Academic Responsibility and Black Scholars


Wellesley, Massachusetts. -- Black scholars come from a distinguished and exemplary tradition, yet it is necessary to re-emphasize the importance of our responsibility particularly at a time when this tradition is being tested anew.

This is especially true when students at Kean College applaud loudly when Khallid Muhammad calls Jews "blood-suckers of the black nation and the black community;" when students at Howard University chant in unison against what they perceive as the sins of the Jews; and when Tony Martin of Wellesley College teaches from texts proclaiming "Jewish involvement in the Trans-Atlantic slave trade and African slavery."

It is important to recognize that the venom spewed forth by Mr. Muhammad and that in Dr. Martin's book, "The Jewish Onslaught," was not aimed at Jews alone. Dr. Martin derides his black critics as "handkerchief heads" and "Uncle Toms" and, in one case, "a good Negro" who married a white woman. Similarly, such "gangsta history" as that contained in "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews" is meant to demean and to defame others and to bring them into disrepute, rather than to enlighten and to lead us to a more complex and sophisticated understanding of social phenomena. It ought to be labeled anti-Semitic.

Its methodology is questionable in that it generalizes from few facts and organizes its material as though the Jewishness of the participants in slavery is the important aspect of their activity. It suggests that Jews entered the slave trade or slavery because they were Jewish rather than because of their desire to make money. Some made fortunes, while others must have lost fortunes. Their Jewishness was irrelevant to their activities and thus has no serious explanatory force in explicating the period under study.

Moreover "gangsta" researchers parade the activities of the Jewish financiers without trying to demonstrate that they participated in the social, cultural, political and economic forces of their time. The researchers simply insist that somehow Jewishness is the central category of analysis rather than capitalist practices and enterprise.

One startling aspect of distortion occurs when the Nation of Islam's researchers contend that the Reconstruction period laid "the foundation of the modern [exploitative] relationship between blacks and Jews." On the contrary, W.E.B. DuBois sees this period as "not simply a fight between the white and the black races in the South or between masters and ex-slaves, . . . but the desperate effort of a dislodged, maimed and ruined oligarchy and monopoly to restore an anachronism in economic organization by force, fraud and slander . . . in the face of a greater labor movement of white and black, and . . . a new capitalism and a new political framework."

In "The Jewish Onslaught," Dr. Martin projects himself as a BTC victim of the wrath of Jewish students and faculty who are intent to suppress his right of free expression. He never tells his readers that the president and academic dean of his college and the chairman of his department defend his right to teach "The Secret Relationship," but we demanded that he explain why this text was so important to his academic enterprise.

In "The End of Afro-Fascism," Marcellus Andrews argued that the recent outbursts of Jewish-black tension "are signs of a collapse of support for liberal democratic ideals and institutions in the aftermath of a quarter-century of right-wing dominance in American politics. More importantly, the emergence of a new authoritarian racism among black collegians and intellectuals signals a radical retreat from politics and open debate that threatens to stifle black intellectual and economic development for the foreseeable future."

Mr. Andrews also points out that the rapid social and economic integration of blacks into the mainstream of American society in the post-civil rights years was blocked by the end of the post-World War II economic boom and the slowdown of the American economy. Certainly the insistence on white privilege, racism and the persistent neglect of black people during the conservative era did little to enhance their economic and social liberation, a condition that Julius Wilson documented convincingly in his book, "The Truly Disadvantaged."

Thus, when black people turn to Minister Louis Farrakhan and his organization they do so not because they perceive him to be anti-Semitic or anti-white; they turn to him because they are desperate for jobs, because their living standards have eroded, and because they feel excluded from the American consensus. They turn to him because no one seems to speak out so directly about the callous disregard that so many show toward the condition in which black people have found themselves over the past 20 years.

Moreover, the systematic inequities within the society, the failure of white America to face up to its historical legacy and its inability to keep its part of the bargain have led to many social and intellectual dislocations in the society.

In light of such persistent poverty and inequality, it matters that black scholars have the courage to call a spade a spade, to challenge our colleagues, and to keep the nation's gaze focused on the central problems that attend black people. Black scholars have an obligation to be as accurate and as honest as possible when we offer our views for the consideration of our group and our society.

Nor should it be forgotten that one of the main weapons that any oppressed group possesses is the weight of its moral authority and the recognition that the very abjectness of its position calls upon a society to respond in moral and socially responsible ways. It is this conviction that gave Martin Luther King the moral power and intellectual authority to forward his project and to continue his people's exodus out of the house of bondage.

Afro-American Studies, an emancipatory discipline, have always been concerned with interpreting the activities of black people within the context of the liberation project. In his classic essay, "Black Studies and the Contemporary Student," C.L.R. James compares the heroic activities of black soldiers in the Haitian Revolution and the American Civil War as they struggled to usher in new forms of life and argues that the history of black people "is the history of Western civilization." It is a history, "that black people and white people and all serious students of modern history" have to know if they are to understand the manner in which our destinies are inextricably linked together.

The attempt, then, to reduce our mutual past to some scary, off-the-wall story about a secret relationship between Jews and blacks or to project our history as mere victimhood constitute a serious misunderstanding of our problems as a people. Nor, for that matter can it be seen as serious scholarship. As such, interrogation and analysis are to be preferred always over authoritarianism and dogmatism.

The scholar's responsibility is as grave as those of the medical doctor or the urban planner. A counterfeit scholar is as damaging to his race as a counterfeit doctor is to the health of a patient. An irresponsible doctor can kill a patient. But an irresponsible scholar can poison the minds of an entire generation, promote simplistic solutions to serious problems, and give a people a false sense of the problems that it faces.

We must discourage attempts to solve serious problems of a group though blatant appeals to race. Our recourse must always be to rational impartiality. Our highest goal should be the most comprehensive understanding of our condition in these United States no matter how troublesome, no matter how painful the result. It is only in the unceasing quest to discover the truth of our condition that we validate our vocation and serve in the liberation of our people.

Selwyn R. Cudjoe is professor and chairman of Africana studies at Wellesley College.

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