Black Brainpower

The rise of the African-American intellectual.

Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life

By William M. Banks

W.W. Norton & Co.; 335 pages; $29.95

There’s been a lot of talk about black intellectuals recently, in such places as The New Yorker, the Atlantic Monthly, and the Village Voice. Much of it has picked up on the even more considerable chat about intellectuals in general and the “public intellectual” in particular. Many of us got our first sense of that term reading about the Left Bank–Sartre and de Beauvoir and Camus in dark sweaters and a haze of Gaulloises, quaffing rough red wine and arguing about Algeria and the Absolute–or the slightly less outre Partisan Review crowd of the 1940s and 1950s in the United States. Given the whiteness of those images and the long history of denying intellectual aptitude to African-Americans, it’s surely good news that in America today, the word “intellectual” is as likely to evoke Cornel West as Susan Sontag.

The reason for this is obvious. There’s a longer list now than ever before of African-American scholars and writers, ensconced in the old centers of prestige, producing scholarly works, and discussing with a popular audience questions about race in American life. In the past, the disciplinary heart of this activity lay in the social sciences. Now, the rise of black studies has produced a new wave of African-American scholars in the humanities, many of whom share the engagement with the work of contemporary artists that characterized the Left Bank milieu. Some, like Adrian Piper at Wellesley (a philosophy professor and conceptual artist) or Toni Morrison at Princeton, are both serious scholars and substantial artists. So, it might seem that the time has come for Black Intellectuals by William M. Banks (a professor of African-American studies at Berkeley), a book that claims to be the first historical survey of its subject, from the colonial period to the present.

Some of the people Banks discusses–bell hooks, or my colleagues Henry Louis Gates Jr. and West, for example–are intellectuals in the stricter sense of the word. Like the Left Bankers, they had elite educations; like them, they address questions about our public life. And they write hard books–post-structuralist literary criticism, feminist theory, post-analytic philosophy–as well as memoirs and essays for an audience outside the academy.

But Banks chooses to begin with the medicine men and priests in Africa, who are, he asserts, the ancestors of contemporary African-American intellectuals. I am leery of this desire to extend the category of “intellectual” in all sorts of directions away from those with a vocation to scholarship or writing. Banks’ choice of a starting point seems to invoke an expansive notion of the intellectual that includes some (but not all) academics, novelists, journalists, composers, artists, programmers, pundits, and poets–an idea I think muddies more than it clarifies.

I’ve been at conferences where gangsta rappers have been characterized as intellectuals, apparently on the theory that the term is apt when celebrating anyone who ever had and expressed an idea some other intellectuals liked. The problem here isn’t that rappers don’t think–although sometimes that is a problem–but that only an academic would suppose that calling people “intellectuals” is the best way to take them seriously. Some scholars nowadays use the term “intellectual” as an honorific, and often as little more.

More important, all the different ways of using your intellect in different institutions, for different audiences, in different social circles, with differing degrees of self-consciousness, do not, it seems to me, produce the kind of person you can shoehorn into a single group. There are societies, like Poland, where such people constitute a self-conscious class with a shared social life–what is called an “intelligentsia.” There are societies, like France, where writers, artists, and some scholars speak to the nation, as Émile Zola did in the course of the Dreyfus affair (which is the context in which the word “intellectual” was first used in its modern sense). But the United States is not, in these ways, like Poland or France. The current fashion for talk about intellectuals will leave some readers to expect a few clear definitions from Banks. But this is something Banks avoids–wisely, in my view.

In fact, Banks’ concession to this academic vogue is almost entirely limited to the medicine men and priests of his first chapter. The decision is a reflection, I think, not of his catering to fashion, but of the problem facing anyone whose aim is to write the first full history of African-American intellectuals: namely, that since the first African-Americans were slaves introduced largely for manual labor, intellectual activity is naturally not a large part of their record. Other societies had used slaves as teachers (Greece and Rome) and bureaucrats (the Ottoman Empire), but African slaves were brought to the New World to use their muscles, not their minds.

Still, many of the slaves transplanted to North America came from Muslim societies, and could read and write Arabic. Their narratives, now translated, offer, along with the medicine men and priests, examples of African slaves who cared about the cultivation of knowledge. Does it matter that Banks omits them from his story? That depends on whether your interest is in the past or in the present. The intellectual traditions encoded in African religion and Arabic literacy played little role in shaping the later intellectual life of Americans, black or white; the great contribution of the African inheritance to black, and American, religion came from elsewhere. (Attempts to connect African-American Christianity with African traditions stem from the more recent ideas of black power.) Banks’ heart, it seems to me, is in the present: He is tracing the ancestry of contemporary black intellectuals to claim for them the title to a substantial tradition. The Muslim slaves would be a distraction.

In discussing a time when black men and women with an intellectual vocation were deprived of the chance to make a living through the pen, there is a case for looking in American black life for the places to which those thwarted thinkers diverted their energies. But as black colleges developed after the Civil War, and increasingly since the desegregation of elite universities, intellectual life for blacks–as for everyone–has come to be centered, for better and for worse, in universities. Many of America’s most important novelists, from Morrison to Saul Bellow, are now professors. It is not surprising, then, that as Black Intellectuals reaches into the 20th century, it is increasingly about academics. Banks does not, in the end, succumb to the desire to include everyone who ever had an idea.

Indeed, Banks has written a useful survey of African-American scholars and writers and the ways in which they have worked throughout the history of the republic. His central themes are debates over the meaning of race and how black intellectuals (whoever they may be) have negotiated their relationship with “ordinary” black people. As the book discusses the fate of the black college, or the Harlem Renaissance, or the participation of African-American intellectuals in government during World War II, it draws a sharp picture of the fate of blacks with brains, forced, whatever their real interests, to deal with the question of race. His later chapters ask whether, in a new world where blacks are present (if still in small numbers) in our society’s most powerful intellectual institutions, black thinkers might be free to spend less time thinking about what it means to be black.

The book ends with a reflection on the argument between “those intellectuals who advocate an organic relationship with the black community and those who aspire to transcend ethnic considerations,” suggesting, affably, that the choice must be left, in our individualist culture, for each of us to make for ourselves. This is a little too simple. These are not, after all, the only options: Some of us who don’t want to be the organic intellectuals of the inner city (or of anywhere else) are not disposed simply to “transcend” our racial identities either. And, even if the choice were up to each of us, it would be a choice we make in a community that still places strong constraints on what a black thinker can do. The individualist ideal in America lives side by side with powerful notions of racial obligation.

A survey of this sort allows little time for mining the substantial debates among black intellectuals, but the main ones get at least a mention. Only one general issue is curiously absent: Afrocentrism. If, as Banks normally assumes, any African-American academic who has an engagement with the fate of the race is part of the story, I am not sure why he thinks Professor Molefi K. Asante, who can make a reasonable claim to having invented Afrocentrism as an academic subject, doesn’t merit discussion. I suspect Banks’ choice reflects his own commitment to a sensibly conventional vision of the intellectual life, one that casts more light–and less heat–than much of the heady verbiage in the current debates about the Black Intellectual.