Carter G. Woodson’s analysis of the educated black elite becomes an important marker in an ongoing conversation about the role of black intellectuals in leading the race and how they should use their education and influence. The academic novel is inextricably bound up with that conversation about the politics of black intellectuals. There have been many volumes written about the politics of the black intellectual since Woodson’s Mis-Education, the most prominent of which is Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: A Historical Analysis of the Failure of Black Leadership (1967). Cruse’s groundbreaking work was a synthesis of decades of thinking about the role of the black intellectual, from writers such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Alain Locke, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and Lorraine Hansberry.
Cruse’s main intervention was to document that there was such a thing as a black intellectual culture and that it was one worthy of extensive critical attention and theorizing. Problems with the rather large and unwieldy book have been well noted, including the fact that the whole thing was essentially a polemical argument that black nationalism was the proper ideology of the black intellectual. There was also Cruse’s tendency to divide black intellectuals into an overdetermined dichotomy of “integrationists” and “nationalists,” as well as his nasty attacks on Caribbean intellectuals.
Still, the book towers over the field and has maintained an enduring influence owing to Cruse’s sharp and often biting analysis of black intellectuals as a group—whose members serve as spokespersons, gatekeepers, creators, and tastemakers, those who are often asked to speak on behalf of the race in the media and who possess the platforms and influence to be able to do so.
Jerry Watts is among a cohort of post-Cruse scholars who expounded upon the politics of the black intellectual. In his book Heroism and the Black Intellectual: Ralph Ellison, Politics, and Afro-American Intellectual Life, Watts uses Ralph Ellison’s life and work as an opportunity to theorize about the political thought of black intellectuals. Watts takes a “sociology of intellectuals” approach by evaluating this subset of persons called intellectuals, noting that “because of the language, analytical, and information-processing skills that intellectuals possess, they play certain key roles in the social order.”
I engage this concept of intellectuals with the understanding that the designation will always be contested, but it remains an important designation for understanding political power and legitimation, because as Watts states, “the quality of the diversity of the roles intellectuals are allowed to assume has ultimately something to do with their political behavior as a group.” I am interested in the way that intellectuals as a group are producers of academic novels, as well as subjects in the novels, and the political roles that intellectuals can play are examined in these works, including the political restrictions that black intellectuals face. What Ralph Ellison accomplished so well with Invisible Man and his trope of invisibility was to create a metaphor that allowed him to examine the many ways that the black intellectual is pulled to and fro by competing groups that want to co-opt him as a symbol and fail to see him as an autonomous human being.
The intellectual, as Watts describes him in this passage, need not be a practicing academic, and the black literary tradition is full of autodidacts who operate outside academia as artists, teachers, archivists, and scholars. Again, given academia’s racist history and the constrictions on black educational opportunity, many black scholars operated outside the mainstream white academy and even operated on the margins of historically black colleges and universities, which were sometimes reluctant to embrace trends in militant black thought.
In another of his books on black intellectuals, Amiri Baraka: The Politics and Art of a Black Intellectual (2001), Watts writes that “traditional Afro-American intellectuals, like all traditional intellectuals, have as one of their priorities the reproduction of themselves as intellectuals . . . Whatever provides the time and space to write or paint becomes a priority for intellectuals.” While the idea of the independent, free-floating “public intellectual,” untainted by bureaucratic connections, is a seductive notion, and one taken up by writers like Russell Jacoby, who laments their demise in the American public sphere in his book The Last Intellectuals (1987), working as an academic can provide the intellectual with access to a steady salary, (sometimes) health insurance, and (sometimes) the occasional sabbatical to complete creative or critical work.
Despite its histories of exclusion, academia does play a fundamental role in the “how” of black intellectual practice. It has been, and continues to be, an attractive career for black intellectuals to sustain themselves. And now, with the collapse of newspapers, magazines, and book publishing under digitization, which dried up revenue streams for intellectuals who at one time could have lived frugally as nonacademic writers and speakers, it seems academia has become an even more important source of stable income for all practicing intellectuals in America. (Even the meager paycheck of the precarious adjunct professor can show up more regularly than the payments of freelance workers, who often have to spend time making sure that they are properly compensated for contract work.) Most of the writers covered in the main chapters of this study have spent significant time as university professors.
As critics of academic novels have pointed out, some of the most active writers in the genre do not have doctoral degrees. Some critics have argued that the best academic novels come from the writers who have more professional experience as novelists than as professors. Presumably the experienced novelist has a better understanding of characterization, story structure, and the aesthetics of writing, as opposed to the professor, whose only novel is an academic novel written to satirize her institution and colleagues. When I look at my bibliography of academic novelists, there are the few like W. E. B. Du Bois and J. Saunders Redding who had a doctorate and worked as professors. But more common in that bibliography are writers such as Ralph Ellison, Chester Himes, Zadie Smith, Ishmael Reed, Percival Everett, and Mat Johnson who did not earn a Ph.D., have written mostly works of fiction, but who have also spent time as university professors.
Given the debates over black intellectual life and the academic profession, the black academic novel, featuring professors and students as characters, is an ideal laboratory in which to observe the politics of the black intellectual. I am drawn to black academic novels precisely because they confront this complex relationship between education and black identity. In black academic fiction one finds depictions of black scholars wrestling with the meaning of higher education and the expectations placed upon them, with or without their compliance, to be racial representatives and spokespersons. The writers of these novels acknowledge that the academy is only one site of intellectual production but reaffirm that it is an important one. I am attracted to these novels by the way they critically analyze the academy, and even because they tend to view it with some reticence and suspicion.
While their focus is on institutions of higher education I believe that these novels represent some of the most productive thinking available about black intellectuals, whether those intellectuals work inside or outside the academy. By addressing topics of race, labor, color, representation, authenticity, gender, and sexuality, these works explore the potentials of black intellectualism and provide valuable lessons on the function and ethics of academic knowledge production and intellectual practice.
Lavelle Porter is assistant professor of English at the New York City College of Technology, CUNY.
This excerpt appears courtesy of Northwestern University Press. Copyright © 2020 by Northwestern University Press. Published 2020. All rights reserved.