In his new book Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era (Columbia University Press, 2008), Houston A. Baker makes the argument that many contemporary black public intellectuals, otherwise known as African American “academostars,” are self-serving individuals who distort the message of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and belie the overall aims of the Civil Rights movement of the 1950’s and 60’s. He calls out five main figures: Shelby Steele, John McWhorter, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and even Cornel West and Michael Eric Dyson.
Betrayal has been described both as a “brave and funny vernacular broadside” and “an important and absorbing meditation” on contemporary discussions of American politics. This book is immensely important not only for the way it clarifies the often misconstrued and misapplied rhetoric of Dr. King, but also the way in which it takes pains to historicize the plight of African Americans. I am personally persuaded by this book, and I highly recommend it.
While Betrayal was published in the same year as the election of America’s first president of African descent, it offers us a framework for understanding our “now”: the upcoming 2012 election season, much of the Tea Party rhetoric, and even the political challenges that Barack Obama faces in relation to contemporary racial conflict.
Baker is a distinguished university professor of English at Vanderbilt University, and he is a well-known literary and cultural critic, focusing on African American arts and politics. He is also a creative writer, with a recently published volume of poetry entitled Passing Over. I hope to have him on the show again to discuss that book. Till then, I’m certain you’ll be thoroughly engaged in this lively interchange.