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Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority.

Authentically Black: Essays for the Black Silent Majority by John McWhorter Gotham Books, January 2003 $25.00, ISBN 1-592-40001-9

The Great Wells of Democracy by Manning Marable Basic Civitas Books, January 2003 $26.00, ISBN 0-465-07062-0

During troubled times such as these--last-and-first days of conservative ascendancy, economic recession, biological anxiety and increasingly apocalyptic rumblings of war--the street value of black public intellectuals decreases precipitously. What appetite exists for famous-negro-on-famous-negro battle royales, when the discourse demands that any pundit appearing on TV speak solely as an American--a liberal or a conservative American perhaps--but definitely some kind of Yankee.

The black spin on, say, Iraq or Al Qaeda may exist. But practically speaking--and I stress the word "practically"--those opinions tend to be almost invisible since they don't suit the disposition of wartime punditry. As the contretemps over Amiri Baraka's poem "Somebody Blew Up America" would indicate, when America is under attack it's time to get with the program. Black punditry--an op-ed for example, or an appearance on CNN, or depending on the crowd you like to run with, a lecture or reading--with the words "as an African American, my reaction to 9/11 is" is seen as indicative of a damning lack of team spirit.

Black neo-con perspectives on Iraq are also hard to find on the tube and in the editorial pages, but for the very different reason that black neo-conservative opinions on foreign affairs are a kind of self-negating redundancy. The opinion in question is generally indistinguishable from general conservative cant by virtue of the neo-con's identification with "America" to the exclusion of all other ethnic and racial heritage. Unless the topic of the day is, say, "Islamic fundamentalism in Africa," there's just no reason to trot out the black talking androids to say just what Vice President Dick Cheney or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld would. What would they have to offer, and who would care?

All of which is to say that not many people, black or otherwise, will be reading John McWhorter's Authentically Black. In the interest of fairness, it's also worth mentioning that it's also very likely that not many people will be reading Manning Marable's The Great Wells of Democracy. In both cases that's a shame. Marable has some important and hopeful things to say about race and American politics that deserve the kind of hearing, which is impossible in today's climate.

Marable's Democracy is organized in three sections that logically lay out his thesis of racial history and politics: The American Dilemma, The Retreat From Equality and Reconstructing Racial Politics. Piggybacking on some of his ideas laid out in Beyond Black and White, Marable offers a different perspective on America's racial history and proposes strategies for a more inclusive democracy, including compelling arguments for restoring felons' voting rights, slavery reparations, and even controversial ideas about reconfiguring racial identity.

McWhorter, of course, is a creature of the news cycle, particularly the collapsing Clinton era. His new collection of essays--most of them reprints that appeared in other media--unlike other post-9/11 product launches, makes no mention of the new world in which we live. Instead he continues his patented bloodless drone about "victim-hood" and "self-sabotage" as if it was 1998 all over again, and black folks had a friend in the White House.

The follow-up to McWhorter's Losing the Race--as opposed to his pop-linguistics book, The Power of Babel--Authentically Black suffers from the same shortcoming as Losing the Race, which is to say, Mcwhorter's almost radical inability to meaningfully apply any concepts gleaned from his day-job as a linguist to his sideline as a neo-conservative talking head. Much like Losing the Race, Authentically Black's most intriguing bits have to do with language--a novel analysis of Randall Kennedy and the n-word, a nice pitch for substituting Mende for Swahili as the Afrocentric African language of choice. Outside of that, and almost to an essay, McWhorter evinces tone deafness to the texture, quality and social undercurrents of black life, a remarkable feat for a book subtitled "Essays for the Black Silent Majority."

Like Bill O'Reilly with a Ph.D., McWhorter inveighs against "BET" and "hip hop," and considers the problems of black students named Dwayne and Tomika, while addressing the shortcomings of Kwanzaa--but all from a distance that suggests his primary exposure wasn't gleaned from media or human practice, but as primary research. That research comes not from fieldwork, but rather from the op-eds of his much derided black leaders--op-eds, which he dutifully clipped and filed, to be sure, but little else.

On matters of culture, a particularly pointless, rambling attack on film and television scholar Donald Bogle, McWhorter is laughable. McWhorter blasts Spike Lee's Bamboozled as unwatchable while praising the insipid Swordfish for it's colorblind casting of Halle Berry. At the end of the day, McWhorter makes a terrible spokesman for his black silent majority, not because they don't exist, but because he obviously has in idea how and where they live.

--Gary Dauphin is editor- in-chief of
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Author:Dauphin, Gary
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jan 1, 2003
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