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The Future Of The Race Essay, Research Paper

The title of Gates and West s book evokes nineteenth and early twentieth-century works: Martin Delayn 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) ..

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 the Du Boisian Vandyke beards and the DuBoisian 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 begin: 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 broadminded 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 error of his assumption that altruism flowed automatically from higher education. The Best Men had not become the best 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 idioms.

Gate 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 radial black upperclassmen, Glenn DeChabert and Armstead Robinson. Both were from middle-class families and lived useful lives, but in Gate s estimation they failed to realize their wondrous potential. Both did 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. Gate 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 away 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 Gate s arrival. 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 this personal warmth and engagement, is downright gloomy. His title Black Strivings in a Twilight Civilization owes as much to the French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritains 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 views are antiquated, a jumble of ” lib 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 new 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 content 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 World War II. 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 vase 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, cold-heartedness and

mean-spiritedness cheap sexual thrills and cowardly

patriarchal violence are still other systems of this decay.

In so grim an era, West concludes, only a multi-class, multiracial alliance can prevent the installation of 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 with a race oppressed by poverty, discrimination and lack of education. Toward the end of his life he gave up hope of amelioration and went 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 Gate s and West s unhopeful hope is gendered.

334


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