Books

The Black Box

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A little black box appears on health care and employment forms, census surveys and other official documents, requiring respondents to confine their racial identity to a single space that allows no fine distinctions. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his eloquent and powerful The Black Box: Writing the Race, such boxes are metaphors for the insidious and perfidious ways in which Black Americans have seen their identities prescribed by a nation that has suppressed their freedom since its very foundation.

The Black Box commits to the page a series of lectures Gates delivers in his Harvard University introductory course in African American Studies. Here, the prolific scholar demonstrates that various Black writers from Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. Du Bois to Zora Neale Hurston and Langston Hughes, among many others, challenged what Du Bois called the “suffocating confinement” of the metaphorical black box, and wrote their own stories about how to escape from it and forge identities that recognize their humanity.

The notion that for Black people, liberation and literacy have been inextricable is a foundation of the lectures. One hundred and two formerly enslaved people wrote book-length narratives, “the largest body of literature ever created in the history of the world by persons who had been enslaved,” notes Gates. These writers “fought back against the discourse of race and reason by creating their own genre of literature.” Slave narratives combined autobiographies with attacks on the dehumanizing and murderous effects of slavery, often becoming seminal texts for abolitionists.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Du Bois developed the philosophy of the New Negro, a metaphor, Gates writes, that was “a powerful construct, like an empty vessel or signifier that different—and even contradictory—ideologies” could fill. By the time of the Harlem Renaissance, writers such as Hurston and Hughes, as well as jazz musicians and other artists, captured the multiplicity of voices within African American communities, illustrating the rich diversity of the Black experience.

The Black Box requires that readers rethink the ways we talk about race in America today. Gates’ passionate and compelling prose, and the book’s lucid details and insights, lay the historical and artistic groundwork for such conversations.

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