PRINT October 1995


the New Black Intellectual

IN VALBRONA, THE OBSCURE VILLAGE HIGH above Lake Como where I spend my summers, public life gets played out on the front terrace of the Albergo Paradiso. You only really matter here if you are resolutely local, and each year the innkeeper’s English wife becomes more evasive when I turn to “home” affairs, making it plain that that was another country, and besides, the wench has become a signora. If you visit Valbrona you’ll certainly be taken through the pines and cypresses to the edge of the forested escarpment called Belvedere San Giorgio, from where, in the azure distance, you’ll see the two arms of Lake Como meet in that exquisite, antique embrace, the peninsula of Bellagio. Its crowning glory is the great Villa Serbelloni, which the locals call “da Rockafella”—for this is the Rockefeller Foundation’s International Study Center, venue of many cosmopolitan conversations between thinkers, journalists, and policy makers from the world community. The Valbronese are extremely proud of their view overlooking the worldly comings and goings of the Villa Serbelloni. But this accident of nature aside, the much-vaunted mantra of the global in the local for the most part bites the dust here.

Over the last few years, though, Valbrona has become the site of another kind of cultural conversation. There are strangers in the village, I was told, not the usual strangers from Milan (a whole hour or so away) who come to spend August at the lake, but stranieri from Africa. Some are students, here via schools in the south of France; others are immigrants and refugees. All of them hang around outside supermarkets or bars, selling anything from socks to cassettes to vaguely African objets.

There is no overt racial animosity in Valbrona. The vendors may receive a passing joke or a greeting, but always as a way of polite avoidance and escape. Yet this kind of pat on the head reveals the anxious vacancy surrounding the precarious figure of the lone black man standing in an elegant lake resort, selling things that no one seems to want. The essential economic and political circumstances are well-known: third world immiseration, political tyranny, lack of educational opportunities. But the sight of these forlorn figures in an Italian village raises questions best expressed, I think, in a reformulation of a line from James Baldwin: “Can [anyone] be liked whose human weight and complexity cannot be or has not been admitted?”1

Baldwin’s essay “Stranger in the Village” came back to me in Valbrona, only a few hours’ drive from the Swiss spa where, nearly 40 years before, children ran down the street after him shouting Neger! Neger! Feeling his hair for electric shocks, they treated him as a genuine wonder, but despite their charm and playfulness, “There was yet no suggestion that I was human.''2 From this narrow Alpine village, with its ambiguous badinage, Baldwin launches a meditation on the immensity of the ”American Negro problem" on Main Street, U.S.A. The discreet charm of the north-Italian bourgeoisie as they fend off the black vendors, with mixed feelings of invasion and evasion, brought back to me Baldwin’s plea for complexity.

“When, beneath the black mask, a human being begins to make himself felt,” Baldwin writes, “one cannot escape a certain awful wonder as to what human being it is.” But if the recognition of the other is to be anything more than gestural, there must be a confrontation with the complexity of the process of identification: “It is one of the ironies of black-white relations that, by means of what the white man imagines the black man to be, the black man is enabled to know what the white man is.”3 This necessary discomfort of confronting oneself as one’s cultural identity emerges, in a problematic pas de deux, from the margins or the limits of “oneself” has a particular relevance for the American scene: “The necessity of the American white man to find a way of living with the Negro is to find a way of living with himself.”4

Apart from the serendipity of discovering Baldwin’s ’50s Swiss scenario so closely replicated in my Italian village in the ’90s, these lines spoke eloquently of something else that was on my mind. All spring, the journals back in the U.S. had raged with tirades on the subject of a newly discovered American vogue: the black public intellectual. Leon Wieseltier, in The New Republic, mounted an all-out attack on the work of Cornel West, titled “All and Nothing at All”; Adolph Reed followed with a scorcher in The Village Voice, clearly meant to singe the wings of the soaring black swans.5 Other authors—Robert S. Boynton in The Atlantic Monthly, Michael Bérubé in The New Yorker, Ellen Willis in the Voice again, Michael Lerner in Tikkun—fueled the fire. It was not an insignificant feature of this business that the writers, almost to a man, were part of a coterie notably homogeneous in terms of gender, class, and “caste”: middle-class, middle-age men in the public eye, wearing whatever Armani has replaced horn-rimmed glasses with—but that, as they say, is another story.

Like the inquisitive Swiss kids fingering Baldwin’s hair to see whether it was “real” or frizzed by some secret source of electrical energy, these critics have sought to probe the mystique of the “new” black intellectuals. Alighting on the issue of authenticity, critics and polemicists have scratched away at the greasepaint of stardom, eager to see what emerged from behind the “black mask.” How “black” is black? Is “popular” really popular, or is it media hype? Is “intellectual” a true appellation, or is it a largely uncritical indulgence on the part of an affirmative-action academy set in a politically correct society?

When a figure arises from behind the black mask to address a range of publics—black, white, academic, vernacular, church congregations, Newsweek readers—there is a palpable anxiety about his or her “representative” status. It is commonly held, after all, that the authenticity of the intellectual, whether conservative or radical, is founded on the possibility of free and unfettered choice among competing ideas and interests. Accordingly, there is a corresponding suspicion that the black American’s primary interest, focused on the “race” issue, does not permit a “universal” or national perspective. By this logic, minority intellectuals lack the ethical autonomy to be properly representative because they lack the conditions of freedom: they are, so to speak, parti pris.

In “The New Intellectuals,” a finely balanced essay in the March Atlantic Monthly, Boynton argued that the New York Jewish public intellectuals of the ’40s and ’50s—Alfred Kazin, Philip Rahv, Irving Howe—took “a lifetime to balance the competing claims of Jewishness and American citizenship . . . [whereas] today’s black intellectuals, coming of age somewhere between the civil rights movement and the Reagan backlash, were thrown into racial-identity politics from the start.” Boynton’s historical argument enables him to define the distinctive character of the black intellectuals’ discourse: a “hybrid form of racial rhetoric” that melds the project of black empowerment with a notion of citizens’ rights, articulating ethnic identity through the larger landscape of national allegiance. But the equanimity of Boynton’s account fails to grasp the provocation of cultural hybridity, rhetorical and political. His sage argument doesn’t quite get a hold on the scandal generated by occupying the hybrid position position as a form of engaged intellectual and political address—a space of identity that Reed describes as “flimflam” and Wieseltier dismisses as, in West’s case, artful dodging.

What’s hybridity got to do with it?

Well, for Reed the scandal of the new black intellectuals is their posture: to “claim to speak from the edges [my italics] of convention, to infuse mainstream discourse with a particular ‘counterhegemonic’ perspective,” elides the “dual audience problem.”6 The black intellectual sits on a metaphoric boundary between the white and the black audiences. When the intellectual “faces in” toward the black community, Reed contends, you get the nuanced, collaborative, strategic intellectual “engaged in a discourse of group self-examination.”7 But the black vanguard now faces the other way, outward, toward a white audience interested only in an “executive summary,” as part of an elaborate ethnography of white fright: “Why do they act that way? How can I keep from offending my housekeeper? What do the drums say, Cornel?”8

There is a rather severe, if powerfully argued, either/or-ism in Reed’s argument, which once again centers on the “authority” of the black intellectual. The hybrid discourse as a dynamic dialogue between ethnicity and citizenship gets gobsmacked, rendered static and silent before the predetermined, unshifting divisions of black and white audiences. The black intellectual’s metaphoric boundary becomes an unpassable frontier; it is no longer a transformative, double-edged thing. Yet this Manichaean view hardly holds for the current controversy itself. Wieseltier, Reed, Boynton, Berube, Willis, Lerner, and other recent contributors to this debate have consciously and conspicuously addressed a “crossover” audience that sits Janus-faced on the boundary of cultural difference, agonizing over what it means to be crossed over—or hybrid.

What is the significance of riding the boundary, and of acknowledging its dangerous double edge? Can it lead to something more than the self-serving, celebratory double act that the new black thinkers are familiarly accused of? To the extent that it is convincing, Reed’s charge that the public intellectuals “avoid both rigorous, careful intellectual work and protracted political action”9 is a matter of grave concern: the weaker the work, the greater the opportunity for the familiar public-media process of glamorizing these thinkers as personalities at the expense of debate on the urgent political issues they address.

Ignored in such an analysis is the effect of these thinkers’ recent work on race and the public sphere: they have sharply undermined the various, differently motivated, sometimes long-preexisting attempts to conflate racial and ethnic identity with sociobiological categories and ideas of cultural nationalism—and this at a time when conservative intellectuals and policy makers are turning increasingly to social Darwinism in their deliberations on the governance of minorities and multicultural populations. Disarming such determinism turns race and ethnic identity into a sign of identification and solidarity, rather than an essentialized or atavistic form of cultural origin written on the skin. The black intellectuals’ commitment to prioritize antiracism or multiculturalism, then, is emphatically not a commitment to privilege race or ethnic identity above other forms of social difference. Cut loose from its ideological moorings in sociobiology and nationalist discourse, race turns into a critical concept. Rather than conferring a stereotyped form of personhood—“racial identity”—on a society, race analysis explores the much more general process by which “subjects” become tied to particularized cultural judgments, be it the lazy native or the dumb blonde.

Communities negotiate “difference” through a borderline process that reveals the hybridity of cultural identity: they create a sense of themselves to and through an other. Reed’s metaphoric boundary between black and white audiences, or between black and white communities, cannot then be assumed as a binary division. And black or minority intellectuals committed to an antiseparatist politics of community have no option but to place themselves in that dangerous and incomplete position where the racial divide is forced to recognize—on either side of the color line—a shared antagonistic or abject terrain. It has become a common ground, not because it is consensual or “just,” but because it is infused and inscribed with the sheer contingency of everyday coming and going, struggle and survival.

Hybridity, as I’ve used the term here, is no jejune post-Modern lark, nor is it simply my invention. It comes from Baldwin’s profound meditation on the unique power and pathos of the American color line. Race in the United States is not a separate (or separatist) historical domain; it is ubiquitous everyday experience lived in the recognition of cultural and psychic hybridity. Baldwin writes,

Alienation causes the Negro to recognize that he is a hybrid. . . . In white Americans he finds reflected—repeated, as it were, in a higher key—his tensions, his terrors, his tenderness. Dimly and for the first time, there begins to fall into perspective the nature of the roles they have played in the lives and history of each other. Now he is bone of their bone, flesh of their flesh .. . . Therefore he cannot deny them, nor can they ever be divorced. . . . It is difficult to make clear that [the African-American] is not seeking to forfeit his birthright as a black man, but that, on the contrary, it is precisely this birthright which he is struggling to recognize and make articulate.10

Toni Morrison’s exploration of the Africanist discourse in the “white” American novel is a testimony to hybridity; Anna Deavere Smith’s disquieting bricolages of the fear, force, and powerlessness that constitute Crown Heights or the L.A. riots is a performance of hybridiry; bell hooks’ jagged moves from political perspectives to confessional stirrings is the writing of hybridity; Henry Louis Gates’ refusal of Afrocentricity is the courage of hybridity; Cornel West’s African-Jewish dialogue is the sanity of hybridity. Hybridity is not, then, about new “alloys” conceived in an amoral state of historical amnesia; it is not about cultural appropriation or assimilation subsumed in a celebration of citizenship. Hybridity, as Baldwin testifies, is a form of social and psychic recognition; it is an awareness of the graftings, transitions, and translations through which we define our present and articulate an ethics equal to the way we live now.

For David Frankel, a collaborator and conspirator more than he knows.

Homi Bhabha is professor of English literature and art history at the University of Chicago and visiting professor at the University of London. He edited the essay collection Nation and Narration (1990) for Routledge, which also published his book The Location of Culture (1994). He is currently at work on two books, one entitled A Measure of Dwelling, the other a history of cosmopolitanism.



1. James Baldwin, “Stranger in the Village,” in Notes of a Native Son, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, p. 81.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., p. 84.

4. Ibid.

5. Leon Wieseltier, “All and Nothing at All: The Unreal World of Cornel West,” The New Republic, 6 March 1995. Adolph Reed, “What Are the Drums Saying, Booker? The Current Crisis of the Black Intellectual,” The Village Voice, 11 April 1995.

6. Reed, p. 34.

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid., p. 35.

10. Baldwin, “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” in Notes of a Native Son, Boston: Beacon Press, 1955, pp. 122–23.

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