Friday, October 28, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "What are the challenges and pitfalls of becoming a public intellectual? Has our media redefined this term? What key subjects should a public intellectual study or master before talking to the public?"

 Many, many books have been published on this subject, which has been an on-going matter of debate stretching from 1897 when Alexander Crummell, W.E.B. Du Bois and A.H. Grimke established the American Negro Academy to Harold Cruse's highly influential The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967), and finally to the new generation of black public intellectuals that emerged in the 1980s. Among the important works that trace this debate is Linda Furgerson's Selzer's Charles Johnson in Context. A third of her book is thematically devoted to exploring in great detail the complex role of "black public intellectuals" in American society and the dangers inherent in that role. I strongly recommend that E-Channel readers interested in this question read Dr. Selzer's thoroughly researched account of the ways different people have defined "public intellectual" in general (for example, "as thinkers who directly engage with or are engaged by nonacademic publics") and how those definitions can be applied in particular to black Americans today (a "thoroughly credentialed and completely professionalized black intellectual class"). In her book, Selzer observes that:

          "Many other critics and black intellectuals, however, are suspicious of the celebrity status of new black intellectuals and are worried about its consequences for scholarship. Partly because he believes that the term 'intellectual' is trivialized by its associations with celebrity, Johnson prefers the word 'scholar.' He explains: 'When one's reputation is founded not so much on a ground breaking work of scholarship but rather on being well known, it follows that one most strive mightily to stay newsworthy, no matter how shallow, hastily executed, or ephemeral one's work becomes. The painstaking, slow work of scholarship becomes replaced by media appearances, often shameless self-promotion, and even the dubious distinction of being 'controversial' buys one a headline in the press and Andy Warhol's fifteen minutes of fame on the Oprah Winfrey show.' (Hortense) Spillers also expresses serious reservations about the performative conditions that obtain in the new public sphere for black intellectuals. She argues that 'public discourse has been  immeasurably diminished since the late sixties and the explosion of image industries.' Criticizing Cornel West's decision to leave Harvard for Princeton (after his confrontation with then-Harvard president Lawrence Summers), Thulani Davis notes that the new black scholar's increasing celebrity can lead to 'power plays' driven by a desire 'to enhance...already cushy careers.' In short, with the growth of blogs, talk shows, twenty-four-hour news cycles, sound bites, and what Spillers calls the increasing 'theatricalization of culture,' many critics and public intellectuals---including Johnson---are concerned that the public sphere now privileges the fleeting cameo appearance over the sustained scholarly project." 

 There is very little I can add to Dr. Selzer's thoughtful examination. In the above paragraph, she quotes from my essay, "The Role of the Black Intellectual in the Twenty-first Century," which readers should examine if they wish to see my entire argument. That essay is reprinted in Turning the Wheel: Essays on Buddhism and Writing (Scribner, 2003). To this day I remain uncomfortable with (and find myself dismissive of) artists or intellectuals who hunger after fame and celebrity, because I cannot forget the wisdom given to us 108 years ago by W.E.B. Du Bois in The Souls of Black Folk:

              " make men, we must have ideals, broad, pure, and inspiring ends of living---not sordid money-getting, not apples of gold. The worker must work for the glory of his handiwork, not simply for pay; the thinker must think for truth, not for fame. And all of this is gained only by human strife and longing; by ceaseless training and education; by founding Right on righteousness and Truth on the unhampered search for Truth." (Italics mine)

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