Vanderbilt Law Review


Lisa A. Kelly

First Page



In the Preface to Colored People, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., describes and explains for his daughter, Liza, communities characterized by race. Throughout his memoir, Professor Gates re- creates communities local and communities transcendent. In one passage, he insists that he is "from and of a time and place-Piedmont, West Virginia... slathered along the ridge of 'Old Baldie' mountain like butter on the jagged side of a Parker House roll." The geography of place, even within the small town of Piedmont, is central. Italian neighborhoods in the west, Irish neighborhoods up on "Arch Hill," wealthy white neighborhoods defined by the block of "upper East Hampshire street," poor white neighborhoods inhabiting Pearl Street, and three separate black neighborhoods--"Downtown," "Up on the Hill," and "down Rat Tail Road"--geographically bounded the "social topography" of Piedmont. Ethnicity together with place formed the living map embedded in the community's consciousness.

In many other passages, Gates vividly describes how his racial identity, nurtured locally, generated a broader sense of community, one that makes easy the nod, the glance, the tip of the hat, whether in Piedmont, Pittsburgh, or Italy. Central to even the title of his memoir is the honoring of a community that exists among minority people in a dominant culture defined by the color of one's skin.

Recognizing the possibility of a geographic and transcendent community should inform the debate that has arisen over challenges to majority-minority voting districts. Like the Rat Tail Road snaking "down around the hill to the bottom of the valley," a community of color or ethnicity is no less real for the winding turns it takes; and the quieter but larger racial community of the glance and vote often needs no map at all to find its way home.

The racial redistricting cases recently decided by the Supreme Court speak of communities of interest while ignoring or distorting the realities of both geographic and transcendent African-American communities. A central question underlying the surface debate is how and whether the state should define geographic communities to transform permanent minorities' into majorities in order to give voice to their political needs. Lurking beneath the political empowerment question is the issue of whether community should be defined primarily by geography or by some other criterion.

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