Adolph Reed

Kenneth Mostern kmostern at
Thu Jun 11 06:59:14 PDT 1998

Thank you, Rakesh, for your warm endorsement. I already knew I needed to write this post before, of course, I just didn't have time yesterday. It still won't amount to a detailed response to his "arguments" in the terms you apparently expect - that is something I am doing over years and decades as a scholar, rather than as an email polemicist - but it will make clear how wrong you are about why I think Reed is stupid. (You think I'm protecting Kelley? You have no idea what I think.) I assure you there is no risk of Gates or Baker endorsing anything about my book, nor any lack of black scholars or friends who do.

When I read the Jesse Jackson book, I didn't yet think of Reed as a problem, although the signs were already there. After all, his claims that Jackson was neither a leftist nor a trustworthy individual, and that this could have and should have been known to those of us who chose to work for him, are true. Of course, many of us did know that, and chose to work for him for other reasons - and, I might add, having been 21 at the time, did not sufficiently understand the range of issues involved in making the choice to work for his campaign - but I'll bracket that. To this day I will claim that our mistakes were in how we worked for Jackson, not that we worked for Jackson. What was offensive about the Reed's book, on the other hand, was its extreme sectarianism. Reed deeply personalizes all issues: in spite of the fact that he loudly claims to be providing structural explanations for why particular political actors act as they do, anyone who disagrees with him is individually corrupt, and nothing but the worst kind of contempt is expressed towards us.

Still, I actually continued to read him, and in fact said publicly on emails lists that Rakesh, too, was on, that Reed was an interesting and important writer.

When the Village Voice article appeared, I agreed with everything in it about Gates and Baker, thought he didn't understand what West and hooks had contributed in the 1980s but essentially agreed with him about the direction they were going, and couldn't figure out what Kelley was doing in the stew (in spite of the fact that I have severe differences with Kelley). Still, what was unsaid in the article was rather disgusting for an individual of such supposedly great integrity as Reed. To start with only the most obvious, what was an article about how black public intellectuals were staging their brilliance, for high pay, in front of a white audience, doing in the Village Voice, that hotbed of challenges to white supremacy? The immediately apparent answer was: putting Reed into their camp. No sooner did this article appear than Reed could be regularly seen in all the same places that the others appear (Gates excepted, since he was moving far more centrally into the bourgeois press).

I suppose I (we, Rakesh?) should be happy that someone took a shot at Gates and Baker, something that dearly needed to be done. Unfortunately, being in their field, I actually know that Sandra Adell already had as a junior scholar, who goes a long way to explain why she's been so marginalized in the profession, and that within weeks, so had Hortense Spillers - but Spillers did it the honest way. Since she was arguing that there was no good reason for cultural studies intellectuals to enter to public realm at the expense of doing their work, she did it in Boundary 2, with a careful and theoretically useful set of arguments.

Of course Reed, since he knows that literary scholarship is simply corrupt, would never bother to read Adell or Spillers. Which brings me to the recent book, W.E.B. Du Bois and American Political Thought. If you need to diagnose my distaste for Reed, start there. Only after reading that book did I finally see, clearly, what a lightweight he is.

The basic consistency between the VV essay and this book is that it loudly claims to be doing something different from the approach of "all others", while utterly failing to do it. In this case the claim is that he, unlike anyone else, has a subtle grasp of the epistemological issues in Du Bois' work; yet since he dismisses out of hand the possibility that Du Bois could have had any philosophical influences outside US pragmatism and turn of the century social science (a claim answered at book length by Shamoon Zamir in Dark Voices, which Reed does not bother to cite and certainly hasn't read), this is simply not the case. In fact, he doesn't seem to understand the arguments of anyone who wasn't a bourgeois political scientist in the US in the 1970s; he certainly doesn't cite many marxists, or essentially anyone writing right now, in the section of the book on Du Bois. His academic world faded 20 years ago, and all he can do is cry about it.

He seems to find it the height of absurdity that anyone could find anything useful or worth reading in Du Bois' work beyond the Booker T. Washington essay. This is no book on Du Bois in general - he may not have read any Du Bois, certainly doesn't understand any Du Bois, beyond 1903. He knows nothing about the scholarship claiming that Du Bois' work moved over the course of time. He declares without argument that it can't be true, and ignores it.

He does, of course, reprint a slightly more careful version of the VV article in which he only takes on Gates and Baker, and where he makes a slightly more subtle argument about the relationship between their work and the move away from scholarship about "Of Booker T. Washington and Others". The problem with his argument is not that what he says about Baker's Harlem Renaissance book is wrong - its actually pretty much right - but that it doesn't occur to him that someone might agree with him on Baker and still insist that "Of Our Spiritual Strivings" is the more interesting text at the moment. To say nothing of Dusk of Dawn, written 37 years later.

Kenneth Mostern Department of English University of Tennessee

"Talent is perhaps nothing other than successfully sublimated rage."

Theodor Adorno

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