In our September/October 1992 issue, we published an open letter from Eugene Rivers on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” Rivers — Pastor of Dorchester’s Azusa Christian Community — challenged intellectuals to respond to the crisis in America’s inner cities with “new forms of public engagement” and called for “a series of discussions in Boston about the fate of the urban poor.”
The first such discussion took place on November 30, 1992, at the ARCO Forum at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government. On November 17, 1993, Boston Review cosponsored the second such discussion, a forum at MIT attended by 650 people. Participants, along with Rivers, were Regina Austin, bell hooks, Randall Kennedy, and Selwyn Cudjoe. Margaret Burnham was moderator. Glenn Loury, who was ill and unable to attend, submitted an essay on the themes of the forum, which follows the transcript.
Joshua Cohen: On behalf of the Boston Review and the MIT Department of Political Science, I would like to welcome you to this evening’s forum on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack.” In an essay published more than 25 years ago, Noam Chomsky wrote these words: “In the western world at least, intellectuals have the power that comes from political liberty, from access to information and freedom of expression. For a privileged minority, western democracy provides the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth hidden behind the veil of distortion, misrepresentation, ideology and class interests through which the events of current history are presented to us. The responsibilities of intellectuals, then, are much deeper than what Dwight MacDonald called, `the responsibility of peoples’ given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy.”
Last year, in an open letter to the Boston Review on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack,” Eugene Rivers sought to give renewed significance to Chomsky’s message about the responsibilities of intellectuals that come with our privileges. The letter drew a substantial response, culminating in a public forum last November at Harvard’s Kennedy School. As recent issues of the Review indicate, the discussion shows no signs of dying down. And because of this continuing interest, we thought it was time for a second public debate on the important issues raised by Rivers.
My colleague, Margaret Burnham, will serve as moderator for this evening’s discussion. And now I want to turn things over to her.
Margaret Burnham: Thank you, Josh, and welcome. Josh has introduced tonight’s discussion and given us some of the background of a continuing conversation that was generated by Gene’s challenge to all of us to address the issues of the responsibility of intellectuals in the age of crack, and if possible, to reach some resolution of those issues. We will start the discussion this evening with brief presentations by the members of the panel. Then there will be a discussion amongst the panel, after which we will invite everyone to participate in a broader discussion.
Eugene Rivers: I’d like to thank Joshua Cohen for the political and intellectual courage he’s exhibited in encouraging what must become an increasingly sharply defined debate about the role and responsibilities of, in particular, black intellectuals — more precisely, elite black intellectuals who enjoy the privileges Noam Chomsky referred to 25 years ago. A lot has happened since last November’s forum. The state of black America has become increasingly desperate. A little more than a month ago, a black mayor prevailed upon the president of the United States to intervene in the affairs of the predominantly black city over which he presided, because the city was out of control. This raised some very important questions about black political leadership, and the state of the black community. I’ve been thinking about the implications of these questions, and, with my wife, have drafted a statement on a range of issues that have to be addressed so that my generation of black male intellectuals will not continue to fail the succeeding generation of young black people who today are looking for direction and guidance. The draft presents a ten point proposal for mobilizing the black intelligentsia around a program of research and education. It is called “The Reconstruction of Black Civil Society.” I do not have the time now to read the full statement, but I do want to present some of the fundamental assumptions on which it is predicated:
1. There is an unprecedented crisis in the black community.
2. There is a necessary division of labor among different people of good will who aim to address that crisis. Not everyone is expected to do the same thing. In order to overcome the overwhelming odds facing the black community, our finest minds must take up the task of engaging in trenchant research and education, while others rise to the challenge of disciplining our shell-shocked youth and channelling their enormously rich intelligence and skills in positive directions.
3. The lack of leadership from the elite black intelligentsia — a function of the transformation of certain forms of university based discourse into an academic extension of the entertainment industry — has left a generation of young intellectuals and students without a clear direction or program of action. From Harvard University to the Hoover Institute, we lack an interdisciplinary research and education program that produces genuine intellectual debate, social policy prescription, and practical solutions grounded in the circumstances of black people.
One implication of these assumptions is that we need new models of intellectual engagement that transcend the politically limited inflation of celebrity status, and produce true intellectual leadership.
Regina Austin: Margaret Burnham sent us three questions to address. I would like to say something about two of them. The first question was: “Do African American intellectuals have special responsibilities to address the crisis of the American inner cities?” I take that as a foregone conclusion, yes. Then she asked: “Are there specific ways that intellectuals can address the crisis?”
That’s what I’m primarily interested in. It strikes me that the responsibility of black intellectuals is to tell the truth about how material conditions have changed since the time of the civil rights and black power movements. To this end there are two issues which black intellectuals must seriously confront.
First, poor black people need to know whom to blame and whom to be mad at besides themselves. Who exactly is the enemy? White people seem to have no problem demonizing us; maybe we should try a little demonizing back. But would that do any good? If white people, or the white man, is not the enemy, then who or what is? What are the sources of the oppression and exploitation poor black people endure? If your response is “the system,” then tell me exactly how the system does its number. How do intellectuals help poor black people address their subjugation in sophisticated macroeconomic, macropolitical, and macrosocial terms?
Second, my generation, which came of age in the late 1960s and early 1970s, is not a generation of black institution builders. I happen not to think that poverty programs come within the category of black institutions. What, then, is the significance of black institutions and firms in solving the problems destroying the lives of poor black people? How do intellectuals address the structural and cultural impediments to institution-building? How do intellectuals address the fear of exploitation that makes collective enterprises, be they families or factories, difficult for oppressed black people? How do we structure cooperative endeavors in a way that reduces the exploitation of black people? Those are the questions that I think we should deal with.
bell hooks: I was very struck by Josh’s reading of Noam Chomsky’s words because I don’t think they have any relationship to the kind of intellectual work I do; and I was struck by the construction of intellectuals that Eugene had in his words because I think that a lot of what we’re talking about when we discuss “elite black intellectuals” is a select group of black men. If we all had documents about our salaries and the money we make and what we do, we’d see exactly who comprises that “elite group of black intellectuals.” In fact, I think that a lot of the kinds of bridges that have been built between various black communities have been formed by black women thinkers. But our work does not receive attention. So when people say there is a lack of intellectual leadership, part of that lack is the refusal of masses of people to take on the work that many black women have already done, and raise us to the level of leaders. Let’s face it, certain black men haven’t raised themselves; they’ve been lifted up by other people, and we need to ask why.
I don’t come here as an intellectual who’s been estranged from her community. I spent last evening at an historically black college and outside that college talking to black people; the week before I was at junior high schools in Flint, Michigan. The discussion here is hard for me — and this will be the last of this kind of panel I’ll go on — because I feel that I don’t know that estrangement. I feel that a lot of black women don’t. We nurture both in the academy and beyond. Black women intellectuals and thinkers have laid out a number of paradigms for how intellectuals can stay in touch with and speak to the needs of a renewed black liberation struggle that brings self-determination to all people, and to black people particularly. What does the intellectual do in that struggle for self-determination? That question seems to me to give a much broader sense of our work than the notion of a split — that we have something to give to other people who are not us. I’m much more interested in the paradigm of collective struggle for self-determination, and of the role of the intellectual — whether in the academy or not — in that struggle.
Randall Kennedy: Clearly, a lot of people think we’re in a moment of unprecedented crisis. I think that we are actually in a renaissance. In many respects this is a wonderful moment for lots of black intellectuals. In literature, sociology, and a variety of other fields, we see black intellectuals contributing in a way that they’ve never been able to contribute before — having access to institutions, to media, to audiences, to recognition. This access is entirely new in our national life. So while there are difficulties to confront, I think that we should understand that, from an historical perspective, there’s been a tremendous advance on the cultural front. Turning now to the question of a special responsibility of black intellectuals toward members of the community who are oppressed: this raises a more general question about a special responsibility of the black middle class toward the so-called “underclass.” Regina Austin said earlier that she viewed such a special responsibility as a foregone conclusion. I think it’s a little more complicated than that. Do I think that black intellectuals have a special responsibility towards the black underclass? I’m not so sure. I think that everyone — all Americans, no matter what their class position, no matter what their gender, no matter what their racial background — has a responsibility — a very high responsibility — towards those in the society who are least fortunate. If black intellectuals owe a higher responsibility does that mean that white intellectuals have a lesser responsibility? I don’t think so. I think that we all, no matter what our background, have a responsibility to raise our society to a higher level.
With respect to what is needed: I think that what’s needed is more knowledge, more people with the skills that can help us confront the problems we encounter. So far as the black community is concerned, I don’t think that black intellectuals suffer from a lack of political commitment and idealism. I think that the community suffers from a lack of numbers of folks who have the specialized knowledge that we need in order to confront problems. We need more doctors, more engineers, more biologists, more physicists and economists. We need a social system that will enable people to take advantage of the world’s knowledge: that seems to me the principal need of the hour.
Selwyn Cudjoe: Let me say first that I’m inclined to understand Eugene Rivers’s remarks about “The Age of Crack” as a metaphor for the decline we see in black communities both here and abroad. From all accounts, things seem to be getting worse, and — worst of all — there seems to be no solution in sight. What does the intellectual do under these circumstances? I disagree with Randall Kennedy about whether we have a special responsibility. Black folks have a responsibility to their people wherever they are. I am not a neutral person; I have a well-defined commitment to my people, and that defines what I do each and every moment of my life. But the question is: what can and should be done in the age of crack? I know my role has changed — or should change — from 20 or 30 years ago when we were winning independence in the colonies and when civil rights struggles were in their early, vigorous days. But accepting Gramsci’s notion of the “organic intellectual,” the question becomes: what community does one serve, and what does one do with one’s specific knowledge base? I’ve always believed that the answer lies somewhere between a commitment to mastering one’s field of study, and trying to connect contemporary ideas to contemporary issues.
So I don’t think intellectuals have any special role: the point is to engage in organic work with one’s community, pursuing a dialectical relationship between ideas and practice, keeping in mind that as one struggles about issues of curriculum at one’s worksite, one also has to combat larger more generalized notions of the onslaught against people’s humanity. One can only struggle from the site at which one finds oneself, and try to be as honest, as focused, and as determined as possible. One cannot abandon one’s vocation totally, and opt to be a “revolutionary,” for then one is no longer a conventional intellectual, and has privileged the political and social over the purely academic. On the other hand, one cannot opt exclusively for ivory-tower intellectual activity, where one tries to know all the intricacies of Foucault and Derrida, not to mention James and DuBois. In the end, intellectualism is a function of practice, and we find our better selves when we try to combine both.
Burnham: Thank you all for your remarks. Perhaps we can start the discussion with Randall Kennedy’s remarks about the lack of special responsibility. Randall, did you want to clarify your comments?
Kennedy: The question, in essence, was: do black people here have more of a responsibility towards black people who are in misery than their white counterparts who are sitting next to them? My answer was: no; we all have a very high responsibility towards those who are in misery.
Burnham: Given the reality that everybody’s problem is usually nobody’s problem, how do you respond to the need for special attention to the needs of our community?
Kennedy: I’m not against special focus on the problems of the black community. The question was: “Is there a special, racial responsibility?”
Rivers: Who said racial? It doesn’t have to be racial. An individual can choose to identify with a particular group for reasons which are not rooted in race but in history, tradition, culture. If I identify with a particular group with a unique and definable history, tradition, and culture, can’t that unique experience reasonably generate arguments for unique responsibilities?
Kennedy: I’m sure that reasonable arguments can be generated. But let me tell you what prompts my concern. You have journalists and other folks going around saying to the black middle class: “you should take care of your own.” There is a problem and they don’t expect society to deal with it. It is the black person’s problem. I think we should be very careful about this. We have a national problem, a widespread social problem, and I would be wary of making it the special turf of a given group.
Rivers: But all the moral arguments which provided the affirmative action context for you to benefit were based on claims about a unique historical experience of racial discrimination. On the other side of the affirmative action door, we become abstracted from that history and become trans-ethnic, cosmopolitan individuals, who don’t have — as a result of history, tradition, and culture — special responsibilities.
Kennedy: Just a quick point on being cosmopolitan individuals: I embrace that. But I’d like to hear from other people.
Burnham: Perhaps we can move to an issue that Regina and bell spoke to. Regina asks how we should define our role as intellectual workers in an age when the institution-building which occupied people in an earlier time no longer prevails; and bell asks whether there isn’t a false dichotomy here, especially in view of the fact that the voices of African-American women and their leadership roles have been excluded, ignored, and buried. How do we address this issue in an inclusive fashion so we don’t repeat the errors of the past?
Cudjoe: I think that we’re posing the questions incorrectly and therefore arriving at wrong answers. We have heard talk about “celebrity status” and “elite intellectuals.” I do not think that we need to get angry at black folks who make lots of money; white folks make lots of money, too. I am faced with a different question. I teach literature and literary theory: how do I do that kind of work, while at the same time being cognizant of larger concerns? When you talk about celebrity status, I think what you’re also asking is: does the nature of celebrity status prevent us from fulfilling ourselves and being of more service to the community? Does that distort the things that we do? That seems to me to be a basis for the discussion. Fifty years ago we had race-men like W.E.B. DuBois. There was a much more concentrated expression in terms of our responsibility as black folks. During the civil rights movement, and with the development of poverty/anti-poverty programs, all of our leaders were bought off and given jobs. The struggle just went under. Now there are lots of brilliant minds, and the possibility is raised that being on television every night and being constantly in the public eye takes away from doing your kind of work, and fulfilling your intellectual responsibility to your group.
Austin: I don’t think that celebrity status is interfering with intellectuals doing the work that needs to be done. People who don’t have celebrity status are not doing the work either. I don’t think anybody’s doing the work. So folks who aren’t here who have celebrity status — I read their books, but they’re not worth the money that you pay for them — are irrelevant. I think there is a deeper problem which has to do with black intellectual endeavor, and the extent to which we either don’t know what to do, don’t want to do what has to be done, or can’t do it — that’s the issue. Do we not want to do it? Maybe that’s what Randy is talking about. Then why don’t we just say we don’t want to do it and move on?
hooks: I would like to come back to Randall’s comment about special responsibility. If it weren’t for white supremacy — and I would use the phrase “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” — we wouldn’t be here talking about the role of the intellectual in the age of crack. To some extent I agree with Randall: because white supremacy really is the aggression of many white people against us, I don’t ever want to let anybody not be accountable for not transforming that aggression. But black self-determination is a very different thing. Because black self-determination has to express the degree to which we have been colonized, the degree to which we have internalized racism — and that “we” includes black intellectuals. One of the things that unites the underclass with black intellectuals may be internalized racism. Just because black intellectuals have obtained certain degrees or have great quality of mind, doesn’t mean they’re not mired in certain qualities of self-hate, that lead them not to want to give their resources to anybody other than themselves, or use them for anybody’s ends other than their own opportunistic ends. Randall, I’d rather not see it as binary. I believe that we are all accountable; and I also believe that black people have to take primary concern with our self-determination. It is an ethical ideal that, in a just society, everyone would recognize their accountability for injustice. But our lived experience tells us that white people are not, as a mass, rising up to take that responsibility. So as black people, we have a choice: are we going to just sit around and wait for everyone to recognize their own accountability or are we going to do what we must do in our own interests?
Kennedy: I want to press another point that’s come up in several comments about celebrity status. There seems to be something in the air — an unstated criticism of people who aren’t here. I am interested in knowing whether you agree or disagree with me that in fact, as far as the African American intelligentsia is concerned, this is a period of tremendous advance. Who are the people I have in mind? People who aren’t here, like Toni Morrison, Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, Orlando Patterson, Steven Carter, Derrick Bell, Charles Johnson. Look at the fullness of our situation: it is an important question whether we are in a period of retreat or of real advance.
Austin: You’re looking at the wrong population, Randy. The issue is not whether intellectuals are doing well; it’s whether other folks are doing well. And other folks are not doing well. Maybe intellectuals are doing well because they’re not looking back. But how well they’re doing is irrelevant. Selwyn raised an important related issue earlier when he mentioned the model of the intellectual as race-person, or race-man, or race-woman: that model is not being duplicated. And if we wanted to duplicate it it’s not clear what that person would be writing today, or thinking about, or proposing as an agenda. The question is: how do we move from the conception of an intellectual race-person that many intellectuals had when they went into the academy to the current reality which is that we’re stifled. A good model of a race-intellectual is William Julius Wilson. He is a good model because he is willing to consider issues on a macro-plane. Part of the problem is that many of us tend to think on the ground, to think that there are micro ways of dealing with racial discrimination; or, we’re so consumed with the micro-racism we encounter that it’s difficult to get to the next level. The world has changed materially over the past 30 years, and we have not yet taken it upon ourselves to address those changes. I think that Wilson comes closer to doing what a black intellectual ought to be doing than a lot of people.
Burnham: How have the changes in the material conditions of the African-American community over the past 30 years affected the role of intellectuals?
Austin: I do not have an answer, but my question is: why don’t we have penetrating analyses of the economic conditions of the black urban poor coming from folks who are interested in programmatic issues and in making those conditions explicable to people so that people will have some sense of who the enemy is? I think it’s very important for people to understand who they ought to be angry at, because far too many people are turning that anger against themselves, or against other people who look like them. But I think it’s very difficult for black intellectuals to deal with the question of who the enemy is, either because they fear that the enemy will turn out to look like themselves, or fear that the enemy will turn out to look like the white people who are their colleagues. But I suspect that that’s not exactly who the enemy is. Why is it that we don’t go further to try to identify the enemy and understand how we can intervene in the system to defeat or at least stifle the enemy? It is beyond me.
Rivers: I want to bring Regina’s point about the kind of analyses that are being done back to Randy’s idea that we are in a great renaissance. I am now reading David Levering Lewis’s biography of DuBois. He describes the kind of activity that was undertaken in the 1890s at Atlanta University, Tuskegee, and Hampton, when there was a coordinated undertaking to do multi-disciplinary research with a specific focus on the problems of the black community. One hundred years later I do not see the same level of commitment — and here again I want to draw a distinction between the ideologically flamboyant, popular journalism that masquerades as theory, and applied, empirically grounded research, as in the case of William Julius Wilson, which addresses problems with an eye to alternative strategies which work internally for the community as well as externally.
Cudjoe: But you must move forward. The task in DuBois’s time was much more centered and focused. Things have changed, and I’ll tell you why: there are many more ways of knowing, many more subtle ways of influencing popular discourse, a whole lot of videos and TV. So the kind of focus on specific problems that one found with people like DuBois can’t be found now. I think the work that bell hooks, for example, has done in cultural studies — the questions about how mass movements and popular forms are beginning to affect our ways of knowing — is just as important as what someone like DuBois would have been doing then.
hooks: I thought it was very interesting that Eugene Rivers gave us a list of black people at predominantly black institutions. We have to ask what it means that a lot of the “intellectuals” we are talking about are not at black institutions, do not live in black communities. That is precisely one of the dilemmas in talking about what our role is. When I mentioned earlier that I was at a black institution last night, I thought it was significant precisely because I believe that there’s a kind of a cultural genocide taking place when so many of us who are considered fine, black thinkers are solely at white institutions, and never talk to black people or black thinkers at black institutions. That’s part of the crisis we face.
Burnham: I think it is time to open up the discussion to the audience. I ask people in the audience please to tell us who you are, ask a question, don’t make a speech, and we will try to have a dialogue.
Audience: My name is Carmine Graff, I’m from north Boston, and I want to say that we haven’t even touched the issue that we came here to discuss. I came here to listen to intellectuals talk about the responsibility you have in the age of crack, and I haven’t heard anything yet. Also, to the brothers: I don’t see any respect, like bell mentioned. You keep on dissin’ each other.
Audience: My name is Monica Culler and I go to Harvard College. I think we are now in a period in which we see a different kind of black intellectual, where Afro-American studies programs are beginning to reach fruition. People are coming out with Ph.D.s in Afro-American studies. I’d like to know what you suggest to up-and-coming young black intellectuals. What, practically, does a black scholar do?
Kennedy: With respect to the second question, I think that my advice would be for people to follow their interests, whatever they are. Not everybody will be interested in contemporary political and social issues. I don’t care what you’re interested in. You should apply yourself to the best of your ability and produce good work. Intellectuals have all sorts of interests, and I don’t think somebody who’s interested, for instance, in Medieval Studies should go away feeling bad and irrelevant. People should do the best they can; in doing so, they are contributing to the world. In terms of intellectuals in the age of crack, the fact of the matter is there’s always going to be human disaster in front of us, and people who are interested in writing poems shouldn’t feel bad because they’re writing poems. If they write good poems, they’re contributing to the beauty in the world and they shouldn’t feel bad about that. A difficulty that nags especially at black intellectuals is the feeling of being irrelevant; they are attacked by some sort of angst that prevents them from putting their hearts and souls into whatever they are interested in. So whatever you happen to be interested in, I would say: attack it to the fullest of your ability. By doing that you are fulfilling your responsibility as an intellectual.
Rivers: I think that Randy is correct. Not everyone is morally obligated to be a moral crusader or a political activist. But there’s a political dimension to the question the young lady asked about what black intellectuals should do. I was hoping that there would be a real debate tonight about how the black intelligentsia effectively coordinates its limited resources to develop programs to advance the interests of a population of people who, in many ways, are responsible for the fact that many of us got here over the last 30 years. I was putting out the question: how do we define the appropriate role for the intelligentsia? And how do we discuss that in an open and intelligent way, for the purposes of advancing the understanding of a generation of young black people who don’t get a clear sense of leadership and direction, coming from the intelligentsia?
Burnham: We’ve now had a definition, a re-definition, and a re-re-definition of the question. And now what people are looking for is some direction towards an answer.
Audience: My name is Pat Dixon, and I’m getting my doctorate in African-American studies at Temple. I did my research on black men on crack. In conducting that research I interviewed a lot of males who are addicted to crack-cocaine, and, from my experiences, I have learned that we are losing black men and women daily. It’s a real, real urgent problem, and I was interested in hearing some solutions in terms of how black people — or how educated black people — could put into place some practical structures to deal with this issue. I’d like to hear from the panel about how we can begin to deal with this issue.
Audience: My name is Joseph Richardson, I’m from MIT. We are working on the premise that DuBois stated — the idea of the “talented ten.” But we should talk more about the brave ten, because we all know that it will take a drastic change to make any difference in our community, and the people who have tried to make that change have given up everything, including their own lives. This is the question I pose to all the people who are on the panel: would you be willing to give your life? Because if you are really willing to make a change, that’s what you’re going to have to give up. It’s a simple yes/no question.
Cudjoe: This is about discourse and dialogue, it’s not about giving your life. If you want to give your life, you go to the fields and struggle. We’re trying to sound revolutionary where we ought not to be — we’re at MIT. Discussing ideas. That’s what intellectuals do, they discuss ideas. You ask if I am willing to give my life: give my life for what? I’m willing to live to try to contribute to the common store of knowledge, to help begin to understand and define ourselves. So the question is forced; it has a kind of macho and revolutionary tone, but it doesn’t make sense in this context.
Rivers: The young man who raised the question about dying was not really asking about dying; it was a deeper question about commitment. To what extent is one willing to sacrifice? That was a legitimate question. Part of the problem here is that a younger generation listens to us and says “This is dead! This bunch of lames ain’t got jack to say! We have this conversation and don’t learn jack.” So I hear a sense of urgency which is beyond macho and posturing. I’m hearing a very innocent young person asking a very deep question about how to bridge the gap between a certain kind of intellectual discourse that I’m finding increasingly less attractive and the real burdens that I see.
Austin: On the question about concrete proposals for dealing with males who are on crack or males who are dealing crack: I thought in his ten points that Gene tried to get us to go down that route, but this is just not the forum to do it in. When Gene talks about civil society, when he talks about the public sphere, when I talk about institutions, the community is the institutions; the mechanisms for dealing with young black males on crack are the institutions that black folks control. We need to talk about communities and we need to talk about institution-building. The problem is that we’ve got a layer on top of that discussion which is: “What are black intellectuals doing, or thinking about? Are they thinking about institutions, and if not, why not?” That’s our topic here tonight.
Rivers: What do we do for people who are on crack? In my case, that’s an issue about the black church and how that institution can mobilize resources — not rhetoric — to intervene on the ground. You’re from Philly? In Philadelphia, there are a number of black churches that are working on developing strategies to intervene in the lives of the black males that inhabit that area. But as Regina said, that kind of practical “let’s get something done,” “what do we do” discussion is a different discussion from the one we’re having here this evening.
Audience: What I’m asking is: what kind of institution can we build that connects black intellectuals and the community?
Rivers: We need to build new institutional contexts for having those discussions, because as it is now, the public, intellectual discourse does not necessarily incorporate what you are concerned with. After this meeting, the folk who are concerned with that have to commit ourselves to building new social spaces for those types of conversation. Because frequently in forums where you’re dealing with elite intellectuals, you’ll never get to the ground theoretically or otherwise. So we create new contexts institutionally, and we’ve got a ten point plan here for doing that.
hooks: In my work as an intellectual I don’t address institution-building. But I do address the everyday ordinariness of people’s lives, and I address addiction both as it has faced me and my family members who are crack addicts, and my interests in being helpful in their struggles. One of the things that I chose to do as an intellectual was to write a self-help book that many of you have read. It addresses addiction because, on a concrete level, crack addicts in my family all had jobs, and we have to dispel the class assumptions that all the people who are using crack and taking cocaine are people who don’t have jobs. But they also had some serious issues to deal with in their lives, and I think for me as an intellectual, the challenge that I’ve put to myself is to address those issues. Earlier today at a lecture at Harvard I said that they’re not trying to hire me at Harvard because a lot of people don’t see the work I do as intellectual, precisely because it addresses many of the needs of black people who are looking for concrete things to change their lives, particularly in the area of addiction and self-recovery. Now I happen to know how all the people who are in my family have learned to deal with their addictions, and a lot of it has been through self-help books, AA, things many intellectuals might not find very interesting. But out of that I have chosen to do a different kind of work. All I can testify to is the value of that work for me as an intellectual, and a person who is deeply concerned about black self-determination.
Audience: My name is Charlene Marsio, and I attend Harvard College. I’d like to address my question to bell hooks, because I feel that I am seeing things more your way than anyone else’s now. My question is: what actions can intellectuals take? That’s what I would like to know — why aren’t intellectuals using the resources that are available to them as the greatest thinkers of the black community to make the changes that will eventually trickle down to the crack houses? I grew up in an underprivileged area in New York, and I never heard of any of you people before. Why is that? I should know you the way I knew Dr. Seuss when I was a child. No one is asking anyone to give up your resources. God only knows, you have worked too hard and there is too much against you. You have the right to be the chair of the Afro-American studies department, you have the right to be the president of a college. But what are you doing with that to help people like me? When national issues arise, when the president chooses a cabinet, where are my black intellectuals? Why don’t I see them in the media? When I hear about W.E.B. DuBois, it is not because he was an intellectual but because he was in the civil rights movement. He was doing something. What are you people doing?
hooks: I want to say first that some black academics and intellectuals do have access to the mass media, and they have been discussed tonight in remarks about celebrity status. I would say on Cornel West’s behalf, part of why Cornel has been in the mass-media in the last year is an attempt to use that vehicle, to reach a lot of black people who are not in universities, and who do now know who Cornel West is, precisely because they saw him on some television show. That leads some people to his books and that leads some people who can’t read to talk about him to other people who do read. So I think that’s another thing that intellectuals are trying to do. A book doesn’t do anything as much as being on TV for introducing a bell hooks or a Cornel West or any other black intellectual to masses of people. So I think that you see more black intellectuals utilizing those resources than ever before. Whether that means something in the long run, we’ll have to wait to see.
Audience: My name is Patrice Ford, and I’m a sophomore at Yale University. My biggest concern is that I feel that as a people we have become very complacent. It’s almost “to each their own.” Maybe that’s ok; maybe everybody should do what they do best, and that would help us all as a people. But is there not a need for a plan, or several plans, a direction?
Burnham: That is a good question to begin to end with. We will hear final words from the panelists — other than bell, who is passing. But first I want to thank everyone who is here, and who has participated in what is an ongoing dialogue — a dialogue which will not always be satisfactory, and which will not always end where one thinks it ought to end, not always end with a feeling of resolution. But that’s what dialogue is all about.
Cudjoe: I have found the discussion profoundly enlightening; any time we can speak together with one another is very important. I will simply end by saying that in the age of crack the role of the intellectual is to do the best he or she can do, and be determined to commit one’s scholarship to one’s people in as uncompromising a fashion as one can. I’m inclined to agree with Eric Foner’s formulation that in the age of crack it is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak out forcefully and persistently in the defense of the equality of black Americans, and to challenge at every turn the prevailing ideology of racial superiority and inferiority. By sheer power of intellect, by ceaselessly telling the truth as God gives us the truth, ours must always be a voice that speaks truth to power.
Kennedy: Putting something together is very difficult; and it is especially difficult for a group of people to come together and try to thrash out a group of ideas. I’m very happy to have been a part of this particular effort; although a number of people have expressed disappointment in the meeting, I certainly don’t feel bad about it; it is a very difficult topic. I would like to congratulate and applaud the people who took time out to put this together, and I certainly hope that they won’t feel disappointed or discouraged from continuing in their efforts. So, I thank my colleagues, and I thank the audience.
Austin: I’m really sorry that we didn’t get to deal more with crack and the changes that crack has made in the community, and what intellectuals need to do to respond to those changes. That’s something that people in the audience could really have given us, and it would have been a way to make the dialogue more concrete. Other than that, it strikes me that we as intellectuals really need to stress how terribly important it is for us to analyze the problems of black people, to think critically, and then to try to respond in a way that we can share with other people. Our contributions won’t always be received well; they may not make us famous. But as long as somebody reads the stuff and gets something from it, you’ve probably done something to make the world a little bit better a place for black people. So I would urge you all to engage in intellectual activity of that sort and to try to help other intellectuals do the same thing.
Rivers: I’m very thankful for the discussion; one of the things it helps me appreciate is, as Randy said, how difficult this kind of dialogue is. Let me conclude with this: there is a program which is being developed now, which focuses on mobilizing the intelligentsia to develop a research and educational agenda around the question of what’s plaguing the black community. I encourage you to interrogate it critically, and to bring your theoretical insights and practical questions to the discussion. Thank you very much.
Originally published in the February/March 1994 issue of Boston Review