Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man


"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...

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"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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Gates, the head of Harvard's Afro-American studies department, is not only the nation's most prominent black scholar. As the author of the widely praised Colored People and as an essayist, he has become a leading interpreter of "the perplexities of race and gender." Originally published in the New Yorker, these deft, absorbing reports on prominent black men-from literary critic Albert Murray to choreographer Bill T. Jones and singer/activist Harry Belafonte-are enlivened by Gates's own expertise and engagement. He likens Colin Powell to bootstrap philosopher Booker T. Washington and deconstructs the racial iconography that makes Powell unthreatening to whites. Though on record as a critic of Louis Farrakhan, a visit to the Nation of Islam leader reminds Gates that he, like most African Americans, "feel[s] astonishingly vulnerable to charges of inauthenticity." He finds Farrakhan alternately charming and chilling yet concludes that the scariest thing is Farrakhan's (and America's) lack of true vision to transform black rage. In the title essay, on black responses to the O.J. Simpson trial, Gates acknowledges his outrage was mingled with relief, and he teases out the mixed opinions of other prominent blacks. The book's closing essay, is the most surprising in its examination of how New York Times literary critic Anatole Broyard passed as a white man and how that passing, by which Broyard aimed to liberate himself from the shackles of identity, ultimately hindered his writing. Gates, on the other hand, suffers no such block. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Gates, chair of Harvard's Department of Afro-American Studies and coauthor with Cornel West of Future of the Race (LJ 3/15/96), has written an engaging discourse on the state of black males in American society. His introduction delineates 13 themes that are covered in the author's conversations with leading African American figures. Among the people highlighted are Harry Belafonte, Louis Farrakhan, James Baldwin, and Bill T. Jones; at the same time, Gates draws on discussions with many other noteworthy persons. He engages debate on whites and the issue of "black wariness" and the "burden of representation." How each person handles the issues is a revealing tale of black and white relations in contemporary society. Written from a black man's point of view, the book lays bare the perplexities of race and gender in America as it nears the millennium. A riveting commentary on race in America; recommended for all libraries. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 10/1/96.]-Michael A. Lutes, Univ. of Notre Dame Libs., South Bend, Ind.
School Library Journal
YAA collection of essays that bases its title on Wallace Stevens's poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." Through the selections, many of which have appeared in The New Yorker and other popular publications, Gates explores the subject of being a black man in America. He concentrates on the multiple issues that individuals face that make them unique and not representative of any one race or gender. The author goes beyond cut-and-dried biographical sketches and steps boldly into the mind set and spirit of each of his subjects, offering keen observations and drawing parallels along the way. His professional tone is lightened with personal anecdotes. (Before visiting Colin Powell, Gates had his shoes shined, which the General noticed immediately.) He speaks of his acute nervousness upon meeting Louis Farrakhan, a man whom he has often written about unfavorably. Scanning the index, readers will find names such as Amiri Baraka, Wynton Marsalis, Albert Murray, and Jessye Norman. These and many others give insight into the issues that Gates undertakes. In the title chapter, he tackles the "racial paranoia" of the Simpson verdict and the Million Man March. Calling attention to the existence of rumor and unofficial knowledge as one of the mainstays of African-American culture, the author acknowledges the vast array of opinions as to what constitutes reality for a black man in today's world.Connie Freeman, Allen County Public Library, Fort Wayne, IN
Kirkus Reviews
One of America's leading African-American intellectuals conducts conversations on blackness with famous black men.

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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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780679776666
  • Publisher: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/28/1998
  • Edition description: REPRINT
  • Pages: 256
  • Sales rank: 974,373
  • Product dimensions: 5.12 (w) x 7.96 (h) x 0.53 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Introduction: Ways of Looking
The Welcome Table 3
King of Cats 21
The Body Politic 47
The Powell Perplex 72
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man 103
The Charmer 123
Belafonte's Balancing Act 155
The Passing of Anatole Broyard 180
Acknowledgments 215
Index 219
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