My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals
The stereotypical (and perhaps vaunted) image of the intellectual positions this individual in or at least near the academy, surrounded by and producing copious tomes of great merit. In What’s My Name?, Grant Farred troubles this limited conception. Riffing off of Antonio Gramsci’s idea of the organic intellectual, he presents the vernacular intellectual. Describing this individual, Farred writes:
Farred’s choice of figures for his critique is simultaneously expected and surprising. While the ubiquitous postcolonial gurus Stuart Hall and C.L.R. James are present, so too are the usually unexamined (at least in a theoretical context) Muhammad Ali and Bob Marley. Explaining his inclusion of the latter two—as well as the text’s overarching premise—Farred writes, “What’s My Name? posits previously unrecognized localities, the music concert, the press conference, the boxing ring, the popular music lyric, as intellectual sites by and for cultural figures who speak as vernacular intellectuals” [p. 10].
The chapter on Muhammad Ali is by far the most interesting. In fact, the reader gets the impression that Farred initially conceived of this text having thought about Ali in a vernacular context. Farred positions Ali as the quintessential vernacular intellectual, observing, “Ali’s use of language as a cultural resource is in and of itself unique; no other boxer used it to indict his opponents morally and ideologically” [p. 50]. Ali’s use of language is of principal concern to Farred, providing both critic and subject their ideological thrust. Farred’s critique is a well-rendered one, providing a fresh perspective on Ali. It is interesting to (re)consider Ali from a vernacular perspective, that is how he might have been the erstwhile “poet laureate of black global oppression” [p. 54]. As Farred explains, Ali “is easily given to parable—he is, after all, the boxer who spoke in verse, even if it wasn’t iambic pentameter” [p. 67]. He provides a larger framework by noting:
By that light, it is of supreme significance that Ali, when fighting Ernie “The Octopus” Terrell, continually shouted, “What’s my name?!” As Ali clarifies, “I wasn’t just talking to Terrell […] I was talking to all those people who kept calling me Cassius Clay. They wouldn’t call Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Benny, Howard Cosell, or Edward G. Robinson by the old names they junked. Why do it to me? [p. 63] Such authoritative statements reinforce Farred’s conception of the vernacular intellectual, that figure who steps outside of conventional expectations, reasserting, reframing and reclaiming his ontology.
It is unfortunate that he does not follow through on this sentiment, opting instead to offer an irrelevant treatise on cricket.
The chapter on Hall is fairly incisive, if not somewhat repetitive. Noting that “Hall is the intellectual who became a vernacular postcolonial figure through discomfiture, through unlearning and reclaiming his Jamaican past,” Farred attempts to show how the Jamaican scholarship boy became one of the most influential thinkers of his time [p. 154]. The repetition is evinced in Farred’s explanations. Consider the following three statements:
Is there any doubt that Farred is saying the exact same thing in different (and in the case of the second excerpt, convoluted) language?
This chapter, in contrast to the previous one on James, is worthwhile for its numerous references to Gramsci. Throughout the chapter, Farred shows how Hall, the vernacular intellectual, is different from—albeit inspired by—the organic intellectual. A good example of this is the suggestion that “Hall ha[d] to, in a critical sense, remake Gramsci in order to construct himself as a diasporic intellectual; Gramsci’s focus is too ‘narrow’” [p. 176]. Hall’s doffing of the Gramscian construct was a major component of his intellectual development and one that Farred examines in great detail.
The Marley chapter offers very little only because by the time the reader gets to it, he can pretty much predict what Farred is going to say. His explication of Marley’s lyrics come as little surprise; the fact that Marley codes his political meaning within his lyrics. As Farred writes:
He continues by showing how this coded meaning was a trademark of Marley’s, “almost always hidden beneath the anti-Babylonianism of his Rastafarian faith” [p. 222]. Admittedly, there is nothing disingenuous about this chapter; it is certainly more relevant than the one on James. The problem is that the reader knows Farred’s trajectory before he begins to read. To that end, Farred could have improved his critique by eliminating some details—does the reader really need to know that Marley’s favorite brand of knife was Okapi as explained on page 227?—and provided more details in other instances (Farred leaves unanalyzed this assertion: “Trenchtown was a more variegated community, composed of many more constituencies than [Marley’s song “No Woman, No Cry”] allows, including other religious groups who would not consider themselves morally lacking” [p. 234]).
What’s My Name? is a good text with the potential to be a better text. In reconsidering his trajectory, Farred might concentrate on the extant disconnects he has created. For instance, in one point, he speaks of a “strategic vernacularity,” causing the reader to wonder what kind of vernacularity is not strategic [p. 209]. Farred might also rethink his tendency to create binary comparisons between Hall/James and Ali/Marley. If the idea is to situate the latter two in the same intellectual realm as the former, then constantly separating the two works against his overarching argument. On this score, it is worth mentioning that the text lacks a conclusion, something to tie the previous pages together and also lead the reader into new directions. In lieu of a conclusion, Farred presents this hyperbolic statement about Ali and Marley (he has concluded by disentangling Ali and Marley from Hall and James): “While Ali may stand as the prototypical, most popular, and well-known vernacular intellectual, Marley is a uniquely, poetically potent vernacular intellectual who has no postcolonial equal. Especially not as a lyrical thinker” [p. 274]. The reader is confused by the overreaching nature of this statement; the need to position individuals in such an ultimate mode (Farred’s introduction concludes on a similar hyperbolic note: “The postcolonial, the work of James, Ali, Marley and Hall suggests, can be understood in its full complexity only through the vernacular” [p. 25; my emphasis]).
Where What’s My Name? really misses out is its choice of four thinkers. Initially, it must be noted that all four are men. Farred addresses this in a lengthy and thought-provoking statement in his introduction:
This explanation, however, does not negate the choice (although it does galvanize the reader to consider how the vernacular of women and gays and lesbians continues to be overlooked). Additionally, What’s My Name? never addresses the fact that the passage of time has allowed Marley and Ali to become (re)conceptualized as thinkers. One need not theorize too hard about the potentiality of situating them as such. What would have made for a far more interesting text would have been the inclusion of more recent figures. A case in point would be the hip hop figure Snoop Doggy Dogg who, in his debut single, refashions Ali’s “What’s My Name?” into his own brand of bravado. While Ali has been ensconced into the cultural framework, Snoop remains on its fringes. His vernacularity—along with those of many other recent figures, e.g. Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu and RuPaul—is seen as an exceptional one. Drawing on Farred’s supposition that “the vernacular is not the exceptional. It constitutes the normative and most efficacious political modality for all of these figures [p. 8],” it would have been interesting to see how a more contemporary figure (read: intellectual) deploys vernacular; that is, how recent vernacularity differs from that deployed just a few decades ago.