In the spring of 1992, Deborah Chasman, then a 28-year-old editor at Beacon Press in Boston, flew to Princeton University to meet with Cornel West. A professor of religion and political science, West had established himself as perhaps the country's preeminent left-wing thinker, and Chasman hoped to persuade him to put together a collection of essays.
A spirited woman with wavy brown hair, Chasman grew up on Long Island, graduated with a BA in art history from Harvard in 1985 and had worked in an art gallery and a toy factory before Beacon hired her as an editorial assistant in 1986. Within two years, she was negotiating with writers. "We do serious books," she said in her office. Amid the clutter--manuscripts scattered about, dirty coffee cups on a side table, piles of books--was an emblem of her precocious energy: a small globe nestled in a pink Slinky. "I don't often work with agents, so I have to find people who will write the kind of books I want to publish. I go to academic conferences and listen to what smart people are talking about. That's how I get my ideas for projects."
In this case, Chasman knew precisely what she was looking for: a work on racial relations in America from a progressive point of view. "I had seen a lot of books that were being published on race that were conservative. I wanted one that wasn't. But it was important to find someone who was intellectually exciting, who could reach a broad audience."
The first time Chasman had seen Cornel West was at a conference sponsored by the Jewish periodical Tikkun. "New York, 1988 or 1989, I don't remember the date exactly. But I do remember he was giving a lecture on blacks and Jews, and he was spellbinding. I was struck by the fact he moved that audience of 2,000 people--almost completely a Jewish audience--to stand and applaud. I thought then, wouldn't it be wonderful to work with him."
Cornel West is a character worthy of Central Casting for the role of public intellectual. Afro'd, bespectacled, goateed and almost always nattily dressed in a three-piece suit and cuff links, he holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard and is the author of such books as "The American Evasion of Philosophy" and "Prophetic Fragments." Although his scholarly writing can be knotty, he is a mesmerizing speaker, his lectures like sermons. West is fond of long singsong sentences that soar with the intellectual erudition of Marx or Kierkegaard and dive into the pop aphorisms of James Brown or Public Enemy. After they have been stripped of the finery, West's words fall harshly on both conservatives and liberals--black or white--because he believes that those engaged in political debates are more interested in self-promotion than in embracing a vision of a moral society that exploits no one.
"I didn't think he had been well published by the small presses and university presses that had handled his work," Chasman continued. "He had written a great deal, and he was traveling all over the country, talking to all sorts of audiences, but he didn't have a book to go with his speeches. His books were not available in (mass market) bookstores, and he wasn't reaching the broad audience. So that's why I had approached him with a book idea."
Beacon Press, started in 1854, publishes about 50 titles a year, mostly nonfiction. It was not known for generating bestsellers, at least until it released Marian Wright Edelman's inspirational "The Measure of Our Success" in 1992. Founder of the Children's Defense Fund and a longtime friend of President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, Edelman has a reputation as a deep-thinking activist within the old-line civil rights movement. Still, the project was a gamble for Beacon. Edelman had never written a general-interest book before, and Beacon did not have an extensive track record for reaching black readers.
"She had a heavy speaking schedule, so we decided to use that to our advantage by having her carry copies of the book everywhere she went," said Chasman, who had nothing to do with editing or marketing the Edelman book. However, she paid close attention to the publisher's efforts to target black consumers. "For example, we made a large mailing that promoted the book to African American weekly newspapers. At one point, everyone in the office was calling bookstores around the country, telling the owners to put the book on the front shelves or tables because (Edelman) was going to be on Oprah Winfrey's show."
"The Measure of Our Success" became the first Beacon title to make the bestseller lists since the 1949 publication of Paul Blanshard's "American Freedom and Catholic Power." In her meeting with West, Chasman played up the reception to "The Measure of Our Success" while he disregarded his telephone, which seemed to ring every 30 seconds. "I was in his tiny office for no more than an hour, but he seemed very interested," Chasman said. "He told me that he wanted to reach a broader audience." Chasman suggested that West collect some of his essays and allow her to edit them into a slim hardback volume, with a marketing plan aimed to replicate the success of the Edelman book. West agreed, and Chasman returned to Boston overjoyed.
"By the time I got home that night, there was news all over the television of this enormous rebellion in Los Angeles," she said, wincing at the memory. "I decided we had better rush the book to print so it would be on our spring list. Since most of the essays were already written, that wasn't a problem. We thought we could get a lot more publicity if we could time the book to the one-year anniversary of the Los Angeles rebellion." The strategy worked. Cornel West's "Race Matters" was Beacon's second bestseller in nearly 40 years.
The success of "Race Matters" is just one sign among many that the United States is experiencing an explosion of black intellectual activity. The only two comparable points in American history are the Harlem Renaissance of the late 1920s and 1930s and the civil rights movement of the late 1950s and 1960s, when African Americans' critical ideas had an enormous influence on the entire society. History is looping around itself. As it was in the day, so it will be again--but this time around the context is different: The absence of legal segregation increases the demand for the offerings of black intellectuals and at the same time makes them more valuable to all Americans, white and black.
"There is a renaissance in seeing African American people as agents of history," says Molefi Kete Asante, chairman of the Afro-American studies department at Temple University and the guiding light of Afrocentrism. "What you have with this current generation is people trying to find their own experience in their own culture."
Think of this developing epoch as the Third Black Intellectual Renaissance. For the first time in American history, a generation of black scholars--Harvard's Henry Louis Gates Jr., San Jose State's Shelby Steele, Columbia University's Patricia Williams, Princeton's Arnold Rampersadt, Spelman College's Johnnetta B. Cole, City College of New York's Michele Wallace, Washington University's Gerald Early, Howard University's Ron Walters and numerous others--are being read and debated by the nation.
Personalities and notions among members of the Third Renaissance cover the gamut: the acclaimed and celebrated to the obscure and ridiculed; the ultra-left to neoconservative to the reactionary right; the radical isolationist to the conservative integrationist; the Afrocentrists to the Classicists; the B-boy and yo-girl posse to the Buppie and Jack-N-Jill clique, the radical feminists and lesbians to the endangered men and gay paraders.
Yale's Stephen L. Carter, for example, identifies himself as an "affirmative action baby" rooted in a deep Christian philosophy of assimilation into America's mainstream, while Derrick Bell of NYU argues that the "permanence of racism" can only be overcome by standing tall in its crosscurrents. Stanford University's Thomas Sowell ridicules race-based statutes and programs as a shameful diminution of minority progress, while UCLA's Kimberle Crenshaw is the principal architect of Critical Race Theory, a school of legal thought that demands American jurisprudence account for its fundamental curse of racism.
These arguments can be discordant and sometimes bitter. But why should it be otherwise, and why should agreement be the objective? No, let them speak their individual and separate truths, because the resulting conversation among the participants of the Third Renaissance is the most lively and illuminating discussion of what's happening in our society at the close of the 20th Century.
Nowhere are these debates most striking than on the campuses of the nation's leading universities. According to the magazine Black Issues in Higher Education, 102 African American professors currently hold endowed chairs at major universities, more than at any other time in the nation's history. This is primarily the legacy of the civil rights movement, which created opportunities for a burgeoning black middle-class that has the means, money and motivation to educate its children as they swim into the nation's mainstream toward the Promised Land.
And no one epitomizes this new generation more than 40-year-old Harvard Law School professor Randall Kennedy. Chubby-cheeked and mustachioed, Kennedy is fond of wearing blue jeans, chambray shirts festooned with Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck stitching, and heavy black-rimmed glasses that make him look less like a tenured law professor than like a student attending his lectures on contracts or race law. His office, at the end of a corridor of stately rooms at Harvard's Langdell Hall, is a heath of documents and books sliding off shelves and paving the floor. The chaos reflects the occupant: Kennedy is so full of ideas that he can't neatly contain them in an orderly fashion.
An integrationist in the Thurgood Marshall tradition, Kennedy believes that the law should be colorblind and applied equally to all. For many years, he has argued against race-preference adoptions, and in 1993, he waded into the middle of a contretemps at Harvard when he supported the university's decision to offer tenure to four white male professors when the law school had no black women on its faculty. Often accused of being right-leaning, he charms many of his critics with an endearing, befuddled-professor personality.
Kennedy grew up in the '60s in northwest Washington, D.C., where middle-class blacks were rising in isolated affluence. Earlier, when he was 2, his parents left the harsher world of Columbia, S.C., after an incident that scared the hell out of his father. As Kennedy tells the story, his father drove a truck along a rural mail-delivery route. He carried a badge and a gun, as many mailmen did on Southern routes. One day, a patrolman stopped the truck, ordered the elder Kennedy out and demanded that he surrender his weapon. "Black folks weren't supposed to have guns, you know," Kennedy says. "Somehow, my father managed to convince the police officer to let him keep the gun, badge and truck and to get away without any violence. My father got in the truck and kept driving until he reached Washington."
In D.C., the Kennedy family created a comfortable, upwardly mobile life for their children. Following the pattern of others who found their way to less hostile environs, the elder Kennedy continued to work for the Postal Service while his mother found a job teaching public school. Kennedy attended St. Albans School as one of the earliest black students to integrate the private academy. He graduated from Princeton with honors and earned a Rhodes scholarship. After Yale Law School, he clerked for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and then, at the age of 29, landed at Harvard, where he's been ever since.
Kennedy's signal achievement is Reconstruction magazine, which he founded five years ago. With its emphasis on African American politics, society and culture, the journal--which can run as many as 200 pages an issue--has a strong following despite its spotty record of meeting publication deadlines. Like its founder and editor, the essays in Reconstruction are a mixture of political liberalism and personal conservatism, blending a strong tilt toward pro-civil rights federal policies and you-can-make-it-if-you-try values that propelled middle-class black Americans during the 1970s.
"It was actually founded with me going into a stationery store and ordering letterhead and envelopes with my office address on it," Kennedy says. He used the stationery to ask friends for contributions, which trickled in in denominations as small as $5 and as large as a $50,000 Rockefeller Foundation grant. "That was all the planning that went into getting started. That was both good and bad. Good because, if I had planned any more, it wouldn't have gotten off the ground. Bad, because a lack of organization has kept me from doing it as well as it could be done."
Reconstruction is by no means the country's only black intellectual journal--its principal competitor is Transition, co-edited by Kennedy's good friend and colleague Henry Louis Gates--but it has become the place for members of the Third Renaissance to hang out. Its pages bear witness to the panoply of discussions within various black communities of intellectuals, bridging the academic with the artistic for a general audience in the same way that Du Bois did with Crisis. Because of periodicals like Reconstruction, Deborah McDowell, a professor of literary and cultural studies at the University of Virginia, predicts "there is a strong likelihood early in the 21st Century we will have the interest and scholarship on the lives and affairs of black people in the hands of black people."
Kennedy smiles when he hears such talk, partly out of pride and partly out of embarrassment over having failed to put out more issues on a more frequent basis. The last issue appeared at newsstands during the spring of 1994, and Kennedy promises that the next one will be available "real soon."
"I think (black) people have the most interesting, intense debates," Kennedy says. "But usually there is no record of what was said or by whom. I wanted Reconstruction to be a place where those debates were written down."
One of the early exchanges pitted Kennedy against supporters of University of Pennsylvania English professor Houston Baker. Kennedy had written a stinging review of Baker's book in defense of rap music. Other debates spill over from issue to issue: Is affirmative action good for the psyche of African Americans? Is it wise public policy to forbid white people from adopting black babies? Should black law professors debunk the inviolate nature of the Constitution and Bill of Rights because some of the writers dealt in the African slave market? Does Afrocentric education help or hinder inner-city black students from dealing in a white-dominated, albeit increasingly multicultural, world?
At the heart of Reconstruction--at the heart of almost all these discussions taking place among this generation of black intellectuals--is the question of identity: What does it mean to be an African American? What does it mean to be an American? If cacophony--or dare I say it, diversity?--is the principal characteristic of the debate that is raging among black intellectuals, it is also its principal metaphor. For all their differences, what Cornel West and Molefi Asante, Randall Kennedy and Houston Baker agree on is that who they are cannot be reduced to just race--that race is a first step toward identity, not the last.
Implicit as well is a rejection of '60s-era nationalism, which turned all questions of identity into the binary code of black or white. "Black nationalism is a much more viable concept for the 19th and 20th centuries, which we are about to leave," says Michele Wallace, an associate professor of English and Women's Studies at CCNY. "Nationalism is not going to have a part in the 21st Century unless things go terribly poorly. Its time has passed."
Why? Because the increasing uneven social conditions of black Americans renders notions of cultural nationalism unworkable. Affluent, churchgoing black Americans have always been too conservative to join with the radicals. But now, as more and more African Americans have entered the middle class, the siren song of nationalism offers less of an argument for yanking them away from the American Dream. In addition, the globalization of the economy makes power-to-the-people black nationalism seem increasingly like a dead end; the world is just too tiny for any collection of peoples--especially black peoples--to remain in perfect unity and in isolation.
It's impossible to parse out a single identity from the totality of human experiences, says E. Ethelbert Miller, director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. "The challenge we face as so-called black intellectuals is the same challenge we're facing in our entire society. Say you're an African specialist and you're talking about pan-Africanism. Someone else next door is talking about the Internet and watching CNN. How do you deal with that, going into the next century?"
Five years ago, novelist and essayist Trey Ellis wrote an essay called "The New Black Aesthetic" for Callaloo, a black literary magazine published at the University of Kentucky. While in his early 20s, Ellis had created something of a stir with his first novel, "Platitudes," an over-the-top depiction of post-civil rights, middle-class black Americans. With his 1990 essay, Ellis' announced the arrival of a new class of hip intellectuals--"a minority's minority mushrooming within the current black bourgeois"--who were unwilling to accept race-based labels that had been foisted on past generations of black artists and thinkers. He singled out Eddie Murphy, Bill Cosby, Spike Lee, Robert Townsend, August Wilson, Rita Dove, Wynton and Branford Marsalis and, especially, rap artists, who "almost across the board" would mold American, not just African American culture. Thus, according to Ellis, "the world is not only now accustomed to black faces in the arts, but also hungers for us."
More than what Ellis said, it was the manner in which he said it that caught people's attention. He wrote with a gunslinger's brashness: His generation of artists and writers wasn't going to let anyone--black or white--tell them who they could or could not be. It was the brashness of entitlement--the entitlement that came with being members of the first sizable black middle class this country had ever seen. As he put it: "The New Black Aesthetic says you just have to be natural, you don't necessarily have to wear one."
Like the black middle class that produced them, members of the Third Renaissance are the primary beneficiaries of the expansion of education and equal opportunity laws and the first generation to experience America as legitimate equals of white intellectuals. Black households with income greater than $50,000 boomed from 235,000 in 1965 to nearly 1.5 million by 1992. This expansion distinguishes the Third Renaissance from previous moments of ferment. Now there's the black-owned or black-controlled wealth to satisfy the appetite for a more accurate and varied portrait.
"We have a critical mass of people who have been to school, who have learned," says Temple University's Asante. This mass "is asking an entirely new set of questions and creating a new perspective on everything: art, culture, architecture, design--everything."
For evidence, all you have to do is examine what's occurred in book publishing in the past decade. African Americans spent more than $197 million on books last year, says Ken Smikle, publisher of Target Market News, a Chicago-based newsletter that tracks the buying habits of black Americans. That figure represents more than an 80% increase in book sales in black households since 1988. At the same time, there has been an explosion among retailers and publishers as they seek footholds in this market. According to Publishers Weekly, the book industry's trade magazine, there were seven African American publishers and 10 black-oriented bookstores in the United States in 1968. Last year, there were 75 publishers and more than 300 bookstores.
"Black people have always been interested in reading," says Calvin Reid, associate news editor of Publishers Weekly, "but there haven't always been books they want to read or books marketing directly to them. That's changing." Reid pinpoints the beginning of this transformation to 1992, when Toni Morrison's "Jazz," Alice Walker's "Possessing the Secret of Joy" and Terry McMillan's "Waiting to Exhale" appeared simultaneously atop the fiction bestseller list. "That certainly made publishers sit up and take notice," he says.
The industry's response led to the current avalanche of memoirs by black writers. Think about it: The early works of many black figures tend to be autobiographical--"Souls of Black Folk" ( W. E. B. du Bois), "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings" (Maya Angelou), "Manchild in the Promised Land" (Claude Brown), and numerous others. Too many black Americans--whether scholars, artists or journalists--remain invisible to the rest of society; by writing memoirs they make a public claim on their lives and prove that they exist at all. So unlike their white counterparts, black intellectuals invariably mix autobiographical work with the scholarly; Stephen Carter writes "Affirmative Action Baby" before taking on religion in contemporary America, or Gates produces "Colored People" in between editing "The Norton Anthology of Afro-American Literature." The landscape for black intellectuals, for all their accomplishments, remains to dusky for them to be clearly recognized.
"This current trend of memoir writing is our attempt to write ourselves into the historical flow," says Columbia University law professor Patricia J. Williams, who wrote about her own law school experience in "The Alchemy of Race and Rights." "There are remarkable books that I read in my childhood which are completely forgotten. They are lost in the collective memory."
In an effort to draw attention to the new cycle of memoirs, Williams highlighted them in the premiere issue of Civilization, the Library of Congress' new cultural magazine. Beginning her piece with the observation that the previous 18 months had seen the publication of 16 memoirs by African Americans, she proclaimed proudly: "Not since the late 1960s or perhaps the Harlem Renaissance have there been so many well-written, insightful and diverse witnessings of race, class and society in the United States. There is a feast of autobiography from the centenarian Delany sisters' feisty 'Having Our Say' to the young Ruthie Bolton's determined 'Gal'; from Gerald Early's affectionate 'Daughters' to John Wideman's brilliant 'Fatheralong'; from Judith Jamison's 'Dancing Spirit' to Jill Nelson's 'Volunteer Slavery'; from Nathan McCall's troubling 'Makes Me Wanna Holler' to Henry Louis Gates' elegantly nostalgic 'Colored People.' I'd hope that these strivers and survivors would become role models to white people ."
Of course, not everyone is cheered by the popularity of these books. Some, like Jonetta Rose Barras, writing for the Washington City Paper, believe that too many of these memoirs have tracked too far toward the sensational in a mistaken desire to sell a so-called "authentic black experience." Titling her denunciation "Literary Lockup," she condemns these books for implying that the "toiling millions who deliver car parts and fix Xerox machines and butcher hogs and answer phones and submit their invoices and pay their bills and keep their noses clean are black impostors.
"We need to understand that these confessionals and 'woe is me' tales do little to inspire the development of character for future generations of African Americans," she concluded. "Instead, they perpetuate an overwrought myth of African Americans as powerless creatures who must descend into degradation and traverse the bowels of society before they can make a valuable contribution."
If middle-class status has led to the proliferation of black intellectuals, it has also produced the core dilemma that vexes them: What is their responsibility to the total life of black America? Or, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. put it in his piece "Two Nations . . . Both Black," "How to explain the complicated truth: that for black America, these are the worst of times . . . and the best of times."
Some black intellectuals fear that their ivory towers will turn into a prison of the mind, that books and seminars will become a way to avoid grappling with the daily troubles of their brothers and sisters trapped and hopeless in the old neighborhood. Others wonder whether all this renewed intellectual activity is yet another male enclave. After all, the majority of the most celebrated figures are men.
"The current condition is more complicated than a black-white dichotomy," insists UCLA Law School professor Kimberle Crenshaw. "It is where black men and black women fit into a four-tiered system that includes race, gender, class and sexuality. When we talk about race, we are talking about men. When we talk about gender, we are talking white women. And that leaves black women out."
More than anyone else, bell hooks loves to deflate the establishment within the Third Renaissance--what she sees as the male, upper-middle-class, university-entrenched establishment. A compact woman with a baby face and a Betty Boop voice, hooks is a prolific writer who has produced several books on popular culture. With her earthy rhetoric and take-no-prisoners stance, she is willing to skewer such pop icons as Spike Lee and Madonna, particularly since she believes that they cynically trade on the lives of ordinary black people.
Born 42 years ago to working-class parents in Kentucky who named her Gloria Watkins, she attended segregated schools until her last year in high school. She was, she says, "a gifted child in a household that didn't care for distinctions. When I was a kid, my mother used to say that being smart didn't make you better."
She left Kentucky for Stanford, where she earned a BA in English; she received an MA from the University of Wisconsin and a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Cruz, where she began to write under the nom de plume bell hooks. For all her learning, hooks is still a 'round-the-way homegirl who smiles and pouts at the same time. She looks around her sparsely decorated Greenwich Village apartment, dissing it with a flip of her wrist that said this was not her home.
"There's nothing about the life of an intellectual that should separate you from other people," she says. "I think a lot of black intellectuals do that. But unlike most other black intellectuals, I am defined by the working-class black experience that I came from. You must be clear about this, because most white people don't understand that class in black America has nothing to do with money, never has had anything to do with money. There is a big difference between the laboring classes of farmers and mechanics and the schoolteachers and government workers."
In the fall of 1993, hooks took part in a panel discussion on "The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack" at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Assembled by the Rev. Eugene Rivers, a Harvard theologian, the panel fused the various elements among black intellectuals with the hopes that they might extend a ladder to bottom-rung African Americans. Along with hooks, the symposium consisted of Randall Kennedy; Selwyn Cudjoe, professor and chair of Africana Studies at Wellesley, and Regina Austin, a law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The audience of 650 was predominantly African American but also diverse: laborers in their olive-drab coveralls, kinte -wearing students from the city's numerous universities, briefcase-toting professionals and bow-tied academics.
Rivers kicked off the discussion with a call for the panelists to exercise "the responsibilities of peoples" given their unique position in the society. Austin complied by restating the question: "Do African American intellectuals have special responsibilities to address the crisis of the American inner cities?" she said. "I take that as a foregone conclusion, yes."
The next speaker was hooks, who ripped into her colleagues and the premise of their discourse. "I was struck by the construction of intellectuals that Eugene had in his words, because I think that a lot of what we're talking about when we discuss 'elite black intellectuals' is a select group of black men," she said, drawing scattered applause and cheers. "If we all had documents about our salaries and the money we make and what we do, we'd see exactly who comprises that 'elite group of black intellectuals.' "
The crowd responded to her carefully directed attacks on the stuffy and highbrow with hoots, affirmations and foot-stomping. "I don't come here as an intellectual who's been estranged from her community," she said. "In fact, I think that a lot of the kinds of bridges that have been built between various black communities have been formed by black women thinkers. But our work does not receive attention. So when people say there is a lack of intellectual leadership, part of that lack is the refusal of the masses of people to take on the work that many black women have already done, and raise us to the level of leaders."
It was a vintage hooks performance, confrontational and out of the bounds of academic collegiality. The issues she raised are the ones that members of the Third Renaissance should be confronting but have a hard time squaring with their professional status. By holding a mirror to the contradictions of being a black intellectual, hooks probed at their softest spot: the isolation of the professorial class.
Not surprisingly, after the MIT forum, Kennedy complained that hooks' performance was embarrassing. She is "a wild card," he said. "You never know what bell is going to say or do. She might be outrageous or insulting or profane. She's the kind of person who will do call-and-response in the middle of someone's lecture."
But such behavior endears her to the segment of the black community that goes unnoticed--the mill-working and churchgoing black folks who might catch her fiery spirit on TV talk shows. "The fact that ordinary black people embrace me and my work is one of the factors that keeps me from being celebrated in the same way that Skip Gates and Cornel West are celebrated by white folks. Can anyone believe that if Cornel West was doing the same work that I am doing--going into the lives of ordinary, working-class black people--that he would be as popular and celebrated?"
Is the current renaissance just another episode in the boom-bust cycle of American history, when white intellectuals stop dancing to their own stiff tunes to listen in on the jazz or rhythm-and-blues coming from across the tracks? This is the position that Columbia University's Daryl Scott takes.
In the universe of the Third Renaissance, Scott is a newcomer. He grew up in South Chicago, received his doctorate in American history from Stanford only last year and is now finishing his first book. Scott, a tall, scholarly man who speaks in barely audible whispers, decided during his brief stint in the Army to pursue an academic career. "I went into the Army to get out," he says with a broad, toothy smile. "I wanted to go to college on the GI Bill, so I had to do the time."
An assistant professor of history, he discounts the current fascination with black intellectuals as little more than a passing phenomenon--a reflection of the country's anxiety about becoming a more multiracial democracy. This is just business, Scott insists, with the media--be they book publishers or newspaper companies--bringing to market black people and their ideas to needy but capricious consumers.
"The first renaissance, the Harlem Renaissance, had to do at bottom with the movement of black intellectuals to demonstrate through literature the basic humanity of black folks," he explains, his voice becoming more voluble as he makes his argument. "They were writing for white people and being supported primarily with white folks' money. The second renaissance, during the civil rights movement, was an effort of activists and radicals to convince white folks of their inhumanity toward black folks. Despite all their bravado and swagger, they were still talking to white people.
"And this Third Renaissance has to do with a body of literature that is heavily laced with black self-criticism, which is what white people are wanting to hear more and more nowadays to convince themselves they need not do anything more for black people. These new black intellectuals are helping that, saying that black folks in one form or fashion have shortcomings that need to be corrected by black people, not by (white) society at large. What you are defining is a renaissance contingent on what white America is paying attention to."
Scott's point is fair criticism. From the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights movement to the current Renaissance, the attitudes of whites--their disinterest or muted amusement or celebration--have always presented a dilemma for black intellectuals. If they get too close to the white mainstream, they risk losing "legitimacy" among black folks. If they move too far away, they risk being marginalized by the society at large.
Michele Wallace would go further, arguing that this country's insatiable craving for celebrities distorts the work of black intellectuals, while at the same time playing to stereotypical views of black extremism. "Because black intellectuals and cultural producers have so little control over the designation of their heroes and 'role models,' " she has written, "invariably our representatives are chosen not on the basis of their intelligence or depth but rather on the basis of how much controversy they can stir up. The Clarence Thomases, the Farrakhans . . . the Al Sharptons . . . . If, however, you are black and avoid celebrity, you will certainly be invisible."
Wallace, whose mother is the artist Faith Ringgold, knows more than a little about the fleeting influence of fame. In 1979, she published "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman," a feminist manifesto that brought her attention that she now feels was unwarranted. "I was young and stupid when I wrote that," she says now. "It's not so much that what I wrote was wrong or that I want to disassociate myself from it now, but too many people used that book to say it spoke for all black people. In black intellectual life, fame and celebrity are more important than anything else to the dominant culture, which chooses and selects by whom it feels is famous. That is the great danger of black intellectual life."
To evaluate the truth of that statement, ponder that the U.S. Census Bureau tallies 22,385 black physicians; yet it is from the ranks of the 8,080 professional black athletes that a fraction are held out as role models for black people across the land. "Only in the strangely parasitic black world spawned by the white dominant culture would a retired football star who was a sports commentator be a viable candidate for heroism," Wallace writes. "Thoughtful black people are so unexpected, frequently their ability to make a living is seriously challenged. They are considered anachronistic in a black world in which tabloid coverage in the daily newspapers, TV newsmagazines and Vanity Fair broadcasts either our fame and celebrity or our abject monstrosity."
Of course, she was writing about O.J. Simpson.
But the fact of the matter is that Wallace--a black woman--was writing about a subject of intense curiosity in the hope of reaching a national audience. In an earlier generation, that might not have been the case and surely would not have been so two generations ago. If the collective intellectual history of black Americans down the ages had been monitored by an electroencephalograph, the spikes might correspond to the periods of white people's attention. But the overlooked base line would record the steady, strong pulse of the body's resistance to oppression--a testament to African Americans' vitality. That white people are now paying attention is not a sign of trouble; it is instead an indication of progress.
The current generation of black intellectuals will not be invisible--though not always celebrated--because they are defining this time and place in America and carrying into the future the legacy of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Angela Davis and Malcolm X. The people of this nation--regardless of race, class or gender--are actually the beneficiary of these intellectuals' wares, and nearly every middle-class household has a share in the Third Black Intellectual Renaissance whether it knows it or not. So, imagine these people as cultural traders caravaning from veld and jungle, urban center and rural outpost, stopping in public spaces like talk radio and black bookstores and, of course, white-run publishing houses, to disgorge their ideas and opinions. At every stop they boldly affirm themselves and their claim on America.