There is a play running at a small theatre in Philadelphia right now where one of the main characters is based on, of all people, me. It is neither about nor aimed at Black History Month — but it has major implications for how we should celebrate it.
The play is called A House with No Walls, and there are two things about it that have given me immense pleasure.
One is that the character glides around the stage making speeches full of passages drawn straight from my writing on race. No author could help but eat this up.
The other thing, however, and the more important one, is that the character is not depicted as an ass.
When you are a black person known for views on race that do not jibe with bien-pensant thought, your work is highly subject to misinterpretation. There is an assumption out there that the take on race of most sociologists and black professors is less opinion than enlightenment itself. It follows naturally from this perception that black people who broadcast other opinions must be somehow immoral.
As such, one gets used to being pilloried as less than human by a minority of black people and some white ones. I am sometimes almost awed by the deftness of the fantasies some people out there have about me, Shelby Steele, Ward Connerly, and the rest, about our "motivations," childhood hangups, and so on.
I have always kind of assumed, in fact, that one of these days, somebody somewhere would write a play about black issues where one of the characters was a starchy black professor who left academia to "sell out" making big bucks in the think tank world.
It'd be one in a long line of similar characters over the years, after all. In New York, a play by Thomas Bradshaw ran recently whose lead character was a black professor who wants to hear nothing of Malcolm X, Africa or slavery — and who is also a coke-sniffing, charmless pedophile. Then there was Damon Wayans' squeaky-voiced sell-out in Spike Lee's Bamboozled. Recall also the heartless black conservative patriarch in Stephen J. Carter's novel The Emperor of Ocean Park.
And instead, in House With No Walls we have a black conservative character who is, quite simply, a normal person.
This is a symptom of a larger trend that we ought to keep in mind during Black History Month: a range of views beyond the left are becoming more easily accepted in the black community. This is crucial, because a discussion in which anyone with right-of-center views is dismissed as a moral pervert is not a healthy one.
The viewpoint increasingly questioned is that poverty and other ills in black America cannot be expected to change significantly short of a seismic transformation in how America operates. Under this analysis, we must hope that whites will undergo a "realization" after which there will be no racist biases whatsoever, that low-skill job facilities will relocate to dangerous inner cities, and so on. The assumption is, broadly, that black America must seek a "revolution" of some kind.
Increasing numbers of black people are realizing that this will never occur, and that it doesn't need to: it is possible to help people to help themselves within the current system. There is a proliferation of local organizations shunting low-skilled people into lasting work, helping ex-cons negotiate their way back into the system, and educating students of color well, on shoestring budgets.
That is, itself, the revolution, and important black people are with it. No one can accuse Bill Cosby of being "not really black" and yet he has taken to the road with a message of responsibility. Juan Williams, outspoken liberal and darling of National Public Radio, has written a book arguing that too many black leaders have focused on grievance rather than building. Essentially there are no new leaders in the race-baiting vein of Reverend Al Sharpton.
In 1973, Boris Bittker, a white lawyer, argued that reparations for slavery should not be distributed by any group of black organizations because there was too much diversity among black people in experience and what he called "outlook" for there to be any single "black view" on what black people needed.
Shortly after he wrote that, however, it sounded quaint. From then on, there reigned a tacit assumption that an oppositional, leftist kind of politics was "really black" — i.e. that "real" black people share a single "outlook" regardless of their background or individuality.
This assumption has limited our political creativity for far too long. Let's celebrate its gradual demise, as we return to a community dialogue that represents the diversity among us that will be part of our strength.
John McWhorter is a Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute's Center for Race and Ethnicity.