Black like whom?


Leaning gingerly on his cane and warning his audience not to expect "politically correct" remarks, Harvard African American studies professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. took the Mandel Hall stage last Thursday evening to thunderous applause. He sat down facing Michael Dawson, U-High'68, a race and politics scholar who rejoined Chicago's faculty in 2005 after three years in Cambridge. "I've come to recruit him back to Harvard," Gates joked.

In fact the two had come to discuss African American identity and politics for an annual lecture arranged by Chicago's Organization of Black Students in memory of George E. Kent, who taught English at the University from 1970 to 1982 and became its first black tenured professor in humanities. During their hourlong conversation, Gates and Dawson talked about globalization, affirmative action, class divisions, and homophobia. Gates recalled his upbringing in West Virginia and his 1969 arrival at Yale as an undergraduate, and he showed a clip from his most recent PBS documentary about tracing Oprah Winfrey's genealogical roots. "PBS has never had more black people watching," he said, than the millions who tuned in for his two specials on African American genealogy. "Black people are looking for their ancestors."

First, though, Gates and Dawson brought up the topic of Barack Obama. Scolding African Americans who "set themselves up as the high priest of blackness," Gates called the debate over Obama's racial bona fides "totally spurrious—of course he's black." The fact that 35 million African Americans live in this country, he said, "means there are 35 million ways to be black."

Meanwhile, a false sense of unity affects African American class relations, Gates argued. Since 1968 the black middle class has quadrupled, but roughly 30 percent of African Americans remain below the poverty line. Both middle and underclass have become self-perpetuating though totally separate, creating what Gates called "a crisis of identity." Cultural phenomena like hip-hop music gives suburban blacks the illusion that all African Americans belong to the same class, which, Gates said, "lets the middle class off the hook for the underclass." The rest of American society will do little to help impoverished blacks unless more affluent blacks lead the way. "We have to redefine the problem," Gates said, "as one of race and class."


Photos: Henry Louis Gates Jr. (top) and Michael Dawson (bottom) spoke at Mandel Hall about the intertwined relationship between race and class in America.

February 26, 2007