ATLANTA, Georgia, USA – Black academics don’t have a “special obligation” to speak to broader social and political issues. What we have witnessed over the last few decades is the increasing professionalization of this particular class of persons – where the object of their scholarly interests range across a number of subjects that aren’t reducible to questions of race.

These individuals stand alongside those who work explicitly on racial matters, but their work doesn’t necessarily reach beyond the confines of a specialized academic community. The political significance of their ideas has been weakened or worse, banished to the shadows, and we’re left, as my grandmother would say, “bumping our gums.”

However, the role of the black intellectual raises a different question. I do believe that intellectuals generally ought to aspire to be the moral conscience of their societies: that what we write, say and do should reflect intelligent efforts to provide a critical account of who we take ourselves to be as a nation.

Black intellectuals take up this task in the context of black communities and the ever-shifting regime of race that undermines democratic possibility in this country. (And remember that the folks who do this kind of labor do not have to work in universities or colleges.)

That’s what they ought to do. Instead, today we are experiencing a “new nadir.” Too many black intellectuals have given up the hard work of thinking carefully in public about the crisis facing black America. We have either become cheerleaders for President Obama or self-serving pundits. Our celebration of his singular achievement and our crazed desire for access have made many of us “born-again patriots.”

All too often what stands in for the black intellectual these days are folks who can spin a phrase and offer a soundbite. The idea of the intellectual who reads widely and deeply and who critically engages the complexity of our times has been supplanted by the fast-talking “black Ph.D. pundit” who strives to be on CNN, Fox or MSNBC. This same pundit has found new career opportunities within universities and colleges by thinking about black people in ways that conform to the current liberal consensus about racial matters.

The combination turns out to be a deadly one. I am reminded of what the sociologist C. Wright Mills wrote in 1948: “The two together, for the liberal ideology, as now used by intellectuals, acts as a device whereby he can take advantage of the new career chances but retain the illusion that his soul remains his own.”

Put another way, too many black intellectuals have sold their souls “for a mess of pottage,” while the misery in black America deepens. And there is a tragic story to tell about how we arrived at this point.

Even given this state of affairs, I remain hopeful. Those of us committed to the work of thinking carefully in public with others must model the value of seriousness amid the white noise of our current media landscape. This involves using various social networks to push critical conversations and thinking among our fellows; it entails recommitting ourselves to build reading and writing communities that cultivate the habits of public intellectual work; it means bringing our skills to bear on the problems of our day through interpretations that single out our failings and point the way forward to what needs to be done to, as James Baldwin wrote, “achieve our country.”


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.