Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. is the correspondent and writer for FRONTLINE's report, 'The Two Nations of Black America.'  During early discussions with June Cross, the program's producer, concerning the shape and the scope of this documentary on the class divide in black America,  Gates drafted the following  essay focused on the question--How have we reached this point, where we have both the largest black middle class and the largest black underclass in our history?

As Gates grapples with this question, he reviews the choices he faced in his own life as an adolescent and college student, and how those choices differ from those young African-Americans face today.  He considers the political tenor of the late sixties, his own background as a country boy from rural West Virginia, his student days at Yale, and the tensions between the Black Panther Party and black Yale students.  He contrasts that with today's gangsta culture, Afrocentrism, the Nation of Islam, and the Million Man March.  Finally, he suggests an agenda for conquering the class divide.

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"Six black men, each intellectually superior in their own way, graduate from Yale College in the Class of 1966. Each had managed, through some luck and a lot of pluck, to penetrate the iron-clad barriers that have kept the number of blacks matriculating at Yale to a fixed number for the past several decades. When I entered Yale in 1968, ninety six black men and women entered with me, the largest group of Afro-Americans ever to arrive on Yale's Old Campus at one time.

We were, to a person, caught up in the magic of the moment. Our good fortune was to have been selected, like the few blacks who had proceeded us, to be part of the first "large" group of blacks included in Yale's commitment to educate "1000 male leaders" each year, as Yale's President, Kingman Brewster, declared to our class at the Freshman Assembly. "A thousand male leaders," he had intoned, and two hundred fifty women--for the first time in Yale's 250-year history. But what would becoming a true black leader entail--for ourselves, in the classroom, and for our people outside those hallowed Ivy Walls? What sort of sacrifices and obligations did this special ticket to success bring along with it? We worried about this, and we worried out loud, often, and noisily.

While mostly we did our worrying on our time--our long languid dinners in the Colleges, or in bull sessions in our suites--our ritualized worrying space was our weekly meetings of the Black Student Alliance at Yale, the venerable political association headed by our black and shining prince, Glenn de Chabert. Our first item of business was always "recruitment"- how to get more black students to join us at New Haven. "This place is lily white!" de Chabert would complain. "We are tokens to them, flies in the buttermilk." Brimming to overflow with maybe two hundred students from the College, the professional schools and the graduate school--the year's first meeting of the B.S.A.Y. looked like Harlem to me! I would, at once, bask in the warmth generated by the comfort of the range of brown colors in that room, clothed with dashikis and sandals, or J. Press button-down collars and Brooks Brothers weejuns, all of us capped with Afro's -- some bold, some discrete -- yet shudder as unnoticeably as I could with the angst that curdled the juices in my stomach as I contemplated the awesome burden of leadership that we felt, or were made to feel, fulfilling our obligations to "help the community," "to give some give back." After all, "the Revolution was unfolding" around the country, and we were to be its vanguard, along with studentslike us at Harvard, Columbia, and Princeton; at Swarthmore, Amherst, and Wesleyan. And this burden was no mere abstraction. After all, the trial of New Haven's Black Panthers and of one of their leaders, Bobby Seale, was unfolding just a block or two away, downtown at New Haven's federal courthouse.

We were able to think about these issues in seminars and lectures taught at "Afro-Am." In an accident of history, our cadre of blackness arrived on Yale's campus in the same year as did the Program in Afro-American Studies. If middle-class integration of historically white institutions was our generation's visible, vibrant legacy of the great movement for Civil Rights, "Afro-Am" would be its intellectual wing, its scholarly rationale and its academic raison d'être. Located on the fringe of campus, a hundred yards or so from the New Haven Green, Afro-Am had been established at the insistence of, and through the sensitive planning of, a handful of black undergraduates, remarkably sophisticated for their ages. With a major grant from the Ford Foundation, a stellar planning conference that thinkers as unlike as Harold Cruse, Maulana Karenga and even McGeorge Bundy had attended--and a lot of passion and chutzpah-- Armstead Robinson, Glenn de Chabert and Craig Foster planned and executed the blueprint of what soon became the finest program of its kind in the country.

But would it last?--we were forced to wonder--constructed as it was around a chairman who had no tenure and a bevy of junior professors and one or two-term visitors? We used to fantasize about one day having a full complement of scholars, holding endowed chairs named for W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey, James Weldon Johnson and Frederick Douglass, Langston Hughes and Duke Ellington. We'd have our own Secret Societies, like Skull and Bones or Book and Snake, patterned after them but draped all in sepia, somewhat akin to the ex-colored man's club in James Weldon Johnson's I912 novel by that same name. Our scholars would be black, and they would be here, in New Haven, at the table in the Big House--the Big House on the Yale Plantation, as we called it, the plantation operated by Mother Yale.

It astonishes me today at how sharp my black colleagues were, how so very thoughtful beyond their years, how mature. For some reason, I long assumed that most of these guys were up from the ghetto, first generation Ivy, first generation college. After all, our uniforms of the day masked social distinctions. Dashikis and blue jeans obliterated our variety of social backgrounds. And everyone seemed concerned about increasing our financial aid packages, our first big "political" issue on that year's crowded agenda. "When I read Plato," de Chabert declared at the apex of a passionate meeting of the BSAY, "I need to listen to Coltrane or Miles, in order to digest it properly!" Wild applause greeted this stunning insight; I headed straight to Cutler's Record Shop to make some signal purchases, just before class the very next day.

Names like Baskerville and Irving, Reed and Robinson, Schmoke and de Chabert, Barrington Parker the Third, meant nothing particular to me; only later would I discover the social origins of my contemporaries, well-heeled and middle class almost to a person, no strangers to the idea of college or degrees. Had it not been for affirmative action, we would have met at Morehouse. They were not so much a new black middle class bourgeoisie recruited to scale the ladder of class, as we were the scions of an old and colored middle class, recruited to integrate a white male elite. And we clung to a soft black nationalist politics to keep ourselves to the straight and narrow, almost like born-again Christians, carrying our Bibles in our booksacks and attending Prayer Meetings two or three times a week, chanting the mantra of "The Talented Tenth." Lest we backslide.

Those of us who availed ourselves of it had quite a lot of mentors. After all, Bobby Seale and the New Haven 19 were on trial just a block or two away. Among the black faculty were Bryce Laporte, Austin Clarke, Houston Baker, and John Blassingame and Ken Mills. Mills, a Trinidad-born, Oxford-trained analytic philospher, who stood six feet six, wore a blue jean suit, had a harelip, drove a TR-6 and sported a conical-shaped Afro. He was the voice of the Revolution itself, Marx and Marcuse in black face; pulling quotes from Hegel and Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Fanon, Gramsci and Mad, out of thin air like Svengali, in a classical Oxbridge accent that the Anglophile wannabees on the Yale faculty could only envy. Ken Mills was bad, if ever bad there was, as bad as he wanted to be, and on the white boy's own terms! All of the black faculty were race conscious, and passionately concerned that we succeed; each was a cultural nationalist in one way or another.

For me the crucial scene of instruction on the path of a more or less nationalist politics was Maulana Ron Karenga, whom I would not meet until I was a professor, decades later. I was sitting in my living room in Piedmont, West Virginia, two hours west of Washington, D.C., watching a black program piped in on cable, which had been produced by students at Howard University. The film was a heavy-handed allegory about racial loyalty and the necessary burdens of representation for the group that Du Bois at the turn-of-the-century had called "The Talented Tenth." A student, happily dating a white co-ed, comes to see the error of his ways after a campus visit by Maulana Karenga, during which he outlines his philosophy of "Kawaida," and its seven principles or tenets, known as the Nguzo Saba. The film uses a series of dramatic cut-aways, back and forth between Karenga's strident speech and our protagonist's dilemma of how to "stay black" while sleeping with a daughter of the enemy. "Beep beep, bang. Bang Ungowa--Black Powa!" the student rebels had chanted as their cry, demanding a "black" president for what all the world acknowledged as "the capstone of Negro education!"

And what a figure Karenga struck to my greased-down, stocking-capped imagination! Brown bald head, African robes, dark sun glasses, citing Swahili concepts as lazily as Ken Mills would recite Marx, this was one bad dude, bad enough to make this guy in the film turn his back on love and come on home! Now that was some speaker. I'm not sure that it had ever occurred to me before this that there was "a way to be black," that one could be in the program or outside of it; the initiates in a club or those who had been blackballed. Nor had it occurred to me that one or two people would emerge as keepers of the gate, deciding who made it in and who did not, like black St. Peter checking off names from The Book of Life, which is precisely what Karenga and his new ally, Amiri Baraka, would call their secret "book of blackness" that they decided to release only in pieces, "because the shit was too heavy for the so-called Negro's still-enslaved brain."

Of course, I knew what an Uncle Tom was, but even Uncle Tom and Aunt Jane were still part of the extended family. No one ever talked about banishing them from the tribe. Before this. But this was a new day. A new generation--a vanguard within the vanguard of civil rights leadership--was demanding Black Power, the right to take over. And declaring venerable elders like Dr. King to be too old, too tired, too milquetoast to be effective keepers of Black Power's incandescent flare. King was especially symptomatic, moving away as he had done from an exclusively race-based politics to a more broadly-conceived analysis that would bring "poor people" together. Just as he had a few years earlier linked arms with the likes of Dr. Spock and Bertrand Russell to protest continued American involvement in the Viet Nam War. Where did a movement based on poverty -- which would inevitably have to include the sort of rednecks that I grew up with in the Allegheny Mountains -- where would such a movement leave all of us who were hell-bent on discovering an Afro-coifed dashiki-clad "blackness" long forcibly hidden from our view? Even the Black Panthers-- ostensible Marxists that they so ardently claimed to be--even they manipulated the trappings of nationalist garb and rhetoric to maximize their appeal to "the community." What King was talking about was a different order of thing, a program that would eventually lead us out of the black community and straight into a coalition with the brown and red and white truly poor.

J. Edgar Hoover and his FBI, apparently, were not especially concerned about what Freud called "the narcissism of tiny differences' within the black movement. For Hoover, they were black, they were radical, they were Communist-inspired, Communist-funded, and Communist-controlled. And they, like Communists in Russia and in China, would be dealt with. Systematic repression has a curious way of hampering the evolution of a movement. Dr. King's assassination was, in retrospect, the most dramatic act of violent repression in the wing of the Movement, broadly-construed, that had moved, or was moving to, a class-based analysis as its organizing principle. Yet, just as class was entering the equation of a broad-based political movement, hell bent on reordering American society fundamentally, people like King and Huey Newton were either killed or imprisoned. Richard Nixon declared new campaigns for something called "Black Capitalism" and "Affirmative Action." Then, people as unlike as Elijah Mohammed and Vernon Jordan, Jesse Jackson, my new compatriots at Yale were invited to integrate a newly-expanding American black upper middle class.

Ironically, the vanguard of black cultural nationalist political consciousness became the vanguard in the race's broad movement across the great divide that had for so very long prevented genuine economic mobility up the great American ladder of class. Between 1954 and 1990, the black professional classes quadrupled. Nevertheless, today, 45% of all black children live at or beneath the poverty line.

When I was growing up in the fifties, the blackest thing that you could grow up to be was Thurgood Marshall, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or a teacher or a doctor like one of the characters that Sidney Poitier would play on the screen, in that widely popular genre that I call the Civil Rights film -- films such as "To Sir With Love" and "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" Many of us -- and let me confess that I was foremost among them -- received an enormous amount of inspiration from those films, or rather from the characters that Sidney played. Refined, well-spoken, articulate, well-educated, accomplished -- his character In "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" had taught at the Yale Medical School and was rumored to be in the running for a Nobel Prize. And there he was, standing tall before us, penetrating the innermost sanctums of the American upper-class power structure, and in San Francisco, no less, bastion of Hippiedom.

Without a doubt, the identities as race leaders that my fellow Yalies and I were attempting to forge had more than a remnant of Sidney's characters' mores and manners in them. However, for just as many of our generation, "Guess Who's Coming to Dinner?" epitomized the leftist critique of the civil rights movement. They accused the political vanguard of crossing over, away from "the community," far away into the bastions of power of white America, black faces, white masks. No Afro's or dashikis here! Some black people did not wish to make that trip, or pay the price of the ticket.

And then there were those who were not ever going to be coming to dinner, even if they wanted to. Somehow in the late sixties, in the aftermath of the King assassination, what was held to be "authentically" in black began to change. Ghetto culture was valorized; the "bourgeois" lifestyle that Sidney's characters and the old guard leaders of the civil rights establishment embodied was held to be too great a price to pay for our freedom, or at least to admit to. We wanted to be "real," to be "in touch with the masses," to "be down with the people," to be successful, yes, but to appear to be "black" at the same time. And to be black was to be committed to a revolution of values and of economic relationships. We were "a people" and we couldn't be free until all of us were free. And the best way to dramatize this kinship was to dress, walk, talk, and be "a home boy," a "b-boy," "a brother," "a sister," our class differences, our differences of ability and goals masked by Afro's and blue jeans and dashikis and the rhetoric and fashion of ghetto life. A brotherhood borne by the tongue: "what's happenin."

Above all else, it meant that we were at one with "the revolution," standing tall and firm in defense of "the people" and that revolutionary vanguard, the persecuted and harassed Black Panther Party for Self-Defense. For many of us, our solidarity with the Panthers was the Talented Tenth's finest movement, its war tales our opium as middle age approached. Soon, however, graduation inevitably came, calling us to the newly-expanded opportunities in graduate and professional schools, and then on to similarly expanded opportunities in the broader professional and academic world. All made possible by political leaders seeking to split the traditional coalition between unions and civil rights organizations.

What happened next is one of the most curious social transformations in class structure in recent American history. Two tributaries began to flow, running steadily into two distinct rivers of aspiration and achievement. By 1990, the black middle-class, perilous though it might feel itself to be, had never been larger, more prosperous, nor more relatively secure. Simultaneously, the pathological behavior that results from extended impoverishment engulfed a large part of a black underclass that seemed unable to benefit from a certain opening up of American society that the Civil Rights movement had long envisioned and had finally made possible. . And for the first time ever, that inability to benefit seemed permanent.

Gangsterism became its hand maiden. Even middle class children, well-educated, often, and well-heeled, found value in publicly celebrating a "gangsta" lifestyle. Cultural forms such as Rap and Hip Hop, "the CNN of the black community," valorized violence, narcissism, and a curious form of masochistic self-destruction. To be black was to be down with the community-- as it had been for our generation--even if wearing loose, sagging jeans that exposed one's underwear, baseball caps turned backwards and the omnipresent two hundred dollar pair of Nike tennis shoes, were new. But when life began to imitate art -when the gangsterism of the art of Hip Hop liberalized itself in the reciprocal murders of Tupac and Biggie Smalls -- then the bizarre nightmare inversion of popular black values manifested itself in a most public way. That Tupac's mother had been a loyal, staunch Black Panther, only underscored the irony. The Revolution would be televised, it turned out, live and in living color, sponsored by Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, and Death Row Records. Would Tupac, so attractive, charismatic, and princely, so articulate, so committed, have been a Huey Newton in a different time? Or put another way, would Huey Newton have become a Tupac had he been not born near the time when the FBI began using the Panthers as cannonfadder? I'm not so sure.

The Panthers, and ironically black studies, became real to me with the shooting death of John Huggins at UCLA in California. I didn't know John Huggins, but I "knew" his widow, through the zillions of posters plastered around Yale's bulletin boards demanding that they "Free the New Haven 9". Ericka Huggins's photograph became the revolution's logo. But I would come to know John Huggins' mother through daily visits to Yale's Sterling Memorial Library.

 

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