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Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man

This book is on reserve in Meyer Library.

Thirteen Ways book cover

This collection of essayistic interviews conducted by Mr. Gates depicts prominent black men in high-profile positions. The author has selected a cross-section of globally influential leaders to outline the perplexities of racial issues. In these essays, some published previously, James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Bill T. Jones, Colin Powell, Louis Farrakhan, and Harry Belafonte speak about their lives and their roles in American society. Some men's experiences (and Mr. Gates's well-spoken interpretations) are enhanced by pairing them with appropriate antipodes. For instance, actor/singer/activist Harry Belafonte is presented in contrast to his friend and fellow actor Sidney Poitier. General Colin Powell is contoured by the light of another presidential aspirant, Reverend Jesse Jackson, who indirectly served as the antithesis to Louis Farrakhan. Mr. Gates's essays show how race, class and personal experiences shaped the lives of black artists, religious leaders and politicians and the world surrounding them.


On Black Cultural Nationalism
"There's a sense in which the American century might be thought of as the African-American century - culturally speaking. As the writer Albert Murray would insist, the cultural differentia that would elevate America - in an aesthetics of modernism otherwise dominated by Europe - was indelibly black: It's also true that most of the American culture that has gone global (...some of it junk, some of it sublime) is at least partly of black parentage. Of course, the paradox is that the cultural centrality of the African-American - this is a country where Michael Jordan and Shaquille O'Neal look down from everty billboard - coexists with the economic and political marginality of the African-American, most especially of the African-American male." (13 Ways of Looking, xiv)

"In its bluntest form, their assertion was that the truest Americans were black Americans. For much of what was truly distinctive about America's "national character" was rooted in the improvisatory prehistory of the blues.... So, even as the clenched-fist crowd was scrambling for cultural crumbs, Murray was declaring the entire harvest board of American civilization to be his birthright. In a sense, Murray was the ultimate black nationalist. And in fact that people so easily mistook his vision for its opposite proved how radical it was." (13 Ways of Looking, 34)

On the Future
"If Baldwin had a central political argument, then, it was that the destinies of black American and white were profoundly and irreversibly intertwined. Each created the other, each defined itself in relation to the other, and each could destroy the other." (13 Ways of Looking, 10)

On the O.J. Simpson Trial
"If we disagree about something so basic, how can we find agreement about far thornier matters? For white observers, what's even scarier than the idea that black Americans were plumping for the villain, which is a misprision of value, is the idea that black Americans didn't recognize him as the villain, which is a misprision of fact. How can conversation begin when we disagree about reality? To put it at its harshest, for many whites a sincere belief in Simpson's innocence looks less like the culture of protest than like the culture of psychosis." (13 Ways of Looking, 105)

On Self-Discovery
"I remember attending my first meeting of the Black Student Association, being in the company of these largely urban New Negroes - black and smart and elegant and from Elsewhere - a group with a definite sense of what was and was not authentically black, jockeying for position by being blacker than thou." (13 Ways of Looking, xiii)

"From the cover, the wide-spaced eyes of a black man transfixed me. Notes of a Native Son the book was called, by one James Baldwin. Was this man the author, I wondered to myself, this man with a closely cropped "natural," brown skin, splayed nostrils, and wide lips, so very Negro, so comfortable to be so? It was the first time I had heard a voice capturing the terrible exhilaration and anxiety of being a person of African descent in this country. From the book's first few sentences, I was caught up thoroughly in the sensibility of another person - a black person." (13 Ways of Looking, 6-7)

© 1997, Random House. Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man. New York: Random House, 1997.


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