by Fernando Quintero
In the years immediately following the abolition of slavery in the United States, blacks who learned how to read and write were considered a valuable resource to their community.
Fast-forward to the present, where throughout the country, African-American intellectuals serve as social advocates for the black community, and as mentors and role models for black students.
In his book, "Black Intellectuals: Race and Responsibility in American Life," African American Studies Professor William Banks argues that the initial generation of black thinkers composed of those freed slaves who had obtained a modicum of education and then employed it in behalf of abolitionism were the first to establish a service-oriented role for minority intellectuals.
Banks' comprehensive and accessible book explores the complex and vital role African-American intellectuals have played throughout American history.
He discusses such prominent figures as black pioneers Alexander Crummell, Frederick Douglass and Anna Cooper to modern intellectuals like W.E.B. Du Bois, Alain Locke and Toni Morrison.
"My hope is that readers get a sense of the special challenges black intellectuals have had to face in American life, how they've had to negotiate, embrace or reject social responsibility," said Banks from his sixth-floor Barrows Hall office, where posters of jazz artists, art collages and photographs of his twin daughters cover the walls.
"As a minority faculty member, I know that we continue to deal with the notion of social responsibility. You have to," he said. "I explore how people have reacted to that idea of responsibility."
For African-American scholars, pressure to serve their community has come from their own sense of responsibility, as well as from other blacks and even from whites.
In one of the book's most compelling and academically relevant chapters, titled "Rude Awakenings," Banks explains how for many black students and faculty, the mostly white university environment in the years following the civil rights movement presented special problems.
Banks' writes: "During the '70s activists made a morally and politically compelling case for hiring qualified black scholars. Embarrassed by the virtual absence of black faces on faculties, many university officials acted quickly. A moral impulse and desire to head off, or respond to, militant black students brought some novel developments. Rather than being allowed, indeed encouraged, to concentrate on their academic work, many black professors were herded into non-academic activities....As a result, their teaching and scholarly work suffered."
Black students made demands as well. "Black students regarded personal counseling, advocacy, political advice and cultural invigoration as essential to the black academic's role."
The hiring of blacks and other minorities for high-status faculty positions triggered a counteraction. Some whites complained of double standards and reverse discrimination. But some black intellectuals also criticized affirmative action programs for African-Americans in higher education.
In a passage that foreshadows the crusade of UC Regent Ward Connerly, Banks writes that black conservative Thomas Sowell argued affirmative action programs were unnecessary because civil rights legislation passed in the '60s would in time lead to fair representation in academia.
Sowell also believed the programs implicitly endorsed lower expectations for African-Americans and tainted the accomplishments of the most talented blacks.
A few black scholars who successfully confronted and countered racial stigmatization eventually grew in status at elite institutions. "Fearful that the presence of black colleagues with less than exceptional qualifications would reflect negatively on their own status, they enforced existing standards with a vengeance," Banks writes.
In one of several interviews Banks conducts with his contemporaries, Berkeley sociology professor Troy Duster laments the "gatekeeping mentality" among black scholars:
"When it comes to assessing other blacks, there is a certain type of 'eye in the needle' black professor in the academy who always shows that he or she has only the highest of standards," Duster says.
"All of us have met and argued with this type, perhaps because there is a little bit of that in all of us (black professors) as we argue with ourselves."
A New York Times book review praised Banks' "skillful insertion of personal commentaries from interviews....Of particular interest are the admissions made by various black intellectuals that their decision to pursue the life of the mind required, they believed, a radical rupture with other blacks. Worse, they feared becoming racially inauthentic, if not race betrayers."
"In the end," the review concludes, "'Black Intellectuals' is an important book because it highlights the diversity and richness of Afro-American intellectual life throughout our nation's history. It will surely be a crucial reference work for years to come."