Black Counter Narrative And The Public Secret In Critical Race Theory

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Black Counter Narrative and
The Public Secret in Critical Race Theory
Kate S Kelley
University of Missouri


This essay examines the use of counter narrative in Critical Race Theory and its exposure of racism in the United States as a public secret. Anthropologist Michael Taussig (1999) points out that the core of secrecy is power; thus the core of public power is the public secret. The power inherent in the idea of a secret is that it is privileged knowledge that should not be publically acknowledged. To be ‘in the know’ is to hold the power of privileged awareness over those imagined to reside ‘outside the know.’ But a secret is never actually secret since once the contents of a secret is imparted to another person the content is already no longer secret. In this way, the public secret is a deceit on the structural level of social and cultural hegemony. Counter narrative, advocated by CRT, is an effective way to expose the public secret of racism because it is contingent precisely upon the insidious nature of the subtle institutionalized and structural racism of U.S. society without recourse to or dependence upon logic. Naming racism as a public secret reveals the conceit of those implicit in its protection while simultaneously breaking the taboo of secrecy.

Keywords: Critical Race Theory, counter narrative, public secret

Black Counter Narrative and
The Public Secret in Critical Race Theory
Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well: the Permanence of Racism (1992) is a collection of fictional stories that expose the public secret of racism in America by presenting situations in which matters of race are the central defining context of the narratives. Race, as a central context for fictional writing was unusual at the time Bell’s book was published, as the conventions of a canonical American literature were still largely intact. Bell prefaced a 1999 reprinting of his story “Space Traders” with a short section called “The Power of Narrative.” Bell explains his motivation for writing fictional stories is that while many of his law students were “quite ready to acknowledge the involuntary role blacks have played in earlier national policies…They found it difficult… to imagine the country selling out the rights and interests of black Americans in this post-segregation era” (D. Bell, 1999, p. 315). He also notes that far from being extraordinary practice in legal studies fictional situations are commonly used as ‘hypotheticals’ in exams and other student exercises. Bell’s counter narratives rest on this convention and further it by creating easy to read and entertaining stories that examine and critique the structural hegemony perpetrated by the legal system in the U.S. Counter narratives have two attributes. First, they are stories in a basic sense of a telling of events, fictional or non-fictional. Second, and perhaps more important is that counter narratives are an intellectual effort to resist cultural hegemony. The counter narrative expresses “For CRT scholars and practitioners… a concept as well as an active process. A story isn’t simply a story. A story is a way to make sense of the world. A story is a way to explain, perceive and understand the phenomena of life” (Zamudio, Russell, Rios, & Bridgeman, 2011, p. 124). The “active process” of counter narrative is thus the presentation of a cultural narrative constructed to countermand dominant narratives that are taken to be ideologically neutral or at least naturalized as the inevitable result of history. Toni Morrison (1992) suggests one of the significant cultural spaces in which counter narrative exists but has been rendered invisible is the study of literature, particularly in the study of the American literature that she calls the “body of literature produced by the young nation” (Morrison, 2007, p. 35) at a time when White American identity formation was of utmost importance. It is of equal importance, alongside