The Black Box: Writing the Race

The Black Box: Writing the Race

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
The Black Box: Writing the Race

The Black Box: Writing the Race

by Henry Louis Gates Jr.


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Notes From Your Bookseller

How do you build an identity? How do you build a community? Start with story. This is a masterclass in African American literature — and how it built a world — from the acclaimed author and professor.

“Henry Louis Gates is a national treasure. Here, he returns with an intellectual and at times deeply personal meditation on the hard-fought evolution and the very meaning of African American identity, calling upon our country to transcend its manufactured divisions.”
— Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste

“This is a literary history of Black America, but it is also an argument that African American history is inextricable from the history of African American literature.”
The New York Times

A magnificent, foundational reckoning with how Black Americans have used the written word to define and redefine themselves, in resistance to the lies of racism and often in heated disagreement with each other, over the course of the country’s history.

Distilled over many years from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s legendary Harvard introductory course in African American Studies, The Black Box: Writing the Race, is the story of Black self-definition in America through the prism of the writers who have led the way. From Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, to Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison—these writers used words to create a livable world—a "home" —for Black people destined to live out their lives in a bitterly racist society.

It is a book grounded in the beautiful irony that a community formed legally and conceptually by its oppressors to justify brutal sub-human bondage, transformed itself through the word into a community whose foundational definition was based on overcoming one of history’s most pernicious lies. This collective act of resistance and transcendence is at the heart of its self-definition as a "community." Out of that contested ground has flowered a resilient, creative, powerful, diverse culture formed by people who have often disagreed markedly about what it means to be "Black," and about how best to shape a usable past out of the materials at hand to call into being a more just and equitable future. 

This is the epic story of how, through essays and speeches, novels, plays, and poems, a long line of creative thinkers has unveiled the contours of—and resisted confinement in—the "black box" inside which this "nation within a nation" has been assigned, willy nilly, from the nation’s founding through to today. This is a book that records the compelling saga of the creation of a people.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780593299784
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 03/19/2024
Pages: 304
Sales rank: 25,463
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.40(h) x 1.20(d)

About the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored more than twenty books, including Stony the Road, The Black Church, and The Black Box, and created more than twenty documentary films, including his groundbreaking genealogy series Finding Your Roots. His six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, earned an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and an NAACP Image Award. This series and his PBS documentary series Reconstruction: America after the Civil War were both honored with the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

Read an Excerpt


All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was. I accepted their answers too, though they were often in contradiction and even self-contradictory. I was naïve. I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer.

It took me a long time and much pain- ful boomeranging of my expectations to achieve a realization everyone else appears to have been born with: That I am nobody but myself.

Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man

My granddaughter, Ellie, was born by C‑section on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2014, after her mother, my older daughter, Maggie, stoically suffered through induced labor for about twenty‑four hours. That evening, my son‑in‑law, Aaron Hatley, came over for a warm hug and a celebratory shot of bourbon from my oldest bottle of Pappy Van Winkle’s Family Reserve. I listened to Aaron’s play‑by‑play of the previous day’s events, and after a decent pause, I asked the question that I had wanted to ask all along:

“Did you check the box?” I asked, apropos of nothing we had just discussed.

Without missing a beat, my good son‑in‑law responded, “Yes, sir. I did.”

“Very good,” I responded, as I poured a second shot of Pappy Van Winkle.

Aaron, a young white man, had checked the “Black” box on the form that Americans are required to complete at the time of the birth of a child. Now, my daughter’s father’s admixture—in other words, mine—is 50 percent sub‑Saharan African and 50 percent European, according to the tests offered by commercial DNA companies that I have taken over the last decade and a half. My son‑in‑law is 100 percent European. Because my daughter is 75 percent European, her daughter, Ellie, will test about 87.5 percent European when she spits in the test tube. “Legally,” at least once upon a time—and if not “legally” any longer, then by convention, practice, and/or volition— Eleanor Margaret Gates‑Hatley, who looks like an adorable little white girl, will live her life as a “Black” person, because her father and mother checked the “Black” box. (I imagine that our conservative Supreme Court, which has already weighed in on the use of such boxes in higher education admissions, will continue to have its eye on them.) And because of that arbitrary practice, a brilliant, beautiful little white‑presenting female will be destined, throughout her life, to face the challenge of “proving” that she is “Black,” simply because her self‑styled “race man” grandfather ardently—and perhaps foolishly—wished for her racial self to be socially constructed that way.

Such is the absurdity of the history of race and racial designations in the United States of America, stemming from “the law of hypodescent,” the proverbial “one‑drop rule.” Perhaps Eleanor will choose to dance the dance of racial indeterminacy, moving effortlessly back and forth across the color line. Or maybe she will claim a social identity that reflects the percentage of her ancestors over the last five hundred years who were of European descent. Or maybe she will keep a photograph of her grandfather in her pocketbook, and delight in refuting—or affirming, as the case may be—the sheer, laughable, tragic arbitrariness of the social construction of race in America. The most important thing is that this be her choice.

By now, most of us are all too familiar with requests to check this kind of box. We also know all too well what the search for the “black box”— the flight recorder—sadly signifies in the event of a crash. That device preserves a record of the truth amid disastrous circumstances: it is what survives. For me, the black box is also a powerful metaphor for the circumscribed universe of being within which people of African descent were forced to attempt to construct a new identity after emerging on this side of the Atlantic after the horrors of the Middle Passage,transported here on an inhumanely cramped slaveship—another circumscribed enclosure, another black box of sorts—to provide the labor to create an economic order that would fundamentally reshape the economies of Europe and the emerging United States. But it also is a resonant metaphor for the social and cultural world that they created within this circumscribed space—the people the abolitionist Martin R. Delany named “a nation within a nation,” and whom the great scholar W. E. B. Du Boiscalled “a small nation of people.”1

For me, this figurative black box is a concept that is quite useful for understanding the history of African Americans in this country, similar in resonance to the haunting metaphor “the Veil” coined by Du Bois in his classic 1903 work The Souls of Black Folk. The black box has a long and curious history both inside and outside of Black letters. And like all metaphors, its significations have multiplied through its long life.

It was the Yale legal scholar Stephen L. Carter who defined it in the manner most closely related to that box that my son‑in‑law checked, which will define so very many of Ellie’s choices, from small, seemingly insignificant things to the manner in which her application to college is treated to how her physician will think of her risks for certain medical conditions. Carter defined his own box in this way: To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box. So, I live in a box, not of my own making, and on the box is a label, not of my own choosing. Most of those who have not met me,and many of those who have, see the box and read the label and imagine they have seen me. The box is formed by the assumptions others make when they learn that I am black, and a label is available for every occasion.2

Table of Contents

PREFACE. The Black Box xiii
THREE. WHO’S YOUR DADDY?: Frederick Douglass and the Politics of Self-Representation 79
FOUR. WHO’S YOUR MAMA?: The Politics of Disrespectability 101
FIVE. THE “TRUE ART OF A RACE’S PAST”: Art, Propaganda, and the New Negro 130
SIX. MODERNISM AND ITS DISCONTENTS: Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright Play the Dozens 163
SEVEN. SELLOUTS VS. RACE MEN: On the Concept of Passing 185
CONCLUSION. Policing the Color Line 213
Acknowledgments 229
Notes 233
Index 253
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