Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"In His Own Home": Gendering the African American Domestic Sphere in Contemporary Culture

Academic journal article Women's Studies Quarterly

"In His Own Home": Gendering the African American Domestic Sphere in Contemporary Culture

Article excerpt

When journalists and cultural critics discussed the arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. for "disorderly conduct" in July 2009, a particular phrase appeared with regularity Gates was arrested, we heard time and again, "in his own home." Most readers will remember that Gates was arrested after an argument with Cambridge, Massachusetts, police, who came to investigate a report that two men were attempting to force open the front door of a home in an upper-middle-class neighborhood near the Harvard campus. We now know that Gates, just offa transcontinental flight, was actually trying to wrest open his own jammed front door, with the help of his driver. Critics, of course, typically invoked Gates s occupancy of his "own home" in order to underline the outrageousness of his arrest. Mark Anthony Neal (2009), for instance, points out, "Few would begrudge Professor Gates s rage ... in response to the questioning of his right to be in his own home." President Obama himself declared that the police had "acted stupidly in arresting somebody when there was already proof that they were in their own home" (Seelye 2009). And Stanley Fish (2009), writing in the New York Times, alludes to the rights and privileges that home ownership is supposed to confer, suggesting that the perceived implausibility of an African American man occupying a particular kind of home - large, well-appointed, and in a prestigious neighborhood - played a large part in the unfolding of the encounter. He recalls the disbelief that attended Gates s tenure at Duke, where, Fish tells us, Gates purchased and began to renovate the "grandest home in town." In Durham, Gates was frequently taken for a service worker at his own home; "the message was unmistakable: What was a black man doing in a place like this?" Critics, then, legitimately foreground the skepticism that greets an African American man in such a neighborhood. At the same time, they take for granted his right to all of the security, privacy, and respect that possession of such a home is supposed to guarantee.

The density of detail in which the story of Gates s encounter with Sergeant Crowley was embedded - the emphasis in the press coverage on the texture and tenor of the Cambridge neighborhood and the PBS documentary on which Gates had been working in China - kept Gates s class privilege visible to the public from the start. A number of critics pointed out that Gates s arrest, while shocking and anomalous when it happens to a distinguished Harvard professor - one who counts New York Times columnists and even the president of the United States as friends - are of course routine events for African Americans, especially men, throughout the United States. As Mark Anthony Neal (2009) writes, "Our concerns should reflect the regularity of such abuse, not just the selective outrage that befits those of more privilege." Michael Eric Dyson similarly suggests that Gates was guilty of "HWB, Housing While Black," and contends that "if a famous and affluent black man in his own home can be accosted, arrested, and humiliated, then all black folk can reasonably expect the same treatment" (2009; emphasis added). What went uninterrogated and undisputed in the rush of critical commentary that followed the arrest was the presumption of the latitude and deference - the "safety" from outside intervention and general hassle - that should attend a homeowner when he is within the parameters of "his own home." Certainly, as Neal and Dyson attest, this is a profoundly classed notion, attaching to the middleclass or wealthy homeowner in a way that it does not to the working-class or poor inhabitant of a rented or government-subsidized domestic space. I would argue as well that the remarkably, even hyperbolically, male tableau that followed the fallout from the arrest - when President Barack Obama invited both Gates and Sergeant Crowley to have a beer at the White House with him and vice president Joe Biden - did nothing to dispel the sense that notions of sanctity and security within the home continue to have a male face. …

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