The Ebony Tower
Published in National Review, 3/10/97, under the rather infelicitous title "Back-to-Back-Blacks"; 1,450 words
The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, General Editors: Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay, New York: W.W. Norton, 1997, 2,709 pp., $49.95
Although anthologies of black American writing have been published by the score over the last 150 years, this enormous tome is sure to attract much attention, due to the authority of the "Norton Anthology" brand name and the well-deserved celebrity of co-editor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. The multitalented Dr. Gates somehow manages to be a master political operator in the growth industry of multicultural studies, an impressive researcher into the history of black literature, and a graceful writer for general audiences.
Robert Conquest once observed that professors tend to be most conservative about their own area of expertise. Thus, Dr. Gates proclaims that his anthology defines the "canon" of the "best" African American writing, even though these are normally fighting words within cutting-edge English departments. Lesser multiculturalists disparage the very notion of objective merit and recognized masterpieces. They contend that literary canons are assembled to further the interests of the powerful, and that celebrating artistic excellence instead of social relevance "marginalizes" the poor.
To my surprise, this book heightened my respect for these philistine cliches of the academic left. In truth, canons are created by and for self-interested elites (but there are many elites besides that all-purpose bogeyman, the White Male Power Structure). The Nile-like length of this book, for example, benefits its 11 editors and other professors of African American literature. By "canonizing" 120 writers (at least a quarter of whom seem seem decent but quite dispensable) they have legitimized a vast supply of subject matter to stoke their specialty's publish-or-perish fires for years to come. In contrast, Gates and Co. were much more cavalier about the needs of those who will try to read their book. To squeeze 2,709 pages into a size that coeds would find "comfortably portable" (or, let's be frank, "tolerably luggable"), they had to specify paper of a thinness (and consequent transparency) seldom seen outside European public lavatories. Because you can see right through to the type on the other side of each page, stay close to a strong reading lamp and a bottle of aspirin.
Dr. Gates defends his old-fashioned philosophy of meritocratic selections as necessary to disprove theories of black intellectual inferiority. (Why this logic should not also rule out other forms of affirmative action remains unexplained.) Of course, no anthology, nor anything else, could prove that any two groups are equal in all ways, since this current dogma of uniform equality is simply not true: humans possess, in varying degrees, so many different skills that any non-random group is bound to be inferior on average to any other group in some manner. Indeed, this anthology reconfirms the inferiority of white Americans in certain mental talents. The most interesting black artists have not tried to demonstrate equality with whites through redundant me-too works. Instead, they have pioneered new forms, from ragtime to rap, that whites would never have dreamed of.
Indeed, the editors endorse several of the oldest stereotypes about What Blacks' Are Good At. For instance, the Introduction concludes by saluting black literature as "never far removed from the language of music and the rhythmic resonance of the spoken word." (Appropriately, this is the first literary anthology to be accompanied by an optional CD of songs and speeches).
This compendium raises the more general question of what is the overall contribution of blacks to American culture? One appealing, if possibly grandiose, perspective might be called the Patriotic Black Chauvinism of blues critic and novelist Albert Murray. In contrast to so many other black literary intellectuals, who've only been employed as professors and who now reside in such hotbeds of African American culture as Amherst and Santa Cruz, Murray is a retired Air Force major living in Harlem. Along with his friend Ralph Ellison (author of Invisible Man) and disciples such as trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, Murray has argued that rather than merely being a pitiful victim of racism, the black man's defiant sense of style makes him the most distinctively representative of Americans. That seems fairly plausible, if unprovable. A cruder version is testable: If America otherwise was as WASPish as Protestant Canada, would blacks by themselves make America a much more interesting place than Canada? Most definitely. (Of course, several other American ethnic groups could claim the same: after all, for better or worse, America is a lot less boring than Canada.)
But, where does African American literature rank? Its leading talents are certainly impressive. My personal favorites include turn-of-the-century man of letters James Weldon Johnson, poet Langston Hughes, dramatist August Wilson, and the delightful right-wing memoirist Zora Neale Hurston. Nevertheless, in the hierarchy of black achievement, literature would still have to fall somewhere in the vast middle ground, below the realms where blacks are world-conquering (e.g., music) and above those where they have yet to make much of a mark (e.g., high-tech entrepreneurship).
In contrast, the editors view the current state of black literature triumphantly, citing novelist Toni Morrison's 1993 Nobel Prize, a 1994 Atlantic cover story that claimed that blacks have replaced Jews as the leading "public intellectuals," and the burgeoning African American studies programs. Yet, black writers remain rarer than their abundant publicity would imply. The explanation of this paradox is that blacks dominate one particular topic -- Being Black in America -- which might be the juiciest subject of our era. In contrast, they don't yet publish much on other themes. Notice that you almost never find yourself saying: "Gee, I didn't know that writer is black." The only author in the anthology that I was surprised to learn was black was science fiction novelist Samuel R. Delaney.
Specializing in blackness offers many advantages to black writers. Nonetheless, some disquieting trends are apparent in the final section showcasing 35 current authors. (1) Black writers are increasingly employed by universities, often in teaching poetry-writing workshops and other notorious pyramid schemes. While these are acceptable diversions for wealthy white students, there are obvious ethical questions about organized attempts to lure smart black kids into making disastrous career choices.
(2) This increasing academicization means black writers now learn more about black history and black literature, but they're also more isolated from modern urban life. Thus, they tend to write less than about black life today and more about simpler, more racist days-gone-by. As we see in the Balkans, those who don't ignore their past are sometimes doomed to overemphasize it.
(3) In practice, multiculturalism turns out to be monoculturalism: Blacks lecture blacks on blackness, Hispanics teach Hispanics about Hispanicness, etc. Multicultural studies could better aid minorities by being honestly multicultural: by objectively comparing how various ethnic groups' strengths, weaknesses, and strategies have lead to differing successes and failures. In fact, some brave college (an oxymoron?) should experiment with requiring nonblack students to take an African American studies course, while banning black students from majoring in the field.
(4) While many earlier black writers like Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells-Barnett presented with clarity and logic the facts about black life, more recent black writers have often decided they can afford the luxuries of avant garde stylistic innovation and emotional sensitivity rather than empirical analysis. Tom Wolfe's call for realistic novels that document The Way We Live Now has been largely ignored by academics, white or black.
(5) The editors celebrate the growing female dominance of black literature without mentioning its tragic flip side -- the decline of black male writers, and, more worrisomely, of black male desire for education.
(6) Finally, the long alliance between Black Studies and Women's Studies has made it impolitic for campus-bound black writers to discuss frankly the travails of black inner city males. The problem is that the ultimate feminist experiment -- the government-subsidized destruction of patriarchy -- has already been carried out in the ghetto, where fathers not only no longer rule, but often can't be found. Unfortunately, rather than usher in a utopia of sexual equality or matriarchy, the replacement for patriarchy turns out to be, well, uziarchy: rule by boys with guns. Nothing in the anthology's contemporary section comes close to confronting what's happening in our cities as candidly as a number of books by non-academic white male authors. For example, screenwriter Richard Price's 1992 novel about young crack dealers, Clockers, might be the most unflinching examination of the ways a boy becomes a man among the underclass since George Gilder's Visible Man. By marginalizing the inner city black male, African American literature is making itself increasingly irrelevant to the central problems of our society
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Steve Sailer (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a businessman and writer.