U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Beyond Dyson and West

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.

7 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Robert, this is a terrific response.

    As I read through it, I thought you might be working up to a different conclusion–that the Dyson/West tussle is a normal event within a robust tradition of debate and contestation? If that’s the case, then, we might say that the temporal question––why now?––is poorly chosen, since such back-and-forth is a constant of African American intellectual history. But that would leave us still with questions of venue––why TNR, for godsakes?––and questions of framing.

  2. Thanks for the kind words. And, to be frank, I considered briefly going in the direction you described–I know others have certainly done so online.

    But to answer your question about TNR, Dyson himself answered that a couple of days ago. Here’s a link: http://www.newrepublic.com/article/121640/michael-eric-dyson-responds-cornel-west-all-black-lives-matter

    To summarize Dyson, however, he argues that TNR has sufficiently reckoned with its on racial (and racist) past to deserve to be the place for such a polemic as his. Furthermore, he also argued (and this might be more important in regards to both my piece and your response) that there isn’t a “black” space where he could post such a piece. In his words: “Why not publish in, say, Ebony or Essence magazines, two venerable black publishing institutions? My essay is not quite in their wheelhouse; neither magazine, where I’ve published quite frequently, is geared to the philosophical meditation on prophetic vocation, scholarly craft and writerly art—or the sharp polemics—that I offer in my essay. I can’t remember the last essay at the length I wrote appearing in either publication.”

    I think that raises the question of why were don’t have something like “Black World” or “Freedomways” these days. “The Black Scholar” is hanging in there, but it’s geared more towards an academic and well-read audience, not so much middle-brow like “Ebony” or “Essence.” Which is too bad. I believe there’s still a space out there for a well-written, well-edited magazine catered towards liberal or left wing politics that speaks more to issues for people of color. Not to segregate such audiences, but give another space in which they could debate the big questions of the day.

  3. “They are almost completely worthless.”
    Wieseltier referring to West’s oeuvre on race

    Attacks on the intellectual substance of Cornell West are a tradition at TNR–at least two decades old: see “All and Nothing at All The Unreal World of Cornel West” by Leon Wieseltier http://www.newrepublic.com/article/books/88939/cornel-west-race-america-book-review (March 6, 1995).

    None of this is new or enlightening. Mixing power politics & academic status leads to fiery contretemps. I’m skeptical Dyson’s article(s) will have any affect on West or anybody else.

    The tussles fit in with “normal event[s] within a robust tradition of debate and contestation” within the intellectual community and within the movement for racial justice.

    • I’d have to agree that this will have little effect on current debates–which is what makes the attention the essay has received a bit sad. I think everyone was just shocked by the aggressiveness of the piece.

      As for the Wieseltier piece, I know that one quite well. I just want more out of these debates–genuine disagreements over policy and style, and not merely style.

  4. I agree with Kurt on this one, this is excellent. I confess to being partial to Adolph Reed’s overall analysis of the contemporary black intellectual, which can be easily applied to the dilemma of the Latina/o public intellectual and even the white public intellectual in the context of neoliberal media and mainstream culture (I am not sympathetic, however, towards the disparaging analogies Reed makes between West and company and Booker T. Washington; they read as reductive and anachronistic and I doubt they help us to understand what is really happening in these debates).

    Evidently, there’s a grappling not only with the notion of the public intellectual and what she should stand for, but also with the supposed need for such figures, which brings up often a nostalgia for the debates during the sixties, the ideal of the intellectual activist of the era, etc. In pointing to the question of the passing of a guard and the significance of other voices and actors beyond the usual suspects–grassroots activists, bloggers, as well as folks in academia who intersect with the latter two roles–I think you’re starting to trace the path of how minority publics are articulated in the present. The role of leadership and how it relates to the shaping of communities is central in this regard. I think sometimes that the passing of the guard signals a rupture with the culture of protagonism and top-down leadership / politics of representation that one can still detect in the debate between Dyson and West. But maybe I am being too optimistic…

    • This is an excellent (as always) comment from you. And I think, or rather hope, we’re both right: that this moment is one of transformation and transition in terms of leadership.

      I know this became the narrative among many activists in Ferguson last year. I’ll never forget seeing people like Al Sharpton getting booed. I don’t know if there is anyone out there, either among activists or “public intellectuals,” waiting to take the reins AND at the same time be the new go-to people. Frankly we might be headed for a moment where the idea of a singular “black leader” (or a small group of them) is disappearing.

      And yes, I love Reed as well. I wonder if he’ll chime in on all this, but I doubt it.

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