Washington — If the assertion, popular among mainstream writers, is true that the age of public intellectualism is dead, no one told the growing number of Black scholars and their rapidly growing non-campus following.
For example, a standing-room-only crowd recently gathered in a church here and enthusiastically applauded the news that an international organization of African-American scholars — funded by a Rockefeller Foundation grant — is in the works.
What was unusual about the statement was that it came from Harvard University’s Henry Louis Gates Jr. He was responding during a brief question-and-answer session as he shared the stage with his colleague in Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies, Cornel West.
Such a joint appearance would have been a rarity decades ago. But, even in a town where book-signing appearances are as common as political press releases, this little-publicized gathering drew a turn-away crowd.
Drs. Gates and West were here to promote their book, “The Future of Race.” But their remarks and the way the audience embraced them reflected a growing phenomenon: Black scholars are more accessible and more colloquial than ever — and their constituents (and their offspring) are eager to hear them, talk to them and, to underscore the good-natured spiritedness of the relationship verbally joust with them.
Talented Tenth’s Grandchildren?
These events put in bold relief the availability of today’s corps of Black scholars. To some people, the phenomenon is viewed as nothing more than shallow marketing. There was some isolated grumbling in the crowd about why Black people ought to take seriously any assessment of the state of affairs of African Americans from a man referred to by West as “Brother Skip.”
But others feel they are witnessing the blossoming of an underdeveloped aspect of the academe for Blacks. When Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, University of North Carolina’s Michael Dyson or bell hooks deliver speeches, it advances a tradition of public discourse on race that has its roots in the speeches of Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois. “These are the grandchildren of the `talented tenth,'” says James Early, director of cultural studies for the Smithsonian Institution’s Center for American Folklife, of today’s corps of Black scholars.
If the speakers are the legatees of the group Du Bois characterized as the Black intelligentsia, Early and the rest of the audience packed into the church that evening reflect what is left of the legion of baby-boomers who populated college campuses — and picket lines — in the 1960s.
Whoops and Applause
The audience represented the spine of the, Black middle class. Although they have money and jobs and assets, they also still have the skepticism and anger that propelled them through the golden age of youth protest. Three decades after the tumult of the civil rights and anti-war movements, the survivors of that era are gray-haired or balding and sport a a bit of a paunch now. They tend to focus their interests through organizations and foundations. There’s even a Huey P. Newton Foundation out there these days.
But inside that church, they were able to let loose with the whoops and applause and laughter that were typical of a campus appearance of a radical speaker.
“This is the kind of thing that went on in this city a hundred years ago,” says Early, who was among the crowd that lined up to have Gates and West sign copies of their book. But unlike the oratory of yesterday that was filled with polysyllabic words, ponderous phrases and concepts, today’s Black public intellectuals sprinkle the icons .of modern culture throughout their speeches.
In explaining the importance of the need for strong African-American studies programs, for instance, Gates recounted his involvement as a defense witness in the pornography trial of the members of the music group “Two Live Crew.”
Dazzling Call, Upbeat Response Today’s Black scholars can trace their lineage from Du Bois and turn-of-the-century descendants through the works of Black scholars of the 1960s and 1970s — such as Vincent Harding and Haki Nadbuti. Similarly, the audience was made up of people who were influenced by the early Black scholars and are now eager for answers to today’s dilemmas. “These folk,” Early said of the crowd, “hunger to talk about the issues and especially about race.”
But both the lecturers and the listeners are also members of the television generation; the speakers are not inclined to deliver a dry lecture and their audience won’t sit still for one. The result is the rhetorical equivalent of an all-star professional basketball game:
Dazzling moves set to an uptempo rhythm. Consider, for instance, how the pair handled the inevitable question of why they are building a strong Afro-American studies department at Harvard, instead of teaching at a historically Black college or university. “Why is it that when Black people … Black scholars, become prominent, really make it you rush off to Harvard?” asked a young man who identified himself as a Howard University graduate.
“I have never had a job offer from a historically Black college, ever,” Gates said. “I was at Cornell University, miserable, cold, isolated, I saw an ad for the chairmanship of the English department of Howard University. I applied. I was interviewed. I was, well, I won’t say. I’m in a church, so I can’t demonize them.
“I was interviewed by an official at Howard … made to sit outside his office for an hour and a half. He finally came out and said, `Why don’t we go and get a drink because you’re not going to get this job anyway.'”
But Not For Me
When his turn came to respond to the same question, West’s answer got to the core of the reason why people like him are available for the enthusiastic embrace of those interested in race in America. “The reason I don’t teach at a Howard or Morehouse or Spelman is because … of the unequal distribution of resources in American higher education. Those brothers and sisters who decide to teach there teach eight courses a year. I teach four … glad to teach four,” West said.
“Those professors who are engaged in such a noble endeavor are saying I want to give up time for research. I’m going to give up time to read. I’m going to give up time to travel. I’m going to give up time to run around the country and gain access to a host of other conversations. I’m going to stay on the ground and be with those students.
“That’s wonderful, but that’s not for me,” said West. And that’s why Black scholars like Howard Political Science Professor Joseph McCormick applaud what he labels the “academic theater” provided by West, Gates and others.
“They can get around and talk and make themselves accessible. I couldn’t go to see them because I had to read a graduate student’s paper so he can get his degree this spring,” McCormick said.
“But I don’t begrudge them their time. It’s part of the mandate of a Black teacher.”
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