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American Literary History 17.3 (2005) 621-642
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Segregation Nostalgia and Black Authenticity
Wilson J. Moses
"The politics of conversion shuns the limelight—a limelight that solicits status seekers and ingratiates egomaniacs" (20). Thus spake Cornel West, one of the foremost African-American public intellectuals, who, a few seasons ago, reminiscent of Ann Hutchinson and Roger Williams, departed the stultifying environs of Massachusetts and embarked on a symbolic errand into the wilderness of Princeton, New Jersey. If there is a black intellectual tradition, the author of these words has identified one of its essential features. Authentic leadership is vernacular; it "stays on the ground among the toiling everyday people," the unpretentious folk, "humble freedom fighters—both followers and leaders" (20). Let us not forget those prophetic leaders, engaged in colloquial discourses with "everyday people," whom one encounters, no doubt, in peregrinations from Princeton to Harvard and back again.
Organic intellectuals do, in all fairness, occasionally carry their evangelical revivals to such frontiers of civilization as Morehouse College or Wayne State University, although they seldom stay overnight. It would break their hearts to be relegated to hardship posts like Michigan's Highland Park Community College or to the institution formerly known as Rhode Island Junior College (RIJC), which uncouth snobs pronounced "reject." The rootsiness of public intellectuals is frequently observed in televised forums, where oversized panels nod vigorously in confirmation of one another's sermons on the necessity of "giving back to the community." In theory, the black intellectual tradition is valid only insofar as it arises organically from the folk. In order to be legitimate, it must be popular. If it is genuine, it must be grassroots. If it is authoritative, it must be vernacular; if justifiable, plebeian; if sound, democratic; if convincing, communal; if binding, proletarian; if valid, colloquial.
Since their beginnings in the late 1700s, African-American bourgeois institutions have engaged in frenzies of self-deprecation, periodically announcing "crises" in black intellectual leadership. A [End Page 621] significant milestone of this tradition was reached in 1967, when Harold Cruse published The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual. This crisis was somewhat different from its predecessors, however, because it arose from the unintended consequences of integration, and Cruse was the first of many writers who voiced something bordering on a nostalgia for the days when segregation made political organization easier, or forced African Americans to address the dynamics of an internal dialectic between integrationists and black nationalists. A sampling of recent publications reveals how persistent is this sense of "crisis" and how prevalent the fear of erosion of the black vernacular and organic authenticity.
Elizabeth McHenry's Forgotten Readers: Recovering the Lost History of African-American Literary Societies (2002), which represents the best of these works, deals with the issue of black readership and its relationship to the bourgeois and proletarian roots of literate black institutions and intellectual traditions. Jonathan Scott Holloway's Confronting the Veil: Abram Harris, Jr., E. Franklin Frazier, and Ralph Bunche, 1919–1941 (2002) also deals with intellectual and institutional separatism, focusing on four members of the segregated black academy between 1919 and 1941. William Jelani Cobb, in The Essential Harold Cruse (2002), approaches the crisis of black intellectual autonomy through the work of Harold Cruse, a vernacular scholar whose work, although rooted in marxism, inspired the scholarly recovery of classical black nationalism in the late 1960s. Grant Farred's What's My Name?: Black Vernacular Intellectuals (2003) challenges, fundamentally, the concept of "intellectual" by examining, and seeking to improve, Antonio Gramsci's notions of "traditional" and "organic" intellectual. In the process, the author proposes to deliver a new definition and a new theory of the term "vernacular."
Thirty years ago...