Thirteen Ways Of Looking At A Black Man

Henry Louis Gates, Jr at The New Yorker (from 1995): The two weeks spanning the O. J. Simpson verdict and Louis Farrakhan’s Million Man March on Washington were a good time for connoisseurs of racial paranoia. As blacks exulted at Simpson’s acquittal, horrified whites had a fleeting sense that this race thing was knottier than they’d ever supposed—that, when all the pieties were cleared away, blacks really were strangers in their midst. (The unspoken sentiment: And I thought I knew these people.)

There was the faintest tincture of the Southern slaveowner’s disquiet in the aftermath of the bloody slave revolt led by Nat Turner—when the gentleman farmer was left to wonder which of his smiling, servile retainers would have slit his throat if the rebellion had spread as was intended, like fire on parched thatch. In the day or so following the verdict, young urban professionals took note of a slight froideur between themselves and their nannies and babysitters—the awkwardness of an unbroached subject.

Rita Dove, who recently completed a term as the United States Poet Laureate, and who believes that Simpson was guilty, found it “appalling that white people were so outraged—more appalling than the decision as to whether he was guilty or not.” Of course, it’s possible to overstate the tensions. Marsalis invokes the example of team sports, saying, “You want your side to win, whatever the side is going to be. And the thing is, we’re still at a point in our national history where we look at each other as sides.”

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