The first trial of the Los Angeles police officers who beat Rodney King, the devastating riots that followed acquittal of the officers, and the recent civil rights trial resulting in the convictions of two of the officers have focused public attention on the plight of many black Americans today.
Three new books written by black scholars raise a larger question: What will life be like for African-Americans in the 21st century? Each of these books draws on W. E. B. Du Bois's volume "The Souls of Black Folk," written in 1903. And each suggests that the issues raised in the Rodney King episode (though they were written before the most recent verdicts) will affect not only African-Americans, but all Americans in the century ahead.
RACE MATTERS, by Cornel West (Beacon Press, 105 pp., $15), interprets a range of black views on race relations - from the conservative ideas of Harvard University Prof. Martin Kilson to the question of black rage raised by Malcolm X. In the preface, West, professor of religion and director of Afro-American studies at Princeton University, explains one of the influences behind his book: "Du Bois's prescient pronouncement - `The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line haunted me."
The "color line" is a racial barrier.
"To engage in a serious discussion of race in American," West writes, "we must begin not with the problems of black people but with the flaws of American society - flaws rooted in historic inequalities and longstanding cultural stereotypes. How we set up the terms for discussing racial issues shapes our perception and response to these issues."
Each chapter identifies a specific issue African-Americans may face in the 21st century. The final chapter concludes that the controversial Malcolm X offers the most acceptable, although unfinished, approach to achieving racial harmony.
"Malcolm X was the first great black spokesperson who looked ferocious white racism in the eye, didn't blink, and lived long enough to tell America the truth about this glaring hypocrisy in a bold and defiant manner," he writes. "Only if we are as willing as Malcolm X to grow and confront the new challenges posed by the black rage of our day will we take the black freedom struggle to a new and higher level. The future of this country may well depend on it."
THE COLOR LINE: LEGACY FOR THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY, by John Hope Franklin (University of Missouri Press, 87 pp., $14.95), is a collection of three lectures delivered at the University of Missouri by Franklin - one of America's most honored historians.
The first, "A New Beginning: A False Start?" assesses the Reagan and Bush administrations' 12 years in office: "Reagan was not long in office before he began to contribute to the climate that tolerated racism and, indeed, encouraged policies and measures that denied equal opportunity and equal treatment," Franklin writes. Appointments of conservative African-Americans to the Reagan administration indicate how out of touch Reagan was with the desires and views of black people. Although the nation elected and reelected the Republican ticket in 1980, '84, and '88, African-Americans voted no confidence in the GOP and helped vote the Bush team out of office in 1992, he says.
In "A Color-Blind Society: Finding the Way," Franklin cites Plessy v. Ferguson, the 1896 Supreme Court case that articulated the "separate but equal" doctrine. He concludes that Justice John Marshall Harlan's dissenting statement that "our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens" has become the accepted view of most American citizens.
Nevertheless, "The color line is alive, well, and flourishing in the final decade of the twentieth century," Franklin states in his final lecture, "A New Century: A New Nation?" "We need to do everything possible to emphasize the positive qualities that all of us have, qualities which we have never utilized to the fullest, but which we must utilize ... to solve the problem of the color line in the twenty-first century."
LURE AND LOATHING: ESSAYS ON RACE, IDENTITY, AND THE AMBIVALENCE OF ASSIMILATION, edited by Gerald Early (Allen Lane/The Penguin Press, 351 pp., $23.50), presents the ideas of 20 leading black intellectuals on topics that range from assimilation to separation to an American blueprint for the good life. Editor Gerald Early asked each writer to discuss whether what Du Bois said in 1903 is still true today.
In Early's own essay, the dean of African-American studies at Washington University in St. Louis recounts a talk with his daughter about why she should have more black friends and avoid the label of "oreo" (black on the outside, white on the inside).
She questions his comment. This book explores points the father and daughter raise in their discussion.
The subtitle, "Essays on Race, Identity, and the Ambivalence of Assimilation," is based on a quotation from Du Bois's "The Souls of Black Folk." Each essayist uses Du Bois as a catalyst for spinoff ideas.
Poet Nikki Giovanni, for example, shows how subtle lyrics were used in black blues music to make the black community ponder racial injustices. Toni Cade Bambara writes from what she calls a "demonic model" of Du Bois: "We make history ... you make dinner. We speak ... you listen. We were born to rule ... you were born to serve." C. Eric Lincoln calls the "double-consciousness" of Du Bois's " `lure and loathing' a romantic euphemism for black self-hatred."
This book offers insightful expressions of black thought across economic, intellectual, and philosophical lines - viewpoints that can enlighten not only Early's daughter, but sons and daughters of other readers as well.