The Black box Writing the race

Henry Louis Gates

Book - 2024

"A magnificent, foundational reckoning with how Black Americans have used the written word to define and redefine themselves, in resistance to the lies of racism and often in heated disagreement with each other, over the course of the country's history. Distilled over many years from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.'s legendary Harvard introductory course in African American Studies, The Black Box: Writing the Race, is the story of Black self-definition in America through the prism of the writers who have led the way. From Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, to Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison--these writers used words to create a livable world--a "...;home"--for Black people destined to live out their lives in a bitterly racist society. It is a book grounded in the beautiful irony that a community formed legally and conceptually by its oppressors to justify brutal sub-human bondage, transformed itself through the word into a community whose foundational definition was based on overcoming one of history's most pernicious lies. This collective act of resistance and transcendence is at the heart of its self-definition as a "community." Out of that contested ground has flowered a resilient, creative, powerful, diverse culture formed by people who have often disagreed markedly about what it means to be "Black," and about how best to shape a usable past out of the materials at hand to call into being a more just and equitable future. This is the epic story of how, through essays and speeches, novels, plays, and poems, a long line of creative thinkers has unveiled the contours of--and resisted confinement in--the "black box" inside which this "nation within a nation" has been assigned, willy nilly, from the nation's founding through to today. This is a book that records the compelling saga of the creation of a people"--

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Informational works
New York : Penguin Press 2024.
Main Author
Henry Louis Gates (author)
Physical Description
xxxvii, 262 pages ; 22 cm
Includes bibliographical references and index.
  • Preface. The Black Box
  • 1. Race, Reason, and Writing
  • 2. What's in a Name?
  • 3. Who's Your Daddy?: Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Self-Representation
  • 4. Who's Your Mama?: The Politics of Disrespectability
  • 5. The "True Art of a Race's Past": Art, Propaganda, and the New Negro
  • 6. Modernism and its Discontents: Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright Play the Dozens
  • 7. Sellouts Vs. Race Men: On the Concept of Passing
  • Conclusion. Policing the Color Line
  • Acknowledgments
  • Notes
  • Index
Review by Booklist Review

The first black box Gates introduces is the box on his granddaughter's birth certificate his white son-in-law checks to identify her as Black, evidence of "the sheer, laughable, tragic arbitrariness of the social construction of race in America." Slavery is another black box, racism and racial stereotypes another, with many black-box variations and metaphors surfacing throughout this redefining analysis of "the key debates that Black people have had with each other, within the black box, about its nature and function, but mostly about how to escape from it," and the role literature has played in this ongoing discussion. Based on the Introduction to African American Studies lectures that Gates presents at Harvard, this engagement with Black identities, movements, and intellectual and artistic creativity is propelled by profiles of Black women and men who "wrote themselves and their fellow persons of African descent into the human community." Gates tracks questions of class, language, aesthetics, and resistance in a many-faceted, clarifying, era-by-era chronicle propelled by vivid considerations of such influential Black writers as Phillis Wheatley, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison. The "moral," Gates avers, "is that there never has been one way to 'be Black.'" Gates concludes with a call to protect the free exchange of ideas in the classroom and beyond. HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Gates' latest vital work of Black history will be a must-read for his enthusiastic fans, while Gospel, his newest PBS documentary series, is a must-see.

From Booklist, Copyright (c) American Library Association. Used with permission.
Review by Library Journal Review

Renowned historian and PBS host of PBS's Finding Your Roots, Gates (The Black Church) writes this account of his search for a fresh conception of Black identity that goes beyond checking off "the Black box" on applications. Award-winning narrator Dominic Hoffman provides a conversational yet thoughtful presentation of Gates's work. Drawing on his lectures to Harvard undergraduates about literary greats W.E.B. DuBois, Zora Neale Hurston, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison, Gates shows how Black writers have defined and redefined the Black community for generations, contributed to the civil rights movement, and continued to influence ongoing efforts to achieve more artistic and political freedom. In discussing what it means to navigate society with one label or another, Gates also envisions the world his biracial granddaughter will experience. Noting that there are 47 million Black people in the U.S., and thus 47 million ways to be Black, he argues that no single box can capture the layers of culture, history, and race within Black society. VERDICT Listeners who seek to engage in today's debates about school curricula, inclusive perspectives on U.S. history, and forming a shared national culture will find this powerfully argued and narrated work an invaluable resource.--Sharon Sherman

(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.
Review by Kirkus Book Review

A survey of Black writers' self-definitions. Renowned literary critic and historian Gates, author of Stony the Road and The Black Church, presents a brief survey of African American literature, with a focus on the search for liberatory conceptions of identity. His title plays on the metaphor of a black box to understand how Black writers have struggled to reconceive their confinement within hostile power structures and dispel a sense of Black inscrutability. The author seeks to understand "both the nature of the discursive world that people of African descent have created in this country…and how this very world has been 'seen' and 'not seen' from outside of it, by people unable to fathom its workings inside." Gates provides astute analysis of canonical figures, including Phillis Wheatley, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and Toni Morrison. He includes a distillation of his own decades-long scholarship on subversive strategies deployed in Black writing, vividly demonstrating how literature has played a crucial role in winning sociopolitical and imaginative, artistic freedom. We gain a memorable sense of how particular literary works contributed to abolition and quests for civil rights, the debunking of racist discourses, and the gradual formation of "a shared history, a shared culture." A consistent strength of the book is Gates' incisive descriptions of the debates arising from efforts to define personal and collective identities and chart paths to freedom. The author argues against any monolithic definition of Blackness and affirms an "irreducible" multiplicity of identities. "There are as many ways of being Black as there are Black people," he writes. In his conclusion, Gates connects the historical trajectory of Black writing to contemporary struggles, such as the ongoing debates across the nation about school curricula and the teaching of Black history. Clear, revealing commentary on Black America's literary achievements. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Preface All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer. It took me a long time and much pain- ful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man My granddaughter, Ellie, was born by C‑section on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2014, after her mother, my older daughter, Maggie, stoically suffered through induced labor for about twenty‑four hours. That evening, my son‑in‑law, Aaron Hatley, came over for a warm hug and a celebratory shot of bourbon from my oldest bottle of Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve. I listened to Aaron's play‑by‑play of the previous day's events, and after a decent pause, I asked the question that I had wanted to ask all along: "Did you check the box?" I asked, apropos of nothing we had just discussed. Without missing a beat, my good son‑in‑law responded, "Yes, sir. I did." "Very good," I responded, as I poured a second shot of Pappy Van Winkle. Aaron, a young white man, had checked the "Black" box on the form that Americans are required to complete at the time of the birth of a child. Now, my daughter's father's admixture--in other words, mine--is 50 percent sub‑Saharan African and 50 percent European, according to the tests offered by commercial DNA companies that I have taken over the last decade and a half. My son‑in‑law is 100 percent European. Because my daughter is 75 percent European, her daughter, Ellie, will test about 87.5 percent European when she spits in the test tube. "Legally," at least once upon a time--and if not "legally" any longer, then by convention, practice, and/or volition-- Eleanor Margaret Gates‑Hatley, who looks like an adorable little white girl, will live her life as a "Black" person, because her father and mother checked the "Black" box. (I imagine that our conservative Supreme Court, which has already weighed in on the use of such boxes in higher education admissions, will continue to have its eye on them.) And because of that arbitrary practice, a brilliant, beautiful little white‑presenting female will be destined, throughout her life, to face the challenge of "proving" that she is "Black," simply because her self‑styled "race man" grandfather ardently--and perhaps foolishly--wished for her racial self to be socially constructed that way. Such is the absurdity of the history of race and racial designations in the United States of America, stemming from "the law of hypodescent," the proverbial "one‑drop rule." Perhaps Eleanor will choose to dance the dance of racial indeterminacy, moving effortlessly back and forth across the color line. Or maybe she will claim a social identity that reflects the percentage of her ancestors over the last five hundred years who were of European descent. Or maybe she will keep a photograph of her grandfather in her pocketbook, and delight in refuting--or affirming, as the case may be--the sheer, laughable, tragic arbitrariness of the social construction of race in America. The most important thing is that this be her choice. By now, most of us are all too familiar with requests to check this kind of box. We also know all too well what the search for the "black box"-- the flight recorder--sadly signifies in the event of a crash. That device preserves a record of the truth amid disastrous circumstances: it is what survives. For me, the black box is also a powerful metaphor for the circumscribed universe of being within which people of African descent were forced to attempt to construct a new identity after emerging on this side of the Atlantic after the horrors of the Middle Passage,transported here on an inhumanely cramped slaveship--another circumscribed enclosure, another black box of sorts--to provide the labor to create an economic order that would fundamentally reshape the economies of Europe and the emerging United States. But it also is a resonant metaphor for the social and cultural world that they created within this circumscribed space--the people the abolitionist Martin R. Delany named "a nation within a nation," and whom the great scholar W. E. B. Du Boiscalled "a small nation of people."1 For me, this figurative black box is a concept that is quite useful for understanding the history of African Americans in this country, similar in resonance to the haunting metaphor "the Veil" coined by Du Bois in his classic 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk . The black box has a long and curious history both inside and outside of Black letters. And like all metaphors, its significations have multiplied through its long life. It was the Yale legal scholar Stephen L. Carter who defined it in the manner most closely related to that box that my son‑in‑law checked, which will define so very many of Ellie's choices, from small, seemingly insignificant things to the manner in which her application to college is treated to how her physician will think of her risks for certain medical conditions. Carter defined his own box in this way: To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box. So, I live in a box, not of my own making, and on the box is a label, not of my own choosing. Most of those who have not met me,and many of those who have, see the box and read the label and imagine they have seen me. The box is formed by the assumptions others make when they learn that I am black, and a label is available for every occasion.2 Excerpted from The Black Box: Writing the Race by Henry Louis Gates All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.