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With political and domestic policy wars escalating against an entire generation of young black people

in the cities; with life expectancy better in the Army than on the streets; with educational prospects

better in prison than in schools; with infant mortality rates higher in Harlem and Roxbury than in

Havana or Kingston: What are the responsibilities of black intellectuals?



Books by Eugene F. Rivers

God's Gift: A Christian Vision of Marriage and the Black Family

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On the Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack

By Reverend Eugene Rivers


Editor's Note: What follows is an open letter from Reverend Eugene Rivers. Immediately addressed to the Boston-Cambridge intellectual community, Rivers' letter speaks at the same time to a much broader audience: in fact, to anyone interested in the fate of the urban poor in the United States. A pastor and social analyst, Rivers works every day with poor women and children in Boston's Dorchester and Roxbury neighborhoods. In their name, he asks us to reflect on the moral meaning of intellectual life.


Dear Friends:

In 1967, Noam Chomsky published an essay in the New York Review of Books on "The Responsibility of Intellectuals." Written in the midst of national turmoil surrounding U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia, the essay raised a number of disturbing questions about the relationship of intellectuals to power and about the moral and political requirements of the pursuit of truth. Chomsky was inspired by a series of articles by Dwight MacDonald in the journal Politics. Writing some twenty years earlier, MacDonald focused on the question of war guilt. "To what he extent," he asked, "were the German or Japanese people responsible for the atrocities committed by their governments?" He then turned the question back to the American and British people. To what extent were they "responsible for the vicious terror bombings of civilians . . . by the Western democracies and reaching their culmination in Hiroshima and Nagasaki."

Chomsky pushed MacDonald's question further: What, he asked, are the special moral responsibilities of intellectuals, "given the unique privileges that intellectuals enjoy" in Western capitalist democracies? His answer was that intellectuals have a "responsibility ... to speak the truth and to expose lies" and a duty "to see events in their historical perspective."

Chomsky's claims about the mandarin status of opinion-forming elites, and about the elementary obligations that come with status, have lost none of their relevance. But circumstances have changed, and those changes carry important implications for the precise character of our current obligations. When I read Chomsky's political and historical essays 21 years ago, I was a young Christian intellectual struggling to understand the role and the responsibility of the intelligentsia in an advanced industrial society. Chomsky focused on foreign policy, and posed his questions to a predominantly white, elite, academic and policy-based intelligentsia. At that time, I do not recall reading any significant discussion or critical notice of the issues he raised in any of the major black scholarly journals or books.

I want to suggest to you that Chomsky's points now apply with particular force to the responsibility to tell the truth about the condition of the black poor. And that responsibility bears especially heavily on black intellectuals at elite universities. For, as a privileged minority, black intellectuals "have the leisure, the facilities, and the training to seek the truth lying behind the veil of distortion . . . ideology, and class interest through which the events of current history are presented to us."

More than 10 million Americans now face a crisis of catastrophic proportions. Life in the major post-industrial centers in the United States is genuinely poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It is often a choice between suffering and abject misery. The prospects for black males are perhaps a bit more exciting. There is, of course, death due to homicide or drug-related HIV infection; and then there is incarceration, which provides an opportunity to refine the skills required for a career of criminality.

In all this horror, there is a certain depraved consistency. For the persistent poverty of black and brown urban poor serves a variety of ideological functions. Conservative policy elites (whether Republican or Democratic) perceive, correctly, that poor blacks are a politically disposable population. In fact, the suffering, nihilism, and decay associated with the tragic circumstances of the urban poor can—and, in the view of conservatives, should—be exploited to ensure continued political dominance. The logic is very simple. Because inner city blacks are politically vulnerable, the right can blame them for anti-Semitism, crime, riots, the Republicans, the Democrats, David Duke, sin, sex, and AIDS. Because the American political arena is in such an advanced state of decomposition, the absurdity of the argument will carry no political costs.

Assume then that current conditions for black Americans persist. Two developments will follow. First, we can safely assume that young mothers and fathers will not transmit to their progeny the values and norms associated with intellectual and cultural achievement. Second, as entry into labor markets is increasingly dependent on education and high skills, we will see, perhaps for the first time in the history of the United States, a generation of economically obsolete Americans.

But, remarkably, the tragedy we face is still worse. Unlike many of our ancestors, who came out of slavery and entered this century with strong backs, discipline, a thirst for literacy, deep religious faith, and hope in the face of monumental adversity, we have produced "a generation who [do] not know the ways of the Lord"—a "new jack" generation, ill-equipped to secure gainful employment even as productive slaves.

This generation—who would be ineligible to qualify for slavery—provides unique insight into the nature of economic opportunity in a contemporary capitalist democracy. Consider this achievement: a generation of poor black women and children may reach the end of this century in an economically and politically inferior position to their ancestors, who entered the century in the shadow of formal slavery. Unable to see a more rational future through the eyes of faith, they lack the hope that sustained their forbears. Lacking hope, they experience what Orlando Patterson has called "social death." But unlike the social death of formal slavery, this new social death is fundamentally spiritual, rooted in the destruction of faith and hope. In a world without faith and hope, history and identity are themselves divested of meaning. And so, as the Christian philosopher Cornel West has argued, the future is transformed into a spectacle of nihilism and decay. It is, in the end, this profoundly spiritual nature of the current crisis that gives it its unique historical character.

What, in these unprecedented circumstances, are the responsibilities of intellectuals? It should be clear that there is a fundamental responsibility to tell the truth and expose lies about the conditions of the black poor. But I am pessimistic about the fulfillment of this responsibility, for reasons suggested in an observation by Conor Cruise O'Brien: "Power in our time," he wrote, "has more intelligence in its service, and allows that intelligence more discretion as to its methods, than ever before in history." From O'Brien's perspective, this marriage of power and intelligence could only damage the prospects for the renewal of scholarly integrity. Moreover, the increasing influence of corporate capitalism in the university contributes to the ascendance of a "society maimed through the systematic corruption of intelligence." Academic entrepreneurship becomes the norm, furthering the subversion of intellectual responsibility.

Against the background of this general pessimism, I propose to focus my attention more particularly on the black intelligentsia, and on the special relationship of black intellectuals to the poor. Two observations are especially pertinent here.

First, the pathologies of the cities are essentially an advanced expression of a more general crisis of moral and cultural authority which currently overshadows the lives of every socioeconomic stratum of black Americans born between 1950 and 1970. Black elites are not exempt from this crisis. Our blind pursuit of integration has come at the expense of institutional and political autonomy. Because of that loss of autonomy, we are entangled in a web of inherited and unexamined ideological and political assumptions—for example, an incoherent conception of rights divorced from moral obligations. Living on borrowed assumptions, we now face moral and cultural obsolescence. In a tragically Proverbial sense, we are now elites bereft of vision.

Second, it is far from clear what substantive differences there are between the moral decay of the young drug dealers on the block and that of the elite intellectuals who prostitute themselves while contributing to a moral and ideological framework indispensable to the justification of inequality. One refreshing difference is that young drug dealers are generally more candid about the nature of their game. Unlike our cosmopolitan intelligentsia, they freely admit to being self-centered hustlers. No rhetoric about integrity, humanity, or sweet reason. And, perhaps oddly, their analysis of contemporary political affairs features more insight and less jargon.

With political and domestic policy wars escalating against an entire generation of young black people in the cities; with life expectancy better in the Army than on the streets; with educational prospects better in prison than in schools; with infant mortality rates higher in Harlem and Roxbury than in Havana or Kingston: What are the responsibilities of black intellectuals? Do such elite journals of opinion as Transition and Reconstruction have any moral obligation to take up the cause of those whose suffering and blood made their prestige and affluence possible? As intellectuals, as humanists, are we not morally obligated to provide more than lecture circuit radicalism? How can we justify endless talk about Gramsci, Foucault, Derrida, Jameson, Bourdieu, Lukacs, Habermas, and Marx—talk with no discernible bearing on the fact of social death in the cities?

I direct these questions to black intellectuals in particular because they were put to me by a young black mother in a Dorchester court. She asked whether her leaders spoke out on issues. Sometimes. She asked "What difference will all their big words and fancy concepts make in my son's life?" I responded that I did no know. She asked what kinds of programs her leaders were developing to teach poor black people their history. I tepidly responded that many of you were busy with important conferences, but that you were with her in spirit.

The life of the mind is, to be sure, hard, and it must follow its own rhythms. But I must confess, friends, that I see no emerging, constructive theory, no nascent political program, no intimations of a plan of action. Just piles of denunciation of all conceivable 'isms' and 'phobias.' Its not that I think that affluent, elite, progressive black intellectuals are obligated to rub shoulders with the illiterate and unwashed. But there are issues of responsibility here. And I am suggesting that, as intellectual leaders, you consider "breaking bread" in ways that might benefit that black woman and her son in the Dorchester Court, that you use your considerable prestige and influence to promote cultural and economic development among the urban poor.

If talk about responsibility seems too high-minded, then think of it as a matter of personal identity and commitment. In the absence of a program or a mobilization of intellectuals around the needs of the poor, what is the functional, political difference between such conservatives as Alan Keyes or Thomas Sowell and such progressives as Henry Louis Gates or Cornel West? Living out those progressive commitments requires new forms of public engagement. In the absence of that engagement, it all looks the same from down here in new jack city. Harvard's Martin Kilson has been making this point for 15 years: that the emerging new class of intellectuals needs to translate its discourse, whether conservative or radical, into a coherent organizational program with tangible benefits for ordinary people.

Of course, it is easier to criticize people than to solve problems. So let me conclude with a call to Cornel West, Henry Louis Gates, bell hooks, Orlando Patterson, Jerry Watts, K. Anthony Appiah, and Martin Kilson: let's convene a series of discussions in Boston about the fate of the urban poor. And let's encourage our friends in other cities to do the same. We all know that the time has come, once more, when silence is betrayal. Moving together, lets break the silence, create new hope, and so lift the spell of social death.


Eugene Rivers
Pastor Azusa Christian Community
Co-founder and Director, Seymour Institute
for Advanced Christian Studies

Source: BostonReview

Eugene F. Rivers, 3d is an American activist, and Pentecostal minister based in Boston, Massachusetts.He is Pastor of the Azusa Christian Community, co-founder of the Boston TenPoint Coalition and co-chair of the National Ten Point Leadership Foundation. He has appeared on national television shows, including Hardball with Chris Matthews with Michael Rogers defending Rick Warren He also the Special Advisor to Bishop Charles Blake for Save Africa's Children.Wikipedia

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Forum  "On the Responsibility of Intellectuals"

The participants—along with Rivers—were Margaret Burnham, former Associate Justice at Boston Municipal Court and lecturer in Political Science at M.I.T; Henry Louis Gates, Jr., W.E.B Du Bois Professor of the Humanities and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute at Harvard University; bell hooks, Visiting Professor in Women's Studies at City College of New York; Glenn Loury, Professor of Economics at Boston University; and Cornel West, Professor of Religion and Director of the Afro-American Studies Program at Princeton University. The discussion was moderated by Anthony Appiah, Professor of African-American Studies at Harvard and a member of the editorial board of the Boston Review.—BostonReview

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Excerpts from the Forum

West: Every middle class we know in human history becomes intoxicated with bourgeois-ness. Every one we know. The black middle class has, too. You see, part of what we are talking about is the difficulty of being an intellectual in a business civilization. An intellectual has a profound dedication to the life of the mind, believes in a playfulness of the life of the mind, understands it requires discipline like a jazz musician. That's serious discipline. You can do that anywhere—inner-city, vanilla suburbs, wherever you go. But to be an intellectual, to cut against the grain of a business civilization, means that intellectuals actually surface precisely when they are experts—like here at the Kennedy School. But experts aren't intellectuals. Some are. But most aren't. Experts are something else. That's something else, it's very important. And Eugene might be asking us to be experts. But that's something else, Gene. I am not against it. But that's something else than being intellectual.

But the other side of this thing is celebrity, which is part of the commodification of academic star . . .

Rivers: Have we been commodified?

West: Yes, we have been commodified. There's no escape from commodification. So that unease has to be looked at clearly and cautiously . . .

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Gates: To Margaret—you ended by asking what happened to our community between say, 1960 and 1980? To be concrete, I have four statistics that I would like to share. In 1960, 24% of black households were headed by women; in 1990 that number is 56%, and 55% of these women live in poverty. The percentage of births out of wedlock in the black community in 1960 was 21.6%; in 1988 it is 63.7%. In 1960 19.9% of our children lived only with their mothers; in 1990 that number was 51.2%. In 1960, finally, two percent of our children had mothers who had never been married; in 1990 that number was 35%. If raising our children is the most important work of a society, its burdens now fall disproportionately on the much-demonized single mother.

What's happened is that our community has been divided into two. We now have two black communities, not one. We probably have more than that. Yet each of us tends to speak of the black community as if blackness were a class. We have to decide if blackness really does constitute a class. We have to start with this issue, and recognize that the community we were children in no longer exists. There is a new black community—or new black communities—out there, and if we are trying to put it back together then we have to recognize that reality and then talk about new solutions to new problems. That is, I think, the signal failure of our generation of black intellectuals. More often than not we resort to romantic black nationalism or to some other way to assuage the guilt that we feel, and everybody in here knows what I am talking about, about leaving that other community behind.

hooks: I don't know what Skip is talking about. . . .BostonReview

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Eugene Rivers' Challenge: A Response

 By Eugene Genovese

Conventional discussions of black experience treat black Americans as a "class," "nation," or "colonial" people. Each of these views offers useful insights but all are partial and inadequate. The black experience in America has been unique—literally without parallel in the experience of other peoples. Blacks came as slaves. Their masters imposed a strange new religion; assaulted their family relations (indeed denied legal sanction for any family at all); and sought to destroy their African cultures while denying them access to much in white American culture. As a rich and many-sided scholarship has demonstrated, blacks not only survived physically but spiritually. Against all odds, they forged a culture that interpenetrated with white culture and yet emerged as an independent Afro-American culture.

Other groups, by contrast, were absorbed into an American national culture that they enriched by their Old World experiences. To be sure, Irish, Jews, Italians, and others also faced harsh, sometimes brutal, discrimination. But they did not face anything analogous to racial exclusion. So they were able steadily to force their way into business, the professions, and positions of political power, and to consolidate every upward movement in the socio-economic scale. In the event, they contributed much to American national culture—face it, we Italians taught Americans what good food really is. But there is nothing that can seriously be called an Italian-American or Irish-American culture.

For blacks, there was no such ratcheting upward. Repeatedly, they were hurled backwards from positions won through hard struggles. When freedom came to slaves in northern cities, they were at once flagrantly exploited and deprived of the measure of protection formerly provided by their masters. Skilled blacks of all kinds were driven from their trades by white violence. This widespread northern pattern recurred during Reconstruction in the South, when a nascent black leadership, formed in the interstices of the slave regime, was crushed by legal and illegal methods designed to maintain racial dictatorship. Indeed, until recent decades, most (perhaps all) of the so-called "race riots" in American cities were white assaults on black communities. And those hit hardest were not antisocial elements accused of some offense or other, but precisely the successful, upwardly mobile, "respectable" blacks who had accepted the standards of the white middle class—who had become "uppity" and forgotten their "place." Until recently, there was virtually no room at the top—or in the middle—for blacks who tried to play by the rules of the marketplace and of bourgeois society.

The enforced segregation that replaced slavery did provide room for a small professional and middle class within the black community, but it virtually foreclosed any possibility for mobility in the larger society. As a result, the black culture forged under conditions of slavery was able to flower. And that flourishing helped to combat a tendency toward cultural disintegration that constantly threatened to overwhelm a people trapped by an unparalleled racial enmity and with little hope of rising above poverty. In short, segregation, however deplorable, did strengthen the cultural strivings for an autonomous political and community development.—


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Midnight Rising: John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War

By Tony Horwitz

Plotted in secret, launched in the dark, John Brown's raid on Harpers Ferry was a pivotal moment in U.S. history. But few Americans know the true story of the men and women who launched a desperate strike at the slaveholding South. Now, Midnight Rising portrays Brown's uprising in vivid color, revealing a country on the brink of explosive conflict. Brown, the descendant of New England Puritans, saw slavery as a sin against America's founding principles. Unlike most abolitionists, he was willing to take up arms, and in 1859 he prepared for battle at a hideout in Maryland, joined by his teenage daughter, three of his sons, and a guerrilla band that included former slaves and a dashing spy. On October 17, the raiders seized Harpers Ferry, stunning the nation and prompting a counterattack led by Robert E. Lee. After Brown's capture, his defiant eloquence galvanized the North and appalled the South, which considered Brown a terrorist. The raid also helped elect Abraham Lincoln, who later began to fulfill Brown's dream with the Emancipation Proclamation, a measure he called "a John Brown raid, on a gigantic scale." Tony Horwitz's riveting book travels antebellum America to deliver both a taut historical drama and a telling portrait of a nation divided—a time that still resonates in ours.

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The Southern Front: History and Politics in the Cultural War

By Eugene Genovese

While Eugene Genovese's The Southern Front will not be remembered as well as his groundbreaking Roll Jordan Roll, this collection of essays remain insightful, interesting and even charming. Genovese includes a number of book reviews as well as essays that stand on their own. The book touches on a number of subjects: communism, political correctness, Martin Luther King, American conservatism, antebellum South Carolinians, and even two autobiographical sketches. Some of these essays are dated but remain interesting though I wonder if Genovese is as infatuated with Eugene Rivers now as he was then. Genovese does not pull any punches and almost everyone in the world will be outraged by parts of this book-and find insights in other parts. Genovese is an excellent writer with a readable style. Having said that, a background in history and a familiarity with the changes of Genovese's own thinking helps better appreciate this book.—amazon customer

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Outlaw Culture: Resisting Representations

By bell hooks

Turning from teaching to topical subjects like gangsta rap, censorship, date rape and Hollywood cinema, these 21 essays will enhance City College professor and political activist hooks's (Black Looks) reputation as an astute, vigorous and freewheeling critic on matters of race, class and gender. The underlying focus in many of these short, occasional pieces (many are reprinted from magazines like Spin and Art in America) is on how some groups, particularly women of color, are marginalized both in daily life and in the cultural wars over media representations and the academic curriculum. Memorable essays touch on questions of censorship inside and outside the academy, the dearth of feminist perspectives on Malcolm X, the impact of commodity culture on political debate and the shortcomings of mainstream gender theorists Camille Paglia, Naomi Wolf and Kate Roiphe. Though formulaic at times, hooks's critical style is refreshingly brash and accessible and often inflected by personal experience. Readers may contest her politics, yet few will be unmoved by the spirit that animates these essays: a desire to rethink cultural institutions that sustain racism, sexism and other systems of political oppression.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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