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An Identity of Their Own : For the First Time, a Generation of Black Scholars is Defining What It Means to be an American, and They Are Asking Provocative Questions About Class, Gender and Race In the Post-Civil Rights Era.

April 09, 1995|Sam Fulwood III | Sam Fulwood III is a staff writer in The Times' Washington bureau. His memoir, "Blue Chip Black," will be published by Doubleday/Anchor later this year

"And this Third Renaissance has to do with a body of literature that is heavily laced with black self-criticism, which is what white people are wanting to hear more and more nowadays to convince themselves they need not do anything more for black people. These new black intellectuals are helping that, saying that black folks in one form or fashion have shortcomings that need to be corrected by black people, not by (white) society at large. What you are defining is a renaissance contingent on what white America is paying attention to."

Scott's point is fair criticism. From the Harlem Renaissance to the civil rights movement to the current Renaissance, the attitudes of whites--their disinterest or muted amusement or celebration--have always presented a dilemma for black intellectuals. If they get too close to the white mainstream, they risk losing "legitimacy" among black folks. If they move too far away, they risk being marginalized by the society at large.

Michele Wallace would go further, arguing that this country's insatiable craving for celebrities distorts the work of black intellectuals, while at the same time playing to stereotypical views of black extremism. "Because black intellectuals and cultural producers have so little control over the designation of their heroes and 'role models,' " she has written, "invariably our representatives are chosen not on the basis of their intelligence or depth but rather on the basis of how much controversy they can stir up. The Clarence Thomases, the Farrakhans . . . the Al Sharptons . . . . If, however, you are black and avoid celebrity, you will certainly be invisible."

Wallace, whose mother is the artist Faith Ringgold, knows more than a little about the fleeting influence of fame. In 1979, she published "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman," a feminist manifesto that brought her attention that she now feels was unwarranted. "I was young and stupid when I wrote that," she says now. "It's not so much that what I wrote was wrong or that I want to disassociate myself from it now, but too many people used that book to say it spoke for all black people. In black intellectual life, fame and celebrity are more important than anything else to the dominant culture, which chooses and selects by whom it feels is famous. That is the great danger of black intellectual life."

To evaluate the truth of that statement, ponder that the U.S. Census Bureau tallies 22,385 black physicians; yet it is from the ranks of the 8,080 professional black athletes that a fraction are held out as role models for black people across the land. "Only in the strangely parasitic black world spawned by the white dominant culture would a retired football star who was a sports commentator be a viable candidate for heroism," Wallace writes. "Thoughtful black people are so unexpected, frequently their ability to make a living is seriously challenged. They are considered anachronistic in a black world in which tabloid coverage in the daily newspapers, TV newsmagazines and Vanity Fair broadcasts either our fame and celebrity or our abject monstrosity."

Of course, she was writing about O.J. Simpson.

But the fact of the matter is that Wallace--a black woman--was writing about a subject of intense curiosity in the hope of reaching a national audience. In an earlier generation, that might not have been the case and surely would not have been so two generations ago. If the collective intellectual history of black Americans down the ages had been monitored by an electroencephalograph, the spikes might correspond to the periods of white people's attention. But the overlooked base line would record the steady, strong pulse of the body's resistance to oppression--a testament to African Americans' vitality. That white people are now paying attention is not a sign of trouble; it is instead an indication of progress.

The current generation of black intellectuals will not be invisible--though not always celebrated--because they are defining this time and place in America and carrying into the future the legacy of Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass, W. E. B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston, Fannie Lou Hamer and Martin Luther King Jr., James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison, Angela Davis and Malcolm X. The people of this nation--regardless of race, class or gender--are actually the beneficiary of these intellectuals' wares, and nearly every middle-class household has a share in the Third Black Intellectual Renaissance whether it knows it or not. So, imagine these people as cultural traders caravaning from veld and jungle, urban center and rural outpost, stopping in public spaces like talk radio and black bookstores and, of course, white-run publishing houses, to disgorge their ideas and opinions. At every stop they boldly affirm themselves and their claim on America.

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