Sunday, February 3, 2013

Were the 1990s a Golden Age for (some) Black Public Intellectuals?

In March 1995, The Atlantic Monthly ran a feature story "The New Intellectuals" by Robert Boynton highlighting black public intellectuals. The Atlantic article generated an expansive conversation about African American scholars, their popularity, their relationships to black communities, their strengths and shortcomings, and their places in the academy and American culture. Boynton's article and others documented and in some ways helped prompt what in retrospect looks like something of a golden age for black public intellectuals, especially between the late 1980s through the late 1990s. Consequently, that was about the time of the Golden Age of Hip Hop.  

Michael Eric Dyson, bell hooks, Cornel West, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., among others, became popular speakers capable of drawing large crowds and considerable interest when they spoke on college campuses and at conferences and other gatherings. The writings of those scholars as well as works by William Julius Wilson, Toni Morrison, Derrick Bell, Robin D. G. Kelley, and Tricia Rose were widely cited and discussed during the time period.  Arnold Rampersad's two-volume biography of Langston Hughes and David Levering Lewis's first-volume biography of W.E.B. DuBois were viewed as exemplars of the superb literary, biographical work being undertaken by black scholars at the time.   

Several scholars  received considerable institutional support and prestigious awards during the era. For instance, Rampersad, Lewis, and Stanley Crouch received MacArthur Foundation Fellowships. Morrison became recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993. Several professors were hired at leading universities; most notably, Gates began directing the African American Studies department at Harvard University where he received the necessary financial support to assemble a "dream team" of highly accomplished scholars. 

The high levels of coverage and interest in "black intellectuals" as prominent cultural figures, not simply their works, were unusual and expansive, especially in comparison to the attention or lack thereof granted to black intellectuals during the 1970s and 1980s and the first decade of the 21st century. Modern-day and "new" black scholars have produced thoughtful, groundbreaking works, as I suspect their counterparts during the 1970s and 1980s did. However, notwithstanding a few exceptions, black scholars of that previous time period as well as those during the contemporary era have not garnered as much concentrated media attention, institutional support, and popular interest in the very category "black intellectuals" like that apparent golden age during the 1990s.

Popular Publications by Black Public Intellectuals, 1981 - 1999
Black Intellectual Histories
A Timeline on Black Public Intellectuals, 1981 - 1994

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