Writing About Race Without Being Trapped on the Race Track
The choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures a peripheral status in and to the black community.
Dr. Cornel West, The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual
When I read this passage for the first time I was almost devastated. I was in the sixth grade and I had great admiration for Dr. Cornel West. In fact, despite the abundant criticism he receives (and, at times, deserves), I still do. As I re-read this passage now, I think to myself…
But what about Dr. West himself?
Since the publication of Race Matters in 1993, Cornel West has been America’s most visible (and controversial) black intellectual. In that regard, he hasn’t exactly suffered self-imposed marginality and peripheral status in the black community. Yet, if we consider corporate media strategies and public interest, we might see that there is a different dilemma still facing black public intellectuals at the end of Obama’s presidency.
To phrase this dilemma in the form of a question, how many black intellectuals are well-known and admired by African-Americans for something other than their expertise on racial issues?
Cornel West was the first African-American to get a PhD in Philosophy at Princeton and the first black professor to earn Harvard’s most distinguished faculty position, University Professor, an honor which endows one with the privilege of being able to teach in any of Harvard’s academic departments owing to the depth and breath of one’s scholarship. Yet, most Americans know West as the brilliant and provocative orator who always wears a well-tailored, all-black, three piece suit with glasses, cuff-links, and unkempt hair.
Fortunately, to this point, my intellectual experience has not been defined or delimited by my desire to talk about race.
Entering my freshman year at Williams College, I was eager to embrace the life of the mind. I knew that Williams had teachers who knew all about the books I’d been reading in high school and that excited me. Having talked to several upperclassmen about their experiences at Williams, I was looking forward to discussing a broad range of issues and ideas. And within a week of my arrival on campus, I was already having interesting conversations with my peers about modern art, entitlement reform, alternative energy technologies, Irish literature, and racial justice.
Yet I quickly realized that my intellectual experience as a black student at Williams was very different from those of influential black intellectuals I admire in the public sphere. At Williams, there are myriad opportunities for me to express my ideas and defend my opinions about various subjects I’m interested in. But when I make a list of the most prominent contemporary African-American intellectuals, I notice that virtually without exception, they appear in the public sphere as commentators on the subject of race.
In 2013, The New York Times raised the question in their “Room for Debate: Do Black Intellectuals Need to Talk About Race?”
This question matters to me because I aspire to be an African-American public intellectual and I’m very interested in talking about race. Yet I hope that if I do the academic work and develop the skills required, I can also be at the forefront of discussions about presidential campaigns, economic growth, climate change, foreign policy, non-African-American literature and a host of other subjects that don’t focus on black life in America.
From what I have observed, the public sphere doesn’t offer many black intellectuals opportunities to critically engage non-racial topics. When I think of the most influential African American public intellectuals of our time—Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Toni Morrison, bell hooks, and Michael Eric Dyson, and Ta-Nehisi Coates—their presence in the public sphere seems contingent on race being the subject matter discussed. In this respect, I question what this dilemma means for my future.
I know that there are black scholars in every field of academia. And I know that there are a few exceptions in the public sphere like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Van Jones. But when I look for examples of black intellectuals in the public sphere, I can’t seem find any others who have made a name for themselves by writing about socially relevant issues other than race.
Sadly and surprisingly, I researched studies on ‘black public intellectuals as race experts,’ trying over twenty different searches on Google Scholar, and could not find a single one directly related to my observation.
Needless to say, race is an explosive issue that warrants the attention it receives. I look up to Cornel West and other black public intellectuals who have shaped discussions of race in America. I, too, aspire to influence how America thinks about racial issues. But I am also determined to read as deeply and as widely as I can—to put in the work required—to earn the opportunity to contribute to the public sphere knowledge I feel passionate about, regardless of its relevance to race.
Latest posts by Zach Wood (see all)
- Writing About Race Without Being Trapped on the Race Track - September 8, 2015