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Literary Scholar Indicts Some Black Thinkers for Shallow Works

Diverse: What led you as a literary scholar to write Betrayal?

HB: The motivation was, as interesting as it may seem now more than 20 years down the line, the culture wars that were launched by neoconservatives and the think tanks that support their point of view in the United States back in the late 1980s and into the 1990s. We had a number of people like Dinesh D’Souza, Roger Kimball, and Allan Bloom suggesting that the movement of knowledge of African-American studies, Black studies, women studies, Chicano and Chicana, Asian American, feminist studies that all of these additions to the university curriculum were polluting Western civilization, bringing knowledge to its knees, and was being offered up only in the name of political correctness.

          So, I first thought that I should answer to the best of my ability what is being said by these predominantly, almost all to a man or woman, White scholars. Then I realized a curious thing. Among these scholars were (African-American) scholars like Shelby Steele and Stephen Carter. And I thought, ‘Wow, they’ve joined the neoconservative attack.’

So I put the plans on hold to write a book in response to works like Illiberal Education and Tenured Radicals. And I began reading the works, particularly of neoconservative Black scholars. As I read that work, I realized that they were certainly in company, in harmony and often paid in think tanks by neoconservatism. I also began to notice something else that there were other scholars who had at one point devoted most of their time, talent, treasure (and) intellect to very, very serious scholarly work in African-American literary, cultural, philosophical, and political science matters, and suddenly there were no books like the ones that had come earlier from these scholars. We were getting quick sellers and they weren’t supported (by evidence) and they didn’t seem very scholarly almost on the order of pamphlets.

So I thought, ‘Wow, I think we need to take a look at our intellectual tradition,” and that’s what set it all off. About eight years ago or so, I began writing this book, chapter by chapter, integrating into its arguments a critique of American neoconservatism in general. And here it is.

Diverse: Can you talk about the distinctions between a Black neoconservative and a Black centrist?

HB: That’s a great question. I would define Black neoconservatives in a too shorthand way those who are in league with and, indeed in proximity, meaning physical, with the neoconservative movement in the United States of America a movement that traces its lineage back to the end of the second World War, but really gets its legs, finds its designation, and is up and running in the 1970s.

          The neoconservatives, who are not Black, include people like Irving Kristol, Midge Decter, Norman Podhoretz and others. The movement is largely one that said communism is really, really bad. We Americans, through Pax Americana, can go anywhere we want and establish democracy and our way of life. We need pretty weak, low social networks; we need low taxes; we need for the government to stay out of business; we need free markets and individual achievement keep the government out of our way.

          I think people like Steele, Carter, and (John) McWhorter Steele and McWhorter in particular are people who are actually living in and working in neoconservative thinks tanks like the Manhattan Institute and the Hoover Institution out at Stanford University, so they are quite literally in the employ of neoconservatism. Someone like Stephen Carter, who wrote Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby, is a Yale law professor, who in his book makes it quite clear that he is libertarian to the furthest extent. Anybody should have a right to say just about anything except those things prohibited by the Constitution. That’s the neoconservatives.

          The centrists, to my mind, are the people and I have given some notion of that in what I said earlier are brilliant, brilliant intellectuals. I mean, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, has written unarguably the best book on literary and cultural matters in Afro-America in the last 30 years or so. Cornel West is an incredible philosopher. And pragmatism is something that he has unutterably altered by his work. (Georgetown University’s) Michael Eric Dyson is an incredibly brilliant and learned man.

          The reason I talk about those individuals, such as those three Gates, West and Dyson as centrists is because they have given up their best critical labors, which would lead to the production of a book. And a book, I define as a production that has accountability; that has an abundance of evidence; that has a scholarly dedication to bringing forth the truth and to changing a discipline in ways that will bring a new understanding of African-American life and culture.

          When I look at books from Professor West like Race Matters, I don’t find those criteria satisfied. When I look at a book like The Future of the Race by Professors Gates and West, I don’t find those criteria satisfied. And when I look at Michael Eric Dyson’s work Between God and Gangsta Rap or Come Hell of High Water or I May Not Get There With You (it’s evident that) he’s a prolific writer, but these books are more anecdotal thought pieces. They often have a provocative cast to them as when he suggests we might look at (Dr. Martin Luther) King’s lapses of ethics or morality and on the basis of those lapses equate with those gangsta rappers in the United States of America which produced from one of my graduate students the exclamation ‘does any group in the world judge its leaders, or choose them, by their worst tendencies?’

          So I think the work is sensationalistic in some instances; in other instances, they are too simplistic. And they seem designed to say to a particular audience in the case of Michael Eric Dyson, I think it’s a middle-class Black audience you can read me and you can see that this is pretending to be a critique of gangsta rap and Dr. King, but it’s really kind of a moralizing almost sermonic, anecdotal pamphlet. The same is, I think, in some measure true of Cornel West’s Race Matters.

          So, the centrists are people who say, ‘I’m going to speak honestly, fully and scholastically to the best of my ability to you about race in ways that will be productive for race relations, and perhaps to the Black majority.’ And then what they often give is, in some instances, stand-up comedy.

Diverse: In Betrayal, you describe Dr. King as a race man. Can you elaborate on the idea of Dr. King as a race man?

HB: Race men and race women, hence race people, are those who have taken as their sacred and secular mission the enhancement and advancement of the Black majority in the United States of America in education, in the arts, in politics, (and in) economics. And often, race men and race women have taken an almost prophetic, as in the prophets of the Bible, tone in public and in their public addresses (as) they identify their own self-interests, ethically and honestly, with those of the Black majority. And, in the case of Dr. Martin Luther King and others along the way of course one thinks of Ida Wells Barnett with the wonderful new biography out (on her) they put their own life and property on the line in order to do their work.

You know that Ida Wells Barnett was driven out of Memphis; her shop was burned in Washington, D.C., and couldn’t go back home largely because she was telling the truth about White people and about lynching in the United States of America. Dr. Martin Luther has that incredible moment that we know the Saturday night kitchen moment when he’s really totally afraid and he doesn’t know, because he’s in his mid-twenties, why he’s been chosen to do this work. And he receives a message from the Lord that says, ‘I tell you what, you do your work and I will never leave you never ever leave you.’ And King tells us, ‘Well, at that point, I no longer knew I was afraid to die’. He preaches to the Black majority in Montgomery, Selma, and in Birmingham, ‘I say to you don’t be afraid to die in the cause of justice.’

It seems to me it’s that utter commitment of time, talent, and treasure to the interests of the Black majority and that identification to one’s own self-interest with the interests of the majority that constitutes the best trait of the race man or race woman.

Diverse: Can you point to scholars whose work merits serious attention and praise for being accountable to the needs of the Black community?

HB: There are so many people. I would start with the magnificent Angela Davis and the work that she has been doing and continues so encouragingly to do with the private prison industrial complex. I would look at someone like Manning Marable in that same light of an analytic that is attentive to the Black majority. Certainly, I would look at a Patricia Williams (with) a book like The Alchemy of Race and Rights; (and) Kim Crenshaw, in terms of critical race legal theory. I look at Lani Guinier (with) a book like the Miner’s Canary, which analyzes why we have the voting patterns we do in this country, how they might be changed, (and) why Black people have such a paucity of legacy wealth and sustainable income.

I would look at someone like Adolph Reed in his critiques of Jesse Jackson and of Black public intellectuals; Lawrence Bobo and the work that he’s doing with the Black urban; John Jackson, young scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, working on Harlem; and Deborah Thomas, also at the University of Pennsylvania, working on Jamaica and modernism.

If one thinks about the diaspora now with the points of contacts and interaction within the Atlantic Basin, one moves out to places like (the University of the West Indies at) Cave Hill with the historian Hilary Beckles and people who have trained with him, and things that are going on at the Mona campus of the University of the West Indies. (There’s) Zita Nunes at (the University of) Maryland who’s working across the Portuguese diaspora through Brazil into Africa with Angola and Mozambique, and Portugal and Cape Verde.

          There’s just a lot of intensely interesting work that holds itself accountable to the best standard of the scholarly book intended to enhance the interest of the Black, or the diasporic, or the circum-Atlantic majority.

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