Friday, April 13, 2012

Why the late 1990s Coverage of Black Public Intellectuals Still Matters

A series of events took place during the late 1990s that gave black public intellectuals unprecedented attention. For one, there was the publication of Cornel West's Race Matters (1994) and the subsequent conversations and publicity for the book.  In addition, a March 1995 article in The Atlantic entitled "The New Intellectuals" by Robert Boynton focused on the rising popularity on public stages of figures such as West, Toni Morrison, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., bell hooks, Michael Eric Dyson, and several others. Boynton's article helped prompt extensive coverage (and speaking gigs) for a generation of writers and scholars often labeled as "black public intellectuals."

Scholarly journals and popular periodicals devoted extensive attention to these scholars who demonstrated specialties discussing "race," or better yet African American culture. Universities, national organizations, and other groups invited more and more black public intellectuals as keynote speakers on campuses. As a result, the value of black public intellectuals, leading ones at least, increased in notable ways--their salaries, their speaking fees, their access to book deals, their visibility, etc.

Looking back on the Black Thought 2.0 conference at Duke, I couldn't help but think about that rise of public intellectuals during the late 1990s. Many of the speakers at the conference would have been in undergrad, graduate school, or the early stages of their careers when leading black public intellectuals were gaining wide appeal. Although a number of speakers at Black Thought 2.0 distanced themselves from the idea of black public intellectuals, there's no question that their careers--our careers--have been shaped in notable ways by figures like bell hooks, Gates, Dyson, Gates, and others and the distinct kind of attention that they received during the late 1990s.

As soon as black public intellectuals began receiving widespread attention over a decade ago, there was push-back and critiques. The critiques challenged the idea that the most esteemed spokespeople on black people and culture were at primarily white and elite universities. Some deemed the public intellectuals as merely celebrity intellectuals. There was--rightly and wrongly--resentment.

Eventually, the widespread coverage of black public intellectuals declined, although several of the figures who received initial coverage have remained popular as guest commentators and keynote speakers at events. But I imagine that there are likely some hurt feelings or at least some disappointment among a generation of black scholars as well as scholars of other ethnic groups who assumed that there would be more and continued access to the broader public(s). It is, by the way, easy but at the same time unfair to ridicule the hurt and disappointed feelings of potential and aspiring public intellectuals.     

Whatever the case, to appreciate some of the interests of scholars who were beginning to come of age a little over a decade ago and to understand some reasons large numbers of scholars are so committed to the "followings" and audiences available on social media sites like twitter, we can benefit by looking back to the rise of "the new intellectuals" of the late 1990s. 

Notes on Black Thought 2.0
A Notebook on Black Intellectual Histories  

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