One of America's leading African-American intellectuals conducts conversations on blackness with famous black men. One can only guess the significance of the title, because Gates (Humanities and Black Studies/Harvard; Colored People: A Memoir, 1994) offers no explanation. Depending on how one counts, it may be the number of black men featured, because even though there are seven profiles (James Baldwin, Harry Belafonte, Bill T. Jones, Colin Powell, Louis Farrakhan, Albert Murray, Anatole Broyard), each devolves into conversations that draw in other men (Ralph Ellison, Romare Bearden, O.J. Simpson, Jesse Jackson, Eldridge Cleaver, Sidney Poitier). Or 13 may refer to the number of subsections in the introduction, delineating themes that recur through the book, all involving the conflicts, struggles, and inescapability of being black and male in America. In a chapter bearing the same title as the book, 13 may be the number of takes Gates offers on the O.J. Simpson trial, each exploring ``black wariness'' and how whites are constantly surprised by its persistence and depth. And, finally, there may be 13 different ways in which these men approach their blackness, from choreographer Jones, who exploits the blackness of his body in his dance, to Broyard, who spent his life denying his blackness but whose writing was deeply informed by it. The profiles, written over several years and many of which appeared in the New Yorker, provide the skeletons upon which Gates hangs explorations of large themes, drawing intellectuals, poets, and politicians into the discussion. In the end, the concerns of this rich gallery of fascinating and brilliant characters prove to be universal, even as they are rooted in black maleness. Thus, it's not the riddle of the title that finally counts as much as the 13 times 13 questions that Gates raises through these men: questions about interconnections and separations, to be addressed not just by other black men but by all Americans.
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