Authenticity   /   Fall 2021   /    Thematic Essays—Authenticity

The Fake Book of Negroes

Individualism, originality, and the collective identity.

Gerald Early

Moving On Up (detail), 1999, by Francks Deceus (b.1966); private collection/© Francks Deceus/Bridgeman Images.

It is really quite impossible to be affirmative about anything
which one refuses to question.

—James Baldwin, “A Question of Identity”11xJames Baldwin, “A Question of Identity” in Notes of a Native Son (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 1984), 131.

To begin at the true beginning of this essay, I should explain that its title is a play on the titles of two books. One is Langston Hughes’s famous 1952 children’s book, The First Book of Negroes, which told, in a fittingly scattered way, the story of blacks across the Diaspora, in a way intended to make them unified and distinct, tribal but transtribal, the same and not the same. The other is a musical fake book, a sort of cheat sheet that provides musicians with the chords for a tune, making it easier for those who don’t know the piece to improvise. Professional jazz musicians, in particular, would not want their audiences to see them carrying a fake book to a performance, virtuosic improvisation being the mark of genius and authenticity among such performers. My reason for conflating these two titles should become obvious as we enter the terrain of the essay proper: the field on which the question of black American authenticity is forever being proposed and contested but (at least to date) has never been fully or satisfactorily resolved.

Such a field necessarily involves myth. And black Americans have long mythologized their experience as one of exile and return, even though few have attempted to return to the ancestral continent—indeed, the one concerted effort to establish a homeland there, in Liberia, having proved to be a largely disappointing colonial venture. Yet perhaps because it sharpens their sense of destiny, black Americans still embrace the exodus story as the defining trope of their collective experience. Central to that narrative, of course, is the charismatic figure of Moses, the Great Prince who scorns the blandishments of his people’s oppressors, strikes down the slave master, and rejects assimilation, choosing instead to assert his authentic identity and lead his people from the land of oppression to the promised land of freedom. Abolitionist Harriet Tubman was called Moses. So was black nationalist and Back-to-Africa champion Marcus Garvey. And so, as we all know, was Martin Luther King Jr. (his lieutenant, Reverend Ralph D. Abernathy, having been called Aaron to reinforce the analogy), though King himself described the civil rights movement as a journey leading not just his own people but an entire nation to the promised land of a more perfect union. But there are other biblical myths for the oppressed. Suppose, instead of thinking of going home as a form of authentication, of rebirth, blacks fully accepted the idea that they have arrived, and where they are is home. They have had their rebirth.

Joseph the Insider

The novelist and essayist Albert Murray is one of relatively few African Americans who have questioned the overuse of the exile-and-return trope, writing that blacks “have been overemphasizing the role of Moses as Messiah and grossly oversimplifying what the Exodus was really about.” Murray argues that the biblical figure more truly reflective of the black American experience is Joseph: “Those who follow Moses are forever talking about going back home; but to Joseph, to whom being at home was as much a matter of the spirit as of real estate, anywhere he is can become the Land of Great Promise. No one can deny to Moses, great emancipator that he was, the position as epic hero of anti-slavery movements. But neither should anyone overlook what Joseph, the riff-style improviser, did to slavery. He transcended it” (emphasis added).22xAlbert Murray, The Hero and the Blues (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1995), 52–53. First published 1973. While Moses stood up to Pharaoh, insisting that his people be let go, Joseph, the favored son of Jacob who had been sold into slavery by his brothers, became Pharaoh’s key adviser and interpreter of his dreams. Marrying an Egyptian woman, Joseph eventually forgave and aided his brothers, who had come to Egypt seeking relief from a famine, and who, thanks to their well-connected sibling, would be allowed to bring their father and other family to settle there. Joseph, the progenitor of Moses, emerges from the biblical account as a wily and calculating figure rather than a defiant one, a figure not of protest or resistance but of adaptation and survival.

For most black Americans, though, Joseph falls far short of Moses. Too much the assimilationist, he is seen as having accommodated himself to his oppressors. Yet this is precisely what Murray believed is so valuable about Joseph—indeed, so laudable, at least so long as one properly understands what “fitting in” means: “Joseph…not only uses his inner resources and the means at hand to take advantage of the most unlikely opportunities to succeed in the circumstances in which he finds himself; he also makes himself indispensable to the welfare of the nation as a whole.”33xIbid., 52.

Are we then to understand Joseph as a collaborator—a betrayer of his authentic identity as a Jew—or as a protean trickster who turns the reality of his oppressors to his own, and his own people’s, purposes? Murray takes the latter view, asserting that Joseph’s authenticity derives from his capacity for self-invention, self-definition. Simply defining oneself as the opposite of one’s oppressor, a common tactic among the oppressed, does not liberate a person from the oppressor’s definitions but more deeply ensnares him in them. Indeed, Murray insists that authenticity is achieved by taking what you choose from your oppressor and making it part of who you are. There are two lessons here: First, Murray, like his good friend Ralph Ellison in Invisible Man (1952), is strongly skeptical of the figure of the charismatic race liberator. Second, he believes blacks have to stop thinking of themselves as damaged goods in need of repair. They are a new people.44x J. Moses argues brilliantly that Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man makes an argument against the need or desire for the charismatic black leader: “Step by step, [the narrator] discards the expectations of society that he become a black Moses, a messiah, or a credit to his race.” Wilson J. Moses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms: Social and Literary Manipulations of a Religious Myth (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1982), 206.

A Spy in the Enemy’s Country

In Ellison’s classic novel Invisible Man, the nameless narrator relates the odd deathbed advice of his grandfather: “‘Son, after I’m gone I want you to keep up the good fight. I never told you, but our life is a war and I have been a traitor all my born days, a spy in the enemy’s country ever since I give up my gun back in the Reconstruction. Live with your head in the lion’s mouth. I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction, let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.’”55xRalph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York, NY: Vintage, 1990), 16. First published 1952. See also Lawrence Jackson, Ralph Ellison: The Emergence of Genius (New York, NY: John Wiley and Sons, 2002), 432. Ellison published a short story called “Invisible Man” in 1947 which became the Battle Royal chapter in the finished novel. The narrator is nonplussed by his grandfather’s final words, and so is the reader. The grandfather speaks of being a traitor, but whom, exactly, did he betray? His fellow African Americans, by kowtowing to the Man, or the Man himself, by deceiving him by kowtowing to him? And how does one deceive the oppressor by acting in precisely the way the oppressor wants you to act? The narrator writes that his family was haunted by the grandfather’s words: “It was as though he had not died at all, his words caused so much anxiety. I was warned emphatically to forget what he had said” (emphasis added). The narrator continues: “Grandfather had been a quiet old man who never made any trouble, yet on his deathbed he had called himself a traitor and a spy, and he had spoken of his meekness as a dangerous activity” (emphasis added). Doubtless, the narrator is right in characterizing the legacy of his grandfather as a “curse.”66xIbid., 17.

The grandfather seems to suggest that his grinning and agreeing were meant to destroy the enemy in what he called “a war.”77xMoses, Black Messiahs and Uncle Toms, 198. Wilson J. Moses plausibly suggests that the grandfather’s remark may not have been intended racially but as a general observation about the human condition. The grandfather does not say he is at war with whites. He calls himself a spy and implies that going along with whites was a cover of some sort, a fake. A spy trades in the inauthenticity of identity, its mutability. But how can one destroy one’s enemy by agreeing with him, supporting him, being obedient? Only resistance can overcome your enemy. Moses is prized over Joseph because his resistance is obvious, self-evident. And forthright, uncompromising resistance is the only modality that has been valorized by certain definers (black and white and predominantly academic) of black authenticity. Resistance, in their eyes, subsumes all aspects of black life: the sole stop on the organ, and simultaneously all the stops.

But what if we truly do not know what resistance is? What if what we think of as resistance does not matter nearly as much as we think it does in the struggle against those who would oppress, exploit, or otherwise seek to dominate us? How do we know when resistance is fake? In relating the grandfather’s story, is Ellison deconstructing the romance of resistance, the essence of resistance, the recognizability of resistance, the burden of resistance? And what might that story have to do with being an Uncle Tom?

Uncle Tom as Origin Story

Among blacks, the most (in)famous African American in history is not a real person but a fictional character in a nineteenth-century novel that few today have read. Indeed, the only name black folks invoke more often than Uncle Tom’s is that of Jesus Christ. Calling someone an “Uncle Tom” has been an insult in black circles since not long after Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous antislavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, appeared in 1852. Among the most vehement early critics of Stowe’s novel was black nationalist and emigrationist Martin R. Delany. Relying only on what his wife had told him about the book, Delaney censured a favorable review of the novel by his former newspaper colleague, the abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass. Delaney, whose illustrious career included ascendance to the highest rank achieved by any black man in the Union Army, thus launched a tradition of prominent black figures condemning the novel without ever bothering to read it. (By telling contrast, in his autobiography, Malcolm X makes a point of saying that he actually read the novel during his self-education campaign in prison.88xRobert S. Levine, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Frederick Douglass’ Paper: An Analysis of Reception,” American Literature 64, no. 1 (March 1992): 81. Of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Malcolm X said, “In fact, I believe that’s the only novel I have ever read since I started serious reading,” Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley (New York, NY: Ballantine, 1992), 203. First published 1965.)

Even Douglass, in an 1865 speech before the annual meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society, tempered his approval of the novel, taking a more measured view of the character of Uncle Tom, or at least of the archetype he was fast becoming: “A great many delusions have been swept away by [the Civil War]. One was, that the Negro would not work; he has proved his ability to work. Another was, that the Negro would not fight; that he possessed only the most sheepish attributes of humanity; was a perfect lamb, or an ‘Uncle Tom;’ disposed to take off his coat whenever required, fold his hands, and be whipped by anybody who wanted to whip him. But the war has proved that there is a great deal of human nature in the Negro, and that ‘he will fight,’ as Mr. Quincy, our President, said, in earlier days than these, ‘when there is reasonable probability of his whipping anybody.’”99xFrederick Douglass, “Speech to the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston,” in What the Black Man Wants (Boston, MA: Rand & Avery, 1865). Retrieved from Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, Stephen Railton and the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/africam/afspfdat.html.

“Uncle Tom” remains a term of severe opprobrium, worse, within black circles, than being called a nigger by another black person. “Nigger” itself has a long, nuanced history of use among blacks, figuring prominently in much humor, rap music, and performance poetry (from the Last Poets to N.W.A.1010xN.W.A. is an abbreviation for Niggaz Wit Attitudes, a gangsta rap group. to Jay-Z), as well as in black literature, prominently, even defiantly, displayed in titles during the Black Power/Black Is Beautiful era of the 1960s and ’70s: Cecil Brown’s novel The Lives and Loves of Mr. Jiveass Nigger (1969), Dick Gregory’s autobiography Nigger (1964), H. Rap Brown’s autobiography Die Nigger Die! (1969), Gil Scott-Heron’s novel The Nigger Factory (1972), and Robert H. deCoy’s nonfiction work The Nigger Bible (1967).1111xWhen liberal white author Carl Van Vechten published his 1926 Harlem novel Nigger Heaven, it sharply divided his friends and supporters among the black intelligentsia, many of whom were alarmed that he would use a racial slur in the title of a book. Clearly, by the 1960s blacks were making a conscious effort to reclaim the word by using it in book titles. Among African Americans, calling someone, or being called, a “nigger” (preferably, in the 1980s onward, said or spelled nigga), signals a sort of ethnic integrity, depending on the context. But “Uncle Tom” is always an insult, signifying inauthenticity—or worse, race treason.

The mystery, though, is why a fictional character who was a devout Christian, a devoted family man, a hard worker of high moral standing and gentle demeanor,1212xUncle Tom as the idealized good black father—he is even called “Father Tom” in Stowe’s novel—makes him, for black conservatives, a perfect archetype. Black conservatives believe that the big problem besetting the modern black family is the absence of the father and the failure of black men to live up to their familial responsibility. For more on this connection between Tom and black fatherhood, see Candace Owens, Blackout: How Black America Can Make Its Second Escape from the Democrat Plantation (New York, NY: Threshold Editions, 2020), 46–48. a man who dies at the hands of Simon Legree’s black myrmidons because he refuses to disclose the whereabouts of Legree’s fleeing black concubine and her daughter—why such a figure, who was meant to be such a tribute to the humanity, courage, and innate goodness of the race, would have become so bitterly despised. As Douglass’s remarks in his 1865 speech make clear, Tom’s pacifism is part of the problem. But it is more than that. Martin Luther King Jr. was a pacifist, a believer in nonviolent resistance as the proper moral response to evil and oppression (a response modeled exactly by what Tom did at his death, resisting nonviolently, but resisting nonetheless), yet King is regarded as a saint, a hero, a martyr, whose words are unassailable. So what is the difference? Surely it must be Tom’s forgiveness of his white oppressors that makes him so unacceptable and abhorrent—that, and his lack of rancor and bitterness about his condition as a slave. The full answer, clearly, is that he does not stand up against the system that made him a slave in the way King stood up against the one that created and enforced Jim Crow. Tom endures his lot as God’s will, his burden as a Christian. He forgives whites, and by failing or refusing to see his situation politically, he absolves white people of responsibility for the evils of slavery. To use an old-fashioned word, Tom is the most dangerous kind of phony: a phony who thinks he is genuine because he truly believes what he says he believes.

Black conservative writer Shelby Steele, in the beginning of his 2015 book Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country, tells how opening remarks he made at an Aspen Institute conference so upset a white audience member that he asked permission to speak at the start of the next day’s session in response. Steele had misgivings but did not object. The white auditor upbraided Steele for letting whites off the hook by failing to condemn their racism.1313xShelby Steele, Shame: How America’s Past Sins Have Polarized Our Country (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2015), 1–9. And what exactly had Steele said? “I wanted,” Steele writes, “to celebrate this liberalism [of individual freedom] and argue that a free society—not necessarily free of all bigotry, but certainly free of all illegal discrimination—was what America owed minorities. After that we minorities should simply be left alone. We should not be smothered, as we have been, by the new paternalistic liberalism that has imposed itself through a series of ineffective and even destructive government programs and policies.”1414xIbid., 3-4. Scandalously, Steele was suggesting that white guilt is just another form of white self-regard, a form of narcissism.

Interestingly, Douglass, in the speech I quoted earlier, said something similar: “The American people have always been anxious to know what they shall do with us. Gen. Banks was distressed with solicitude as to what he should do with the Negro. Everybody has asked the question, and they learned to ask it early of the abolitionists, ‘What shall we do with the Negro?’ I have had but one answer from the beginning. Do nothing with us! Your doing with us has already played the mischief with us. Do nothing with us!”1515xDouglass, “Speech to the Annual Meeting of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society in Boston.” Major General Nathaniel Banks commanded the first black troops to take part in a battle in the Civil War, https://www.battlefields.org/learn/biographies/nathaniel-banks.

Perhaps it was because he expressed sentiments such as these that a statue of Douglass was torn down in Rochester, New York, in the summer of 2020. The most dogmatic voices in progressive politics have long complained about Douglass’s conservatism, beginning in the later years of the abolitionist’s life, when many black contemporaries expressed disapproval of Douglass’s second marriage, to a white woman.1616xFor an account of the unpopularity of Douglass’s marriage to Helen Pitt, even among Douglass’s children, see Randall Kennedy, Interracial Intimacies: Sex, Marriage, Identity, and Adoption (New York, NY: Pantheon Books, 2003), 73–75. Among Douglass’s biographers, there is considerable controversy about his account of visiting his former master, Thomas Auld, when both were in their old age and Auld was near death; some scholars have chastised Douglass for what they feel is akin to apologizing to Auld for how he is depicted in the autobiographies. See Robert S. Levine, The Lives of Frederick Douglass (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2016), chapter 5, “Thomas Auld and the Reunion Narrative,” 240–294. Douglass has also been criticized because he was staunchly opposed to Pan-Africanism and black emigration; see Waldo E. Martin, Jr., The Mind of Frederick Douglass (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 1984), 212–213. Being a historic black hero is no guarantee of eternal approval. One can lose one’s authenticity and be seen as a phony. Historical revisionism is every new generation’s right to formulate a usable past, even if it makes important parts of the past unusable or radioactive for other groups.

Uncle Tom and the Black Individual

Responding to the critics of his rebuttal to President Joe Biden’s April 28, 2021, speech to Congress, Senator Tim Scott, Republican of South Carolina, pointed out that he is often the target of vicious racial attacks involving epithets like “house nigger” or (in a more personal variant of Uncle Tom) “Uncle Tim.” In the rebuttal itself, Scott noted that “I get called ‘Uncle Tom’ and the N-word by ‘progressives’! By liberals!”1717x“Full text of Sen. Tim Scott’s Response to Biden Address,” WHAS-TV (Louisville, KY), April 28, 2021, https://www.whas11.com/article/news/nation-world/tim-scott-response-biden-address/507-47e571de-fc45-411c-a5fd-baa95482c2d9. He and other black conservatives justly complain that white liberals are given a pass to use racially charged attacks against black conservatives, attacks that would be unthinkable if made against liberal or leftist blacks. And progressive blacks themselves have long felt free to hurl racialized insults at black conservatives.1818xBlack author and radio show host Larry Elder, a kind of éminence grise in black conservative circles and cited by Candace Owens as one of her teachers, titled his 2020 documentary film about black conservatism, Uncle Tom: An Oral History of the American Black Conservative. A frequent target of such slurs, Supreme Court justice Clarence Thomas, was caricatured as a grinning lawn jockey on a 1993 cover of a now defunct black magazine, Emerge.1919xThe image, on the cover of the November 1996 issue of Emerge, appeared alongside the headline “Uncle Thomas, Lawn Jockey for the Far Right.” It was reproduced in The Black Commentator, no. 236, July 5, 2007, https://blackcommentator.com/236/236_cartoon_uncle_thomas_emerge.html.

Name-calling provides the clarity of contempt, makes explicit the stakes of claims to authenticity or accusations of inauthenticity. In response, conservative or moderate blacks have come up with their own names for the black activists, academics, and leaders who hate them: race hustlers, race whores, race charlatans. While lacking the lashlike sting of “Uncle Tom” or “house nigger,” the epithets are cutting and clearly racial. “I think the NAACP are the classic house niggers,” the conservative, free-market economist Thomas Sowell commented in the early 1980s. “Their support comes from white liberals in the press and philanthropy.”2020x“Blacks’ Bootstrap Philosophy Attracts Reaganites, Repels Liberals,” Washington Post, December 6, 1980, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1980/12/06/blacks-bootstrap-philosophy-attracts-reaganites-repels-liberals/1f607c38-5b0d-47a1-8d19-e62d0ec71c47/. Sowell accused liberal and leftist blacks of selling out to an array of foundations, universities, government agencies, corporations, and rich donors and celebrities, a network that he suggested was far more extensive than the ones supporting conservative blacks. In other words, he was saying, those blacks were the inauthentic, phony ones.

Perhaps the savagery of this conflict results from a secret realization: that for blacks there is no escape from the need for white validation. Even to rage militantly, uncompromisingly, against whites is a perverse way of courting them, of drawing their attention, of appealing to their sense of power by insisting they pay for their wrongs. To paraphrase the black businessman and civilian aide to Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson during World War II, Truman Gibson, who was attacked in the black press for acknowledging the poor performance of the segregated, put-upon, and disrespected 92nd Infantry Division in Italy: If racism is evil, how can the fruits of racism be good?2121xTruman K. Gibson, Knocking Down Barriers: My Fight for Black America (Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 2005), 175: “[Blacks] want to say that segregation is wrong and yet that the end product, segregated divisions, is all right.” In the black quarrel over authenticity, each side accuses the other of selling the fruits of racism as good. Interestingly, they both sell blacks as victims: One side says blacks are victims of white oppression, the other, that blacks are victims of the dependency fostered by white welfarism. Each side calls itself heroic, and each vigorously asserts its own victimhood.

It is hardly surprising that a people who long endured persecution and degradation would be burdened by a painful self-consciousness—or, to borrow from W.E.B. Du Bois, an obsession with a quest for a true self-consciousness. To be black and American, or, as Richard Wright more broadly put it, to be “both Western and a man of color,” imposes a special challenge:

First of all, my position is a split one. I’m black. I’m a man of the West. These hard facts are bound to condition, to some degree, my outlook. I see and understand the West; but I also see and understand that non- or anti-Western point of view. How is this possible? This double vision of mine stems from my being a product of Western civilization and from my racial identity, long and deeply conditioned, which is organically born of my being a product of that civilization. Being a Negro living in a white Western Christian society, I’ve never been allowed to blend, in a natural and healthy manner, with the culture and civilization of the West. This contradiction of being both Western and a man of color creates a psychological distance, so to speak, between me and my environment. I’m self-conscious.2222xRichard Wright, “Tradition and Industrialization: The Historic Meaning of the Plight of the Tragic Elite in Asia and Africa,” in White Man, Listen! (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1964), 47. First published 1957.

Given the profound tensions of this psychological struggle, we might expect that a people afflicted by it would be deeply concerned about who is authentically black and who is not, about who truly has the interests of all blacks at heart rather than just their own self-interest.

Nor is it surprising to find such an intense need for ethnic solidarity among black Americans. It can easily be found in the histories of other oppressed groups, including the Irish during their long subjugation by the English (and continuing into the Troubles in Northern Ireland to this day), the Algerians in their struggles against the French colonizers, and the Palestinians in their ongoing conflict with the Israelis. Solidarity demands loyalty and conformity, of course, and it is inclined to discourage, or least be wary of, individualism or any attempt to define oneself apart from (or even in defiance of) the group.

The African American view of individualism is itself conflicted and contradictory. Richard Wright famously raged against the expectation of group loyalty and conformity in his 1945 autobiography, Black Boy. He saw it as one of the results of the tyranny and terror of white racism, as a mode of survival that was, at best, a very poor compromise between the powerful and the powerless. Little wonder that he wrote the famous parenthetical description, in chapter 2 of Black Boy, describing blacks as a people with no identity, only the negation of identity.2323xRichard Wright, Black Boy: A Record of Childhood and Youth (Cleveland, OH: World Publishing, 1947), 33. First published 1945. Nor did he exempt himself from that indictment. So relentless was Wright’s insistence on the value of an uncompromising individualism that Ralph Ellison chided him for undervaluing the struggle for love and caring in black life.2424xRalph Ellison, “Richard Wright’s Blues,” Shadow and Act (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1972), 77–94. First published 1945: “It is not, then, the family and communal violence described by Black Boy that is unusual, but that Wright recognized and made no peace with its essential cruelty” (91, emphasis in the original). Ellison’s essay originally appeared in The Antioch Review, vol. 3, no. 2, 1945.

Yet attacks against individualism have been equally fierce among black people. One of the more destructive ways in which African Americans have enforced racial solidarity and authenticity is by accusing anyone who does anything that seems to threaten or defy the group of wanting to be white. This has trapped blacks in a binary in which they are forced to make blackness the polar opposite of what they associate with whiteness, including individuality itself. Even striving for excellence or distinction in areas like education can bring on that accusation, often accompanied by the further rebuke that no matter what you accomplish, you will always be a “nigger” in the eyes of white people. Malcolm X’s searing words are quoted by blacks even today: “What do you call an educated Negro with a B.A. or an M.A, with a B.S., or a Ph.D.? You call him a nigger, because that is what the white man calls him, a nigger.”2525xMalcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, 181. But what should it matter what the white man calls anyone, unless the white man controls not only identity but reality itself? Or is it that blacks believe that whites have tried to control reality? Ellison observed the salience of Richard Wright’s point that “there is in progress between black and white Americans a struggle over the nature of reality.”2626xRalph Ellison, “Twentieth-Century Fiction and the Black Mask of Humanity,” Shadow and Act, 26. The controversy over critical race theory is only the latest skirmish in that battle.

Yet it is clear that black people want to be recognized as individuals, want to be distinguished, one from another, not only among themselves but also in the eyes of whites. In so many forms and areas of black expression—music, cuisine, art, dance, athletics, and humor—individualism and originality are not just highly prized but seen as essential to a person’s authenticity and seriousness. Blacks abhor what often results from being seen only as a part of a collective. They are rightly infuriated when salesclerks trail them in stores simply because blacks have been stigmatized as shoplifters. They hate being racially profiled.

Blacks’ conflicted feelings about all-but-compulsory membership in a racial collective come in large part from the imposed burden of having to transform the stigma of blackness into a positive political and cultural force and identity. Yet that collective identity can be so demanding and oppressive that many black individuals seek relief from it—either by finding imaginative and creative ways of doing so, or by resenting and denouncing those who assert a distinctive individuality. The conflict between a desire for individual self-authentication, on one hand, and a longing for authentic solidarity, on the other, has become an inescapable and often exhausting feature of the black American condition.

Coda

The day after Barack Obama was elected president, a white friend called me, clearly jubilant, asking me how I felt, assuming I was jubilant, too. Many whites made similar calls to their black friends in those days. I told my friend I felt fine and wished Obama well. My friend was puzzled, even a bit disappointed, by my subdued answer. He told me he thought I would be more excited about the election of the first black president. My response went something like this: “As Obama’s mother was white, it seems to me he has as much claim to being white as to being black. He could be the first black president, but he has equal claim to being the forty-fourth white one. Racial morphology does not matter. That is so nineteenth century. The most radical thing he can do is claim to be white. Or is it that he can only be an authentic black man but an inauthentic white one? What kind of racism is that? Are we still operating under the whites’ ‘one-drop’ rule, still living by the whites’ rules of what we are or what we can be? Why should I jump up and down about that?”

My friend thought I was trying to be funny. I wasn’t. I just thought declarations of postracial triumphalism were a bit premature.