Black scholars: trapped on the race track?

African American scholars still struggle for public prominence outside discussions of racial justice, says Daniel Matlin

December 5, 2013

Must black intellectuals talk about race in order to be noticed, and to access the opportunities and rewards available to white ‘public intellectuals’?

“Do black intellectuals need to talk about race?” When The New York Times posed this question in its Room for Debate forum earlier this year, “need” was defined exclusively as a moral imperative. Introducing the debate, the editors clarified the terms of enquiry: “Do these academics still have a special obligation to address the nation’s social and racial issues?”

It is a question that has long troubled African American intellectual life. From the impassioned writings of black abolitionists to the later, methodical efforts of scholars who set out to disprove once widely held ideas that black people were “biologically inferior” and lacked any history of civilisation, black intellectuals in the US – and elsewhere in the world – have frequently acted out of a sense of their “special obligation” to devote their intellectual energies to the cause of racial justice.

Without doubt, the efforts of black intellectuals have contributed to the profound, although far from complete, extension of equality to African Americans. But at what cost to themselves, and to their fields of knowledge?

“Imagine, if you can,” wrote the historian John Hope Franklin in 1963, at the peak of the civil rights protests in the American South, “what it meant to a competent Negro student of Greek literature, W. H. Crogman, to desert his chosen field and write a book entitled The Progress of a Race.” And, “How much poorer is the field of the biological sciences because an extremely able and well-trained Negro scientist, Julian Lewis, felt compelled to spend years of his productive life writing a book entitled The Biology of the Negro?”

A sense of moral obligation is not, however, the only “need” that has channelled black intellectual activity towards the subjects of race and racial justice. Lurking unnoticed within the question asked by The New York Times was an alternative meaning of “need”. Must black intellectuals talk about race in order to be noticed, and to access the opportunities and rewards available to white “public intellectuals”? Do black intellectuals need to talk about race in order to be admitted into the public sphere? Historically, the answer to these questions has nearly always been “yes”.

Mamie Clark and Kenneth Clark

For more than a century, white America has looked to black intellectuals to explain what it means, and how it feels, to be black. Their combination of disciplinary expertise and intimate personal experience has appeared – to publishers, newspaper editors and other cultural gatekeepers – to make African American intellectuals uniquely qualified to guide white America into the “hidden depths” of black life. A multitude of black intellectuals have stepped forward to adopt the status of “indigenous interpreter”. In 1903, W. E. B. Du Bois, historian, social scientist, novelist and civil rights activist, promised in the opening lines of his book, The Souls of Black Folk, to lift the “veil” of race to reveal the “deeper recesses” of black life to his implicitly white “gentle reader”.

During the 1920s, a surge of white fascination with African American life and culture made possible the brace of publications by black authors associated with the Harlem Renaissance. And ever since the mid-1960s, when waves of rioting across American cities interrupted the climax of the southern civil rights protests and alerted the media and white public to black America’s newly northern, urban profile, black intellectuals have been called on to convey the social and emotional realities of the so-called “ghetto”.

In taking on the role of indigenous interpreter, black scholars, authors and artists have been motivated not merely by financial inducements, at least no more so than other public intellectuals who have offered their services as columnists or television pundits, or who target a wide, commercial readership for their books. Many have used their status and profile to call attention to the effects of segregation, exclusion and poverty on life in black communities and to foster support for campaigns for equality and policy reforms.

Those who have succeeded in carving out a role for themselves as prominent public figures have sometimes paid a heavy price, however. The psychologist Kenneth B. Clark, along with his psychologist wife Mamie, conducted research that helped persuade the US Supreme Court to outlaw segregated schooling in 1954. In 1965, Clark sought to strengthen the wavering public commitment to alleviate black urban poverty through his chronicle of life in Harlem, Dark Ghetto.

Notoriety followed and media appearances abounded. Yet Clark was haunted by a feeling of regret that the widely held expectations of black intellectuals, together with his own sense of moral responsibility, had diverted the course of his career away from his most deeply held academic interests.

Alice Walker

In the UK, the minute number of black and Asian intellectuals with public visibility reflects the levels at which institutional racism continues to operate

In an oral history interview recorded in 1976, Clark recalled that as a student in the 1930s, the subject that excited him most had been neurophysiology. But he chose to pursue a doctorate and a career in social psychology because, “being black”, he felt a need to enter a field with clear application to the pursuit of racial justice. “I couldn’t afford the luxury of doing what I really wanted to do in psychology – namely, know more about the brain and the nervous system, and how they affected behaviour,” Clark explained. “But if I had had my druthers, if I were white, I think I would have gone into neurophysiology totally.”

Moreover, as Clark became a familiar figure in the pages of American newspapers and magazines during the 1960s, he grew uncomfortable with the very terms of his success. An article he wrote for the New York Post in 1967 was published with the title “A Negro Looks at ‘Black Power’ ”. Clark was increasingly disturbed by the notions of racial authenticity that underlay his recognition by the media as an indigenous interpreter. Access to the public sphere for black intellectuals seemed to depend on – and to be confined to – the matter of their blackness and their authority as interpreters of blackness to others. The same logic of racial authenticity that created a role for Clark as a public intellectual simultaneously restricted him to what, in 1976, he would call “the topic that is reserved for blacks”.

Has this situation changed? The New York Times observes that: “Today, more African-Americans hold more positions at colleges, not always involving subjects that have particular relevance to black people.” Even so, the extent of black under-representation remains stark in many fields. Figures from 2007 show that just 2.5 per cent of science and engineering academic staff at the top 50 American research institutions were African American, as against 13 per cent of the US population. But just as significantly, the conditions of access to the public sphere for black intellectuals appear to have been remarkably consistent.

A list of the most prominent contemporary African American intellectuals makes the point clear enough. Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Patricia Williams – virtually without exception, the black scholars and authors who have been elevated to the ranks of public intellectuals have made their names as commentators on the subject of race. Even conservative figures who espouse “colour-blind” public policies, such as the Hoover Institution’s Thomas Sowell (senior fellow on public policy), regularly write about the issue. Sowell’s books and his syndicated newspaper column have taken aim at affirmative action policies, holding them responsible in no small part for black America’s woes.

It is perhaps inevitable that a significant proportion of the scholars, authors and artists drawn from a grossly disadvantaged group should choose to devote much of their intellectual energy to addressing the dynamics of that disadvantage, although as Clark’s example suggests, the sense of a “special obligation” has been experienced by some as a painful limitation on intellectual freedom.

bel hooks

Too often, however, the media and cultural industries continue to consider black intellectuals worthy of attention only when race is the matter at hand. Underlying this is the much deeper, more widespread problem of the persistent appeal of notions of racial authenticity, notions that have simultaneously created a public role for black intellectuals and pushed to the margins their views on matters other than race.

Of course, it is not only black intellectuals who have chosen, or been called upon, to act as indigenous interpreters. In his Reith lectures in 1993, the Palestinian-American literary theorist Edward Said, who died in 2003, spoke of the “terribly important task of representing the collective sufferings of your own people, testifying to its travails, reasserting its enduring presence, reinforcing its memory”.

Female intellectuals of many nationalities and social backgrounds have battled for women’s rights in the academy and in the wider society. Yet in the American context it is striking how persistently and comprehensively black intellectuals in particular – male and female – have been required to address the predicament of their own group as the condition of entry into the public sphere.

It is difficult to identify books by African American intellectuals that have achieved real prominence in the US other than those that have centred on African American life or on questions of racial justice. A rare example is James Baldwin’s second novel, Giovanni’s Room (1956), ostensibly a story about love between white men. But from the slave narratives to Du Bois’ The Souls of Black Folk and from the novels of Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Walker and Morrison to Maya Angelou’s memoirs and Barack Obama’s two best-selling books, race has been central.

A comparison with white female authors is revealing. While Betty Friedan and Naomi Wolf are just two of the many American women who have addressed their work directly to the pursuit of sexual equality, Rachel Carson in 1962 produced a best-selling work on ecological damage, Silent Spring. Canadian Naomi Klein has not needed to establish her authority on so-called “women’s issues” in order to command attention in the US for her critique of corporate power and “disaster capitalism”. Where are her African American equivalents? Toiling in the academy, no doubt, but without contracts from trade presses or exposure in newspapers and magazines.

Patricia Williams

This is not an exclusively American problem. In the UK, where only 85 of our 18,510 university professors are black, the minute number of black and Asian intellectuals with public visibility reflects the many levels at which economic disadvantage and institutionalised racism continue to operate.

As in the US, from unequal schooling to assumptions about what minority intellectuals are “for”, the cards are stacked heavily against black scholars and artists participating in public discussion on equal terms. In the US, the rise of black and African American studies departments as a legacy of the civil rights and black power movements has at least helped to ensure a critical mass of black intellectuals within the academy and some degree of media presence. As Deborah Gabriel, the founder of the Black British Academics network, has suggested, the lack of any such institutional framework for black studies in the UK is a source of “growing frustration”.

But the wider question remains whether black intellectuals will be heard beyond “the topic that is reserved for blacks”. Obama’s presidency – which, on a daily basis, confronts Americans and others around the world with the phenomenon of a black man speaking on issues as various as healthcare policy and Iran’s nuclear programme – might be expected to challenge assumptions that black intellectuals are only relevant when the discussion concerns race. There has been little evidence of this to date, however. For the time being, sadly, the words of the Yale University historian Jonathan Scott Holloway from 2006 continue to ring true: “Black scholars are heard best when speaking to blackness.”

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