Dunbar on Black Books
June 2000    


Spotlight on Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell is an author whose work has just come to our attention. Frankly, before the press announced the publication of The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316316962), I had never heard of him. An article by Alex Kuczynski entitled "Turning Little Things into Big Ideas" in the New York Times of March 20, 2000, compelled Malcolm Gladwell to my attention. A visit to his website and the study of some of his essays there, notably "Personal History - Black Like Them" from the April 29, 1996, issue of The New Yorker, catapulted The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference onto the DOBB bibliography, and Malcolm Gladwell into this spotlight.

By April 2, 2000, the book was number 17 on the New York Times Best Sellers list. By April 9, 2000, it was number 6 on the New York Times Business Best Sellers list. On April 28, 2000, The Tipping Point was number 13 on the Business Best Selling Books of the Wall Street Journal. From what we are able to determine, Malcolm Gladwell is the first author of black heritage to have a book on nonfiction best sellers lists of both of these newspapers in the year 2000.

There are other reasons which justify our singling out Gladwell and his work. First, a book by the son of a black Jamaican mother - even a book about butterflies, to paraphrase Paul Coates of Black Classic Press - is a black book. Second, to be perfectly frank, a website which generated 85,000 hits in one month, as Gladwell's did in March 2000, commands a mention on one which has not grossed that number of hits over four years.

Our third reason for selecting him is probably the most significant. We see Malcolm Gladwell as a symbol, an exemplar and indeed a metaphor for the non-Afrocentric human of African descent at the dawn of the twenty-first century. Born in England, he is not an African American. Moreover, born of a father who is a white Englishman and a mother who is a black Jamaican, he is not "white" either. While all of this would have little import to an undercover New York City policeman looking for a suspect in the South Bronx, or anywhere else, it is an intellectual distinction that informs Gladwell's notion of who he is, and how he thinks.

Gladwell's view of self is one that is free of the baggage that comes with the definition of the African-American experience. (This is because that experience has been defined by persons whose perspective or point of view is dominated by a focus on our heritage of slavery in the Old South.) Thus, Gladwell is squarely on the mark when he says that the question of who West Indians are and how they define themselves is not trivial, as it may seem to some. It is clear to me that the Gladwell view of self is destined to become more pervasive in the United States as this century progresses.

The growing segment of the black population of this country that comes out of a different experience is going to make Malcolm Gladwell's view of himself a more generalized one. That is to say that members of this expanded population will not, and do not, see themselves as "black" in the African-American sense. Many, if not most of these newcomers, tend to deal with things cerebrally, the notion of race included. For them, race is almost irrelevant, except in cases where they have to be on the streets of the Bronx, or in the lobbies of their buildings there late at night.

The black population of this country, at the dawn of the twenty-first century, is not huddled en masse in a valley under a veil of race as W. E. B. Du Bois saw it in 1903. The common heritage which characterized the American blacks cowering in Du Bois' valley is not a variable in our sociology today. Immigration, diverse heritages and new perspectives on social conventions have changed things irreversibly.

Enter Malcolm Gladwell, the symbol and exemplar of, and metaphor for, the changing view of self held by 21st-century members of the American black population. Paraepidemiologist Gladwell has conceptualized the phenomenon of change as incipient epidemic. This conceptualization is as apt a prism through which to view the changing nature of the African-American population as was Du Bois' description of that population in 1903.

Gladwell's year-2000 articulation of his self view with regard to race would have been unthinkable for an African American in the United States in the 1970s. Born in England in 1963, Malcolm Gladwell was not old enough, nor likely, to have shared his self view then in the way that he did in a year-2000 interview with the above-cited New York Times reporter. The belligerent attitude prevailing within the militant black community toward contrary views would have suggested, even to a black who did not share the same experience which generated the attitude, that his views had best be kept to himself. It is fair to suppose that Gladwell's developing self view in the 1970s was progressing along the same lines as that of his cousin Rosie - late of Jamaica, now of Uniondale, New York - daughter of Gladwell's mother's twin sister. She makes it clear that she is not black; she is Jamaican. We are led to conclude that her husband Noel is of the same frame of mind.

In his interview with Kuczynski, Gladwell allowed as how race is no longer a preoccupation for his family. Further, he no longer considers race a strong theme in his writing. Moreover, he continued,

    I don't know what I consider myself. It's too complex. There are too many ways to define your- self, and it's not a way I have chosen to define myself anymore.
We believe that Malcolm Gladwell is the model and archetype of, and metaphor for, the changing view of self held by the majority of 21st-century members of the American black population. Further, to use Mr. Gladwell's own metaphor, the tipping point is imminent. The fact is that the time is at hand, if it is not already here, when the majority of the persons of African heritage in this country have a view of self that is at variance with that of the classic African-American mindset. We believe that if there were a way to poll the vast cohort of the silent ones, it would be possible to demonstrate that most of us do not see ourselves as fitting that mold. We will respond to those who would denigrate us as S. I. Hiyakawa, the Japanese-American president of San Francisco State University, responded to frustrated black militants at San Francisco State, who opposed him on the matter of the chairmanship of the Black Studies Department there, "I am not a white racist." We will respond, ever so subtly, that "I do not define myself by my race." The epidemic of tolerance of differing self views will dissolve the significance of being called an "Oreo Cookie" or even of being wedded to the notion that "black is beautiful."

Gladwell remarks on the explosion of the number of West Indians in America in the past twenty years. He notes that now there are half a million of them in the New York area alone. He goes on to observe that despite their recent arrival, they make substantially more money than American blacks, live in better neighborhoods, have stronger families than American blacks and fare about as well as Chinese and Korean immigrants. This generation of them may be pardoned if they think they are better than African Americans. No wonder cousin Rosie and Noel don't consider themselves black.


    0884 Brotherhood in Rhythm: The Jazz Tap Dancing of the Nicholas Brothers. by Constance Valis Hill. Oxford Univ. Press. ISBN 0195131665
    "Hill's work is something rarer than a chronicle of a life: it is a biography of artistic choices over time, the kind of study that makes a case for why its subjects should be worth a traditional biographer's attention in the first place." Mindy Aloff [NYTBR 3/26/00]

    0885 Marian Anderson, a Singer's Journey: The First Comprehensive Biography. by Allan Keiler. Simon & Schuster. ISBN: 0684807114
    "Marian Anderson wanted to stand for her art, not her race; but she did what she had to do." Anthony Heilbut. [Source: NYTM 04/02/00]

    0886 Loose Balls: Easy Money, Hard Fouls, Cheap Laughs and True Love in the N.B.A. by Jason Williams with Steve Friedman. Doubleday. ISBN: 038549226X
    Jason Williams is refreshingly candid about race, sex, money and alcohol in the National Basketball Associatiom in his memoir." Charles Salzberg. [Source: NYTM 04/02/00]

    0887 The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. by Malcolm Gladwell. Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 0316316962
    Gladwell applies the technique used in studying epidemics to the study of fads. [See the feature essay above.]

    0888 Miles and Me. by Quincy Troupe. University of California. ISBN 0520216245
    Troupe gives the stories behind his collaboration with Miles Davis to write Davis's autobiography. Gene Santoro [Source: NYTM 04/09/00]

    0889 The Devil and Sonny Liston. by Nick Tosches. Little Brown. ISBN 0-316-89775-2
    "This is a very sad tale of an illiterate man who became useful to figures who had their own agenda: making money." [Source: PW 03/13/00]

    0890 The Ballad of Little River: A Tale of Race and Restless Youth in the Rural South. by Paul Hemphill. Free Press. ISBN 0- 684-85682-4
    Hemphill, in a well researched and written book, recounts the story of a racial tinderbox in Alabama.

    0891 Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. by Desmond King. Harvard. ISBN 0-674-00088-9
    King, an Oxford professor, puts forth the thesis that America's reputation for welcoming all people and celebrating diversity is largely a myth.

    0892 To Make Our World Anew: A History of African Americans. Robin D. G. Kelley and Earl Lewis, Eds. Oxford Univ. ISBN 0-19- 513945-3
    NYU Professor Kelley and Earl Lewis have edited a detailed survey of African-American life before the 21st century.

    0893 Whatever Happened to Daddy's Little Girl? The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women. by Jonetta Rose Barras. Ballantine. ISBN 0-345-42246-5
    Author's personal narrative and the testimony of other women sheds light on the impact that fatherlessness can have on women.

    0894 The Measure of a Man: A Spiritual Autobiography. by Sidney Poitier. HarperSanFrancisco. ISBN 0-06-251607-8
    This second memoir by Poitier retains the candor of the first, but lacks the narrative drive of the latter. The book contains little to complicate the belief that Poitier is a man of unusual integrity and virture. [Source: PW 05/01/00]

    0895 Loving Across the Color Line: A White Adoptive Mother Learns about Race. by Sharon Rush. Rowman & Littlefield. ISBN 0-8476- 9912-9
    "This multilayered memoir, written with honesty and passion is a much-needed and powerful addition to the literature on race." [Source: PW 05/01/00]

    0896 Ron Brown: An Uncommon Life. by Steven A. Holmes. Wiley. ISBN 0-471-18388-1
    Publishers Weekly says that Holmes never seems to penetrate the heart of Ron Brown in this book. One of the things that we thus don't learn is "how he reconciled his insider status with his African-American heritage." [Source: PW 05/01/00]

    0897 All Things Censored. by Mumia Abu-Jamal. edited by Noelle Hanrahan. Foreword by Alice Walker. Seven Stories. ISBN 1-58322- 022-4
    This book is a collection of forceful prison essays and radio talks written over the last decade by Black Panther Abu-Jamal. [Source: PW 05/01/00]

    0898 Class Notes. by Adolph Reed, Jr., New Press. ISBN 1-56584- 482-3
    Reed manifests his lack of patience with "the mushy liberals" of the Democratic party and black intellectuals like Michael Dyson and Cornel West. Reportedly he laments the "crisis of black intellectual [life]" where a "lucky few," Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. for instance, direct themselves more to a white audience than to blacks. [Source: PW 05/01/00]

The man who does not read good books has no advantage over the man who can't read them.
--Mark Twain     

Copyright © 2000 by Harry B. Dunbar. All rights reserved.
Dunbar on Black Books