America Behind the Color Line: Dialogues with African Americans

Henry Louis Gates, JR., Author Warner Books $25.95 (448p) ISBN 978-0-446-53273-0
As the chair of Harvard University's African and African American studies department, Gates has long been a leading figure in that discipline. But years of public intellectualism seem to have taken their toll on his work. From seminal books such as The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism and Loose Canons: Notes on the Culture Wars, his scholarship has devolved into generic anthologies such as this one, which presents 40 interviews that Gates conducted with noted, and average, African Americans. The book's subjects range from statesmen and artists to police chiefs and WWII veterans. Yet Gates's""dialogues"" explore little beyond the obvious: that African Americans have had a unique, difficult experience in America; that they have succeeded against the odds; that racism persists (albeit in a more subtle fashion) and that today's younger generation of African Americans face a plethora of challenges. The ghost of the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly that of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., looms over much of the text. But when a black Wall Street executive claims that membership in a $70,000 country club is""an extension of the movement,"" it's clear that the legacy and memory of the Civil Rights era can be invoked to legitimize practically any action. Many of the people interviewed for this collection--such as Franklin D. Raines, Samuel L. Jackson, Colin Powell and Elaine Rhodes--are fascinating figures whose brief narratives are compelling and interesting. But too many of these dialogues lack any focus, stray uselessly or allow for generalizations such as Vernon Jordan's assertion that""the one thing we know is that white people like their money."" W.E.B. Dubois once noted that African Americans live behind a cultural veil. In attempting""to provide a window"" through that veil, however, Gates sacrifices depth for breadth and reveals little beyond cliches and sentimental reflections.
Reviewed on: 01/01/2004
Release date: 01/01/2004
Genre: Nonfiction
Ebook - 978-0-446-53391-1
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Paperback - 448 pages - 978-0-446-69390-5
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