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Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority
John McWhorter
New York: Gotham Books, 2003.
$25.00, 264 pages, ISBN 1592400019.

Gerald R. Butters Jr.
Aurora University

Black conservative Republican—in the American lexicon of political and ideological affiliation, this “identity” was largely an oxymoron until the 1990s. Over the last fifteen years though, with the public rise of Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly and others, black conservatives have been more willing to come to the forefront of public debate to make their ideology known, often with the result of severe ridicule and criticism. One of the latest individuals to join this select group is John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. With his book, Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, McWhorter left the safe, sterile and sometimes irrelevant confines of academia and jumped into the frying pan of American cultural debate regarding race and public policy.

The initial and seminal question one has when reading Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority is exactly who is McWhorter writing this book for? Who is his audience? This would be less of a concern if the author did not highlight this question at the opening pages of his book. By the title, one would gather that Authentically Black was “written […] as an in-group conversation between me and other African Americans” but that is not the case (xvi). He explains that with Losing the Race, “many white readers have gleaned that one of my main intents was simply to explain what looks so counterintuitive and self-defeating to them” regarding the behavior of African Americans (xvii). McWhorter than spends three pages considering his white readership and intended white audience.

All of this matters because the reader’s notion of audience fundamentally impacts how he views the ideas being espoused in the text. As an in-group racial conservation (which usually involves two parties?), Authentically Black is a serious examination of troubling dynamics within the African American community. As a text meant to appeal to white readers, primarily white conservative readers, the text is very problematic, as if McWhorter is attempting to tell readers what they already believe, in order to become a member of the “club.” La mort de l’auteur is irrelevant when reading this volume because the reader’s perceived intentions of the author, his motivation and intended audience, completely shapes his understanding of McWhorter's ideas.

Authentically Black includes nine relatively free-standing essays involving critical issues in contemporary American culture including the reparations movement, affirmative action, black leadership and television stereotyping of black Americans.

What underlies much of the rhetoric of the book is McWhorter’s twist on W. E. B. Du Bois’s concept of double consciousness. Du Bois’s analysis was that African Americans were caught between self-conceptions of being both of African descent and of being American. McWhorter argues that the early twenty-first-century version of this is of “a black person [who] stresses personal initiative and strength in private but dutifully takes on the mantle of victimhood as a public face”(2). While this is deemed as “authenticity” in the black community (a concept the author demeans) this obsession with “keeping it real” is argued to be self-destructive to the black community. McWhorter argues that much of this public self-proclamation is simply performative.

Jesse Jackson’s sprint to defend the latest victim of racism or his attempt to reconcile an international crisis is not taken seriously by most Americans. Al Sharpton’s bid to become a legitimate presidential candidate is laughable. But both of these men continue to be in the public eye because they will not allow white Americans forget a tragic history and the continuation of racism. In McWhorter’s view, contemporary African Americans only claim black leaders who are “committed to keeping whitey on his toes.” If this is true, why do many African Americans consider Oprah Winfrey and Maya Angelou as black leaders? They seldom, if ever, consider black victimhood. McWhorter angrily reports that most African Americans don’t consider Colin Powell to be “authentically black.” Powell’s “blackness” is never denied by the African American community. His service to the nation, his military expertise and intelligence, his skill as a diplomat are seldom debated. The problem that many, if not most, African Americans have with a man of Powell’s intellect is how he could align himself with a man as simple-minded and reactionary as George W. Bush. This is the black silent majority, Mr. McWhorter.

What is a shame is that the author has a point. Careerist academics like bell hooks have made their reputations mumbling the mantra “white supremacist capitalist hegemony.” Many academics have made their careers not by telling history as it was but by continuously churning the waters of victimhood. It is also true that most African American families teach the values of hard work and education. This contradiction between the assumption of victimology and self-help are strains that do tear at the fabric of the African American community. But this is an issue that often transcends race. Notions of class and educational achievement have to be factored in this debate.

The intended audience for McWhorter’s book becomes clear in his discussion of racial profiling. Going beyond his conservative label, McWhorter views racial profiling as a serious dilemma in contemporary American culture primarily because it gives millions of African Americans concrete proof that racism is still prevalent. This essay is strong and nuanced but toward the end of the essay the author explains that “this message is especially relevant to today’s Republican Party” and that “Democrats [are] hostage to theatrics of identity politics” (59). McWhorter takes a well-written essay and turns it into a Republican Party recruiting tool. This happens several times in the text and leads the reader to believe that Authentically Black is either a white conservative Republican guide to “authentic black” culture or a polemic encouraging African Americans to switch to the Republican Party.

In McWhorter’s chapter on double consciousness and reparations he argues and attempts to statistically prove that most Americans believe that most black people are still poor and that little economic progress has been made by black Americans in the last thirty years. What McWhorter fails to do with this concept is explain how contemporary African American culture—primarily rap and hip hop and the videos that accompany it—often helps promote this attitude. This is unfortunate because his chapter entitled “The ‘Can You Find the Stereotype?’ Game: Blacks on Television” is the most insightful in the book. A critique of cultural historians, primarily respected author Donald Bogle, McWhorter’s analysis of the literature on black representation in television is thought provoking. Cultural historians often obsessively pick apart African American characterizations on television and only praise such representations if they are positive or enriching. Even this dynamic is often critiqued as in the case with the Cosby show. McWhorter dismantles the Bogle scheme of taking pre-1968 racial stereotypes and transporting them to contemporary television shows. This was work that needed to be done. Bogle’s Primetime Blues is a seminal work in black representation but it has never undergone a serious textual analysis. The time was overdue.

McWhorter’s essay on affirmative action is enlightening considering the recent landmark decision by the Supreme Court. McWhorter conveniently fails to acknowledge three of the realities of the university experience today though, which is shocking considering his career. First, he never addresses legacies that allow thousands of relatives of university graduates into the school of their choice simply because of their family connections. While many of these students are bright, many also are not. This is one double standard that McWhorter has to address considering the contemporary debate on this provocative issue. Second, McWhorter fails to acknowledge the conditions of class in terms of admissions into the university system. Many African Americans are not as economically privileged as their fellow students and this has a considerable impact upon their university experience. Third, when the author argues that “black students bring this sense of the campus and sequester themselves in their own dorms, parties and social orders, it makes a mocking of […] diversity,” McWhorter fails to realize that many African American students are first generation college students (161). We often look for our own when we need security, safety and a sense of belonging, particularly at the precarious age of eighteen. Similar criticisms are not made of Asian American or Arab American self-enclosure.

I do not want to attempt to silence John McWhorter. His ideas in Authentically Black are simultaneously frustrating and challenging, dead on and misguided, racially provocative and Republican-sensitive. In the final essay, when McWhorter becomes concrete in discussing black leaders like Star Parker, John Bryant and the Reverend Eugene Rivers and the ideologies that drive their humanitarian work, he “authentically” makes his point that a new black leadership is rising. What was disturbing within the text though and constantly in the back of the mind of this reviewer, was the notion that McWhorter’s views on these sensitive issues would elevate him on a higher wrung of media darlingdom and further into the camp of Ralph Reed / Dick Cheney / Pat Robertson. When McWhorter is independent thinking and not hamstrung by conservative semantics, his work is challenging and provocative. When he toes the party line, he disappoints.

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