Rutledge M. Dennis, Editor. Research in Race and Ethnic Relations Volume 10: The Black Intellectuals. Greenwich Connecticut: JAI Press, 1997 (195 pp.). npl.

“The public intellectual is back,” proclaimed the cover story of an American magazine several years ago, and “this time they are black!” The Atlantic cover story was, of course, a sensationalised reference to the continuing debate over Russell Jacoby’s argument in The Last Intellectuals (1987) that general writers and essayists such as Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling who dominated American intellectual life earlier this century have been replaced by the technical experts and specialized scholars who thrive in modern universities and write only to themselves. The public intellectuals Jacoby wrote about were dominated by male New York Jewish intellectuals from City College whose ideas had been shaped by the experience of the Depression, the Cold War and an engagement with Marxism. Today's black public intellectuals, in contrast, come from all over the United States, were shaped by the black liberation struggle from the late 1960s till the Reagan backlash, include prominent feminist voices, and are reshaping American intellectual and cultural life. Simplistic argument, but the general topic of the black intellectuals is indeed a fascinating and important area for scholarly research in the sociology of knowledge and intellectuals.

The special issue on “The Black Intellectuals” in Research on Race and Ethnic Relations thus deals with important issues, but ultimately the volume is disappointing. There are essays in the special issue on W.E.B. Du Bois, Oliver Cox, C.L.R. James, Cornel West and James Baldwin, several general pieces on the sociology of black intellectuals, and an article on political scientists in Nigeria. The volume is worth a quick read-through, but for the most part the pieces only skim the surface of provocative sociological topics.

The general questions raised by the relative neglect of Du Bois, Cox and James within contemporary sociological canons are important. But the pieces by Rutledge M. Dennis, Doris Wilkinson and Stefano Harney on these brilliant black intellectuals do not add anything to the rich biographical and theoretical literature available. Nor do these pieces sharply frame the question of the social construction of intellectual reputations in ways that would add something to the emerging literature on the sociology of academic reputations and the social formation of canons. I have long been convinced that Du Bois should be included prominently in the history of American sociology, and John Stanfield’s essay “Black Radical Sociological Thinking” makes a good case for his canonization and contemporary relevance. But this volume adds little to our knowledge of Du Bois, tends to be uncritical of Du Bois’s political biases and the communism of his later years and exaggerates the conservative nature of modern American sociology. Similarly, I learned little new about Cox or James here, even though there is much to be written about them, particularly with reference to the neglect of Cox’s contributions to sociological theory and the comparative study of the political economy of race.

The biggest disappointment in the volume was Earnest N. Bracey’s “Pragmatism and Radicalism in the Social Thought of Cornel West.” West would make a fascinating study in the sociology of intellectuals. West’s social criticism is insightful and controversial. He is a famous public theorist, activist thinker, and celebrity intellectual whose work crosses numerous boundaries and is read by varied audiences. Thus, his reception raises numerous sociological issues. In addition, he has interesting things to say about Marxism, pragmatism, post-modernism, theology, popular culture and socialist strategy in America. Yet Bracey’s piece is far too uncritical, to the point of being uninteresting. West, in my view, is the most important American radical intellectual since Michael Harrington, and deserves serious engagement, not boosterism. In addition, Bracey largely ignores the numerous interesting sociological questions raised by West’s rapid rise to academic stardom, his relationship to various intellectual movements and the dynamics of interdisciplinary work.

Some of these questions are addressed in other articles in this volume. Alford A. Young, in particular, cuts to some central issues in the sociology of intellectuals in his “Political Engagement and African American Scholars in the Age of African American Intellectual Celebrity.” Edward Royce’s Humanity and Society piece argued several years ago that Jacoby’s Last Intellectuals romanticized nationally famous stars at the expense of looking at the many foot soldiers who are public intellectuals at the local level in universities and colleges throughout North America and who are specialists not generalists. Young makes the same point, pointing to the dangers of how a market-driven celebrity culture can undermine black cultural life just as surely as it can corrode standards in music, education or literature. Yet Young’s piece is only suggestive, for he does not seriously engage literature in the sociology of culture that would help illuminate his point or refine his typologies. Young’s argument, moreover, is built around three thin case studies of locally based, politically committed black academics.

More could be said of the weaknesses of this volume, as well as what one can get from it. The issue of black feminism is undeveloped. The proof-reading is weak and generally the writing is uninspired. W. Avon Drake does have some interesting things to say about the American affirmative action debates as well as the work of William Julius Wilson.

Essentially, however, I would recommend only a quick look at this volume by scholars in the field or by graduate students looking for research ideas. There are exciting possibilities for research on this topic, but I myself would not spend too much time with this volume. Better to start with Jerry Watts’ excellent Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life (1994), work one’s way through his bibliography and engage directly the new literature on intellectual reputations and the sociology of cultural production as well as classics in the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of sociology. This volume is too narrowly framed for undergraduates and too basic for graduate students. Scholars in the field of the sociology of intellectuals will be disappointed at its unfulfilled promise.

Neil McLaughlin
Sociology, McMaster University

November 1998
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