Vassar Critical Journal

The Vassar College English Department Student Journal of Critical Essays

In 1989, Trey Ellis introduced to the world the New Black Aesthetic (NBA), a Black artistic and cultural movement that “shamelessly borrows and reassembles across both race and class lines” (Ellis 234). Emerging out of and away from the essentializing, Black Power–inspired Black Arts Movement (BAM) of the late 60s and 70s, the New Black Aesthetic did not attempt to define Blackness, but instead allowed Blackness to speak for itself and embraced radical hybridity and individuality within the Black community. Within the decade, the NBA developed further into the political sphere with the New Intellectuals, defined by Robert Boynton in 1995 as a new collection of Black intellectuals, primarily gentile and rooted in American academia, who publicly debate the state of American society. In the process, Boynton argues, they reinvent the public intellectual from the New York Jewish public intellectuals of the 1950s and originate from the intellectual precedent set by the likes of Baldwin and Ellison, whose “integrationist” writings essentialized the African-American experience as firmly American, rejecting Black nationalism, while also rejecting a romanticized view of that American experience (Boynton 67). The NBA and New Intellectuals were cultural and political sides, respectively, of the same movement, as demonstrated by Ellis and Boynton’s similar descriptions: both movements took from past Black movements while moving on from them, blurred class distinctions, and were defined by a diversity of viewpoints and a pronounced individuality among their members. And like Ellison and Baldwin, they spoke to the experience of being both Black and American.

Two literary texts help us explore these movements and what qualifies the New Intellectual to speak for a race: a 1992 play, Fires in the Mirror by Anna Deavere Smith, where the movements are tested in real time, and a 1962 novel, A Different Drummer by William Melvin Kelley, with ideas that would not become mainstream for another thirty years. A Different Drummer should be defined as a proto-NBA novel, taking a stand against the 1950’s-era intellectual and laying the groundwork for the themes of individualism in Smith’s play, while Fires in the Mirror more fully develops the theme of radical hybridity across race and class. Read together, these pieces demonstrate what is an effective New Intellectual and what is not.

A Different Drummer:

A Different Drummer includes two characters to whom all New Intellectuals should be compared: Tucker Caliban and Reverend Bennett Bradshaw. We’ll begin with Tucker. The novel centers around the entire Black population of a fictional Southern U.S. state leaving in a mass exodus after Tucker burns his farm down, on a former plantation, and leaves the state for good. However, he says nothing to the Black folks he inspires to leave, communicating only with his wife, Bethrah. In fact, Tucker is nearly silent throughout the entire book. Unlike a public intellectual, we only see glimpses of his thoughts, and when he does speak, he does not care if he is disruptive or not understood, though he is strong in his convictions. 

For example, when Tucker’s grandfather, who spent his life serving the Confederate-descended Willson family, is eulogized as “the kind of man who would always sacrifice hisself to help others,” Tucker interrupts, shouting, “Sacrifice? Is THAT all?…Sacrifice be damned!” (Kelley 122). Later that evening, the youngest Willson son, Dewey Willson III, hears Tucker say to himself, “Not another time. This is the end of it,” (Kelley 123). Two months later, Tucker leaves the Willsons and buys the farm. Tucker is sure of himself, yet curt and sudden in expressing it. He knows he must resist the structures that led his grandfather to be considered only a “sacrifice,” but unlike the public intellectual, he does not attempt to bring others necessarily into his fold of understanding. 

Tucker Caliban is, in actuality, fiercely individualistic and anti-intellectual. Bethrah describes how most people think about action before doing, often ending in complete inaction, while Tucker “just knows what he has to do. He doesn’t think about it; he just knows” (Kelley 113). Once, when Bethrah asks for a dollar for the National Society for Colored Affairs (NSCA), Tucker staunchly refuses, calling the organization “a piece of cardboard” (Kelley 109). When told the NSCA would help win court battles to get his kids a good education, he replies “I don’t care about that…Ain’t none of my battles being fought in no courts. I’m fighting all my battles myself” (Kelley 110). Tucker is determined to resist oppressive conditions, but only as they affect his personal life. He does not believe in education or self-critical thought. What does it mean, then, that, despite only attempting personal liberation, not explaining himself to the broader Black community, and steadfastly rejecting organizations to support Black people, Tucker nevertheless inspires a movement of all of the Black residents of the state?

In order to answer that question, we must compare Tucker to the Reverend Bennett Bradshaw. Unlike Tucker, Bradshaw is a public intellectual, one who uses the authority of general socio-political knowledge to loudly make claims about society. Furthermore, Bradshaw tries to lead from a position of higher authority, rather than as a fellow member of the community. That becomes his fatal flaw. At his youngest, we see him as a college student enamored with ideas, debating fellow student David Willson, Dewey’s future father, on “politics, theories of government, communism vs. capitalism, the race problem” (Kelley 158). His idealism is dismissive as well; when he first meets David at a socialist meeting, he singles him out from the crowd while alleging the others have “nothing to say” (Kelley 155). Additionally, he wants to join the NSCA but believes that it is not “doing all it can for the negro people” (Kelley 157-158). From the beginning, we can see he is exclusive in what he considers worthy of his attention, and he is clearly ambitious in how he personally can contribute as an intellectual. Where Tucker sees the NSCA as inherently ineffective, Bradshaw thinks that it could be effective if it kept doing more

As Bradshaw gets older, he wants David to be an “agent” sending “reports” from the South, and when David is unable to, Bradshaw’s final letter reads: “I cannot see any reason for us to communicate with each other from this day on. This will certainly be my loss” (Kelley 167, 169, 177). Bradshaw has no connections to the South besides David, and he only has connections with David because David is far more engaged in the North than other Southerners, having gone there for the college where he met Bradshaw. In his separation from the South, Bradshaw makes the South an object to subjugate, wanting “reports” as if from the front lines. When David cannot give reports to contribute to Bradshaw’s activity up North, Bradshaw cuts ties with him, reflecting how little he actually cares about connecting with the Southern community, Black and otherwise. As a result, he has to drive down to see Tucker’s exodus, because he did not know about the initial incident.

Furthermore, while in New York, Bennett Bradshaw creates a cult of personality around himself in the name of Black liberation. After being kicked out by the NSCA for being too visibly communist, Bradshaw becomes a religious leader. A newspaper clipping David finds reads, “What Bradshaw preaches, [his organization] the Black Jesuits believe” (Kelley 179). He has a chauffeur drive a limousine given to him by a follower who “saved three years to give it” (Kelley 178). Thus, Bradshaw himself represents the cause his followers believe in and dedicate their lives to. And he responds to the othering of Black folks by othering white folks, declaring war upon them, specifically Jews, who, Bradshaw says, “do most of the exploitation for the white man” (Kelley 179). Bradshaw responds to oppression with self-aggrandizement and violence under the guise of higher ideals. Meanwhile, the movement Tucker leads occurs completely separate from Bradshaw. When the Reverend comes to the South, the hypocrisy of his cult of personality is revealed. He calls Tucker’s destruction on his farm “gloriously primitive!”, a condescension that soon fades when Bradshaw realizes the scope of the Black population making their way North for freedom (Kelley 68). He becomes deeply sad rather than joyful at their success, explaining to Dewey, “Did you ever think that a person like myself, a so-called religious leader needs the Tuckers to justify his existence?…they’ve made me obsolete” (Kelley 134). Bradshaw realizes too late that attempting to lead from a higher position of intellectual authority failed compared to Tucker’s grassroots action, and instead of joining Tucker, his reaction is to wallow in self-pity because he personally no longer has power as a public intellectual leader. 

Thus, Tucker motivates action not as a higher authority, but by leading as an equal member of a community responding to shared injustice. In particular, it is the individual independence that he represents that makes him a good leader. By rejecting the NSCA, Tucker rejects any organization that claims to be leading the whole of the Black race; instead, he says he is fighting only his battles, by himself. And that theme of individuality is not just within Tucker; he is not a lone independent thinker leading mindless people out of the state. Instead, we can see individualism within the mass exodus as well while Reverend Bradshaw is out observing them with Dewey. Bradshaw and Dewey find a man in the crowd with a family. His small children are tired and want to stop walking, and his wife “still thinks this is crazy…packing up and going North.” When Bradshaw asks why they are leaving, the man answers, “I don’t know where I got the notion…. but it seems like all the black folks up in Sutton got it into their head they just won’t stand for it no more” (Kelley 131-132). That there is disagreement within the family about the movement, and that the man cannot point to a leader but can point to a universally known “it” that they are escaping, all speak to the fact that they are not a collectivist herd, but a group of individuals that are consciously debating and deciding on leaving. The individuals are all previously aware of this “it” of their conditions, and it was not Tucker who made them aware of it, but a shared experience that bonds them to him.

Tucker’s silence, a result of his independence, makes him a good leader of individuals. By burning the farm and leaving silently, he does not try to gain followers or instill some new teachings about the Black condition. Instead, the focus is solely on Tucker’s actions, which inspire the Black community by reminding them of their own preexisting awareness and driving them to their own action of their own volition. Tucker does not claim he wants to or can save them, unlike the NSCA and Bradshaw, but he demonstrates how they can save themselves, and as quickly as he begins a movement, he leaves his position of leadership. The Black community of Sutton happened to align with Tucker this time, but they are not permanently beholden to him. Thus, individualism is, instead of just a tenet of Tucker, a theme of the entirety of A Different Drummer, where Black communities cannot be saved as a monolithic structure by organizations like the NSCA, but by connections within the community at the individual level.

In Bradshaw, Kelley is critiquing the public intellectual of his day. Boynton describes that the public intellectuals of 1950s New York were often Jews who “held convictions about the primacy of high culture and the special role of the intellectual in society,” particularly inspired by “socialism and European culture” (Boynton 54). Bradshaw’s obsession with socialism, and his special role as an intellectual, blind him to creating real change and transform him into a violent egotist. As a hat-tip to underline the connection that Kelley is making between Bradshaw and the 1950s public intellectual, Kelley often emphasizes that Bradshaw sounds vaguely “British” (Kelley 155). This is explained by a family connection to the West Indies, but also signifies Bradshaw’s connection to European tradition and separation from the South. It is particularly ironic that Bradshaw directs his faculties towards anti-Semitism with a position typically associated with New York Jews, emphasizing the idea that Jewish American intellectualism cannot be adapted to the African American experience. Bradshaw responds to the European tradition of othering, used against Black people in America, to other Jews, who are in turn othered in Europe. By waging war on the white population, particularly by identifying the Jews as tools of “exploitation,” Bradshaw responds to otherization with otherization, perpetuating a truly vicious cycle of European logic.

As opposed to Bradshaw’s European alignment, Tucker’s position in A Different Drummer is a result of the overlap of the African and the American. W. Lawrence Hogue writes that A Different Drummer is one of the first African American novels that “disrupts the white/black binary” where Black people are subordinate and othered (Hogue 1). He connects Tucker’s “self-reliance” to American transcendentalism, and we can also see its influence on Kelley from the fact that the book’s title is, in fact, a quote from transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau. Hogue further elaborates that A Different Drummer “is the first novel that feels free to strip away Western rationalism and the Eurocentric regime of power and knowledge and to seek successfully nonrational, instinctual, heterogenous American and African-American belief systems as alternatives” (Hogue 27, 42). Hogue identifies something uniquely American about the book’s “instinctual, heterogeneous” individualism. 

In addition to Hogue’s connection to the American, Tucker is also the great-great-grandson of an African of mystical strength, who had been killed with difficulty after he escaped the slavers and led enslaved people to freedom. Mister Harper, an old man who the fellow white townspeople of Sutton look up to, believes Tucker inspired the exodus because of some special property of his “African’s blood” (Kelley 8). Where Bradshaw is a false prophet, Tucker could be a mystic. Or, Tucker could just be like anyone else. As Hogue notes, “Mr. Harper can only use his Western, Christian language to describe the African” as an animalistically strong Black Christ, but meanwhile “can never understand that the regime of power and knowledge that sustains order in Sutton…had to be deconstructed/disrupted before Tucker…could be seen as human, equal, and different” from white people (Hogue 9, 21). Harper cannot understand that Tucker is not a different level of human or equal than anyone else, but that every Black Suttoner is individually responding to a collective experience of injustice. Instead, Harper tries to explain the exodus as the product of Tucker’s mystical exceptionalism. It is not ancestry that shapes the exodus, but a very current expression of African-American identity connecting recognition of conditions to individualistic resistance against colonial norms in a way Harper and the other white spectators cannot grasp.

Through these figures, Kelley argues that the best Black public intellectual is no public intellectual at all. Instead, the leader of the race is the African-American commoner. And Black people are not irrevocably bound to any one commoner, either. In NBA fashion, Kelley rejects Blackness essentialized by a single leader, and instead embraces a community defined by shared experience rather than who they oppose, as well as individualism within the community.

Connecting to Fires in the Mirror:

Though A Different Drummer rejects public intellectualism in the Black community based on what intellectualism was in the 1950s and the style of leadership that obtained, the individualism of Tucker is later espoused by the New Intellectuals of the 1990s. Instead of the European tradition, Boynton notes the New Intellectuals are “within the American grain” including “redirecting…from race-based identity politics to the importance of American citizenship for race relations. That is, they have thought less exclusively about the meaning of ‘blackness’ and more inclusively about what it means to be an African-American” (Boynton 54, 56). Likewise, the individualism Tucker represents is central to the New Intellectuals in Fires in the Mirror. The play compiles interviews of real-life people to shed light on the violence between the Black and Jewish communities during the Crown Heights Riots, sparked by a Hasidic driver accidentally striking and killing a Black child and by the subsequent murder of a Jewish man by a Black mob. The text includes both public intellectuals and everyday people involved in the incident. The play’s first monologue is Ntozake Shange, a Black playwright, poet, and novelist, portrayed as a public intellectual, serving as an authority on identity. She defines identity as like being in a desert, in which “we are part of the desert…but we are not the desert” (Smith 4). Smith chooses to open with the emphasis on an individual that is both part of and separate from a given ecosystem. Angela Davis also has an excerpt in the play, extending these individualistic notions of identity more explicitly to race, disparaging solely uniting under the “old notion of coalition in which we anchor ourselves very solidly in our specific racialized communities,” and instead arguing that “we need to find ways of working with and understanding the vastness of our many cultural heritages, ways of coming together without rendering invisible all our heterogeneity” (Smith 31-32). Shange notes that one is part of the desert, just as Davis notes that one can still be part of a community heterogeneous to others, but both note that the individual self can remain mobile, not beholden to what they are a part of. In this way, the New Intellectuals walk a fine line where a racial identity is established but not essentialized by any alignment. A Different Drummer disrupts the white/black binary, as Hogue notes, but the New Intellectuals in Fires in the Mirror begin to break binary divides down altogether.

However, there are also a set of Black speakers in the play that uphold a binary and otherize the Jewish community like Reverend Bradshaw. These intellectuals include Black nationalist Sonny Carson, Nation of Islam member Minister Conrad Mohammad, and Reverend Al Sharpton. Carson claims to “understand” the language of the Black youth rioting against the Jews, saying that “I have no reason to be eagerly awaiting the coming together of our people” because “They [the Jewish community] owe me first” (Smith 104-105). Al Sharpton accuses a rabbi of not sending condolences for the crash, and Mohammad accuses Jews of “masquerading in our garment” as the chosen people (Smith 58, 116). Not only can we see these figures, especially Mohammad, as more modern versions of the Bradshaw-like public intellectuals that Kelley warns against, but Smith also subtly discredits them in how she positions her monologues. Earlier in the play, Jewish leader Michael S. Miller remarks upon words and a letter of condolences sent by the Lubavitcher community, a claim contrary to what Sharpton implies and which Sharpton does not address. Not only that, but immediately after Sharpton’s monologue, Smith places a monologue from community leader Richard Green, who is also Black, who explains “Sharpton, Carson…didn’t have any power out there really. The media gave them power. But they weren’t turning those youfs on and off…all they were doing was sort of orchestratin’ it” (Smith 117). Green frames these Black leaders hostile to Jews as exactly like Reverend Bradshaw, not only in their otherization, but in that their leadership is not community-oriented as much as it is self-assuredly authoritative.

Thus, the play seems to favor intellectuals over communities understanding each other. Cornel West’s foreword to this play also indicates the play holds this stance on the role of the New Intellectual: “As a citizen, Smith knows that there can be no grappling with Black anti-Semitism and Jewish anti-Black racism without a vital public sphere…public performance has a unique capacity to bring us together” (West, Smith xxii). Note the emphasis on Smith as a “citizen,” negotiating our places as Americans, as Boynton described, across racial boundaries. Tucker and Bradshaw were leaders for Black communities, while white people like David and Dewey looked on helplessly. Instead, the New Intellectual looks at an interracial nation, not isolating themselves to the Black community, but speaking on a national level.

But if Green’s criticism stands for the role of the media in giving power to figures like Sharpton, it stands for figures like Davis and Shange. All of these New Intellectuals, regardless of their position, are like Bradshaw in one way: they are not a part of the Crown Heights communities they speak about; they are aggrandized by larger media. Unlike Tucker, the Black public intellectual still seems to speak from a position of higher authority. That is why it is important Smith also elevates the voices of actual members of the Crown Heights community to the same playing field, like Green, and why it is notable that West and Davis speak for unification between communities, rather than for one community like Bradshaw or Carson would. Tucker himself never spoke for a community, but only one community followed him, defined by race. The positioning of the in-between within this play, of famous figures and everyday community members, Black and Jewish men and women, demonstrates the borrowing across race and class lines that makes this a firmly NBA text of “hybrid” identity (Ellis 242). There is still a race that the New Intellectual can speak for—George C. Wolfe, for example, firmly states in the play how his “blackness does not…exist in relationship to your whiteness…it exists”—but the individualism established in the Black community (and beyond) and the inclusion of this multiplicity of figures, public intellectual or not, means that there is no single leader on race, just as there is no definition of what race is (Smith 10-11).

In fact, Debbie Thompson writes, “By approaching racial identity as performative, Anna Deavere Smith can question the fact of race without discounting racism” (Thompson 137). Beyond the characters within this play, the performance itself is an act of a Black public intellectual. Smith performs it herself as a one-woman show, representing both Black and Jewish public intellectuals, as well as everyday Black and Jewish residents of Crown Heights. A story told by many becomes a story told by one, who transitions between different viewpoints. In this way, Anna Deavere Smith, or whoever is performing this play, occupies the ultimate position of hybridity. There is no one voice or race that is prioritized, but instead it is the whole. Where Kelley says the best public intellectuals to speak to the Black community are no public intellectuals, Smith demonstrates instead that there is no one public intellectual to speak to the Black community. Instead, there are a multitude of opinions, from multiple Black public intellectuals, as well as people from other classes and races. As a New Intellectual, Smith does not lead but reflects conversations and viewpoints. “My sense is that American character lives not in one place or the other, but in the gaps between the places…in order to change it, we have to see it clearly,” Smith writes in her introduction to the play. That is the role of the Black public intellectual: not unifying Black communities as monoliths, as Kelley fears, nor dissolving them in the name of integration, but connecting across the gaps, both within and between communities Black and beyond, so that an American individual of any race can comfortably move around, wherever they want.

Works Cited

  • Boynton, Robert S. “The New Intellectuals,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 1995.
  • Ellis, Trey. “The New Black Aesthetic,” Caloo, No. 38, Winter, 1989. John Hopkins University Press, 233-243.
  • Hogue, W. Lawrence. “Disrupting the White/Black Binary: William Melvin Kelley’s ‘A Different Drummer,’” CLA Journal, Vol. 44, No. 1, September, 2000. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1-42.
  • Kelley, William Melvin. A Different Drummer, Anchor Books, 1959.
  • Smith, Anna Deavere. Foreword by Cornel West. Fires in the Mirror, Anchor Books, 1993.
  • Thompson, Debby. “’Is Race a Trope?’” Anna Deavere Smith and the Question of Racial Performativity,” African American Review, Vo. 37, No. 1, Spring, 2003. Johns Hopkins University Press, 127-138.

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