work cannot be revolutionary and generate wealth at the same time,” so that he is confined to “reproducing conservative and even stereotypical images of blackness so as not to alienate that crossover audience”; specifically, she insisted that his version of Malcolm X “has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s representation of Mister in the film version of The Color Purple than with real-life portraits of Malcolm X.”]
So if black public intellectuals are legitimated by their sense of a constituency, they’re hamstrung by it, too: they can be charged with betraying that constituency as easily as they can be credited with representing it. On the one hand, they have an unprecedented opportunity to speak from, to, and for a public, since their professional bona fides depend not on their repudiation of vernacular African-American culture but on their engagement with it. On the other hand, they inhabit an intellectual tradition of extreme sensitivity toward the issue of who represents what to whom—a tradition in which the weightiest term of disapprobation is that familiar bludgeon “Uncle Tom.”
And, finally, this:
Nor is fluency in popular culture a guarantor of popular influence. In the preface to Making Malcolm, Michael Eric Dyson recounts that when he quoted Snoop Doggy Dogg during a United States Senate subcommittee hearing on gangsta rap he was told by a young black admirer that “for a guy your age, you really can flow.” He’s right to be pleased by the compliment. An intellectual generation that responds broadly and sympathetically to popular culture has numerous advantages over an intellectual generation that defines itself against popular culture. But for cultural critics the danger of popular acclaim is that it can tempt them to pay more attention to the responses of young admirers than to the deliberations of Senate subcommittees. And it can tempt them to pull their punches, as when bell hooks, in an interview with the rap artist Ice Cube that appears in Outlaw Culture, sounds uncharacteristically tentative about Cube’s misogynistic lyrics and declines even to ask him about his role as a pitchman for St. Ides. Intellectuals need not be so arrogant as to claim to occupy the cultural vanguard, but in renouncing that role they need not settle for the role of fan, disk jockey, or press agent….
The overwhelming irony here is that black public intellectuals are doing their work—at colleges, in churches, and on cable TV —at a time when the very idea of “the public” has become nearly unthinkable in national politics. Such has been the signal achievement of the New Right, whose religious wing has built its organizations on the bedrock of home, school, and family while attacking the realm of the public in the name of the people. Public housing, public education, public health, public ownership, public welfare—to much of the American electorate these terms signify that which is not in the public interest. Black public intellectuals like West or hooks may have a large public following, but the paradoxical conditions under which they operate dictate that they will have to revivify the nation’s faith in the “public” if their work is going to have broad political consequences. The measure of their success will be the degree to which they help generate a sense of the public as elastic and capacious as their sense of the intellectual.
Controversies over Snoop Dogg and St. Ides! Ah, it was another time, you understand. A long, long time ago. And more than a decade ago, I gave all this stuff its very own file in my office file cabinet, stuffing in all the essays by Sean Wilentz and Leon Wieseltier and Adolph Reed and Ellen Willis and Jon Weiner and Michael Hanchard and then later academic essays by Henry Giroux and Herman Gray and even bell hooks’ reply (she wasn’t very pleased either), and I haven’t looked at it since.
So why am I looking at it now? Because, dear reader, I recently came across an essay in the Blackwell Companion to African-American Studies, edited by Lewis R. Gordon and Jane Anna Gordon and published in 2007. It’s Hazel Carby’s “The New Auction Block: Blackness and the Marketplace.” And guess what? Part of the essay is yet another attack on Ye Olde New Yorker Essay of 1995, written by me. And this time, my essay isn’t just celebrity-mongering and grand-puff-daddying. It’s also “paternalistic”—and worse!
But before we get to the worse part, let’s explain the “paternalistic” part. It has to do with Carby’s belief that Robert Boynton and I claimed to have discovered black intellectuals for the first time in all of recorded history. The lead-in goes like so:
Marketing the field has led to a preoccupation with the “newness” of African-American Studies, an arena in which scholars continually make “discoveries” erasing the history of any previous engagement with these texts (124).
In the next few years the media would become obsessed with the newness or novelty value of African-American Studies and the originality and rarity of their “discovery” of black intellectuals. . . . The “traffic between culture and authority” would be apparent in the 1990s, when contemporary black intellectuals were “discovered” and in the process authenticated by the New York literary establishment. Media investigations into African-American Studies and the role of black intellectuals read like journalistic sorties into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback. (125)
OK, so by this point I’m a member of the New York literary establishment, hacking his way into the colonial wilderness of the academic outback. All the way from central Illinois. And then comes the bit about how my essay didn’t talk about any, you know, books and ideas:
Bérubé ’s review, instead of being a review of this work, of books and ideas, turns out to be a review of these authors; they are paraded like models on the catwalk of the latest academic fashion shows. (125-26)
But of course it is not intellectual history that is at stake in this story, it is marketing. The point is to erase history and to deny an organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals to a past of collective struggle. (127)
Well, I’m used to this sort of thing by now, so I’m thinking, “yeah, yeah, I didn’t discuss West and Dyson on black nationalism or hooks on feminism, or the relation between contemporary black intellectuals and black popular culture, or the relation between cultural politics and public policy. And even when I suggested some kind of organic relation between contemporary black intellectuals and a past of collective struggle, I got myself accused of ‘liberal racialism.’ But I knew all that already! Where’s this ‘new action block’ I heard about in the title?”
Oh, wait, here it comes:
Bérubé ’s and Boynton’s “discovery” of black public intellectuals in 1995 was a fraudulent journalistic invention that ranks with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence. Their claims of discovery, the assertions of the newness of black, public, intellectual life, allow them to tell and sell their stories. Boynton wonders how substantial the legacy of his group of black public intellectuals will be, as if he did not already know that two centuries of substantial work by black thinkers in the Americas already exists, and then he questions whether this legacy “will be compromised” by their media popularity: “As public intellectuals gain greater access to mainstream culture,” Boynton asks, “do they become more important thinkers or only better known?” But while Boynton speculates about the ways in which the work of black public intellectuals could be compromised by the culture industry, he and Bérubé remain totally unselfconscious of the ways in which they are trading in “blackness” in the journalistic marketplace with their newly “discovered,” designer-brand black intellectuals. (128)
Trading in “blackness”—but not in the manner of the old auction block, see. The new auction block involves people like me and Boynton unselfconsciously engaging in fraudulent journalistic inventions in order to tell and sell our stories. OK, so now that’s all cleared up.
Well, I don’t know. I think Boynton’s question about public intellectuals and mainstream culture is a pretty good question for public intellectuals of any color, tint, or stripe, and I’m not seeing how it erases any history. In fact, I might note that Carby addresses a version of the very same question later in her essay: “In an era in which ideas are of little value, the only possible ‘public’ role for intellectuals is circumscribed by the extent to which they can perform for the market” (132-33). And I have to say I think Carby’s characterization of my essay as the Second Coming of Columbus is a teeny bit harsh, seeing as how my essay actually says things like this:
Of course, there have been black intellectuals on these shores from 1619 or so, and Frederick Douglass, Anna Julia Cooper, and Ida B. Wells were about as effective in their day as any nineteenth-century public intellectual could hope to be. What was lacking, until very recently, was a black public sphere of commensurate size. Even in the nineteen-twenties, when writers of the Harlem Renaissance set out to theorize about the relation between lumpen black folk and what Zora Neale Hurston wryly called the “niggerati,” black intellectuals were playing to a small crowd indeed. As Langston Hughes put it, “The ordinary Negroes hadn’t heard of the Negro Renaissance. And if they had, it hadn’t raised their wages any.”
Until the nineteen-sixties, America’s nationally known black intellectuals tended also to be its nationally known black novelists—the triumvirate of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin, two of whom eventually chose exile over life in their native land. Meanwhile, within the tiny public arena bounded by segregation, African-American intellectuals like Oliver Cromwell Cox, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Alain Locke, J. Saunders Redding, and Carter G. Woodson were creating African-American history, sociology, and literary criticism in black colleges, black journals like Phylon and The Crisis, or black newspapers like the Pittsburgh Courier and the Afro-American (published in five Eastern cities). But as long as segregation prevailed in higher education and in the publishing world it was quite easy for white Americans to believe that—Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin aside—the most important books on race in this country were written by white Americans.
I don’t see how this amounts to a claim to have “discovered” black intellectuals in 1995, and I don’t think Carby does either—as she acknowledges in an aside: “Later in [his] article Boynton is forced to admit”—by whom? one wonders—“just as Bérubé conceded in his review, that contemporary black intellectuals are not, of course, the first generation of black public intellectuals” (127). So I guess you could say that at some point in her essay Carby is forced to admit, or merely concedes, that Boynton and I did not in fact claim to have discovered black intellectuals. But it didn’t prevent her from leveling the charge of “fraudulent journalistic invention” anyway.
But hey, I understand what’s going on here. As it is in blog comment sections, so it is in the world of serious scholarship: the person who comes very late to the pile-on has to take the invective to the next level. So it’s not sufficient, any longer, to accuse me of starry-eyed celebrity-mongering. Now I have to be accused of crimes that rank with the historical recording of the “discovery” of America by Europeans as if the peoples already in residence were incapable of conceptualizing their own material existence—and, oh yeah, the auction block. Well, ain’t that a shame, since I learned some of what I know about Ida B. Wells and Anna Julia Cooper as black public intellectuals from reading and teaching Carby’s Reconstructing Womanhood back in 1990-91, and I’ve been an admirer of Carby’s work ever since. But Professor Carby has indeed re-set the bar at the next level, and perhaps in another decade or so I will learn that my little New Yorker essay was the journalistic equivalent of distributing smallpox-infested blankets to the editors of Phylon and The Crisis. Only worse, for being totally unselfconscious.