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May 16th, 2008 at 9:27 am

An Interview with Houston Baker in Diverse Magazine

Houston Baker, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Right MovementInterest in Houston Baker’s Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Movement continues as evidenced by the interview he gave to Diverse: Issues in Higher Education. You can hear or read the interview.

In the interview, Houston Baker talks about his decision to write Betrayal, the difference between Black neoconservatives and black centrists, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as a “race man. He also cites scholars such as Manning Marable, Angela Davis, Lani Guinier, and Adolph Reed as scholars whose work remains accountable to the needs of the black community.

Much has been made of the book’s critiques of Henry Louis Gates, Cornel West, and Michael Eric Dyson. In this excerpt, Baker clarifies his concern with their work:

The centrists, to my mind, are the people—and I have given some notion of that in what I said earlier—are brilliant, brilliant intellectuals. I mean, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., for example, has written unarguably the best book on literary and cultural matters in Afro-America in the last 30 years or so. Cornel West is an incredible philosopher. And pragmatism is something that he has unutterably altered by his work. (Georgetown University’s) Michael Eric Dyson is an incredibly brilliant and learned man.

The reason I talk about those individuals, such as those three—Gates, West and Dyson—as centrists is because they have given up their best critical labors, which would lead to the production of a book. And a book, I define as a production that has accountability; that has an abundance of evidence; that has a scholarly dedication to bringing forth the truth and to changing a discipline in ways that will bring a new understanding of African-American life and culture.

When I look at books from Professor West like Race Matters, I don’t find those criteria satisfied. When I look at a book like The Future of the Race by Professors Gates and West, I don’t find those criteria satisfied. And when I look at Michael Eric Dyson’s work Between God and Gangsta Rap or Come Hell of High Water or I May Not Get There With You (it’s evident that) he’s a prolific writer, but these books are more anecdotal thought pieces. They often have a provocative cast to them as when he suggests we might look at (Dr. Martin Luther) King’s lapses of ethics or morality and on the basis of those lapses equate with those gangsta rappers in the United States of America—which produced from one of my graduate students the exclamation ‘does any group in the world judge its leaders, or choose them, by their worst tendencies?’

So I think the work is sensationalistic in some instances; in other instances, they are too simplistic. And they seem designed to say to a particular audience—in the case of Michael Eric Dyson, I think it’s a middle-class Black audience—you can read me and you can see that this is pretending to be a critique of gangsta rap and Dr. King, but it’s really kind of a moralizing almost sermonic, anecdotal pamphlet. The same is, I think, in some measure true of Cornel West’s Race Matters.

So, the centrists are people who say, ‘I’m going to speak honestly, fully and scholastically to the best of my ability to you about race in ways that will be productive for race relations, and perhaps to the Black majority.’ And then what they often give is, in some instances, stand-up comedy.

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