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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man

by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Seven different black men are profiled in Henry Louis Gates' collection of New Yorker essays, and, despite their inevitable differences, each raises many of the same questions. How does one deal with the historical legacy of the black power movement? (James Baldwin succumbed to black power; Albert Murray shoved it against the wall.) Harry Belafonte, light-skinned, identified himself more strongly as a black man than his darker-skinned contemporary Sidney Poitier. Anatole Broyard, lighter-skinned than Belafonte, went the opposite route: he passed for white for 40 years and wouldn't own up to his history until it bit him on the ass. Can one achieve cross-over success and maintain legitimacy in the black community? Does one even have to be primarily black? Bill T. Jones thinks of himself as a dancer first. Black is not his be-all and end-all the way that dance is. There is such complexity, irony, inevitable schizophrenia to being both successful and black in 20th century America that one would really have to skimp — or be dishonest — not to come up with something interesting here.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. does not skimp. He goes politely for the throat. He questions Louis Farrakhan on his anti-Semitism and the absurdity of the Yakub myth. He gets Belafonte to admit, "I don't know of any artist at my level who has ever been as much on the line for black liberation as I have and has as few black people in attendance at anything that he does as I do." What about Colin Powell's "whiteness"? Being white is one of the worst accusations you can say to a black man, yet in Gates' hands it simply seems another way of being. Once you own up to it, as Powell does, it loses its authority. "...I ain't that black," Powell admits. "I speak reasonably well, like a white person. I am very comfortable in a white social situation..." There's a yawning abyss beneath the question that Powell and Gates aren't afraid to look into.

There's great history here. Forgotten moments — such as when Billy Erskine appeared on the cover of Life magazine in 1950 embraced by a white woman. Hidden moments — like when Belafonte and Poitier, struggling to find acting work in the late '40s, worked on a comedy team together. Imagine that: The comedy stylings of Belafonte and Poitier.

No profile resonates more than Anatole Broyard's. Because he tried to pass as white, because he wouldn't own up to his history, and because he was mostly an autobiographical writer, he couldn't write the novel he dreamed of writing. By creating a fiction out of his life, he couldn't create fiction in his mind. By wishing to be something other than a "black" writer, he wound up not writing at all.

—October 6, 1998

© 1999 by Erik Lundegaard