Nell Irvin Painter


"A DIFFERENT SENSE OF TIME," Review by Nell Irvin Painter in The Nation, 262:18, 6 May 1996, pp. 38-43.
Reproduced with permission of The Nation.

By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West
Knopf. 196 pp. $21.

Not long ago a colleague of mine was musing over where he and would have been teaching seventy-five years ago. The University of Chicago, he decided, would have suited us just fine. I demurred. Though he might have had many choices, I wouldn't have been teaching in any American university seventy-five years ago. No, I conclude. I wouldn't go back seventy-five years or any previous time. In fact, I wonder whether I was born a few years too early to take full advantage of opportunities open to educated black women. Aware of old impediments and delighting in the new field of black women's studies, I place my hopes in the future. My sense of time differs from what I find in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West's new book, The Future of the Race.

The title of Gates and West's book evokes nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century works: Martin Delany's Past, Present and Future of the Negro Race (1854), William Hannibal Thomas's The American Negro: What He Was, What He Is, and What He May Become (1901), I. Garland Penn's The United Negro: His Problems and His Progress (1902), Pauline Hopkins's A Primer of Facts Pertaining to the Early Greatness of the African Race and the Possibility of Restoration by Its Descendants (1905) and, of course, W.E.B. Du Bois's 1940 autobiography Dusk of Dawn, with its anthropomorphic subtitle: An Essay Toward an Autobiography of a Race Concept.

Within all these titles lie two assumptions no longer so openly embraced: that it is possible to speak of African-Americans in the singular--as what used to be called "the Negro" and now most often appears as "the black community"--and that the authors in question possess authority to speak for the whole African-American race. Gates and West, two of our leading black intellectuals, cast themselves as the grandchildren of what Du Bois called the Talented Tenth--perhaps with their Du Boisian Vandyke beards and their Du Boisian three-piece suits, the grandsons of Du Bois himself. Certainly they are taking upon themselves the Talented Tenth's early-twentieth-century responsibility to lead the race.

Who is the Talented Tenth? This time-bound phrase comes from Du Bois's 1903 essay, "The Negro Problem," quoted in the Appendix of The Future of the Race, and begins: "The Negro race, like all races, is going to be saved by its exceptional men." These exceptional men--and Du Bois did mean men--would "guide the Mass away from the contamination and death of the Worst." The Talented Tenth would shoulder the task of uplifting the race without succumbing to money-grubbing selfishness; their formal education signified their intelligence and enlightened character. In 1903, the Talented Tenth was broad-minded and big-hearted by definition.

The passage of forty-five years diminished Du Bois's assurance. By 1948 he had revised his appraisal, and that revision also appears in the Appendix. He confessed the error of his assumption that altruism flowed automatically from higher education. The Best Men had not become the best of men. He lamented that the Talented Tenth had mostly produced self-indulgent egotists who turned their training toward personal advancement. Meanwhile, Du Bois had been learning to respect the masses from reading Marx. Nonetheless, he still cherished a hope that a new, self-sacrificing Talented Tenth of internationally minded men--still men--would ally African-Americans to the peoples of the Third World and uplift the colored masses universally.

Gates and West, who teach at Du Bois's own Harvard University, accept his challenge with all its Victorian mission of uplift. Although they announce their essays as the fruit of long conversations in Cambridge, they do not enter into dialogue. Rather, this book provides a remarkable contrast of the two men's idioms.

Gates's subject matter is disillusionment and loss, yet the tone of his essay is relaxed and autobiographical, taking up where he left off in his highly praised 1994 memoir, Colored People. We learn that as an undergraduate at Yale in the late sixties and early seventies, his idols were radical black upperclassmen Glenn DeChabert and Armstead Robinson. Both were from middle-class families and lived useful lives, but in Gates's estimation they failed to realize their wondrous potential. Both died in their 40s, DeChabert a heavy smoker and Robinson stressed and overweight. For Gates, DeChabert and Robinson serve as symbols of the waste of black Yale men through madness, suicide and murder.

Among his collegiate memories Gates threads current social science data reflecting the tragedy of black life at the end of the twentieth century. Stuck in chronic poverty, the one-third of U.S. blacks who belong to the underclass are desperate and self-destructive. Gates's "Parable of the Talents" casts middle- and underclass blacks as the servants in the book of Matthew, in which "unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance; but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath." Weeping and gnashing their teeth, the black poor have been cast into outer darkness, their paltry store of money taken from them and bestowed upon blacks of privilege. This exchange Gates interprets as dialectical.

For the one-third of American blacks who are middle class, he says, abundance has not yielded contentment. (The other one-third is not mentioned.) Instead, the consequences of their affluence are hopelessness and misery. Even the renaissance of black arts and artists that began around 1987 fails to compensate for the vicious political economy of our time. Gates believes that black people need a new kind of political leadership, which paradoxically must de-emphasize the notion of such a thing as black America.

In the end, even hard evidence that the black poor are bad off and well-off blacks are wretched doesn't sour Gates's survival. At Yale, he refused to play identity games, emerging from the crucible of black power with his humanity intact. Now he feels lucky to be the servant with eleven talents, wondering only occasionally why he is still here and flourishing and his heroes are not.

West's essay, at odds with his personal warmth and engagement, is downright gloomy. His title--"Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization"--owes as much to the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain's 1939 Twilight of Civilization as to Du Bois's concern with racial ambition. Where Gates is autobiographical and empathetic, referring only occasionally to Du Bois, West thrice in his opening pages indicts his intellectual grandfather for failing to immerse himself in everyday blackness.

This fault comes at the beginning of a litany of weakness: Du Bois had Enlightenment ideals; Du Bois cherished Victorian values; Du Bois was an optimist, squarely within the U.S. tradition. Du Bois's views are antiquated, a jumble of "glib theodicy, weak allegory, and superficial symbolism." Tainted by patriarchy, his ideal of the Talented Tenth's mission now requires complete reformulation. Du Bois also failed intellectually by not engaging Russian pre-revolutionary thinkers and the writing of Central European Jews between the two world wars. Tolstoy, Chekhov and Kafka knew better than to place their faith in Enlightenment or Victorian values. They resisted the temptation of optimism.

Despite all his failings, says West, Du Bois is still the best black intellectual ancestor we have, the crucial starting point, "the brook of fire through which we all must pass in order to gain access to the intellectual and political weaponry needed to sustain the radical democratic tradition in our time. "But because he "falls short of the mark," Du Bois the (grand)father must be, if not slain, then laid aside.

In Du Bois's place, West elevates several other black artists and public intellectuals. Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Sarah Vaughan, Toni Morrison and Richard Wright offer antidotes to black anguish. For West, being black is inherently tragic, for others see our bodies as abominable and our ideas as debased, while our pain remains unnamed and invisible. We struggle to resist madness and suicide from within a racial culture that must contend perpetually with rage. West finds that in their pessimism about the United States, black nationalists such as Maulana Karenga, Imamu Amiri Baraka and Haki Madhubuti may discern our racial condition more clearly than black academics.

I am fascinated by West's apocalyptic tone. Where Gates turns to the New Testament book of Matthew, West shares the imagery of the Old Testament book of Daniel and borrows the title of a lecture delivered on the eve of the Second World War. He finds our times, too, full of portent:

Public life deteriorates due to class polarization, racial balkanization, and especially a predatory market culture. With the vast erosion of civil networks that nurture and care for citizens...and with what might be called the gangsterization of everyday life, characterized by the escalating fear of violent attack, vicious assault, or cruel insult, we are witnessing a pervasive cultural decay in American civilization....Increasing suicides and homicides, alcoholism and drug addiction, distrust and disloyalty, coldheartedness and sexual thrills and cowardly patriarchal violence are still other symptoms of this decay.

In so grim an era, West concludes, only a multiclass, multiracial alliance can prevent the installation a "homespun brand of authoritarian democracy." Lacking so ambitious and unlikely a national initiative, a Talented Tenth now consisting of nouveaux riches is intoxicated by empty pleasures. The heroic, prophetic few may strive toward the alliance that would deliver us, but their unpleasant truths will not pierce the hedonism of their fellows. West leaves us peering into the abyss.

For both Gates and West, the future of the race looks dispiriting, as, perhaps, any such investigation of the perpetually poorest racial-ethnic group in the country is likely to suggest, and particularly if Du Bois becomes the embodiment of the race. Over the course of his long life, well-educated and economically middle-class Du Bois sought a worthy role within a race oppressed by poverty, discrimination and lack of education. Toward the end of his life he gave up hope of amelioration and wont into exile in West Africa. He died in 1963 in the early years of the civil rights revolution.

Du Bois never saw the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the age of affirmative action, which provided unprecedented opportunities to men like Gates and West. Du Bois died before the growth of the largest African-American middle class in history. He also died long before the invention of black women's studies, whose tenor often varies from what black men have to say.

As someone who finds opportunity as well as apprehension in contemporary America, I suspect that the difference between my hopeful hope and Gates's and West's unhopeful hope is gendered. While black women scholars write critically of the work of other black men and women, for the most part we embrace rather than censure our biological and intellectual foremothers, as in books like Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (1983) and Patricia Hill Collins's Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment (1990) and articles like Elsa Barkley Brown's "Afro-American Women's Quilting: A Framework for Conceptualizing and Teaching African-American Women's History" in SIGNS (Summer 1989). We know our opportunities appeared only yesterday. As a result of having flourished during the late twentieth century, black women's studies is likely to find more grounds for hope in the future of the race than does The Future of the Race.

Nell Irvin Painter is the author of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol, due out from Norton in September.

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