The Black Box: Writing the Race

Penguin Pr. Mar. 2024. 304p. ISBN 9780593299784. $30. HIST
Literary scholar and historian Gates (Harvard Univ.; The Black Church) parses the words, sounds, images, and insinuations of the fraught and curious history of Black self-definition over the ages. Starting with the poetry of Phillis Wheatley (1753–84) and jumping backward and forward in time from the 1500s to the present, Gates demonstrates the place of writing as proof in the debate—instigated and perpetuated by relentless racism—on the humanity of people of African descent. He shows writing by Black authors as works of resistance and creation, of fending off virulent white racism, and of forging viable Black communities and consciousness. He explains how—by claiming common citizenship and refuting Black people’s debasement in the Great Chain of Being theory of ranked humanity—self-conscious and self-confident Black writers have contested the tropes that tried to constrain them. They also debated among themselves about labels, class distinctions, cultural origins, and connections.
VERDICT A must for scholars, yet still accessible to general audiences, by arguably the preeminent scholar of African American studies. This gem brilliantly reflects multiple depictions of what it means to be a Black American amid complex, structured interracial and color-based discrimination discourses, in which writing and language are keys.
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