No doubt by now you’ve read the Michael Eric Dyson essay on the public decline and fall of Cornel West. I promise you this will not be another so-called “thinkpiece” about the row between the two very public intellectuals. Plenty has been written about Dyson’s taking to task of West. Instead I wish to take a step back and ruminate on the context of this latest debate about the idea of “public intellectuals.”
Robin Marie’s take on the personal and the political stakes involved in the Dyson/West tussle, posted a few days ago, is a good take on how their debate fits within a larger intellectual culture. In all the debates about the status of both Dyson and West, however, I worry that most commentators forget that there is a larger African American intellectual culture that exists beyond Dyson, West, Ta-Nehisi Coates, or Melissa Harris-Perry. They all know this—Dyson’s own essay indicates the intellectual lineage he and West come from. But I merely wish to remind our readers of the vibrant African American intellectual culture that exists—which includes “public intellectuals” but also includes a larger array of figures, both inside and outside the academy.
As I noted last week, the Association for the Study of African American Life and History celebrates its 100th anniversary this year. ASALH and the journal it publishes four times a year, the Journal of African American History¸ have both long existed as intellectual forums in which African Americans have debated the nexus of race, culture, and political power. Journals and magazines such as Phylon, Journal of Negro Education, Freedomways, Black Scholar, and Negro Digest/Black World have all served as additional forums where African American men and women could debate the direction of African Americans, people of color more broadly, the United States of America, and indeed the world.
I say all of this to arrive at another point: most commentators are missing the point when asking why Dyson wrote his piece now. He has already responded, saying in essence he started writing the piece long ago and, well, there was not a better time for it to be released than now. But the time period we live in—whether you wish to call it the “Age of Obama” or the “Age of Ferguson”—offers some interesting parallels with other periods in which the voice of African American public intellectuals was most sought out. I’m referring to the late 1960s and the late 1980s-early 1990s, both time periods in which the nation grappled with issues of race openly, albeit under different political, cultural, and economic circumstances. They were also both time periods in which African American intellectuals debated with each other the direction African American thought and activism had to take.
The late 1960s—which, for the purposes of this piece, I begin in 1965—were filled with debate about the direction of the Civil Rights Movement. Ironically, a piece written at the height of the last serious row between intellectuals about race, brings to light these comparisons. Although most people have (understandably) talked about the famous Adolph Reed, Jr. piece “What Do the Drums Say Booker?” since the start of the GreatBlack Public Intellectual Crisis of 2015, it’s also worth thinking about a piece from New Politics in 1994 by Stephen Steinberg, “The Liberal Retreat From Race.” Here, Steinberg located the origins of liberalism’s struggles with talking about race beyond civil and voting rights. As I and others have also argued, this 1965-1968 time period was a critical one in shaping how the nation as a whole would think about race.
We have never escaped that moment. Indeed, the second intellectual moment, that of the 1980s-1990s and the battle over the “underclass” was shaped by that earlier debate. When Steinberg and Reed were both writing their critiques of 1990s-era public intellectualism, the underclass debate was also underway. So now we find ourselves in another moment of crisis about African Americans, the American state, and the idea of race—and this is by no means to forget the other major debates about immigration, LGBTQ rights, and the rights of women in our society. The debate about the future of race relations in American society continues, robustly, but to assume for one moment that the Dyson/West tussle adds substantively to that debate in any way would do a disservice to many men and women, regardless of race and ideology, arguing about these very questions. The timing of the debate matters. As the argument about why Dyson targeted West finally quieted down, protests in Baltimore over the death of another young African American man in police custody turned violent.
The Obama Administration has served, like the Lyndon Johnson years and the first term of Bill Clinton, as a referendum on race and liberalism in American society. I hesitate to make these comparisons while in the heat of the moment, but a robust intellectual dialogue about race in American society is urgently needed today. As with anything involving history, context matters. What future historians pull from the Dyson/West clash may not be their importance to today’s dialogue, but instead two public intellectuals slowly leaving the stage for the next generation of intellectuals to add their voice to the debate.
Or maybe not. Historians are the worst equipped to predict the future. And I won’t even try to do so beyond my weak statement above. But do not forget this: these two public intellectuals may be in trouble with different constituencies among liberals and the left, but the African American intellectual community will survive. As it has other, bigger debates. And as it will for a long time yet to come.