Surviving Race and Place in America

By C. Eric Lincoln

Duke University Press. 157 pp. $17.95


Why Americans Can't Think Straight About Race

By Benjamin DeMott

Atlantic Monthly Press. 214 pp. $22


By Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cornel West

Knopf. 196 pp. $21

EVER SINCE Frederick Douglass stunned a white Fourth of July audience in 1852 by asking "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence?", many blacks have felt torn between asserting an unbridled, American personal freedom and maintaining a distinctive racial solidarity. That struggle proceeds in terms barely intelligible to most whites, who came here by personal choice, not through wholesale abduction, cultural dispossession, and confinement to a caste.

Lately, however, the tension between transracial dignity and racial loyalty, elucidated so vividly by Douglass and, later, W.E.B. Du Bois, has taken a new twist. The mainstreaming of black celebrities, artists, politicians and professionals -- not to mention the "multiculturalizing" of the old, Anglo-conformist society by other nonwhites -- has prompted new, complicated reflections such as those by the four writers under review. So has the loss, noted often in these books, of a coherent America, racist or otherwise. Once, blacks knew what they were up against, and thus a racist society's cohesion offered firm moral footholds, even as it threw up barriers.

And now?

Henry Louis Gates Jr. sounds uneasy beneath his urbane memoir of undergraduate struggles with blackness at Yale. Cornel West sounds almost despairing beneath his typically windy invocations of "radical democracy." Benjamin DeMott seems trapped in the hair shirt some "old stock" white liberals donned long ago. Only C. Eric Lincoln, the grand old man of the four, vividly chronicling his experiences in the Alabama of the 1930s, throws out a luminous, gossamer thread of hope. Lincoln's Coming Through the Fire is a worthy sequel to James Baldwin's angry The Fire Next Time. Time will tell whether the country is worthy of his beautiful book.

Gates and West, both professors in the Harvard Afro-American Studies department that Gates chairs, collaborate in The Future of the Race not so much to honor Du Bois as to "revaluate" him. Their jointly written introduction, their two separate essays, and an appendix in which Gates introduces Du Bois's 1903 essay "The Talented Tenth" and Du Bois's 1948 address elaborating on it, make for an unresolved effort whose contributors wander off in different directions.

Du Bois's own contribution is well known. He called for a black elite -- "the Talented Tenth" -- to instruct, challenge and champion the race on its way to integration, even as he wondered, "Can I be both {an American and a Negro}? Or is it my duty to cease to be a Negro as soon as possible and to be an American?" His own answer to the question came in 1961 when, after witnessing Jim Crow's first defeats by the Civil Rights movement, he left the United States to spend his last days pursuing an elusive, quasi-Marxist, black-nationalist vision in Ghana.

THAT PESSIMISM and the parlous condition of black leadership today launch Gates on a mournful recollection of his and other black students' struggles with Du Bois's famous question at Yale in the early 1970s. The university was solicitous of their gropings and racial wagon-circling, but Gates notes that quite a few of his "Talented Tenth" circle have since died of hypertension or violence at black hands. He doesn't blame racism as much as the flight of those he knew from Yale's opportunities into a defensive blackness. But, unlike them, he says, he couldn't "allow blackness to rob me of what I wistfully and portentously called my humanity' . . . Only sometimes do I feel guilty that I was among the lucky ones" at Yale, he concludes, "and only sometimes do I ask myself why."

The real answer seems to be that he has chosen humanism over racialism -- a commitment he has expressed by condemning black antisemitism. That is also an answer to Du Bois's question about whether one must shed black solidarity, at least sometimes, in order to be an American. But Gates, Harvard's W.E.B. Du Bois Professor of the Humanities, doesn't make the answer explicit here or in his journalism, where he often performs for white audiences as the gatekeeper of a distinctive "black" experience.

Cornel West's answer is delivered, not in a memoir, but in what he calls a "prophetic" manifesto. He thinks there is no point in being American in the sense Du Bois understood it, for that America is failing, and Du Bois was part of the reason for its failure. Du Bois, West tells us, was too bound up in Enlightenment rationalism, too strategically Victorian, too patriarchal and elitist, and too distant from grass-roots black culture to comprehend "the distinctive black tragicomic sense" and to "confront the sheer absurdity of the human condition."

West thinks that Du Bois's "Enlightenment naivete" -- his belief that "the cure for {evil} was knowledge based on scientific investigation" -- condemned him to despair. Then, too, because America itself is a "twilight civilization," as West calls it, we must embrace radical, spiritual democratic action. He believes that the best of the marginalized, but vital, black culture can show us the way, the more so if Du Bois's "Talented Tenth" avoids becoming "intoxicated with the felicities of a parvenu bourgeois experience" and embraces the tragicomic "spirit of John Coltrane and Toni Morrison," a "hope not hopeless but unhopeful."

This is indeed tragicomic and absurd, though perhaps not as prophetic as West would have us believe. While West may not be entirely wrong about Du Bois, he is certainly unclear about how black cultural genius or his notions of radical democracy can redeem us. And merely saying that they can sustains few besides West.

That statement is also, at least partly, a bad rap on the many white moralists who, in person and in spirit, nourished the early experiences and later reflections of many blacks besides Du Bois. "For purposes of yeast, there was never such a leaven as the Puritan stock," wrote John Jay Chapman, a bearer of the zeal that fired the Yankee schoolmarms who taught Du Bois and who braved white hostility to instruct C. Eric Lincoln and other black youths years later in the South. But this moralism had its censorious, condescending underside, and Benjamin DeMott, an "old stock" New Englander, is so tortured a bearer of Puritan guilt and its expiatory impulses that I can't imagine many blacks basking in his solicitude.

DeMott warns, usefully, that mainstream America tries to wish its racism away in tokenism and the amiable banter of black and white TV anchors. But he's so intent on portraying blacks as prisoners of caste that he ends up reinforcing the negative stereotypes that even some racists disclaim.

He protests the "homicidal neglect" conviction of a black welfare mother whose children burned to death when she left them alone. She'd left them alone often, but DeMott is troubled that both her (black) prosecutor and (white) defense attorney accepted the premise of any criminal trial -- that the defendant should be judged by her choices, such as whether she'd secured adequate adult supervision for her children. He blames society for her "bottom caste" behavior: "Black America includes millions of welfare mothers, the majority overwhelmed by their lives" and isolated from suburbs where "sprinklers glint on combed lawns" and people "thumbtack prized baby-sitter phone lists to their kitchen bulletin boards."

Has DeMott ever spent a week in a poor neighborhood? To suspend judgment of this mother in deference to her "caste status" is to deny all black welfare mothers' capacity to assume responsibility as parents. Perhaps DeMott thinks they also shouldn't serve on juries or vote. The entertainment world shouldn't laugh racism away, but neither should white social critics reinforce negative stereotypes while massaging their own guilt.

Like DeMott, C. Eric Lincoln, professor emeritus at Duke University and a noted scholar of black religion, argues that "few of the changes we hoped for have been truly accomplished, even though the cosmetics of progress are always being paraded before us with cynical reassurance." Like West, Lincoln finds that "Du Bois' search for identity was essentially a personal intellectual exercise," divorced from ordinary blacks' struggles. But Lincoln's great, classic personal essay transcends race itself in ways the other authors claim they want to, and think we should, but don't. Unlike them, he makes his deep personal experience of racism the wellspring of a transracial American vision.

IN THE 1920s, when his mother was a domestic for "quality" whites in his native, Athens, Ala., the tiny Lincoln played with the family's children and other white kids. He stepped forward with them in a health clinic line, only to be grabbed and told, " All you niggers have to wait!' As I stood against the wall rubbing my arm," he recalls, "I soon came to realize that it was not my arm that was hurting, it was my soul. There was a sort of numbness, a dead feeling. The pain was inside me, and I would never be able to rub it away."

Yet he recounts this to show that if one cannot rub it away, one may perhaps redeem its hurtful memory by keeping a canny sort of faith with former white playmates, who were as imprisoned by racism's fraudulent consensus as he was. "Race is a fantasy {italics his}. A chimera," he insists. "A stalking horse for power and privilege." Doesn't that make it indelible in those wounded in childhood? Yes, but Lincoln would oppose retreating into blackness as some of Gates's classmates did at a Yale that was open to them; he would also oppose black wagon-circling even in the teeth of racism itself.

This takes some explaining, and Lincoln does it with a grounded eloquence that reopens our racial dialogue. Because only whites have power to exclude others from resources in America, "black racism will never be more than a voice of defiant impotence screaming out its frustrations." But not only is black racism "a notion with nowhere to go and no way to get there," he continues, "that is as it should be. One kettle of putrefaction is enough . . ." The country's complexion is changing so rapidly "that the old strategies of accusation, isolation, and containment have broken down, and that the pavilions of privilege and the tenements of terror are one in the nostrils of the beast that walks among us."

Lincoln would shed even a redemptive blackness to mix with whites who disown both their own putative supremacy and counterproductive guilt. He calls for a society that is beyond race: "The supreme disloyalty is not to a bell {of racial solidarity} that has tolled itself into silence, but to the bell that has yet to ring . . . If transracial marriage is here, and biracial children are here, can transracial adoptions be far behind?"

Lincoln is not ashamed to say this; he glories in it, defying the "risk in ignoring {racial} convention, in being out of step with the agents of panic and the gurus of political correctness. It is time now to reach for the hand that is reaching for tomorrow, whatever color that hand may be. The evening of today is already far spent."

Lincoln's own evening is breathtakingly beautiful. The Civil Rights movement has lost so much ground to agents of panic and gurus of correctness that Gates's response to our situation is too elegaic and ironical, while West's is too windy and ethereal. Unlike them, however, Lincoln, now approaching 80, doesn't need a career, doesn't need to position himself. Instead, he dips into his bag to share an elder's evergreen wisdom, a candor and compassion beyond color. His answer to Du Bois's question -- black and/or American -- is unequivocal: Whenever C. Eric Lincoln writes of our society, he says "we."

Jim Sleeper, the author of "The Closest of Strangers: Liberalism and the Politics of Race in New York," is at work on a new book about race. CAPTION: C. Eric Lincoln CAPTION: Benjamin DeMott CAPTION: Henry Louis Gates Jr. CAPTION: Cornel West