Intellectuals and Public Responsibility   /   Spring 2007   /    Interview

Black Intellectuals in America

A Conversation with Cornel West

Jennifer L. Geddes, Jonathan Judaken, and Cornel West

Cornel West (2018). Via Wikimedia Commons.

JJ: In the 1960s Richard Hofstadter published the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and about thirty years later, the so-called “black public intellectual” came into being. What happened in those three decades that laid the groundwork for black intellectuals emerging as one of the most important cadre of intellectuals in the national landscape today, and how do you see your role in that?


What happened between 1963 and 1993 was certainly structural transformations that had to do with de-industrialization and with the capitalist economy being restructured in such a way that communities became scattered and dispersed. You no longer had the basis for the older kind of public intellectuals, and you had new public intellectuals who were good at communicating orally, as well as literately, because of television, radio, C-Span.

It’s a whole different world. Can you imagine listening to Lionel Trilling lecture on Jane Austen on C-Span? So, on the one hand, you’ve got some structural transformation that certainly Russell Jacoby and others have talked about, but, on the other hand, you’ve got the question of how you preserve effective forms of communication.

To put it in highbrow terms, Hofstadter was an eloquent writer. I don’t care what he wrote—Age of Reform, we can go right across the board. He was conscious about that. David Hume writes an essay on the decline of eloquence way back in the eighteenth century, meaning what? He understands eloquence the way Cicero and Quintilian understood it—wisdom speaking, ars topica, a sense of the whole, a synoptic view that relates parts and wholes.

What you have in the 90s are people attempting to enact a certain kind of eloquence in terms of speaking clearly, being able to give people a sense of the whole, and do it in a language that’s intelligible to them. Hofstadter did it by the page. In the 1990s, people are doing it by the page but also orally

We have to keep in mind that in the 1950s and 60s, you’ve got towering public intellectuals, like Sinclair Drake, but nobody talks about them. Drake writes Black Metropolis in 1945, before he finishes his Ph.D. thesis, and it’s introduced by Richard Wright, who’s just been a New York Times best-seller in 1940 with Native Son. Drake’s still a graduate student, and he’s a celebrity in Chicago, but nobody talks about him. Why? Invisible.

It’s part of the challenge of black intellectuals. Nat Hentoff wrote an essay in The Chicago Review in 1955 called “Jazz and the Intellectual, Someone Goofed.” It is a powerful critique of the New York intellectuals’ refusal to come to terms with white supremacy and its legacy.

There’s a whole tradition that has always put a primacy on eloquence, on the page, speaking. Why? Because they respect their audience. Hofstadter wrote well because he respected his audience. If you’re going to write an essay on the unpopularity of intellect, the last thing you want to do is write a jargon-riddled essay on intellect that nobody or very few people can read.


JJ: So a whole group of black intellectuals emerge in public life—a new version of the New York intellectual.


It’s not a new version, though. It’s different, but it’s connected.

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