Henry Louis Gates Jr. Unpacks Black Literature’s ‘Black Box’

THE BLACK BOX: Writing the Race, by Henry Louis Gates Jr.

By way of explaining the metaphor that serves as the title of his latest book, “The Black Box,” the Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates Jr. transcribes a conversation he had with his son-in-law after the birth of his granddaughter 10 years ago:

The box that Gates’s son-in-law checked on a birth registration form indicates that his granddaughter is Black, even though his daughter’s genetic admixture is 75 percent European, and his son-in-law is 100 percent European. In other words, as Gates notes, his granddaughter “will test about 87.5 percent European when she spits in the test tube.”

Gates offers this anecdote to suggest the arbitrariness of racial categories, and to focus our attention on the image of the box — a container that can function simultaneously as a “circumscribed enclosure” and a zone in which the confined can create a thriving “social and cultural world.”

For Gates, the box is a supple concept. Not only does it appear with surprising frequency in literature by Black Americans — from the fugitive slave author Henry Box Brown (who escaped slavery in a box) to Booker T. Washington (who described the box as a barrel) to the contemporary poet Terrance Hayes — but Gates extends the metaphor to other kinds of boxes that relate to Black experience, to ordeals withstood and survived. He cites an airplane’s flight recorder box, a device that “preserves a record of the truth amid disastrous circumstances,” and the slave ship, before arriving at his thesis: African Americans have consistently relied on the written word to express and shape their reality despite the constraints imposed on them from outside, which they have endured since they were first brought to this continent.

“The Black Box” is based on lectures Gates has delivered for many years in his Introduction to African American Studies class at Harvard. From the beginning, he shows, African Americans have turned to literary forms to validate their humanity. He quickly sketches the childhood of Phillis Wheatley — her journey to America via slave ship, her rapid mastery of English — and the varied responses to her poetry, which she began to publish as a precocious teenager.

Wheatley’s success undermined the prevailing sentiment that Black Americans were less intelligent than their white counterparts, and in response to her art some thinkers, such as Voltaire, revised their formerly negative perspectives on Black people, while others, including Thomas Jefferson, remained steadfast in their views. (Jefferson on Wheatley: “The compositions published under her name are below the dignity of criticism.”)

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