The Black Box: Writing the Race (Hardcover)

The Black Box: Writing the Race By Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Cover Image

The Black Box: Writing the Race (Hardcover)

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(African American Studies)
“Henry Louis Gates is a national treasure. Here, he returns with an intellectual and at times deeply personal meditation on the hard-fought evolution and the very meaning of African American identity, calling upon our country to transcend its manufactured divisions.”
— Isabel Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste

“This is a literary history of Black America, but it is also an argument that African American history is inextricable from the history of African American literature.”
The New York Times

A magnificent, foundational reckoning with how Black Americans have used the written word to define and redefine themselves, in resistance to the lies of racism and often in heated disagreement with each other, over the course of the country’s history.


Distilled over many years from Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s legendary Harvard introductory course in African American Studies, The Black Box: Writing the Race, is the story of Black self-definition in America through the prism of the writers who have led the way. From Phillis Wheatley and Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington, to Zora Neale Hurston and Richard Wright, James Baldwin and Toni Morrison—these writers used words to create a livable world—a "home" —for Black people destined to live out their lives in a bitterly racist society.

It is a book grounded in the beautiful irony that a community formed legally and conceptually by its oppressors to justify brutal sub-human bondage, transformed itself through the word into a community whose foundational definition was based on overcoming one of history’s most pernicious lies. This collective act of resistance and transcendence is at the heart of its self-definition as a "community." Out of that contested ground has flowered a resilient, creative, powerful, diverse culture formed by people who have often disagreed markedly about what it means to be "Black," and about how best to shape a usable past out of the materials at hand to call into being a more just and equitable future. 

This is the epic story of how, through essays and speeches, novels, plays, and poems, a long line of creative thinkers has unveiled the contours of—and resisted confinement in—the "black box" inside which this "nation within a nation" has been assigned, willy nilly, from the nation’s founding through to today. This is a book that records the compelling saga of the creation of a people.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. An award-winning filmmaker, literary scholar, journalist, cultural critic, and institution builder, Professor Gates has authored or coauthored more than twenty books, including Stony the Road, The Black Church, and The Black Box, and created more than twenty documentary films, including his groundbreaking genealogy series Finding Your Roots. His six-part PBS documentary, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, earned an Emmy Award, a Peabody Award, and an NAACP Image Award. This series and his PBS documentary series Reconstruction: America after the Civil War were both honored with the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award.

Product Details ISBN: 9780593299784
ISBN-10: 0593299787
Publisher: Penguin Press
Publication Date: March 19th, 2024
Pages: 304
Language: English
“The allure of this book, and the reason for its existence, are the narrative links he draws among these people and events, and his insistence that a survey of African American history is incomplete without a special consideration of how writing has undergirded and powered it. This is a literary history of Black America, but it is also an argument that African American history is inextricable from the history of African American literature.” —Tope Folarin, The New York Times

“These reflections are elegant entrees into the debates that Black Americans have conducted in their long quest for self-definition. The Black Box succeeds not because it contains novel facts but because Gates’s gloss on the established history glimmers. He proposes that it is by narrating and naming—that is, by writing—that Black Americans have shattered the narrow boxes in which they have so often been imprisoned. By writing about this writing, he, too, pens his way free.” —Becca Rothfeld, The Washington Post

“An absolute tour de force . . . A study in the art, intellect, and inherent contradictions that define the making of a people.” Elle

“Gates tracks questions of class, language, aesthetics, and resistance in a manyfaceted, clarifying, era-by-era chronicle propelled by vivid considerations of such influential Black writers as Phillis Wheatley, W. E. B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison . . . A call to protect the free exchange of ideas in the classroom and beyond.” Booklist (starred review)

“A must for scholars, yet still accessible to general audiences, by arguably the preeminent scholar of African American studies. This gem brilliantly reflects multiple depictions of what it means to be a Black American amid complex, structured interracial and color-based discrimination discourses, in which writing and language are keys.” Library Journal (starred review)

“Henry Louis Gates is a national treasure. Here, he returns with an intellectual and at times deeply personal meditation on the hard-fought evolution and the very meaning of African American identity, calling upon our country to transcend its manufactured divisions.” —Isabel Wilkerson, New York Times bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns and Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents