The Exceptional Are the Rule

Guest Commentary

Have you noticed who died recently, and what has not been said about their deaths?

From New Year's to early February five African American men and women, known throughout the world for their achievements, their grace, and their indomitability, died.

Phyllis Wallace, the pioneering economist, Reginald Lewis, the financier and philanthropist, Thurgood Marshall, Arthur Ashe, and John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie.

Together with Audrey Lord, the poet, who died in November, they constitute an extraordinary collection of individuals to have passed on in so short a period of time. Any yet, while one may say that, as individuals, each has been given his or her due in the mainstream media, I have noticed that a significant part of what they were and what they represent has not.

Who were these people?


They were Black Americans who lived their lives both as Black Americans and as citizens of the larger world. They combined a passionate commitment to the race with an equally passionate dedication to cosmopolitanism. They understood that being Black in a nation with such a checkered racial past and present as the United States' means something, something that cannot be whitewashed by naive or hypocritical declarations of allegiance to color-blindness. But they also understood that being grounded in one's racial heritage was only part of the task of living for the future. They well knew that the other part was considering race not a boundary circumscribing one's attitudes, actions and aspirations, but a foundation for moving boldly out into larger society.

Is that a complex undertaking? Absolutely. And absolutely necessary. They--Wallace, Lord, Lewis, Marshall, Ashe, and Gillespie--knew that a fundamental part of the legacy of the African American Past lies in accepting and indeed celebrating that complexity.

Do many African Americans understand this legacy? I believe so. The evidence?

Well, for starters, I look at Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the journalist, who has just published her autobiography, In My Place, discussing her experiences as one of two Black Georgians to integrate the University of Georgia in 1962. And I know that the other, Hamilton Holmes, is a respected physician in Atlanta and an honored alumnus of this university.

I also look at other recent autobiographies and biographies of Black Americans: Lorene Cary's Black Ice, General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.'s Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., American, Sara Lawrence Lightfoot's Balm in Gilead: Journey of a Healer, James's Comer's Maggie's American Dream: The Life and Times of a Black Family, to name a few.

And I look at such high-profile African Americans as Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children's Defense Fund, and Ron Brown, the new Secretary of Commerce, and John H. Johnson, publisher of Ebony Magazine, and Johnnetta Cole, president of Spelman College, and many others who are less well known and not known at all.

I look, too, at the substantial expansion of the Black Bourgeoisie in the three decades since the nonviolent Civil Rights Movement forced White America to make the country a democracy in political fact as well as political myth. Most of them--along with many whose incomes are below the poverty line--are striving to live up to what the writer Albert Murray in his novel, The Spyglass Tree, called the indelible "ancestral imperative to do something and become something and be somebody."

But what I don't see is any recognition in the White Media that these kind of Black people exist as a group and that there is a group dynamic which generation after generation produces such a bloc of strivers. In that sense, they are as "invisible" as the protagonist in Ralph Ellison's classic novel, The Invisible Man.

To be sure, the White Media is generally willing to describe, either explicitly or, more often, implicitly, an Ashe, Lewis, or Lord as an "exception."

But that's just the wrong point: they are part of a community of people stretching backward into the past and forward into the future, all motivated by that ancestral imperative. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard Law School professor and a former Marshall clerk, made this point obliquely in a remembrance of the Justice in Time when he noted that Marshall's civil rights colleagues--and personal heroes--included Walter White and Roy Wilkins, of the NAACP, William Hastie, the lawyer, diplomat and federal judge, and Charles Hamilton Houston, the legendary dean of Howard Law School.