Cinque Henderson is the author of “Sit Down and Shut Up: How Discipline Can Set Students Free.”
Stephen L. Carter is an oddity among America’s black intellectuals. Though he is a best-selling novelist and widely admired constitutional scholar at Yale, his success, when compared with his not-so-distant relatives, may actually represent a type of generational decline. His ancestors were rock stars. His great-great-grandfather, upon earning his freedom, ventured into antebellum Mississippi (where free black men were routinely arrested and resold into slavery), purchased his brother’s freedom and then returned to Canada, where he helped John Brown plan his heroic uprising at Harpers Ferry. His great-grandmother was one of only three black women to serve alongside black American soldiers in Europe at the outbreak of World War I, later writing a book about about it that historians still reference today. And his grandmother, a stern and demanding woman named Eunice, worked as the only black female lawyer in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, where she contrived a plan that brought down the biggest mobster of 1930s New York, Salvatore “Lucky” Luciano. By these lights, Carter has some catching up to do. His book “Invisible,” a loving treatment of a remarkable clan, will shorten the distance.
If you know much about the black elites of turn-of-the-century Harlem (where a wedding between two established families could draw more than 3,000 guests), the bald facts of Eunice’s life may not be that surprising: daughter of a loving but mostly absent workaholic father and a peripatetic but determined mother who exposed her children to international travel and languages (Eunice knew German by age 11); enrollment and early graduation from a prestigious college; essays and short stories published in nationally respected black journals; a marriage to the most successful black dentist in New York; a fixture in Harlem’s society pages. Even as anti-black and anti-woman sentiment dominated broader American culture, this was a life befitting a young colored woman of means. It bored her to tears. Only working as a lawyer awakened her moral imagination and launched Eunice into politics. In 1934, two years after graduating from Fordham Law School, she was recruited by the Republican Party (still, then, the party of Lincoln) to run for the State Assembly against a powerful incumbent. Following the infamous 1935 riot in Harlem, she was appointed to the mayor’s commission on conditions there. Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, recruited her for the organization’s executive ranks, where Eunice served for the rest of her life.
But it was her appointment to the prosecutorial team of Thomas Dewey that would make her “one of the most famous Negroes in America.” Eunice was handed the largely menial task of hearing citizen complaints, while the other lawyers, 19 white men, tried to nail Luciano for racketeering. But the thankless and unglamorous work of listening to residents gripe about the seediness of the streets turned out to be a legal gold mine. She realized that the prostitutes who occupied the city’s street corners and were the cause of most citizen complaints were not just a random assortment of women trying to earn a buck, but in fact they belonged to an elaborate ring controlled from on high by Luciano. This was organized crime.
The meaty machinations of how the mobsters were finally brought to trial — the “runaway” grand jury that refused to try the underlings and demanded a trial of the bosses, the governor’s insistence on the appointment of a special prosecutor, the eventual hiring of Eunice for one of the coveted posts, and her eureka moment after being shunted aside — are tailor-made for a Hollywood biopic. And Eunice’s fractured relationship with her brother Alphaeus, who graduated from Harvard, joined the Communist Party and served time in prison for contempt of court, is equally gripping (and could constitute a book all its own).
But other, less dramatic aspects of “Invisible” drew my interest. Carter continues his habit, begun with his novel “The Emperor of Ocean Park,” of referring to black people as “the darker nation.” It’s an odd choice. When 19th-century Europe referred to Africa as the Dark Continent, it wasn’t intended to uplift. Carter seems to be doing his academic version of a rapper attempting to reclaim the n-word. Repeated use hasn’t stripped the n-word of its negative power — it’s just made the sexual and violent stereotypes associated with it more commercially viable. And yet by Page 25, after Carter’s primer on the stunning accomplishments of America’s early-20th-century black elite, North and South, the phrase pulses with new feeling. He is plainly saying to the reader: You think there’s something wrong with the words “darker nation” only if you think there’s something wrong with being dark.
Indeed, Carter has a touch of wistfulness over the self-contained world of blacks, victims of a uniform anti-black sentiment, yet undeniably, defiantly proud of who they are. Such nostalgia is common to blacks of a certain age and social standing, and rightly so: Their forbears, not more than a generation or two gone, thrived in the face of terrifying odds. And Carter’s description of those odds is riveting. Where in “The Emperor of Ocean Park” the historical digressions weighed down the narrative, here they fortify it, reminding us of the deep paradoxes of segregation. Carter’s great-grandmother, as an NAACP representative, regularly traveled alone into Klan country at severe risk to her life, to bolster the spirits of Southern activists who felt forgotten by the national office. The economic success that has come with integration has made that kind of courage much rarer among the wealthy or famous elite — see, for example, how few NFL players felt the call to kneel as Colin Kaepernick did, in protest of police brutality — and we are undoubtedly a lesser nation for it. The book also reminds us of another surprising fact: that in the 20th-century Atlanta of Carter’s great-grandparents, black homes became more expensive the farther they were from white areas. Balance this against a billboard I recently saw for luxury condominiums in New York, featuring a black man with a daughter who was whiter-skinned than Mariah Carey — plainly implying that a black man can access such luxury only through a white spouse. Is this what integration was supposed to mean? Carter’s ancestors would have been horrified.
As this country enjoys a renewed economic boom, and is simultaneously roiled by bitter fights over who belongs here as well as over gender and race, Carter’s account of his family’s heroism echoes with an uncomfortable truth: Material and moral progress often travel very different paths.
Stephen L. Carter
Henry Holt. 384 pp. $30