Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals

Race, Celebrity, and the Intellectuals

In The Souls of Black Folk, W.E.B. Du Bois reflected on the ironies of reaching the academic heights, always sensing his racial distinctiveness, always confronting the hesitant curiosity of sympathetic whites, always coping with their unasked question: “How does it feel to be a problem?” Since then, after enormous tumult and struggle, race relations in the intelligentsia have improved enormously, but not so enormously that the question does not linger. Although the number of black scholars and non-academic writers is now greater than it was, one chronically feels the strain of racial perplexity, of psychological projection back and forth across the color line. And alongside Du Bois’s painful old question there has arisen a new one: “How does it feel to be a celebrity?”

Media hype about the new black intellectuals has been building gradually over the past decade, marking the arrival of a generation of black writers and academics who came of age in the wake of the civil rights movement. In the mid-1980s, American politics began turning back to issues of race and racism—and here was a group of young well-educated, highly articulate black voices, burning to speak out on these matters and many others. What’s more, it was, as should have been expected, a complicated group, united in rejecting America’s racist past but divided about almost everything else, with viewpoints that ranged all the way from Reagan conservatism to Afrocentrism. Surely their appearance was an important, even a historic event, signaling a long-delayed turn in our national intellectual life.

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