Checking the Black Box

Two men with decidedly different political outlooks have been my go-to sources on race in America. They are Dr. Thomas Sowell of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr., professor and director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.

Dr. Gates has just published his latest book, “The Black Box.” The title is a reference to a box on hospital forms for newborns which one must check to confirm their race. Gates rightly calls this an “absurdity,” largely because there are no racial “purebreds,” and regardless of how we look on the outside, we are all equal on the inside.

My first reaction upon reading his book was surprise that I didn’t learn much of what he writes about in high school or college. My second reaction was anger because I didn’t. One reason, I think, is that all of my teachers were white and textbooks sanitized the past in order to promote a “my country right or wrong” patriotic narrative.

Dr. Gates uses the black box as a metaphor for how African Americans were once “locked in” when it came to expressing themselves in writings and, in some instances, locked themselves in by accepting this type of racial censorship as “the way it is.”

As with his other books and PBS films, Dr. Gates exposes not only the thoughts and beliefs of some of the nation’s Founders, but of equal importance he uncovers the works of African American slaves and other Black people who were often censored by white society. It is hard to believe in today’s world that the writings of some Black authors had to be validated by committees made up of white people, the rationale being that many believed “Negroes” too dumb to be able to express themselves. The opposite, of course, is true as the author brilliantly shows us.

Practically everyone knows about Thomas Jefferson’s flaming phrase in the Declaration of Independence: “… all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” but how many know Jefferson’s beliefs about Black people? In his “Notes on the State of Virginia” (1785), Jefferson claimed their racial features, intellect and morals were “fixed in human nature” and so must necessarily be ruled over “by the fine mixtures of red and white.” There’s more from that work and it’s even worse.

“Consider this paradox,” Dr. Gates writes: “Blackness was an arbitrary category invented by Europeans and Americans in the Enlightenment to justify the horror show of Black subjugation … the very concept of race is the child of racism.” Thanks to advances in DNA research, “what we popularly call ‘race’ is a social construct.” As has been said by others, the only true race is the human race.

About “The Philosophy of History,” published in 1837, Dr. Gates writes, “G.W.F. Hegel wrote that Africa ‘is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit.’” Hegel claimed – falsely – “that Africa lacked a tradition of writing, either in European languages or indigenous African languages … (like others) He ignored the Black written tradition in Arabic at the University of Timbuktu. It didn’t fit his thesis.”

It didn’t fit his thesis could be said about supporters and practitioners of the slave trade and Jim Crow laws that kept Blacks from voting in the South.

“The Black Box,” along with the writings of Thomas Sowell, ought to be mandatory reading in every high school and American University, in large part to make up for the suppressed writings of talented and intelligent Black people of the past. They deserve the attention and praise most were denied in their time.

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