Is the black intellectual fundamentally a scholar first Or, is being a black intellectual necessarily also an activist responsibility The critical challenge is whether a black intellectual who combines dual functions (academic and activist) could or should write from a detached, positivist and objective stance. Some reject objectivity and unabashedly urge black intellectuals to assume activist roles.
The end of scholarship should be the empowerment of blacks. Afrocentrism is a modern representation of this ideological genre. This is most forcibly defended by Molefi Asante, former chair of African-American Studies at Temple University in Philadelphia, and others such as Maulana Karenga, Na’im Akbar, and the late John Henrick Clark. They denounce objectivity and universalism as trappings of Eurocentrism. They deem the pursuit of objectivity detrimental to blacks. Instead of objective scholarship, Afrocentrism encourages black intellectuals to use knowledge primarily for advancing the black struggle.Asante, for example, denounces objectivity and universalism as facets of Eurocentric ideology, which have been used to construct culturally, skewed Eurocentric knowledge. The underlying dynamics of black scholarship, in his view, should be the empowerment of blacks. No black scholar, he insists, should be constrained by of objectivity and universalism.Furthermore, in this battle for the consciousness of blacks, which is critical to the cultural survival of blacks, Asante contends that there is no room for diverse and divergent views and opinions, especially views critical of blacks.
The role of the black intellectual, therefore, is to choreograph a monolithic sensibility and consciousness. The black intellectual functions like a thought police, expected to maintain vigilance against opposing critical views that tend to muddle the racial line.The black intellectual is also a dual performer; with responsibility to two key audiences - the academic audience which requires a distinct medium of communication, and the ‘every-day people,’ the masses of uneducated, less educated, or mis-educated people. For the latter, the medium of communication/discourse is rooted in popular culture/vernacular. Black intellectuals like Na’im Akbar, Robin D. G. Kelley, Eric Dyson and Cornel West, have had to traverse both worlds; that is, publish research monographs for academic audience, as well as popular writings for the masses. West, for example, has written materials of the highest academic quality, while also Tunde Adeleke producing CDs and popular literatures for non-academic audiences. Given the challenge of black powerlessness, the black intellectual cannot afford to focus exclusively on academic scholarship. He/She must consciously identify with the peoples’ struggles and challenges, as well as function as advocate for the much maligned, misunderstood and militant anti-establishment genres of black popular culture such as Hip-hop and Gangsta rap. Dyson, for example, has also used his writings to explicate, and defend the negative lyrics of Gangsta rap. Like West, Dyson attempts to rescue these genres (Hiphop, Gangsta rap) from being dismissed as the ranting of the uninformed, uneducated, bigoted and homophobic black youth.
The preoccupation of West and Dyson with black popular protest genres has not resonated well with some in the academic community. Former Harvard University President Charles Summer, for example, once criticized West for not focusing enough on serious scholarly research, which resulted in West’s resignation. West was then performing multiple roles. In addition to scholarly publications, he was also producing rap CDs, advising aspiring black politicians, as well as speaking for various anti-racism and antiestablishment causes.
The black intellectual of today also functions as an arbiter whose role is to challenge and deconstruct Eurocentric scholarship. For example, black intellectuals like Asante, and John H. Clarke have undertaken to rewrite history from black/African perspectives. Among Asante’s legion of publications are recent reinterpretations of African history and African American history written from a black or Afrocentric perspective.22 Also, the Nation of Islam has commissioned its own historians to write texts specifically for its schools; texts, which directly challenge mainstream interpretation of American history.23 Thus, black intellectuals combine both scholarly and activist functions. This has raised questions about the goal of scholarship. Should scholarship focus primarily on the acquisition of knowledge Or, should it be knowledge for individual/collective liberation and empowerment There seems to be a consensus among black intellectuals, irrespective of ideology, that knowledge should have a utilitarian purpose.
There is disagreement, however, on precisely the nature of the utilitarian goal - integration of nationalist/ethnic vision Explaining the contextual dynamics of black intellectualism, Franz Fanon suggested that since black intellectuals developed in the context of oppressive environments, they often seek to integrate into the dominant society.24 This is true of black intellectuals in America.
The lure of the dominant society remains simply irresistible. Though critical of the dominant society, black intellectuals have not completely jettisoned the dominant ‘bourgeois’ ethos. Thus far, their leadership style is not consistent with effective ‘grounding’ with the people. Their education has become a means of escaping the dark and gloomy world of the masses of black America into 26 Theoretical Discourse the lofty and affluent world of the dominant white society. Yet, as Fanon underscored, not all leadership is seduced by the bourgeois ethos of the dominant class. Rather than compromise, some black intellectuals choose to identify with the oppressed and marginalized.25 This revolutionary organic group, in the Gramscian sense, uses knowledge as a weapon in a revolutionary cultural war against a domineering and Eurocentric mainstream. To some degree, Afrocentrism exemplifies this tradition.Other intellectuals not publicly identified with Afrocentrism have also advocated ‘organic’ leadership. For example, Cornel West advocates an ‘organic catalytic black intellectual’ - a thinker who would have a symbiotic relationship with the broader black community. According to him; ‘this model privileges collective intellectual work that contributes to communal resistance and struggle.’27 In this respect, according to William Banks, ‘West echoes Gramsci’s ideas about the importance of black intellectuals articulating issues and ideas relevant to their ethnic community.’28 However, while West centralizes race, other black intellectuals such as Shelby Steel and William J. Wilson highlight other elements29 It should be understood however that Cornel West is not a prototypical organic leader. Often his writings and leadership style are fundamentally self-promoting and at odds.
He and other so-called progressive scholars dabble into just about any subject under the sun, solidifying their reputation as ‘experts’ on black issues. They focus on racism, inequality, and the failures and shortcomings of American democracy. Due to their prodigious academic scholarship, and visibility, they have become institutionalised ‘talking heads’ on televisions, radios and other popular media. Their ultimate goals are personal enrichment, and career advancement. This is true as well of the Afrocentric, cultural nationalist intellectuals who publicly proclaim identification with, and concern for, the plight of the black masses. They too are little better than the exploitative and hegemonic intellectual establishment they condemn. They seem unable to completely commit the class suicide called for, and seem to be orchestrating the people’s cause for purely self-aggrandizement. This is clearly evident in their commoditisation of knowledge.
As public black intellectuals become more visible, assertive and functional, their demands have appreciated exponentially. As source and authority on black life and challenges; these intellectuals become the bona fide voice of, and authority on, black America. Their visibility and enhanced status has spurned a cottage industry around the spheres of public knowledge.
These public black intellectuals impose and demand a high price for their services. They have retreated into some private, secluded space or compartment, behind agential barriers. To reach them, one is first directed to agents who are employed primarily to negotiate lucrative booking fees - first class airfare, at times, including family members, five-star hotel Tunde Adeleke accommodation and hefty honorarium which includes agential commission often for very minimal visits.
Almost all black public intellectuals, regardless of ideological disposition, now sell their knowledge often to the highest bidder. As public intellectuals, their knowledge is no longer for altruistic service, but primarily a means of personal enrichment. They have become intellectual prostitutes and pimps, accessible only to those able and willing to pay for their services.
Many have copyrighted their works and now charge exorbitant fees even from students doing research. They all seem unwilling to fully commit class suicide, or return to, and ‘ground’ with, the people. Instead of escaping the ‘Babylonian captivity’ of their Eurocentric education, and undertaking the kind of ‘reconversion of mentalities’ which Amilcar Cabral believed would prepare them to function effectively as the peoples’ advocates, they have chosen to prioritise personal gains.
3. Conclusion For the modern black intellectual, the responsibility to ‘ground’ with the people, in the absence of any sustained revolutionary struggle, means that the intellectual would not use knowledge as an escape valve, a means of migration from the masses to the relative comfort and safety of the ivory tower.
It means he/she would be accessible to all, including those unable to afford prohibitive agential fees. Thus, ‘grounding’ means truly committing knowledge to the service of the masses, identifying with, and sharing in their experiences. It also means remaining in proximity to the masses and not retreating to the seclusion and exclusivity of gated suburbia. This ‘grounding’ places the intellectual on the side of the people against the forces of domination and oppression. This is the prototypical organic nationalist intellectual in the Gramscian sense that both Rodney and Cabral exemplified.
Thus far, black American intellectuals are further from approximating this leadership tradition.
Notes A Gramsci, Selections from the Prison Notebooks, International Publishers, New York, 1977.
W Rodney, The Groundings With My Brothers, Bogle-L’Ouverture Publications, London, 1969.
R Hill, Walter Rodney Speaks: The Making of an African Intellectual, Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey, 1990, p. 111.
W Rodney, The Groundings, op. cit., p. 62.
28 Theoretical Discourse A Cabral, Unity and Struggle: Speeches and Writings, Heinemann, London, 1980, p. 145.
P Fontaine, ‘Walter Rodney: Revolutionary and Scholar in the Guyanese Political Cauldron’, Walter Rodney: Revolutionary and Scholar: A Tribute, EA Alpers & PM Fontaine (eds), University of California Press, Los Angeles, 1982.
P Chabal, Amilcar Cabral: Revolutionary Leadership and People’s War, Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey, 2003.
E Thorpe, Black Historians: A Critique, William Morrow & Co., New York, 1971.
ibid., pp. 27-64.
GN Grisham, ‘The Function of the Negro Scholar’, The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Blacks in the United States, 1797-1973, PS Foner (ed.), vol. 1, Capricorn Books, New York, 1975, pp. 629-620.
A Meier & E Rudwick, Black History and the Historical Profession, 19151980, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1986, pp. 1-160.
A Paschal (ed.), A W.E.B Du Bois Reader, Collier Books, New York, 1971, p. 31.
A Meier & E Rudwick, Black History, op. cit., pp. 1-160.
S Stuckey, ‘Twilight of Our Past: Reflections on the Origins of Black History’, Amistad2: Writings on Black History and Culture, JA Williams and CF Harris (eds), Vintage Books, New York, 1971, pp. 261-298.
M X, Malcolm X on Afro-American History, Pathfinder, London, 1967.
F Rojas, From Black Power to Black Studies: How a Radical Social Movement Became an Academic Discipline, The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 2007.
G Mwakikagile, Black Conservatives in the United States, New Africa Press, Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, 2006, pp. 20-103.
H Baker, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, Columbia University Press, New York, 2008;
W D Wright, Crisis of the Black Intellectual, Third World Press, Chicago, 2007.
M Asante, Afrocentricity, Africa World Press, Trenton, New Jersey, 1989;
S Howe, Afrocentrism: Mythical Pasts and Imagined Homes, Verso, London, 1998; WD Wright, Crisis of the Black Intellectual, op. cit.
M Asante, Afrocentricity, op. cit., p. 51.
ibid., p. 39.
M Asante, Classical Africa, Peoples Publishing Group, Saddle Brook, New Jersey, 1993; The History of Africa: The Quest for Eternal Harmony, Routledge, New York, 2007.
Tunde Adeleke NOI, The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews, vol. 1, The Historical Research Department, NOI, Boston, MA, 1991.
F Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, Groove Press, New York, ; F Fanon, Black Skin, White Masks, Groove Press, New York, .
W Banks, Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life, W. W. Norton & Co., New York, 1996, p. 156.
C West, ‘The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual’. Cultural Critique, vol. 1, Fall, 1985, p. 122.
W Banks, Black Intellectuals, op. cit., p. 237.
G Mwakikagile, Black Conservatives, op. cit.; C Bracey, Saviors or Sellouts: The Promise and Peril of Black Conservatism from Booker T.
Washington to Condoleezza Rice, Beacon Press, Boston, 2008.
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