Books: The Reith police dismisses us

Kenan Malik weighs up the burden of conscience on black thinkers
Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life by William M Banks, W W Norton, pounds 22

Next week Patricia Williams begins her BBC Reith Lectures on racism. The black Harvard law professor was shocked not just by the hostility she encountered in this country, but by the crudity of the arguments against her. The Daily Mail asked why "a militant, black, unmarried feminist should be allowed to whinge on about white racism from such a prestigious platform". On Radio 4's Start The Week, Melvyn Bragg marvelled at the effrontery of an American lecturing us about race, given the presence in Britain of such positive role models as Ian Wright and Trevor MacDonald. It seems that black American academics (especially unmarried feminist ones) are only welcome here if they know their place.

It is an attitude familiar to most black American thinkers. Racism has not just limited the issues that black intellectuals could discuss, and the ways in which they could discuss them, but it has also narrowed white Americans' views of African American works. As William Banks observes, black writers' works "are viewed as representing `the black experience' rather than the human experience". The result is the creation of an intellectual ghetto, less visible than the urban segregation which disfigures every major American city, but a place that can equally sap the spirit.

At the same time, being black has placed on African American intellectuals an obligation to show, in Banks's words, a "sense of social responsibility to the community". Both white and black audiences have expected of black intellectuals that they articulate the hopes, fears and needs of African Americans, in order to act as the voice and conscience of the community.

As Alain Locke, critic and agent for aspiring artists of the Harlem Renaissance, put it, "Negro writers must become truer sons of the people, more loyal providers of spiritual bread and less aesthetic wastrels and truants of the streets".

Black Intellectuals is a history of how these two constraints of racism and responsibility have helped shape African American intellectual life. Banks takes us from the days of slavery, through Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance, the Civil rights era, to the disillusionment and despair that pervades today's black intellectual milieu. His thesis is that while racism has limited horizons, a sense of social responsibility has been essential to maintaining the tradition's vitality, because only through engagement in the struggle for equality can the black intellectual find his or her true voice.

But, argues Banks, as institutional barriers to middle-class advancement have declined, so black intellectuals have disengaged from the struggle for rights, preferring to see themselves simply as American individuals. Before the 1960s, the sheer extent of racism forced intellectuals into an organic relationship with the black community. The gains of the civil rights era, however, have opened up new opportunities for black intellectuals, distant from the lives and struggles of ordinary African Americans. Worried about the growing influence of black conservatives like Thomas Sowell, Banks gives a sympathetic hearing to Cornel West's call for a return to an "organic catalytic black intellectual".

This is not a new argument. Harold Cruse's seminal 1968 book The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual chastised black intellectuals for failing to fashion a way of thinking and acting that fused ethnic sentiment and the individualism of American life. He demanded that black intellectuals root their work within a specific African American tradition and aesthetics. Banks places Black Intellectuals in the tradition of Cruse's book, but compared to The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual his work seems to lack coherence and verve. This is as much the result of their different contexts as of the works themselves.

The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was published at the height of the Black Power era. The struggle on the streets gave meaning to Cruse's call for social engagement. That struggle has long since ebbed, and Black Intellectuals is in many ways an attempt to come to terms with its demise. What does social engagement mean today? Why do liberals like West seem as remote from the concerns of ordinary African Americans as conservatives like Sowell? Banks does not examine these questions. Yet they seem pertinent when the only philosophy that attracts a mass following among African Americans is the conservative politics of self-help expressed by the reactionary nationalist Louis Farrakhan.

Other issues remain unexplored. Does social commitment always mean commitment to the black community? Banks seems to believe that it self-evidently does. But in the past, figures such as Richard Wright, E Franklin Frazier and Claude McKay appealed to class interests rather than to racial features. Again, Banks suggests that the rise of the "unattached" black intellectual is accompanied by a "movement away from particularist interests" towards more "universalistic ideals". But why should social commitment equal particularism? And does not Banks' espousal of "particularist interests" sit uneasily with his complaint that the more universal themes in the black tradition remain ignored?

There is little discussion here of the relationship between intellectual trends in the black community and wider social and political developments. The Cold War - probably the single most important factor in shaping the contours of post-war America - barely figures in Banks' account. He fails to locate the fragmentation of black intellectuals now within the wider trends of the post-Cold War world. Such a narrow vision reflects trends in African American thought, but does little to help resolve the problems that Banks himself highlights. It seems a pity that neither America's leading black intellectuals, nor their critics on either side of the Atlantic, can engage in the kind of discussion that might lead to useful answers.