Kenneth W. Mack’s Representing the Race is a collective biography of a group of African American civil rights lawyers during the era of segregation. Mack moves away from the standard telling of 20th century American race relations (“stories of protest and accommodation, heroes and villains, assimilation and black separatism, movement building and backlash, progress and retrenchment”) to focus instead on what he calls an “enduring paradox” of race relations:
From their beginnings, Americans imagined that they inhabited a country composed of distinct racial, ethnic, and religious groups that somehow constituted a unified nation—an idea that, for some, is encapsulated in their historic national motto, e pluribus unum. Just as assuredly, since the time of the nation’s founding Americans have imagined that certain minority groups fit uneasily, or perhaps not at all, into the national whole. Among the most prominent of these groups have been African Americans, and what has connected this particular minority group to the larger nation has been its representatives—those who claimed to speak for, stand in for, and advocate for the interests of the larger group.
The usual story of black civil rights lawyers in American history is that these lawyers represented the interests of a unified minority group that wanted to be integrated into the core fabric of the nation—or, as more-recent accounts have described them, perhaps these lawyers failed at their task of representation. But the story was not so simple as either of these accounts would have it. Rather, from their beginnings, black civil rights lawyers were people caught between the needs and desires of the larger, white-dominated culture, and those of their own racial group, and there was no simple way out of that dilemma.
We recently spoke with Mack about the book, and in the video below he describes how the career of Thurgood Marshall, the most famous figure he discusses in Representing the Race, demonstrates the challenging melding of authenticity and exceptionalism still demanded of those said to “represent a race.”
Kenneth Mack will discuss Representing the Race at the Harvard Book Store’s Friday Forum this afternoon at 3pm.