Black Intellectuals and Ethnic Obligations
TO THE EDITORS OF THE CRIMSON:
Among the several themes developed by Anna D. Wilde in her article on the Black faculty at Harvard College (February 26), one in particular caught my attention--that Black faculty here typically face the issue of their relatedness to Black issues.
I agree with Prof. Anthony Appiah that a relatedness to Black realities at Harvard is not "part of the job description" for Black faculty, and I also concur with his additional observation that our small numbers nevertheless cause Black faulty to be involved in Black issues. This is not unlike the situation for women faculty who, like Black faculty, are relatively small in numbers and thus any given woman faculty member might find herself involved in women's issues. And both of these situations resemble that of Jewish scholars like the late Lionel Trilling who, as the first Jewish scholar at Columbia University in the 1940s, could not easily ignore the Jewish issues at Columbia.
On the other hand, I would differ from my Department of Government colleague, Associate Professor Katherine Tate, who claims to feel "very resentful" about expectations of Black faculty relating to Black realities, and also protests that "I wasn't recruited to pioneer for the race." Tate's formulation over-personalizes the Black relatedness issue--or, by extension, the woman relatedness issue--rather than keeping it framed in a developmental context.
As a member of the second generation of African-American scholars (at 62 years of age), I have experienced most facets of this issue of the Black intelligentsia's relatedness to Black realities, on and off campuses. Among the Black American intelligentsia generally, these has always been a pragmatic ecumenical understanding on the matter of just how any given Black scholar of intellectual handles the ethnic-relatedness issue. Only among that neurotic nativistic sector of the Black intelligentsia represented today by the Afrocentric elements would one find opposition to this pragmatic ecumenical formula.
In short, the mainstream sector of the Black American intelligentsia has always held the position that any given Black intellectual can seize one's ethnic relatedness or leave it alone. At the same time there has always been as well as an expectation that a sizable segment of the Black intelligentsia in any given period would in fact pick-up some facet of one's ethnic relatedness. Which is to say, for example, that some-but-not-all Black lawyers would do this (e.g. the Harvard-trained William Hastie and Charles Houston, the Howard University-trained Thurgood Marshall, the Yale-trained Marian Edelman); that some Black humanities scholars would do this (e.g. the Harvard-trained W.E.B. DuBois, the Bates College-trained Peter Gomes, the Yale-trained Henry Louis Gates); and that some Black political scientists would do this (e.g. the Harvard-trained Ralph J. Bunche, the Chicago-trained Charles Hamilton, the Yale-trained Jerry Watts).
With African-American intellectuals of this caliber having been willing to activate their ethnic-relatedness option at different periods over the past three generations, it is reasonable to say that the pragmatic ecumenical approach to this issue has worked quite well indeed. It is a better approach, I think, than either to be resentful about an ethnic-relatedness option of the nativistic high-handedness of the Afrocentrists. Martin Kilson Professor of Government