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In our October 1992 issue, we featured an open letter from Eugene Rivers on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” Rivers—Pastor of Dorchester’s Azusa Christian Community—described the unprecedented crisis now facing inner-city, African-American communities and challenged intellectuals to respond to that crisis with “new forms of public engagement.” He concluded this letter by calling for “a series of discussions in Boston about the fate of the urban poor.” The first such discussion took place on November 30th at the ARCO Forum at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. What follows is a transcript of part of the forum. The participants—along with Rivers—were Margaret Burnham, former Associate Justice at Boston Municipal Court and lecturer in Political Science at M.I.T; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B DuBois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W.E.B. DuBois Institute at Harvard University; bell hooks, Visiting Professor in Women’s Studies at City College of New York; Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Boston University; and Cornel West, Professor of Religion and Director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University. The discussion was moderated by Anthony Appiah, Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard and a member of the editorial board of the Boston Review.
Anthony Appiah: I would like to welcome you to this evening’s forum on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” The forum was prompted by an open letter in the Boston Review by Reverend Eugene Rivers. To begin our discussion, then, Reverend Rivers will say a little bit about his letter—what his point was in issuing the challenge he raised in it, and how he would like us to take up that challenge.
Eugene Rivers: I would like first to thank God for this opportunity to engage in a public discussion of some issues which are very pressing for a growing number of African-American people who are suffering in our inner-cities. And I would like to thank Professor Gates, the DuBois Institute, and the African-American Studies department, and Anthony Appiah and Josh Cohen of the Boston Review, for the courage, sensitivity, and humanity implicit in sponsoring this forum.
The issues we will discuss this evening are very challenging. They speak to questions of class, race, identity, moral obligation, and the responsibility of intellectuals. We need to have a serious discussion that moves beyond ideological posturing, dysfunctional rhetoric, ugga-bugga nationalism, and Afro-centrism to talk about ways that those of us who have extraordinary class privilege can coordinate and use our resources to alleviate some of the irrational and unnecessary suffering of, in particular, people of African descent.
To my way of thinking, there are three elements in a program that might address the crisis in inner-city African-American communities, and these elements should frame our discussion of the responsibilities of intellectuals. First, there is the classic social-democratic idea of improving the circumstances of the Black community by creating a healthier economy, with tighter labor markets. The slogan for this strategy in the Clinton administration is “rebuilding the infrastructure”—pour some concrete, build some bridges, roads, and tunnels. No question that this would be a good thing. If unemployment dropped to four percent, the Black community would benefit. But the magnitude of the benefits of such programs are uncertain, in part because of the depth of the crisis, and the destruction of the social infrastructure in inner-city neighborhoods.
Secondly, then, we need to target specific programs to deal with racial discrimination and exclusion—in particular, affirmative action. We can debate precisely what that means, and I am sure that Professor Loury will assist us in sharpening our focus on that. But again these efforts will be of, at most, uncertain benefit for those who are in the worst shape, at the bottom of the social class ladder.
Last—but for our purposes this evening, most important—we need to think about efforts within inner-city communities themselves. They pose the challenge of how we rebuild the lives of defenseless women and children in the inner-cities, whose lives are being crushed, whose lives are now being overshadowed by the twin specters of nihilism and decay. This project might be called “the reconstruction of civil society in the Black community.” Whatever it is called, it is hard, slow work requiring patience and courage—patience because the damage it aims to repair runs very deep and the problems it seeks to cure resist easy remedy; courage because the work requires concerted action on the ground, not just distant exhortation and example. And the grounds on which it must proceed are very dangerous.
With those three basic, introductory general formulations, I would like to open the discussion up.
Appiah: Cornel, do you want to start us off?
Cornel West: First, I want to thank Josh Cohen and others for having the vision and determination to bring us together, and especially Eugene Rivers, who I met 22 years ago in the cafeteria at Leverett House. This is an ongoing conversation, and the issues he raises here are arresting and complex. To start with, I think we have to acknowledge the degree to which we live in a market civilization, which affects all of our values and sensibilities. That makes it so very difficult to talk about ways of life that can serve as countervailing forces against the market moralities and market mentalities that go into what I call the “gangsterization” of America—especially the gangsterization of Black America with territorial imperatives, with guns, with very little value on life and property. Black America is still a mirror of a larger American civilization. There are some real continuities between what happens on Wall Street, what we see in the White House, and what Ice Cube is talking about in “The Predator,” in his recent album which is already number one pop and rhythm and blues.
We need to start with that broader context in order to get at the specificity of the condition of the Black working poor and very poor. We must not get caught with just external explanations in terms of what’s outside the Black community. Nor should we get caught in internal explanations in terms of Black behavior and Black people trying to reach for themselves as if that can be done without addressing the larger circumstances. We need a dialectic here to keep in mind just the balance. I am convinced that it’s so difficult to live a human and humane life in a market-driven civilization in general that the only way I can begin to talk about it is to begin with a very simple notion of nonmarket values—love, care, service to others, kindness, those things that we have forgotten about. How do you give those notions life in a market civilization? That’s the challenge. To meet it, we need what I call a politics of conversion—because we are going to have to turn these brothers and sisters around. Some turning of the soul.
Now of course, I come from the church. We have ways of turning people around, but we have our faults and our foibles too—patriarchalism, homophobia—so not enough turnaround is actually taking place in those churches. But there has to be some discourse about convincing persons to live a different kind of life. And it’s a moral discourse, it’s a spiritual discourse. But this discourse is very difficult and dangerous in American society. The right wing tends to have monopoly on it—or, if not a monopoly, certainly a twist. A very powerful twist. But responsible, progressive intellectuals have to talk a moral and spiritual language—a language of love, joy, communion, support, effective bonds—those notions which are requisite of any human being coming to terms with the terrors and traumas of being human.
bell hooks: I think that we have to do more than talk. People look at us and say: they are up there talking about love and communion, but we don’t really see that love and communion taking place among them. We don’t really see them living the anti-bourgeois life that would actually be against market forces. Cornel and I talked at the Schomburg on Tuesday night, and I said to him there that I felt very alienated from other Black intellectuals precisely because I wonder how we can we talk about transforming the lives of Black under-class people and ourselves if we are not talking about being anti-capitalist—that Black self-determination is not the same as Black capitalism.
Glenn Loury: As I look on the panel, it looks like I am probably the appointed defender of capitalism. But I venture out on that shaky ground not so much out of ideological conviction as pragmatism. We don’t have an alternative model to capitalism in the world today. That’s just a fact. The cultural degradation abetted by the for-profit dynamic that makes everything a commodity and that infringes upon what should be sacred is an issue. The question is how one insulates and nurtures that sacred space against the infringement of this market pressure. And it seems to me that that is not just, or even mainly, a political question. It’s a question that engages spiritual issues.
In the context of Gene Rivers’s provocative indictment—his concern about the responsibility of the intellectual and especially the Black intellectual in the age of crack—we need to consider the issue of being in relationship with the persons of concern. This is not just a process of thinking or of organizing or of being engaged in activity. It’s a question of being present, of knowing some of the people who are the object of the inquiry, of where you place yourself. In a Christian context, we are, after all, all sinners; we are, after all, all subject to these degrading forces of moral decay. We are all in some way vulnerable, and we are all, therefore, responsible to each other. I am especially moved to ask about the peculiar responsibility of Blacks. Gene asks about the responsibility of the Black intellectual in the age of crack. What’s special about blackness in that context? I have the intuition that there is something special about blackness, but I am very uneasy with that intuition because it cuts against the universalistic principle that, as human beings, we all ought to be concerned about these things. But there is history, there are traditions here.
Finally, the other side of the Black intellectual is the intellectual side; as intellectuals, we have been virtually contemptuous of the spiritual, of the transcendent. We think that we can reduce all of these questions to dialectical analyses of certain social processes.
hooks: I don’t feel that I have been that kind of intellectual, Glenn, and I don’t want to be represented in that way. There are varying kinds of Black intellectuals. I ask you to make that acknowledgement because I feel that it does a disservice to those of us who have not been disassociated to erase what we have done and lump us in this category of Black intellectuals who have felt this disconnection. We keep reproducing this binary opposition that’s not true for all of us.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: I want to respond to something Glenn said, and put a twist on it. One of the sad things for me is that such a large part of our community has become virtually contemptuous of the intellectual. I remember a survey in the Washington Post last summer that listed things inner-city Black kids considered “white”—getting straight A’s, doing well at school, going to the Smithsonian. That was a horrible moment for me and for those of us who were raised to be here, to be in this room. Our community produced us. We are not an aberration of the tradition, we are what the tradition wanted us to be.
Let me come now to the responsibility of the African-American intellectual and of our generation—particularly those of us who were undergraduates in the late 60s when institutions such as Harvard decided to “open up and train a new Black elite” (all of that of course in quotation marks). Our responsibility is, in part, to produce new organizational structures where the kinds of analysis necessary for long-term change in the society can take place. If you look at the history of African-American intellectuals and examine the discourse even as early as Absolom Jones, there is always a sense of urgency that undergirds our rhetoric. Why? Because we had the most horrendous socio-political economic system on our backs and we needed to get it off yesterday. That sense of urgency has led to wonderful moments, heroic moments in our history, but it has at times also led to action based on a lack of adequate reflection. It’s incumbent upon us, as urgent as these problems are, to do the analysis, to stop feeling guilty about being an intellectual and do the hard work that will lead to social transformation. Everything we do does not have to have a hand grenade effect to slay the dragon tomorrow. And I think that’s a very, very difficult message to get through to our community and often to our students, and students in rooms like this.
Appiah: Is there a way of taking that and asking the question this way—what responsibility do Black intellectuals have apart from as intellectuals?
hooks: I tried to start with how we live our lives because I think that when you are in a classroom with a progressive affluent Black intellectual who is humiliating you, and who is using discourse in such a way that does not affirm you, you don’t feel that this person is really about something. I believe deeply, from both my spiritual and political practice, that we are first and foremost an example by our lives. I thought really deeply about coming here precisely because when I think about the responsibility of intellectuals in the age of crack, I don’t see myself as dealing with a community “out there.” I am thinking about my brother who is a crack addict. I talked to him last week about his electricity bill. What is my responsibility on the concrete level as an individual? How do I use my resources and how do I work with the larger community to deal with the question of crack and all the other genocidal forces in our lives? I think that we have got to believe, as intellectuals of varying political persuasions, that the example of our lives matters as much as our testimony in words and in public settings.
Margaret Burnham: I would like to speak to Skip’s point about the sense that the intellectual endeavor is disregarded and disrespected in the African-American community: bell has made a point before which I think is relevant here, that in point of fact there is a sense in the African-American community, and always has been the sense, that A’s are what you are to strive for. I don’t think there has ever been any deviation from this notion that you need to get the grade. The question is: what are you getting the grade for? Are you getting the grade so that you can then continue to engage in the intellectual endeavor, or are you getting it so that you can then go out and get a job, and earn a living? There’s a difference there, I think, in the perception that “intellectual” means, armchair intellectual means a sit-down-and-do-nothing-intellectual, as opposed to study, do well in school, and then move on out of the age of crack. And I think that’s really an important distinction.
I also wanted to pick up the issue of the relations within our community, and the notion that we have seen a recent and devastating deterioration. That is true. But it is also true that our community, and especially our community when engaged in struggle, as was the case in the 60s and 70s, heightened the notion of the necessity for love and caring, for the importance of contact with and the sense of responsibility for one another. Something happened between that movement and all that evolved from it—which is represented here and in this room—and the age of crack that we are now called upon to address. And, it seems to me, it’s that gulf that we need somehow to understand—the gulf between that historic moment and the current situation in which we have lost a sense of the import, the significance, and the primacy of those relationships.
One final point: we shouldn’t leave without looking critically at the academy and the place of the academy either in supporting and facilitating our role as positive and effective persons within our community; or, on the other hand, making that endeavor more difficult.
Rivers: I would like to ask: to what extent has our old class segregation reproduced and exacerbated the anti-intellectualism that we decry? To what extent have we, by virtue of removing ourselves from the community, actually fed into the very thing we lament? Take the periodically sexy topic of anti-semitism. One of the things that’s interesting to me about that concept as a force in our community is that it raises the question: to what extent have we contributed to the negative social forces in our community by segregating ourselves, leaving a weak social group defenseless; left to their own devices they do all these negative things that we then turn around and lecture them against as we ensure that they never get close to us. So, one part of this discussion has to do with our class identity, and how we distance ourselves. We talk in theoretical terms about emancipating the poor, for the sake of humanity; just don’t let the unwashed and the illiterate rub shoulders with me. I wouldn’t want to be caught dead having to interface with them to reduce the negativism and the nihilism that produces these dysfunctional social patterns.
West: I think you have raised a number of issues that can be easily confused and conflated. The assumption at times, Gene, is that if the middle class—of which the Black intellectuals are one species—were to stay, that middle class could, in a messianic way, uplift and fundamentally transform the Black poor condition. I don’t believe that.
Rivers: Not necessarily. But they could just have a conversation periodically.
West: They have conversations all the time. I think you have to raise the question: why did the middle class leave? They left because they had opportunities heretofore not available to them. And let’s keep in mind that the majority of Black folk are very much like the Harvard Union of Clerical and Technical Workers: they are working-class people. They are not middle class, they are not so-called under class or working poor. They are like “roc.” They are hard working brothers and sisters on the edge of poverty, if the check doesn’t show up on the 30th—but that’s not middle class. And they are trying to get out. Why? because of the levels of crime, the fear of crime, the combat zones and the existential wastelands. That’s why they leave, they are human beings. They want their children to have some sense of walking the streets safely. Given that reality, though, brother, the question is: what can the middle class do? Especially a parvenu bourgeoisie, a newly arrived middle class.
Every middle class we know in human history becomes intoxicated with bourgeois-ness. Every one we know. The Black middle class has, too. You see, part of what we are talking about is the difficulty of being an intellectual in a business civilization. An intellectual has a profound dedication to the life of the mind, believes in a playfulness of the life of the mind, understands it requires discipline like a jazz musician. That’s serious discipline. You can do that anywhere—inner-city, vanilla suburbs, wherever you go. But to be an intellectual, to cut against the grain of a business civilization, means that intellectuals actually surface precisely when they are experts—like here at the Kennedy School. But experts aren’t intellectuals. Some are. But most aren’t. Experts are something else. That’s something else, it’s very important. And Eugene might be asking us to be experts. But that’s something else, Gene. I am not against it. But that’s something else than being intellectual.
But the other side of this thing is celebrity, which is part of the commodification of academic star…
Rivers: Have we been commodified?
West: Yes, we have been commodified. There’s no escape from commodification. So that unease has to be looked at clearly and cautiously…
Appiah: Can I just have bell and then Glenn please?
hooks: One of my concerns in coming here tonight was precisely that my voice, as a Black female voice would be overshadowed by homosocial bonding among the men here. One of the things that Eugene evoked was women and children. Part of why I wish to see a greater voice from radical Black women intellectuals is that many of us experience our intellectuality, our stardom very differently. As I listen I feel more and more divorced from this discussion precisely because I feel that my sense of being an intellectual first comes out of being nurtured by Black women in Black institutions—the church, the school—and so I am trying to suggest that we have something to learn from many voiceless Black women who have tried to keep alive the pursuit of intellectuality in diverse Black communities, among all classes. We need mechanisms to hear from those people, and to learn how they devote their resources to keeping that pursuit alive.
On this issue of resources: I recognize, Glenn, that I participate in capitalism. But I never hear Black intellectuals—progressive, affluent, Black intellectuals, or conservatives—talk about what we do with our money. A redistribution of resources begins fundamentally with: what am I willing to give up? If I am unwilling to give up some of my resources, then I don’t believe that I am going to convince masses of other people that they should give up some of their resources, because we know capitalism is not going to end tomorrow, and that a lot of us Black folks are going to be more affluent. The question for me, then, is how do we share our resources within diverse Black communities? And I see that as a concrete question.
For me, dealing with addicts in the family raises a concrete question of co-dependency: to what extent do you share resources to enable or to allow people to redeem their lives? To me these are practical concrete questions, and I venture to say that many Black women are dealing with them. I tell my students all the time that Black folks who are crack addicted are not bleeding white people to death. It is the families that get bled. So if we want to look for a model of responsibility we need to look at productive models in those domestic contexts where people are trying to talk about how do you share resources effectively without further disenabling.
Loury: I don’t have an answer to bell’s question, but I have accumulated several points that I want to make. I think you are wrong about commodification, Cornel. Commodification doesn’t enter in everywhere. If that were true, then this demand for professionalization, and the conversion of everything into monetary currency would also penetrate into the church. We would have to understand what Eugene Rivers is doing in the Azusa ministry as an implementation of that kind of motive. The fact is that there are arenas of our lives into which those motives do not insinuate themselves. And we have to ask ourselves why that’s so.
hooks: But what are those arenas?
West: Think of the sermons that these preachers sell every week.
Loury: I am not saying there are not preachers for sale, I am saying there are preachers who are not for sale. The point is that bell talks about what we do with our resources, and that’s a very good question. Love is not just a feeling. It has to do with commitment, sacrifice, and knowing the other person. But what can the context be within which those resources are shared? What will provide the trust that resources that are made available will be appropriately used? We are so used to thinking in a political model in which we presume that the state will simply provide the required policy mechanisms. But in these communal contexts it seems to me that that trust has to be built from the ground up. It has to be manifest in the work of particular people, in particular places, who build institutions that don’t now exist, that are, that have the integrity to countenance that kind of activity.
One last point: I think this discussion is too abstract. I don’t mean that to put anybody down, but I mean, I think there is an answer to the question that somebody raised about things the middle-class can do. There are tens upon tens of thousands of children, for example, who are in foster care, who don’t have homes. Now, you can talk about a tenuous middle class. But those people who are one pay-check away nevertheless have the capacity to nurture, support, and love these children. We ask ourselves as Black people, what are our responsibilities? Surely those responsibilities include seeing after those children. Where is the movement amongst our leaders—political and intellectual—to create the institutional capacity for us to see that those children are looked after better than they are now? That’s not unfeasible. That’s not pie in the sky. That’s something that can actually happen, and again, it has to happen in particular places. It has to happen in Boston, in Mattapan, it has to happen because 20 people, and then 200, and then 2,000 determine that it’s going to happen someplace. It’s not going to happen because Bill Clinton runs for president saying he would like to see it happen.
Gates: But Glenn—before I respond to bell and Margaret—there are attempts like Marion Wright Edelman’s Children’s Defense Fund, which is a very, very important movement for us all, and which Cornel and I both belong to. That, it seems to me, is an attempt of the so-called new middle class to reach back, and to make bridges to the community that was left behind.
To Margaret—you ended by asking what happened to our community between say, 1960 and 1980? To be concrete, I have four statistics that I would like to share. In 1960, 24% of Black households were headed by women; in 1990 that number is 56%, and 55% of these women live in poverty. The percentage of births out of wedlock in the Black community in 1960 was 21.6%; in 1988 it is 63.7%. In 1960 19.9% of our children lived only with their mothers; in 1990 that number was 51.2%. In 1960, finally, two percent of our children had mothers who had never been married; in 1990 that number was 35%. If raising our children is the most important work of a society, its burdens now fall disproportionately on the much-demonized single mother.
What’s happened is that our community has been divided into two. We now have two Black communities, not one. We probably have more than that. Yet each of us tends to speak of the Black community as if blackness were a class. We have to decide if blackness really does constitute a class. We have to start with this issue, and recognize that the community we were children in no longer exists. There is a new Black community—or new Black communities—out there, and if we are trying to put it back together then we have to recognize that reality and then talk about new solutions to new problems. That is, I think, the signal failure of our generation of Black intellectuals. More often than not we resort to romantic black nationalism or to some other way to assuage the guilt that we feel, and everybody in here knows what I am talking about, about leaving that other community behind.
hooks: I don’t know what Skip is talking about. I am going to testify from the location that I inhabit. I don’t feel like I have left that community behind. That community has been in my life every single day. I know lots of middle-class and upper-class Black people who are one pay check away from poverty because of accumulated debt in their lives. One of my sisters who was leading a very bourgeois life found herself homeless after she lost her job. I saw her spiral from her Mercedes, her BMW, her whole $400,000 life into homelessness in a matter of months. If we want to talk about why a Black middle class or upper middle class has to have different values, then we need to deal with our own materialism. We cannot talk about sharing resources that we don’t have to share because of our own levels of greed. I mean I am interested in talking about what kind of values do we replace market values with and how do we do that?
West: I don’t think the Black middle-class is any more greedy than any other middle class that existed, in fact, in some ways it is less so because we do have certain survivor’s guilt that we talked about before. I mean this is one of the reasons why I don’t want to lose the dialectic we started off with in terms of what’s internal to the Black community and what’s external. We are living in a society that has certain obligations to its citizens. I don’t care who they are. We have got a lumpen bourgeoisie, we have got a middle class that’s never truly been a middle class even though it does have certain obligations—though all wealth in the Black middle class is equivalent to the wealth of white workers. We have income that’s higher, not wealth, because we could not get houses because of discrimination and keeping suburbs vanilla. It was federal policy that did that and we can tell the story about that. So I do not want to lose sight of the external. We cannot sit here and allow American society in its broad reaches to get off the hook here. The Black middle class is not a messianic middle class and it never will be. It is going to behave middle class. We are talking about a critical minority of Black middle-class folk who are willing to sacrifice themselves.
Rivers: What does that mean for us in this room, Cornel? To move the conversation along we need to bring it home personally, to what one does with one’s own notions of greed—not to call for the state to redistribute wealth when I am not personally willing to do it myself.
West: That analogy doesn’t work. It doesn’t work at all—individual Black middle-class person and the state and corporate America?
Rivers: I am not talking about equivalence in magnitude. I am saying that you can’t tell somebody else that they should distribute their wealth, however they got it, while you are sitting on all kinds of disposable income and flying all around the world cooling out and letting Black people suffer. We can’t make that argument anymore. What we have to do is talk about how we are, in this existential nightmare, morally obligated with our class privilege and our access and opportunity to alleviate the suffering of Black people. I can’t talk—we can’t talk—about white America and their thing when we are sitting up here with Yellowstone Forest in our own eyes. That’s the issue that Glenn and bell are pushing us on. How do we talk about personal commitment?
West: We have been talking about both at the same time.
Rivers: I agree with that. But talking about white people is easy.
West: Not white people, but well-to-do white people, powerful white people, not working-class folk.
Rivers: Talking about rich white folk is easy.
West: We are not talking about them personally, we are talking about the wealth they have.
Rivers: I agree with that, Cornel. I am with you. All I am saying is: let’s do something uncharacteristic and bring it home and talk about what we are going to do. We have got celebrities up here. How do we mobilize your celebrity status so that we can produce an infrastructure so that those who live on the ground, in the bush, working with Leroy and Rahim, have the kinds of resources they need. You do your thing. That’s cool. We have to have everybody everywhere. But we need an infrastructure that says that Rahim and Catrina and Rashida have resources coming to them. That’s where our celebrity intelligentsia can help. They have the access.
Appiah: Let me ask this question: why should Black intellectuals use their celebrity anymore than other Black celebrities, who on the whole have a great deal more celebrity than most intellectuals? What is the obligation over and above the obligation to act as an intellectual, to do the thinking that is necessary? Obviously we all have obligations as citizens, we all have obligations as members of churches or resistors of church membership in my case. But the idea of talking about the responsibilities of Black intellectuals is to talk about responsibilities specific to people as intellectuals.
hooks: One of the resources that I feel I have, specific to intellectual experience, is critical thinking and critical consciousness. I think particularly because I came out of the working Black poor, I feel strongly the need to share that resource because I feel that what enabled me was that capacity to think critically and analytically and to act in relationship to my thoughts. So I think a lot about how that can be effectively shared beyond the academy with diverse Black communities, and it seems to me that one of the big issues as I think about us here is a question of literacy and the fact that so much of Black intellectual thought is shared in written discourse. In forms that are apart from a diversity of Black presence and experience, and it seems to me I would like us to have a space where we share what we concretely do. I think that one, I feel deeply that Black intellectuals have to move outside the academy to share how we think and what we think about, and there are many ways to do that. I know that people like Cornel and Eugene do that through the church. I myself try to go to cities and ask people, where do Black people hang out.
Appiah: Say some more about what you do.
hooks: I will break it down to my individual circumstances. White people will invite me someplace to come and talk and pay me $5,000 and there may not be any Black people there. So what is my obligation? One of the things I feel I can do is contact Black community leaders and say: where do Black people hang out? Regular folks doing what they do. A lot of times it’s restaurants and I can call the people who own a particular restaurant and I can go there for a couple of hours to talk to people who want to share questions like: how do you deal with an addict? How do our elders deal with the fact that many of our elders live in prisons—that they have to lock every room in their house because the addicts living with them prey upon them. How do you deal with that concretely? And how do I link that to some education for critical consciousness? That may seem trivial, but it’s one concrete thing that I feel we don’t do enough of. Where are our literacy programs? Literacy without education for critical consciousness is not enough, we need a critical literacy.
Appiah: To conclude our discussion, I would like you to discuss examples of that kind—ways in which intellectuals as intellectuals can, in a practical context, participate in using what is their distinctive gift and make a constructive contribution.
Rivers: Can I cite two quick examples in Boston? There’s a young doctoral candidate at MIT named Alan Shaw—a graduate of Harvard in Applied Math, and here in the audience tonight. Alan set up a software company in Black Dorchester called Amani Information Systems. He has been using his considerable intellectual talent as an expert and an intellectual to develop alternative approaches to learning computer literacy. He’s in the `hood teaching brothers and sisters computer literacy and using computer literacy as a mechanism for resocializing them in terms of values situating it in a Black historical context and promoting the point that bell was making about critical consciousness. An extraordinary program that deserves a lot more attention and concrete support.
Then there’s the Algebra Project of Robert Moses of SNCC fame. He’s got a second tier of younger intellectual activists—for example, Cynthia Parker and Jaqueline Rivers—who are very skilled young people working on an alternative approach to math literacy. Concrete, no nonsense, no ugga-bugga, on the ground.
Loury: I think what Eugene is saying warrants emphasis. I think there are a ring of programs that we can think about, but one thing that’s in common is that the people in question are looking at the talents that they have and they are finding specific ways in which those talents can be made available. I think that there will be more answers to your question when there are more relationships between the people with the talents and the people with the need. That’s why I would stress that this not be programmatic so much as it be directed at people to ask how are they living their lives. In response to something Skip said earlier, Marion Wright Edelman is very fine but that’s not an answer to the question I raised about who’s going to care for kids. That’s an answer to how are we going to put progressive pressure on the state in order to implement a certain kind of child care program. The distinction is vital. You don’t feel alienated or suffer from survivor’s guilt when you are not in fact detached and living apart from the community. And the ultimate impulse, I will just say finally, derives from the fact that we are a part of a process, and one thing intellectuals can do is set that out. We are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses and there are certain imperatives imbedded in that context that need to be explicated. They are spiritual imperatives so here again I stress that the ethos of the academy and the ethos of the church are in a certain kind of tension at least that the intellectual is uniquely situated to be able to grapple with if, but, she would.
West: Could I just disagree on one point you made—that you suffer from survivor’s guilt if you are not organically linked with the Black community. Take Eugene himself as an example—on the one hand one of the most brilliant intellectuals I have ever met; on the other hand full of anxieties about that. We all have been talking about this for twenty years—those of us who pursue truth-telling to the best of our ability, given the oppressed community that produced us and our interface and interaction with the academy. And then at the same time have this boiling sense of urgency about all the hell that brothers and sisters are catching. How do you come to terms with that doubleness?
We want to tell the truth about one percent of the population owning 32% of the wealth, ten percent of the population owning 86% of the wealth—a serious fact about our society that calls itself a democracy. On the other hand we also reckon that we have personal obligations, to tell the truth about ourselves to brothers and sisters. How do you really pursue the intellectual vocation in light of that reality? You can be as organically linked as you want—it’s still a problem. Nearly every week I am in a church. We can talk about Timbuktu Learning Center, with Reverend Daughtry, in Brooklyn. For twelve years I preached and taught in prisons. I still feel the same tension, 22 years later. My wife asks me, “When you gonna get it together?” I say, “never.” Because that tension is real. As organically linked as you can be, and pursuing intellectual work as much as you do, that tension is just there. I think we are going to take it to the grave with us.
Burnham: It’s a tension, but it’s a tension that is productive, too. It’s a tension out of which your best work is created. This is connected to a point that Gene made: there’s no moral high ground as far as what you ought to do. To suggest that unless you go out there and adopt a baby, and deal with Joe and Susan right there where they are, then forget it, you are no good, you are hurting the cause—I don’t think that really helps the discussion. We need space for our intellectuals to do their work. And it’s our job to ensure that space, to protect it, and to ensure that it aids and facilitates our struggle.
I want to say something about this star thing, too. Yes, we have stars, we are proud of those stars. Of course, there’s a tension there, too, because to the extent that there are stars it can say to all those other Black scholars out there: there’s a few of you, and only one of you at a time can get on up there, and the rest, you are not really doing any work worth looking at or recognizing anyway. Still, it seems to me that our function really does have to be to make a space for the work, the good work that our people are doing.
hooks: I wanted to speak to Cornel’s evocation of that tension. I would like to say that I think that tension is alleviated by people speaking the truth of their lives, not just the truth of their knowledge. This semester I am teaching a course on Black women writers. I am teaching books by women who have changed much in their lives and yet many of these books are extraordinarily bleak, and the message is extraordinarily bleak. They have the freedom to write whatever they want to write, but their personal testimony doesn’t exist elsewhere. For example, let me just throw out one thing: Black heterosexuality. Most of my students feel that there is no hope for Black men and Black women after they sit in my Black women writers class. And yet many of the women who are writing these books have extraordinarily productive relations in their lives. I am interested in that commodification of blackness that is primarily sold to middle-class people of all races but particularly to middle-class white folk and white middle-class women and the disparity between those fictions and the truth of those women’s lives. I want us to think about why those women, like many of the intellectuals present here, do not speak the truth of their personal lives even as they speak the truth of their knowledge. I do believe that if we have greater spaces for us to speak the truth of our drug addiction, our money crisis, our all-of-those-things, we will also find ourselves linked more fundamentally to other Black people in ways that suggest there are many things that do not distinguish us. Part of what we hide is that our lives in some fundamental ways are linked to the lives of the Black under-class, that the nihilism isn’t just in the Black under-class. But we use our power to cover up the truth of our lives. So the challenge to us is to speak more the truth of our lives even as we speak the truth of our knowledge from books and other kinds of sources.
Glenn C. Loury is Merton P. Stoltz Professor of the Social Sciences Brown University. He is author of Race, Incarceration, and American Values.
Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. is an American literary critic, professor, historian, filmmaker, and public intellectual who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.
bell hooks (1952 – 2021) was an American author, professor, feminist, and social activist.
Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University. He has published over twenty books, but is is best known for his classics Race Matters and Democracy Matters, and his memoir, Brother West: Living and Loving Out Loud.
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