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When I was growing up in the fifties, I could never have imagined that one of
Harvard's most respected departments would be a Department of Afro-American
Studies and that twenty professors would be teaching here at the turn of the
century. Our experience at Harvard is just one instance of a much larger
phenomenon. Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, individual
African Americans have earned positions higher within white society than any
person black or white could have dreamed possible in the segregated 1950s. And
this is true in national and local government, in the military and in business,
in medicine and education, on TV and in film. Virtually anywhere you look in
America today, you'll find black people. Not enough black people, but who can
deny that progress has been made? In fact, since 1968, the black middle class
has tripled, as measured by the percentage of families earning $50,000 or more.
At the same time-and this is the kicker-the percentage of black children who
live at or below the poverty line is almost 35 percent, justabout what it was
on the day that Dr. King was killed.
Since 1968, then, two distinct classes have emerged within Black America: a
black middle class with "white money," as my mother used to say, and what some
would argue is a self-perpetuating, static black underclass. Is this what the
Civil Rights Movement was all about? Can we ever bridge this black class divide?
What does the success of this expanding middle class-W. E. B. Du Bois's Talented
Tenth, the college-educated black person, even now only 17 percent of all black
Americans-mean for the progress of our people? Is this economic ascent the
ultimate realization of Dr. King's "dream" of integration?. How do we continue to
expand the size of the middle class? And most scary of all, is this class divide
permanent, a way of life that will never be altered? Writing in the New York
Times on May 31, 2003, Jack Bass, author of Unlikely Heroes: Southern Federal
Judges and Civil Rights, quoted from an interview with John Minor Wisdom, "the
legendary jurist and scholar," which Bass had conducted just four months before
the judge's death at the age of ninety-three in 1999: "He told me he was
uncertain which was more important," Bass wrote: "how far blacks have come in
overcoming discrimination, or 'how far they still have to go.'" This question
arose in another form in an amusing, signifying interplay between the titles of
William Julius Wilson's The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and Cornel
West's best-selling Race Matters (1993). There can be no doubt that "race" is
far less important as a factor affecting economic success for our generation
than it was for any previous generation of African Americans in this country.
Still, there can be little doubt that the fact of one's blackness remains the
hallmark of our various identities in a country whose wealth, to a large extent,
was constructed on race-based slavery, followed by a full century of de jure
segregation and discrimination in every major aspect of a black citizen's
social, economic, and political existence.
I decided to talk with some of the most remarkably successful African Americans
of our generation who-because of opportunities created to one degree or another
by affirmative action-have been enabled to excel in positions of authority that
our antecedents could scarcely have dreamed of occupying, or even aspiring to
hold. Had they become the Putney Swopes of our generation? I could think of no
place more appropriate to begin than at the offices of the U.S. secretary of
state, General Colin Powell.
Since 1963, we've had seventy-five black congressmen and congresswomen, two U.S.
senators, a whole slew of mayors, and two Supreme Court justices, but only in
the last few years have we penetrated the heart of executive political power in
Washington. Just a generation ago, the idea of a black president was a joke we'd
tell in barbershops. We figured that a black man could be king of England before
he'd be elected president of the United States! Yet today one of the most
important political figures in the world is a black man, a man fourth in line to
the presidency. Many people think that he would have easily defeated Al Gore in
the 2000 presidential election.
General Colin Powell grew up in the Bronx, the son of working-class Jamaican
immigrants. He joined the army after college and saw combat in Vietnam. Like
many of us, his career benefited enormously from affirmative action. He rose
rapidly through the ranks, becoming a five-star general and chairman of the
Joint Chiefs of Staff. He commanded our troops in Desert Storm. As national
security adviser to two presidents and now as secretary of state, General Powell
is the most powerful black person in the history of the American government and
is one of the most powerful people in the world.
I asked Powell if race had been a hindrance to his career path, or even to his
aspirations. He replied, "I was raised in a family that never felt constrained
by their poverty or by their race ... And I was raised in a community that had
blacks, whites, Puerto Ricans ... a melting pot of the New York City
environment. So I never really knew I was supposed to feel in some way
constrained by being an inner-city, public school black kid, the son of
immigrants. I just went into the army and I found an organization that said, no,
no, no, we've changed, we're ahead of the rest of the society. We don't care if
you're black or blue, we only care if you're a good green soldier. And if you do
your best, you watch, you'll be recognized. If you don't do your best, you'll be
punished. And I started out as a black lieutenant but I became a general who was
I asked him if his position as secretary of state had made his race a nonissue,
had, in effect, allowed him to transcend his racial identity. "When you walk
into a room," I wondered, "if you go to Asia or the Middle East, do the people
you deal with still see a black man first, before they see you as the secretary
"Yeah, sure, but they also see the American secretary of state and they know
that I'm not coming to them as a black man; I'm coming to them as a
representative of the American people, as a representative of the president of
the United States. I represent all the values of this country and the power of
this country, its military power, its economic power and political power. Once
they sit down and get past whatever color I am, they want to do business."
I asked Powell what he thought was the responsibility of those of us within the
African-American community who have made it to those left behind, an issue that
still plagues my friends and that especially worries me. "I want to continue to
be a role model for the kids in the neighborhood I grew up in, and for other
youngsters in America," he said. "Not just a black role model in that
stereotypical sense, but an example of what you can achieve if you are willing
to work for it. And second, those of us in the African-American community who
have been successful financially ought to give some of it back to the community.
You can do it through scholarships, through donations, through mentoring,
through adopting or sponsoring a school. There are lots of ways to do it, and
everything I've just mentioned I have done, or try to do. You don't have to
scream and shout about it but just get it done, reach back and help these
youngsters who are coming along."
But why do we have more of a responsibility, it seems sometimes, than our white
counterparts? I asked.
"Our youngsters need us more perhaps, for one thing," he said. "And our
youngsters are still living in a society that is really only one generation
removed from racism, discrimination, segregation, and economic deprivation, and
we're still suffering from that."
The tension between societal factors as the causes of our people's social and
economic disadvantages, and those traceable to individual initiative or the lack
thereof, would become a leitmotif within the interviews I conducted throughout
the black community. I think it's fair to say that it is the largest single
point of contention within the black community itself. Like General Powell, I,
too, worry about the values of certain aspects of black urban street culture and
the self-destructive behavior that reinforces the cycle of poverty- behavior
that helps to keep the black poor impoverished. But the inner-city culture that
General Powell says holds us back is also the source of the tremendous
creativity found in hip-hop culture. If hip-hop is the culture of the black
poor, it is simultaneously the face and voice of American popular culture. It is
also rich with a few phenomenal success stories.
I traveled from Washington to New York to meet the king of hip-hop culture,
Russell Simmons. Simmons has transformed black urban street culture into the
lingua franca of American popular culture worldwide-and into a music and fashion
empire that grosses more than $300 million per year. "How old were you when you
became an entrepreneur?" I asked him.
"When I was sixteen," Simmons said, "I wanted to be an entrepreneur, but selling
weed was one of the few options open to me."
"Really? When did you become legitimate?"
"I used to give hip-hop parties when I was at City College. People would pay to
get in-all the hip-hop artists, DJ Cheeba and all these guys. I had this music
thing I loved, and I was lucky enough to get a job in the music industry."
Simmons's career took off in 1979 when he produced "Christmas Rappin'," by
Kurtis Blow, on Mercury Records. It was phenomenally successful, and the rest,
one might say, is the history of hip-hop.
Simmons's company, Def Jam, brilliantly punched hip-hop from the ghetto straight
into the heart of middle-class, teenage white America, launching bands such as
Run-D.M.C. and Grandmaster Flash. Simmons, a brilliant marketer, has branched
out to fashion design. His Phat Farm label is the rage from Harlem to Harvard
Square, from Watts to Westwood.
How did he create a business based on rebellious black culture and make it as
American as apple pie? Simmons's genius was to take an underground movement and
turn it into the common language of American popular culture.
Where did his understanding of the entrepreneurial system come from? "The
entrepreneurial spirit came from within me," he said. "I was never offered a
salary; they didn't like what we did. There was never an interest in giving me a
job, or even making a record deal, so we started our own company ... I wanted
to be in the fashion business. Do you think anybody wanted to hire me or give me
a job? I wanted to be in the advertising business. These things had to be forged
with a little bit of resilience and vision ... "The independence that was
forced on us by managing some part of our culture, or ideas, is the same
independence that's creating a whole new lifestyle among young black people. All
I had was drug dealers, some numbers runners, and an occasional pimp. They were
the entrepreneurs. Now all these young people have images. It's true that a lot
of them are hardheaded and kind of twisted and unsophisticated. That's why they
did it in the first place. You think if they spoke the King's English, if they
went to school and were told, do what you're supposed to do, that they'd be
doing what they're doing? ... They came from the street and they did what they
had to do and they created what they've created."
Are these the new heroes in our community, people like Simmons, people like
Richard Parsons and Ken Chenault, the CEOs of AOL Time Warner and American
"Parsons and Ken Chenault and people like them are huge role models. . . But
Puffy's a much greater hero, a much greater inspiration," said Simmons. "He's
self-made. The same sophistication and education that guys like Parsons and
Chenault have can come from some of our kids who will have enough experience to
take on businesses that have smaller margins. We are spreading out. Do you know
how many energy drinks are made by kids in the ghetto?
"I see the way young people are so excited about being entrepreneurs, and I
believe that's the climate that will make a difference economically in our
community. And the education part of it, they all recognize it's necessary."
For Simmons, the inner city is a font of entrepreneurial activity; the black
entrepreneur is the true black revolutionary today, the inheritor of the legacy
of Maroons and other renegades from slavery, the "bad nigger" characters in
traditional black folklore and literature. These figures stole the white man's
secrets, penetrated the logic of the system, and then used these acquisitions to
attempt to liberate black people. Where once the means to our freedom was
thought to be literacy, or reclaiming the principles of the Declaration of
Independence, or utilizing the legal system-or taking up guns-for hip-hop
entrepreneurs, the means, according to Simmons, is hardheaded capitalism, and
the goal, massive profits. Is Simmons a visionary who has redefined the black
entrepreneur as the new urban revolutionary? As he rightly argues, the black
ghetto has always been full of entrepreneurs; moreover, success in that world
doesn't even require a high school diploma or a college degree, opening up, as
it does, economic opportunities otherwise closed to so many African Americans
whose choices are limited because of their education.
We certainly need more entrepreneurs in the inner city, but not at the expense
of education. In a highly technological world, formal education is the principal
conduit out of poverty, just as it has been for our people since slavery and the
days of Jim Crow. Our people's need to stay in school is even greater and more
urgent today than it was back then, in harsher times under legal segregation.
Simmons is correct that success in this world doesn't require a high school
diploma. But that also concerns me. Does the kind of success that Russell
Simmons- and hip-hop-encourages also help our kids to get an education and
expand their options?
From Simmons's office in Midtown Manhattan, I went to see another
African-American icon, one who uses his particular genius to seduce inner-city
children into the love of learning and the value of school.
Maurice Ashley is the world's first and only black Grand Master in chess- a
title held by only seven hundred people in history. Ashley is the Tiger Woods of
chess. As with golf, we think of chess as a pastime of the upper middle class.
Ashley was born into poverty in Jamaica, then grew up in the inner city in
Brooklyn. Perhaps more than anyone else, he has helped to make chess black. I
asked Ashley why chess, of all things, would be relevant to black people. "Chess
transposes the imagination of inner-city black kids so they can see themselves
in the back row where all the power pieces are ...
Excerpted from America Behind The Color Line
by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
Copyright © 2004 by Henry Louis Gates, Jr..
Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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