The Content of Our Character Critical Context - Essay

Shelby Steele

Critical Context

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Content of Our Character is Shelby Steele’s first book. It received considerable critical attention and acclaim (from both liberals and conservatives) and won the 1990 National Book Critics Circle Award. The author’s style is engaging, thoughtful, and always provocative. He is not afraid to see things differently and to state his case bluntly. He is an iconoclast, a forceful advocate of what he believes.

While it is sometimes difficult to categorize Steele’s presentation as either liberal or conservative, there is little ambiguity as to how he stands on the important issues discussed. He offers a clear and consistent vision and forces readers to think about old problems in new ways.

Among whites, particularly conservatives, The Content of Our Character has had a profound intellectual impact. It is often cited in conservative publications. Among white liberals, the volume has been praised as an honest and courageous book, a powerful and original contribution to the examination of race in America. African American critics, however, have been more guarded in their praise. Some African Americans have emphasized the book’s potential as a dangerous barrier to the attainment of civil rights by African Americans, especially lower-class African Americans, in the United States. Such fears are unwarranted. While Steele’s proposed solutions to race problems are often unorthodox and bluntly stated for shock value, his overriding concern for and empathy with the plight of African Americans is apparent on almost every page of this compelling book.