Cover image for Authentically Black : essays for the Black silent majority
Authentically Black : essays for the Black silent majority
McWhorter, John H.
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Publication Information:
New York : Gotham Books, [2003]

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xix, 264 pages ; 22 cm
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E185.615 .M354 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area
E185.615 .M354 2003 Adult Non-Fiction Black History Non-Circ

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Picking up where the bestselling Losing the Raceleft off, this penetrating and profound collection of essays by the controversial thinker and passionate advocate for racial enlightenment and achievement explores what it means to be black in America today. According to the author, nearly forty years after the Civil Rights Act, African-Americans in this country still remain "a race apart." He feels that modern black Americans have internalized a tacit message: "authentically black" people stress initiative in private but cloak the race in victimhood in public in order to protect black people from an ever-looming white backlash. He terms this the "New Double Consciousness" in homage to W.E.B. DuBois' description of a different kind of double consciousness in blacks a century ago. Within this context McWhorter takes the reader on a guided tour through the race issues dominant in our moment: racial profiling, getting past race, the reparations movement, black stereotypes in film and television, hip-hop, diversity, affirmative action, the word nigger, and Cornel West's resignation from Harvard. With his fierce intelligence and fervent eloquence, McWhorter makes a powerful case for the advancement of true racial equality. A timely and important work about issues that must be addressed by blacks and whites alike, Authentically Blackis a book for Americans of every racial, social, political, and economic persuasion.

Author Notes

John McWhorter is associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, and a contributing editor to City Journal and The New Republic. He has appeared on Dateline NBC, Politically Incorrect, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Fresh Air. He lives in Oakland, California

Reviews 2

Booklist Review

McWhorter, a linguistics professor, ventures again into his sideline as a black public intellectual as he did in his earlier work, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America (2000), this time examining the direction--or misdirection--of black leadership in America. His working assumption is that black leaders--wedded to the political left, the Democratic Party, and affirmative action--are out of step with the times. He argues that the civil rights era is dead, and appropriately so. The new battleground against racism requires individual rather than collective action. McWhorter criticizes the icons and issues of black leadership from Randall Robinson on reparations, to Jesse Jackson's shakedown of lucrative deals for his friends, to Al Sharpton for perpetuating notions of victimhood. McWhorter's criticism of this old vanguard of the civil rights movement is formulaic in the mode of the Republican right wing. However, his real contribution to the debate regarding new directions for racial progressiveness is his emphasis on the positives of black endurance and progress. Despite its partisan slant, this is a worthy book. --Vernon Ford

Library Journal Review

America's race dilemma demands urgent attention, insists McWhorter (linguistics, Berkeley) in nine pieces collected from his recent writings as something of a sequel to his 2000 sensation, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America. Collectively and individually, the nation in general and blacks in particular need to move beyond race, he argues, Racism is not the reason for the current situation of blacks in contemporary America, and the common consensus to the contrary is worse than fundamentally wrong. For African Americans, it is self-defeating as it enshrines victimhood. At most, racism today is residual and response to it reflexive, and America must slip from an outmoded ideological straitjacket to a forward frame of reference and a fresh guiding paradigm that McWhorter labels "deracialized." Most of his attention falls not on what he projects but on what he rejects-from affirmative action to racial preferences in higher education to reparations to false black leaders such as the Reverends Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. No less controversial than his original challenge, McWhorter's siren call for dynamic self and societal transformation may sound shrill, simple, or silly, but it deserves to be heard. For collections on the contemporary United States, race, or African Americans.-Thomas J. Davis, Arizona State Univ., Tempe (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



Chapter 4 The "Can You Find the Stereotype?" Game Blacks on Television I once appeared on a television talk show with a black professor, where as usual I was cast as the "conservative" voice in opposition to his "liberal" one. As we chatted during a commercial break, I asked him, "What kind of thing leads you to think that racism is really something you and I deal with on a daily basis? Really-I want to know." He said, "Well, for one thing, the depiction of black people in films." I asked him, as politely as I could, "If I may, since I know you have children and all, are you able to get out to the movies much these days?" "Yes," he nodded-but then we were back on the air. At that time, over the past year there had been so many black movies depicting successful, thriving black people that even I, something of a film fan, had been unable to catch them all. Bamboozled, The Brothers, and Kingdom Come had just left the theaters. Meanwhile, vibrant black characters were a fixture in mainstream movies as often as not-not long after the taping I caught Swordfish, where Halle Berry romanced two white male leads (one of them John Travolta) with not a peep in the script or from the media about these being "interracial romances." And for years by this point, a veritable flood of black sitcoms had been playing night after night on television, with African-Americans gliding across middle-class suburban sets indistinguishable from the ones decorating Everybody Loves Raymond and Friends. The professor's comment was typical of a reflexive observation often heard, based on a going wisdom among thinking blacks that the media paint a "misleading" picture of black life. That observation was valid twenty-five years ago. But things have changed vastly since then. Unfortunately the New Double Consciousness drives too many blacks to pretend that they haven't. Few books demonstrated this better than Donald Bogle's Primetime Blues. This exploration of that book addresses the dangers in insisting that anything a black person does in front of a camera is a "stereotype." The role that blacks play on television today is cause for celebration and hope. As a strong people, we must learn to admit when battles have been won. Donald Bogle and I share having grown up in Philadelphia watching the growing presence of black Americans on television. Bogle has some years on me, having been in attendance since the 1960s. My memories of television begin in the early 1970s, when my mother required that I sit by her side to watch the new flood of black shows like Good Times, Sanford and Son, and The Jeffersons, as well as shows attending to race such as All in the Family and Maude. And of course, watching the entire run of Roots was de rigueur, even though it meant staying up past my bedtime for several nights in a row. Part of this was surely due to black Americans' cultural affection for television. As Bogle notes in his Primetime Blues , a 1990 Nielsen survey showed that blacks watched an average of seventy hours of television a week as opposed to non- whites' forty-seven, and television was definitely a more central ritual in my household than in my white friends'. Yet my mother, a professor of social work, also considered black television a part of my early education in racial consciousness. She saw the shows as one way to help inculcate me with the basics of black history, the message that the whole world was not white, and that black America included many people not as fortunate as we were. As we passed into the 1980s and 1990s, the black presence on television increased so incrementally that had I been born later, it would have been impractical to try to catch everything blacks did on the tube. In the 1950s, a white racist could be content that he or she would only catch blacks on television in the very occasional series, a few supporting roles, scattered variety show appearances, and one-shot dramatic productions a racist could easily refrain from watching. Today, blacks are so numerous on television in all of its genres, and represented in such a wide sociological and psychological range, that the same racist would feel inundated by blacks every time he or she turned on the set, incensed at how sympathetically blacks are portrayed and how intimately they interact with whites. I have always seen this as a clear sign that the color line is ever dissolving in America. Bogle's Primetime Blues , however, is devoted to an argument that while progress has been made in the sheer numerical sense, overall the black presence on television has been an endless recycling of a certain passel of injuriously stereotypical images. The book will surely be interpreted by many as Doing the Right Thing, revealing the eternal racism always lurking behind developments that give the appearance of black progress. However, in the end the very founding of this volume upon that premise is more a matter of ideology local to our moment. Its very title marks Primetime Blues as a product of the sadly distortional, if well-meant, frames of reference that have dominated black thinkers' work since the late 1960s. The early chapters on the 1950s and 1960s, however, are masterful, displaying Bogle at his best. Bogle did the chronicling of black popular entertainment a service with his Brown Sugar (1980), a survey of black "divas" from Ma Rainey to Donna Summer, bringing to the light of day the work of many figures who had faded from consciousness (especially before video made vintage performances more available). His 1997 biography of Dorothy Dandridge was a long overdue chronicle of the life and work of this world-class beauty and gifted actress, who was denied the career she should have had by the naked racism of her era and died in despair at forty-two. With the crisp prose and masterful eye for the telling detail evident in those books, in Primetime Blues Bogle takes us through black television of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, bringing to light performances hitherto barely recorded in accessible sources. We learn that the very first experimental television broadcast, by NBC in 1939, was not, say, a half hour with Jack Benny, but a variety show starring none other than Ethel Waters. Bogle later traces Waters's little-known but fascinating television career, which included a stint playing the maid Beulah. This show was more representative of the black presence on stone-age television than its more frequently discussed contemporary Amos 'n' Andy , which even by the early 1950s was a rather tatty, recidivist affair rooted in minstrel humor by then passé, living more on the familiarity of the radio show than on freshness. Beulah is remembered for depicting a black woman who has nothing better to do than center her life around the white family she works for, otherwise waiting for her ne'er-do-well boyfriend Bill to propose. Of course, this is not an exclusively black trope: Shirley Booth's Hazel and Ann B. Davis's Alice on The Brady Bunch occupied similar spaces. But what makes Beulah so excruciating to watch today is that she is, in addition, none too bright. Only with the utmost fortification of historical perspective can one today endure the opening tags, where Beulah looks us dead in the eye and offers such aperçus as the fact that she is "the maid who's always in the kitchen-but never knows what's cookin'...! HYEH HYEH HYEH HYEH..." In its original radio incarnation, Beulah had been played by a white man, and for all of the discomfort this arouses in us today, Marlin Hurt's portrayal is a guilty pleasure. Few could resist laughing today hearing his uncannily accurate giggles, laughs, and intonations, picked up from his black childhood nursemaid, all the more evocative in the poised restraint of Hurt's delivery. (Hurt was truly amazing, also playing the man Beulah worked for, as well as boyfriend Bill.) Furthermore, on radio Beulah, while no Einstein, was no dummy and got her licks in in Eddie "Rochester" Anderson style. Hurt died suddenly and his replacement, Bob Corley, was merely adequate in the role, but when Hattie McDaniel took over in 1947, she predictably reinfused the character with her trademark spark. In contrast, the television version of Beulah was a glum, sodden affair, even for television of the era. Largely at the center of the action in the radio show, on television Beulah took second place to the anodyne comings and goings of the white family she worked for, all the more disturbing given that this family managed to out-Wonder Bread even the stock families of this type then prevalent in sitcoms. Today, Beulah's sidelining is especially hard to watch in its implication that these bland automatons are more interesting than her. The show went through no fewer than three large black actresses in the lead role- Ethel Waters, Hattie McDaniel, and Louise Beavers. Beavers, picked up last and playing the role the longest, could barely conceal her lack of interest, walking through it as if she were in a children's play (which she essentially was). She eventually left the role because she was tired of it. And with that, having gone through all three of the leading black mammies in Hollywood, the producers simply closed shop. Bogle is correct in noting, however, that the miraculous Waters managed to draw some kind of character out of the wan scripting. Waters's episodes are the only ones that approach watchability today, as she conveys a kind of warmth and sexual affection between her and Bill, and manages to give an appearance of intelligence and control despite what the lines nominally convey. Throughout her life Waters simply could not help filling empty space with sheer charisma in this way. Bogle movingly describes an episode of the usually frothy Person to Person in 1954 when Waters diverted the interview into sincere psychological self-revelation: Waters was intense. Indeed, one of the strengths of Primetime Blues is Bogle's wise choice to cover television movies, specials, and guest appearances, as in the 1950s black performance history was made more here than in the all-too-rare black series. Waters appeared in a number of dramas and specials, and appeared in a savory episode of Route 66 about the reunion of a group of jazz musicians which, in including not only Waters but jazz artists Jo Jones, Roy Eldridge, and Coleman Hawkins, stands at the top of my list of shows that ought be included in any future video anthology of early black television that Primetime Blues may inspire. Ex-boxer James Edwards had a brief eminence turning in nuanced and top- rate performances in numerous episodes of the drama anthology series popular in the decade. Sidney Poitier costarred in the early black-white "buddy" drama A Man Is Ten Feet Tall , eventually filmed as Edge of the City with him repeating his role. Dorothy Dandridge, Sammy Davis, Jr., the sadly forgotten Juano Hernandez, and Waters all got work in drama anthology episodes as well. It is easy to suppose that the only way to see blacks on television in the 1950s was through Amos 'n' Andy , Beulah, or Nat King Cole's short-lived variety show. However, Bogle shows that those watching at the time saw somewhat more black performance on their screens than this-although surely far from enough. The sun began breaking through the clouds in the 1960s, as the dawning of the Civil Rights Era brought race relations and "the Negro question" to the forefront of America's consciousness. Perhaps the most immediately memorable black icon of this era is Bill Cosby's erudite undercover operator Scotty on I Spy, portrayed as every bit the equal of his white partner, Robert Culp. (It was indicative to see Cosby decades later host Culp, by then a figure of the past, as a one-shot guest on The Cosby Show , rather than it being the other way around.) From our vantage point, we miss any indication of racial identity in Scotty, and this is largely true of other blacks in series of this decade, such as Greg Morris on Mission: Impossible , Lloyd Haynes on Room 222, and Nichelle Nichols's Uhura on Star Trek . To many analysts, including Bogle, this reflected white America's desire to "tame" the Negro beginning to be seen as a threat. This was part of it-but then only by the end of this decade would the salad bowl metaphor triumph over the melting pot one in most thinking Americans' consciousness. In an era when the main call from Civil Rights leaders was still for integration, many white producers and writers sincerely considered themselves to be doing good by portraying blacks without any particular "cultural" traits. Today, however, the seams show in efforts like this, in ways that make the space blacks were assigned to fill require major historical adjustment. The Dick Van Dyke Show , for example, ventured an episode where the Petries are accidentally sent home with another couple's baby, the couple having been left with theirs. The snafu discovered, the other couple come to the Petries' to make the switch. They turn out to be black. The audience screams with laughter; the handsome couple sit down; there are a few more jaunty lines of dialogue capped by some jolly topper, and the episode fades out with the two couples sitting there in the living room all asmile. The producers' gesture was heartfelt. But I have always wondered: Since the Petries surely did not just hustle the couple out the door right then, what did they all talk about after that? I assume we are supposed to think that they simply interacted as "people," talking about mowing the lawn and the crowds on the train into Manhattan. But we also know that this was an era a heartbeat past legalized segregation, and that interracial relations were hardly that simple, as they still are not. Only in the 1970s would sitcoms begin to explore what happened after that fade-out. Drama shows, however, were somewhat more concerned with the tensions that would soon transform integrationism into separatism, although usually more interested in class and injustice than what we would call "diversity." Shows like The Defenders and The Nurses often addressed race issues. In East Side, West Side (which my parents always recalled fondly) Cicely Tyson as a social worker made a lasting impression sporting the first "natural" black hairdo on television. This show did not shy away from race-based episodes that were surprisingly rich for television of the era, including ones with Diana Sands, Ruby Dee, and James Earl Jones. (One of Bogle's nervier opinions is that Jones is a "fake old windbag"-I have always quietly thought so but would never have dared say it out loud!) And from our vantage point, Clarence Williams III's Linc on The Mod Squad , with his large Afro, thanks-but-no-thanks reserve, and "I don't fink on soul brothers," is most certainly anybody's conception of a Black Man. A far cry from Beulah in the Hendersons' kitchen. Yet amid it all, throughout most of the 1960s there was not a single "black show" proper on national television. This changed in 1968 with Julia, starring Diahann Carroll. The response to this show from black commentators signaled that a new era in black American ideology had arrived. Julia portrayed a middle-class widow raising a young son while working as a nurse. With "assimilated" Diahann Carroll, with her chiseled features and crisp standard English, Julia wore the race issue lightly. The occasional episode had Julia encountering and handily defeating manifestations of what was then called "prejudice," but this was depicted as an occasional excrescence rather than as a deep-seated societal malaise. Largely, however, Julia was a sepia version of the concurrently running That Girl . Quickly black writers, actors, and thinkers fiercely condemned this little show for neglecting the tragedies of blacks in the inner cities. The Black Power movement was just then forging a new sense of a "black identity" opposed to the mainstream one. This naturally recast the suffering poor blacks-those most unlike middle-class whites-as the "real" blacks, and middle-class blacks as having some explaining to do in deserting their "roots." The black literati's response to Julia was predicated upon this then new idea, now so deeply ensconced in much black thought as to no longer be processed as a "position" at all, that the very essence of blackness was suffering. Obviously, then, a middle-class nurse living in a nice apartment and interacting easily with whites was "inauthentic." Objections to Amos 'n' Andy in the early 1950s were based in part on the fact that even if the show was undeniably amusing in itself, this was one of the only depictions of blacks on television. Good point-but by the time Julia aired, black misery and the new "black identity" were not exactly absent on other shows. It was not that Julia was the only view of blacks on television: the problem now was with this side of black life being shown at all. The profoundness of the shift in consciousness is revealed in the realization that black commentators just fifteen years before would have eaten up Julia with a spoon. Amos 'n' Andy is again a case in point: early in the book Bogle presents a list of objections to the show by the NAACP. Crucially, in a full page of complaints, the fact that the show did not address black poverty is not even mentioned. Most black thinkers of the period would have had no more investment in seeing the unfortunate dutifully "explored" on television than white viewers had in seeing Appalachia or the poor rural South depicted, and would have applauded a portrait of members of their race doing well as an advance from the "Mammy" days. And yet we can hardly say that the NAACP of the period, sponsoring efforts that would soon result in Brown v. Board of Education , was uninterested in black poverty. The difference hinged on the contrast between an ideology focused on achievement despite acknowledged obstacles, versus one focused upon the treacherous idea that achievement is just lucky until all obstacles are removed. This idea automatically casts those blessed with only ordinary capabilities and not blessed with luck-i.e., the poor-as "real" black people. This ideology remains with us today. It includes Bogle, and as such, it is at Julia that Primetime Blues takes a disappointing detour from intelligent survey into a narrow, almost numbingly circular litany. Namely, Bogle frames the thirty remaining years of black work on television as an almost unbroken procession of veiled injustice and exploitation. Bogle is hardly alone in this, and his enviable gifts as a chronicler remain unassailable. But this book remains important as an object lesson. As of black television in the late 1960s, Bogle falls into the same trap that mars the second edition of his Toms, Coons, Mulattoes, Mammies, and Bucks . First appearing in 1973, this book, my first primer on blacks in film, aptly identified the eponymous five stereotypes as running throughout blacks' assignments in American movies. Bogle made the useful point that the "blaxploitation" genre, whatever its visceral thrill and the work it gave black actors, was recapitulating the very types on view as far back as Birth of a Nation . However, Bogle's update in 1989 revealed a man with a hammer to whom everything is a nail. What was a valid and penetrating thesis applied to blacks in film up to the early 1970s is reflexively applied to the next fifteen years, despite the stunning maturation of the black role on the silver screen that occurred during the period. Eddie Murphy is a dynamic phenomenon playing lead roles in film after film, and often producing them as well? No-because he is sexually appetitive, he is merely a recapitulation of the oversexed black "Buck" that chases the Cameron's young daughter off a cliff in Birth of a Nation . Was Lonette McKee's performance in Sparkle a signature piece of acting? Not quite. Because she is light- skinned, her sad fate in the plot renders her a "tragic mulatto," despite her character not being of mixed race. ("One wonders if McKee's Sister must, like Dandridge's important characters, be disposed of, as perhaps a kind of warning to other sexual, aggressive black women," Bogle proposes, with nary an attempt to demonstrate that this was on the mind of the Jewish scriptwriter.) And so on. Predictably, Richard Pryor, speaking for the ghetto, gets one of Bogle's rare stamps of approval-but with the qualification that he may exemplify a new stereotype aborning, the "Crazy Nigger." Bogle transfers this same frame of reference to the rest of Primetime Blues , deftly pigeonholing almost every black contribution to series television from 1970 to 2000 into one of several stereotype categories. The result is a kind of game one might call "Can You Find the Stereotype?" which has increasingly slighter relationship to its data set as the years pass, and eventually becomes a kind of idle exercise that one regrets seeing Bogle waste his abilities upon. All large, nurturing black women, for example, are "Mammies," recapitulations of Hattie McDaniel and Beulah. This includes Della Reese's Tess on Touched by an Angel as well as our beloved Oprah, whose inspiring success is thereby rendered suspect. Meanwhile, a feisty black woman who speaks her mind to men is a "Sapphire," the idea being that the Kingfish's shrewish wife on Amos 'n' Andy set a "stereotype" about the black female now best avoided. Thus our pleasure in watching LaWanda Page's immortal Aunt Esther on Sanford and Son or Nell Carter's lead character on Gimme a Break! and elsewhere must by all rights be a guilty one. Furthermore, even nurturing middle-aged black men are evidence of racism eternal. I will never forget a black drama professor, quite oriented toward the "Can You Find the Stereotype?" game that Bogle's film book helped to legitimize, speculating in 1991 that the rotund stature of the black television fathers James Avery ( The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air ) and Reginald VelJohnson ( Family Matters ) signaled the emergence of a new stereotype to replace the Mammy, the "Pappy." However, the similarity of these two actors' body shapes turned out to be a coincidence-there has arisen no trend in casting fat black men as fathers. Yet Bogle, too, seems primed to find a "Pappy" stereotype in the air, dutifully griping that Lou Meyers's wonderful portrait of a grumpy but loving cook on A Different World was "something of a fussy mammylike character." The prickly black guy, in the meantime, is the "Angry Black Man," stigmatized by the writers as "other" (Eriq La Salle's Benton on E.R.). Yet the black man, or woman, who does not stick up for the race is deracialized, "tokenism at its worst" ( Julia , Brian Stokes Mitchell's "Jackpot" Jackson on Trapper John, M.D. ). To be fair, one assumes that Bogle would prefer to see a happy balance be struck. But then he comes up with a way to dissect and condemn almost every attempt even in this vein. When Blair Underwood's Rollins on L.A. Law begins one subplot avoiding taking a race-based stand on a case, then rises into the Politically Correct indignation, and finally withdraws into an ambiguous stance in the end-a pretty good depiction of how many successful blacks feel about race issues in our moment-Bogle chides the writers for taking the character "back to the mainstream shore." Avery Brooks's solemn, insular, culturally rooted Hawk character on Spenser: For Hire is fascinating, but ultimately neutralized in lending his services to his white partner rather than working against the mainstream. -Reprinted from Authentically Black by John McWhorter by permission of Gotham Books, a member of Penguin Putnam Inc. Copyright © John McWhorter, 2003. All rights reserved. This excerpt, or any parts thereof, may not be reproduced without permission. Excerpted from Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority by John McWhorter All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.

Table of Contents

Prefacep. xi
1 The New Black Double Consciousnessp. 1
2 Profiling and "Getting Past Race"p. 36
3 "What Have You Done for Me Lately?" The Reparations Movementp. 64
4 The "Can You Find the Stereotype?": Game Blacks on Televisionp. 104
5 "Aren't You in Favor of Diversity?" White Guilt and University Admissionsp. 138
6 The Unbearable Lightness of "The 'N' Word"p. 163
7 "We Don't Learn Our History!"p. 176
8 Black Academics and Doing the Right Thing: "They Don't Care What You Know Till They Know That You Care"?p. 222
9 The New Black Leadershipp. 236
Afterwordp. 265