RALPH BUNCHE by Charles P. Henry


Model Negro or American Other?
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A quirky biographical sketch of the sometimes forgotten Nobel laureate. Though in his youth during the 1930s, as a political science professor and administrator at Howard University in Washington, D.C., Bunche gained a reputation as something of an armchair radical, he became in later life an enduring symbol of moderation. It was Bunche the research scholar, for example, who helped to guide and write Gunnar Myrdal’s mammoth study of black Americans following the 1935 Harlem riots. On the international front, Bunche was called on as a troubleshooter with the United Nations (where he was director of trusteeship and then undersecretary) to quell warring factions in the Middle East, the Congo, and Cyprus. In light of those and other accomplishments, which included a 1950 Nobel Prize for his Middle East peacemaking role, Henry (African American Studies/Univ. of Calif., Berkeley) wonders why, close to half a century later, most Americans, including blacks, don’t seem to know who Bunche was. Perhaps this was partly Bunche’s own fault. Reserved and even staid, he was unaccustomed to calling attention to himself as either a diplomat or an academic. In fact, his first government job was with the Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA, where it’s assumed that reticence is golden—and instrumental. But Henry wants instead to cast Bunche as a controversial and charismatic figure, cut to fit the mold of a W.E.B. DuBois. His explorations in search of this Bunche lead to digressions that would have the reader believe his book is an excursion into black intellectual history, with Bunche as an incidental stop along the way. A basic statement of Bunche’s racial views, for instance, becomes a dissertation on slavery; a movie made about him yields to a long discourse about the role of African-Americans in the movies. These digressions cloud our view of the man. (25 b&w photos)

Pub Date: Jan. 15th, 1999
ISBN: 0-8147-3582-7
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: New York Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1st, 1998