Borrowing from a citation made by Ralph Ellison in the 1960s, his title represents "segregation as an opaque steel jug with the Negroes inside waiting for some black messiah to come along and blow the cork" (52). In his introductory chapter, Reed briefly traces the history and problematics of theories of racial identification and politics. The basic paradigm is the difficulty of claiming to represent a variegated racial group as a corporate whole, which we could say, lies at the very crux of our course: mediated representation of an entire group through its most privileged elite as identification. Reed finds that, since the major civil movements of the 1950s-1970s, theories and practices of black representational politics have taken approaches of "custodianship," in which scholars and politicians are either removed from the quotidian struggles of the black population or are courting white interests at higher levels.
The paradigm, Reed suggests, functions somewhat dialectically between the respective credos of the twentieth century’s most prominent black thinkers: Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois. The former preached a doctrine of self-help, in which he proposed that political justice would come in the wake of economic and agricultural autonomy; the latter insisted that such accomplishments were impossible without fair political representation (in foreword by Julian Bond). From this dialectic, Reed exhumes a number of paradoxes forwarded by other black scholars. One implicit to his argument is the fact that blacks’ most effective radicalism was in some ways quelched with the introduction of Black Studies in the academy. This concessionary maneuver gives blacks an academic and scholarly platform from which to explore the dynamics of race, yet reduces activism on all levels to theoretical probing.
The "masses" assume a non-participatory role in the illusion of their consolidation, which black scholars and leaders presuppose in prescribing firm directions for political movement. In fact, the very reference of mass-elite by scholars, Reed suggests, follows the elite’s initiative to make such distinctions and then to act upon them. The politico-academic distinction calls into question the problem of naming an entire group when a majority of 50.01% holds favor over a still-substantial group of peers. In the search to determine groups, Reed argues, it must be taken into account, as well, that "racial consciousness" varies with class affiliation. A viable standard of racial authenticity from which to announce group imperatives then lies at the heart of Reed’s chapter.