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Why the New Intellectuals Don't Cut It

by Bill Benzon <>

Clickety clack . . . clickety clack
Bring that man's baby back.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack! . .
I want my spirit back.
Bubble music being seen and heard on Saturday night
Blinding the eyes of ones that's supposed to see!
Bubble music, being played and showed, throughout America.
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . .
Somebody's mind's got off the goddamn track!
Clickety clack . . . clickety clack . . .
Won't somebody bring the Spirit back?
. . . .
Who will it be? Who will it be?
It certainly won't be someone that says that they're free.
--Rahsaan Roland Kirk
The March issue of Atlantic Monthly features an important article by Robert S. Boynton about "The New Intellectuals," by which he means a group of thinkers who are both public intellectuals and black intellectuals. They are public in the sense that they often address themselves to a general educated audience rather than speaking exclusively to an audience of academic specialists. They are black in two senses. In the first place they have enough so-called black blood in their veins that they would be classified as black by census-takers. In the second they are variously concerned with what it means to black and American, or American and black, or, increasingly, just plain American.

Toward the end of the article, Boynton asserts that "If today's black intellectuals have not yet--with the exception of Toni Morrison's extraordinary novels--produced a body of work that will sustain itself through the Darwinian selection process of American culture, there is no reason to believe that they won't. They are relatively young, and a number seem to be just hitting their stride." The purpose of this essay is to suggest that if these 40-something intellectuals (plus or minus a decade) don't soon get some funkadelic glide in their stride, some jivometric pep in their step, there is little chance that they will produce a deep and abiding body of work, though one can always hope that they will produce an intellectual climate in which others may come along and walk where they fear to tread.

As a group, their collective work has two central weaknesses:

  1. However much they may admire black music, they don't make it central to their thought and writing.

  2. Whatever they may know about the psychodynamics of racism, they are unwilling to talk and write about it.

The joint effect of their blindness is that they cannot address themselves to the deepest dynamics of American culture. They weave elegant designs around the edges, but the warp and woof are invisible to them.


Caveat Emptor -- "Don't let a fox stand guard over the chickens"
Music and The New Intellectuals
Racial Psychodynamics
American Cultural Dynamics: Why do White People Like Black Music?
Teach Me Tonight: We Need Responsible Voices

Meanderings 2.03 -- March 1995

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