The Black Box: Writing the Race

Image of The Black Box: Writing the Race
Release Date: 
March 19, 2024
Penguin Press
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“a gift to anyone interested in African American history and African American writing . . .”

A black box is many things. It’s a flight recorder—a preserver of the facts of a disaster, disinterred and pored over in the aftermath. It’s also something you might tick when your Black baby is born. It’s also an image of confinement experienced by the captured Africans in the hold of the slave ship, a metaphor literalized by Henry Brown, who escaped from slavery in Virginia in 1849 by shipping himself in a box to abolitionists in Philadelphia. (He would thereafter be known as Henry Box Brown.) In Ralph Ellison’s novel Invisible Man, the hero hides out in an underground room—another black box of sorts—whose only illumination are the lights powered by electricity stolen from the city’s grid.

The black box, then, is a malleable metaphor and it provides Henry Louis Gates Jr. with the title for his latest book. The Black Box: Writing the Race surveys 250 years of African American writing. It proceeds chronologically, beginning with early slave narratives and encompassing seminal figures in African American letters such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois, and Booker T. Washington. Based on the author’s Harvard course Introduction to African American Studies, The Black Box consists of seven accessible and enlightening essays.

There are revelations throughout. In the first chapter—Race, Reason, and Writing—we learn that many of the earliest African American writers wrote to prove their humanity. The idea that Black people could “think” and “create” was radical to the majority of whites. They regarded the enslaved as subhuman, their worth measured in productivity, like farm animals. When an enslaved teenager called Phyllis Wheatley produced a collection of poems, the elite white community “tested” and “examined” her to verify that she was capable of writing poetry. She passed the test.

As the book proceeds, it becomes clear that the essays are only loosely about African American writing. The real topic is Black self-determination. Numerous asides and digressions serve to exemplify how African Americans forged their place in the world, earned their dignity in the face of white supremacy, and built communities through the word.

The Harlem Renaissance is the most famous example of a Black literary community, but Gates Jr. unearths other trends and phenomena. It was African Americans who invented a wildly popular new literary genre in the late 18th century: the slave narrative. More than one hundred were published in the following decades. Later African American writers found allies working in other art forms: W.E.B. Du Bois used and curated photography extensively, Langston Hughes recognized how jazz could influence poetic forms, and so on.  

While the book excels in its considerations of topics such as class division among African Americans and the importance of names (for knowing one’s lineage, but also for being identified by slave catchers), when it comes to authors, comprehensiveness is not the goal of The Black Box. Indeed, there are many omissions of canonical Black writers. Octavia Butler and Lorraine Hansberry are absent; James Baldwin, arguably the greatest African American writer of all, only appears once; Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison appear twice each. There is also very little critical appraisal of literary works. Those hoping for detailed exegeses of, say, the novels of Alice Walker or Toni Morrison will be disappointed.  

What we have instead is a remarkable story with dozens of fascinating protagonists who fought, and thought, against the odds. They rose above their predicament to produce enduring works of art or to expound eloquently in writing, as well as at the podium, on the meaning of freedom so that future generations might be truly free. The clarity and poise of Gates Jr.’s work is a gift to anyone interested in African American history and African American writing, which, as the author so elegantly argues, are inextricably connected.