The coining of the term “intellectuals” in 1898 coincided with W. E. B. Du Bois’s effort to disseminate values and ideals unbounded by the color line. Du Bois’s ideal of a “higher and broader and more varied human culture” is at the heart of a cosmopolitan tradition that Color and Culture identifies as a missing chapter in American literary and cultural history. The book offers a much needed and startlingly new historical perspective on “black intellectuals” as a social category, ranging over a century—from Frederick Douglass to Patricia Williams, from Du Bois, Pauline Hopkins, and Charles Chesnutt to Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Alain Locke, from Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin to Samuel Delany and Adrienne Kennedy. These writers challenge two durable assumptions: that high culture is “white culture” and that racial uplift is the sole concern of the black intellectual.
The remarkable tradition that this book recaptures, culminating in a cosmopolitan disregard for demands for racial “authenticity” and group solidarity, is strikingly at odds with the identity politics and multicultural movements of our day. In the Du Boisian tradition Ross Posnock identifies a universalism inseparable from the particular and open to ethnicity—an approach with the power to take us beyond the provincialism of postmodern tribalism.
In this solidly academic volume, Posnock presents the black intellectual from an historical viewpoint, addressing them as a social group unto themselves. Looking back over a century ‘from Frederick Douglass to Patricia Williams,’ he addresses the myriad causes for which ‘high culture’ blacks have fought, stretching still wider the discussion of black history in America.
Ranging freely across the twentieth century, Posnock’s emphasis is on intellectual history, with an occasional admixture of literary criticism… Color and Culture is one of those books so prolific in suggestion, so stimulating in its juxtapositions, so profound in its critique of racial essentialism, that the reviewer’s task becomes an exercise in frustration: such intellectual riches do not lend themselves to a short summary.
Color and Culture is a magnificent contribution to American literary history. Monumentally important in its exploration of the tensions between ethnicity and cosmopolitanism, Professor Posnock’s book is the work on black literature that I have been waiting to read for three decades, one that both liberates and enlarges our discussions on racial identity and a century of black intellectual commerce from Du Bois to Samuel Delany.
This learned, passionate apologia for cosmopolitan black intellectuals unsettles familiar figures and categories. Whether one is assenting to Color and Culture, arguing with it, or (as I often found myself) doing both at the same time, this is a book to contend with.
Posnock’s analysis starts from the observation that fixing identity, à la multiculturalism or postmodernism, has had destructive political, cultural, and social effects. Most discussion of public intellectuals presumes black writers are relative late-comers to the intellectual cadre. Posnock’s book turns the recent discussion on its head. Taking a cue from Adolph Reed, Posnock admires black intellectuals precisely when they refuse the burden of representing or speaking for the race.
- 371 pages
- 5-11/16 x 8-15/16 inches
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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