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Biography 23.2 (2000) 403-407

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Hazel V. Carby. Race Men: The W. E. B. Du Bois Lectures. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1998. 191 pp. ISBN 0-674-74558-2, $24.00.

Race has always been controversial and divisive in this country. Unfortunately, it is likely to continue as America's Achilles' heel in the next century. A late 1999 ABC News poll revealed that one in four Americans thought that racism and prejudice will be the "biggest problems people must deal with in the new millennium." Indeed, racism and prejudice were most often chosen as the number one problem in the twenty-first century by both blacks and whites. It was, therefore, prophetic that W. E. B. Du Bois, one of the most acknowledged black scholars, accurately predicted in The Souls of Black Folk "that the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of color line" (46-47). However, what many observers may not be aware of, or acknowledge, is that sexism and intra-race relations, particularly in [End Page 403] the black community, may also present some problems in the twenty-first century if efforts are not made to curb them.

In Race Men, Hazel V. Carby goes beyond the debate on race by tackling black masculinity and the danger of excluding, ignoring, or marginalizing the needs, interests, and concerns of the black woman and black femininity. The author poses questions about, and examines the nature of, the cultural representations of many forms of black masculinity at different historical moments in different media. She argues that Du Bois' narrow and rigid code of black masculinity remains implicitly but firmly in the works of leading black male scholars today. Furthermore, Race Men shows how the defining images of masculinity operate socially and politically in the US, and how they exclude females.

In The Souls of Black Folk, W. E. B. Du Bois imagines black people in ways that are conceptually analogous to imagining a nation within the United States. In addition, he argues that black people and their cultural traditions do not exist in opposition to the national ideals, but on the contrary, embody those ideals. He asserts that black people are integral to the formation and maintenance of the nation to which they have contributed their culture and labor in laying the foundations of a vast economic empire. Hazel Carby notes that Du Bois "offered new and alternative ways to formulate complex issues on race and nation" (29). Furthermore, she maintains that Du Bois "challenged the hegemony of the national and racial formations in the United States" at the dawn of the twentieth century in ways that "both assumed and privileged a discourse of black masculinity" (10).

Readers who are interested in the life and contributions of Paul Robeson will find Race Men enlightening. It covers his life and professional career, including critical reviews of the concert and film performances by the multi-talented but misunderstood Robeson. For a time, Paul Robeson was not only a remarkable athlete, a good-looking and an imposing man, an acclaimed actor, and a singer of Negro spirituals, but also a national icon. Nude photographs of Robeson were among Nickolas Muray's celebrity portrait collection titled The Revealing Eye. Those photographs portrayed immaculate, ideal, art-worthy, naked bodies that were published not only for art students, but also for the general public. But "what makes the Robeson photographs particularly unusual is that nude studies of the black male body were so rare in this period" (50). By the 1940s, however, the man who was once a national hero, and whose nude pictures were among those of America's celebrities, had been vilified because of his unwavering commitment to socialism.

Carby's contribution to the literature on Paul Robeson is significant in another respect. She notes rightly that the star's performance is frequently [End Page 404] isolated from those of his accompanist Lawrence Brown, who was also the musical arranger and collector of Robeson's spirituals. She emphasizes that Brown's association with Robeson must be understood as a musical partnership that has been called "one of the most...