Thursday, December 1, 2011


E. Ethelbert Miller asks: "Harold Cruse published his very important book, THE CRISIS OF THE NEGRO INTELLECTUAL in the late sixties. Do black intellectuals find themselves in a "crisis" today? What is the current state of black intellectual thought?  Is our thinking advancing or are we still asking the same old questions? "


To be perfectly honest, I think we are asking the same old questions. And I think we are encouraged by blacks and whites alike in America to think within (and not outside) the same box, using an all too familiar and tired grammar and vocabulary that is at least 100- years-old now. Remember: the quality of the answers we get in this life is based on the quality of the questions we ask. Black "intellectuals" (I put sneer quotes around that word because, like Bertrand Russell, I think it is a pejorative term and I prefer to use the word scholar instead) often seem unable to think outside the parameters of the political. I daresay that every experience in life is not political. The belief that everything is reducible to the political is a form of cliched thinking that has cramped and constricted black intellectual and imaginative life for a century. As I see it, politics is but the skin of our social life.

Pushing this a little bit farther, let me say that, as "intellectuals," many people seem unable to see beyond the little cultural fishbowl of the white Western world; like fish, they have little sense that beyond the borders of that fishbowl there is, metaphorically, an ocean of human experience and history beyond what we encounter in the West. Consider for just a moment the special, inspiring vision that Martin Luther King Jr. brought to the black liberation struggle by allowing it to be cross-pollinated by Gandhi's approach of satyagraha, the same ingenuity that Rev. James Lawson Jr. brought to the Freedom Riders after studying Gandhi's principles for civil disobedience in India. During the Montgomery bus boycott, King said, "Christ gave us the goals and Mahatma Gandhi the tactics." The simplicity of this statement conceals its profundity, for methods and techniques like satyagraha, far from being neutral tools devoid of cultural and spiritual values, contain within themselves a precise, challenging blueprint for leading the moral life, for actions that go far beyond the goal of integrating buses in the South.  It was during his seven-year campaign in South Africa that Gandhi coined the term satyagraha by combining the Sanskrit word sat (truth) with the verbal root grah (to seize, hold, or grasp). "Its root meaning," said Gandhi, "is holding onto truth, hence truth-force. I have also called it love force or soul force." 

Satyagraha is based on the yogic value of ahimsa, the "non-harming" of sentient beings in either word or deed. It is love in action. If he "holds truth," a satyagrahi never seeks to defeat or humiliate his  opponent, because he and the other are understood to be one. He endeavors to respect and retain him as a friend, and provide him with a way to save face during their encounter, maintain his dignity, and join the ranks of the enlightened. 
 Never before, not with Nat Turner, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, Marcus Garvey, or Elijah Muhammad, had the black struggle for freedom been cast in such a non-dualistic manner. This was a paradigm shift. This was a revolution from top to bottom, involving change from outside (toward the Other) and from inside (toward oneself). This cross-pollination of ideas---between black America and India in 1955---brought something uniquely redemptive to the 300-year-old, bloody struggle for black liberation in America and made the Civil Rights Movement morally superior to those who opposed it. 

But not only do too few of our "intellectuals" look beyond the Western fishbowl for inspiration, but they also fail, in my view, to factor into their thinking the profound transformations happening in the world, week after week, in the fields of science and technology. (Black thought tends to fall not into the area of hard sciences like physics, math and chemistry but rather the softer ones of sociology, history, ethnology and psychology, which are less empirical and more open to disputation and conflicting interpretations). We live in a world of literal clones and chimeras, 3-D printing of physical objects, advances in medical science after the sequencing of the genome that will affect aging and the treatment of heredity afflictions, a world where  earth-like planets in the "Goldilocks" zone from the stars they orbit (not too close, not too far away) have been discovered. Intellectually, this is a very exciting time to be alive. A time when old paradigms are perishing, requiring the almost daily revision of our understanding of not only the universe but life on the 4.54 billion-year-old planet we inhabit.

So is this a crisis for black "intellectual" thought? I won't say that black thought today is in a crisis but, to paraphrase Frank Zappa, I will say that sometimes it sure smells funny. So much of it has worn out its shelf-life and expiration date. So much of black thought today suffers from a poverty of ideas. To achieve freshness it needs to open itself to cross-fertilization, for that historically has been the way that cultures escape from calcification, from becoming in-bred, and from sterility. And as I stated in my essay "The End of the Black American Narrative," I sincerely do belief that our black thinkers in America in 2011 need a new language, a new vocabulary and grammar, new metaphors and paradigms to work with. If something as fundamental to science as Einstein's belief that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light can be challenged by new measurements of neutrinos (a matter that is still being discussed and subjected to experiments), if Pluto can be demoted from the status of being a planet, then surely black thought should be open to new information and radical transformation. We should remove as best we can our egos and cherished agendas from the process of intellectual investigations. And we should never be content with what we think we know.


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