The State of the African American Professoriate
Cornel West says Black intellectuals have unique role to play in the academy
When Dr. Cornel West stepped up to the microphone recently at Ramapo College of New Jersey in his trademark three-piece black suit, the excitement in the air was electric. West had announced just six days earlier that he would be the latest defector from Harvard University’s storied “dream team” of African American studies professors. And the news that he was returning to New Jersey — combined with the excitement over the inauguration of Ramapo’s first African American president, Dr. Rodney D. Smith — had injected such a festive note to the proceedings at the “State of the African American Professoriate” (SAAP) conference that West’s first moments at the podium felt like a combination love fest and victory lap.
But the question that West — and a throng of other African American conferees from the Northeast and across the nation — had gathered to consider was a serious one. In the words of Dr. Henry Vance Davis, associate professor of history at Ramapo and one of the conference organizers, “You’ve made it over all the hurdles and gotten your foot in the door — now the question is, ‘Can you be the kind of academic you want to be?’ “
The answer, courtesy of West and the other speakers at the SAAP conference, was of the good news-bad news variety. You can, they all said, but it’s not easy.
Citing thinkers from Montaigne to Malcolm X, West’s speech deftly wove the personal with the broadly metaphysical in considering the question.
“Sometimes (the Black intellectual) will wonder if (he or she) is losing touch with reality simply because one is trying to preserve a sense of history here in the United States with its underdeveloped sense of history, its propensity for denying and evading the night side of reality, and its depth-denying, death-ducking, death-dodging disposition that holds all discourses of mortality at arms’ length,” West said, in one of many references both to his recent tussle with Harvard University’s president, Dr. Lawrence Summers, and his brush with prostate cancer.
“And yet here comes the Black intellectual, bringing what?” he asked. “Forms of death. Dealing with slavery, a form of social death: 244 years with no social status, no legal standing, no public worth, only a commodity to be bought and sold — asking how do we confront social death? Talking about Jim Crow — a form of civic death. Talking about spiritual death — Elijah Muhammad said he looked out his window on the South Side of Chicago, saw Black folks walking on the streets and said they had come to typify a living death.”
West said he sees a Socratic role for Black intellectuals. They bring the news, he says, but the news is unsettling, unnerving. It’s news that very few people in American society want to hear, news that — just as was the case with Socrates — it can be downright dangerous to proclaim.
According to West, the Black intellectual operates “in the middle of an American civilization that is adolescent, immature and that refuses to confront history, reality, mortality. Its whole project is to escape from the dark side of reality. A hotel civilization as Henry James put it, where the lights are always on. A city on the hill where the sun is always shining. Where no one wants to wrestle with shadows and darkness.
“And the role of the Black intellectual is to do what? To try to convince your fellow citizens — the Black ones and the White ones, the Brown, and the Red and the Yellow — that this state of denial of history, this refusal to engage the night side of reality, to acknowledge the forms of death shot through the American past and present leads toward destruction.”
The Black intellectual’s great challenge, as West sees it, is to fuse the Socratic role — the questioning, doubting and probing role that is the best of the legacy of Athens — with the prophetic role — the cajoling and the compassion that are the best of the legacy of Jerusalem — and to use that fusion in the service of democratic ends.
African Americans know better than anyone, West says, “that one’s invisibility doesn’t have the last word and that living with the effects of forms of death do not utterly impede on one’s ability to have an impact on the world, to be an agent, to be a subject in the world.”
He went on to add that against this backdrop, the events of Sept. 11 represent an almost unprecedented opportunity because, perhaps for the first time, all Americans were feeling unsafe, subject to random violence, and hated for who they are. “The whole country has been ‘niggerized,’ ” he said.
Here, too, while there is danger for Black intellectuals in speaking their truth to the powers that rule us, they also can lead by showing that it’s possible for intellectuals to weep with the nation, to share its tears.
Just as in “Toni Morrison’s Beloved, where Baby Suggs is in the clearing preaching with her body and her song, interrogating White supremacist America but at the same time making the connection to those who need to be both unsettled and caressed,” so West imagined the role of the Black intellectual, both inside and outside the academy.
Indeed, so important was the formulation that West repeated it: “Unsettled and caressed — at the same time.” His reason for doing so cut right to the heart of the intellectual’s dilemma in American society.
“Both in the Black community and in the larger American community, intellectuals are not perceived as those who are making, enabling and ennobling contributions to the community. They’re associated with elitism, with the esoteric and the jargon ridden. They seemingly have no passion to communicate with persons where they are,” West said.
And that is where the Black intelligentsia can make its mark: in answering the question, “How do we convince others that our work is indispensable to their lives, as the genius of Sarah Vaughan”— or the talents of all of the other musicians and artists whose works move us?
“That’s not cheap relevance — that’s a calling,” West said.
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com