Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Manby Henry Louis Gates Jr.
"This is a book of stories," writes Henry Louis Gates, "and all might be described as 'narratives of ascent.'" As some remarkable men talk about their lives, many perspectives on race and gender emerge. For the notion of the unitary black man, Gates argues, is as imaginary as the creature that the poet Wallace Stevens conjured in his poem
"This is a book of stories," writes Henry Louis Gates, "and all might be described as 'narratives of ascent.'" As some remarkable men talk about their lives, many perspectives on race and gender emerge. For the notion of the unitary black man, Gates argues, is as imaginary as the creature that the poet Wallace Stevens conjured in his poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."
James Baldwin, Colin Powell, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Louis Farrakhan, Anatole Broyard, Albert Murray all these men came from modest circumstances and all achieved preeminence. They are people, Gates writes, "who have shaped the world as much as they were shaped by it, who gave as good as they got." Three are writers James Baldwin, who was once regarded as the intellectual spokesman for the black community; Anatole Broyard, who chose to hide his black heritage so as to be seen as a writer on his own terms; and Albert Murray, who rose to the pinnacle of literary criticism. There is the general-turned-political-figure Colin Powell, who discusses his interactions with three United States presidents; there is Harry Belafonte, the entertainer whose career has been distinct from his fervent activism; there is Bill T. Jones, dancer and choreographer, whose fierce courage and creativity have continued in the shadow of AIDS; and there is Louis Farrakhan, the controversial religious leader.
These men and others speak of their lives with candor and intimacy, and what emerges from this portfolio of influential men is a strikingly varied and profound set of ideas about what it means to be a black man in America today.
One can only guess the significance of the title, because Gates (Humanities and Black Studies/Harvard; Colored People: A Memoir, 1994) offers no explanation. Depending on how one counts, it may be the number of black men featured, because even though there are seven profiles (James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Colin Powell, Louis Farrakhan, Albert Murray, Anatole Broyard), each devolves into conversations that draw in other men (Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden, O.J. Simpson, Jesse Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Sidney Poitier). Or 13 may refer to the number of subsections in the introduction, delineating themes that recur through the book, all involving the conflicts, struggles, and inescapability of being black and male in America. In a chapter bearing the same title as the book, 13 may be the number of takes Gates offers on the O.J. Simpson trial, each exploring "black wariness" and how whites are constantly surprised by its persistence and depth. And, finally, there may be 13 different ways in which these men approach their blackness, from choreographer Jones, who exploits the blackness of his body in his dance, to Broyard, who spent his life denying his blackness but whose writing was deeply informed by it. The profiles, written over several years and many of which appeared in the New Yorker, provide the skeletons upon which Gates hangs explorations of large themes, drawing intellectuals, poets, and politicians into the discussion. In the end, the concerns of this rich gallery of fascinating and brilliant characters prove to be universal, even as they are rooted in black maleness.
Thus, it's not the riddle of the title that finally counts as much as the 13 times 13 questions that Gates raises through these men: questions about interconnections and separations, to be addressed not just by other black men but by all Americans.
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Meet the Author
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of Humanities and chair of the Department of Afro-American Studies at Harvard University. He has been the editor of such collections as Reading Black, Reading Feminist, The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, the forty-volume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers 1910-1940, and the series editor of the complete works of Zora Neale Hurston. He is the author of The Signifying Monkey, which received the American Book Award, Figures in Black, and the memoir Colored People, among other books. A staff writer for The New Yorker, he lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
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