America Behind The Color Line

Dialogues with African Americans


By Henry Louis Gates

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The readable companion, in the oral-history tradition of Studs Terkel, to the PBS documentary series, peeking behind the veil “that still, far too often, separates black America from white.”

Renowned scholar and New York Times bestselling author Gates delivers a stirring and authoritative companion to the major new PBS documentary America Behind the Color Line. The book includes thought-provoking essays from Colin Powell, Morgan Freeman, Russell Simmons, Vernon Jordan, Alicia Keys, Bernie Mac, and Quincy Jones.



This book is the companion volume to the four-part BBC/PBS series America Behind the Color Line, which I wrote and narrated. It presents in essay form many of the interviews that I conducted for the television series, which is an attempt to examine the role of class distinctions within the African-American community at the birth of the twenty-first century. I decided upon this format because of the richness of the interviews, many of which transpired over an hour or two and which, of necessity, could not be included in their entirety within the time restrictions of documentary television. To accomplish this goal, I benefited from the advice and editorial skills of Hollis Robbins and Toni Rosenberg.

I want to thank Hollis Robbins for her generous assistance in thinking through and organizing the extraordinarily difficult work of transforming a four-part audiovisual work into a single, integrated, textual one.

My consulting editor, Toni Rosenberg, with a clarity and commitment truly rare, crafted essays from the interviews I conducted. Ms. Rosenberg brought a depth of vision to the work that equaled my own expectations for what the companion book to the documentary might convey. I owe my deepest thanks to her both for her tremendous skills as an editor and writer and for her unsurpassed dedication to the book.

I would like to thank my editors at Warner Books, Jamie Raab, Colin Fox, and Larry Kirshbaum, for their enthusiastic support of this project. My agents, Tina Bennett, Lynn Nesbit, and Bennett Ashley, offered sage advice at every stage in the development of the television series and this book. Henry Finder kindly read various versions of my manuscript and critiqued them, both closely and wisely, helping me to figure out what I was trying to say. Joanne Kendall, as always, cheerfully and expertly typed several drafts of the manuscript. William Julius Wilson, Pamela Joshi, and Edward Walker provided the demographic data that appears throughout the text.

I would like to thank Jane Root at BBC2; Sandy Heberer, John Wilson, and Mary Jane McKinven at PBS; and Alex Graham and Jonathan Hewes at Wall to Wall Television for supporting this film series from its conception. Our serious and superb crew consisted of the following extremely talented members: Simon Chinn (series producer), Mary Crisp and Daniel Percival (directors), Jonathan Hewes (executive producer), Helena Tait (production manager), Bridget Bakokodie and Stephen Barrett (assistant producers), Zoe Watkins (junior production manager), Annette Williams and Jason Savage (film editors), Bernard Mavunga (camera assistant), Anthony Meering and Adam Prescod (soundmen), Debbie Townsend (archive researcher), Tamsynne West-cott and Ida Ven Bruusgaard (production team), Quinton Smith (online editor), Lyle Harris and Paul Reaney (fixers), Scott Wilkinson (dubbing mixer), Murray Gold (music), and Ray King (colorist). Without their devotion to this project, the film series could not have been completed.

I want to especially thank my friend Graham Smith for his stunningly beautiful and poignant cinematography, as well as for the pleasure of his company during the shooting of these films and the analysis of the day’s filming over dinner each evening of the shoot. Graham Smith is an artist.

Finally, I would like to thank all of the people who so graciously allowed the film crew and me to interrupt the rhythm of their lives to discuss, in some detail, the strange interplay of race and class within the African-American community.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
October 16, 2003        


I enrolled at Yale University in September of 1969, one of ninety-six black men and women to commence our matriculation at that time. We were the first large group of black people to be admitted to Yale as undergraduates in the same class. By contrast, the Class of 1966 had included only six black male graduates. We were the beginnings of what came to be called the affirmative action generation, though we did not use that phrase to describe ourselves. “Vanguard,” a term being bandied about by the Black Panthers, seemingly omnipresent in those times in New Haven, where one of their leaders, Bobby Seale, was facing trial along with eight other Panthers, was the word that most frequently sneaked its way into our endless, late-night dorm room analyses of our “role,” our “mission,” our “responsibility” to members of “the community” whom we had left behind. Would they be locked forever outside all that those hallowed neo-Gothic ivy walls symbolized?

Like any fledgling elite, at once heady with possibility yet racked by the guilt of the survivor—that is, presuming we would survive Yale’s academic rigors—we were desperate to succeed and desperate for role models who would guide us to that success. Because of a particularly fortuitous bit of good timing, Yale (and many other historically white elite universities) diversified its student body precisely when it introduced the new field of Afro-American studies into the curriculum. To be blunt, a cause and effect relation obtained between the coming of the black students and the creation of this new field. So role models, resplendent black intellectual role models, were in full demand if not in full abundance; there were still just a few on the Yale faculty then, but many more were becoming increasingly available in the curriculum of our black history courses. Like many of my classmates, I adopted the great W. E. B. Du Bois, activist and prolific author, as a hero, even if he was a Harvard man! But Frederick Douglass, Paul Robeson, Thurgood Marshall, and even Dr. King were favorites as well. The true “activists” among us favored Marcus Garvey, Frantz Fanon, even the slave insurrectionist Nat Turner. Harold Cruse’s The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual was our textbook du jour: in my sophomore year alone, I read it in three different classes. We were bound and determined to avoid the mistakes that our predecessors in our crossover roles had made; above all else, we wanted to be responsible “to the people,” as we would put it, “representing” them somehow, determined to remain “accountable” to them, bringing them along with us as we scaled the historical barriers to racial progress, dragging them, if we had to, inside the cloistered walls of power and financial success that Yale represented. If we were not yet full-fledged intellectuals, we were in the midst of a crisis, a crisis of identity and representative responsibility, since it was we who had been chosen to leave the black community and integrate what C. Wright Mills had called “the power elite.” And this power elite was determined, to modify the Children’s Defense Fund motto, “to leave no black person behind.”

While Douglass and Du Bois, Garvey and Robeson, Fanon and Marshall were our official role models, it is probably accurate to confess that we also drew an enormous amount of secret inspiration from the cult figure Putney Swope. Putney Swope? In 1969, the same year we went to Yale, the arts film Putney Swope was released, starring Arnold Johnson and Mel Brooks and directed by Robert Downey, Sr. We might think of it today as a prototype of the “blaxploitation” film genre, but it was in fact a utopia, one of the first fantasies, rendered on film, of how things would be different once we were to “take over.”

The film opens at a meeting of the board of directors of a Madison Avenue advertising agency. One black man, Putney Swope, obviously a token, sits modestly among the eleven board members. When the agency’s president dies from a heart attack during the meeting, Swope is accidentally elected chairman of the board, receiving nine of the eleven votes cast, because, as one executive puts it, “I thought no one else would vote for him.” Swope, a nascent revolutionary cloaked in a bespoke suit, soon fires all but one of the company’s white staff, hires black people from the ghetto to replace them, renames the agency Truth and Soul, Inc., and declares that he will boycott all advertising for tobacco, alcohol, and war toys. Soon, Truth and Soul becomes the dominant agency on Madison Avenue, amassing $156 million in profits by creating irreverent ads for products such as Ethereal Cereal, Victrola Cola, and Face-Off Pimple Cream.

Swope is “a brother who is going to make it right.” And how will he achieve his revolution? There is “no sense rocking the boat,” he declares. “Rocking the boat is a drag. What you do is sink the boat,” but you sink the boat “with productive alternatives.” “You can’t change nuthin’ with rhetoric and slogans,” Swope argues. “The man’s got the truth in his pocket. He doesn’t talk about it. He hangs it on a shingle where people can see it.”

We loved this hilarious movie, my new black friends at Yale and I, and we saw it again and again. For some of us consciously, and for many of us unconsciously, it was an allegory for the path that we should take in our new roles as the vanguard of our people, the black portion of a group that our president, Kingman Brewster, had described in his welcoming speech to freshmen a year before as America’s “one thousand male leaders.” (Our class included, for the first time, 250 women, so Brewster’s speech adjusted for gender.) We would do our homework, integrate Yale’s most exclusive and elite clubs, secret societies, and student organizations, and then we would take on Wall Street and every other venue of power and wealth, transforming them from the inside with truth and soul, leaving no sister or brother behind.

Putney Swope had laid out a path for our individual success within a context of “revolutionary transformation,” “social responsibility,” and “accountability to the people”—all key words in the heated oratory of radical black politics of the time. Above all else, we were determined not to allow our individual, or collective, success to be “used by the man” to justify the continued economic deprivation of all those black souls left behind in America’s ghettos. No, we would not be tokens; we would not be sellouts; we would not be complicit in the use of the black people in the ghettos as scapegoats either for American prosperity or—more alarmingly—for our own individual success. Unlike Du Bois’s group of leaders, the Talented Tenth of “college bred Negroes” at the turn of the twentieth century, we would be the catalyst for broad social change, saviors of our entire people. Du Bois’s was the model to avoid. And Putney Swope inadvertently had shown us the way.

If the film gave us a rhetoric, a road map, for the mission on which we had embarked vis-à-vis the white establishment, it also gave us a language to use to defend ourselves against the sometimes deafening rhetoric of revolution that was swirling throughout the black community. As soon as Swope’s agency appears to be succeeding, he is descended upon by four militants, each an archetype for a dominant political faction in the community, including the Black Panthers, the Black Muslims, Black Power advocates, and the National Urban League. (“There are brothers in the Black Room,” Swope is warned ominously, so he quickly agrees to meet with them to hear their grievances.)

The first activist argues for “self-determination,” “self-respect,” and “self-defense,” à la the Black Power advocates. The second declares that “violence is a cleansing force,” while a third chimes in that “non-violence is non-functional,” so “it’s guns, baby,” echoing the Ten Point Program of the Black Panther Party, which many of us had hung on the walls of our dorm rooms. “My organization is pro-integration,” says a hapless, suited official ostensibly from the NAACP or the National Urban League; “a gun is not going to get you a job.” “Yeah, but it will eliminate the competition,” the Panther stand-in intones. When this mad round-robin finally ends, all agree on one thing and one thing alone: “Lay some bread on us!” they demand of Swope, who then dismisses them all as hustlers and shows them to the door.

The message was clear and simple, and we took it to heart: structural change would come only from the inside of the system if—and this was a huge “if”—we managed to keep our integrity as black people, as socially conscious members of a vanguard force penetrating the power structures of “the enemy” not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of the larger black community. Our job was to transform those historically white institutions like Yale by bringing more and more brothers and sisters inside when we could, and representing them from the inside when we could not. We would integrate America at its highest, deepest levels, and by doing so transform it forever, dragging “the community” along with us if we had to.

That was the plan.

I remember attending a political rally at Yale staged on behalf of Bobby Seale and his fellow imprisoned Black Panthers. One speaker—I think it was Jean Genet, the French playwright and radical—warned us that our newfound presence at institutions such as Yale was a ploy, representing a desperate act of window dressing for a power elite severely under pressure to diversify by race and by gender. We were tokens, he continued, admission to the Ivy League a clever ploy both to co-opt us with the trappings of privilege and to pacify the rumbling masses, the proverbial lumpenproletariat (whose true representatives were, of course, Bobby Seale and the Panthers), by serving up crumbs from the banquet table of international corporate capitalism in lieu of sharing the entire pie. Quoting Herbert Marcuse, whose Reason and Revolution was another text du jour in many of our courses that year, Genet spat directly into our shining black faces, claiming that the principal result of the Civil Rights Movement— which had led to our increased numbers in the student body at Yale—would be the creation of a new black middle class, rather than profound structural change. We were merely a mirage of such change, he scolded us, not the face of revolution that we thought we were, or hoped we would be. We were not a part of the problem; we were the problem, and our individual success was being fostered by the system as its safety valve to alleviate the pressure accumulating from genuine revolutionaries like Bobby Seale and, of course, “the people.” Our presence at Yale wore a diabolical dual face: first, it allowed the system to placate, and therefore diffuse, attempts to reform it dramatically and radically; and second, the success that awaited each of us individually on the other end of our education, post-Yale, would render us useless as agents of meaningful—read “revolutionary”—social transformation. We were nouveau race-traitors: Ivy League Uncle Toms soon to have M.B.A.’s and J.D.’s, who would be far more invested in the proverbial bottom line and the American status quo than any generation of educated blacks before us, and certainly more so than the hapless sisters and brothers we had left behind in the ghettos, even if we were clad in colorful dashikis and coiffed with mile-high Afros.

How cynical Genet was, I found myself thinking. Genet was wrong, an aging misanthrope and French at that! What did he know? Our generation would be different. We would save our people.

I thought about Putney Swope and Jean Genet as I embarked on a journey to assess the state of Black America by talking to a wide range of African Americans.

Where are we as a people, at the dawn of the twenty-first century? I wanted to pursue answers in a documentary film series for PBS, by conducting interviews with famous African Americans and with not-so-famous African Americans. It has long struck me as curious that African Americans often speak differently—more colorfully and openly—when talking with each other behind closed doors, as it were, than they do in interracial settings; more spontaneously, say, in barbershops and beauty parlors, in church socials and their living rooms, than they do in the pages of sociological studies or in polling data. I wanted to capture that more spontaneous and less inhibited voice on film, and in transcriptions of my interviews, printed as the text of this book.

Du Bois wrote famously in 1903 that a racist experience when he was a schoolboy in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, had led him to the realization that African Americans conducted their lives in America behind a “veil”:

Then it dawned upon me with

a certain suddenness that I was

different from the others; or like,

mayhap, in heart and life and

longing, but shut out from

their world by a vast veil.

I had thereafter no desire to

tear down that veil, to creep

through; I held all beyond it

in common contempt, and lived

above it in a region of blue sky

and great wandering shadows.

In this series, I wanted, on a modest level, to provide a window, a peephole, through that veil, a veil that still, far too often, separates black America from white.

To do so, I traveled the country interviewing African Americans from Harvard to Harlem, from Wall Street to Watts, from the Lincoln Memorial to Memphis, from Fort Benning, Georgia, to Atlanta, the home of the black middle class. I walked the streets of Chicago’s South Side and interviewed residents of Chicago’s infamous housing project, the Robert Taylor Homes. I ended my journey in Los Angeles, where the fantasy world of Hollywood stands in stark contrast to the painful realities lived each day by the residents of Los Angeles’s South Central neighborhood. In Los Angeles, the two black worlds of class and consciousness collide, sometimes bizarrely, but always in splendid living color.

As I talked to Black America all across America at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one thing became very clear. Everybody’s a CEO. Everybody’s talking about entrepreneurship, products, markets, and market share. It’s all about getting the most out of people, empowering, creating wealth.

The critique of the Southern economy during slavery is that it focused entirely on growing staple crops and the suppression of what would otherwise be a market for food, clothing, housing, and other consumer goods. An ill-trained, ill-fed workforce had no incentive to produce a good product; neither was this workforce allowed to exercise consumer choices. What these interviews reveal is that apart from the moral case against slavery and the moral case against unequal civil rights, there is a damning business case against slavery, if the business case is defined as wealth creation and profitability. Economic historians may argue among themselves whether the slave system was economically efficient or inefficient, profitable or unprofitable in the long run, but the achievement and diverse economic accomplishment of blacks up and down the economic scale prove just how misguided those are who idealize the South as an economically cost-effective enterprise.

Colin Powell confirms that African Americans are becoming more and more economically successful. But Hollywood actress Nia Long states a more important truth: “Black people generate enormous amounts of money for the American economy.” The success of black entrepreneurs and businesspeople around the country proves without a doubt that picking cotton was never the best way to generate that money. Young black kids have a new entrepreneurial spirit, Russell Simmons observes. “They’re doing it. It’s happening right now. That’s all they’re talking about. Getting money. Owning companies. They’re not talking about how brilliant they rap; they’re talking about how much money they’re making and how they’re making it. Legal money.”

Willie W. Herenton, mayor of Memphis, Tennessee, for the past twelve years, speaks proudly of the economic successes of his city, the eighteenth largest in America, with $60 million in reserves, a double-A bond rating, a strong and vibrant financial center. “We have great purchasing power,” he explains, but the next step is converting that purchasing power to wealth creation within the race. Tammie, a twenty-nine-year-old mother of six who used to live in the Robert Taylor Homes in Chicago, talks about the importance of targets and objectives and a diversity of options. If she were in charge, she says, she would find out what her fellow residents are aiming for, “what they do to set their goals, and see what they need to get to their goals.”

Jesse Jackson states, “When one considers the economic origin of America, it was Africa and her people who subsidized America’s development. After all, two hundred years without wages is an African subsidy to America, redefining what party is ‘creditor,’ and which is ‘debtor,’ in the African-American relationship.” But while slavery “was woven into the fabric of the country,” can we now critique it on other terms? What is the legacy of slavery— in purely economic terms, enforced servitude, labor without pay—for today’s young people, poised to enter the workforce? The question has never merely been one of work and lost wages. The black work ethic is not the problem. As John Singleton puts it, whatever field you’re in, success is a matter of being able to work in the field you choose and being able to back it up with blood, sweat, and tears. The problem, Franklin Raines explains, is that “having excluded such a big piece of the workforce, such a big piece of society, from being productive has hurt the country. We’ve taken all these kids who could be out creating something and we made them all dependent and put them in jail. Well, it’s not just the cost of the jail, it’s also the loss of what their productivity would have been in the economy. We’ve got to get that message through, but getting that message through the color divide is very hard.” Ought we, as Jackson suggests, to wholly restructure a system that allows Russell Simmons to create the wealth he does? Yes, as Lenora Fulani explains, we need to educate black youth in how best to participate in this structure, but the goal of wealth creation and economic success is not in itself bad. Why shouldn’t black America want to live in the Big House?

For every Vernon Jordan who says, “The one thing that we know is that white people like money, and that’s why they sold us and bought us. It had to do with money. It had nothing to do with humanity; it was about money,” there’s a Chris Tucker: “What people gotta realize is—and I understand it, and it’s fine—movie companies want to make a lot of money.” Everybody’s fighting for their job, he explains. The balance sheets have to look good. “I’d like to be in a position where somebody could bring me a script and if it’s good and I can do it, I would get it done, or take it to the studios and get it done,” said Chris. “We’ve gotta start opening doors; we gotta open them for ourselves. But to begin with, you gotta get through a narrow door.”

This book is the result of these interviews, collected in the four parts that make up the film series. Above all else, I wanted these dialogues with African Americans to speak eloquently, as it were, for themselves, in an unmediated manner, providing a rare glimpse of black people reflecting to themselves on the challenges and ironies of their lives behind the veil, some thirty-five years following the death of the last great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, Jr.


Ebony Towers

When I was growing up in the fifties, I could never have imagined that one of Harvard’s most respected departments would be a Department of Afro-American Studies and that twenty professors would be teaching here at the turn of the century. Our experience at Harvard is just one instance of a much larger phenomenon. Since the death of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968, individual African Americans have earned positions higher within white society than any person black or white could have dreamed possible in the segregated 1950s. And this is true in national and local government, in the military and in business, in medicine and education, on TV and in film. Virtually anywhere you look in America today, you’ll find black people. Not enough black people, but who can deny that progress has been made? In fact, since 1968, the black middle class has tripled, as measured by the percentage of families earning $50,000 or more. At the same time—and this is the kicker—the percentage of black children who live at or below the poverty line is almost 35 percent, just about what it was on the day that Dr. King was killed.

Since 1968, then, two distinct classes have emerged within Black America: a black middle class with “white money,” as my mother used to say, and what some would argue is a self-perpetuating, static black underclass. Is this what the Civil Rights Movement was all about? Can we ever bridge this black class divide?

What does the success of this expanding middle class—W. E. B. Du Bois’s Talented Tenth, the college-educated black person, even now only 17 percent of all black Americans—mean for the progress of our people? Is this economic ascent the ultimate realization of Dr. King’s “dream” of integration? How do we continue to expand the size of the middle class? And most scary of all, is this class divide permanent, a way of life that will never be altered?

Writing in the New York Times on May 31, 2003, Jack Bass, author of Unlikely Heroes: Southern Federal Judges and Civil Rights, quoted from an interview with John Minor Wisdom, “the legendary jurist and scholar,” which Bass had conducted just four months before the judge’s death at the age of ninety-three in 1999: “He told me he was uncertain which was more important,” Bass wrote: “how far blacks have come in overcoming discrimination, or ‘how far they still have to go.’ ” This question arose in another form in an amusing, signifying interplay between the titles of William Julius Wilson’s The Declining Significance of Race (1978) and Cornel West’s best-selling Race Matters (1993). There can be no doubt that “race” is far less important as a factor affecting economic success for our generation than it was for any previous generation of African Americans in this country. Still, there can be little doubt that the fact of one’s blackness remains the hallmark of our various identities in a country whose wealth, to a large extent, was constructed on race-based slavery, followed by a full century of de jure segregation and discrimination in every major aspect of a black citizen’s social, economic, and political existence.


On Sale
Oct 15, 2007
Page Count
464 pages

Henry Louis Gates

About the Author

Henry Louis Gates, Jr., is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and Director of the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is the author of numerous books, including Colored People, Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man, In Search of Our Roots, and the American Book Award-winning The Signifying Monkey. He lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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