Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings

By Charles Lemert | Go to book overview

racialisms, etc.) that yield a one-dimensional functionalism, or a hyper-subtle analytical perspective that loses touch with the specificity of an art work's form and the context of its reception. Few cultural workers of whatever stripe can walk the tightrope between the Scylla of reductionism and the Charybdis of aestheticism--yet demystificatory (or prophetic) critics must.❖

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ( 1950-) was born in Keyser, West Virginia. After completing undergraduate studies at Yale in 1973, Gates studied at Cambridge University, where he received his Ph.D. in 1979. He has taught at Cornell ( 1985-1990), Duke ( 1990-1991), and Harvard, where he is director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute and professor of humanities. Gates moved to Harvard with the clear intent that he would revive its African-American studies program. He is the author and editor of numerous books, series, and collections, including Our Nig: Sketches in the Life of a Free Black ( 1983), Signifying Monkey ( 1988), Loose Canons ( 1991), Colored People ( 1994), and the multivolume Schomburg Library of Nineteenth-Century Black Women Writers.


"Race" as the Trope of the World

Henry Louis Gates Jr. ( 1986)

Race, as a meaningful criterion within the biological sciences, has long been recognized to be a fiction. When we speak of "the white race" or "the black race," "the Jewish race" or "the Aryan race," we speak in biological misnomers and, more generally, in metaphors. Nevertheless, our conversations are replete with usages of race which have their sources in the dubious pseudoscience of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. One need only flip through the pages of the New York Times to find headlines such as Brown University President Sees School Racial Problems or Sensing Racism, Thousands March in Paris." In The Lost White Tribe," a lead editorial in the 29 March 1985 issue, the New York Times notes that while "racism is not unique to South Africa," we must condemn that society because in "betraying the religious tenets underlying Western culture, it has made race the touchstone of political rights." The Times editorial echoes Eliot's "dissociation of sensibility," which he felt had been caused in large part by the fraternal atrocities of the First World War. (For many people with non-European origins, however, dissociation of sensibility resulted from colonialism and human slavery.) Race, in these usages, pretends to be an objective term of classification, when in fact it is a dangerous trope.

The sense of difference defined in popular usages of the term "race" has both described and inscribed differences of language, belief system, artistic tradition, and gene pool, as well as all sorts of supposedly natural attributes such as rhythm, athletic ability, cerebration, usury, fidelity, and so forth. The relation between "racial character" and these sorts of characteristics has been inscribed through tropes of race, lending the sanction of God, biology, or the natural order to even presumably unbiased descriptions of cultural tendencies and differences. Race consciousness," Zora Neale Hurston wrote, "is a deadly explosive on the tongues of men." In 1973 I

____________________
Excerpt from Henry Louis Gates Jr., ed., "Race," Writing, and Difference ( Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986), pp. 4-13. Copyright 1985, 1986 by The University of Chicago. Reprinted by permission.

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