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Surveying the Black Intellectual Scene

ISSUE:  Autumn 1998
Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life. By William M. Banks. W.W. Norton. $29.95.

Thirty-odd years ago Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual set out to hammer those blacks caught up in integrationist hope, caution those who would “become interpreters for the black world to the white” (e.g., James Baldwin), and make a case for a nationalism able to fuse thought and deed. The result was a book that made a considerable splash when it first appeared, but that now seems quaint and more than a little overbaked. Here, for example, is Cruse on the “special function of the Negro intellectual”:

He should take to the rostrum and assail the stultifying blight of the commercially depraved white middle-class who has poisoned the structural roots of the American ethos and transformed the American people into a nation of intellectual dolts. He should explain the economic and institution causes of this American cultural depravity. He should tell black America how and why Negroes are trapped in this cultural degeneracy, and how it has dehumanized their essential identity, squeezed the lifeblood of their inherited cultural ingredients out of them, and then relegated them to the cultural slums.

Cruse’s passion was only matched by his certainties; but like so much of the social criticism served up in the late 60’s, sweeping indictment outstripped specific demonstration. The book, in short, stops just short of becoming a harangue. For our purpose, however, what Cruse’s cranky, idiosyncratic ruminations about Negro intellectuals made possible is the updated study before us—for, in 1967, William M. Banks pored over Cruse’s bulky tome with nearly equal measures of attraction and repulsion. As he remembers the days when calls for Black Power were much in the air, “. . .despite my gut sympathies for some of the goals of black activists, I had misgivings about their priorities and rhetoric. Yet I was not sure whether criticizing these activists would be helpful or proper. Cruse, a nationalist himself, had no doubts.” The seeds that Cruse planted inside Banks’ head have now, all these many years later, finally reached print. That there is need for such a study of black intellectuals almost goes without saying; that this is the one we have been waiting for is, alas, another matter—for among its many faults, Banks offers up a curiously elastic definition of the black intellectual, one that not only casts far too wide a net but that also is longer on information culled from biographies than on independent analysis.

Let me begin, then, by suggesting that there are important distinctions to be made when talking about activists, leaders, and intellectuals. Activists depend on slogans of the sort that can neatly fit on placards (“No justice, No peace” is a contemporary example, one dutifully trotted out whenever a decision goes the “other” [read: wrong] way); leaders rely on vision (Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of a land where his children will be judged by the content of their character rather than by the color of their skin); while intellectuals bring large measures of complexity—usually laced with doubt, if not with skepticism—to activists and leaders alike. Banks, unfortunately, conflates these categories until virtually every black he mentions in passing ends up in the amen corner of the intellectual tent. Thus, Frederick Douglass, Marcus Garvey, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Malcolm X share space with the likes of Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Stanley Crouch. Moreover, Banks makes no bones about beginning his sweeping chronicle of black intellectual life with “the earliest interpreters of culture, those slaves who re-created African roles of priests and medicine men.”

Indeed, it takes us nearly 40 pages—most of them devoted to a thumbnail history of how blacks were first systematically denied formal education and, later, were the recipients of a markedly inferior one—before we get to W.E.B. Du Bois, the first black intellectual worthy of the title—and still the preeminent mind black America has yet produced. Given the sheer ambition of Banks’ coverage, one does not expect him to dwell on Du Bois with anything like the impressive detail provided in David Levering Lewis’ biography, W.E.B. Du Bois: Biography of a Race, 1868—1919; but surely he could have done more to suggest the continuities that once defined, and continue to shape, black intellectual life. Consider, for example, the quarrel that pitted W.E.B. Du Bois’ “talented tenth” against Booker T. Washington’s commitment to mass vocational training. No doubt their respective (and quite different) formative experiences contributed to the collision course that ended with Washington’s Up From Slavery on one hand and Du Bois’ The Soul of Black Folks on the other. However, given the announced purpose of Banks’ subtitle (“Race and Responsibility in American Life”), one rather expects a sustained focus on the inevitable conflict between individual and tribe, between critique and political commitment. To be sure, Du Bois so fused political activism with rigorous scholarship that the hybrid term, activist intellectual, slipped easily over his shoulders. By contrast, the “crisis” among Negro intellectuals that Harold Cruse explored made it clear that these twin allegiances would be in for some rough sledding.

Granted, Banks’ sketches of contemporary black intellectuals describe something of this struggle, but without the critical texture or the subtle nuance it deserves. One reason may be that Banks has never come to grips with the black consciousness announced so stridently in the 1960’s, and that, with only minor adjustments, has resurfaced in our own time. At bottom, much that passed, or passes, for black aesthetics or for black power politics is so much hokum: wildly romantic, intentionally divisive, and perhaps most of all, severely reductive. Rather than concocting reasons to admire the artless verse of Amiri Baraka (formerly LeRoi Jones)—”We want “poems that kill” / Assassin poems. Poems that shoot guns.”), what the late 60’s required were black intellectuals willing to stand tall and say the obvious—namely, that these emperors of black aestheticism were prancing around sans clothes. Unfortunately, few did—and those who tried (e.g., Ralph Ellison, Albert Murray) were quickly shouted down as race-betrayers, or worse. That, in short, is the issue Banks’ book should have addressed; and that is precisely the sort of discussion he ducked. Instead, what he provides is the cautionary language of the high school textbook:

Black literary intellectuals, many recently installed in universities, proposed theoretical and aesthetic justifications for politically saturated black art. Hoyt Fuller, Addison Gayle, and Stephen Henderson placed the new work in the context of broader developments in the culture and the legacy of African American folk traditions. As editor of the magazine Negro Digest (renamed Black World in 1970), Fuller published fiction, poetry, and critical essays reflecting and justifying a symbiotic relationship between aesthetic values and politics. Gayle edited The Black Aesthetic (1971), an anthology of essays that endorsed strengthening the link between art and politics. Most of the contributors called on black artists to demolish, or at least expose, the bias inherent in Western cultural standards. White American aesthetic canons had to be neutralized before a politics beneficial to black people could be created.

In short, the black aesthetics movement became an arm of the larger black power agenda; and in the process, far too many black intellectuals conveniently forgot the central point of Du Bois’ claim that when he reads Shakespeare, Shakespeare (unlike many of his Harvard classmates) “does not wince.” Now, all of Western culture is best consigned to the trash heap of bad history and replaced by criteria more amenable to black aspirations. But the parochialism—which is to say the fear of dipping one’s toes into wider cultural waters—that often characterized the Harlem Renaissance (and simultaneously delimited many of its achievements) is something of a mug’s game, True enough, there are legitimate sources of black material (folklore, jazz, the very rhythms of communal life), but to transmogrify them into art requires more, much more, than strident rhetoric. It takes discipline and a belief that the real work of a writer is to write as honestly, and as well, as possible. That is precisely what Ralph Ellison demonstrated in his essays and most impressively in Invisible Man; by comparison, what the black aesthetic movement, then and now, has produced is decidedly thinner goods. And no special pleading, no charges of racism or of a distinctively black imagination, can alter this judgment a whit.

What has changed, however, is the critical mass of black intellectuals—and it is here that Banks had an opportunity to update Cruse’s study in a serious, important way. For, as the doors of higher education swung open during the 1960’s, a bumper crop of bright, very talented black intellectuals and writers emerged during the next decades. What distinguishes them, beyond their sheer ability, is the wide range—and independence—of their thought. To his credit, Banks spices up his generally dreary text with snippets from interviews he conducted with many of them (e.g., Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Troy Duster, John Wideman). To his shame, nearly 50 pages of Black Intellectuals is devoted to very short biographical sketches that convey only rudimentary information and that look for all the world like padding,

Much worse, however, is Banks’ failure to make any coherent sense of, much less render an assessment about, the ways that public intellectuals such as Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Stanley Crouch, Glenn Loury, and Cornel West differ about such issues as affirmative action, racism, and the continuing plight of the black underclass. Instead, what we get is commentary so balanced, so even-handed, and finally so utterly uncommitted that one imagines Banks is running for high office in Chicago rather than writing a book in which controversy quite literally comes with the territory. For example, here is his attempt to bring wildly different perspectives under the same lackluster tent:

Empirical studies documenting continuing racial discrimination in employment and housing competed for space in the public’s attention span with writings by Stanley Crouch, who singlemindedly searched for, and found, many behavior and moral shortcomings in the African American community. . . . The choices of intellectuals about what they do and how they do it are based on the moral sensitivities of individuals. Conservatives insist that the long and difficult struggle of African Americans to secure the rights of citizenship was fundamentally about blacks’ being able to have the same options as other citizens. The American creed of individualism provides sturdy support for this position . . . [Nonetheless], both camps—intellectuals who advocate an organic relationship with the black community, and those who aspire to transcend ethnic considerations—are part of the unfolding saga of race and social thought in the United States. And members of both camps today are products of the same historical forces; they are intellectuals who have benefited from the victories of those who challenged racial barriers in earlier periods.

The history of black intellectuals in America is a worthy subject, but it is also one that demands sterner thought and richer prose than Banks can provide. I say this, first on behalf on the dozens upon dozens of black intellectuals he has corralled in his pages, and then with regard to those of us, black and white, who pay close attention to what they say. My cold comfort, as well as my hope, is that another scholar will be encouraged to do the job that Banks, alas, has not done. This is hardly the “contribution to scholarship” he had in mind, but when it comes to an intellectual treatment of black intellectuals, there is, apparently, plenty of cold comfort to go around.


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