When Georgetown professor and MSNBC pundit Michael Eric Dyson wrote his reply to the criticisms of his anti-Cornel West philippic, he addressed the most important question about the contradictory nature and purpose of his essay: why hadn’t he written it for Essence or Ebony magazines? His reply was that the magazine he wrote it for, The New Republic, despite its suspect past, was the best forum for the kind of intellectual content his essay had to offer. That begs the old question: Just who is the black intellectual writing for and speaking to–that is, to whom is he addressing his plaints?
Since the 1990s creation of Black Studies programs to counteract the supposedly uncongenial Afrocentric efforts at elite universities, the black public intellectual has assumed a prominent place in the public sphere. Of course, black intellectuals have been around as a public force since the 19th century. Name check: Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin. The theoretical problem has always been exactly–due to the dual nature of black existence in the USA–is the black intellectual to address whites and blacks separately, or both together in the same room? James Weldon Johnson, novelist, poet, creator of the “The Negro National Anthem,” wrote the most important reflection on the question in his historic essay, “The Dilemma of the Black Author,” in which he says, “Many a Negro writer has fallen down, as it were, between these two stools.” Dyson’s essay illustrates the point: he is writing about a black intellectual to a magazine historically antagonistic to blacks; he is writing about an intra-black dispute between two competing claims about how best to respond to the first black president without forgetting his importance as an example of black possibility; and more to the point, about the state of black intellectuality in the 21st century. Which makes TNR an odd choice, but equally a tragic choice: With no competing black journals of equal stature, the black public intellectual must debase himself and chose the Harvard-Yale-Oxford axis that is TNR over his own. Oh, yes: the sad dilemma of the black public intellectual!