Academic Films Academic Novels

The University on Screen: The Top 10 Academic Films

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in May 2010)

The cam­pus novel has been around in Amer­i­can lit­er­a­ture for quite some time. Some crit­ics have pointed to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s first novel Fan­shawe, pub­lished in 1828, as the first piece of Amer­i­can fic­tion that deals with cam­pus life. More recently, British writer David Lodge has made a career out of pen­ning aca­d­e­mic nov­els with thinly veiled depic­tions of well known British and Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties, as well as fic­tional ver­sions of actual pro­fes­sors. (One recur­ring char­ac­ter in his nov­els, Mor­ris Zapp, is clearly based on lit­er­ary critic Stan­ley Fish, and Fish has appar­ently embraced the car­i­ca­ture.) Amer­i­can author Philip Roth has also writ­ten sev­eral nov­els set in acad­e­mia, two of which have been adapted into films. The aca­d­e­mic novel has even started to grab the atten­tion of lit­er­ary crit­ics in books such as Elaine Showalter’s Fac­ulty Tow­ers: The Aca­d­e­mic Novel and Its Dis­con­tents.

Like the aca­d­e­mic novel, the aca­d­e­mic film also pro­vides a venue for using the mimetic device of fic­tion to explore cer­tain aspects of higher edu­ca­tion. When most peo­ple think of Hollywood’s depic­tions of acad­e­mia they are more likely to think of frat-house come­dies such as Ani­mal House, Old School, and Amer­i­can Pie Presents The Naked Mile, or maybe sports films like Rudy, The Pro­gram, or Glory Road. How­ever, there have been sev­eral films made about the uni­ver­sity envi­ron­ment that go beyond fra­ter­nity par­ties and sports. In this par­tic­u­lar list I eval­u­ate some films that in some way try to address the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion. These films explore issues such as the pres­sures of achieve­ment, the promise of higher edu­ca­tion as a means of social mobil­ity, and the chal­lenges and joys of col­lege teach­ing. Henry Kissinger famously stated that “uni­ver­sity pol­i­tics are vicious pre­cisely because the stakes are so small.” That state­ment leaves many of us who work in acad­e­mia nod­ding our heads in recog­ni­tion. How­ever, these films sug­gest a dif­fer­ent story. They show the inter­ac­tion between “town and gown,” as stu­dents and pro­fes­sors encounter the com­mu­nity out­side of the cam­pus, with vary­ing results. They also illus­trate the evo­lu­tion of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity over the course of the 20th cen­tury. With legal mea­sures such as the G.I. Bill in 1944, and the Brown v. Board of Edu­ca­tion deci­sion of 1954, stu­dents from work­ing class back­grounds, women, and racial minori­ties have entered into insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing in greater num­bers. The ten­sions cre­ated by those changes appear in sev­eral of these films. While these may not nec­es­sar­ily be the most art­fully made or com­pelling films over­all, I do think they are the ones that are the most com­mit­ted to tak­ing a seri­ous look at higher edu­ca­tion. Viewed crit­i­cally, they may even con­tribute to improv­ing our under­stand­ing of how insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing fit into Amer­i­can life and culture.

10. The Human Stain (2003)

This film is based on Philip Roth’s 2000 novel of the same name. Cole­man Silk (played by Anthony Hop­kins) is a clas­sics pro­fes­sor at the fic­tional New Eng­land school Athena Col­lege. Silk ends up being accused of dis­crim­i­na­tion by two black stu­dents after he makes a com­ment in class that gets mis­in­ter­preted as a racial slur. Through flash­backs to his early life, we dis­cover that Silk is actu­ally a fair-skinned black man born in New Jer­sey who left home after high school and decided to live the rest of his life “pass­ing” for white, which adds a thick layer of irony to the dis­crim­i­na­tion pro­ceed­ings. Roth’s novel was rep­re­sen­ta­tive of an obses­sion with “the cul­ture wars” in aca­d­e­mic nov­els of the 1990s. These nov­els are lit­tered with sto­ries of dis­crim­i­na­tion, sex­ual har­ras­ment and “polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness” on cam­pus. The film ver­sion of The Human Stain man­aged to keep some of that polit­i­cal con­tent in the story, while also sat­is­fy­ing the Hol­ly­wood appetite for tales of love and romance. In this case, Silk takes up with groundskeeper Fau­nia Far­ley (Nicole Kid­man) and their rela­tion­ship aggra­vates the scan­dals brew­ing around him. Many peo­ple quib­bled with the choice of Anthony Hop­kins as Silk (Went­worth Miller played the young ver­sion), but he turns in a solid per­for­mance. I was ready to dis­miss the glam­orous Nicole Kid­man as a col­lege groundskeeper, but she also gives the char­ac­ter believ­able depth. To devoted novel read­ers, films can never sat­isfy the nuances pos­si­ble in a long novel, but in this adap­ta­tion I thought the film­mak­ers made some good strate­gic choices about which parts of the novel to include to give it con­ti­nu­ity on screen.

9. School Daze (1988)
school daze

I can’t even pre­tend to be objec­tive about this one. In the sum­mer of 1996 I rented this film from the local Block­buster and pored over it in the days before I started my fresh­man year at More­house Col­lege, where direc­tor Spike Lee attended school, and where much of the film was shot. Many of the nation’s his­tor­i­cally black col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties (or HBCUs) were founded in the years fol­low­ing the civil war and eman­ci­pa­tion. The film’s open­ing mon­tage (accom­pa­nied by the famous More­house Glee Club) func­tions as sort of a photo essay that sit­u­ates the his­tory of black higher edu­ca­tion within the larger black polit­i­cal strug­gle in the US. “Mis­sion Col­lege” (and all the HBCUs that it is a stand in for) is rep­re­sented as the prod­uct of these years of polit­i­cal progress. School Daze fol­lows the exploits of a small clique of stu­dents over a long Home­com­ing Week­end. Lau­rence Fish­burne plays “Dap” the res­i­dent cam­pus rad­i­cal who wants the col­lege to take a stronger stance against apartheid in South Africa. The sto­ry­line calls atten­tion to the com­pli­cated social pol­i­tics of black col­leges where uni­ver­sity lead­ers sub­scribe to stuffy prin­ci­ples of respectabil­ity and uplift and thus dis­cour­age the kind of pro­gres­sive activism seen on major­ity white cam­puses. While School Daze rubbed some black col­lege alums the wrong way with its depic­tion of sex­u­al­ity, color con­scious­ness, gen­der pol­i­tics, and class elit­ism, the film helped to push black col­lege life into the Amer­i­can main­stream, and spawned the tele­vi­sion series A Dif­fer­ent World, with sev­eral cast mem­bers mov­ing on to star in the show.

8. Good Will Hunt­ing (1997)

Focus­ing on the story of a reluc­tant genius who works at MIT as a jan­i­tor, Good Will Hunt­ing explores, among other issues, the “town and gown” phe­nom­e­non which is par­tic­u­larly preva­lent in Boston with its con­cen­tra­tion of elite uni­ver­si­ties. (School Daze also explored this phe­nom­e­non in Atlanta in a hilar­i­ous encounter between Jheri-curled local Samuel L. Jack­son, and a group of ide­al­is­tic black col­lege stu­dents.) Will Hunt­ing is a jan­i­tor at MIT who is har­bor­ing a secret rare intel­lec­tual tal­ent beneath his tough South Boston exte­rior. Good Will Hunt­ing was one of those Oscar sea­son films, and it has its share of corny Oscar bait moments. For­tu­nately Robin Williams sal­vages it from com­plete sap with his poignant por­trayal of a psy­chol­ogy pro­fes­sor who fore­goes the cut­throat world of the research uni­ver­sity for teach­ing at a com­mu­nity col­lege. (Though com­mu­nity col­lege pro­fes­sors rarely have time to sit in the park hav­ing heart­felt one-on-one con­ver­sa­tions about life and love.) It was Robin Williams’s char­ac­ter who was finally able to get through to Will and con­vince him to make the best of his rare tal­ents. Though in usual Hol­ly­wood style the film devolves into just another banal story about how love con­quers all, and its fee­ble attempts at class pol­i­tics are under­cut by its depic­tion of Will as an almost super­hu­man tal­ent. How­ever, the film also explores the some­times fraught place of the uni­ver­sity as a val­i­dat­ing mech­a­nism for knowl­edge and tal­ent. And in his con­ver­sa­tions with Will, Williams’s char­ac­ter warns us against the excesses of intel­lec­tual arrogance.

7. Higher Learn­ing (1995)

Higher Learn­ing, directed by Boyz in the Hood direc­tor John Sin­gle­ton, is an ensem­ble drama set in the fic­tional Colum­bus Uni­ver­sity in Cal­i­for­nia. The film takes an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to cam­pus issues includ­ing such hot but­ton top­ics as alco­holism, date rape, homo­sex­u­al­ity, racial balka­niza­tion, affir­ma­tive action and the exploita­tion of ath­letes. Ice Cube’s per­for­mance as the black mil­i­tant Fudge (replete with Afro and fist-pick) was espe­cially inspired. Fudge is a proud auto­di­dact who snubs his nose at the edu­ca­tional estab­lish­ment and embraces knowl­edge as a tool of lib­er­a­tion rather than a ticket to a job on the white man’s plan­ta­tion. In many ways his depic­tion is, right or wrong, a rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the chip-on-their-shoulder arro­gance that some attribute to black stu­dents on major­ity white col­lege cam­puses in the affir­ma­tive action era. Ice Cube’s char­ac­ter rev­els in the role, and pushes the enve­lope by antag­o­niz­ing his white class­mates with all night par­ties and lec­tur­ing the young track star Omar Epps on how he is being exploited for his ath­letic tal­ents. Michael Rapa­port plays an awk­ward white kid from Idaho who is out of his depths at the school and gets taken in by Neo-Nazis who teach him of his true iden­tity as a white male vic­tim of mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism run amok. The shoot­ing spree that ensues hits a lit­tle too close to home given the spate of recent inci­dents of gun vio­lence on col­lege cam­puses and beyond. But then again, it’s just another exam­ple of John Sin­gle­ton hav­ing his fin­ger on the pulse of what’s hap­pen­ing in the nation.

6. The Paper Chase (1973)

I sus­pect that ambi­tious pre-law grads on their way to Har­vard Law School have prob­a­bly watched this film the same way HBCU-bound stu­dents watch School Daze. The Paper Chase depicts the fierce, cut­throat world of the Ivy League law school. James Hart (played by Tim­o­thy Bot­toms) is a first year law stu­dent who finds him­self up against the uncom­pro­mis­ing law pro­fes­sor Charles King­field (played by John House­man who reprised the role in the spin-off tele­vi­sion series that played on cable in the 1980s). It turns out that the girl who Hart has the hots for just so hap­pens to be Kingsfield’s daugh­ter. The pres­sures of law school are brought home in the sto­ry­line of a class­mate who strug­gles to keep up while try­ing to bal­ance his rocky mar­riage and ends up threat­en­ing to com­mit sui­cide. Mean­while Kingsfield’s daugh­ter has seen enough of the insen­si­tive law stu­dents and mocks Hart’s lawyerly aspi­ra­tions. Between the strug­gles of his fel­low stu­dents and his fail­ure to win her over, Hart ques­tions his own com­mit­ment to the pro­fes­sion. The maudlin con­clu­sion to the film ends up being that thor­oughly Amer­i­can story of hav­ing your cake and eat­ing it too. You can be both a blood­thirsty lawyer and a sen­si­tive human­i­tar­ian! Nev­er­the­less, the film does illus­trate some of the per­ti­nent ques­tions law stu­dents face as they try to hold their own in a highly com­pet­i­tive field.

5. Sur­viv­ing Desire (1991)

Sur­viv­ing Desire was directed by auteur Hal Hart­ley. I have to give props to my friend Robert Caputi (Adjunct Prof. of Soci­ol­ogy, BMCC) for telling me about the film and loan­ing me a VHS copy since the DVD ver­sion seems to be scarce. The film stars Mar­tin Dono­van as a col­lege lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor named Jude (a not-so-subtle shout out to Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure). Jude is infat­u­ated with his stu­dent Sofie, played by Mary B. Ward. Like Jude and Sue of Hardy’s novel, Jude and Sofie in Sur­viv­ing Desire are unable to resist the pas­sion of doomed love. Jude is an eccen­tric pro­fes­sor who is fas­ci­nated with the work of Dos­to­evsky and who aggra­vates his stu­dents by speak­ing in lit­er­ary quo­ta­tions and ask­ing open-ended ques­tions. Sofie is an ador­ing stu­dent who “gets” Jude, and responds to him when he starts to pur­sue her. Some might find the styl­ized intel­lec­tual dia­logue in the film a bit pre­ten­tious, but it is deliv­ered with a style and humor that makes it work. It is also worth men­tion­ing that the film is pack­aged with aHal Hart­ley short called “The­ory of Achieve­ment,” which is a rather prophetic early look at the cesspool of post-college pseudo-bohemian nar­cis­sism begin­ning to take form over in the old indus­trial lofts of Williams­burg, Brooklyn.

4. The Blue Angel (Der blaue Engel) (1930)
Annex - Dietrich, Marlene (Blue Angel, The)_02

The Blue Angel is best known as a star vehi­cle for Mar­lene Diet­rich and a vivid por­trayal of Weimar Germany’s deca­dent cabaret cul­ture. Pro­fes­sor Emmanuel Rath (Emil Jan­nings) is a strict and humor­less school­mas­ter who finds that some of his stu­dents are going to a local speakeasy called The Blue Angel. Hop­ing to catch the boys at the club, Pro­fes­sor Rath goes there him­self and ends up see­ing the viva­cious cabaret per­former Lola, played by Diet­rich in a per­for­mance that launched her into an inter­na­tional star. Rath’s story of being con­sumed by desire for Lola is a well-worn sto­ry­line in aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. The cere­bral uptight pro­fes­sor who has spent his entire life dis­ci­plin­ing the intel­lect finds him­self being led into ill-fated deci­sions by the pow­ers of desire and the fail­ures of the flesh. The film also shows the harsh judg­ments of moral­ism in the aca­d­e­mic com­mu­nity as the school admin­is­tra­tors denounce Rath for his rela­tion­ship with Lola, even though he intends to prop­erly marry her. Rath later leaves his posi­tion at the acad­emy and mar­ries Lola, but they soon run out of money, and things begin to spi­ral out of con­trol. Rath’s life ends in humil­i­a­tion and ruin after an awful night­club scene in his old col­lege town. He dies clench­ing the desk in the room where he once taught. The Blue Angel is actu­ally a link in a chain of aca­d­e­mic fic­tions. It is based on a 1905 Hein­rich Mann novel Pro­fes­sor Unrat. Also, Francine Prose’s aca­d­e­mic novel Blue Angel was inspired by the film, and fol­lows a sim­i­lar nar­ra­tive (with the temptress being a cre­ative writ­ing stu­dent instead of a cabaret per­former). Lastly, both the film and Prose’s book are name-checked in another aca­d­e­mic film, The Sav­ages (2007), fea­tur­ing Philip Sey­mour Hoff­man as a Brecht­ian the­ater professor.

3. Horse Feath­ers (1932)

Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff (Grou­cho Marx): “The trou­ble is we’re neglect­ing foot­ball for education…Tomorrow we start tear­ing down the col­lege.”
The Pro­fes­sors: “But, Pro­fes­sor, where will the stu­dents sleep?”
Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff: “Where they always sleep. In the classroom!”

In Jan­u­ary 2010 the Uni­ver­sity of Alabama Crim­son Tide won col­lege football’s national title. Its head foot­ball coach, Nick Saban, makes over $4 mil­lion dol­lars a year at the state-run school. The high­est paid state employee in many states is usu­ally the uni­ver­sity foot­ball coach. As schools begin to lay­off teach­ers, deny tenure and rely on adjunct labor to teach its stu­dents, ath­letic bud­gets and salaries con­tinue to rise, and TV con­tracts and endorse­ments for col­lege sports get big­ger and big­ger. Given this state of affairs the Marx Broth­ers look like prophets for their 1932 satire Horse Feath­ers. Grou­cho Marx plays Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff at the fic­tional Dar­win Col­lege. The col­lege is prepar­ing for a show­down with rival Hux­ley Col­lege, and Pro­fes­sor Wagstaff hears that a cou­ple of “ringer” foot­ball play­ers might be avail­able for hire at the local speakeasy. The sto­ry­line is strik­ingly pre­scient. The acqui­si­tions of ringers in the guise of “student-athletes” is pretty much the norm in big time col­lege ath­let­ics these days. The foot­ball game at the end is a gem of absur­dist com­edy stunts, the most mem­o­rable being a touch­down scored by hop­ping on a horse-driven char­iot charg­ing down the field. The Marx Broth­ers’ satir­i­cal take on the uni­ver­sity and the excesses of col­lege sports def­i­nitely makes this a film worth recon­sid­er­ing in the cur­rent aca­d­e­mic climate.

2. Oleanna (1994)

David Mamet directed this film adap­ta­tion of his con­tro­ver­sial play. Yes, it is about sex­ual harass­ment. But it is about much more than that. I’m con­vinced that few films have attempted to explore the mean­ing of higher edu­ca­tion with more inten­sity than Oleanna. The story is deliv­ered in a series of esca­lat­ing con­ver­sa­tions between the pro­fes­sor named John (William H. Macy), and the stu­dent named Carol (Debra Eisen­stadt). The stilted Mamet-speak that worked so well in Glen­garry Glenn Ross gets a bit aggra­vat­ing here, but stay with it. At the end of the first act is a delib­er­ately ambigu­ous inci­dent which Carol later uses to file a sex­ual harass­ment com­plaint against John. How­ever, the play has a mul­ti­lay­ered com­plex­ity that goes beyond a sim­ple issue of who’s right and who’s wrong. Their dia­logue began as a dis­cus­sion about her grade which turned into an exam­i­na­tion of the place of higher edu­ca­tion in Amer­i­can cul­ture, and the evolv­ing expec­ta­tions of stu­dents who spend increas­ing amounts of time and money to attend col­lege. The con­ceit of the film is that this dia­logue on edu­ca­tion ends up being swamped and over­taken by the sex­ual harass­ment drama. This mir­rors the way in which argu­ments over polit­i­cal cor­rect­ness, as nec­es­sary as they were in the 1980s and 1990s, diverted atten­tion away from the under­ly­ing sys­tem­atic changes tak­ing place in higher edu­ca­tion. The whole power rela­tion­ship between pro­fes­sor and stu­dent has changed, and John, who pos­tures as a sort of intel­lec­tual mav­er­ick, is obliv­i­ous to the ways that he is really just another con­de­scend­ing blowhard of the old school, try­ing to lec­ture his way out of the accu­sa­tions and con­stantly telling Carol to “sit down” while he explains things to her. As for Carol it is just as impor­tant that we see her as an enti­tled con­sumer of edu­ca­tion as she is a woman who has (or has not) been wronged, and part of her arro­gance comes from this newly dis­cov­ered power that she is able to wield.

1. Wit (2001)
wit emma thompson


Fair warn­ing: Wit is a bit of a downer. How­ever, beneath the sad story of the main character’s strug­gle with can­cer is a poignant tale about the mean­ing of the aca­d­e­mic life and the value of knowl­edge and intel­lec­tual pur­suit. From the begin­ning it becomes appar­ent that the main char­ac­ter, lit­er­a­ture pro­fes­sor Vivian Bear­ing (Emma Thomp­son) will not make it out alive, and the film takes us through her excru­ci­at­ing last days in the can­cer ward of a research hos­pi­tal. How­ever, Bear­ing faces death with, well, wit. Based on a Pulitzer Prize win­ning play by Mar­garet Edson, the HBO film (the title was W;t in the orig­i­nal play) fol­lows Vivian Bear­ing as she pre­pares to under­take treat­ment for ovar­ian can­cer. Bear­ing is a John Donne scholar, and the film weaves together the sig­nif­i­cance of Donne’s poetry and his exam­i­na­tion of death in Bearing’s own strug­gle as she finds her­self fac­ing the very thing she has spent her adult life study­ing. Bear­ing is a wel­come anti­dote to the dull parade of men behav­ing badly in the aca­d­e­mic fic­tions of Philip Roth, David Lodge, and their male cohorts. Too many of these nov­els reduce female schol­ars to either objects of lust or con­niv­ing shrews. Faced with ovar­ian can­cer and the bleak diag­no­sis that she will not sur­vive, Bear­ing agrees to par­tic­i­pate in a series of bru­tal treat­ments which will be of con­sid­er­able value to med­ical research. In a twist, the young doc­tor assigned to take care of her was a stu­dent in one her classes, which were known for being among the tough­est on cam­pus. As she begins her treat­ments she is briefed about the sever­ity of the treat­ments, and told that their find­ings will be a “sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to knowl­edge” about ovar­ian can­cer. Vivian’s response is that when it comes to the can­cer treat­ments and to the pur­suit of knowl­edge she will gladly take the full dose. Through­out the film, as the treat­ments become more excru­ci­at­ing, the phrase “full dose” becomes an affir­ma­tion of her com­mit­ment to the pur­suit of knowl­edge in the face of dif­fi­culty, pain, and loss.


Pictures of an Institution

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in February 2010.)

Books Reviewed:

The Mar­ket­place of Ideas by Louis Menand. W. W. Nor­ton and Com­pany (2010).

The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity: Its Rise to Pre­em­i­nence, Its Indis­pens­able National Role, Why It Must Be Pro­tected by Jonathan R. Cole. Pub­lic Affairs (2010).

In Willa Cather’s 1925 novel The Professor’s House, God­frey St. Peter, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at a Mid­west­ern uni­ver­sity, befriends Dr. Crane, a pro­fes­sor in the physics depart­ment at the same school (and men­tor to the novel’s tragic hero Tom Out­land). These two pro­fes­sors, one from the human­i­ties and one from the sci­ences, find a com­mon foe in what they see as the encroach­ment of indus­try and profit in the edu­ca­tional process, a phe­nom­e­non that threat­ens their goal of pro­duc­ing well-rounded, cul­ti­vated stu­dents. As Cather describes it: “His friend­ship with Crane had been a strange one. Out in the world they would almost cer­tainly have kept clear of each other; but in the uni­ver­sity they had fought together in a com­mon course. Both, with all their might, had resisted the new com­mer­cial­ism, the aim to ‘show results’ that was under­min­ing and vul­gar­iz­ing edu­ca­tion. The State Leg­is­la­ture and the board of Regents seemed deter­mined to make a trade school of the Uni­ver­sity.” That this appears in a novel pub­lished in 1925 is some indi­ca­tion of how long there has been this per­sis­tent anx­i­ety over the aims of higher edu­ca­tion, and the fear that mar­ket forces were cor­rupt­ing the val­ues of insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing. (In The Professor’s House these forces of profit play a major role in the story, as the sci­en­tific dis­cov­ery of the deceased intel­lec­tual prodigy Tom Out­land ends up being patented and used to fund the lux­u­ri­ous lifestyle of St. Peter’s unscrupu­lous son-in-law.)

One won­ders what Pro­fes­sors St. Peter and Crane would think of today’s uni­ver­si­ties with their power rank­ings, out­sized ath­letic pro­grams, and stu­dents who resem­ble not so much pupils as cus­tomers (who are always right!). And that’s not to men­tion the rise of for-profit con­glom­er­ates like the Uni­ver­sity of Phoenix. Louis Menand’s The Mar­ket­place of Ideas and Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, are two recent works on higher edu­ca­tion which attempt to make sense of where the nation’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties are today, what makes them work or not work, and what chal­lenges lie ahead for Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion in the com­ing years.

Before tak­ing his cur­rent posi­tion as the Bass Pro­fes­sor of Eng­lish at Har­vard, where he has been since 2003, Louis Menand taught here in the Grad­u­ate Center’s Eng­lish depart­ment. His newest book, The Mar­ket­place of Ideas: Reform and Resis­tance in the Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity, is part of W. W. Norton’s Issues of Our Time series edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Menand men­tions that he served on a com­mit­tee to re-develop Har­vard College’s Gen­eral Edu­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum, and this had no small part in inspir­ing the book, which exam­ines the his­tory of higher edu­ca­tion, ideas about appro­pri­ate cur­ricu­lum, and the state of grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion at the cur­rent moment. Com­ing from a dif­fer­ent angle is Jonathan R. Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity: Its Rise to Pre­em­i­nence, Its Indis­pens­able National Role, Why It Must Be Pro­tected. Cole is a soci­ol­o­gist by train­ing and served as the Provost and Dean of Fac­ul­ties at Colum­bia Uni­ver­sity from 1989 to 2003. In this book, Cole exam­ines the nation’s largest and most pres­ti­gious research uni­ver­si­ties, shows why the United States is the unequiv­o­cal world leader in aca­d­e­mic research, and argues that this sta­tus could be threat­ened by lim­i­ta­tions on research and inquiry put in place in the past eight years.

As you may have gath­ered from the lit­er­ary ref­er­ence that began this review, my own alle­giances are in the human­i­ties. I am a stu­dent in the Eng­lish depart­ment here at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, and my dis­ser­ta­tion project is on aca­d­e­mic nov­els such as Cather’s The Professor’s House and Ran­dall Jarrell’s Pic­tures from an Insti­tu­tion, exam­in­ing them in the con­text of the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. All of us in this pro­fes­sion encounter debates around higher edu­ca­tion and pol­icy in some form. Though it is impos­si­ble to keep up with every arti­cle, trend, and debate, we all read our share of pieces from The Chron­i­cle of Higher Edu­ca­tion and How­ever, my work on this dis­ser­ta­tion has led me to dive head­first into the volu­mi­nous field of higher edu­ca­tion his­tory. I soon found myself drown­ing in a sea of mono­graphs full of over­lap­ping infor­ma­tion, murky sta­tis­ti­cal claims, and con­fus­ing, con­vo­luted his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tives about the ori­gins and tra­jec­tory of America’s insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion and all of the admin­is­tra­tive per­son­al­i­ties that have shaped the field. Com­pli­cat­ing mat­ters even more is the fact that the Amer­i­can col­le­giate sys­tem is not really a “sys­tem’ at all, but a loose net­work of degree grant­ing insti­tu­tions. On the up side, this allows for a won­der­ful diver­sity of insti­tu­tions and approaches. Accord­ing to Cole, there are roughly 4,300 dif­fer­ent insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing grant­ing degrees in the United States today. Ulti­mately, that vari­ety is an asset that allows stu­dents of var­i­ous abil­i­ties, back­grounds and inter­ests to choose among a plethora of options. We now have small lib­eral arts col­leges like Berea Col­lege in Ken­tucky, a school known for its inno­v­a­tive financ­ing which does not charge its stu­dents tuition. We have mas­sive pub­lic state col­leges like Ohio State Uni­ver­sity which, while located in Colum­bus, func­tions like a whole city unto itself. And we also have unique insti­tu­tions with spe­cific his­tor­i­cal mis­sions such as my alma mater, More­house Col­lege, the nation’s only all-male his­tor­i­cally black col­lege. Cole’s num­ber of 4,300 also includes the hun­dreds of com­mu­nity col­leges spread out across the coun­try. But how does one begin to doc­u­ment and quan­tify the out­comes of edu­ca­tion given all these dis­parate insti­tu­tions and their assorted cur­ric­ula? How do you com­pile a his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion in such a way that it gives us a lan­guage for assess­ing the suc­cess and fail­ures of edu­ca­tion and pro­vides some ground­ing to make the appro­pri­ate changes to ensure that these insti­tu­tions remain com­pet­i­tive in the 21st cen­tury? Some schol­ars have taken an insti­tu­tional approach, exam­in­ing the his­tory of one par­tic­u­lar insti­tu­tion and its admin­is­tra­tive deci­sions about cur­ricu­lum. Other his­to­ri­ans have attempted sweep­ing his­tor­i­cal sur­veys of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion as a whole, and the library shelves groan under the weight of these tomes, many clock­ing in at 500 pages or more.

In The Mar­ket­place of Ideas, Menand nar­rows his empha­sis to a set of par­tic­u­lar issues, but in the process pro­vides a use­ful overview of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. The book is orga­nized into three essays exam­in­ing three par­tic­u­lar issues in higher edu­ca­tion: 1) the his­tory of the gen­eral edu­ca­tion cur­ricu­lum, 2) the logic of aca­d­e­mic dis­ci­plines and the allure of “inter­dis­ci­pli­nar­ity” as a buzz­word in acad­e­mia, and 3) the pol­i­tics of pro­fes­sors and the aca­d­e­mic labor mar­ket. Menand’s writ­ing style may seem decep­tively sim­ple — the book clocks in at a slim 174 pages — but in the course of pre­sent­ing the back­ground on these top­ics Menand also does a mas­ter­ful job of tam­ing and syn­the­siz­ing over a century’s worth of schol­ar­ship on higher edu­ca­tion. To boil all that down to an acces­si­ble nar­ra­tive requires some gen­er­al­iza­tions, and there are many in The Mar­ket­place of Ideas. But Menand has picked his reduc­tionisms wisely and his attempt to fash­ion a coher­ent nar­ra­tive out of all of this his­tory is in itself a use­ful exer­cise that will allow schol­ars to reeval­u­ate some of the cen­tral themes in the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher education.

One of the most strik­ing con­cepts that jumps out of the book’s sec­ond sec­tion is his insis­tence on label­ing the years between 1945 and 1975 as the “Golden Age of Acad­e­mia,” a period dur­ing which “the num­ber of Amer­i­can under­grad­u­ates increased by almost 500 per­cent and the num­ber of grad­u­ate stu­dents increased by nearly 900 per­cent.” This is a level of growth that will likely never be sur­passed. Higher edu­ca­tion con­tin­ued to grow after 1975 but at a much slower rate. The Golden Age began with the end of World War II and the intro­duc­tion of the G.I. Bill, and lasted until the finan­cial tur­moil of the 1970s. The G.I. Bill is per­haps the sin­gle most impor­tant piece of leg­is­la­tion in the his­tory of Amer­i­can higher edu­ca­tion. It extended what was once a priv­i­lege reserved for chil­dren of the wealthy to thou­sands of work­ing class vet­er­ans. These mea­sures have rad­i­cally reshaped the look, feel and size of America’s colleges.

No doubt many of my peers approach­ing the job mar­ket will want to skip ahead to the third sec­tion titled “Why Do Pro­fes­sors All Think Alike.” Here Menand con­fronts the well-worn con­ser­v­a­tive gripe against a left­ist bias in higher edu­ca­tion, espe­cially in the human­i­ties where mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism and pop cul­ture have allegedly replaced the sober study of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion and its great­ness. Menand dis­man­tles this argu­ment by cit­ing sur­veys that show that the acad­emy does in fact lean lib­eral, but it does so across dis­ci­pli­nary lines, includ­ing in the sci­ences, and that within that umbrella of “lib­eral” is a vari­ety of polit­i­cal and reli­gious per­spec­tives. How­ever, Menand acknowl­edges that “the pol­i­tics of the pro­fes­so­ri­ate is homoge­nous,” and goes on to argue that this homo­gene­ity is rooted in how acad­e­mia trains and hires its pro­fes­sors. While I don’t think Menand’s expla­na­tion is con­vinc­ing his dis­cus­sion of aca­d­e­mic labor is worth a look less for its inter­ven­tion into the cul­ture wars and more for his exam­i­na­tion of the “time to degree” which has blown wildly out of pro­por­tion. For instance, a typ­i­cal grad­u­ate stu­dent in Eng­lish will spend roughly ten years earn­ing a doc­toral degree. Other human­i­ties fields have com­pa­ra­ble num­bers. This is an unnec­es­sary and sadis­tic sys­tem. Menand pro­poses that the human­i­ties Ph.D. should be stream­lined in the way that pro­grams in med­i­cine, law and busi­ness are admin­is­tered, with a set num­ber of years and clearer pro­gram require­ments. The length of the Ph.D. pro­gram pro­hibits many stu­dents from con­sid­er­ing the process at all. Short­en­ing the time to degree would make grad­u­ate edu­ca­tion seem less daunt­ing for col­lege grad­u­ates from mod­est eco­nomic back­grounds who may have already sac­ri­ficed greatly just to get an under­grad­u­ate degree and who may be inter­ested in earn­ing a Ph.D. but unable and unwill­ing to endure its length and cost.

As for the labor mar­ket itself, Menand writes that “There is a sense in which the sys­tem is now designed to pro­duce ABDs.” These ABDs have increas­ingly served as the cheap labor force for teach­ing under­grad­u­ate stu­dents. In recent years we have seen a grad­u­ate stu­dent union­iza­tion move­ment nec­es­sary to coun­ter­act uni­ver­si­ties using grad­u­ate stu­dents to teach under­grad­u­ate courses, even the upper-level ones once reserved for tenured fac­ulty. (I first typed in “full-time fac­ulty,” but many adjuncts are teach­ing full-time, which is pre­cisely one of the prob­lems.) Menand does not go far enough in indict­ing the exploita­tion of the cur­rent adjunct teach­ing sys­tem. And one won­ders if this sys­tem of con­tin­gent labor has any chance of being stopped. Now with the rise of for-profit schools and the preva­lence of cor­po­rate man­age­ment in higher edu­ca­tion becom­ing the norm, the sit­u­a­tion con­tin­ues to look bleak. Nev­er­the­less, Menand pro­vides some ammu­ni­tion against the usual nar­ra­tive of an “over­pro­duc­tion of Ph.D.s.” Marc Bousquet’s book How the Uni­ver­sity Works and his blog of the same name, also con­tests the “over­pro­duc­tion” the­sis, show­ing that the demand for teach­ing is actu­ally higher with more stu­dents enrolling in col­lege each year, and that adjuncts are being slammed with larger class sizes. The ques­tion of “over­pro­duc­tion” must be seen in light of the growth of adjunct­ing as the default teach­ing model for the humanities.

At first glance the hefty 660 pages of Jonathan Cole’s The Great Amer­i­can Uni­ver­sity appears to be exactly the kind of dense, fore­bod­ing book I described ear­lier that makes up the canon of higher edu­ca­tion his­tory. And to some degree it is. But Cole has done an exem­plary job of mak­ing the nar­ra­tive rel­a­tively acces­si­ble despite the volu­mi­nous sta­tis­ti­cal data and flurry of emi­nent names that bog the book down at times. Cole has spent most of his life at Colum­bia where he earned his under­grad­u­ate and grad­u­ate degrees in soci­ol­ogy, and later served as provost for four­teen years until 2003. His focus in the book is, well, uni­ver­si­ties like Colum­bia. Cole iden­ti­fies about 260 insti­tu­tions that now claim to be research uni­ver­si­ties and nar­rows his focus to the 100+ that sit at the top of the list.

The first sec­tion of the book chron­i­cles the his­tory of the nation’s ear­li­est insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing and exam­ines how these colo­nial col­leges evolved into major research uni­ver­si­ties over the years. Long story short, by 2001 the United States has pro­duced a third of the world’s sci­ence and engi­neer­ing arti­cles in ref­er­eed jour­nals, and in three of the past four years Amer­i­can aca­d­e­mics have received a major­ity of the Nobel prizes for sci­ence and eco­nom­ics. The Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity sys­tem, like the nation itself, has firm roots in Eng­land, but Cole also describes how Amer­i­can insti­tu­tions bor­rowed from the Ger­man model of the 19th cen­tury, with its com­bi­na­tion of research and teach­ing. Ger­many is a key part of Cole’s con­clu­sions in the book. Cole returns to the his­tory of Nazi Ger­many in the 20th cen­tury to demon­strate how repres­sion of free inquiry dam­aged Germany’s stand­ing as the site of the world’s most com­pet­i­tive research insti­tu­tions, dri­ving tal­ented aca­d­e­mics in Ger­many and Aus­tria to Amer­i­can uni­ver­si­ties where they helped these insti­tu­tions to flour­ish. The sec­ond part of the book details the spe­cific dis­cov­er­ies and inno­va­tions that have orig­i­nated in Amer­i­can research uni­ver­si­ties — things such as the bar code, con­ges­tion pric­ing for traf­fic, and even the Inter­net itself. The third part out­lines what Cole sees as a poten­tial threat to the Amer­i­can research uni­ver­sity — the squelch­ing of aca­d­e­mic free­dom and sci­en­tific inquiry — espe­cially that which took place under the eight long years of the Bush presidency.

Cole sounds opti­mistic that the Barack Obama admin­is­tra­tion will restore sci­ence to its right­ful place in our research insti­tu­tions and restore some of the restric­tions put in place by George W. Bush’s flat-earth approach to sci­en­tific knowl­edge. In his most recent State of the Union address, Obama at least men­tioned the impor­tance of sci­ence edu­ca­tion (as well as fund­ing for com­mu­nity col­leges). But Cole is leery of the dam­age done by the recent finan­cial crises, and in this regard the Obama admin­is­tra­tion has already been a major dis­ap­point­ment (for any­one not on the board of Gold­man Sachs that is). This, in fact, raises a loom­ing ques­tion about Cole’s own study. He iden­ti­fies a num­ber of inno­va­tions in sci­ence and eco­nom­ics as well as the social sci­ences and human­i­ties, and cheer­leads for the good­ness of America’s insti­tu­tions of higher learn­ing. But I was also left won­der­ing as to the extent that these same elite insti­tu­tions and their depart­ments of eco­nom­ics and busi­ness were the breed­ing grounds for the very poli­cies that have left all of us in finan­cial tur­moil and threat­ened the oppor­tu­ni­ties for a gen­er­a­tion of young Amer­i­cans whose fam­i­lies may no longer be able to afford col­lege at all. Ulti­mately, it is this relent­less push for prof­its and a con­tin­ued faith in cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion and finance cap­i­tal to solve all our prob­lems that is chang­ing insti­tu­tions of higher edu­ca­tion, includ­ing the way they teach stu­dents, and how they train and hire fac­ulty. Nei­ther of these books seems inter­ested in chal­leng­ing cor­po­ra­ti­za­tion of higher edu­ca­tion at the ide­o­log­i­cal level (not that they need to do so as sev­eral other books and many arti­cles have already tread over that ground). But what they have both done is map out the cur­rent ter­rain of the Amer­i­can uni­ver­sity in ways that will help us to under­stand how to ensure that in the rest of the 21st cen­tury, the nation’s col­leges and uni­ver­si­ties main­tain high stan­dards of achieve­ment, and con­tinue to be a force for good.

Books New York

Marcus Garvey and Black Solidarity in the 21st Century

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in December 2008)


Books Reviewed:

Grant, Colin. Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Mar­cus Gar­vey. Oxford: Oxford Uni­ver­sity Press, 2008. 544 pages.

Rolin­son, Mary G. Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927. Chapel Hill: Uni­ver­sity of North Car­olina Press, 2007. 296 pages.

Shelby, Tom­mie. We Who Are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Black Sol­i­dar­ity. Cam­bridge: Har­vard U. Press, 2005. 336 pages.

As a walk­ing tour guide I often lead tours through Harlem, telling the story of how this his­toric neigh­bor­hood rose to promi­nence in the 1920s to become the unof­fi­cial cap­i­tal of black Amer­ica. Among the stops along the tour route is a brown store­front build­ing at 2305 Adam Clay­ton Pow­ell Jr. Blvd. (for­merly Sev­enth Avenue). Now an unas­sum­ing beauty shop called Salon Ambiance, it was once an office of Mar­cus Garvey’s Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion (UNIA), and the organization’s news­pa­per the Negro World. On a recent tour with a group of young white British women, we stopped in front of Salon Ambiance and I launched into my stan­dard abridged his­tory of Gar­vey and his move­ment. While I spoke I passed around a lam­i­nated photo of Gar­vey decked out in mil­i­tary regalia with his dis­tinc­tive plumed hat, rid­ing in the back of a car in a UNIA parade. One of the women stared at the photo and her face grew vis­i­bly unset­tled as I explained Garvey’s rise to power. I told them that he was born in Jamaica in 1887, that as a young man he had embraced Pan-Africanism, that he had come to Harlem in 1916 preach­ing a gospel of black pride and self-determination, and that he had built this mil­i­tant black nation­al­ist orga­ni­za­tion into one of largest mass move­ments in Amer­i­can his­tory. After I fin­ished my spiel, the trou­bled woman softly said, in her lilt­ing British accent, “He sounds a bit scary.”

If Gar­vey can strike fear into the heart of a gen­teel white woman eighty years removed, imag­ine what it was like to see thou­sands of Gar­veyites march­ing in the streets of New York with their Black Cross Nurses, their African Legion para­mil­i­tary guard decked out in full mil­i­tary dress, led by a dark, sawed-off, stout Jamaican who dared to tell black peo­ple that they were not a group of grov­el­ing sub­servients but a “Mighty Race” of peo­ple whose des­tiny was to rule the world. Well, J. Edgar Hoover also found that image quite “scary.” Within just three years of his arrival in Harlem, Garvey’s UNIA had grown large enough and pow­er­ful enough to attract the atten­tion of the United States Jus­tice Department’s newly formed Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (BOI), headed up by Hoover, the leader who over­saw the agency’s tran­si­tion into the Fed­eral Bureau of Inves­ti­ga­tion (FBI).

With Negro With a Hat: The Rise and Fall of Mar­cus Gar­vey (2008) Jamaican-British scholar Colin Grant has filled a siz­able void in black stud­ies with a full-length com­pre­hen­sive biog­ra­phy of Gar­vey. Until I began com­pil­ing an oral exam list on black nation­al­ist thought two years ago, it had not occurred to me that such a book did not exist. David E. Cronon’s Black Moses, orig­i­nally pub­lished in 1960, still holds up as an engag­ing nar­ra­tive of the Garvey’s life, but its infor­ma­tion is now largely out­dated. Tony Martin’s Race First (1976) and Lit­er­ary Gar­vey­ism (1983) are both thor­ough and note­wor­thy con­tri­bu­tions to the intel­lec­tual aspects of Gar­vey­ism. The chief source of pri­mary mate­r­ial on Gar­vey is Robert E. Hill’s mas­sive Gar­vey Papers Project, pub­lished in ten huge bound vol­umes, with an archive housed at the Uni­ver­sity of California-Los Ange­les. Grant has incor­po­rated these and other resources (includ­ing the files of FBI infor­mants who infil­trated the UNIA, the first black agents hired in FBI his­tory) and has pro­vided the most well-synthesized account of Garvey’s life to date.

While Grant’s study focuses on the man him­self, Mary Rolinson’s Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 (2007) gives, per­haps, an even bet­ter view of the over­all struc­ture of the UNIA by pro­vid­ing a closer look at some of the peo­ple who decided to join Garvey’s move­ment in the Amer­i­can South. The sep­a­ratist racial pol­i­tics of Garvey’s move­ment remain as con­tro­ver­sial as ever, and many see Garvey’s black nation­al­ism as an out­moded and inef­fec­tual strat­egy for deal­ing with the chal­lenges of our con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion. In We Who Are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Sol­i­dar­ity (2008) philoso­pher Tom­mie Shelby ana­lyzes black nation­al­ist thought sym­pa­thet­i­cally, but ulti­mately looks for less rigid and more polit­i­cally prac­ti­cal forms of black solidarity.

Mar­cus Mosiah Gar­vey, Jr. was born August 17, 1887 in St. Ann’s Bay on the north­ern coast of Jamaica. The youngest of eleven chil­dren, Gar­vey grew up in a very lit­er­ate house­hold. His father was an avid reader, and the fam­ily had an exten­sive library which the young Gar­vey used to his intel­lec­tual advan­tage. At the age of four­teen, Gar­vey left school and became a printer’s appren­tice, a vitally impor­tant expe­ri­ence for the future leader. It was here that Gar­vey began a life­long inter­est in news­pa­per pub­lish­ing. After mov­ing to Lon­don in 1912, Gar­vey ended up work­ing for Egyptian-born Dusé Mohamed Ali’s influ­en­tial pan-African paper, African Times and Ori­ent Review. Accord­ing to Grant he gleaned just as much from Ali’s numer­ous other busi­ness schemes as he did about the work­ings of the news­pa­per indus­try itself. The one con­sis­tent enter­prise that Gar­vey always came back to through­out his life was the news­pa­per, from the suc­cess of the UNIA’s Negro World in spread­ing the mes­sage of the move­ment, to the bit­ter edi­to­ri­als in The Black Man which he pub­lished in Lon­don in the 1930s after his depor­ta­tion from the United States.

Colin Grant begins Negro With a Hat by relat­ing the story of Garvey’s death. And, in the sort of cos­mic irony that would seem too trite were it fic­tional, it would be a news­pa­per head­line that led to his death. Recov­er­ing from a debil­i­tat­ing stroke in his Lon­don home in 1940, Gar­vey was shown clip­pings announc­ing that “Mar­cus Gar­vey Dies in Lon­don.” An old polit­i­cal rival had begun spread­ing rumors of his death and the pre­ma­ture obit­u­ar­ies were filled with damn­ing and unflat­ter­ing por­tray­als of his life. Gar­vey, dis­traught over these vicious accounts, col­lapsed from another mas­sive stroke while read­ing them. He died two weeks later on June 10, 1940.

In 1914 Gar­vey first attempted to start The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion and African Com­mu­ni­ties League (UNIA_ACL) in Jamaica when he returned there after trav­el­ing for two years in Lon­don. The organization’s motto was, and remains, “One God, One Aim, One Des­tiny.” (The UNIA-ACL tech­ni­cally still exists though its mem­ber­ship is small.) In 1916, like scores of other West Indian immi­grants, he trav­eled to Harlem, which was quickly becom­ing a thriv­ing black metrop­o­lis. Thou­sands of black migrants from the Amer­i­can South and immi­grants from the West Indies were pour­ing into the neigh­bor­hood and cre­at­ing a vibrant mod­ern urban black cul­ture. In 1918 Gar­vey set up a new ver­sion of the UNIA which grew and thrived. Gar­vey had already been prac­tic­ing his skills as an ora­tor while in Lon­don on Speaker’s Cor­ner in Hyde Park. In New York he honed his skills by observ­ing the pyrotech­nics of white evan­ge­list Billy Sun­day. He also drew inspi­ra­tion from Harlem’s own plethora of lively pub­lic speak­ers, includ­ing the black social­ist Hubert Har­ri­son who gave Gar­vey his first speak­ing oppor­tu­ni­ties. Gar­vey per­fected his style and brought it to Harlem’s ver­sion of Speak­ers’ Cor­ner, on 135th St. and Lenox, where he even­tu­ally began to draw crowds with his incen­di­ary speeches.

Grant does a remark­able job of weav­ing Garvey’s ascen­dance into the his­tor­i­cal con­text of early-20th-century Amer­ica. Gar­vey stepped into a per­fect storm stirred by Harlem’s growth as a cul­tural and intel­lec­tual cap­i­tal of black­ness, the return of black sol­diers from WWI bat­tle­fields back to the Jim Crow south, and the con­tin­u­ing white suprema­cist racial vio­lence car­ried out on the black com­mu­nity in the South. Garvey’s ideas about racial sep­a­ra­tion were influ­enced by the awful vio­lence of the East St. Louis, Illi­nois race riot of 1917, in which nearly 200 peo­ple were killed and thou­sands dri­ven out of their homes. Led by Garvey’s soon to be rival, the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois, The National Asso­ci­a­tion for the Advance­ment of Col­ored Peo­ple (NAACP) con­ducted a silent protest march through the streets of Harlem in response to the riots, car­ry­ing signs say­ing “Thou Shalt Not Kill.” By the time of the vio­lence of the Red Sum­mer of 1919 two years later, Gar­vey had per­fected his brand of mil­i­tant black pride, and had effec­tively estab­lished his move­ment as an alter­na­tive to the NAACP’s peace­ful marches and phi­los­o­phy of inte­gra­tion. It should be noted here that Grant takes his title from Du Bois’s deri­sive descrip­tion of Gar­vey, a clumsy and even off-putting choice. But it does speak to the bit­ter rivalry between the two lead­ers and the impor­tance of the dif­fer­ences (and con­tra­dic­tions) in their polit­i­cal philosophies.

With a con­sis­tently grow­ing mem­ber­ship, the UNIA engaged in a num­ber of eco­nomic enter­prises, and Grant gives detailed accounts of these ven­tures, many of which were unfor­tu­nately rife with mis­man­age­ment. Of all the Gar­vey projects, the Black Star Line may be the most defin­i­tive state­ment on Garvey’s enig­matic career. After pur­chas­ing an old WWI coal ship, The SS Yarmouth, Gar­vey planned to rechris­ten it as the Fred­er­ick Dou­glass and make it the first ship in The Black Star Line, a fleet of UNIA owned and oper­ated ships that would, among other func­tions, carry peo­ple to the African con­ti­nent. Gar­vey man­aged to orches­trate a rous­ing and rau­cous launch cel­e­bra­tion with thou­sands of peo­ple gath­ered on Manhattan’s west side at 135th St. near the Hud­son River to watch it set sail. But due to com­pli­cated issues with the ship’s insur­ance it was only allowed to sail out of view of the cheer­ing throngs, then docked again at 23rd Street. The Black Star Line was pro­moted with the idea that those who invested might one day be able to repa­tri­ate in Africa (“Africa for the Africans!”)…but Gar­vey him­self never set foot on the continent.

In the end, Gar­vey was brought low by the Black Star Line, nailed on a tech­ni­cal­ity by an FBI cam­paign bent on stop­ping his move­ment. He was arrested in 1922 for mail fraud in con­nec­tion with the sale of stock in the com­pany. Gar­vey rep­re­sented him­self in the gru­el­ing four week long court case, lost the case, and begin­ning in 1925 he served two years in jail in Atlanta, GA. He was even­tu­ally par­doned by Pres­i­dent Calvin Coolidge, but depor­ta­tion was one of the con­di­tions of the par­don and he sailed back to Jamaica from New Orleans in 1927. Still, what­ever one might say about Mar­cus Gar­vey, Grant’s biog­ra­phy makes it dif­fi­cult to write him off sim­ply as a char­la­tan. It paints the por­trait of a man who was equal parts sin­cer­ity, huck­ster­ism and delu­sional ambi­tion, illu­mi­nat­ing Garvey’s dogged per­sis­tence and deter­mi­na­tion to do some­thing big with his life. Through fail­ure after fail­ure, and set­back after set­back, Gar­vey held fast to a single-minded com­mit­ment to success.

In some ways his­to­rian Mary Rolinson’s Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism: The Uni­ver­sal Negro Improve­ment Asso­ci­a­tion in the Rural South, 1920 – 1927 pro­vides us with a bet­ter under­stand­ing of Gar­vey­ism as a “mass move­ment” than Negro With a Hat. While Grant’s work is mostly a focused char­ac­ter study, Rolin­son tries to make sense of the moti­va­tions and ideas of the peo­ple who joined the ranks of the orga­ni­za­tion by focus­ing on a par­tic­u­lar sub­set of UNIA mem­bers. Grass­roots Gar­vey­ism pro­vides some rare and insight­ful research on Garvey’s influ­ence among black South­ern­ers. As she argues, “a closer look at this seg­ment of Gar­veyites offers not only a glimpse into the elu­sive intel­lec­tual his­tory of rural south­ern farm­ers but also a fuller under­stand­ing of the dynam­ics and nature of Gar­vey­ism.” There were 1, 176 divi­sions of the UNIA through­out the world by 1926. Eighty per­cent of these were in the United States. Of the U.S. chap­ters Rolin­son places 423 of these in the South­ern States. Def­i­nite num­bers are hard to come by, but Rolin­son finds records for over 9,000 actual pay­ing mem­bers. How­ever, she coun­ter­bal­ances that num­ber with crowd esti­mates of peo­ple who attended pro-Garvey mass meet­ings all over the South over the course of his arrest and trial, esti­mates which sug­gest over 100,000 peo­ple may have been in atten­dance. She culled demo­graphic infor­ma­tion about the UNIA mem­bers from cen­sus records, and her inter­pre­ta­tions of the south­ern UNIA is informed by care­ful read­ings of the Negro World for reports of south­ern activ­ity. The nature of her research meant Rolin­son had to rely heav­ily on con­jec­ture, but she does a com­mend­able job bal­anc­ing this pri­mary research with informed speculations.

What she finds is that more than a few rural south­ern­ers embraced Garvey’s move­ment in the South. In the process she com­pli­cates the stan­dard nar­ra­tive of the Great Migra­tion, which car­ries the assump­tion that the most mil­i­tant and intel­lec­tu­ally engaged blacks moved to the North­ern cities, and that rad­i­cal­iza­tion was only pos­si­ble by mov­ing to the freer spaces of the urban North. On the con­trary, she illus­trates a rich his­tory of polit­i­cal engage­ment and rad­i­cal defi­ance hap­pen­ing under the radar in the South. The premise of the book, she writes, is to show that “…how­ever busy and bur­dened this group was, how­ever few records they left behind, and how­ever far their ide­ol­ogy may have devi­ated from the lib­eral inte­gra­tionist frame­work, these African-Americans had strong impulses to deter­mine and improve their own futures and found ways to do so through orga­ni­za­tion and inde­pen­dent thought.” For the most part the book deliv­ers on that promise. But still, the find­ings must be put in per­spec­tive. At the end of the day, as illu­mi­nat­ing as her work is, it only sheds light on one area of an impor­tant but failed polit­i­cal movement.

Which brings us to the over­all legacy of Garvey’s move­ment. The UNIA was with­out a doubt an insti­tu­tional fail­ure. The orga­ni­za­tion itself was by all accounts poorly man­aged and squan­dered its mass appeal. Yet it would be a mis­take to dis­miss the impor­tance of the UNIA and Garvey’s career whole­sale because of its tac­ti­cal errors. The apex of the Gar­vey move­ment, and its most phe­nom­e­nal spec­ta­cle, came in 1920 when a UNIA con­ven­tion was held at Madi­son Square Gar­den. The con­ven­tion itself was attended by some 25,000 peo­ple, and thou­sands more turned out to see the UNIA parade wind through the streets of New York. The whole event was staged as an orches­trated coro­na­tion of Gar­vey as the leader of the Pan-African move­ment, a sort of African pres­i­dent in exile. Grant writes that “as with many of Garvey’s ear­lier pro­mo­tions, the idea of African titles unrolled at the con­ven­tion was meant more in ges­ture, albeit a grand ges­ture intended to inspire and unify the Negro world.” And this may be where Garvey’s great­est legacy lies, in pre­cisely these sorts of sym­bolic ges­tures. At the end of the day his most sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tions were mainly in the cul­tural and psy­cho­log­i­cal realm, rather than at the insti­tu­tional level. Gar­vey was not the first emi­gra­tionist, nor was he the first to try to cul­ti­vate a more pos­i­tive atti­tude toward African her­itage and the African con­ti­nent. His African redemp­tion­ism car­ried the all too com­mon van­guardist and elit­ist atti­tude of West­ern blacks towards Africa. Still, he effec­tively pop­u­lar­ized pos­i­tive views of Africa and black­ness, teach­ing that Africa had a past and present, that it was not just a back­ward place from which black Amer­i­cans should be grate­ful to have been “saved.” Oth­ers had been teach­ing this for years, but none achieved so great an effect. His abil­ity to get so many of the black rank and file to embrace his move­ment changed the game in black pol­i­tics and forced other orga­ni­za­tions to reeval­u­ate their own strate­gies in order to reach the black work­ing class.

Racism remains a prob­lem deeply imbed­ded in Amer­i­can cul­ture through insti­tu­tional racism and struc­tural inequal­ity, and it is a prob­lem that can­not be willed away with pro­nounce­ments of color-blindness. In We Who are Dark: The Philo­soph­i­cal Foun­da­tions of Black Sol­i­dar­ity, Har­vard philoso­pher Tom­mie Shelby tries to under­stand how the con­cept of black sol­i­dar­ity can be used in a way that con­tests racist poli­cies and pol­i­tics, but does so with­out reify­ing anti­quated notions of racial essen­tial­ism. I think Shelby speaks for many black intel­lec­tu­als and activists when he writes that his objec­tive in We Who are Dark is to show that “…it is pos­si­ble to dis­pense with the idea of race as a bio­log­i­cal essence and to agree with the crit­ics of iden­tity pol­i­tics about many of its dan­gers and lim­i­ta­tions, while nev­er­the­less con­tin­u­ing to embrace a form of black­ness as an eman­ci­pa­tory tool.” Eval­u­at­ing the work of sev­eral impor­tant pro­po­nents of black sol­i­dar­ity, includ­ing the 19th cen­tury black nation­al­ist Mar­tin R. Delany, W.E. B. Du Bois, and mem­bers of the Black Power Move­ment, Shelby finds that black nation­al­ist thought has often con­tained a mix of “clas­si­cal” and “prag­matic” strategies.

Roughly sim­pli­fied, the “clas­si­cal” frame­work sees black polit­i­cal and national auton­omy as the ulti­mate goal, whether that is achieved through emi­gra­tion, or through some sort of inter­nal con­fig­u­ra­tion as an autonomous “nation within a nation.” (Mar­tin R. Delany is believed to have coined that phrase, taken up by later nation­al­ists.) On the other hand “prag­matic” nation­al­ism is “based on a desire to live in a just soci­ety, a soci­ety that need not be, nor even con­tain, a self-determining black com­mu­nity.” In effect, Shelby shows how black nation­al­ist intel­lec­tu­als, even those who fiercely embraced “clas­si­cal” black nation­al­ism, ulti­mately made “prag­matic” con­ces­sions in order to achieve tan­gi­ble progress and make sub­stan­tive changes. To be clear, Shelby explains that his use of the term “clas­si­cal” is dif­fer­ent from Wil­son J. Moses’ Clas­si­cal Black Nation­al­ism which posits that the end of clas­si­cal black nation­al­ism comes with the impris­on­ment of Mar­cus Gar­vey in 1925. Instead his con­cep­tion of “clas­si­cal” is broad enough to apply to nation­al­ist thought appear­ing in later his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. He also explains that his con­cep­tion of “prag­matic” is based more on a col­lo­quial use of “prag­ma­tism” and less on the school of Amer­i­can phi­los­o­phy asso­ci­ated with Charles Pierce, William James, and John Dewey.

Shelby’s work looks to empha­sis these “prag­matic” aspects of black nation­al­ism. Though he uses the term “nation­al­ism,” to show how this prag­matic polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy is sit­u­ated within an intel­lec­tual his­tory of black nation­al­ist thought, his empha­sis is really on the idea of black sol­i­dar­ity. Ulti­mately Shelby is not propos­ing an alter­na­tive nation­al­ist project, as much as he is pro­vid­ing an inci­sive philo­soph­i­cal analy­sis of how the black polit­i­cal frame­work actu­ally func­tions today and has func­tioned his­tor­i­cally. As he writes, “The con­cept of sol­i­dar­ity defended in this book is not a rad­i­cal depar­ture from what many black Amer­i­cans already accept.” Indeed, most black Amer­i­cans actu­ally do func­tion some­where between the racial purity of Gar­vey and the “color-blind” bad faith of Ward Con­nerly. Shelby’s form of prag­matic black sol­i­dar­ity is based on the idea that, “what holds blacks together as a uni­fied peo­ple with shared polit­i­cal inter­ests is the fact of their racial sub­or­di­na­tion and their col­lec­tive resolve to tri­umph over it.” Ulti­mately, he argues for a black Amer­i­can sol­i­dar­ity based on the under­stand­ing of shared strug­gle against racism within the Amer­i­can polit­i­cal sys­tem, a sol­i­dar­ity that is mal­leable enough to accom­mo­date dif­fer­ences in cul­ture, gen­der and sex­u­al­ity, a sol­i­dar­ity that is open to the real­i­ties of mul­tira­cial­ism and inter­ra­cial coop­er­a­tion, and a sol­i­dar­ity that is less inter­ested in cul­tural authen­tic­ity, ancient ori­gins, or fan­tasies of an imprac­ti­cal ter­ri­to­r­ial nationalism.

Today the Harlem streets that the Gar­veyites walked are now awash in Obama-mania. Weeks after the elec­tion Obama signs are still vis­i­ble in apart­ment win­dows. On 125th street, one can choose from a vari­ety of boot­leg para­pher­na­lia cel­e­brat­ing America’s first black pres­i­dent. I real­ize there’s been more than enough tire­some edi­to­ri­al­iz­ing about the mean­ing of Obama’s pres­i­dency and I won’t add more. Yet I can’t help but pon­der the con­nec­tions between the his­tory of Mar­cus Gar­vey and the UNIA, the racism that they and other civil rights orga­ni­za­tions (despite their dif­fer­ences) fought so tire­lessly against, and the real­ity that Amer­i­cans have just elected the son of a black Kenyan father and white Amer­i­can mother to its high­est office.

These days it seems Mar­cus Gar­vey has become just another name on streets and parks in black neigh­bor­hoods, or a generic and ambigu­ous sym­bol of black his­tory name-checked by con­scious rap­pers and reg­gae artists. I hold out hope that the works reviewed here will con­tribute to a con­tin­u­ing engage­ment with the details of Garvey’s life and pol­i­tics, and with the his­tory of black free­dom strug­gles, so that those of us who teach the his­tory of Gar­vey and the UNIA (and who teach the teach­ers of this his­tory) will help stu­dents know him as more than just a name on a street sign. And hope­fully we can take what we’ve learned from Gar­vey and black nation­al­ists of the 20th cen­tury to come up with more cre­ative ways of think­ing about black sol­i­dar­ity as we move into the 21st.

Books New York

Toward a New Urban Decadence

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate  in March 2008)


  • Sex & Iso­la­tion: And Other Essays by Bruce Ben­der­son. U. of Wis­con­sin Press, 2007, 208pp.

These are inter­est­ing times for queer pol­i­tics. Next year will mark the 40th anniver­sary of the Stonewall Riots. In the time before non-discrimination laws, LGBT stud­ies pro­grams, and cor­po­rate spon­sored gay pride parades, liv­ing as an openly gay per­son required a life of uncom­mon courage, intel­li­gence, and for­ti­tude. These days one comes out of the closet armed to the teeth with ready-made polit­i­cal slo­gans and sup­port sys­tems. The activism of the Gay Lib­er­a­tion Front has been replaced with Broke­back Moun­tain and the LOGO chan­nel. While the far left­ists among us are loathe to admit it, the preva­lence of main­stream gay vis­i­bil­ity is progress of a sort. Now gay peo­ple have the priv­i­lege of being as dull and slow as the rest of the Amer­i­can pop­u­lace. But in the age of Project Run­way, what’s a sex rad­i­cal to do? Bruce Ben­der­son, for one, thumbs his nose at the sort of bour­geois iden­tity pol­i­tics behind all the niche mar­ket­ing and the fee­ble ges­tures toward inclu­sive­ness spouted by Amer­i­can politi­cians on the cam­paign trail. As he writes in Sex and Iso­la­tion, “whether a par­tic­u­lar voice of today’s ‘mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism’ has a black face, a woman’s face, a gay face or a working-class face is now beside the point. All speak the lan­guage of the well fed.”

I first heard of Bruce Ben­der­son here at the Grad­u­ate Cen­ter, appro­pri­ately enough. He was a nom­i­nee at the 2005 Lambda Lit­er­ary Awards hosted at the GC by The Cen­ter for Les­bian and Gay Stud­ies. I later rec­og­nized his name in the ded­i­ca­tion to Samuel R. Delany’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue (1999) and hunted down some of Benderson’s own writ­ing about Times Square – includ­ing the short story col­lec­tion Pre­tend­ing to Say No (1990) and the novel User (1994). Read­ers famil­iar with Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Delany’s argu­ment about the dis­so­lu­tion of pub­lic space and inter­class con­tact in post-Giuliani New York will find sim­i­lar ideas in Bruce Benderson’s writ­ing. Benderson’s world is one pop­u­lated by out­casts and icon­o­clasts of all sorts, whether they be down and out drug-using hus­tlers, or obscure artists and intel­lec­tu­als. He often writes of his sex­ual exploits with young men from the under­classes here in Amer­ica and abroad, many of whom eschew self-identifying as gay or bisex­ual. His 2006 erotic mem­oir The Roman­ian: Story of an Obses­sion, tells of his trav­els in Europe begin­ning in Budapest where he was sent on assign­ment by to write an arti­cle about broth­els. Ben­der­son even­tu­ally takes up with a young Roman­ian hus­tler, and The Roman­ian tells the story of their jaunts together in Europe, with Ben­der­son weav­ing in his tren­chant obser­va­tions on sex, lust, love, and his­tory. His lat­est book, Sex & Iso­la­tion: and Other Essays, brings together some of his pre­vi­ously pub­lished essays, includ­ing sev­eral that were only pub­lished in France.

The essays in Sex and Iso­la­tion con­tain an intrigu­ing mix of mem­oir, soci­o­log­i­cal obser­va­tion, and cul­tural crit­i­cism. The col­lec­tion is anchored by two major essays, the tit­u­lar “Sex and Iso­la­tion,” and “Toward the New Degen­er­acy,” a some­what pop­u­lar essay pub­lished first in French, and now avail­able in the U.S. for the first time. (It was an excerpted online ver­sion of the lat­ter essay titled “The New Degen­er­ate Nar­ra­tive” which piqued my inter­est in get­ting my hands on Sex and Iso­la­tion.) The two essays com­ple­ment each other well. “Sex and Iso­la­tion” explores the changes wrought by the tri­umph of neo-liberalism and its ide­ol­ogy of favor­ing the “safety” of the pri­vate sphere over the “dan­ger” of the pub­lic. “Toward the New Degen­er­acy” exam­ines how the artist can make some inter­ven­tion in the midst of this pre­vail­ing ide­ol­ogy. It is a pro­posal for how the next gen­er­a­tion of cre­ative artists might break through this vicious rhetoric of safety and secu­rity to cre­ate vibrant and trans­for­ma­tive cul­tural work.

“Sex and Iso­la­tion” (the essay) ties together sev­eral defin­i­tive mark­ers of our times: the rise of the infor­ma­tion age, the decline of urban pub­lic space, the rhetoric of the bour­geois fam­ily (ema­nat­ing from Left and Right), and the ever-growing hys­te­ria over children’s sex­u­al­ity. In Fou­cauldian fash­ion, Ben­der­son sees these phe­nom­ena not as mat­ters of increas­ing repres­sion, but as mat­ters of dis­clo­sure. He describes dis­clo­sure as a Protes­tant Chris­t­ian mode of con­fes­sion that insists upon the impor­tance and sanc­tity of reveal­ing the secret life, and he stresses that this is dis­tinctly dif­fer­ent from the Catholic ver­sion of con­fes­sion. “Thus secret spaces, com­men­su­rate with urban space and ado­les­cent sex­ual exper­i­ments, are dis­ap­pear­ing to make room for a new, mind­less kind of trans­parency.” I can’t say the dis­clo­sure dis­tinc­tion is entirely clear and valid, but it is a provoca­tive one. It cer­tainly helps to make sense of all those sub­ur­ban mar­ried cou­ples on Oprah con­fess­ing about their elicit affairs. Their vac­u­ous emo­tional exhi­bi­tion­ism seems to have no real pur­pose and make no real dif­fer­ence in the world save for keep­ing Oprah’s self-help indus­try hum­ming along.

Like Delany, Ben­der­son was a fre­quent vis­i­tor to (and care­ful observer of) the old Times Square, a libidi­nous play­ground with its hus­tler bars, peep shows, and porn the­aters. “Sex and Iso­la­tion” begins with Ben­der­son not out in the streets of Man­hat­tan, but securely in his apart­ment sit­ting in front of his com­puter screen in a web­cam ses­sion with an anony­mous young man from Egypt. Ben­der­son calls atten­tion to the shift in loca­tion. He’d rather be out in the streets. While the Inter­net makes such improb­a­ble con­nec­tions pos­si­ble, this form of dis­tant, medi­ated elec­tronic inter­ac­tion pales in com­par­i­son to the phys­i­cal sen­su­al­ity of cruis­ing the streets. About the demise of the old Times Square Ben­der­son writes, “It wasn’t so much the assault on eroti­cism in New York as the new pro­hi­bi­tion against inter­class inter­ac­tion that really depressed me.” His obser­va­tion is timely, with rapid overde­vel­op­ment and gen­tri­fi­ca­tion con­tin­u­ing in New York unabated.

In “Toward the New Degen­er­acy,” Ben­der­son draws on the work of sev­eral icon­o­clas­tic thinkers to make sense of the cur­rent cul­tural moment at the begin­ning of the 21st cen­tury, and also to make some propo­si­tions about how to infuse this moment with new cul­tural vital­ity. The title of the piece alludes to an 1892 book titled Degen­er­acy writ­ten by Max Nor­dau, a Jew­ish Hun­gar­ian jour­nal­ist who saw the coun­ter­cul­tural lifestyle as patho­log­i­cal. One of the epigraphs of the essay is taken from Nor­dau: “Degen­er­ates are not always crim­i­nals, pros­ti­tutes, anar­chists, and pro­nounced lunatics; they are often authors and artists.” Ben­der­son finds in Nordau’s the­o­ries of degen­er­acy some unset­tling sim­i­lar­i­ties to the rhetoric of con­tem­po­rary middle-class lib­eral val­ues, par­tic­u­larly in the empha­sis on clean liv­ing, indi­vid­ual moral upright­ness, and acces­si­ble art for the masses. In mak­ing the con­nec­tion to Nordau’s the­o­ries Ben­der­son reveals the con­tem­po­rary middle-class lib­eral — with her yoga classes, organic foods, fas­tid­i­ous exer­cise reg­i­ments, and absti­nence from tobacco and alco­hol — as a closet Puritan.

In fact, Ben­der­son goes on to argue that the self-preservationism among America’s cen­trist lib­er­als is a direct out­growth of the ‘60s coun­ter­cul­ture. The usual nos­tal­gic lamen­ta­tion about the hip­pie mov­ment is that it was viciously hijacked by a cor­po­rate machine all too will­ing to co-opt any­thing it deems com­mer­cially viable. But Ben­der­son per­sua­sively argues that these puri­tan­i­cal ten­den­cies come from a built-in flaw in the polit­i­cal logic of ‘60s rad­i­cal­ism itself. While he is him­self a mem­ber of the boomer gen­er­a­tion, Ben­der­son makes it clear that his polit­i­cal and intel­lec­tual alle­giance is to the urban deca­dence of the ‘40s and ‘50s hip­sters rather than to the rural com­mune utopia of the ‘60s hip­pies. “Unlike the Beats whose philo­soph­i­cal tone was col­ored by Euro­pean café exis­ten­tial­ism and by the old dichotomy between the avant-garde and the bour­geoisie, the hip­pies of the six­ties believed that heavy intel­lec­tu­al­iz­ing ham­pered cre­ative and spon­ta­neous behav­ior and that art sprang from the pop­u­lar cul­ture that they already liked.”

Few peo­ple the­o­rized the lifestyle of the hip­ster bet­ter than the late Nor­man Mailer in “The White Negro.” (Mailer passed away in Novem­ber 2007.) Ben­der­son boldly draws on and defends Mailer whose work is still a light­ning rod, par­tic­u­larly among black stud­ies schol­ars. Like Mailer, Ben­der­son dares to sug­gest that there is such a thing as a cul­ture of poverty, that life among the under­class is strik­ingly dif­fer­ent from life in the more com­fort­able classes. This is inten­tional sac­ri­lege. Left lean­ing soci­ol­o­gists have spent many years and research dol­lars com­bat­ing this kind of talk. Ben­der­son also enlists the work of Oscar Lewis who wrote La Vida: A Puerto Rican fam­ily in the Cul­ture of Poverty San Juan and New York. (1966), a lit­tle known work not read much now out­side of the cir­cle of aca­d­e­mic soci­ol­ogy. To be fair, there are many rea­sons to reject this cul­ture of poverty posi­tion. More often than not cul­ture of poverty argu­ments have been used by social con­ser­v­a­tives to blame the poor for the own fail­ings, to dis­man­tle state-funded pro­grams and pri­va­tize pretty much every­thing includ­ing the schools and the prison sys­tems. How­ever, Ben­der­son argues that Lewis merely pointed out that “eco­nom­ics and polit­i­cal con­trol could cre­ate a last­ing, uni­form, inher­ited cul­ture that was even more pow­er­ful than inher­ited eth­nic­ity.” There’s a way in which such argu­ments could actu­ally dis­man­tle the racial­ist (and racist) logic of pathol­ogy argu­ments. Fur­ther, Lewis and Mailer auda­ciously sug­gested that there were pos­i­tive aspects to the cul­ture of poverty, traits that made it more humane than life in the middle-classes, namely “the sen­su­al­ity, spon­tane­ity, sense of adven­ture, and indul­gence of impulses that come from liv­ing in the present time.”

I can’t say I’m on board with all of this. There is cer­tainly a long tra­di­tion of the artist roman­ti­ciz­ing the lives of the irre­deemable, rebel­lious out­sider. The prob­lem with such a par­a­digm is that the artists roman­ti­cize rebel­lious­ness so much that any­one from the under­class who might have intel­lec­tual or artis­tic aspi­ra­tions and the dis­ci­pline required to pro­duce cre­ative work of their own is always ren­dered “inau­then­tic.” Fur­ther­more, con­tem­po­rary gangsta rap has cer­tainly shown that a sup­pos­edly oppo­si­tional urban cul­ture can eas­ily rein­force dom­i­nant bour­geois val­ues of mate­ri­al­ism and individuality.

Among the other high­lights in Sex and Iso­la­tion is “The Spi­der Woman’s Mother,” a mov­ing remem­brance of Manuel Puig, the Argen­tinean author of Kiss of the Spi­der Woman. Puig was a close friend of Benderson’s and stayed in his apart­ment dur­ing vis­its to New York. There’s also “America’s New Net­work­ers,” a hilar­i­ous satir­i­cal tale about a social climb­ing young musi­cian who comes to Ben­der­son to look for con­tacts to mar­ket his mediocre CDs. (Bruce is an “estab­lished” writer of course so the kid fig­ures he must know some peo­ple who can help him.) Ben­der­son uses the story to unleash a relent­less tirade on the cur­rent gen­er­a­tion of young artists, weaned on media and adver­tis­ing, who have turned shame­less self-promotion into a way of life. I find Benderson’s obser­va­tions par­tic­u­larly pre­scient given the rise of a new cul­ture bear­ing the name “hip­ster.” This new gen­er­a­tion, raised under an unprece­dented sat­u­ra­tion of mass media, has per­fected the look and arti­fice of rebel­lion. All the while they have spurred on the most vig­or­ous era of gen­tri­fi­ca­tion and class strat­i­fi­ca­tion this city has ever seen. He nails the zeit­geist of this vapid con­tem­po­rary hip­ster cul­ture when he writes: “All you baby net­work­ers are hip to the value of the seduc­tive, sleazy come-on. If you’ve mas­tered any art to per­fec­tion, it’s how to project flir­ta­tion with­out ever delivering.”

Ben­der­son is clearly drawn to sto­ries about can­des­cent and con­tra­dic­tory larger than life fig­ures, like Puig, or the infa­mous boxer Emile Grif­fith (who Ben­der­son knew from the seedy Times Square bars) or drag per­former Con­suela Cos­metic (the sub­ject of one essay here about a film doc­u­ment­ing the last days of her life). Like the sub­jects and char­ac­ters he writes about Ben­der­son is him­self full of con­tra­dic­tion. There is no short­age of bour­geois artists who have gone slum­ming for ideas or inspi­ra­tion, try­ing to invig­o­rate their work with the vital­ity of the under­class. But to his credit he is unapolo­getic about the incon­gruities, and is will­ing to cop to his own some­times unflat­ter­ing desires and moti­va­tions. His writ­ing directly addresses this ten­sion between his own mid­dle class upbring­ing in upstate New York, and the life he now leads as a cool, cos­mopoli­tan urban flâneur in New York and Paris. In the fore­word to Sex and Iso­la­tion Cather­ine Tex­ier locates Ben­der­son in the tra­di­tion of the “bohemian bour­geois,” nam­ing Henry Miller, D.H. Lawrence, and Paul Bowles among his antecedents. Benderson’s writ­ing is the wrong place to look if you want any­thing like pub­lic pol­icy or rigid polit­i­cal pro­grams aimed at cur­ing social ills. How­ever, this col­lec­tion is full of valu­able and provoca­tive obser­va­tions about the coun­try and soci­ety that we are becoming.


It’s a Man’s World: The Politics of Black Masculinity

(This article was first published in the GC Advocate in November 2007.)

Works dis­cussed in this essay:

  • Our Liv­ing Man­hood: Lit­er­a­ture, Black Power and Mas­cu­line Ide­ol­ogy by Rol­land Mur­ray (U. of Penn­syl­va­nia Press, 2007, 168 pages)
  • Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black Amer­i­can Intel­lec­tual by Robert F. Reid-Pharr (New York U. Press, 2007, 208 pages)
  • Man­ning the Race: Reform­ing Black Men in the Jim Crow Era by Mar­lon B. Ross (New York Uni­ver­sity Press, 2004, 498 pages)

Back in June, while wait­ing in O’Hare Air­port for a flight back to New York from Chicago, I picked up and thumbed through the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times and I was struck by an edi­to­r­ial titled “Pull up Your Pants, Lift Up Your Head,” by one Bill Maxwell. In the arti­cle Maxwell takes aim at the hip-hop fash­ion phe­nom­e­non known as “sag­ging,” which has been in the news in recent months because sev­eral Amer­i­can cities have begun to pass ordi­nances mak­ing the style ille­gal. Maxwell argues that this par­tic­u­lar fash­ion has its ori­gins in prison, where a low slung waist­band is a sign of one’s sex­ual avail­abil­ity (he cites television’s Judge Greg Mathis as the source of this insight­ful infor­ma­tion). He goes on to sug­gest that young black men would cease to wear their pants in this style if they knew its ori­gins. In effect, Maxwell’s argu­ment seems to sug­gest that if only black men embraced a more homo­pho­bic ethos all our cul­tural prob­lems would be solved.

Part of me rec­og­nizes this arti­cle for what is: just another dis­pos­able piece of reac­tionary con­ser­v­a­tive arm­chair soci­ol­ogy. On the other hand, I also find it instruc­tive for its atten­tion to gen­der in the polit­i­cal dis­course on black mas­culin­ity, and for its steep, abid­ing nos­tal­gia for a sta­ble past when, as Archie Bunker would say, “goils were goils and men were men.”

I men­tion the Maxwell arti­cle because it illu­mi­nates three par­tic­u­lar uni­fy­ing themes in the books reviewed here. For one thing, all three books reviewed here seek to his­tori­cize black man­hood to con­front pre­cisely this sort of nos­tal­gia that Maxwell pro­duces. Unlike Maxwell, how­ever, Ross, Reid-Pharr, and Mur­ray all demon­strate that ideas about appro­pri­ate black man­hood (not to men­tion ideas about authen­tic black­ness itself) have always been in a con­stant state of nego­ti­a­tion and re-negotiation through­out Amer­i­can his­tory. Sec­ondly, all three books are clearly invested in dis­man­tling homo­pho­bic ide­ol­ogy, but they move beyond the sim­ple plat­i­tudes about the black homosexual’s exclu­sion from the black com­mu­nity to exam­ine how same-sex desire is a fun­da­men­tal part of all mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy and nation­al­ist projects, black or otherwise.

Lastly and most impor­tantly, all three books actively insist on the idea that black men have been more than just pas­sive vic­tims in their own pre­sen­ta­tion. In mak­ing that claim these authors rec­og­nize they are tip-toeing through a rhetor­i­cal mine­field, where con­ser­v­a­tive ide­o­logues wield ideas about “per­sonal respon­si­bil­ity,” reject­ing victim-hood, and “just get­ting over” injus­tices of the past as a way of triv­i­al­iz­ing the struc­tural inequal­i­ties of Amer­i­can racism and favor­ing a pro-corporate, anti-government pub­lic pol­icy based on myth­i­cal notions of mer­i­toc­racy and indi­vid­ual achieve­ment. And yet, I find it com­pelling and inspir­ing that these intel­lec­tu­als are will­ing to take the risk, know­ing that any change in the con­di­tions and rep­re­sen­ta­tions of black man­hood must come from the real­iza­tion that black men have had an active hand in those representations.

While Robert Reid-Pharr is the only one of the three who explic­itly (and I believe, appro­pri­ately) frames this con­cept as a philo­soph­i­cally exis­ten­tial mat­ter, the theme of an exis­ten­tial recla­ma­tion of agency runs through­out all three books. As Reid-Pharr boldly sug­gests in the intro­duc­tion to Once You Go Black: “the Black Amer­i­can has not only had a great hand in the cre­ation of Amer­ica and thus the world but also and importantly…the Black Amer­i­can, quiet as its kept, has had a sub­stan­tial role in the cre­ation of himself”.

Man­ning the Race: Reform­ing Black Men in the Jim Crow Era is an ambi­tious intel­lec­tual his­tory of black man­hood reform in the New Negro Move­ment, dat­ing roughly from the 1890s to the 1940s. Ross is a pro­fes­sor of lit­er­a­ture, but he goes against the dis­ci­pli­nary grains, sur­vey­ing a broad range of intel­lec­tual pro­duc­tion in this period includ­ing race tracts, pho­to­graphic race albums, auto­bi­og­ra­phy, nov­els and soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies. Since it cov­ers such a mas­sive amount of ground, Man­ning the Race can be a dense read at times, but it rewards a patient reading.

Ross exam­ines what he calls the “dou­ble para­dox of Jim Crow dis­en­ti­tle­ment,” a con­cept that explains the par­tic­u­lar chal­lenges of New Negro man­hood reform, but also res­onates in con­tem­po­rary polit­i­cal dis­course on black man­hood. He writes:

“The more black men attempt to man the race through a fit mas­culin­ity pat­terned on dom­i­nant gen­der norms, the more they risk emu­lat­ing the white rul­ing men whose Jim Crow racial/sexual codes unman them. At the same time, the more that African Amer­i­cans resist the gen­der norms set up by the Jim Crow color line, the more they seem to lack the resources of man­hood power and influ­ence to man the race for a defeat of the very Jim Crow regime that unmans them.”

Accord­ing to Ross the work of mod­ern­iz­ing the Negro is dom­i­nated by three gen­res of writ­ing in par­tic­u­lar: 1) new-century race trea­tises and antholo­gies, such as race tracts and race photo albums, 2) New Negro per­sonal nar­ra­tives, includ­ing auto­bi­og­ra­phy and fic­tion, and 3) pro­fes­sional soci­o­log­i­cal stud­ies – most sig­nif­i­cantly W.E.B. DuBois’s pio­neer­ing study, The Philadel­phia Negro, and the work of soci­ol­o­gists Robert E. Park, E. Franklin Fra­zier and oth­ers of the so-called Chicago School of Soci­ol­ogy based at the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago.

What sets Ross’s work apart is his atten­tion to mat­ters of sex­u­al­ity in the con­struc­tion of black man­hood dur­ing this era. The spec­ta­cle of black sex­u­al­ity has long been a part of racist dis­course in Amer­ica, and it was often invoked as a sign of inher­ent dif­fer­ence and racial infe­ri­or­ity. But a curi­ous thing hap­pened around the turn of the cen­tury as anthro­pol­o­gists began to embrace ideas of cul­tural rel­a­tivism and Freudian con­cepts began to fil­ter into intel­lec­tual artis­tic and cul­tural prac­tice, call­ing into ques­tion the sanc­tity and san­ity of bour­geois Vic­to­rian sex­ual mores. This became shaky ter­ri­tory for black intel­lec­tu­als because it cre­ated a space to cel­e­brate the healthy vital­ity of black sen­su­al­ity, but it could also rein­force stereo­types of black infe­ri­or­ity. The lit­er­ary work of the New Negro/Harlem Renais­sance cer­tainly illus­trated the advan­tages and pit­falls that a focus on black sex­u­al­ity could cre­ate for the black intel­lec­tual. Ross looks at the vari­ety of strate­gies for black reform­ers in this era and sees them engaged in what he refers to as “unsex­ing, desex­ing or resex­ing” the race. At times these var­i­ous strate­gies would over­lap, employed by the same indi­vid­u­als in a simul­ta­ne­ous yet con­tra­dic­tory fashion.

The theme of mobil­ity was among the most impor­tant for the New Negro. No longer would the black major­ity be located in the Amer­i­can South, as urban migra­tion to the indus­trial North began to hap­pen around the turn of the cen­tury. That white suprema­cist edict that Negroes should “stay in their place” was not just a fig­ure of speech, but spoke to the very real anx­i­eties about the New Negro’s mobil­ity. That anx­i­ety wasn’t just the province of Negro­pho­bic whites, but was also held by black race lead­ers them­selves who were try­ing to make sense of both the excit­ing pos­si­bil­i­ties and poten­tial dan­gers of this new mobility.

Focus­ing on the theme of mobil­ity, Ross the­o­rizes from abstrac­tions about race down to the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the black body. For instance, he sees a pro­found anx­i­ety in the found­ing of inter­ra­cial polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions such as the NAACP where black and white per­sons, specif­i­cally black men and white women, would share the same spaces as equal par­tic­i­pants in a racial uplift organization.

Cer­tainly the South has its pecu­liar his­tory of close prox­im­ity para­dox­i­cally com­bined with rigid social stric­tures, but this New Negro phe­nom­e­non of edu­cated, self-determined Negroes shar­ing space on equal foot­ing with whites, and doing so in mass num­bers was some­thing alto­gether dif­fer­ent, and not all were happy about it. Ross cites a pas­sage in the Auto­bi­og­ra­phy of W.E.B. Du Bois where Du Bois writes of his dis­taste for one of the NAACP’s founders Oswald Gar­ri­son Vil­lard, who mar­ried a white South­ern woman from Geor­gia, and adopted her strin­gent racial codes about not allow­ing any blacks (and prob­a­bly not any Jews either, Du Bois spec­u­lates) to set foot in their home. As DuBois writes, “I knew the rea­sons for this dis­crim­i­na­tion, but I could hardly be expected to be happy over them or to be his close friend.”

This is but one exam­ple of the cross-gender and cross-racial ten­sions of the period, and there is much to chew on in Man­ning the Race. Ross brings fresh analy­sis to a vari­ety of piv­otal moments and state­ments of the era such as Booker T. Washington’s writ­ings and speeches, Robert Park’s soci­o­log­i­cal career and his infa­mous apho­rism that the Negro is “the lady of the races.” Ross also makes some inter­est­ing com­ments on philoso­pher Alain Locke’s self-presentation as an effete high-brow aes­thete and how other intel­lec­tu­als, namely Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, responded to his image by try­ing to assert their own man­hood as artists of “the people.”

Ulti­mately Ross pays close atten­tion to the self-production of black intel­lec­tu­als, and this is what sets this work apart as impor­tant schol­ar­ship on the study of black man­hood. He ends by recount­ing how some col­leagues of his ques­tioned why a nearly 400 page book on the topic of black mas­culin­ity was nec­es­sary when a mere peer-reviewed arti­cle might suf­fice. He also calls into ques­tion the over-reliance on con­tem­po­rary pop cul­ture and scan­dal in dis­cus­sions of black man­hood. “By insist­ing on the com­plex­ity, intri­cacy, sub­tlety and rich­ness of black manhood’s cul­tural his­tory, I hope – at the least – that this book also resists this long-standing ten­dency to reduce black man­hood iden­tity to the shock of the lat­est fad in cloth­ing or the pruri­ence of the most recent racial scandal.”

One of the great flash­points in the his­tory of black Amer­i­can mas­culin­ity was the period of the 1960s and 1970s that included the Black Power Move­ment and the Black Arts Move­ment. Rol­land Mur­ray eval­u­ates the lit­er­a­ture of this period in a lean, but scrupu­lous book, Our Liv­ing Man­hood: Lit­er­a­ture, Black Power and Mas­cu­line Ide­ol­ogy. The title is a ref­er­ence to Ossie Davis’s famous eulogy for Mal­colm X, one of black America’s most vis­i­ble and inspir­ing sym­bols of black manhood.

Mur­ray sur­veys black lit­er­a­ture of the 1960s and 1970s pay­ing atten­tion to how the asser­tion of black man­hood became the focal point of the move­ments of that era. He begins the study with a look at James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963) and No Name in the Street (1972) in which Bald­win wrote on the Nation of Islam and the Black Pan­ther Party respec­tively. Baldwin’s rela­tion­ship to Black Power is of course one of the most vex­ing parts of his intel­lec­tual legacy as many feel he acqui­esced to the homo­pho­bia of the move­ment instead of chal­leng­ing it. How­ever, despite the fact that Mur­ray sees Baldwin’s cri­tique of Black Power as “incom­plete” he acknowl­edges that “Bald­win allows us to begin telling an alter­na­tive story about the evo­lu­tion of nation­al­ism, one in which the instan­ti­a­tion of racial sol­i­dar­ity rooted in the mas­cu­line also pro­duced its poten­tial undoing.”

Here Murray’s cri­tique builds upon the con­tro­ver­sial and ground-breaking work of Michele Wal­lace, whose 1978 book Black Macho and the Myth of the Super­woman was a scathing and scan­dalous air­ing of dirty laun­dry. In it Wal­lace sug­gested that the black power move­ment was more about the recla­ma­tion of the black man’s right­ful place atop the patri­ar­chal black fam­ily and the black man’s revenge on the sanc­tity of white wom­an­hood than it was about the uplift and self-determination of the black com­mu­nity. As she infa­mously put it, the objec­tive of the male-dominated move­ment seemed to be “a white woman in every bed and black woman under every heel.”

Mur­ray seeks to add to Wallace’s work by empha­siz­ing that there was per­haps more of a cri­tique of the mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy of mid-century black nation­al­ism going on dur­ing the move­ment than we pre­vi­ously believed. Nat­u­rally, Mur­ray had to address Eldridge Cleaver’s nasty depic­tion of James Bald­win in Soul on Ice. He points to Baldwin’s response to Cleaver in which he tries to dis­tin­guish between his own homo­sex­u­al­ity and the forced homo­sex­u­al­ity of the prison expe­ri­ence. Bald­win wrote in No Name in the Street, “I was con­fused in his mind with the utter debase­ment of the male – with all those fag­gots, punks and sissies, the sight and sound of whom, in prison must have made him vomit more than once.” Mur­ray sees Baldwin’s for­mu­la­tion here as an attempt to reassert his own mas­cu­line author­ity to speak for the race, albeit a faulty and eva­sive one.

Mur­ray goes on to sur­vey some nov­els of the 1960s and 1970s that inter­ro­gated mas­cu­line ide­ol­ogy in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics. His choice of genre is sig­nif­i­cant. The Black Arts Move­ment priv­i­leged the gen­res of drama and poetry as more authen­tic forms of black resis­tance and more effec­tive means of get­ting the mes­sage to the peo­ple than nov­els. Thus, Mur­ray finds that some black male writ­ers, par­tic­u­larly John O. Kil­lens, John Edgar Wide­man, and Hal Ben­nett among oth­ers, used the longer sus­tained form of the novel to carry out a cri­tique of the mas­cu­line excesses of Black Nation­al­ism. Hal Bennett’s Lord of Dark Places (1970) pro­vides one of the most damn­ing cri­tiques of an overem­pha­sis on patri­ar­chal dom­i­na­tion in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics and the black church, as well as an aston­ish­ing cri­tique of the cul­ture of racism in Amer­ica as a whole. (In fact, I stum­bled on to Murray’s book while Googling for more infor­ma­tion on Lord of Dark Places.) I was delighted to see that Mur­ray paid atten­tion to what I believe to be one of the more impor­tant and under­ap­pre­ci­ated satir­i­cal nov­els in black lit­er­a­ture. The main char­ac­ter of the novel, Joe Mar­ket, is the best embod­i­ment of James Baldwin’s idea (quoted ear­lier in Murray’s dis­cus­sion of Bald­win and Cleaver) that “straight cats invent fag­gots so that they can sleep with them and not become fag­gots them­selves.” Mar­ket is a hus­tler in the clas­si­cal gay sense of the term, pimp­ing him­self out to men for money, all the while main­tain­ing his own staunch het­ero­sex­u­al­ity. The porno­graphic satire that Hal Ben­nett cre­ates includes a cri­tique of the sex­ual hypocrisy and eco­nomic cor­rup­tion of the black church, the con­de­scend­ing fas­ci­na­tion of white lib­er­als with black sex­u­al­ity, and the sex­u­ally charged nature of the cul­ture of racial seg­re­ga­tion in gen­eral. Unfor­tu­nately, Murray’s analy­sis of Lord of Dark Places is too brief (for my tastes at least), but it is encour­ag­ing to see the novel slowly being reap­praised by lit­er­ary critics.

Last, but cer­tainly not least, is Once You Go Black: Choice, Desire and the Black Amer­i­can Intel­lec­tual by the GC’s own Robert Reid-Pharr. In Imag­ined Com­mu­ni­ties, his famous study of nation­al­ism, Bene­dict Ander­son sug­gested that a “Coper­ni­can spirit” is nec­es­sary to dis­rupt and dis­man­tle nation­al­is­tic think­ing. Reid-Pharr takes up that chal­lenge with Once You Go Black by tak­ing aim at some of the most sacro­sanct notions in Black Nation­al­ist thought. Chief among Reid-Pharr’s inter­ven­tions is a direct con­fronta­tion with the idea that mod­ern black Amer­i­cans are essen­tially the same per­sons as those black Amer­i­cans who were enslaved under chat­tel slav­ery. Instead, Reid-Pharr insists upon his own moder­nity as a black intel­lec­tual, as well as the moder­nity of the con­tem­po­rary black Amer­i­can com­mu­nity as a whole. Suf­fice to say you won’t find appeals to repa­ra­tions or “post-traumatic slave dis­or­der” in this book.

One of the most provoca­tive chap­ters in the book is “Saint Huey” an eval­u­a­tion of the life and career of Huey New­ton, co-founder of the Black Pan­ther Party. The cover of Once You Go Black is adorned with a strik­ing domes­tic photo of Huey New­ton stand­ing in his apart­ment, shirt­less and look­ing well-chiseled and buff, wear­ing white pants, hold­ing a copy of Bob Dylan’s High­way 61 Revis­ited. The photo is meant to be a jar­ring jux­ta­po­si­tion to the more famous image of Huey New­ton (one that has adorned many a black col­lege dorm-room wall) seated on a huge wicker chair decked out in black leather jacket and beret with a spear in one hand and a rifle in the other. In the chap­ter Reid-Pharr effec­tively argues that any seri­ous analy­sis of the Black Pan­ther Party’s sig­nif­i­cance must take into account the care­fully crafted self-presentation and images of the orga­ni­za­tion. Newton’s dash­ing good looks were a cul­tural cur­rency uti­lized by the Party, as were their famous images of defi­ant black­ness rep­re­sented by black sun­glasses, black berets, black leather jack­ets and afros.

This empha­sis on “style” in Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics became even more preva­lent in the 1970s when “black con­scious­ness” entered the Amer­i­can main­stream. Nowhere was the power of style seen more clearly than in the so-called blax­ploita­tion films of the 1970s. In the last chap­ter, “Queer Sweet­back,” Reid-Pharr ana­lyzes Melvin Van Peebles’s ground­break­ing film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song (1971). This film, like much of the blax­ploita­tion cin­ema that fol­lowed it, was all about style and spec­ta­cle, and Reid-Pharr makes much of the fact that the main char­ac­ter, Sweet­back, only speaks six lines through­out the whole movie. While Reid-Pharr doesn’t spend much time dis­cussing con­tem­po­rary hip-hop, one can see how hip-hop’s defi­ant pos­ture evolved out of blax­ploita­tion era film by way of the black power move­ment, and thus we end up with a pop­u­lar cul­tural art-form that is almost all style and emp­tied of much of its polit­i­cal sub­stance. Per­haps my favorite rep­re­sen­ta­tion of this phe­nom­e­non was Pub­lic Enemy’s quick-stepping drill team which adopted the look of the Pan­thers (sun­glasses and berets) and the intim­i­dat­ing pose of the Nation’s Fruit of Islam, but with none of the actual self-defense skills and train­ing. They are clearly trained dancers on stage for show. While I find some gen­uine cre­ativ­ity in Pub­lic Enemy’s sound and I respect Chuck D’s polit­i­cal sin­cer­ity in recent years, it’s hard to take “Fight the Power” seri­ously when one knows the rights to such a song are owned and dis­trib­uted by some multi­na­tional media con­glom­er­ate. (And, need­less to say, the embar­rass­ment that is Fla­vor Flav pretty much speaks for itself these days.)

It is worth not­ing that two of the reviewed authors here, Reid-Pharr and Ross, are self-identified gay men who have announced them­selves as such in their work. (I can assume that Rol­land Mur­ray is straight, from the acknowl­edge­ments to his wife and chil­dren in the book, but that is only an assump­tion.) Read­ers famil­iar with other works on black mas­culin­ity stud­ies will notice a pre­pon­der­ance of works in the field by and about gay men. The GCs Africana Stud­ies Group recently hosted a suc­cess­ful con­fer­ence on Black Mas­culin­ity in 2005, and I heard through the gos­sip grapevine that the over­whelm­ing pres­ence of openly gay men in the con­fer­ence did not go unno­ticed by some detrac­tors. This brings up one of my own pet peeves about the polit­i­cal dis­course around black mas­culin­ity, that it seems no black achieve­ment is con­sid­ered legit­i­mate unless it is car­ried out by het­ero­sex­ual black men. Sure, there is con­cern when we see high incar­cer­a­tion rates and lack­adaisi­cal atti­tudes toward black father­hood. But too much of the rhetoric around the sta­tis­tics that more black women grad­u­ate from col­lege than black men strikes me as so much Moyni­hanism, and it unfor­tu­nately triv­i­al­izes the gen­uine achieve­ments of black women. Like­wise, we would also do well to acknowl­edge that the black pool of genius has been pop­u­lated with many les­bians and gay men and that their con­tri­bu­tions shouldn’t be marked with an asterisk.

Near the end of Once You Go Black, Robert Reid-Pharr writes, “We should not con­tinue with the logic in which there is no dis­tinc­tion between the enslaved body and the body that now par­tic­i­pates in the writ­ing of these lines.” Clearly, such a state­ment is fraught with trou­bling impli­ca­tions and I sus­pect it will be met with a great deal of resis­tance as the book makes its way through aca­d­e­mic cir­cles. One of the real chal­lenges of the book is that Reid-Pharr’s rejec­tion of victim-hood sounds dan­ger­ously sim­i­lar to the rhetoric of cul­tural con­ser­vatism. (Case in point, the title of Bill Cosby’s lat­est screed: Come On Peo­ple: On the Path from Vic­tims to Vic­tors.) Yet, what I find most com­pelling about Once You Go Black is that it is a deeply local and deeply eth­i­cal book and Reid-Pharr is will­ing to risk the mis­un­der­stand­ing in order to insist on the impor­tance of black polit­i­cal agency. There is a refresh­ing hon­esty in the way Reid-Pharr directs his com­ments toward read­ers who are most likely to pick up the book – aca­d­e­mic and non-academic intel­lec­tu­als who are con­cerned with black and queer stud­ies – rather than pos­tur­ing toward some myth­i­cal mass audi­ence of street-corner read­ers. Like­wise, Reid-Pharr is con­cerned with announc­ing his own posi­tion – as a pro­fes­sional aca­d­e­mic intel­lec­tual, as a black gay man, as an Amer­i­can cit­i­zen – as hon­estly as pos­si­ble. Reid-Pharr uses the par­tic­u­lar­i­ties of the black Amer­i­can intel­lec­tual con­di­tion to sug­gest pos­si­bil­i­ties for a more pro­gres­sive intel­lec­tual prac­tice at this crit­i­cal polit­i­cal moment. Once You Go Black is very much a post-9/11 book, par­tic­u­larly in Reid-Pharr’s analy­sis of “inno­cence” in polit­i­cal dis­course, con­sid­er­ing that “America’s fas­ci­na­tion with its own pre­sumed inno­cence has become part and par­cel of the many appa­ra­tuses with which our coun­try jus­ti­fies and enacts its dom­i­nance and vio­lence.” What is at stake in his book, and in the oth­ers reviewed in this essay, is a reeval­u­a­tion not just of the his­tory of black mas­culin­ity and Black Nation­al­ist pol­i­tics, but of the ethics of intel­lec­tual prac­tice itself.