The_Dilemma_of_the_Black_Intellectual.pdf - Cornel West,...

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Cornel West, “The Dilemma of the Black Intellectual,”Critical Quarterly29 (4) (1987), 39-52.The peculiarities of the American social structure, and the position of the intellectual class within it, makethe functional role of the Negro intellectual a special one. The Negro intellectual must deal intimatelywith the white power structure and cultural apparatus, and the inner realities of the black world at oneand the same time. But in order to function successfully in this role, he has to be acutely aware of thenature of the American social dynamic and how it monitors the ingredients of class stratifications inAmerican society. Therefore the functional role of the Negro intellectual demands that he cannot beabsolutely separated from either the black or white world.Harold Cruse,The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual(1967)The contemporary black intellectual faces a grim predicament. Caught between an insolentAmerican society and an insouciant black community, the African American who takes seriously thelife of the mind inhabits an isolated and insulated world. This condition has little to do with themotives and intentions of black intellectuals; rather it is an objective situation created bycircumstances not of their own choosing. In this meditative essay, I will explore this dilemma of theblack intellectual and suggest various ways of understanding and transforming it.On Becoming a Black IntellectualThe choice of becoming a black intellectual is an act of self-imposed marginality; it assures aperipheral status in and to the black community. The quest for literacy indeed is a fundamentaltheme in African-American history and a basic impulse in the black community. But for blacks, aswith most Americans, the uses for literacy are usually perceived to be for more substantive pecuniarybenefits than those of a writer, artist, teacher, or professor. The reasons some black people choose tobecome serious intellectuals are diverse. But in most cases these reasons can be traced back to acommon root: a conversion-like experience with a highly influential teacher or peer that convincedone to dedicate one's life to the activities of reading, writing, and conversing for the purposes of
individual pleasure, personal worth, and political enhancement of black (and often otheroppressed)people.The way in which one becomes a black intellectual is highly problematic. This is so becausethe traditional roads others travel to become intellectuals in American society have only recentlybeen opened to black people—and remain quite difficult. The main avenues are the academy or theliterate subcultures of art, culture, and politics. Prior to the acceptance of black undergraduatestudents to elite white universities and colleges in the late sixties, select black educational institutionsserved as the initial stimulus for potential black intellectuals. And in all honesty, there were relativelymore and better black intellectuals then than now. After a decent grounding in a black college,

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