James Campbell’s ‘NB by J.C.’ brings together the columns of an incendiary cultural critic. . . .
By Michael Dirda – May 12, 2023
Even before catching up with the latest scholarly kerfuffle in the Letters column, readers of Britain’s Times Literary Supplement turn first to its last page. There, one can find a weekly feature somewhat enigmatically titled NB, the Latin abbreviation for “nota bene,” which could be translated as “pay close attention.”
[NOTE: Henry Louis Gates could well be the best professor I never had.
I was first knocked over by his intellect and insight when I found his 1993 article that challenged the use of what was then newly-called “Critical Race Theory” as justification for repression of free speech by essentially private, often mob action, now often referred to as deplatforming.
The title of his article essentially sums it up: Why Civil Liberties Pose No Threat to Civil Rights. Let Them Talk. It was calm, thorough, clear, erudite and for me utterly persuasive. It was published in The New Republic, but an unpaywalled version of it is online here.
Gates predicted failure for this movement, and one could debate whether that failure has come about thirty years later. For me his most prophetic note was struck in this concluding paragraph:
And yet the movement will not have been without its political costs. I cannot put it better than [law professor] Charles Lawrence himself, who writes: “I fear that by framing the debate as we have–as one in which the liberty of free speech is in conflict with the elimination of racism– we have advanced the cause of racial oppression and placed the bigot on the moral high ground, fanning the rising flames of racism.”
In 2023, news from many states would seem to be confirming this ominous forecast daily.
Gates has also courted controversy with articles that argue against the deep complicity of many African groups and peoples in the Atlantic slave trade, which was accurate but elicited howls of invective.
“People wanted to kill me, man,” Gates says of the reaction to that op-ed. “Black people were so angry at me. But we need to get some distance from the binary opposition we were raised in: evil white people and good Black people. The world just isn’t like that.”
He was also pilloried for suggesting that the issue of reparations brings with it many complexities, few yet worked out satisfactorily. Gates last year waded into the debates over reparations, stating in a New York Times Op-ed that “There are many thorny issues to resolve before we can arrive at a judicious (if symbolic) gesture to match such a sustained, heinous crime,” in particular the pervasive involvement of other indigenous Africans in kidnapping and selling as much as ninety per cent of those who forced into the Middle Passage nightmare.
“The African role in the slave trade,” Gates wrote, “was fully understood and openly acknowledged by many African-Americans even before the Civil War. For Frederick Douglass, it was an argument against repatriation schemes for the freed slaves. [NOTE: These “repatriation” or “colonization” schemes were, by the way, long supported by many Quakers.]
“The savage chiefs of the western coasts of Africa, who for ages have been accustomed to selling their captives into bondage and pocketing the ready cash for them, will not more readily accept our moral and economical ideas than the slave traders of Maryland and Virginia,” Douglass warned. “We are, therefore, less inclined to go to Africa to work against the slave trade than to stay here to work against it.”
Now, only this week, Gates has taken up his Op-ed pen again, in a long but incisive exploration of two related concerns: one is the burgeoning zombie apocalypse of school and state censorship of serious educational exploration of racism and other freighted current issues. The other is the need for Black Americans, scholars, teachers and others concerned with justice and equity, to face up to the task, particularly in dealing with whites (both friends and critics) with the long and continuing history of vigorous, often intense debates among Blacks over many key issues they faced.
It is often surprising to students to learn that there has never been one way to “be Black” among Black Americans, nor have Black politicians, activists and scholars ever spoken with one voice or embraced one ideological or theoretical framework. Black America, that “nation in a nation,” as the Black abolitionist Martin R. Delany put it, has always been as varied and diverse as the complexions of the people who have identified, or been identified, as its members. . . .
Why shouldn’t students be introduced to these debates? Any good class in Black studies seeks to explore the widest range of thought voiced by Black and white thinkers on race and racism over the long course of our ancestors’ fight for their rights in this country.”
I’ll stop quoting here, and below let Gates make his own case, which he does best.
I believe there are very important implications in these passages for predominately white groups who want to be active allies to Blacks in their struggles. The call from Gates to these whites is for a reckoning with the deep shortcomings of too much of what has for too long passed as trendy “anti-racism” in their circles.
It’s time for serious attention to grappling with and relating to the long history and active presence of many sharp debates over differences and debate among Blacks. This is needed both because it is a mark of real rather than token, masked condescension, and as a basis for overdue reassessment of the mixed and even counterproductive results of many so-called anti-racism or DEI (Diversity, Equity & Inclusion) programming, and not least, a reconsideration of strategy and priorities.
And not least, it’s a damn fine read. So sit back, put your feet up, and dive into this monumentally enlightening article
“We believe in teaching kids facts and how to think, but we don’t believe they should have an agenda imposed on them,” Governor DeSantis said. He also decried what he called “indoctrination.”
School is one of the first places where society as a whole begins to shape our sense of what it means to be an American. It is in our schools that we learn how to become citizens, that we encounter the first civics lessons that either reinforce or counter the myths and fables we gleaned at home.
Each day of first grade in my elementary school in Piedmont, W.Va., in 1956 began with the Pledge of Allegiance to the flag, followed by “America (My Country, ’Tis of Thee).” To this day, I cannot prevent my right hand from darting to my heart the minute I hear the words of either.
[NOTE: The Wall St. Journal is paywalled to the eyelids, so this first clip is a quote of a quote from a week ago without a link, but I’m confident it’s accurate. It was written as speculation about the fragility of the narrow incoming Republican majority (about half a dozen) that will occupy the House of Representatives as of January.
The irony here is that it’s the outgoing lame-duck Democratic majority that’s now feeling the sharp point of the Fickle Finger of Fate: Democratic Rep. Donald MacEachin of Virginia died of cancer Monday. His absence abruptly reduces Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House majority from 220 to 219, only six more than the Republicans’ 213. Continue reading Quotes of The Day: A Double Serving of Irony→