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Once You Go Black

Choice, Desire, and the Black American Intellectual

Robert Reid-Pharr

Publication Year: 2007

2007 Lambda Literary Award Finalist, LGBT Studies

Richard Wright. Ralph Ellison. James Baldwin. Literary and cultural critic Robert Reid-Pharr asserts that these and other post-World War II intellectuals announced the very themes of race, gender, and sexuality with which so many contemporary critics are now engaged. While at its most elemental Once You Go Black is an homage to these thinkers, it is at the same time a reconsideration of black Americans as agents, and not simply products, of history. Reid-Pharr contends that our current notions of black American identity are not inevitable, nor have they simply been forced onto the black community. Instead, he argues, black American intellectuals have actively chosen the identity schemes that seem to us so natural today.

Turning first to the late and relatively obscure novels of Wright, Ellison, and Baldwin, Reid-Pharr suggests that each of these authors rejects the idea of the black as innocent. Instead they insisted upon the responsibility of all citizens—even the most oppressed—within modern society. Reid-Pharr then examines a number of responses to this presumed erosion of black innocence, paying particular attention to articulations of black masculinity by Huey Newton, one of the two founders of the Black Panther Party, and Melvin Van Peebles, director of the classic film Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song.

Shuttling between queer theory, intellectual history, literary close readings, and autobiography, Once You Go Black is an impassioned, eloquent, and elegant call to bring the language of choice into the study of black American literature and culture. At the same time, it represents a hard-headed rejection of the presumed inevitability of what Reid-Pharr names racial desire in the production of either culture or cultural studies.

Published by: NYU Press


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p. v

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pp. vii-viii

I am frankly amazed and a little embarrassed by the sheer amount of patience, generosity, and good will that have been shown to me and to Once You Go Black as we have developed over the last several years. The Alexander von Humboldt Foundation awarded me a research grant for the 2002–2003 academic year that enabled me to complete a large amount...

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Introduction: The Existential Negro

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pp. 1-34

I invite you to imagine a rather comically American scenario. The intellectual, a promising young man of color, has made his way to one of the great capitals of Europe. He has established himself in a borrowed apartment, learned the rudiments of the native language, surrounded himself...

Going Black

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1. The Funny Father’s Luck

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pp. 37-67

Once You Go Black is concerned with individual intellectuals, their works, the reception of their works, their biographies, and indeed the reception of their biographies. Or to put the matter more straightforwardly still, Once You Go Black greedily partakes in a suspect, if not altogether outmoded, literary historical method built around great men and their great books. ...

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2. Ralph Ellison’s Blues

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pp. 68-95

We have been continually reminded ever since that remarkable day in 1952 when Ralph Waldo Ellison first exploded onto the American literary scene that the genius which took hold of Ellison and made itself known through his writing was indistinct from the genius on display in the performances of the greatest of twentieth-century blues and jazz musicians. ...

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3. Alas Poor Jimmy

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pp. 96-118

I beg your indulgence as I take a moment to readjust the clumsy apparatuses with which I am attempting to demonstrate some of the finer points of midtwentieth-century Black American intellectual “crisis.” I ask that you forgive my obvious disorientation, the enervating vertigo that makes itself apparent with each laborious sentence. Indeed I fear that...

Coming Back?

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4. Saint Huey

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pp. 121-145

And so it seems we have turned the page—books, music, and dictionaries (American and Continental) all a bit tattered and somehow inadequate in the face of the heat, figurative and quite literal, that has flooded this bright and now somewhat less than airy apartment. Once You Go Black has grown unruly; it has developed (this was also its first year abroad) into a somewhat less than respectable example of Black American...

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5. Queer Sweetback

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pp. 146-168

I begin with a question: What sort of moment is this in which to pose the question of a queer black studies? Moreover, in posing this question one must immediately repeat the now fundamental observation that these moments are always conjunctural, that they have their historical specificity; and although they always exhibit similarities...

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Conclusion: Deviant Desiring

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pp. 169-174

I invite you to imagine a rather comically American scenario. The intellectual, a promising young man of color, has made his way to one of the great capitals of Europe. He has established himself in a borrowed apartment, learned the rudiments of the native language, surrounded himself with books and music, all American of course, and settled down to write. But he is, as is often the case with Americans...


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pp. 175-180


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pp. 181-183

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About the Author

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p. 184

Robert Reid-Pharr is Professor of English and American Studies at the CUNY Graduate Center. He is the author of Black Gay Man: Essays (available from NYU Press) and Conjugal Union: The Body, the House and the Black American.

E-ISBN-13: 9780814777497
E-ISBN-10: 081477749X
Print-ISBN-13: 9780814775837
Print-ISBN-10: 0814775837

Page Count: 208
Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 181536256
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Once You Go Black

Research Areas


Subject Headings

  • Racism -- United States -- History -- 20th century
  • African Americans -- Sexual behavior -- History -- 20th century.
  • African American intellectuals -- Biography.
  • Sex in literature.
  • Sex role in literature
  • Racism in literature.
  • African Americans -- Race identity.
  • Masculinity -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • American literature -- African American authors -- History and criticism.
  • African Americans -- Intellectual life -- 20th century.
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