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for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes


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One can be a six-figure Negro and still be black, Skip reassures us. “Far too

many young black kids say that succeeding is "white."  Personally, I do

not know any black kids who say this. Far too many talk endlessly

about the “bling-bling.” But many of us, I believe, do not want to be

a six-figure Negro at any cost.  


Books by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.


Colored People Our Nig / The African American Century The Bondwoman's Narrative  / Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man


The Trials of Phillis Wheatley "Race," Writing, and Difference  / Wonders of the African World


In Search of Identity  /  Speaking of Race, Speaking of Sex  /  The Signifying Monkey


Cosmopolitanism / Identity and Violence / The Norton Anthology of African American Literature


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Skip Gates and the Talented Fifth

The Doublespeak of Academic Equivocation

Editorial by Rudolph Lewis


In his new book and PBS program America Beyond the Color Line, neo-Babylonian Henry Louis Gatescalled “Skip” because of his gait and “Signifying Monkey” due to his literary scholarshiphas stepped forward as the standard bearer for what he calls the “Talented Fifth,” which refers seemingly to those with yearly incomes of six figures or more. His core argument can be found in his 1998 essay, “Are We Better Off?

There is a smug self-righteousness in Skip’s perspective of African America as “two nations.” It contains a “crude form of social Darwinism,” suggesting that he and his class enjoy “success” because they had the right stuff, “behavior” as well as talent and performed well and rightly and that the comforts that he and his class enjoy were rightly earned and obtained. That indeed may be true if all things were and had been equal in America.

The “Bottom Fifth,” of which Skip speaks derisively, are where they are not merely because of “structural” racism. They languish in poverty because they have not had the right “behavior.” These black poor are where they are because of “black-on-black homicide, gang members violating the sanctity of the church, unprotected sexual activity, gangster rap lyrics, misogyny and homophobia.”

If this “Bottom Fifth” were to check this anti-social or low-class behavior, then he and his class would have more political weight to confront the “Congress and the President [to] enact a comprehensive jobs bill and the equivalent of a Marshall Plan for the cities, as the Urban League advocates each year.” For Skip and his high-class Negroes, “joblessness, as [sociologist William Julius] Wilson maintains, is our biggest crisis.”

Although Skip counsels us against repeating “the same old stale formulas,” he has no problem in putting forth one that even the white TV personality Charlie Rose realizes that in America’s present social and political climate “a comprehensive jobs bill” has a snowball’s chance in hell of passing muster in Congress. But what Skip really wants of us in African America is a change in our attitude: he doesn’t want us “to blame ‘the man’ for oppressing us,” for “the man” has allowed him and his “Talented Fifth” to make six-figure incomes and become American success stories.

So you see “the man” and his system are not all bad. So we need to cut "the man" some slack and check ourselves. The beam is in our own eyes.

So far we have only talked about 40% of African America: the upper 20% and the bottom 20%. There is no reason to think that either one is representative of African America or the average Negro: those who have bought into America’s evils; and those who are “guilty” of their own evils. What about the other 60% of discontented black Americans?

Before we get at this discontent, let us check further Skip’s essay “Are We Better Off?” Clearly, he defends the prerogatives of this successful class of enterprising Negroes. He wants them to enjoy their privileges without “guilt” or “angst” or “deeply-felt anxieties.” Skip sees no need for him and other members of his class to display a “symbolic black cultural nationalism” to show “we're still down with the program.” Thus, “we have to stop feeling guilty about our success.”

Second, Skip raises the issue of “blackness,” in the sense of awareness and consciousness. One can be a six-figure Negro and still be black, Skip reassures us. “Far too many young black kids say that succeeding is "white."  Personally, I do not know any black kids who say this. Far too many talk endlessly about the “bling-bling.” But many of us, I believe, do not want to be a six-figure Negro at any cost. Few of us want to be a Skip Gates or a Colin Powell, especially when it means going against principle and ethical righteousness.

Martin Luther King, Jr. could have become a “success” if so desired. He however chose a more noble and different path. He was "called" to preach the "kingdom of heaven" rather than a "gospel of success." He could have pocketed his Nobel Prize money and few would have complained in that he had a wife and children. But he turned that money over to SCLC and the Movement. So for King, commitment, service, and sacrifice were the hallmarks of his character and "blackness." He was a man called to give all so as to make a better world for all.

Though Skip reminds us of Dr. King’s dream, he forgets King’s sacrifices as a man, a father. But King is not the kind of leader Skip truly idolizes in his spiel. He has problems with us speaking “with one single voice, united behind one single leader.” For Skip, unlike King, desires a black replica of the present America: “As each black person knows, we have never been members of one social or economic class, and never will be.” But that condition was never one of choice.

But as Skip told Charlie Rose, the “curve of class for blacks should be the same as for whites.” And as he wrote in “Are We Better Off?”: “The best we can strive for is that the class differentials within the black community cease their lopsided ratios because of the pernicious nature of racial inequality. . . . Even if racism disappears, we will still face class differentials in the black community; we have had these since slavery.” Such "class differentials" have never been so crassly and publicly defended by any Negro as now by Skip Gates.

For Skip, “A household comprised of a 16-year-old mother, a 32-year-old grandmother and a 48-year-old great grandmother cannot possibly be a site for hope and optimism.” Indeed, such a scenario does not fit into the high-class Negro’s scheme of respectability. But such a black family is not too much out of the norm for much of black life in America.

Such families marched, were whipped, went to jail, and died for such persons like Skip to be a professor at Harvard and for a Colin Powell to be Secretary of State. For such men to look down their noses at black folk life now is the utmost betrayal. To be poor in America is not a sin. For most of the black poor work and they work hard and they do not receive their just rewards.

According to Beth Shulman, “Fully 30 million Americansone in four U.S. workersearn $8.70 an hour or less, a rate that works out to $18,100 a year, which is the current official poverty level in the United States for a family of four. These low-wage jobs usually lack health care, child care, pensions and vacation benefits. Their working conditions are often grueling, dangerous, even humiliating” (Alameda Times-Star, 8/ 24/03).

These men and women (many of them black) are “nursing home and home health care workers who care for our parents; they are poultry processors who bone and package our chicken; they are retail clerks in department stores, grocery stores, and convenience stores; they are housekeepers and janitors who keep our hotel rooms and offices clean; they are billing and telephone call center workers who take our complaints and answer our questions; and they are teaching assistants in our schools and child care workers who free us so that we can work ourselves” (Alameda Times-Star, 8/ 24/03).

One of the last significant statements made by Dr. King reaches far beyond what can be found in Skip Gates' neoconservative America Behind the Color Line: "We have moved into an era where we are called upon to raise certain basic questions about the whole society. We are still called upon to give aid to the beggar who finds himself in misery and agony on life's highway. But one day, we must ask the question of whether an edifice which produces beggars must not be restructured and refurbished."

But on such issues as these, ones of social justice, Harvard’s Signifying Monkey is silent. He finds smugness preferable to indignation, blaming the victim more comforting than struggling for righteousness.

posted 2004

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Henry Louis “Skip” Gates, Jr., Ph.D. (born September 16, 1950) is an American literary critic, educator, scholar, writer, editor and public intellectual. He was the first African American to receive the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Fellowship. He has received numerous honorary degrees and awards for his teaching, research, and development of academic institutions to study black culture. In 2002, Gates was selected to give the Jefferson Lecture, in recognition of his "distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." The lecture resulted in his 2003 book, The Trials of Phillis Wheatley.

As the host of the 2006 and 2008 PBS television miniseries African American Lives, Gates explored the genealogy of prominent African Americans. Gates sits on the boards of many notable arts, cultural, and research institutions. He serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor at Harvard University, where he is Director of the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research. Michael Kinsley referred to him as "the nation's most famous black scholar."[1] However he is criticized as non-representative of Black people by prominent African-American scholars such as Molefi Asante, John Henrik Clarke, and Maulana Karenga. . . .

On July 16, 2009, Gates returned home from a trip to China to find the door to his house jammed. His driver attempted to help him gain entrance. A passer-by called police reporting a possible break-in and a Cambridge police officer was dispatched. The resulting confrontation resulted in Gates being arrested and charged with disorderly conduct. Prosecutors later dropped the charges.The incident spurred a politically charged exchange of views about race relations and law enforcement throughout the United States. The arrest garnered national attention after the President declared that the police "acted stupidly" in arresting Gates. The President eventually extended an invitation to both Gates and the officer involved to share a beer with him at the White House.[24]

On March 9, 2010, Gates claimed on the Oprah Winfrey Show that he and Sgt. James Crowley, the arresting officer in the Cambridge incident, share a common ancestor.Wikipedia

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Henry Louis Gates, Jr. on DVD

DVD Description of  America beyond the Color Line

Henry Louis Gates Jr. travels the length and breadth of the United States to take the temperature of black America at the start of the new century. Gates visits the East Coast, the deep South, inner-city Chicago and Hollywood to explore the rich and diverse landscape, social as well as geographic.

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DVD Description of African American Lives

Renowned scholar Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., W.E.B. DuBois professor of the Humanities and chair of African and African-American Studies at Harvard University, takes Alex Haley’s Roots saga to a whole new level. Using genealogy and DNA science, Dr. Gates tells the personal stories of eight accomplished African Americans, tracing their roots through American history and back to Africa. Participants include Dr. Ben Carson, Whoopi Goldberg, Bishop T.D. Jakes, Dr. Mae Jemison, Quincy Jones, Dr. Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Chris Tucker and Oprah Winfrey.

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DVD Description of  Wonders of the African World

Africa is a continent of magnificent treasures and cultures—from the breathtaking stone architecture of 1,000-year-old ruins in South Africa to an advanced 16th century international university in Timbuktu. However, for centuries, many of these African wonders have been hidden from the world, lost to the ravages of time, nature and repressive governments. Uncover the richness of these African Wonders with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. as he explores the many cultures, traditions and history of the African continent.

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In Search of Our Roots:

How 19 Extraordinary African Americans Reclaimed Their Past”

 By Henry Louis Gates J

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Remarks by the President and the First Lady at Presentation of the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities medal.—November 5, 1998—THE PRESIDENT: Near the beginning of this century, W. E. B. Du Bois predicted a "black tomorrow" of African American achievement. Thanks in large measure to Henry Louis Gates, that tomorrow has turned into today. For 20 years he has revitalized African American studies. In his writing and teaching, through his leadership of the Dream Team of African American scholars he brought together at Harvard, Gates has shed brilliant light on authors and traditions kept in the shadows for too long. From "signifying monkeys" to small-town West Virginia, from ancient Africa to the new New York, Skip Gates has described the American experience with force, with dignity and, most of all, with color. Ladies and gentlemen, Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Applause.) The Medal is presented.)—clinton6

The Signifying Monkey: Towards a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (1989)
Colored People: A Memoir (1994, memoir)

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#18 - Purple Panties: An Anthology by Sidney Molare

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#23 - Thugs And The Women Who Love Them by Wahida Clark

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#25 - I Dreamt I Was in Heaven - The Rampage of the Rufus Buck Gang by Leonce Gaiter


#1 - Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention by Manning Marable
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#7 - The Ebony Cookbook: A Date with a Dish by Freda DeKnight
#8 - The Isis Papers: The Keys to the Colors by Frances Cress Welsing
#9 - The Mis-Education of the Negro by Carter Godwin Woodson

#10 - John Henrik Clarke and the Power of Africana History  by Ahati N. N. Toure

#11 - Fail Up: 20 Lessons on Building Success from Failure by Tavis Smiley

#12 -The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander

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Greenback Planet: How the Dollar Conquered

the World and Threatened Civilization as We Know It

By H. W. Brands

In Greenback Planet, acclaimed historian H. W. Brands charts the dollar's astonishing rise to become the world's principal currency. Telling the story with the verve of a novelist, he recounts key episodes in U.S. monetary history, from the Civil War debate over fiat money (greenbacks) to the recent worldwide financial crisis. Brands explores the dollar's changing relations to gold and silver and to other currencies and cogently explains how America's economic might made the dollar the fundamental standard of value in world finance. He vividly describes the 1869 Black Friday attempt to corner the gold market, banker J. P. Morgan's bailout of the U.S. treasury, the creation of the Federal Reserve, and President Franklin Roosevelt's handling of the bank panic of 1933. Brands shows how lessons learned (and not learned) in the Great Depression have influenced subsequent

U.S. monetary policy, and how the dollar's dominance helped transform economies in countries ranging from Germany and Japan after World War II to Russia and China today. He concludes with a sobering dissection of the 2008 world financial debacle, which exposed the power--and the enormous risks--of the dollar's worldwide reign.  The Economy

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Malcolm X

A Life of Reinvention

By Manning Marable

Years in the making-the definitive biography of the legendary black activist.

Of the great figure in twentieth-century American history perhaps none is more complex and controversial than Malcolm X. Constantly rewriting his own story, he became a criminal, a minister, a leader, and an icon, all before being felled by assassins' bullets at age thirty-nine. Through his tireless work and countless speeches he empowered hundreds of thousands of black Americans to create better lives and stronger communities while establishing the template for the self-actualized, independent African American man. In death he became a broad symbol of both resistance and reconciliation for millions around the world.

Manning Marable's new biography of Malcolm is a stunning achievement. Filled with new information and shocking revelations that go beyond the Autobiography, Malcolm X unfolds a sweeping story of race and class in America, from the rise of Marcus Garvey and the Ku Klux Klan to the struggles of the civil rights movement in the fifties and sixties.

Reaching into Malcolm's troubled youth, it traces a path from his parents' activism through his own engagement with the Nation of Islam, charting his astronomical rise in the world of Black Nationalism and culminating in the never-before-told true story of his assassination. Malcolm X will stand as the definitive work on one of the most singular forces for social change, capturing with revelatory clarity a man who constantly strove, in the great American tradition, to remake himself anew.

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The People Debate the Constitution, 1787-1788

By Pauline Maier

A notable historian of the early republic, Maier devoted a decade to studying the immense documentation of the ratification of the Constitution. Scholars might approach her book’s footnotes first, but history fans who delve into her narrative will meet delegates to the state conventions whom most history books, absorbed with the Founders, have relegated to obscurity. Yet, prominent in their local counties and towns, they influenced a convention’s decision to accept or reject the Constitution. Their biographies and democratic credentials emerge in Maier’s accounts of their elections to a convention, the political attitudes they carried to the conclave, and their declamations from the floor. The latter expressed opponents’ objections to provisions of the Constitution, some of which seem anachronistic (election regulation raised hackles) and some of which are thoroughly contemporary (the power to tax individuals directly).

Ripostes from proponents, the Federalists, animate the great detail Maier provides, as does her recounting how one state convention’s verdict affected another’s. Displaying the grudging grassroots blessing the Constitution originally received, Maier eruditely yet accessibly revives a neglected but critical passage in American history.Booklist

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Lincoln on Race and Slavery

Edited By Henry Louis Gates and Donald Yacovone

Generations of Americans have debated the meaning of Abraham Lincoln's views on race and slavery. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation and supported a constitutional amendment to outlaw slavery, yet he also harbored grave doubts about the intellectual capacity of African Americans, publicly used the n-word until at least 1862, and favored permanent racial segregation. In this book—the first complete collection of Lincoln's important writings on both race and slaveryreaders can explore these contradictions through Lincoln's own words. Acclaimed Harvard scholar and documentary filmmaker Henry Louis Gates, Jr., presents the full range of Lincoln's views, gathered from his private letters, speeches, official documents, and even race jokes, arranged chronologically from the late 1830s to the 1860s.

Complete with definitive texts, rich historical notes, and an original introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., this book charts the progress of a war within Lincoln himself. We witness his struggles with conflicting aims and ideas—a hatred of slavery and a belief in the political equality of all men, but also anti-black prejudices and a determination to preserve the Union even at the cost of preserving slavery. We also watch the evolution of his racial views, especially in reaction to the heroic fighting of black Union troops.

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Better Day Coming: Blacks and Equality, 1890-2000

By Adam Fairclough

Better Day Coming is intended, in author Adam Fairclough's words, as "neither a textbook nor a survey, but an interpretation" (p. xiv) of the circuitous struggle for racial equality pursued by African Americans and their occasional allies between 1890 and 2000. Chronologically organized, the narrative moves from an evaluation of the hard-pressed, contending forces vying for ascendancy in the black South at the nadir to the interwar period and well beyond, into the urban cauldron of the northern ghettoes at the high point of the Black Power movement. Fairclough brings to his project a fluent understanding of the shifting institutional configurations of opposition to Jim Crow and a keen sensitivity to the ways in which the efforts of those who fought it were hampered, circumscribed, and occasionally crushed by the pressures of operating in a society formally committed—for most of the period under discussion—to aggressive defense of the racial status quo.

Fairclough's "basic argument" seems at first glance uncontroversial: that "although blacks differed . . . about the most appropriate tactics in the struggle for equality, they were united in rejecting allegations of racial inferiority and in aspiring to a society where men and women would be judged on merit rather than by race or color" (p. xii). But his ultimate aim is more ambitious: he sets out to rehabilitate the accommodationist tradition represented by Booker T. Washington which, though "apparently unheroic," in the author's view "laid the groundwork for the militant confrontation of the Civil Rights Movement" (p. xiii).—h-net

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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The Journal of Negro History issues at Project Gutenberg

The Haitian Declaration of Independence 1804  / January 1, 1804 -- The Founding of Haiti 

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update 29 February 2012




Home  The Du Bois-Malcolm-King  

Related files:  Noise of Class Ideology  Responses to Skip Gates'    Master of the Intellectual Dodge   Gates the Birth Encarta Africana  The Fire Last Time  

Cleaver and Gates  Lincoln on Race and Slavery   Skip Gates and the Talented Fifth  Fourteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man