NOTE: This essay was written in 1999. Henry Louis Gates was well on his way to becoming the most well-known American academic and entrepeneur. Cornel West was reaching a new stage of his career , moving from academia to media staple and “public intellectual”. Both were at Harvard at the time. However, a trend towards accommodationism and ideological and philosophical retreat was evident among prominent African American intellectuals. This was the price , I thought, for entering the American intellectual and political mainstream. It is this accommodationism that this essay sought to discuss. It was first published in a local Philadelphia journal The Real News.
Encounters between celebrated black intellectuals and working and middle class black folk are usually disappointing and often hostile. Professor Henry Louis Gates’ public television productions “The Wonders of the African World” and “Two Nations Within Black America” have left black folk shocked and dismayed. Gates’ black put-down style and sarcastic tone comes off like ‘uncle-toming’ and pandering to whites. True to form, he explains his neo-minstrelsy as mere signifying; part of black traditional discourse, he says. His “Harvard Dream Team”, located at the W.E.B Du Bois Institute, has tended to leave a bad taste in people’s mouths; not to mention sullying the honor of Du Bois. “What side of the color line are they on?” black folk ask. Professor Angela Davis, in yet another context, forthrightly admits that many of her views are at odds with the majority of black people; while professor Cornel West speaks as though all important ideas were produced by Europeans or Euro-Americans. His philosophical stance has become unapologetically European. bell hooks, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Hazel Carby, Orlando Patterson and Paul Gilroy, to mention a few, make it clear that their scholarship seeks to redefine the nature of black liberation in ways that ‘rethink’ the centrality of race and racial oppression. Africans from Europe, especially England, have made careers in US universities claiming that Africans in America are hopelessly mired in ‘racialism’ (Gilroy), racial essentialism (Kwame Anthony Appiah) and patriarchy (Carby). Unconnected to the actual history of Black struggle, these European bred Africans claim to have the right to render unrestrained critique of what African Americans have or have not done over three hundred years of bitter resistance. They act as though their British accents bespeak a level of civilization not yet reached by Africans in America. They believe they are obligated to assume the ‘unpleasant task’ of civilizing us. The fact that their views have currency reflects the reality that African American intellectuals themselves have made postmodern criticism of the history of Black resistance part of their strategies to win academic celebrity. Proclaiming the personal as political, our celebrity intellectuals, evidence a deep pessimism about black folk and the possibilities of our struggle. This pessimism unites radicals, liberals, and conservatives, Afrocentisits, socialist and feminists/womanists where they are not elsewhere united. A type of postmodern identity defines a good part of the elite African American intellectuals. It is but another way of expressing hopelessness, rank individualism and desperation in a period of global reaction, when, to use Rayford Logan’s formulation, the ‘Negro is betrayed’ on all sides.
What comes out is that the new black intelligentsia has been constituted as a cultural elite, a kind of new petit bourgeois class that speaks in a cultural tongue that black folk, even the most informed, cannot understand. This elite inhabits the most prestigious white universities, living conspicuously bourgeois and pampered lives. Home for them is the world of white ideas, consumerism, snobbishness and arrogance. They interact most times with white professors, intellectuals, artists and politicians. They write to them, and on occasion to one other, in the interest of academic promotions, six figure salaries and major book contracts. While black folk seldom understand them, a wild spectacle occurs when they speak to white audiences. White women and men tend to get weak in the knees, filled with enthusiasm as they observe the wonders of integration.
Relatively obscure European writers like Nietzche, Heidegger, Foucault, Derrida, Habermas, Chekov, and Kierkegaard (hardly household names among ordinary Black or white people) are the most cited authorities among the philosophical and literary wing of this group. The fact that such European authorities are intellectually barren when it comes to a critique of white supremacy and ultimately defend white ideological hegemony, seems to have little significance. While offering criticisms of European rationalism and humanism, they hesitate probing the deep structure of white supremacy or proposing solutions to Black oppression. Even when examining African American history, art, literature, resistance or culture the organizing principle is the interior lives of African Americans. History as a collective enterprise of black resistance is mere background. These thinkers argue that the site of liberation is the private realm. In the hands of the black elite, dissecting texts, examining the interior lives of black folk long dead is considered relevant, of overriding significance and even revolutionary. ‘The personal is political’, or its early 21st century expression ‘the interior is the political’ is their credo. Moreover, the political, ideological, or day to day struggles of the masses are not only secondary, but are viewed as obstacles to the examination of the interior and personal. This whole thing is the politics of the personal, which is accompanied by a metaphysic of interior life. This black elite in the context of the historical moment are analogous to the comprador bourgeoisie which emerged in Africa and Asia in the 1960’s and 70’s. In this instance, the black spirit itself is a commodity to bought and sold.
In their collective identities they tend to reject an African or Afro-American identity, at least as it is understood by most black folk.. Theirs tends to be a nuanced, creolized, cosmopolitan, assimilationist and bourgeois sensibility. When read properly their scholarship is disproportionately autobiographical. With an overarching fixation upon what is termed difference. This concern is self-serving, focusing upon justifying their class and ideological differences with the majority of their own people. Through the lenses of their class identities the masses of black folk appear conservative (some suggest reactionary), homophobic and misogynist (supporters of female oppression). Black folk, moreover, are seen as crude because they lack a sophisticated sense of the interior life.
While Hazel Carby, Paul Gilroy and Kwame Anthony Appiah are Negroes who are white imports, most celebrity Black intellectuals have some history of activism and commitment to black struggle. They have evolved from militants, revolutionaries and socialists to celebrities. As such they have moved from the belief in the centrality of the masses to the centrality of the personal. For instance Toni Morrison of The Bluest Eye and of Beloved speaks in different cultural tongues. The first is a narrative voice similar to Du Bois’ Souls of Black Folk; the last is a version of existentialism, magical realism and surrealism. Cornel West of Prophesy Deliverance and his recent essays are distinct personalities. The first speaks in the voice of witness to oppression and associates with the tradition of resistance rooted in a vision of humanity and the search for truth unto death in the manner of Martin Luther King Jr. Today Cornel West links his spirit to Anton Checkov’s and the 20th century European concern with life’s absurdity. He is the lone individual standing against what he terms ‘black nihilism’ and human tragedy. He sees no collective way out of the profound and deepening crisis of black folk. The Angela Davis of ‘An Unfinished Lecture on Liberation II” and the Angela Davis of Blues Legacies and Black Feminism (1998) are different ideological personages. Professor Davis in 1969 insisted, when speaking of her course at the University of California on black literature said, “The central issue of this course ‘Recurring Philosophical Themes in Black Literature’ will be the idea of freedom. Commencing with The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, I will express the slave’s experience with bondage as the basis for a transformation of the principle of freedom into a dynamic, active struggle for liberation.” The ideological point of Blues Women is that the personal is political. She is right. The personal is political at a second or third level of explanation. . However, Davis moves away from the political as revolutionary, the political as the ideological struggle, the political as organization, resistance and national liberation. Her current stance removes the ideological and political as necessary conditions in the construction of the personal. In other words, the ideological and political take primacy over the personal even in the construction of the personal. An irony, yet an irony that is true. “Ma” Rainey and Bessie Smith, whose music texts provide the material of analysis in Professor Davis’ book “preached”, she tells us, ” about sexual love, and in so doing they articulated a collective experience of freedom, giving voice to the most powerful evidence there was for many black people that slavery no longer existed”. And while the epoch of chattel slavery and the post slavery epoch are distinct periods in black liberation, Professor Davis was both brilliant ,accurate and still on point when in the path breaking article “Reflections on the Black Woman’s Role in the Community of Slaves” she argues, “In the words of W.E.B Du Bois, ‘our women in black had freedom contemptuously thrust upon them’. In order to function as slave, the black woman had to be annulled as woman that is as woman in her historical stance of wardship under the entire male hierarchy. The sheer force of things rendered her equal to her man.” This was the basis of a scientific critique of white feminism, the white women’s movement and an assertion of the centrality of black liberation to democracy, anti-imperialism and socialism.
Professors West and Davis by constituting the subject of human history as the individual fall prey to subjectivism. Their ideological retreat from previous revolutionary positions turns them into living embodiments of the detached and self-absorbed philosopher; committed to interpreting the world rather than changing it. Politics are played out in the realms of alienated and obscurantist discourses. Such an arrangement reconstitutes the philosopher as the tragic opposite of Antonio Gramsci’s organic intellectual; she who lives in unbreakable and organic unity with her people; blood of their blood and flesh of their flesh.
Manning Marable, at once a revolutionary nationalist and social democrat was among the most forceful intellectual voices of the 1980’s. It was he who rigorously and courageously evaluated the election of Ronald Reagan as bringing the nation close to fascism. His How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America (a text inspired by Walter Rodney’s How Europe Underdeveloped Africa) seemed to occasion the start of a revolutionary research project. He called for a Black United Front and a new movement of resistance founded on revolutionary lessons learned from radical Reconstruction (1865–1876), the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements. He demonstrated the logical and inevitable movement from reform to rebellion and anti-capitalist revolution. Even in this period in terms of his understanding of the global anti-imperialist struggles he fell short of his contemporaries like Walter Rodney and Maurice Bishop. Like his colleagues in the Democratic Socialists of America he welcomed the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Eastern European socialist bloc as a positive event in world history. The point he failed to grasp was that the division of Europe, the historic center of global imperialism, created positive conditions for the Afro-Asiatic and Latin American liberation struggles.
Osageyfo Kwame Nkrumah proposed that neo-colonialism is the highest stage of imperialism. Forty five years after the UN declared 1960 the year of Africa the continent is worse off than at the time of decolonization. In the framework of the new globalism large parts of Africa are slated to be annexed as part of the production process of developed capitalist economies and even recolonized. African nation states will either be severely weakened or completely broken up. Large parts of Africa will, in the absence of profound resistance, annexed to various European powers. Europeans will resettle in Africa. And with growing imprisonment of blacks and the rise of convict labor, it is no stretch to foresee the reenslavement of millions of African Americans and their return to the continent as laborers; a reverse Trans-Atlantic slave trade. Hence, with the breakup of socialism when asked for whom the bells toll, it is clear they toll for us as well as the people of the former Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and Africa. Hence, Professor Marable’s celebration of the end of European socialism contradicted his Pan Africanist and anti-fascist stances, irrespective of his criticisms of the political regimes of Eastern Europe. The reconfiguration of downsizing of State Socialism in the People’s Republic of China, the rise of State capitalism to replace it, China’s integration into the World Trade Organization, its agreements with US finance capital to prop up the dollar, all have removed it from its former alliance (albeit weak and contradictory) with Africa’s anti-imperialist forces. Reaction and racism have a free hand at this point in the absence of an international challenge.
This having been said, today Professor Marable is less about rebellion and revolution and more about reform, articulated as a mode of pragmatic radicalism. Freedom in Marable’s understanding is ultimately individual freedoms. Socialism’s ultimate purpose, as he articulates it, is the realization of personal freedoms. In this respect it accommodates the liberal agenda. Marable fails to understand what William L. Patterson and Claudia Jones theorized; that the national liberation struggle in general and the Black liberation struggle in particular are the Achilles heel of world and US imperialism. And what, in the end, does it mean if the struggle for socialism and democracy are not in their most vital substances struggles against racism and imperialism? Socialism, then, as a movement becomes endless protest actions that benefit mostly white folk. Marable’s crucial role in the Black Radical Congress in certain respects continues his activism that dates back to National Black Political Party of the early 1980’s. This time around, however, the radicalism is tempered, ‘pragmatic’ and compromised by the liberal vision of humanism and democracy.
The ideas of pragmatic politics and of common ‘objective interests’ are more than not asserted by Social Democrats like Marable and West to obscure the interests of black folk. Furthermore, what is practical politics for the liberal, let us say ‘critical’ support for Hilary Rodham Clinton, is not so practical from the standpoint of anti-imperialist solidarity. The ‘battle in Seattle’ and the anti-IMF demonstrations in Washington, of the late 1990’s for example, with all of their claims of being anti-capitalist, because they failed to even mildly challenge white supremacy, neo-colonialism and the privileging of white labor, remain within the fold of the global imperialist system they claim to be protesting. They protect , ultimately, white labor’s interests against those of super-exploited Afro-Asiatic and Latin American labor globally and Black and Brown labor, nationally.Black folk are not wrong in understanding that their interests as an oppressed people are not found in the agendas of the white protestors in Seattle and Washington.
More important are the attitudes of the intelligentsia to struggle. As the personal and the political became interchangeable categories and as democracy, liberation and socialism became interchangeable with individual freedom, the celebrity black intellectuals became pessimistic about black struggle and resistance. Most of them condemned the Million Man March, as 1.5 million gathered in Washington DC and millions more stayed home from work and school to honor the March. Claiming the issue was Farrakhan they became observers as their people sought a way out of the crimes against humanity to which they became increasing victims. They were mostly silent about the Million Woman March and though condemning Rudolph Guliani’s illegal police crackdown on the Million Youth March, they equally condemned the March because of Khalid Adbul Muhammad. In each instance masses of black folk united against growing racist oppression. Most high profile intellectuals had apparently lost touch. They no longer felt what the masses of their sisters and brothers felt. Their class locations made them immune to the brutal boot of oppression that is planted on the necks of the working masses, the poor and the youth. Indeed the masses have looked upon these mass mobilizations and leadership of them in terms fundamentally different from our most visible intellectuals. The masses tend to see potential where the intellectuals see only failure. And probably behind much of it is a jealousy born of intellectual conceit at the fact that untutored street militants could dare seek to direct our freedom struggle.
No people, and certainly this is the case for black folk, will be free without producing a committed and revolutionary intelligentsia. Black thinkers, including those with whom I disagree, represent part of the great gift of black folk to world humanity. Yet without achieving the liberation of black folk as a whole that gift will be a gift to the world in the absence of black people. Because of this, and the deep crisis for survival we face, the intellectual must be judged in terms of whether their ideas, theories, novels, poems, art and music propagate black liberation or not. Ideas and art are not personal possessions; they are products of struggle and hold value to the extent that they become instruments of freedom. The intellectual, especially the most gifted, should be guided by the idea, ‘to whom much is given, much is required’.
We have entered a new epoch of our struggle. At the top of our agenda must be the survival or conservation of the race. Survival is crucial to liberation. I am proposing in this light a national liberatory movement of a new type. One which acknowledges the intertwining of race, nation, gender, class and general social progress. In this connection, unity and struggle of black folk is decisive. Forms of organization must be local, national and international. The guiding ideology must be anti-imperialist, anti-racist, anti-sexist and socialist. Programmatically we must unite issues of day to day struggles, like anti-police violence, education, housing, freeing political prisoners and health care to the long-term goal of reparations and socialism. Politically we have to master the idea of the crucial triad. Marion N’guabe, revolutionary leader of the People’s Republic of the Congo in the 1970’s, first put this idea forward. It asserts in substance the unity of mass mobilization, grassroots organization and advanced ideological forces interacting on the basis of equality in a process of revolutionary development, national salvation and national liberation. The unity of mass organizations in united mass movement led by representatives of various social classes, political, regional and local constituencies, guided by increasingly clear ideological positions. In the deepest sense we must fight at this stage for programmatic unity, that is operational unity.
In our effort to mold leadership we would do well to study the lives of those who came before us. Most leaders as they age become more conservative. Figures like T. Thomas Fortune, Martin R. Delaney, Claude Mc Kay and A. Philip Randolph are illustrative of this. A type of metastasis of despair sets in. The youthful radical in later life becomes his opposite, often lashing out against youthful militants. The exceptions to this rule are W.E.B Du Bois, Ida B. Wells-Barnett and James Baldwin. Why, we should ask, were they more radical in later life? Why did they never give up on the struggle for ideological clarity and mass resistance? In the case of Du Bois we should examine why he at eighty-five was more radical then he was at twenty-five. What we must discover were the political and ideological formative processes that led him in his later years to become more forthright in his opposition to imperialism and to become a communist? What were the factors that not only allowed him to stay the course, but deepen his revolutionary positions? This must be studied in order to reproduce. As well as to find ways to make the Du Boisian exception to the rule, the rule itself. At last, the current epoch of struggle demands a new ideological level and a new level of ideological clarity on the part of black scholars, artists and intellectuals. To produce that new level, and the practice commensurate to it, healthy, constructive and honest discussions of ideas, theories and strategies is called for. This brief article attempts to do that; nothing more nor less. The African American Spirit has for more than two hundred years demonstrated an unequalled heroism. This heroism must be recaptured and forcefully deployed in this new century.