Article - Autumn 2021

A Prophet and a President

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Why Black biography matters

By David Levering Lewis | September 7, 2021
Library of Congress; Peter Cavanagh/Alamy
Library of Congress; Peter Cavanagh/Alamy

He was the only student of African descent in his competitive high school, a circumstance that might have made him more self-conscious than he was, had it not been for a precociousness that made book learning easy. Even if he had wanted to slide by in his studies, his autobiography tells us that underachievement was barred shut by a single-minded mother who knew that college was her only son’s ticket to success in the larger world. “A curious determination was concealed in her softness,” he recalled. The father had deserted the family to make a professional second start soon after his son’s birth, leaving the boy’s mother to depend upon her own imagination and industry and modest help from relatives. It mattered to the boy that his birth was legitimate, although he would eventually learn that his roving father had failed to mention a previous marriage, still intact. Even then, the son would continue to dream of his father in faraway places pursuing a career.

He grew up near water and surrounded by mountains in a pleasant place relatively free of overt racial animus toward dark-skinned people. His status as a college-bound student put him in the company of the sons and daughters of the local rich and the powerful, a social access much advantaged by having a parent whose pigment and features were white. The ease with which he managed to wear his mixed racial heritage began to fray, however, in the senior year of high school, as the decision about college impended. Leaving the relaxed racial environment of home, he wrote of the need to find a fixed identity in the much sharper Black-and-white divisions he would encounter at college and in the larger society. He was beset by a crippling indeterminacy, a fear, he said, of “forever remain[ing] an outsider with the rest of the world, black and white, always standing in judgment.” Although there was some brief wavering between the poles of whiteness and Blackness, he gradually embraced his African roots at a small liberal arts college. Indeed, he became, as he was pleased to say of his college experience, “quite willing to be a Negro and to work with the Negro group.” Then came the professional training at Harvard, where his academic distinctions were unprecedented. Another autobiographical passage confessed the need for a community where he “could put down stakes and test my commitments.” Fair to say, the young man claimed that his identity was in some sense the exercise of an option, an existential commitment made not because he had to be a Black man—a person born immutably Black—but because he decided to embrace the culture and aspirations of Black Americans.

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