Four years ago, after reading Michael Eric Dyson‘s Mercy Mercy Me: The Arts, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, I was amazed anybody could take Dyson seriously as an intellectual, because the book wasn’t good enough to pass muster as an undergrad essay, let alone the work product of a humanities professor. And yet Dyson’s academic peers kept praising his contributions to black studies—but now one of his early supporters admits his blurb was just well-intentioned puffery. In his new book, Betrayal: How Black Intellectuals Have Abandoned the Ideals of the Civil Rights Era, Houston Baker reveals that his praise for Dyson’s Between God and Gangsta Rap was intended to uplift the black intellectual community, but now that he’s actually gone ahead and read the book, along with the stuff Dyson’s written since, that was “a grievous mistake.”
As Scott McLemee points out, Baker’s about-face on Dyson is part of a wide-ranging attack on contemporary black public intellectuals, many of whom are either not black enough or not intellectual enough to command Baker’s respect. McLemee, however, is not impressed by Baker’s “ad hominem sensationalism, generalized condemnation, and scintillating innuendo,” and when he manages to get Max Weber‘s name wrong in the chapter on neoconservatism, well, let’s just say there’s nothing here that McLemee might have to worry about showing up on the back of a book for him to disavow in ten years.
I am absolutely shocked, though, to discover that professors dole out blurbs to each other based on cronyism and ideological conviviality. Thankfully, this sort of thing could never happen in the pristine world of literary fiction.