Gates' 'Black Men': star-filled appetizer

February 02, 1997|By Harold Jackson | Harold Jackson,SUN STAFF

"Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man," by Henry L. Gates Jr. Random House. 214 pages. $20.

It's foolish to think readers will come away with a better understanding of all black men after having read this compilation of past articles about famous people by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

Gates provides insight into the fortunes and foibles of these particular individuals, and their lives do include aspects that may be common to most black men.

However, these are extraordinary gentlemen who lived extraordinary lives - James Baldwin, Albert Murray, Louis Farrakhan, Colin Powell et al - and it is a stretch to consider any as truly representative of the mass.

That is not necessarily a criticism of the book, but of its title seems to promise more than it actually delivers.

The title (adapted from the Wallace Stevens poem, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird") is shared by the fifth of the book's eight chapters, in which the author, chair of the Afro-American studies department at Harvard, discusses the two-week span that included the O.J. Simpson verdict and the Million Man March.

Gates notes that this brief period provided a feast for connoisseurs of racial paranoia.

While many African-Americans exulted at the not-guilty decision, whites realized they didn't know black people as well as they thought. Gates attempts to help them, and to help blacks understand themselves.

He begins with an introduction that takes us to New Haven, Conn., in 1969, where Mr. Gates was a student at Yale.

He engagingly expresses the intimidation of a lad fresh from the Appalachian village of Piedmont, W. Va., who is confronted with the chic radicalism of the local Black Panthers. How comforting to have a friend remind him, "I been black my whole life."

From that epiphany Mr. Gates takes us to provincial France in 1973, where, as the 22-year-old London-based correspondent for Time magazine, he drove Josephine Baker to the home of James Baldwin - for dinner and an interview. (Tough duty, but somebody's got to do it.)

This chapter makes clear the method Mr. Gates prefers to employ. Observations and descriptions of individuals during the specific episodes in which he was with them, but greater insights into their personalities based on what they never really talked about.

One comes away realizing Baldwin was as much an expatriate because of the way black people treated him as he was because of racism. As revolutionary rhetoric became more violent and homophobic, Baldwin became passe.

Gates later illuminates the bittersweet relationship between Albert Murray and Ralph Ellison, who first met as students at Tuskegee Institute. He tells us why Harry Belafonte turned down the roles that made Sidney Poitier a star. He recounts the deceitful life of Anatole Broyard.

These articles chronicling the contradictions and anxieties facing few successful black men are meant to provide lessons about all black men. Just as it is with a skimpy appetizer, though, after this book you want more.

Harold Jackson is an editorial writer at The Sun, where he has been a reporter and an editor. In his 21 years as a journalist he has covered civil rights issues extensively.

Pub Date: 2/02/97

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