The Black Box of Race
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Author: Henry Louis Gates Jr.
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The Atlantic

My daughter Maggie gave birth to Ellie, my granddaughter, by C‑section on a Saturday afternoon in November of 2014. That evening, my son‑in‑law, Aaron, came over for a warm hug and a celebratory shot of bourbon. I listened to Aaron’s play‑by‑play of the events, and after a decent pause, I asked the question that I had wanted to ask all along:

“Did you check the box?”

Without missing a beat, my good son‑in‑law responded, “Yes, sir. I did.”

“Very good,” I responded, as I poured a second shot.

Aaron, a young white man, had checked the “Black” box on the form that Americans are required to complete at the time of the birth of a child.

Now, my daughter’s father’s admixture—in other words, mine—is 50 percent sub‑Saharan African and 50 percent European, according to DNA tests. My son‑in‑law is 100 percent European. Because Maggie is 75 percent European, Ellie will test about 87.5 percent European when she spits in the test tube.

Eleanor Margaret Gates‑Hatley, who looks like an adorable little white girl, will live her life as a “Black” person, because her father and mother checked the “Black” box. That choice will define so very many of Ellie’s encounters with the world—from how her college application is read to how her physician assesses her risks for certain medical conditions. And she will be destined, throughout her life, to face the challenge of “proving” that she is “Black,” simply because her self‑styled “race man” grandfather ardently—and perhaps foolishly—wished for her racial self to be socially constructed that way.

Such is the absurdity of the history of race and racial designations in the United States, stemming from “the law of hypodescent,” the proverbial “one‑drop rule.” Perhaps Eleanor will choose to dance the dance of racial indeterminacy, moving effortlessly back and forth across the color line. Or maybe she will claim a social identity that reflects her European ancestry. Or maybe she will keep a photograph of her grandfather in her pocketbook and delight in refuting—or affirming, as the case may be—the laughable, tragic arbitrariness of the social construction of race in America. The most important thing is that this be her choice.

The “black box” has become a powerful symbol for me. In the event of a plane crash, of course, the black box is what survives—a record of the truth amid disastrous circumstances. The black box is something you can’t see inside—it has inputs and outputs, but its internal workings are not comprehendible. Above all it is a metaphor for the circumscribed universe within which people of African descent have been forced to construct a new identity on this side of the Atlantic.

The Yale legal scholar Stephen L. Carter defined his own box in this way:

To be black and an intellectual in America is to live in a box. So, I live in a box, not of my own making, and on the box is a label, not of my own choosing. Most of those who have not met me, and many of those who have, see the box and read the label and imagine they have seen me.

In Carter’s usage, the black box is a place of identity confinement through predefinition, akin to the late literary critic Barbara Johnson’s definition of a stereotype as “an already read text.” The Black face enters the room, and at a glimpse, the viewer knows all that they need to know about the person wearing the mask of Blackness. Good luck, Carter is suggesting, shedding any of those connotations.

And yet a great portion of the history of African Americans consists of the marvelous and ingenious means by which they have navigated their way in and out of the box in which they’ve been confined.

Perhaps the first black box was the definition of Africa as “the Dark Continent,” a metaphor for the color of its inhabitants’ skin as well as for their supposed benightedness. This metaphor was used to justify the second, even crueler black box, within which people of African descent found themselves placed by Europeans—the dreadful transatlantic slave trade, responsible for perhaps the largest forced migration in human history. It was the repository of all the racist stereotypes employed to justify the enslavement of a continent of human beings and then, subsequent to the abolition of slavery, to justify the rollback of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow segregation.

The author Henry Box Brown literalized this trope by escaping from slavery in 1849 by being shipped from Richmond to Philadelphia in a box measuring three feet, one inch long; two feet, six inches high; and two feet wide. The box was labeled this side up to keep Brown upright, but the instruction was often ignored, meaning Brown spent hours of his trip upside down, drinking water from a beef bladder and breathing through three drilled holes.

But the black box was also, somehow, a place of creativity, a universe of culture mysteriously and inexplicably produced, and often unintelligible to those outside it. Frederick Douglass recognized this when he mused about the “Sorrow Songs”—spirituals composed by enslaved men and women. “They would make the dense old woods, for miles around, reverberate with their wild songs, revealing at once the highest joy and the deepest sadness.” These songs were composed in code, music set “to words which to many would seem unmeaning jargon, but which, nevertheless, were full of meaning to themselves.” Douglass himself confessed he did not understand: “They told a tale of woe which was then altogether beyond my feeble comprehension.”

In 1884, this magazine published a long article called “The Negro Problem,” by the Harvard professor Nathaniel Southgate Shaler, a paleontologist and geologist as well as a strong proponent of scientific racism and eugenics. Shaler’s white-supremacist discourse fell squarely into the school of thought imposed on the Black community that was used well into the 20th century to justify the eradication of rights gained by African Americans during Reconstruction. Thirteen years later, also in this magazine, W. E. B. Du Bois wrote, “Being a problem is a strange experience.” His essay, “Strivings of the Negro People” (which he would revise slightly for his 1903 book, The Souls of Black Folk), described the “Negro Problem” label as a kind of black box:

The ‘shades of the prison-house’ closed round about us all: walls strait and stubborn to the whitest, but relentlessly narrow, tall, and unscalable to sons of night who must plod darkly against the stone, or steadily, half hopelessly watch the streak of blue above.

(The writers of these two Atlantic essays knew each other: Shaler was Du Bois’s professor at Harvard. Perhaps paradoxically, Du Bois expressed gratitude to Shaler for defending his presence in class against the protests of a southern student.)

It was to free himself and the race from the bounds of this box that Du Bois and many others wrote and spoke so prolifically, addressing the subject again and again. For Ralph Ellison, in Invisible Man, the black box is both a boxing ring in which two blindfolded Black boys are forced to beat each other senseless and also the hole in which Ellison’s protagonist hides from a world that seeks to impose upon him its masks of identity, where he types the manuscript that we eventually are surprised to learn we are reading over his shoulder.

But being doomed to fight against racism could also be a trap. As Du Bois’s fellow Harvard graduate and sometime ideological foe, the philosopher Alain Locke, put it, even “the thinking Negro” inside a black box forged “in the mind of America” is forced “to see himself in the distorted perspective of a social problem. His shadow, so to speak, has been more real to him than his personality.”

More recently, Terrance Hayes’s poem “The Blue Seuss” explores the metaphor of the black box. It begins:

Blacks in one box
Blacks in two box
Blacks on
Blacks stacked in boxes stacked on boxes
Blacks in boxes stacked on shores
Blacks in boxes stacked on boats in darkness
Blacks in boxes do not float
Blacks in boxes count their losses

And ends:

Blacks in voting booths are
Blacks in boxes
Blacks beside
Blacks in rows of houses are Blacks in boxes too

As a professor, I try to teach my students about how Black people have sought to escape from this box. But even more important, I endeavor to expose them to the long tradition of Black discourse, and the often disregarded fact that Black people have been arguing with one another about what it means to be Black since they began to publish their thoughts and feelings in the latter quarter of the 18th century.

When Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had the audacity to insert himself into the morality of American involvement in the Vietnam War, for example, even—or especially—several of his fellow leaders of the civil-rights movement told him that he was out of bounds, demanding that he redirect his concerns to issues relevant to those doomed to dwell within the black box, advice that the good reverend boldly ignored.

The moral is that there never has been one way to be Black; that African Americans are as varied and as complex in their political and religious beliefs as any other group. And they have voiced those internal differences with great fervor and passion, stunning eloquence, and vehemence, often even subjecting those Black thinkers with whom they disagree to the nastiest and pettiest ad hominem attacks.

These debates within and about the African American tradition have for too long been opaque to most Americans, in the same way that the songs of his enslaved sisters and brothers remained opaque to Frederick Douglass. Too often, we talk about “the Black community” as if it were a village composed of a unitary group, one with shared experiences and unified views. Reflecting on what binds Black Americans together and on what distinguishes individuals and subcultures within that tradition has never been more crucial than at this contested and polarized moment, with its focus on identity and identity politics, and Americans’ lazy predisposition to think of every group as monolithic.

But the tradition of Black thought is most correctly described as a series of contentions, many of them fiery ones. And fire, as the greatest Black intellectuals have always known, can generate light as well as heat.

The “right” answer about how to escape the black box has never been formulated, precisely because there never has been, and never will be, one right answer to that haunting question.

Consider this paradox: The very concept of “race” is the child of racism. “Blackness” was an arbitrary category invented by Europeans and Americans in the Enlightenment to justify the horror show of Black subjugation. The human beings who suddenly became “Black” were then forced to play a complex game of “representation” to claim some space in the world, and that vexed process evolved into a rich legacy of self‑definition within this diverse community composed of every type of person living on the planet Earth—some 50 million of them in this country alone—connected by their relationship to this proverbial black box, a metaphysical construct invented to justify an economic order in which their selfhood could be objectified, their subjectivity robbed, and their labor stolen.

They created this legacy of self-definition, in no small part, by using the master’s tool: writing.

During the Enlightenment, Black authors such as Ignatius Sancho, John Marrant, and Olaudah Equiano managed to forge successful careers against all the odds. Others were less fortunate. Despite her unprecedented fame, the poet Phillis Wheatley died in obscurity and poverty in 1784. Jacobus Capitein, a formerly enslaved man from the Gold Coast, defended his doctoral dissertation (which argued that the Bible did not oppose slavery) at the University of Leiden in 1742. He returned home, founded a school, and, after falling from Dutch grace, was buried in an unmarked grave. We can begin to understand how he was seen by his contemporaries through the words a fellow student at Leiden inscribed in the foreword to Capitein’s dissertation: “See this Moor, his skin is black, but white his soul … He will bring faith, hope and love to the Africans, so they will, whitened, honour the Lamb.”

The small, elite group of Black intellectuals wrote very few words about the matter of their “Blackness” in a world still wrestling with who and what they were, and what the relation between “Blackness” and “whiteness” could possibly be in European economies defined by the trade in Black human beings. No matter how brilliant an individual of color might be, no matter how much fame, respect, or financial success he might achieve, he was standing on a trap door.

Thus was the fate of Angelo Soliman.

Soliman was born around 1721, likely in what is now Nigeria. According to the scholars Iris Wigger and Spencer Hadley, he was stolen from his family as a child and forced into slavery in Italy, where he became the property of the imperial governor of Sicily, Count Lobkowitz. When the count died, Soliman became a servant to a prince in Vienna, dressed in exotic styles as a so‑called court Moor. The prince dismissed Soliman when, without permission, he married an aristocratic widow. Nevertheless, Soliman’s stature only increased, and his black box began to crack open.

He continued to move in aristocratic circles, rejoined the royal court as an educator under the prince’s successor, and joined a Masonic lodge that counted Mozart and Haydn among its members. Soliman became the grand master of this lodge and gave its rituals a more scholarly bent, so much so that he is still celebrated in Masonic lore as Angelus Solimanus, the “Father of Pure Masonic Thought.” He spoke multiple languages. He may well have been the most prominent Black person in Europe at the time.

In death none of this mattered. Soliman died on November 21, 1796. Despite the pleas of his daughter, Josephine, Soliman would not receive a proper Christian burial. Instead, his body fell into the hands of the director of the Royal Natural History Collection, Abbé Simon Eberlé, who had hatched his heinous plan while Soliman was still alive, petitioning the government for the “cession of the corpse.” What followed was horrific.

As Wigger and Hadley write, Eberlé “ordered a death mask to be created before Soliman’s skin was removed and prepared for exhibition with a stuffing compound. The so created figure was then dressed up as a ‘savage’ in a loin cloth, with an ostrich feather crown and glass beads, and presented to the public in the midst of taxidermised exotic animals.”

In the ultimate humiliation, Soliman was placed on display at the museum, a debased artifact trapped behind glass. As late as 1806, this perverse specter of European primitivism and anti‑Black racism was still proudly on display—a literal realization of permanent suspension in a black box. Eventually it was moved to a warehouse, which burned in the October Revolution of 1848.

The quest for culture and individual identity in the face of such history is an argument without end. Like all truly great arguments, it is a story of ceaseless creativity and reinvention, without which any attempt to understand America is not just incomplete but absurd.

This essay is adapted from the forthcoming book The Black Box: Writing the Race. Buy Book. When you buy a book using a link on this page, The Atlantic will receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.  is an American literary critic, professor, historian, and filmmaker who serves as the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and the director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is a trustee of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History.[1] He rediscovered the earliest known African-American novels and has published extensively on the recognition of African-American literature as part of the Western canon.

In addition to producing and hosting previous series on the history and genealogy of prominent American figures, since 2012, Gates has been host of the television series Finding Your Roots on PBS. The series combines the work of expert researchers in genealogy, history, and historical research in genetics to tell guests about the lives and histories of their ancestors.

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