A Critique of Shelby Steele's "The Recomposed Self"


Art Madsen, M.Ed.

Transnational Research Associates

It would be fair to say that we all feel vulnerable at various times in our lives. Recognizing the commonality of all minority persons, the author of this essay willingly shares with his reader many of his own inner fears, vulnerabilities and doubts about himself, as a Black child and man in the United States. Many of these misperceived doubts, especially those dating from his teen-age years, were not completely justified, he readily admits. However, the experiences of his adolescence and young manhood, most of which were, in fact, affected by his racial status in American society, serve to provide a platform on which to build an impressive and compelling essay.

Shelby Steele, for those who are unaware of his importance in the Black Community, was a Professor of English at San Jose State University in California for over 20 years. Recently, he was named a Fellow of the Hoover Institute at Stanford University where he has had time to write two major best-selling books on the race question in the United States. His books, which reflect some of the same themes in "The Recomposed Self", were received with mixed reactions because of their severe criticism of the artificial way in which Whites have attempted, according to Steele, to placate and mollify Blacks in this country. The seeds of some of this controversial thinking, published later in his books, are contained in this brief essay.

Like many Black adolescents, young Shelby felt a sense of shame when his English was corrected by his White friend's mother. He misunderstood why she was attempting to correct him. Eventually, there was a confrontation, between this well-intentioned mother and Shelby, in the gymnasium of the YMCA where she explained that she truly cared about him as a person and wanted him to succeed later in life.

Steele analyses his feelings at the time, traces their development, and expands his essay to encompass what his discoveries mean for all Blacks in this country. He feels that Blacks must transform their doubts and fears into constructive recognition of their true roles and purposes in society. They must not "recompose" every instance of criticism into the feeling that they are necessarily victims of discrimination.

He pursues this thought by explaining that one of the most prominent "recomposition" tactics of Blacks is to compensate for what they feel is discriminatory treatment. Often young Blacks, he states, will stride through their neighborhoods with large hand-held cassette decks blasting at full volume. Or they will indulge in what he calls "compensatory grandiosity" by wearing gold chains and driving flashy cars. Dancing is another compensatory tactic expected of Blacks, and it is practiced widely as a sign of pseudo-superiority. Afro-Americans, Shelby feels, must move beyond this reaction and progress with their lives.

Steele's thoughts move toward broader subjects when he considers Black Nationalism a manifestation of over-compensation. Near the conclusion of his essay, the writer describes with poignancy and emotion the departmental transfer of a prominent Black professor of Afro-American Studies who had dared to question one of James Baldwin's public statements. Using this episode, he points out how useless it is for certain Black professors, who cling to their own out-dated defense mechanisms, to criticize a brilliant colleague, when so many goals remain to be achieved on a collective and unified basis.

The final paragraph of "The Recomposed Self" contains the principal message of Shelby Steele, a message mirrored, as well, in his best-selling books. He feels that all Blacks need to understand how to free themselves from "racial vulnerability" and how to refrain from "denying" and "recomposing". Blacks, he concludes, need to confront the concepts and ideas that frighten or intimidate them and must move beyond these constraints to higher achievements and priorities.