Why I Don’t Like the Black Academic Left.


When Winslow Robertson,  one of our regular and most thoughtful commenters, explained that his dislike of certain high-profile black intellectuals would require to much room to explain in comments, we offered him a chance to do so in a guest post. 

I recently was offered a chance to elaborate on my loathing of “the black academic left”, which, I am sure, is a strange position considering the overall tenor of this blog.  I was both honored and delighted at the proposition, giving me a chance to crystallize my ideas and also present them to a knowledgeable audience. 

I traffic in words, so let me shorten the black academic left to “blackademy”.  my use of the phrase “blackademy” is basically a stand-in for well known black leftist intellectuals.  I am making sweeping generalizations using a very limited sample-size, so make of that what you will.  Perhaps even more damning is that I am coming from a very anti-essentialist/pseudo-post modern position (think Kwame Anthony Appiah, who is my dude).  If that sort of stuff is not your bag then you may want to stop reading right here.

 Let me begin by stating unequivocally that, while I personally cannot stand the blackademy, this is not because they are some sort of barrier to racial progress or reconciliation.  I am not hearkening back to halcyon days when black people and white people had small misunderstandings that they were working through, until Black Studies departments started cropping up in the 1960s and made those Negroes so damn angry and screwed everything up.  To quote myself (how arrogant!) in another discussion on the Chronicle of Higher Education: “…Breitbart’s belief that Black Studies Departments hold inordinate power over the mythical, singular Black Community is insane. What, there are crowds outside of bookstores in Detroit lining up to buy the latest work by Dyson and do his bidding? Everyone in Baltimore or DC has a well-thumbed copy of Race Matters by West?… Dyson is not sitting in Georgetown coiling his mustache, stroking his cat, and telling a whole lot of black people what to do.”  Rather my own position comes from being force-fed to read and deal with many of the stars of the blackademy and not really being able to discuss my disagreements and frustrations with my peers.  In the grand scheme of things, I find the prison-industrial complex enraging, nonwhite educational inequalities unacceptable, etc, while Michael Eric Dyson is simply very annoying.  Hell I like a lot of the blackademy’s positions on gender and sexuality, so they are not all bad.

 I have a lot of salt to throw at these people, including points that would draw much of the Postbourgie readership in a massive argument (my belief in salvaging the idea of colorblind-ness being but one example… and yes, I have read a lot on it, including Bonilla-Silva’s stuff which was good, I just do not agree with it).  Instead of throwing a truckload of salt, I am going to split this piece into an attack on these people’s identities and then an attack on their conceptual methods.  I think that we all want to live in a meritocratic society that allows everyone both dignity and fulfillment, so it is the means by which the disagreement comes into play.

 What a long-ass preamble.  In any case, here is the meat:  My first complaint of the blackademy is their fixation on scholar/activism.  Not content to be “mere” professors stuck in the ivory tower, they straddle both the tower and the… untower (is that a word?) in an attempt to stay grounded in ‘the community’ (i.e. the black community).  Or so they claim.  

This is a position that I really do not buy.  The last scholar activist was freaking Walter Rodney (who quit his teaching position in Dar es Salaam because of his frustrations with the Nyere government and his desire to give back to the West Indies, who was banned by the Jamaican government for being too radical, AND was assassinated in Guyana).  I think his How Europe Underdeveloped Africa is dead wrong, but it’s a great text that really had a lot of impact on the field of African History and a lot of people still read.  On top of that, he designed the book specifically for lay people, put it on cheap paper from a cheap press for a cheap price back in 72, and you can get it free at marxists.org. I wonder if Brother Neal will let us cop New Black Man on his website for free? Or at least sell it new for less than 20 bucks so as many people as possible can read it?  

If you are working for an American university, especially an elite university, (Princeton, Georgetown, Duke), which is steeped in government money and owes their rapid expansion to the Cold War, you are a shill.  What, they are dismantling White Supremacy 20 middle-class undergrads at a time?  There are two avenues by which to change anything; mass-mobilization or state power.  While the blackademy may tag along for much larger mass-mobilizations, they will never create, lead, or inspire organizations like the NAACP, SNCC, the Nation of Islam, UNIA, etc (and those are just the famous black ones, outside of Jewish groups, womens groups, etc).  Nor will they ever get elected for anything (and before saying that politics or the state are too dirty or mired in racial politics, try stepping foot in the academy).  When they discuss Malcom and Martin as some of the only avenues for change, they seem to forget Marshall, and because I deal extensively with states and state history, I find this willful amnesia simply mind-boggling.  You either get enough people to change the state, or you join the state and change it yourself.  None of the books they have produced will ever have the resonance with Up From SlaverySoulsthe Autobiography, etc. Rather they are trafficking in feelings: making black folk feel good and white folk feel bad, while happily taking their money and living quite comfortably.  Sure they give speaking tours, volunteer, etc. but they are not willing to give up their class privilege nor do they aim for actual change, only change on their terms.  Let’s just call this “Negroes on the Porch” Syndrome (which I use to address the specific racial dynamics in play, I much prefer Crotchety Old Man on the Porch J ): they talk a lot but every afternoon they are on the same damn porch.  In order to either assuage their guilt, inflate their egos, or both they always identify as activists.  Give me a Fanny Lou or Carl B. over a 1000 Cornels.

 My second complaint, and final one for the purposes of this essay, comes from the blackademy’s mania for fixed group identity.  Race is a social construct (no big surprise) but its effects are all too real (which is again no big surprise).  Intellectually I am firmly against ideas that reify race, though when it comes to practical realities I can overlook them (affirmative action, for example).  Still, nothing makes me cringe more than when I hear appeals to the royal “We” as black folk, asian folk, whatever folk.  I have a small background in 18th and 19th century European intellectual history and the use of language in terms of appealing to racial solidarity, of a singular cultural block, is exactly the same.  We invented this, we did that, they stole it, etc.  I feel like I am reading Stirner or something.  I do not want to imply that the lived experiences of racism will magically go away if we do not see race, but I find the lack of nuance in terms of identity frightening, as well as the total inability to see the end-game of raising racial consciousness. You cannot just turn off racial solidarity, just ask white people.  While the blackademy understands issues of class and sex, I actually think they trip up when they discuss race.  While they might pay lip-service to its complexities, in practice they both reify and celebrate it. 

Of course, ending racism would stop such a need for perpetuating notions of race, which I see as a symptom of the disease of residual (or even current) White Supremecy.  Yet once again I do not think the blackademy is committed to ending racism so much as getting rich while others do it for them.  If racism is bigotry + (state) power, a variant of the standard definitions I come across, and the blackademy is neither changing bigot’s hearts and minds nor employing the tools of the state, then they are effectively useless.  And I loathe them for it.

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44 thoughts on “Why I Don’t Like the Black Academic Left.

  1. shani-o March 30, 2009 at 1:59 pm Reply

    Winslow, I gotta say, the only quibble I have is this: “Rather they are trafficking in feelings: making black folk feel good and white folk feel bad”

    I’d change it to read “making black folk feel good and white folk feel better.”

    The question that remains: is the importance of the blackademy such that it’s worth this much attention?

    • ladyfresshh March 30, 2009 at 2:38 pm Reply

      I wonder if the recent election shook up notions that the blacademy may have had (although comments by jackson and smiley gave a bit of a clue as to ‘whose ring needed to be kissed’)regarding it’s place. I’d say up until Nov they considered themselves quite important now…i’m not so sure.

    • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 2:44 pm Reply

      Ha, I specialize in writing stuff that in the end is not all that important. Allow me to quote myself 🙂

      In the grand scheme of things, I find the prison-industrial complex enraging, nonwhite educational inequalities unacceptable, etc, while Michael Eric Dyson is simply very annoying. Hell I like a lot of the blackademy’s positions on gender and sexuality, so they are not all bad.

      This was mostly my own personal polemics versus an issue that is in immediate need of change. The superstars of the blackademy are really not that important and should not derail people from focusing on actual issues.

      And PBR, yeah, that is a broader and much more difficult issue, because the rank and file black faculty basically do perform above and beyond the call of duty everyday. I think that you are right. Your thing on committees is important (because being in a university is like 50% committees) and I really agree with it. Still, I regard what much of the black faculty does as being good professors and good humans rather than activism per se, and the premium put on activism (not just by the blackademy, any CV to try and show yourself as not just another professor will drop your activist credentials) I feel kinda waters it down. I just wish all faculty got personally invested for its own sake.

      Dyson did have a hella hard life, but now he reminds me of an old Zhou Enlai Cold War joke:

      Khrushchev says to Zhou Enlai, “The difference between the Soviet Union and China is that I rose to power from the peasant class, whereas you came from the privileged Mandarin class.

      Zhou replies, “True. But there is this similarity. Each of us is a traitor to his class.”

  2. PPR_Scribe March 30, 2009 at 2:20 pm Reply

    Interesting analysis. I wonder if you are really just talking about “certain high profile” figures as the intro states, or anyone who you see as the “Black academic left”? If it is the former, then I agree with much of what you say. If the latter, then I probably do not. I understand why you have adopted the shorthand, but fear that it may cause more confusion than light.

    Rank and file Black faculty at colleges and universities are not getting rich–either through their official paychecks or the work they do in the “untower” (Love that, BTW.) They often do double and triple duty, mentoring not just Black students (and definitely not just Black middle class students) but students of a variety of “other” status. They serve on committees–beating their heads against outmoded attitudes and trying to make some difference in their service while trying to achieve the same markers of academic success as their colleagues without these burdens. They work in “the community” in ways that do not get recognized by their departments. They fight the lack of respect of their work and ideas (especially if focused on POC) in the academy and a prevailing anti-intellectualism from many in Black communities.

    Not to derail your important points–again, assuming they are about the superstars and not the rank and file. But I feel it is necessary to make clear that Dr. Dyson’s life (is very very different than the average Black scholar’s life.

  3. PPR_Scribe March 30, 2009 at 2:21 pm Reply

    The question that remains: is the importance of the blackademy such that it’s worth this much attention?

    shani-o: Yes–at least for those of us working in academia. 🙂

    • shani-o March 30, 2009 at 2:59 pm Reply

      PPR, I do work at an academic institution, and I vacillate between a strong interest and pride in our black academicians, like some of the superstars mentioned by Winslow, and a feeling that at the end of the day, there’s simply too much conversation and too little action. That’s why I ask if the superstars really matter all that much… except to draw attention away from the rank-and-file black profs who don’t get the respect/attention that they deserve (I’m of course being sensitive here, but my father is one of those). But then again, at the end of the day, most profs don’t get attention if they aren’t writing for the New York Times or doing stints on TV with Bill Maher.

      • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 11:58 pm Reply

        Shani and PBR, you guys gotta write a whole new post on this, I think you might have a better handle on this stuff than I do.

        The issue of voice is interesting in and of itself. Dyson and West get a ton of love because they are genuinely entertaining word ninjas. Dyson’s proximity to downtown DC (Gtown is kinda its own downtown I guess) was a brilliant career move, making him the de facto first-choice black academic for any news stuff. The people at Howard, Maryland, NoVA, Mason? Not so much. I mean, the academy does have a screwy way of judging people (publications in good presses, journal articles) so anyone from Princeton or Georgetown just HAS to be good, while people from less prestigious schools just HAVE to be worse. In my experience that is a bunch of crap, and there are a lot more professors who should get more shine because they too have smart things to say.

        Also PBR, I am going to maybe throw this convo a curveball by pointing out the differences between Black, West Indian, and African scholars. sometimes they go through the same stuff, but outside of the real pan-African ones, they all roll differently.

        • PPR_Scribe March 31, 2009 at 11:43 am Reply

          the differences between Black, West Indian, and African scholars. sometimes they go through the same stuff, but outside of the real pan-African ones, they all roll differently.

          YES! I wonder if it has to do with either or both of these two things: (1) how others in the academy react to them (e.g., assuming they are more brilliant or better prepared or there not being that whole slavery/Jim Crow-ish guilt thing between them), and (2) the fact that profs from each group sees her or himself as being responsible to a different constituency.

          I also think that many African scholars (perhaps ones from the islands too) are coming from a different pool than many native Black Americans. It has been my experience that most Black AMerican PhDs are first or second generation college educated, while the Africans come from a more long-standing environment of privilege. This last thing should be taken with a grain of salt as I have not really thought very long and hard about it. I’m sure if I think hard enough I could come up with a lot of examples that do not fit this mold.

          • Kwasi March 31, 2009 at 4:21 pm Reply

            Um… as someone who has family on the faculty of more than one US college, you might want to rethink that assumption a little

            • Winslowalrob April 1, 2009 at 12:59 am Reply

              Kwasi, chale, why no you am go tell us about de assumption oh?

              Ghana Black Stars in 2010!

              Sorry, could not resist…

              • kwasi April 2, 2009 at 7:58 am Reply

                lol, mentioning the Black Stars automatically makes you cool people.

                As for the assumption, I just find it puzzling that a majority of the African academics he’s aware of could have come from long standing priviledge when most of the continent was decolonized in the 60’s. Its not like the Brits, French, Portugese, etc. were doing that great a job of handing out educations and priviledge when they ran things. Going by the people I know and know of, the vast majority of African academics over 40 are first generation college students.

                You are right about the differences in focus though. The African ones tend to have more of a focus on issues affecting Africa and the Carribean ones tend to have more of a focus on the Carribean, which isn’t really that surprising when you think about it.

      • PPR_Scribe March 31, 2009 at 11:38 am Reply

        too much conversation and too little action

        Oh, I can relate! LOL And the meetings to discuss future meetings? What about dem?

  4. bitchphd March 30, 2009 at 2:32 pm Reply

    I’m not convinced by the anti-academy argument (which seems to me the foundation f the anti-blackademy argument) here, that if you’re part of the American academic system you’re a shill.

    Yes, absolutely, if you work within a system as culturally central as the American university system (esp. the big-name schools), you’re compromising with “the system” at best and totally complicit at worst. But it’s really not that simple, and you don’t have to be Malcom X or Ralph Ellison to make a difference: it’s not a zero-sum game any more than “black identity” is a singular thing. A lot of the big-name blackademy stars are household names and (pop) cultural icons as well as academics. Surely the “public” part of “public intellectual” is a legitimate form of activism, if arguably a sort of tepid one.

    • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 2:48 pm Reply

      All great points.

      The idea of the public intellectual (or if you want to get up on Gramsci an organic intellectual) is technically legit, but at this point I feel it is generally quite tepid, and that the superstars are not all that good at it.

    • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 11:23 pm Reply

      Lemme get a better post together for ya. The shilliness of being in the academy is not a zero-sum game, you are totally right (and you make me look like a big ol hypocrite ;)). Working for an American university is not wrong or bad (I argue for freaking working within the state, talk about compromise). However, when combined with the belief that a particular professor is an activist (as in being an activist is a central part of one’s identity), THEN I think that is nuts, because I view it as a sell-congratulatory gesture. You have a built-in excuse for not getting anything done (ie the system is too strong and oppressive) while at the same time making yourself feel good for not doing anything. Much of this is informed by my belief in state power and/or mass mobilization, and while there is a necessity for small-scale everyday good works, do not tell people you are an activist if you are a professor in an American University.

      Let me give you an analogy. I am a decent bboy (breakdancer). I have gotten paid ONCE to perform with my crew for a concert. I taught bboying professionally for a few months. I am not really that good, there are better people than me, and there are people who SHOULD be pro bboys and teachers over me. I will not put on my resume ‘scholar/professional bboy’ because I feel it would dishonor the people who do it for a living with little to no fanfare. If I ever become a professor (not really my cup of tea), I would make damn sure all my students would be directed to actual bboys and hip-hop heads. I would drop names all the time. I would not advertise my minimal bboying. If asked to perform I would decline for the real people, even if I was nasty. Anything less than that would be hogging unearned glory. I know I am talking about hypotheticals, but that is how I feel, and that is the corollary I see.

      • bitchphd April 2, 2009 at 4:41 pm Reply

        I hear what you’re saying. It seems like the age-old “authenticity” problem is central here: is the “activism” of the public intellectual “real” activism? Is being paid once to breakdance enough to make one “really” a professional? How broadly do we want to define things like “activism”?

        I admit that I tend to want to define things pretty broadly–that’s probably the former academic in me. 😉 But distinctions are important, for sure, and specificity of terms. I want to say that academics mostly aren’t activists in the sense of activists as ____–but then I come up blank, thinking, hmm. How *would* I define “activist”? I’m thinking it’s something about *political* change the center of their work, and not just in the talking about it sense, but in the sense of actually doing the organizing to effect legislation. But then, there’s a huge problem with that definition, too, and I can imagine a lot of people objecting to it who think of activism as being actively *opposed* to the system, rather than working within it, or as being more about awareness and cultural (as distinct from politicial) change….

        • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 5:29 pm Reply

          Yes, I think there’s some definitional problems going on here, and I think activist is too narrowly defined in this post. (Though I’m loving the post and follow-on discussion as a current PhD student!)

          Winslowalrob, I think you’re putting forth an argument that happens w/in the academy, certainly in my applied field of urban planning and in my theoretical field of sociology. For instance, the subfield of public sociology exists solely to try and bridge sociology w/real world practice and impact, in a direct challenge to the objectivist, impartial notions of science and research that are the foundations of academia. Of course, academics are not supposed to be activists – that makes their work subjective, sloppy and unseemly. (The horrors!) In urban planning, we have a long tradition of planners who deliberately used research for activism and advocacy, working directly with and in communities, and we now teach (but discourage, really) students about action research and advocacy planning. For those of us academics or scholars or intellectuals who do see ourselves first and foremost as activists (by providing research support to community-based organizations, for instance), we are discouraged in academia from owning that identity, and told to hide it if we want (respectable) jobs someday.

          Also, activism may be as simple (or tepid, to you) as challenging conventional ways of thinking. I don’t know if Bill Wilson would describe himself as an activist, but certainly The Truly Disadvantaged was a major attempt to reframe how we think about urban poverty and poor urban blacks, specifically. (That his social democratic policy recommendations were hijacked for “culture of poverty” explanations of urban and black “pathology” is another story.) I know as someone who comes from a white, Catholic, working-class background, just fitting in to the WASPY climates of elite universities feels like an act of resistance sometimes, and I feel through my work on race and class and development I’m trying to challenge enshrined assumptions about poor communities, urban neighborhoods, etc. Most faculty will educate thousands of individuals in the course of their careers, and using that class time wisely to introduce alternative worldviews can be powerful.

          Are West and Dyson more irrelevant than they are integral as public intellectuals? Perhaps. I don’t really know. I do know that Dyson can draw a crowd re: Hurricane Katrina, and so the issue is whether he’s using that time to inspire positive change about the aftermath of the storm. If so, I think that counts on a spectrum of activism. One thing you’re getting at by highlighting the big guns here is our star culture, and how it crowds out alternative views. And most of the time, that means there’s no room on the stage for women, people of color, and others who might have equally brilliant thoughts, as you mention somewhere in comments. Maybe West and Dyson are irrelevant, or their 15 min are up. Certainly I’d be satisfied if I never had to hear another thing from Bruce Katz (Brookings) on urban policy.

          • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 5:31 pm Reply

            I wrote: “For those of us academics or scholars or intellectuals who do see ourselves first and foremost as activists (by providing research support to community-based organizations, for instance),”

            I’d correct that providing research /= activism, but is rather a small example of how we self-identified activists try to plug in with campaign work, community-based work, movement-building, etc. beyond just participating as individuals.

  5. ladyfresshh March 30, 2009 at 2:42 pm Reply

    Am I wrong but it seems you are questioning these academics lack of ‘true activism’.
    Since when are academics actual activists?

    or is it you feel at this point in history the academic work that is being done, does more harm than good?

    • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 2:55 pm Reply

      Haha, good point, but there was a time when academics did serious stuff (John Hope Franklin working on Brown, for example). I might just have an arbitrary and impossible standard of activism that no modern professor can live up to in comparison to the ‘back in the day’ crowd.

      The idea of the academic work doing more harm than good is a trickier issue. If they wrote stuff that EVERYONE reads (a la Ricky Hofstadter) then I would get more into the substance of their arguments. Right now they do not have the penetration into mass-conciousness for me to get up on them. I mean, if you think I cannot stand these guys you shoulda seen my book review on Clash of Civilizations, which was HELLA influential…

      • mute March 30, 2009 at 8:54 pm Reply

        what does “serious” social justice activism look like to you now that there is no longer de jure discrimination* to work against as in the case of Brown?

        *i suppose this is arguable

        • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 9:35 pm Reply

          NAACP putting a class-action against banks for institutional discrimination (they get a little hotheaded about other stuff, but this is a big deal). The law and the state are always paramount.

          Social Justice Activism is kinda nebulous though (what is justice? what is social justice? how to define activism?). I personally feel that the way social justice activism is celebrated, especially in terms of a valiant struggle of an oppressed group speaking truth to power against evil institutions, is kinda problematic. I care about results, but I am pretty hard-edged about this and we can get into a huge-ass talk about how to change institutions.

          And yes, it is arguable *cough *cough war on drugs. I know what you are trying to say though.

        • ladyfresshh March 31, 2009 at 9:58 am Reply

          thanks mute!
          natural segway question

  6. Grump March 30, 2009 at 3:25 pm Reply

    You need a better example than Brown. It only leads me to remembering Gates supporting free speech made by Luther Campbell in a Supreme Court case. Also, you’re implying that the works of these superstars have no relevance outside of the Blackademy. When in reality, those who are not in the Blackademy may not know of the research being done IN the Blackademy. i say this in remembering that we skipped over King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail” in a philosophy class as though that work had no merit.

  7. WestIndianArchie March 30, 2009 at 4:44 pm Reply

    Could someone break down his critique for the lumpen proletariats like myself?

  8. Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 4:51 pm Reply

    Dear sweet god, talk about irony. Marc Lamont Hill is gonna speak at my school about Hip-Hop and Activism…

    Grump and Archie, I will get to you later (hopefully after vanquishing some of my work)

  9. Joanie March 30, 2009 at 8:06 pm Reply

    Though I agree with some points and disagree with others, I will say that on my first (and second and third…) readings of Cornel and Marable (blackacademic superstars), all I could think about is that their assumption of a “fized group identity” completely denied agency and respect to women. “How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America,” for example, presumes to integrate black men and women into a narrative but only has one chapter on “my sisters” which, frankly, only speaks about sex. “Prophesy Deliverance!” which could have easily included narratives on black women who have used “revolutionary christianity” (seriously, like Sojourner Truth, he didn’t have to reach that far) basically espoused the continuation of this ultra-masculine, preacher figure that West strives to fulfill every day even in his personal life.
    Anyways, I totally boiled down some good works into a simple critique, but I think it still stands…

    • Winslowalrob March 30, 2009 at 9:23 pm Reply

      Great points all, and I may have to reword my support of blackademic ideas on gender. I will say that in Marable’s defense while the double bind of race and gender should allow for a more nuanced discussion of black women in America (instead of the ‘single lesson’ a lot of stuff about women gets left with), historically black women have had close rank with the brothas to end racial discrimination first (Stanton vs Douglass debates?). Still, that is a huge generalization and you probably know better than I do about this stuff, so feel free to rip me apart. I also think the idea of ‘reaching’ is something that might be worth a critique in itself; the positioning of the blackademy so that their philosophies reach back directly to whatever great black figure they want (Douglass! Truth! Tubman! Dubois! Walker!). I remember reading Martin & Malcolm & America (which is pretty decent though the theoretical stuff is questionable) and Cone tracing Black Nationalism to slave resistance and Maroon communities versus integrationists and their centuries-long accommodation of slavery, and my mouth dropped. Talk about ahistorical romantic reachings into the past. Hey, are you a Black Nationalist? Congratulations, you and your people have been fighting racism since day one!

      Archie, I got no quarrel with the lumpenproleteriat, as defined by their distance from the means of production via wage labor and total marginalization due to industrial capitalism, though I have always questioned their potential for revolution (yeah Huey Newton thought they were rad and Fanon was down with them, with caveats, but then we would get into Marxist hair-splitting).

      Grump, I dunno, I think Brown was a pretty big deal, and I would rather have the blackademy actually argue or research cases for the Supreme Court rather than support them (I do not put Gates in the same superstar stratosphere as the others, and also he is not quite a radical). Also, Martin was not exactly a member of the blackademy, so while his Letters are a big-ass deal, I do not view their absence as a slight against blackademic production. As per your point about not being in the field to appreciate the field: that is a totally fair point, but I am talking about the big guns and THEIR knowledge production. They are big enough that everything they produce gets a lot of attention. Is this exclusive to the Blackademy? Hell no, every field has its illegit stars (I could go on and on about the big guns of African history, my boy could do the same about American history, etc). To be fair, one could take me to task for not throwing salt on the way American history is taught and the ‘textbooks’ that do not talk nearly enough about the bad stuff (slavery for example), both of which I have found to be underrated. Ultimately I do want to differentiate between the stars and the rank and file. Maybe later this can turn into a discussion about knowledge production and identity (something that PBR and Shani touch upon), and how X studies departments gotta struggle against a lot of crap and who they are ultimately writing for (Journal of Black Studies, for example).

      • Joanie March 30, 2009 at 10:05 pm Reply

        I think the idea of ‘reaching’ is a huge problem in academia regarding “oppressed communities”. Academics have finally figured out that some people have been left out of history and, in response, have tried to craft historical narratives around one big theme. “Resistance” is a big one, for example, which is not to say that people didn’t resist but, really, some people were just living. So all of these complex events of the past are thrust together with each other to create tight linear narratives that make the present-day writer/reader feel validated but negates a lot of the particularities of history. Example: Cornel West (I feel like I’m ragging on him a lot…) dresses like DuBois every damn day!
        I agree that black women have worked together with black men–it’s impossible not to, coming from a standpoint of double oppression. In fact, many black feminists have spoken to this, that sometimes it’s extra difficult to bring up feminist issues in the black community because it’s portrayed as if they were race traitors (see domestic abuse). But speaking of black male academics in particular, they have done very little to integrate women into their scholarly work or their philosophical worldview. I find Marable’s work particularly offensive because he argues so strongly against people who only make “obligatory references” to black women and then refuse to place them on equal footing with men, then proceeds to do it himself. In order to transcend this “fixed” black identity that I agree many of them keep assuming, these academics have to engage politically with issues of gender and sexuality.

        • Leigh April 2, 2009 at 5:37 pm Reply

          “But speaking of black male academics in particular, they have done very little to integrate women into their scholarly work or their philosophical worldview.”

          YES. I’d also add that you could remove the word “black” and the sentence would ring just as true, IMO.

          This is an occupational hazard due to gender inequality. Studies of science and academia show how much they are constructed in a male image: rational, impartial, objective masculine thought, vs. subjective, emotional, feminine thinking.

  10. geo March 30, 2009 at 9:37 pm Reply

    my main gripe is their lack of community involvement. they do PLENTY of talking but where are they in the community? i don’t keep tabs on Cornel or MED, but they don’t seem to work on rectifying the disparities they pontificate and make money on.

    i’ve heard the argument that “we” need black intellects to critique and dissect race relations in this country. but do we really? in this day and age, when there is a plethora of organizations working to get shit together, why should we not encourage folks to do both?

  11. blackink March 31, 2009 at 12:12 pm Reply

    Good read, winslow. I like this.

    I’m sort of out of my depth here – in fact, I know I am – but I’m sorta with ladyfressh on this one: why is there a need for academics to be activists? Just talking, trading their own slanguage, kicking around ideas, are part of the gig, no? Then again, I’m not familiar enough with the blackademy to know whether they’re truly trying to straddle the tower and untower.

    Like a lot of things, I feel there’s an undue amount of pressure on black professionals to be socially and politically engaged. For sure, I feel that pressure for myself on a certain level.

    But that doesn’t mean that Cornel or Tavis or Chris Rock or Lovie Smith explicitly feel the same way. Maybe they just want to punch in, collect a paycheck, talk a little jazz and watch reality tee-vee on the weekends. Is that OK? Or do you feel they’re selling their mission as more than that (that might be an obvious question, I know)?

    • Ron March 31, 2009 at 3:05 pm Reply

      I don’t really expect them to be advocates, but I do expect them to be advocates for facilitating a broad, multifacted discussion of what it means to black now. Not a singular, moderated discussion, but something else.

      I’m not fond of the idea that all black public figures need to lead the charge, but…in the case of these particular folks, they PUT themselves in this spot of being the defacto talking pieces of the “black community.”

      I’m sure it’s just in the tradition of DuBois and King that they do this, but…that’s not really my problem. I feel like what they do isn’t nearly as impactful as it could be and a bit disingenuous.

      That said, if nothing else, they’ve created a platform for something to exist in the future of higher ed vis a vis “the” rockstar black professor of Ivy, that probably will open a door for people to shape it into something more far-reaching going forward.

      I dunno. Great post though.

    • Winslowalrob March 31, 2009 at 3:24 pm Reply

      ink, punching a clock is perfectly fine, i am not arguing that they SHOULD be activists, but i think they are overselling their mission, as you put it. i would much prefer that black professionals had the choice of doing what they want, rather than always having to contribute to ‘the struggle’ (which also lets a lot of people off the hook).

  12. Big Word April 1, 2009 at 11:45 am Reply

    I’m a big Dyson fan. I think Winslowalrob should pick up his book Debating Race with Micheal Eric Dyson. There’s a great chapter with Dyson arguing with Jesse Jackson about the academic versus activist divide that existed/exists especially in the civil rights movement. What I find a little ironic and even funny is that Jesse and Rob are basically arguing the same point. I happen to agree with both sides. I basically see it as cooperative effort.

  13. young_ April 1, 2009 at 12:59 pm Reply

    I’m also a pretty big critic of many “blackademics” (superstars and non-superstars) but probably for very different reasons. My main criticism is not with their performance as activists or advocates but with their underperformance as actual academics. Several of the superstars referred to in this post and the comments have long since stopped doing original research (or even original thought, in some cases). They’ve stopped doing actual scholarship! Instead, having attained their elite positions, they simply build careers pushing off their opinions and ideologies as objective truth or THE black perspective (this has also been a serious problem with some critical race theorists in legal academia). A lot of them still push post-civil rights/Reagan-era racial defensiveness ideologies that almost nobody outside of their circles embrace anymore. They form Af-Am studies departments with coteries of like-minded individuals and reward students who embrace their perspectives. The end result though is that instead of promulgating their ideologies, I think they probably end up causing a backlash and pushing more young black people toward the moderate/conservative end of the spectrum.

    I don’t agree with criticizing them for being “shills” or inadequate activists though– simply put, it’s not part of the job description and not part of their skill sets. Let someone else do it better. And lets not romanticize all the professors who helped out with the NAACP efforts back in the day– social scientists are called into help on civil rights ligitation all the time these days, the cases just aren’t as high profile, and the blackademia superstars don’t have the academic skills to serve as expert witnesses in these cases. (the standards are far more demanding now– Kenneth Clarke’s doll studies would be laughed out of court these days).

    Anyway, just my rambling two cents– I enjoyed your thought-provoking analysis.

  14. Chauncey DeVega April 1, 2009 at 3:17 pm Reply

    This is a welcome and wonderful conversation. I think there are a number of dynamics at work and qualifiers to be made. First, Dyson and Cornel are not typical scholars/academics in any regard. Why? because of how high profile they are, the way that they have been able to perform black intellectual life and black punditry (see Adolph Reed Jr.’s great piece a few years back in the Village Voice), and how for better or for worse they are the flag bearers for black academia. One other point on how they are distinct: how many academics of any sort, stripe, color, or affiliation will command 15-30 grand a speech? They, to their credit, really are to quote Jay Z, not business men, they are a business man.

    Now, on their scholarship, I will be provocative, hasn’t Cornel earned his rest and peace? If he wants to make some crappy cd’s after the serious work he did at the beginning of his career why not? Dyson in my humble point of view is another matter. He is good people and really generous to younger scholars, but how can one write a meaningful and significant work every 2 to 3 months? Sorry, I just don’t see it. But then again maybe I am unproductive and lazy by comparison.

    Black punditry is where it is at for some of us. I won’t lie, I am eager to get a few more minutes on NPR or be the occasional “Black” expert on the evening news, or the hot item on the black lecture circuit. Now, the challenge is to continue to do good work, and to be honest and “own” one’s desire for more attention, and the money that it may bring.

    In short, I think there is a temptation to hate when most of us will never have the salaries, exposure, or resources that Dyson or Cornel command. This tendency is amplified when the Black talking heads who are rolled out for their privileged insight on the ways of the tribe are doing subpar work that incites me/us/you to scream at the tv and shake our heads in disbelief over how these negroes have “earned” the title of expert on all things black.

    Chauncey DeVega

    • Winslowalrob April 1, 2009 at 7:48 pm Reply

      Hey hey Chauncey, thanks for bringing some of that respectibility over here (puns = the lowest form of humor). Cornel is a tricky case, because for the past two decades all of his output has been co-authored (which could mean anything from he wrote the whole thing himself and gave a young cat some shine, to a young cat wrote it and he just slapped his name on it). His CD was terrible (subjective), I mean I do not expect Illmatic or anything, but at least make it better than K.O.B.E. Dyson, I agree, throws out too much stuff for me to really trust him (and Big Word I was not a fan of Debating Race :().

      In the end, outside of the cottage industry of building up black academics to superstardom, I am making a bigger deal out of this than I should. I still ultimately question the ultimate project of having the black expert who only talks about black issues (they tackle more than that, but nobody is going to throw them on a segment on the possibilities of a nuclear Iran, for example). Part of the system that they ultimately perpetuate is the idea of authentic racial speakers, so that as long as a black dude (or, more rarely, chick) says it about black people, its all gravy. So then if I want to talk about race I can just line up my army of Negro pundits against your army of Negro pundits and nothing gets done. I mean we gotta balance the need to validate people’s experiences versus celebrating their authenticity versus their own individuality, and I do not get the sense that the blackademy is really up to the task.

      • thinking of a name April 2, 2009 at 9:12 am Reply

        Can I bring this very interesting academic discussion down to a lay woman’s perspective that has very little knowledge of the “blackademy” and who is outside of your fields of expertise? To winslowalrob’s point about having a black expert speaking about all things black. I remember right after Attorney General Eric Holder spoke about race and race relations in February there was a discussion and following debate about it on some news show. The two people that they had debate the issue of race and specifically the quote “a nation of cowards” was Eric Dyson and Pat Buchanan.

        There were several things that dawned on me after watching the “debate”. First, clearly Eric Dyson was the equivalent of Pat Buchanan to what ever powers put together this debate, which I find very interesting. Second, the producers of this segment took something that is very complex, such as a specific person’s encounters with race and racism, and tried to over simplify and generalize it into something that would fit into a collective black experience. Third, where Buchanan came armed with statistics about black on black crime, single parent homes, and incarceration rates Dyson came with rhetoric.

        I believe doing these superficial five minute “debates” does more harm than good because in my mind the only thing that Dyson was able to accomplish was to strengthen this “us against them” thought process and be used as a means of reinforcing those that think that black people are ungrateful for saying things like “a nation of cowards” because he did not back up one word of what he said with an experience, a study, a book, some research … nothing. In my opinion, he allowed himself to get played and did nothing to carry forth the cause that he champions. I know for a fact that he did not represent me or my experiences.

    • Winslowalrob April 2, 2009 at 12:13 am Reply

      That may have been the most poorly edited thing I have ever written 😦

      And did you try to defend afrocentrism up on Coates blog? talk about another long post!

    • the black scientist April 2, 2009 at 12:13 pm Reply

      “He is good people and really generous to younger scholars, but how can one write a meaningful and significant work every 2 to 3 months? Sorry, I just don’t see it.”

      I think there is something to be said about academics who put out a lot of work. bell hooks is an example that easily comes to mind of someone who produces a large volume of work that is accessible not only by way of numbers but also in language (lack of jargon).

  15. Chauncey DeVega April 2, 2009 at 10:41 am Reply


    I didn’t defend Afrocentrism per se, I just reminisced about the good old days of going to the Black Think Tank meetings in Philly and Cincinnati. That post was one of Ta’s best as of late.

    Hat tip to you as well on this drop.

    Good work.


  16. the black scientist April 2, 2009 at 12:37 pm Reply

    interesting post, thanks very much for putting this out there. it’s certainly worth discussing, i think.

    While I greatly appreciate your arguments, I have to say, I don’t know if I agree. I’m not passionately in favor of West or Dyson, to name perhaps the most popular blackademics, but I don’t see the point in being mad at them altogether. On an individual basis, I think they both deserve their critical engagement but in general I think they’re putting out a body of work on ‘black’ life that, while not perhaps the most progressive, is at least useful. The problem may lie in the fact that they are falsely taken to ‘represent’ an entire people — that they are THE voice of blackness. they should instead be seen as individuals, with respective images, working within the multiple discourses of race, sex, etc.

    That being said, the main issue I have with your piece is the ending. And please correct me if I’ve mistaken your point, but it seems as though you are saying that by studying and producing work on “we black folk” (as a racial group) the blackademy is thereby reifying “race” which is a social construct. You mentioned earlier your advocacy for colorblindess, and the second to last paragraph in particular seems to echo fantasies of post-race. While race is — as you pointed out — a social construct, it is also a discursive construct/tool. And so, in my opinion, there is no point in attacking the discourse around the culture. I’m with you that the discussion of a monolithic “black community” and the limitations of identity (politics) are problematic (“fixed group identity”), but i consider discussing black folk, asian folk, poor folk, and so on, useful, at least for the purpose of meaningful discourse.

  17. young_ April 2, 2009 at 5:44 pm Reply

    Yeah, but I think it’s really the media itself that creates these various “race stars” who they can turn to and roll out whenever they need an expert on black people or a black voice on a black issue. It’s easier for them than trying to figure out which scholars are really the most qualified to opine on a given topic or to figure out who has the most interesting perspectives on things. It’s true with academics and non-academics alike. A lot of people are quick to cast aspersions on Jesse and Al, but they only remain race stars so long as the media keeps coming back to them for quotes and reactions. I worry that it’s already becoming the case with Roland Fryer even, although in his defense, he at least does actual scholarship (even if he just doesn’t know that much about race and racial inequality…)

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