News and Features
OK, no Lifelines, no 50-50s, no Audience Participation if you want to be a millionaire: Name the first great African-American sitcom of the New Millennium... Correct! The 2000 presidential election, as perpetrated in Palm Beach and Duval counties.
Imagine, black people actually thinking they could vote. Cue the laugh track. Go to commercial.
If you're already nostalgic for the kind of pure entertainment value offered by the perversely fascinating Florida (bamboozled, indeed), don't fret. There's always the WB (as opposed to the GWB) or the United Plantation Network, to sustain your sense of cultural (dis)equilibrium--as well as a Lester Maddoxian sense of race separation. Ever watch The Steve Harvey Show? Yes? Well, don't be shocked but you may be black: The number-one rated show among African-Americans, it's been all but unknown among the rest of the population.
If the accession of George W. Bush illustrated anything--other than the awesome power of television to stand by and do nothing--it was the cyclical nature of black access to power in this country, on TV or off. In 1876--as we all know now--a rigged election signaled the end of Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, the establishment of the hangman's noose as symbol of Southern recreation and, until the Scottsboro Boys case in 1931, a national coma as regards racial mending.
But only eight years after Scottsboro broke, Ethel Waters was asked to develop a show for a medium that was itself still in development. By the late 1960s, The Brady Bunch had taken the one institutionalized black figure on mainstream TV--the maid--and made her white. By 2001, Jerry Springer was refereeing an on-air fiasco that could only be described as a racist's dream, showcasing, as it does, the dregs of the population, black and white.
That so much of television's black content is currently in syndication--good or bad--is telling. Plenty could argue that Jim Crow is still alive and well on network TV, but it is hard to say that matters aren't better than they were: Many major programs have a major black character; Oprah Winfrey rules the waves. But it's also better than arguable that ever since lynch mobs became more or less unfashionable (except in Texas), television has exercised the kind of social/racial control over our culture that race laws once maintained, and via the same mechanism: Create an artificial universe, with artificial rules; give people little enough to keep them near-starved, but make enough noise about every crumb you do toss their way that the public will think you're a bomb-lobbing revolutionary.
The culture critic Donald Bogle doesn't ascribe so much power, or so much intelligence, to the medium he critiques in Primetime Blues: African Americans on Network Television. But he's certainly cognizant of the power of entertainment to skew one's perception. And oneself. Growing up in the Philadelphia suburbs, Bogle writes, he seldom saw black people he recognized on TV. Or situations, comedic or otherwise, that weren't filtered through a white consciousness. But he watched. And watched.
Early on, it was Beulah, with Waters--and Louise Beavers and Hattie McDaniel--refashioning for an all-new medium the near-mythic character of the wise and/or sardonic black servant. He watched the minstrelized antics of Amos 'n' Andy--which, to its credit, barely acknowledged the white world--as well as the caustic modernism of Eddie "Rochester" Anderson. Later, there were the "events" of Roots and The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, programs reeking of network noblesse oblige. But it wasn't until The Cosby Show, he says, that he realized two things: a previously unknown familiarity with people he was watching, via a seemingly benign, but hugely influential--and successful--NBC sitcom. And an accompanying epiphany about the magnitude of network TV's failure to its black audience.
To no one's surprise, Bill Cosby emerges in Bogle's book as one of the three or four most influential black performers/entrepreneurs in the history of black television (along with Waters, the comedian Flip Wilson and the Wayans brothers, because In Living Color helped put Fox TV "on the map"). But Cosby also ties Bogle up. As a performer, Cosby has been averse to playing the race card for either laughs or points, and his silence has been eloquent. Bogle recognizes this, just as he recognizes that Amos 'n' Andy assumed an existential grandeur by existing in its own black world.
But in Primetime Blues--a companion to Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, & Bucks (Continuum), his study of blacks in film--Bogle is torn: There's the sense that every opportunity given, majestically, African-Americans on TV (itself a repugnantly patriarchal concept) should be used to promote a positive image or political message. Conversely, there's the Realpolitik of mass entertainment. It's rather unclear whether he thinks Julia, the landmark series that debuted in turbulent 1968, starring Diahann Carroll as a widowed mother and nurse (working for the crusty-but-benevolent Lloyd Nolan), was rightfully criticized for not having more truthfully represented black people, whatever that means, or was a landmark nonetheless. When he says that the characters in a show like Sanford & Son might have portrayed real anger about their status and thus taken the show in a different and provocative direction, he doesn't say whether he thinks very many viewers would have bothered to follow along.
In this, Bogle skirts the two basic aspects of television's nature: First, that it is craven, soulless and bottom-line fixated. And second, that it is aimed at morons. Sure, Bogle can cite hundreds of examples of African-Americans being portrayed in a patronizing or demeaning fashion, but how many real white people ever show up on the tube? Shows like The Jeffersons and Good Times were cartoons, the latter perpetrating what Bogle dubs neo-"coonery" via comedian Jimmie Walker. But between The Honeymooners and Roseanne, how many regular series represented white America as other than upper-middle-class, Wonder Bread-eating humanoids? Television, in its democratic largesse, has smeared us all.
Some worse than others. If the only place you saw white people was on the evening news--the one slot where blacks were always assured better-than-equal representation--you'd have a pretty warped idea of white people, too. Which is why, Bogle makes plain, it's always been so important to get respectable blacks on network TV.
The history itself is fascinating. Waters, who acquires a quasi-Zelig-like presence in Bogle's account of TV's early age, personified the medium's ability to diminish whatever talent it sucked into its orbit. The original Ethel Waters Show included scenes from Waters's hit play Mamba's Daughters; eleven years later, she'd be back as Beulah. By 1957, she was destitute, dunned by the IRS and had offered herself up as poignant fodder for Edward R. Murrow's Person to Person, talking about Christian faith and a need for money. Finally, television, never sated, asked one more sacrifice and got it, when Waters tried to quiz-show her way out of debt via a show called Break the $250,000 Bank.
Waters remains a towering figure in twentieth-century American culture; after the fanfares of both Bogle and jazz critic Gary Giddins (whose Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams ranks her alongside Crosby and Louis Armstrong in her importance to American pop singing), she may be due for a full-fledged resurrection, replete with boxed sets and beatification by Ken Burns. But she isn't the only one the author resuscitates. In trying to achieve as complete as possible a history of the medium-in-black, Bogle also tells the unsung stories of other pioneering African-American performers--such people as Tim Moore, Ernestine Wade, Juano Hernandez, James Edwards--who more often than not had one hit show then went on hiatus, and from there to oblivion.
Among the encores given by Bogle (author of a first-rate biography of the actress Dorothy Dandridge) are Bob Howard, star of The Bob Howard Show, a fifteen-minute weeknight program of songs that went on the air in 1948 and was the first to feature a black man as host. It lasted only thirteen months. Howard doesn't seem to have stretched his material beyond renditions of "As Time Goes By" or "The Darktown Strutters' Ball." But the most interesting thing, besides his race, was that the network didn't seem to notice it--didn't seem to have a problem with bringing an African-American into white homes. Of course, the networks had yet to hear the five little words that have echoed down through the annals of black TV (and any other progressive programming, for that matter):
What about the Southern affiliates?
Hazel Scott was hardly the 1950s version of Lil' Kim: The elegant, educated and worldly host of the DuMont Network's Hazel Scott Show had already come under fire from both James Agee and Amiri Baraka for allegedly putting phony white airs on earthy black music--so, if anything, she should have been the darling of the powers of early television. But no. Allegations in the communist-watchdog publication Red Channels dried up sponsorship for her show. And even though Scott demanded and got a chance to plead her patriotism before the House Un-American Activities Committee, her show was canceled after just three months. Scott's fate indicated even at this early stage that television would flee from any sign of controversy, especially political controversy, writes Bogle, who is correct--except when money is involved.
Primetime Blues stands as a history of African-American television, but there's more than enough subject matter to fill two books--a sequel could deal solely with the current ghettoization of the evening airwaves--so Bogle steers mostly clear of analyzing white television (you wish he'd at least dug deeper into the influence of black TV on white TV). But he can't ignore All in the Family. Not only did it spin off one of the most successful black sitcoms ever--The Jeffersons--it had a stronger kinship, albeit an ironic one, to black sitcoms than it did to white. It might even have been a black sitcom, sort of the way Bill Clinton was a black President, by the nature and limits of its experience.
Bogle places himself in the rather illustrious camp (Laura Hobson, author of Gentleman's Agreement, was one critic of the show's "dishonesty") contending that Carroll O'Connor's bigoted Archie Bunker, who brought "hebe," "coon" and "spade" into prime time--and ended up one of TV Guide's Fifty Greatest Characters Ever--did nothing to break down racial barriers but in fact reinforced the very racist attitudes the buffoonish Bunker was supposed to make look ridiculous. Cosby hated it; Lucille Ball (who, it is left unsaid, had one of the top-rated Nielsen shows before AITF premiered) weighed in too, comparing Norman Lear's groundbreaking comedy to the days when "the Romans let human beings be eaten by lions, while they laughed and drank."
CBS pooh-bah William Paley, who originally thought the show offensive, became a big supporter once it became a smash--to the point of ordering that a study he'd commissioned, one that confirmed what critics of the show were saying, be destroyed: What can we do with it? Paley asked. If we release it, we'll have to cancel the show.
Bogle is good at comparing Amos 'n' Andy to In Living Color--shows whose humor would never be viewed the same way by black and white audiences. And he appreciates that while early performers like the Randolph sisters--Lillian (It's a Wonderful Life, Amos 'n' Andy, The Great Gildersleeve) and Amanda (The Laytons, Amos 'n' Andy, Make Room for Daddy)--could add nuance and dimension to otherwise cardboard domestic characters, their roles were mostly nonexistent outside the sphere of their white employers. But he misses what I think is the lasting point of All in the Family: Archie Bunker, a furious, frustrated vessel of negative energy, was defined solely by his hate, solely by his proximity to the people he considered inferior or worse. He existed in a parallel zone to the one that had been created as a ghetto for black performers for decades past--a zone that defined him not by what he was, but what he wasn't. America didn't get it, of course, and CBS didn't intend it, but what All in the Family turned out to be was a perverted version of Amos 'n' Andy.
Net worth, more than any other statistic, shows the depth of racial inequality.
In our retrograde era, "the personal is political" might better be put "politics sure messes up progressive lives." This past December, just after the Supreme Court completed the electoral coup that imposed the Bush presidency upon us, I spent a miserable snowy afternoon in my Chicago-area university office trying to winnow down a set of readings for a graduate seminar on race, ethnicity and nationalism. Glumly predicting the sorts of Cabinet appointees and White House policies that have indeed come to pass in the weeks since, I found myself unable to pare down the list. Instead, mindful of the racist renaissance we are likely in for in the coming years--not that Clinton's two terms, characterized by the police-state crime bill and the evisceration of AFDC, were exactly models of antiracist governing--I shoveled back in masses of old Bell Curve-era readings on New Right cultural politics.
The Talmudic reading load imposed by a punctilious and politically depressed lefty professor on hapless grad students is, of course, the least of the burdens of newly enhanced conservative rule. But as we attempt to assess and contest the worsened life conditions, from Colombia to Cairo to Kazakhstan to California, about to be produced by Bush Administration policies, we need new analytic tools to help us envision the meanings of race and ethnicity in shifting national and global political economy. And Claire Kim's fresh study, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City, offers precisely such tools.
Bitter Fruit is based on a meticulous account of the 1990-91 black-led "Red Apple" boycott of two Korean-run produce stores--Family Red Apple and Church Fruits--in the Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, a boycott that arose in response to allegations that Family Red Apple's store manager, Bong Ok Jang, beat an older Haitian woman customer, Ghiselaine Felissaint, during an argument at the cash register. But Kim, a younger politics and ethnic studies professor at the University of California, Irvine, uses that narrative to reframe the ways in which even we progressives, influenced by public culture despite our best efforts, tend to see the history and contemporary realities of race, immigration, representation, politics and poverty in American cities. Most political, ethnographic or other analyses of urban lives--with key exceptions in works like Brett Williams's Upscaling Downtown and Dwight Conquergood's "Life in Big Red"--focus on only one population, whether black street vendors or Latina or Chinese sweatshop workers. One of Kim's strengths, making her the Anna Deavere Smith of the poli-sci set, is her careful consideration, through extensive interviewing, of the voices of all the players in the Red Apple imbroglio--Haitian immigrants and longer-term residents, black American political activists and elected officials, Korean merchants and community politicians of different generations, the various mainstream and alternative media--and her clearheaded recognition of their differential access to power and resources.
This is the key to the issue and the real innovation in Kim's work. She lays out for us the "conventional wisdom" about black/Korean conflict:
Shut out of the mainstream economy by historical discrimination and hit hard by recent global economic changes, urban-dwelling Blacks are frustrated and angry. Enter Korean immigrants, who open stores in poor black neighborhoods and rapidly achieve economic success by virtue of their hard work and thriftiness.... Blacks lash out at them, irrationally venting their accumulated frustrations on this proximate, vulnerable, and racially distinct target. Korean immigrants...simply get caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Kim then disassembles this "racial scapegoating" narrative for us. She notes that "historical discrimination, economic competition, Black rage, immigrant dreams and prosperity" are all genuine phenomena but that this formulation "isolates these features and rips them out of the overall context of how racial power operates in America." Racial power, in Kim's analysis, is linked to racial ordering, the economic and ideological process through which populations are evaluated relative to one another. These constructions rely not on notions of ongoing white conspiracy or intentionality but on the reproduction of political-economic structures and discursive frames, the very ways in which we talk about the subject. Racial power "finds concrete expression in a wide variety of...processes that tend cumulatively to perpetuate White dominance over non-Whites. Putatively impersonal forces such as global restructuring and deindustrialization are in fact mediated by racial power so that Whites systematically accrue greater benefits from and suffer fewer burdens from these developments than do non-Whites." The racial scapegoating story turns out, then, to veil the "'bitter fruit' of deeply entrenched patterns of racial power in contemporary American society."
Central to contemporary American racial ordering are the empirically false and mutually interdependent constructs depicting a feckless and violent black and brown urban underclass and a hardworking, bootstrapping Asian "model minority." The model-minority myth presents "Asian Americans as culturally superior to Blacks and yet culturally distinct from Whites and detached from politics." As the American economy improved over the 1990s, as crime plummeted because of improved economic prospects, demographic transition, mass imprisonment and rising youth common sense, and as the impoverished were thrown off public assistance without much public outcry, we have heard less and less about the dangerous minority poor who have only themselves to blame for their circumstances. (Given the bear market and other recent indicators, though, watch this space.)
Representations of Asian model-minority behavior, though, dating from the 1960s, continue strong in mass media. Kim traces the origin of model-minority ideology to the use of Asian-American "success" stories--with mom-and-pop stores in the forefront--"as an explicit rebuke to Blacks involved in collective demand making of one kind or another." "Consider the two myths as mirror images," Kim invites us:
The underclass is lazy, undisciplined, lacking in family values, criminally inclined, unable to defer gratification, deviant, dependent, and prone to dropping out; the model minority is diligent, disciplined, possessed of strong family values, respectful of authority, thrifty, moral, self-sufficient, and committed to education. Whites--the unspoken overclass to the underclass and majority to the model minority--are factored out of the picture as if they were neutral, colorblind, wholly disinterested observers.
This triangulated racial ordering helps to rationalize common-sense "colorblind talk" that serves to mask both white power and the innately relational character of all racial systems.
Providing clear empirical proof of the bankruptcy of this vision, Kim locates both blacks and Koreans in the historical political economy of New York City. She uses other scholars' work to establish the persistent and unique residential segregation of black populations--so extreme, both locally and nationally, that Douglas Massey and Nancy Denton label it "American apartheid"--and reprises the record of brutal and deadly actions by outer-borough whites against "trespassing" blacks throughout the 1980s. She uses sociologist Roger Waldinger's research to demonstrate the ways in which blacks have been excluded from the changing urban occupational "ethnic queue." Even their relative success in public-sector jobs in the 1970s, the result of federal antidiscrimination legislation, tripped them up when the public/private balance shifted and they lacked networks and resources to gain access to burgeoning business opportunities.
Kim cites abundant evidence that New York employers, like those elsewhere in the United States, operate on the basis of "old-fashioned racism--or discrimination based on the construction of Blacks (especially Black men) as undesirable (lazy, dishonest, unreliable) employees." Even the conservative business newspaper Crain's New York Business lamented in 1989 that "being black reduces the prospects for entrance and advancement in nearly every sector that defines the economic life of the city."
The cumulative national effects of residential segregation and systematic credit discrimination, in addition to specifically regional oppression (for example, Koch administration refusal to grant city contracts to nonwhites), explain both Afro-Americans' generally low levels of self-employment and the particularly extreme paucity of black small businesses in New York. The per capita rates in Los Angeles, for example, are 2.5 times as high.As a result of combined governmental and private-sector actions, by the late 1980s "increasing rates of overall and extreme poverty, deepening income inequalities, and persistently low labor-force participation rates shaped the lives of most Black New Yorkers."
Haitian migrants to the United States, and New York specifically, beginning with 1960s waves of anti-Duvalier activists fleeing certain death, were immediately racialized as black and subjected to the same discriminatory treatment, with two additions. In the first place, blackness "is a source of great pride" in the first independent black nation in the Western Hemisphere, and Haitians had to come to terms with its often degraded American status. Then, as black foreigners began arriving in the 1970s in larger numbers, and with the rise of the AIDS crisis, Haitians were further coded as dirty, diseased and dangerous.
In this overall context of extreme antiblack racism, finally, Kim documents how ordinary patterns of ethnic political succession in New York City have never included Afro-Americans. In the period in which blacks were winning City Council seats and mayoralties, and influencing (if largely in the interests of the better-off) urban policy elsewhere, Ed Koch's and then Rudy Giuliani's long mayoral reigns, through finagling with the Board of Estimate and the City Council, were dedicated to wholesale black exclusion. Kim notes dryly that "this sheds some light on why Black efforts at empowerment eventually migrated outside of traditional political channels, resulting in the new Black Power movement of which the Red Apple Boycott was part." The Afro-American David Dinkins's short-lived stay in Gracie Mansion would be, among other political disasters, haunted by the boycott, begun only seventeen days after his inauguration.
The experiences of new Korean immigrants run entirely counter to this pattern. In the first place, Kim places post-1965 Korean immigration to the United States in the context of "America's protracted efforts to influence economic development and shore up repressive anticommunist regimes in a non-White nation located on the periphery, resulting in significant migration from periphery to core." That migration, in response to the explicit economic policy embedded in the Hart-Celler Immigration Act, was largely of educated, white-collar Koreans with small but significant savings to invest. Then these migrants were "racialized as Asian Americans and triangulated between Blacks and Whites.... It is in this way that the very economic opportunities that are closed to Blacks become the ticket to upward mobility for Korean Americans."
Thus, while they were certainly victimized by American racism, these Korean immigrants, unlike blacks, were not subject to its more extreme forms--residential segregation, pervasive violence and abuse on the streets and in the criminal justice system. They were, however, forced into the "status derogation" of small business by both their poor English skills and employer discrimination against them as "foreigners." Extensive Korean exploitation of retailing niches created ethnic business networks allowing them to take over entire urban retail sectors--greengrocers in New York and liquor stores in Los Angeles, for example. Relatively privileged but stressed and squeezed, Koreans in small business tended to subscribe even more extensively than white Americans to victim-blaming underclass mythology. The stage was set for the Red Apple boycott.
Here Kim really shines as an analyst. She disabuses us of "the conventional notion that the boycotters were venting their frustrations on Koreans instead of on Whites" by placing the event inside the "resurgent Black Power movement in New York City." She identifies the heterogeneous players in and the politics of that movement, characterized in mainstream media as a solid bloc of crazy white-haters, and places them in the context of the public and private antiblack onslaught of the Koch years. Kim demonstrates how always-latent black nationalism became the lowest common denominator "frame repertoire" for organizing the boycott, despite the more developed left politics of the dominant black American December 12th Movement, which took over from the original Haitian agitators. And she notes the ultimate irony that this group, which was vilified as violently anti-Asian, "had presumptively positive feelings toward Koreans," encouraged black patronage of all Korean greengrocers except the two under boycott and had even engaged in pro-Korean unification demonstrations.
Kim also carefully lays out the roles of mainstream, black, Haitian and Korean media in motivating the boycott and the backlash against it. As a long-term lover of the neglected public media of black and Latino radio, I particularly appreciate her coverage of the key organizing functions of minority radio stations. Kim shows effectively how their very different transnational as well as American placements structured Korean and Haitian interpretations and actions. During the boycott, for example, to offset their losses, the two storeowners received $150,000 from Korean-American and other sources. While this capital infusion was important, the real battle of the boycott occurred in the realm of the political. The "multiple layers of contested meaning" created by activists and their associated media inevitably resolved themselves into the overwhelming mainstream-media narrative, in which "colorblind talk," heavily appropriating civil rights-era references, "garbled and distorted" the boycotters' message and defined them solely as crime-prone anti-Korean racists. Michael Kinsley, for example, "the putative representative of the left on CNN's Crossfire, said simply: 'You don't mediate between out and out racism on the one hand and a hardworking entrepreneur on the other. And that's what's going on.'" Kim justly observes that "the most striking aspect of the regular news coverage of the Red Apple Boycott was its univocality."
This single voice put David Dinkins "squarely on the hot seat." Already having been accused, before taking office, both of pandering to black extremists and of selling out communities of color, Dinkins could only lose on the boycott issue. His early refusal to send in the NYPD to move the protesters off-site enraged the city's elite, who claimed he was ruining New York City's business climate. But his final capitulation to white pressure, a televised speech opposing "any boycott based on race," stung his black supporters. Al Sharpton accused Dinkins's speech of being like "a James Brown record--talking loud and saying nothing." And attorney Vernon Mason declared that "he ain't got no African left in him." Overwhelmed by bad publicity, the boycott lost steam and collapsed after only eight months of picketing. Kim notes the key role it played in New York electoral politics: "David Dinkins made history again by becoming the first breakthrough Black mayor in American history to lose office after only one term." In 1993 Rudolph Giuliani "won a highly racially polarized election to become only the third Republican mayor of New York City since 1930." And we all know what happened then!
Kim ends her fine study with a riff on W.E.B. Du Bois's twentieth-century color-line aphorism: "It seems likely that the problem of the twenty-first century will be that of the multiple color lines embedded in the American racial order." She rightly asks, "When is 'voice' really voice?"--querying claims of American democracy in the context of centralized and corporate-controlled mass media (and, we might add, of differentially efficient and functional voting machines). I would have liked her to deal with the gendered dimensions of the Red Apple boycott, write more extensively about non-Korean Asian-American politics around the event and trace out the implications of her work for other faulty analyses of the dilemmas of "middleman minorities" in the American and global past and present. But no one book can accomplish everything, and Kim's Bitter Fruit sets an incisive new pattern for our understanding of class in multiracial politics as we live through the bitter years ahead.
Thousands of citizens can't register or have been wrongly thrown off the rolls.
Many of George Bush's supporters say that his recent nominations of Colin Powell as Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice as National Security Adviser and Rod Paige as Secretary of Education prove that he is serious about racial diversity. Moreover, his nomination of a Latino and two white women to his Cabinet suggests that compassionate conservatism boasts enough room for all sorts of minorities. But before we count the votes for Bush's celebrated--or is it calculated?--display of racial leadership, let's at least acknowledge that we may have run into some dimpled chads.
Powell's nomination is a no-brainer, which, as it turns out, may perfectly suit Bush's presidential profile. To take credit for nominating a national hero to extend his stellar record of public service is only a little better than taking credit for inventing the Internet. Powell's halo effect may redound to Bush, but his choice of Powell owes nothing to Bush's fundamental bearing as a racial statesman. Powell and Bush are at significant odds on crucial issues. Powell's vigorous support of affirmative action, his belief in a woman's right to choose and his advocacy for besieged urban children put him to the left of the Bush dogma. To be sure, Powell is no radical. His moderate racial principles are largely acceptable to many blacks because they're not bad for a guy who buys the Republican line, some of its hooks and not many of its sinkers. Unlike Congressman J.C. Watts, the black Republican from Oklahoma who'd just as soon fish all day with his conservative colleagues than cut the race bait. Indeed, Powell's beliefs run the same blush of racial centrism that coursed through the Clinton Administration over the past eight years. The difference is that such moderates, and a sprinkling of liberals, had plenty of company in the Clinton Administration. In a Bush Administration, Powell is, well, a hanging chad.
Of course, Powell's beliefs will have little substantive impact on his future boss's domestic policies, because he has been dispatched to foreign fields where Bush surely needs the help. So what looks like a plum for black folk may be a pit. True, no black person has ever served as Secretary of State. But once we get past the obligatory gratitude black folk are called on to display when conservative whites finally do something halfway decent, the fact is that Powell will have little influence on the public policies that may hamper black progress under a Bush Administration. Powell has not been nominated as Secretary of Health and Human Services, so his input on welfare, for instance, is lost. Instead, if confirmed, Wisconsin Governor Tommy Thompson will practice his widely praised variety of welfare reform, a policy that on both the local and national level has had a horrendous effect on millions of poor blacks. Neither is Powell slated to be the Attorney General, where he may choose the civil rights czar, who carves the policy groove on race in the Justice Department. Instead, that honor may fall to John Ashcroft, an ultraconservative whose opposition to black interests is destructive. An omen of things to come was glimpsed starkly in Ashcroft's contemptuous scuttling of the nomination of black Missouri Supreme Court Justice Ronnie White for the federal bench. Not only is Powell's value to Bush on race largely symbolic, that symbolism will more than likely be used to cover policies that harm the overwhelming majority of black Americans who were never persuaded by Powell to join the party of Lincoln (Continentals).
Rice and Paige may be lesser-known political quantities, but they are nonetheless instructive of Bush's racial politics. Rice, the former Stanford provost and assistant national security adviser for President George H.W. Bush, is not as vocal a supporter of affirmative action, preferring a lukewarm version of the policy that may comport well with Bush's nebulous "affirmative access." At Stanford, Rice was not nearly as aggressive as she might reasonably have been in recruiting black faculty, failing to match the efforts of equally conservative universities like Duke. And her record of advising the senior Bush on national security matters indicates that she was a blue-blood conservative in black face.
As for Paige, his my-way-or-the-highway methods have yielded mixed results for the predominantly black and Latino students in Houston, where he has served six years as superintendent of schools. A proponent of annual standardized tests, a measure heartily supported by Bush, Paige has overseen rising test scores while all but abandoning students who couldn't pass muster. Moreover, Paige supports the use of tax money to fund private education, a policy favored by Bush and many blacks but that could have deleterious effects on poor families. The lure of vouchers is seductive, but it fails to address the fact that there is hardly enough money available to make a real difference to those students whose parents are financially beleaguered.
With Rice's nomination, the point may be that a black can be just as staunch in spouting conservative foreign policy as the next wonk. With Paige, the point is that a black can promote the sort of educational policies that help some black folk while potentially harming a larger segment of the community. It is clear that such a state of affairs does not constitute racial progress. The irony is that Powell, Paige and Rice were chosen in part to prove an inclusiveness that is meaningless if their very presence comes at the expense of representing the interests of the majority of black folk, especially those poor and working-class folk who are vulnerable and largely invisible. The lesson the Republicans would have us learn is that not all blacks think alike, that we are no ideological monolith in liberal captivity. The real lesson may be that a black face does not translate into a progressive political presence that aids the bulk of black folk. Especially when that face must put a smile on repressive policies that hurt not just most blacks but those Americans committed to radical democracy. If that counts as racial progress, we need an immediate recount.
Montgomery's transit system isn't segregated anymore. It barely exists.
On November 7, voters in Alabama erased from that state's Constitution a provision dating from 1901 that declared that "the legislature shall never pass any law to authorize or legalize any marriage between any white person and a Negro, or descendant of a Negro." This declaration represented in part a desire by white supremacists to express as fully as possible their intention to expunge the racially egalitarian symbols, hopes and reforms of Reconstruction. Although Alabama had never enacted a law expressly authorizing interracial marriage, in 1872 the state's Supreme Court did invalidate the law that prohibited such unions. But it promptly reversed itself in 1877 when white supremacists regained power. The Alabama Constitution's disapproval of interracial marriage, however, had still deeper roots. It stemmed from the presumption that white men had the authority to dictate whom, in racial terms, a person could and could not marry. It was also rooted in the belief that certain segments of the population were simply too degraded to be eligible as partners in marriage with whites. At one point or another, forty states prohibited marriage across racial lines. In all of them blacks were stigmatized as matrimonial untouchables. In several, "Mongolians" (people of Japanese or Chinese ancestry), "Malays" (Filipinos) and Native Americans were also placed beyond the pale of acceptability.
Rationales for barring interracial marriage are useful to consider, especially since some of them echo so resonantly justifications voiced today by defenders of prohibitions against same-sex marriage. One rationale for barring interracial marriages was that the progeny of such matches would be incapable of procreating. Another was that God did not intend for the races to mix. Another was that colored people, especially blacks, are irredeemably inferior to whites and pose a terrible risk of contamination. The Negrophobic Thomas Dixon spoke for many white supremacists when he warned in his novel The Leopard's Spots that "this Republic can have no future if racial lines are broken and its proud citizenry sinks to the level of a mongrel breed." A single drop of Negro blood, he maintained apocalyptically, "kinks the hair, flattens the nose, then the lip, puts out the light of intellect, and lights the fires of brutal passions."
Although opponents of prohibitions on interracial marriage have waged struggles in many forums (e.g., academia, the churches, journalism), two in particular have been decisive. One is the courtroom. In 1967 in the most aptly titled case in American history--Loving v. The Commonwealth of Virginia--the United States Supreme Court ruled that prohibitions against interracial marriage violated the equal protection and due process clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. (Although much credit is lavished on the Court's decision, it bears noting that nineteen years earlier, in 1948, the Supreme Court of California had reached the same conclusion in an extraordinary, albeit neglected, opinion by Justice Roger Traynor.) When the federal Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws at the marriage altar, it relied on the massive change in public attitudes reflected and nourished by Brown v. Board of Education (1954), Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have A Dream" address (1963), the Civil Rights Act (1964) and the Voting Rights Act (1965). The Court also relied on the fact that by 1967, only sixteen states, in one region of the country, continued to retain laws prohibiting interracial marriage. This highlights the importance of the second major forum in which opponents of racial bars pressed their struggle: state legislatures. Between World War II and the Civil Rights Revolution, scores of state legislatures repealed bans against interracial marriage, thereby laying the moral, social and political groundwork for the Loving decision. Rarely will any court truly be a pioneer. Much more typically judges act in support of a development that is already well under way.
Unlike opponents of Brown v. Board of Education, antagonists of Loving were unable to mount anything like "massive resistance." They neither rioted, nor promulgated Congressional manifestoes condemning the Court, nor closed down marriage bureaus to prevent the desegregation of matrimony. There was, however, some opposition. In 1970, for example, a judge near Fort McClellan, Alabama, denied on racial grounds a marriage license to a white soldier and his black fiancée. This prompted a lawsuit initiated by the US Justice Department that led to the invalidation of Alabama's statute prohibiting interracial marriage. Yet the Alabama constitutional provision prohibiting the enactment of any law expressly authorizing black-white interracial marriage remained intact until the recent referendum.
That an expression of official opposition to interracial marriage remained a part of the Alabama Constitution for so long reflects the fear and loathing of black-white intimacy that remains a potent force in American culture. Sobering, too, was the closeness of the vote; 40 percent of the Alabama electorate voted against removing the obnoxious prohibition. Still, given the rootedness of segregation at the marriage altar, the ultimate outcome of the referendum should be applauded. The complete erasure of state-sponsored stigmatization of interracial marriage is an important achievement in our struggle for racial justice and harmony.
Amid all the partisan sniping, talking-head screeching and judicial decisions, there are two indisputable facts that go far toward explaining the true tragedy of the Florida recount.
Fact one: In this election, punch-card voting machines recorded five times as many ballots with no presidential vote as did the more modern optical-scanning systems. A New York Times analysis of forty-eight of the state's sixty-eight counties found that 1.5 percent of the ballots tallied under the punch-card method showed no vote at the top of the ticket, while only 0.3 percent of the ballots counted by the newer machines registered no vote for the President. An Orlando Sun-Sentinel examination concluded that counties using the best optical-scanning method recorded presidential votes on more than 99 percent of the ballots, and counties using the old punch-card devices counted presidential votes on only 96.1 percent of the ballots.
Fact two: Punch-card machines were more widely used in areas where low-income and African-American citizens vote. Two-thirds of the state's black voters reside in counties using punch cards, while 56 percent of white voters do.
Put these two undeniable facts together and the conclusion is inescapable: A statistically significant slice of the Florida electorate was disfranchised by voting technology. That is, a disproportionate number of voters done in by the error-prone punch-card machines were low-income and black Floridians, who generally favored Al Gore over George W. Bush. Presumably, some no-vote ballots actually did not include a vote for President. But given the closeness of the election--decided by .008 percent--it is likely that presidential votes missed by the punch-card machines would have decisively affected the contest. Bush "won"--among other reasons--because of voting-machine discrimination.
This crucial part of the tale has been overwhelmed by dimple-mania and the usual campaign back-and-forth. But ten days after the election, the Sun-Sentinel reported that "Florida's different vote-counting machines resulted in more GOP votes." For example, Brevard County, the home of space-shuttle launches, spent $1 million on more advanced machines in 1999, moving from punch-card tabulators to optical scanning machines that read pen-marked ballots (and that immediately return to the voter a ballot with a problem). Under the new system, the voting machines in this Bush-leaning county found presidential votes on 99.7 percent of the ballots. In 1996 the county's punch-card machines read presidential votes on 97.2 percent. Which means Bush, thanks to the upgrade, likely banked an additional 453 votes for his statewide total--practically his post-recount victory margin. The paper noted that the twenty-five counties that used the punch-card machines went for Gore over Bush 51.8 percent to 46 percent and produced 144,985 ballots with unrecorded presidential votes. Had the people who cast these ballots entered voting booths equipped with the more efficient machines, Gore no doubt would have collected hundreds--if not thousands--more votes than Bush.
There have been allegations that black Floridians encountered racial intimidation at voting sites. (The Justice Department has initiated an informal assessment, not an investigation.) And Bush benefited from the all-too-routine bias by which minority areas receive poorer government services. Unfortunately not just for Gore but for the victims of this quiet bias in Florida, this inequity was unaddressed by the Florida circuit court and the US Supreme Court, partly because the Gore campaign didn't raise it.
The Gore legal challenge focused on 14,000 or so supposedly no-vote punch-card ballots in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties, not the statewide problem, and called for a manual review only of those ballots. The Veep's lawyer did not argue that the county-by-county patchwork voting system operated less effectively for blacks, a constituency that Democrats rely on to win elections. In his ruling against Gore, Circuit Judge N. Sanders Sauls noted that the record "shows error and/or less than total accuracy in regard to the punch-card voting devices utilized in Dade and Palm Beach Counties." But Sauls declared that Gore's legal team had not established "a reasonable probability" that the statewide results would turn out differently if those ballots were counted in a better fashion. Either Gore's attorneys screwed up big by not making this point more obvious--which they might have done had they filed contests based on the wider issue--or Sauls misread the math. As for the US Supreme Court, it displayed no eagerness to adjudicate such a touchy and fundamental voting-rights matter as systematic disfranchisement through technology. Its decision--in which it told the state Supreme Court to try again--indicates that the Court wanted to approach the Florida case narrowly, at least in the first go-round.
If a system is decisively skewed to one group's advantage, does that amount to theft? Or is that just the way it is? Clearly, a more equitable vote-counting system in the state--punch-cards for all or optical-scanners for all--would have yielded a different final count. This is an injustice that no court has confronted, on which Bush may well ride into the White House, and that should not be forgotten.
A quarter-million people thronged Abraham Lincoln's Memorial that day. In the sweltering August humidity, executive secretary Roy Wilkins gravely announced that Dr. William Edward Burghardt Du Bois--NAACP founding father and "senior intellectual militant of his people"--had died in exile the day before.
It's easy to forget. What we now think of, monolithically, as the civil rights movement was at the time a splintering half-dozen special-interest groups in ill-coordinated pitched camps. Thurgood Marshall, never known for tact or political correctitude, called the Nation of Islam "a buncha thugs organized from prisons and financed, I'm sure, by some Arab Group." The NOI viewed the Urban League as a black front for a white agenda. A fringe figure gaining notoriety for his recent Playboy interview with an obscure journalist named Alex Haley, Malcolm X irreverently dismissed both "the farce on Washington" and the young minister just moments away from oratorical immortality, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., as "Bishop Chickenwings."
If the legacy of Du Bois's long life was unclear then, what can it all mean now? What possessed him to renounce the widely coveted citizenship for which those gathered there that day--inspired in part by his example--were marching? What can a scholarly biography of the patron saint of African-American intellectuals--written by a tenured professor for a prestigious publishing house, impatiently awaited by specialists and educated generalists alike--what can all this mean to 101 million eligible nonvoters "entirely ignorant of my work and quite indifferent to it," as Du Bois said in his time, much less to 30 million African-Americans beyond the Talented Tenth and those few old-timers in Harlem who remember Du Bois as being, mostly, a remarkably crotchety old man?
With these mixed feelings of pleasure, gratitude, frustration and momentous occasion, I read the monumentally ambitious sequel, seven years in the making, itself a National Book Award finalist, to David Levering Lewis's Pulitzer Prize-winning Biography of a Race, 1868-1919.
"I remember well," Du Bois wrote, famously, "when the shadow swept across me." He was born "a tangle of New England lineages"--Dutch, Bantu, French Huguenot--within living memory of the Fourteenth Amendment and The Communist Manifesto, one generation removed from slavery. And though he laid claim to both his African and European heritage, still it was a peculiar sensation. "One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder." Yet Du Bois knew full well that had he not felt, very early on, this double-consciousness, he might easily have become just another "unquestioning worshiper at the shrine of the established social order."
Willie D. charted his course as early as his teens, inaugurating his writing and public-speaking careers with articles in the Springfield Republican and a high school valedictory address on abolitionist Wendell Phillips. He arrived at the Harvard of Santayana and William James, who thought him easily among the most gifted of his students, already notorious for the "arrogant rectitude" others would resent all his life. He graduated cum laude, honing his prose with a rigorously liberal education in Latin, Greek, modern languages, literature, history and philosophy. But for a graduate student in sociology during the 1890s, Max Weber's Berlin, not Cambridge, was the place to be. And it was there, chain-smoking fluent German, celebrating both his 25th birthday and "his own genius," that W.E.B. Du Bois spelled out his life's ambition: "to make a name in science, to make a name in literature, to raise my race." Only because his scholarship ran out did Du Bois return to America for the consolation prize: Harvard's first African-American PhD.
Atlanta, after Europe and the North, came as a shock. Not that the recent lynching was in itself any great surprise. Du Bois simply wasn't prepared, passing by the local grocer, to see the souvenirs of severed fingers on display out front. Headquartered at Atlanta University, for the next twelve years he taught history and economics. By the time Frederick Douglass died in 1895, the Tuskegee model of black higher education was dominant, and Booker T. Washington its leading lobbyist. That same year Washington, whose power had been growing since 1885, had delivered his famous Atlanta Exposition speech: "In all things purely social," he said, holding up both hands, digits spread wide, "we can be as separate as the [five] fingers"--he paused dramatically, clenching each hand into a fist--"yet as the hand in all things essential to mutual progress." Convinced that Washington's appeasement had paved the way for Plessy v. Ferguson in 1896, Du Bois and other black intellectuals felt sold down the river. Du Bois's scathing review of Washington's Up From Slavery (1901), declaring war on merely vocational training of a "contented and industrious peasantry," was collected in The Souls of Black Folk (1903). Du Bois and Washington came, notoriously, to ideological blows. It was the beginning of the end for Booker T. Washington.
Yet there was no personal animus between them. Shrewdly, Washington tried to hire Du Bois away to Tuskegee, even taking him along on one of his fundraising junkets. But once at Andrew Carnegie's office, Washington--who knew where his bread was buttered and that Du Bois could be counted on not to keep his mouth shut--left him waiting downstairs. "Have you," Washington asked, "read Mr. Carnegie's book?" W.E.B. allowed he had not. "You ought to," said Booker T. "Mr. Carnegie likes it."
Around 1909, certain Niagara Movement radicals and Jewish abolitionist holdovers formed a coalition that became the NAACP. Du Bois moved to New York, where, as editor of The Crisis for the next twenty-five years, his word was gospel.
Meanwhile, Marcus Garvey addressed a Harlem crowd of 2,000 in 1917, preaching black economic independence and resettlement. He even offered, to the resurgent Klan's delight, to transport them back to Africa. Now, the masses might be fooled by the plumed and gold-braided pretensions and Napoleonic pageantry of
the Emperor Marcus Mosiah Garvey--self-proclaimed High Potentate and Provisional President-General of all Africa, Commander in Chief of the Black Star Line, an entire fleet of three dubiously seaworthy vessels--with his back-to-the-motherland schemes, his dukes and duchesses of Uganda and Niger, his knight commanders of the Distinguished Order of Ethiopia and the Nile. But Du Bois, who had just returned from Firestone's Liberia as diplomatic envoy, knew better. (Besides, everybody who was anybody knew that what Garvey's Universal Negro Improvement Association really stood for was "Ugliest Negroes in America.") As far as Du Bois was concerned, Garvey was either a lunatic or a traitor. Whereas, it seemed to Garvey--who saw Du Bois's NAACP as the National Association for the Advancement of Certain People--that the lunacy was for blacks to expect equality in America. In the end, his daring, energy and charisma were surpassed only by his ignorance of finance. Du Bois sounded the rallying cry: "Garvey Must Go." The FBI agreed. And if deportation on the grounds of being an undesirable alien wouldn't hold up in court, mail fraud would do nicely. Arrested in 1922, tried and convicted in 1923, Garvey took up residence at Atlanta Federal two years before Malcolm X was born.
Remember, back before they were Jim Crowed into academic ghettos, when history was literature and vice versa? When nonspecialists read Macaulay, Michelet? Poet, short-story writer, essayist and novelist as well as historian, Du Bois was by no means master of all the genres he assayed. But he electrified African-American literature as writer during the twentieth century's first decade. Then, as editor, he paved the way for younger writers during subsequent decades. Biography, however, is a late development in the tradition. What advances have eminent African-Americans like David Levering Lewis made in that "most delicate and humane of all the branches of the art of writing"? And do his tomes amount to a "masterpiece of the biographer's craft"?
With their cast of legendary characters, colorful set locations, gripping storylines and virtuoso draftsmanship, they certainly aspire to it. For analytical rigor, judicious gossip and subtle insight into the social, political and economic "roots and ramifications" of "racial, religious, and ethnic confrontation, and assimilation in America" between Reconstruction and the civil rights movement, Lewis is fully equal to the task of his formidable subject. And his lucid, downright old-fashioned good writing, so full of fine flourishes and phrases, is mostly innocent of academic jargon. So much so that for years--visiting the same archives, examining the same documents and cross-examining the same witnesses while working my way carefully through these volumes, underlining passages in mechanical pencil, leaving yellow flags on every other page--I kept trying to figure out my misgivings.
And then it hit me. The problem here is not one of length--Boswell's massive Life of Samuel Johnson still startles, 200 years later--but scale, of Turgenev's "right relation" among a dozen or so vivifying narrative elements beyond character and what used to be called "plot." All of these together in a constant juggle of transitions--abstract to concrete, poetic to prosaic, description to dialogue, sentence length and rhythm--can create compelling momentum. Any one of these, overrelied upon in a fact-filled narrative of 1,500 pages, can be lethal. "With the 20th century," said Virginia Woolf,
a change came over biography, as it came over fiction and poetry.... the author's relation to his subject is different. He is no longer the serious and sympathetic companion, toiling slavishly in the footsteps of his hero.... Moreover, he does not think himself constrained to follow every step of the way.... he sees his subject spread about him. He chooses; he synthesizes; in short, he has ceased to be the chronicler; he has become an artist.
Cautious of overstepping the bounds of the historically permissible, the distinguished professor has crafted a straightforward chronicle. Far too often, characters are molded not organically from suggestive situation but by accretion of meticulous archival detail--endless lists of academic pedigree heaped, all at once, in static inventories of naturalistic description--then left to atrophy in the reader's mind. A compelling narrative begins where the dossier leaves off. And a good biographer is a historian, but a good historian isn't necessarily a biographer. The progression from one to the other is no more formally inevitable than that from short-story writer to novelist. But don't get me wrong. The aesthetic quibble is really by way of illustrating how close this life might have come to greatness, to the artistry of all that Lytton Strachey left out in tending toward that "becoming brevity...which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant," and which, "surely, is the first duty of the biographer."
Du Bois's influence on African-American literature, as both writer and editor, is hard to exaggerate. Between Phyllis Wheatley, the publication of Souls, the silence of Charles Chestnutt and the death of Paul Laurence Dunbar from drunken disillusionment in 1906, dozens of poets, authors and pamphleteers emerged, boycotting the happy-blacky-nappy, banjo-strumming, watermelon-eating, darky dialect of previous eras. Of this work, says James Weldon Johnson in the classic history Black Manhattan, "Some was good, most was mediocre, much was bad, and practically all of it unknown to the general public." As late as 1914, with the exception of Johnson's Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man, there wasn't much in the way of African-American literature, and Du Bois thought things looked bleak. By 1920, New York was America's greatest city, and Harlem--a two-square-mile city within the city where a quarter-million African-Americans boasted more poets, journalists, musicians, composers, actors, dramatists and nightclubs than any other spot on earth--became the world-famous capital of black America. It seemed to Du Bois that a renaissance of American Negro literature was now due.
His lover/literary editor Jessie Fauset, to put the arts on equal footing with social policy, urged an editorial shift in the pages of The Crisis. In short order, she published Langston Hughes's "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" in 1921 and prose poetry by Jean Toomer, later collected in Cane (1923). For the first time in history--just when Du Bois feared he'd have no worthy successors--a literature of African-Americans, by African-Americans and for African-Americans and anyone else who cared to listen was not only a possibility but a reality. The Harlem Renaissance was under way.
One prodigy Du Bois particularly delighted in was pinky-ringed young poet Countee Cullen. Companionable, uncombative, anxious for the kind of credibility a tidy résumé and Harvard degree could confer, Cullen idolized Du Bois to a degree perhaps predictable in a cautious orphan risen from impoverished obscurity to international fame by the age of 22 yet lacking, in the final analysis, the kind of intellectual and artistic daring that could sustain it. Du Bois, for his part, perhaps projected onto Cullen some of the paternal pride and ambition long buried with the infant son he'd loved and lost. And so he married off his only daughter. Langston Hughes rented a tuxedo, an organist played Tannhäuser and sixteen bridesmaids wore white. The only problem--aside from the fact that Countee Cullen was gay--was that the girl admired but didn't love him. It was a match made in Hell, a dramatic example of how "spectacularly wrongheaded" Du Bois could be.
For a decade or more, the Harlem Renaissance promised 10 million African-Americans "taken for granted by one political party and despised by the other, poor and overwhelmingly rural, frightened and disunited," the illusion of an era of freedom, justice and equality undreamed of since Reconstruction. To his immense credit, Du Bois was not lulled into submission, mistrusting the impulse toward "salon exotica" and a smattering of prizes for prodigies. Then as now, the means of production--the Hollywood studios, the recording studios, the theaters--were for the most part white-owned. As early as 1926, he warned about "the politics of patronage," challenging that African-Americans would get the art that they deserved--or were willing to pay for: "If a colored man wants to publish a book, he has to get a white publisher and a white newspaper to say it's great; and then [black people] say so." (Ain't a damn thang changed.) By 1934 it had become embarrassingly clear that civil rights would not follow logically from "forceful prose" and a demonstration of artistic excellence on the part of a few Ivy League Negroes. The movement was dead, "scuttled," as chief publicist Alain Locke put it, as much from within as from without, by faddish market swings and stock speculations of Zora Neale Hurston Niggerati, on the one hand, and the liberal Negrotarians on the other.
For Du Bois, as for most African-Americans, the Depression hit harder and faster and lasted longer than for the country at large. The royal wedding had wiped out his savings, and his Crisis salary hadn't been paid for months. He was broke.
Du Bois became increasingly radicalized during the 1930s and '40s. As he saw it, the NAACP, by focusing almost exclusively on legal strategy, was beginning to work "for the black masses but not with them." In 1934, out of sync with the mainstream leadership, he left in disgust. He returned to Atlanta University, reading Das Kapital and writing Black Reconstruction in America (1935). Du Bois, who first visited the Soviet Union in 1926, returned in 1936. Home from History's frontlines a self-professed "Bolshevik," even though, as a Socialist, he combined "cultural nationalism, Scandinavian cooperativism, Booker Washington and Marx in about equal parts," Du Bois remained unconvinced that the Communist Party, which never attracted more than a few hundred black members, was their last best hope. In any case, African-Americans did not "propose to be the shock troops of the Communist Revolution."
During the McCarthy era, the black leadership, bending in the prevailing ideological winds, began to distance itself from the left. Back in New York, involved in nuclear disarmament activity declared subversive by the US government, Du Bois was arrested and tried as an unregistered agent of a foreign power. He was acquitted in 1951, but the State Department confiscated his passport, prohibiting travel abroad. It was the last straw.
The prophet was without honor only in his own country. So when the government embargo was lifted in 1958, Du Bois went on lecture tours of Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, becoming a kind of poster boy in the Communist effort to discredit the States. He was awarded the Lenin Peace Prize in 1959, and in Red China, his birthday was declared a national holiday by Chou En-lai. Did the party use Du Bois? Or did Du Bois use the party to further his own agenda? Both, most likely.
In 1960, seventeen African states, including Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana, gained independence. At Nkrumah's invitation, Du Bois exiled himself, renouncing his American citizenship. He officially joined the Communist Party in 1961. Shrunken now and a bit stooped, his memory not quite as sharp as it once was, the scholar-citizen spent his last days in a spacious house with a view of flowering shrubs in Accra's best neighborhood, an honored guest of state, surrounded by busts of Lenin and Chairman Mao and an impressive library of Marxist thought, editing the Negro encyclopedia and receiving visitors the world over. At last, on August 27, 1963, the visionary whose long life--spanning Reconstruction, Plessy v. Ferguson, two World Wars, Brown v. Board of Education and now the civil rights movement--had been the literal embodiment of the nineteenth century's collision with the twentieth, died in Accra, where he was accorded an elaborate state funeral.
The bioepic ends, as it began 1,500 pages ago in Volume I, with the death of W.E.B. Du Bois. A living institution, he was "productive, multiple, controversial, and emblematic." His influence--as cultural ambassador, as writer and editor, as activist whose spectrum of social, political and economic thought seems refracted in phenomena as varied as Ho Chi Minh, the Negritude of poet-statesmen Aimé Césaire and Léopold Senghor as well as the Black Power movement that peaked after his death--is ubiquitous.
A difficult man as capable of coldness to old friends as he was reluctant to admit mistakes, a prickly Brahmin who walked with kings but failed to acquire the common touch, Dr. Du Bois emerges a kind of tragic hero as flawed as he was gifted. At times you wonder whether he wasn't his own most formidable enemy. But whatever his blind spots, he was only too well aware, looking backward, that battling racism real and imagined at every turn had twisted him into a far less "human" being than he might otherwise have been.
Fifteen years and two computer crashes in the research and writing, these volumes were a lifetime, literally, in the making. As a boy born in Little Rock two decades before the civil rights movement began, Lewis had a portentous encounter with the great man. Fisk man and author of books on South Africa and the Dreyfus Affair, he's now a professor of history at Rutgers. And just as Renaissance scholarship would be incomplete without When Harlem Was in Vogue, the twenty books and 100 articles of W.E.B. Du Bois's eighty-year publishing career, so handsomely anthologized in Nathan Irvin Huggins's Library of America Writings, are indispensably complemented by what is, if not a masterpiece of biography, then almost certainly the standard social, political and intellectual history of his life and times.
Afew days before the election, I accompanied a friend to the dentist's office. It was one of those situations in which appearance takes over more complex realities of who we are. I was a middle-aged black woman assisting an elderly white man. That he's a wild old radical who browbeats the mad law professor in me with Russian ideologues and German philosophers probably wasn't what most people saw as we toddled down the street arm in arm on cane. In the vast warren of the medical center, we become even more invisible in a waiting room filled with physically fragile patients, many of whom had been brought there by female caretakers of color.
Perhaps because of some such condescension, we became privy to a loud conversation floating out the not-quite-closed door of the office next to which we were sitting. One of the doctors was chatting with a patient, expressing his general pique at the world in familiar, often contradictory clichés. He was upset at the loss of standards in schools. He pitted merit against equality and paired merit with white, Jewish and Asian students. He insisted that "we are not all equal" and concluded that affirmative action was inherently immoral. A few minutes later he blamed white liberals for abandoning standards and praised as standard-bearers those blacks who support vouchers. "The problem is" minorities who teach their children to hate white people. He said that "blacks are out of control" and that black leaders "are not taking responsibility." He cited Al Sharpton, Marion Barry and Louis Farrakhan as typical black leaders, and he rattled on against substance abuse in the inner cities and guns in the hands of young blacks who will never make it into the middle class, because they don't study and don't have good table manners.
"Bite down," he said as he finished with a paean of support for "zero tolerance" policies, standardized testing and George W. Bush.
George W. Bush! I shook my head wonderingly. If only he were black. It's one of those things we black people think about a lot: If only this or that one were black. Can you imagine, we tell each other.
Just think where a black man who spent more than half his adult life as a substance abuser would be--a black man who had a conviction for drunk driving and a notoriously bad attitude. Is it too obvious to point out that George Bush and Dick Cheney--who has two convictions for drunk driving--share a certain equality of status with Marion Barry?
Just think where a sneering black frat brother who committed gross grammatical butcheries and called Greeks Grecians would be. What fun Abigail Thernstrom could have questioning why unqualified upper-class whiners like that should be admitted to "first tier" universities like Yale and Harvard. (I guess we're supposed to feel better that Cheney flunked out of Yale on his own merits.)
Just think of where a black businessman with a "winning" personality but a losing financial record would be when he showed up to buy that team franchise. Assuming he could get a job way down in the corporate food chain, you can bet they wouldn't let him anywhere near the cash register.
Imagine a black politician who was so loudmouthed that his own family called him "bombastic," who proffered opinions about nations whose names he hadn't bothered to learn or badly mispronounced and who created an international incident by falsely accusing the Russian Prime Minister of stealing from the IMF. If you're thinking Al Sharpton, think again.
Imagine a black leader who began his campaign for office at a university that historically advocated racial separatism as God's law and that published materials describing Judaism as heretical and Catholicism as a "cult." I do wonder how it is that George W. can wander through so much of Louis Farrakhan's metaphysical territory and still come out looking like someone whose morals so many Americans say they can look up to.
I do not draw such analogies simply to relativize. The more important point, I think, is one related to what I sometimes call innocence profiling. If George W. Bush were black, he would be a classic suspect profile. If he were Driving While Black, there are people who would have forgiven police if they had decided to shoot at his drunkenly weaving car on that dark Maine highway (as New Jersey troopers shot at that van full of perfectly sober, cooperative college students). If he had been black, we might have heard Mayor Rudolph Giuliani describing him as "no altar boy" (as he described Patrick Dorismond, a security guard "accidentally" shot and killed by the NYPD).
But of course, George W. Bush is not black, and thus it is, perhaps, that the New York Times instead ran an article describing him as having tamed his "inner scamp" and entered "midlife redemption"--even as the article goes on to describe the supposedly redeemed man-who-would-be-Commander-in-Chief as having behaved so insultingly and inappropriately toward Queen Elizabeth at a state dinner in 1991--five years after he says he gave up alcohol--that a horrified Barbara Bush promised the Queen to seat him far away from Her Majesty, "for fear of him saying something."
The lesson of equality is, at its heart, related to the question of double standards: There are still too many examples in American society of the degree to which we have zero tolerance for disreputable black behavior and seemingly unlimited indulgence when whites behave the very same way.
Anyway, back at the medical center, the dentist's door flew open. "Next!" called out the doctor.
"Now set the teeth...," growled my dear old friend and lefty warrior as he marched into the office to face needles, drills...and more. "It won't be so bad," smiled the dentist unsuspectingly.
But my friend had been quoting Shakespeare's Henry V. "Teach them how to war..." he went on and winked at me. The door shut softly behind them.
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