When groups of black scholars gather to discuss, let's say the purpose or future of African American studies as was the case at the Black Thought 2.0 conference organized by Mark Anthony Neal, we often witness the ghost of Harold Cruse's Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (1967) emerges. Cruse's book was a key and hotly debated work focusing on the histories and implications of artists, or "creative intellectuals," including Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Paul Robeson, and a range of several other artists.
Cruse addressed how literary artists, activists, and active thinker (the idea of "black scholars" was at least two decades away from becoming known as it is today) struggled on political and cultural fronts. Cruse highlighted the pitfalls of integration as well as the "cultural mainstream" described as "an empty street, full of bright lights that try to glamorize the cultural wreckage and flotsam of our times" (456). Cruse also devoted an entire chapter to "the role of the Negro Intellectual," a focus which continues to haunt conversations about the implications of black intellectuals--public and otherwise even today.
It's worth noting that during the late 1960s and 1970s, black poets and other literary artists were key figures in discussions about the roles of (black) creative intellectuals. However, several factors, including the rise of rap artists, the increased presence of African American scholars in universities, the migration of poets from black studies to MFA programs, and the decline of militant black literary journals, led to a more pronounced separation between creative artists and academic intellectuals.
I have had less access to conversations with poets discussing their "roles." However, my journeys as a literature teacher, director of black studies, member of the Modern Language Association and College Language Association, and watchful observer of journals in my fields have allowed me to participate in and observe all kinds of conversations about who we are "as black intellectuals," what our roles are within and beyond the academy, and the ever-important issue of our relationship to "the [black] community." We are forever haunted (and sometimes cursed) by Cruse's Crisis.
There was much discussion "our roles," "public intellectuals," and "the community" at Black Thought 2.0. In the opening keynote, S. Craig Watkins had even mentioned Cruse and his work by name. That was fitting since the presence of that Crisis ghost hovered throughout the gathering on in the panel conversations and on the twitter screen.
Notes on Black Thought 2.0
A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories