Six prominent Black academics heatedly debated the role of the intellectual in Black communities at a packed ARCO Forum last night.
The panel, titled "The Responsibility of Intellectuals in the Age of Crack," featured Margaret Burnham, Henry Louis Gates Jr., bell hooks, Glen Loury, Eugene Rivers and Cornel R. West '74. Professor of Afro-American Studies K. Anthony Appiah moderated the debate.
Rivers, pastor of the Azusa Christian Community in Dorchester, opened by calling for a discussion of how Black intellectuals can move beyond "distant exhortation and example" to work for social change.
West, who is director of Afro-American Studies at Princeton University, said Black people's problems must be understood in the context of the overall state of the country.
"It's so difficult to live a human and humane life under a market-driven civilization," West said. He focused on the need for Black intellectuals to take "non-market values like love, care, service...and give them life."
hooks, who is professor of English and women's studies at Oberlin College, said that Black intellectuals have a personal responsibility to live up to the standards they espouse.
"We are first and foremost an example in our lives," she said. "We have got to believe as intellectuals that the examples of our lives matter as much as our words."
The discussion, which ran a half-hour over the scheduled 90 minutes, included several intense moments. West and Rivers both lost their microphones in one particularly emotive exchange on class divisions among Blacks.
hooks twice criticized the male panelists for engaging in "male homosocial bonding" and obscuring the voices of the two women on the panel. The second criticism elicited a heated response from Rivers. He accused hooks of sloganeering, calling her "Ms. Feminist--Upper Middle Class Feminist."
During the question-and-answer session, Gates defended his actions as chair of Harvard's Afro-American Studies Department. Responding to a student from the Caribbean Club who questioned his goals, Gates said that he is trying to build a strong Black presence in the historically prejudiced field of academia.
"[I try to be] a builder of organizations with other people...to create a lasting institution of Afro-American intellectualism," Gates said. "That is what I do. I'm not ashamed of that...If we can turn around Afro-Am at Harvard, we can turn Afro-Am around in this country."