Paul Laurence Dunbar was perhaps the pre-eminent Black poet of the era after Reconstruction. In a new biography, the Princeton University English professor Gene Andrew Jarrett takes Dunbar’s rather glum, shortish life and pulls off a book that pulls you along like an open bag of potato chips; for the first 100 or so pages, I could barely put it down. But there’s one thing that jars like a wrong note every time it comes up: Dunbar regularly and casually referred to Black people of a lower social class than his with the N-word. An example: “I dressed at the hall dressing room in all clean linen, but had to send a [N-word] out for a standing collar because mine were all lay-downs.”
Sadly, this wasn’t atypical for more fortunate Black people of the era. Dunbar’s erudite and accomplished wife, Alice Dunbar Nelson, also used the word freely in their letters. The mother of the late-19th- and early-20th-century Black composer and conductor Will Marion Cook used the word in dismay at her classically trained son’s pursuing popular music with sometimes salty lyrics.
That kind of open classism — particularly when directed by middle- and upper-class Black people of the Victorian era toward working-class Black people — can be startling for contemporary readers. Today, for a well-heeled Black person to denigrate a less well-off Black person in this way would be deemed malicious at worst or elitist respectability politics at best.
Knowing this about Dunbar might sour someone’s opinion of him as an individual, but his use of the N-word and the sentiment behind it are unlikely to reduce his stature as a literary figure. And almost no one would consider this as grounds for a retroactive reckoning, reconsideration or, yes, cancellation of the kind to which the legacies of various historical figures are now subject. If for no other reason, then probably because his is a case of intra-Black offense being given.
One can quibble about what being canceled really means; the answer probably lies somewhere between Woodrow Wilson’s name being removed from Princeton’s public policy school and Gina Carano being dropped from the cast of “The Mandalorian.” But with Dunbar, it’s hard to imagine anyone kicking up much dust or writing, let’s say, a think-piece asking us to affix his condescension toward fellow Black people to him like a Homeric epithet, nullifying or adulterating his intellectual contributions.
That’s a good thing. We should be able to evaluate various figures, past and present, by noting their indecorous or hateful views and continuing to appreciate, even celebrate, their achievements without making them candidates for cancellation. And Dunbar’s case gets me thinking about people with less immediately dismissible stains on their records for whom the almost recreational hostility of cancel culture has held off.
Being Black and a woman seems to discourage the mob, for example. And my point, to be very clear, isn’t that Black women wrongly benefit from some kind of special pleading. It’s that, on the contrary, the forbearance that’s been extended to a number of prominent Black women in recent times should be the norm.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Alice Walker has produced writing and made statements that are readily interpreted as antisemitic, and while there have been a few protests and disinvitations and criticism aplenty, no real movement has arisen to demand that her artistic achievements be viewed through this prism. As The Atlantic’s Caitlin Flanagan argued, Walker has been treated rather “gently” about this issue, specifically in a New Yorker article written this past spring, whereas few could imagine similarly gentle treatment of J.K. Rowling for views many interpret as transphobic. Flanagan notes that in contrast, in 2020 The New Yorker asked, about another literary figure, “How Racist Was Flannery O’Connor?”
A few weeks after apologizing for her anti-Israel “Benjamins” tweet in 2019, Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota got the chance, in the pages of The Washington Post, to clarify her stance on the Israel-Palestinian conflict and remains a hero to many on the political left; this week, she won her Democratic primary.
In 2015 the actress Phylicia Rashad said of her former co-star Bill Cosby’s accusers, “Forget these women.” Last year, when Cosby’s sexual assault conviction was overturned, she tweeted, “FINALLY!!!!” before deleting it, tweeting a walk-back and apologizing to the Howard University community. She remains the dean of Howard’s college of fine arts.
The MSNBC host Joy Reid was revealed to have written homophobic blog posts in the aughts, and her later attempts to explain them away weren’t terribly convincing. This blotted her record, but after a brief outcry, her career as a progressive oracle on prime-time TV remains intact.
Contrast Reid’s situation to the Emmy-winning actress Roseanne Barr being fired from the sitcom she starred in because of a racially demeaning tweet about the former White House adviser Valerie Jarrett. Try to imagine a white male university official getting so smooth a ride as Rashad after caping for Cosby. Ponder the stock response of Democratic voters to a white male member of Congress accused of antisemitism.
Is there a sense on the left — where it seems the canceling impulse is strongest — that Black women should get more of a pass on transgressions of social justice etiquette because of the double burden of being female and Black? I’m not sure.
But whatever our verdict on that, I am sure that this measure of forbearance should be the default for public or historical figures. Of course, it’s fair, maybe necessary in some instances, to chastise these figures. Of course, sometimes there will be transgressions so widely condemned that the transgressors are irredeemable. But most of the time, emphasizing people’s contributions despite their flaws — seeing them in totality and not boiling down their lives to their specific missteps — is just civilized rationality. The idea that an isolated breach of social justice etiquette should derail a career is calisthenic. So when we see that happening, we should hesitate and, in most cases, root for outcomes where people get criticized, perhaps, for their wrongthink but not shoved out of the public square.
I recommend Walker’s “The Temple of My Familiar,” a book that left me ashamed of being a man and yet wanting to read it again. Reid’s career as a broadcaster outweighs any parochial views about gay people she now disavows. I’d happily see Rashad in acting roles forever, despite my disappointment in her take on Cosby. I, frankly, wouldn’t vote for Omar but accept that voters in her district see things differently.
We know, certainly, there are situations where people other than Black women have avoided cancellation. Dave Chappelle comes to mind. My point, again, is that some degree of grace is called for in most cases — for the college professor who says something impolitic in class and the historical figure whose words are appalling now but were consistent with his times.
We need to rethink the entire practice of treating unpretty sentiments as if they summed up anyone’s life or work, whether you’re talking about a political titan or a contemporary celebrity. That Thomas Jefferson was an enslaver and thought of Black people as inferior is a sad aspect of his totality, and his hypocrisy on race should be noted. But it doesn’t negate all else he accomplished, including drafting the Declaration of Independence, a document that guides and governs our very way of life.
Back to O’Connor and the racism that has caused some to reconsider her work. Yes, she used the N-word freely in letters and wrote, “About the Negroes, the kind I don’t like is the philosophizing prophesying pontificating kind, the James Baldwin kind. Very ignorant but never silent.” It reflects a bigotry and a parochialism not unlike Dunbar’s. (And she’s just wrong about Baldwin.) But that doesn’t dilute the brilliance or literary value of a story such as her “Parker’s Back.” And it won’t work to claim that the difference between O’Connor and Dunbar is that his objectionable remarks were intra-Black. By today’s woke standards, wouldn’t classism tinged with racism be an intersectional double whammy? If there’s room to look beyond his flaws, O’Connor should get the same treatment.
One more: The biologist E.O. Wilson, who died last year, faced accusations of racism, a charge that continues to be explored. One article describes an epistolary cordiality with the Canadian psychologist J. Philippe Rushton, who had openly racist views about Black people. In one such letter, Wilson reportedly praised Rushton’s paper arguing that “Black and non-Black people pursue different reproductive strategies.” That’s far from ideal, but even less ideal is any sense that this aspect of Wilson must be ongoingly considered amid our assessment of his pioneering genius. I was knocked out by his book “Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge,” about the progress of our understanding of the world, and considering how he may have felt about Black people would have been quite irrelevant to the experience.
Whether we’re talking about the past or the present, the idea that being insufficiently progressive or sensitive can wind up being the measure of a person’s worth is a call to disavow intelligent assessment in favor of gut-level impulses. It’s an all-or-nothing kind of thinking that, in the guise of insight, teaches a form of dimness. We seem to spontaneously understand this in some instances. We need to extend that basic common sense, that basic ability to make distinctions and see the whole picture, when evaluating trespasses by people of all walks of life and across time.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”