White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide recounts the myriad ways white Americans have blocked improvements in the lives of African Americans, Lincoln, the hallowed emancipator, initially thought it best that African Americans simply leave the country (for Panama). The Supreme Court for decades approved poll taxes that were specifically designed to exclude African-American voters, and seem utterly opposite to the Fifteenth Amendment. When African-Americans moved North and West as part of the Great Migration, white Southerners dreamed up all kinds of strategies to prevent their getting on trains to get there. After the Brown v. Board of Education case, many Southern towns set up private schools with public money that excluded black students. The author’s rightful indignation spills over from time to time, weakening her argument. For instance, while African-Americans’ access to higher education needs improvement, the numbers simply do not add up to explain why the proportion of scientists living in the US is decreasing! Too bad: the book is a useful reminder that although racist scheming may have gone underground, it’s still very active.
Loving Day is over-the-top comedy, but, starring an almost-white man and his newly found teenage daughter, it fearlessly tackles race relations with a vigor and courage that are both refreshing and sobering.
Puzzlingly, the copy editing seems to be lacking, and the details of the story are often bawdy, outlandish, or both, but the tone is unerring and the father-daugher relationship is wonderfully chaotic. This book is easy to read, but deep, in a good way.
Welcome to Braggsville is a strange story. It stars four friends, freshmen at Berkeley (neatly and comically arranged in a careful rainbow of races, genders, and sexual orientations) who somehow seize on the bright idea of attending a Civil War reenactment in one of the four’s Southern, small hometown, and disrupting it. Very bad ideas yield bad consequences, in this case death, multiple police inquiries, estrangement, and various acts of cruelty.
So why strange? For one thing, the tone vacillates between comedic lark and tragedy, with the first half of the book so campy as to portend a Quixotic adventure before diving inexplicably into drama. Second, the author seems determined to show off his literary skills by pulling stunts such as a one-word chapter, with copious footnotes. In your face, perhaps, but does not add much to the story. And finally I had to check that the author did attend Berkeley, for I don’t know of any student who would call it Berzerkley, or the city across the bay San Fran, or the state Cali. Only outsiders do that. And Unit 2 of the dorms is not at the top of Hearst Avenue. Google Maps, anyone?
Too bad, because the story raises all kinds of interesting and real issues about race, racism, and prejudices, drowned in misguided freshman big ideas, that would be worth exploring without distractions.
Fire Shut Up in My Bones is an often tragic memoir of an African-American man growing up in Louisiana, with an overwhelmed mother stuck in a bad marriage and later struggling financially as a single mother with few work opportunities, despite her college degree, in a racist town. He talks about his abuse at the end of a relative, the crazy hazing at his fraternity, and finally his chance to work as a New York Times journalist. It’s an inspiring, if grim story.
Written by an anti-racism activist who is white, White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son is a barely controlled rant against unconscious racism and especially the unconscious privilege of white people in America. He does a splendid job of showing that today’s white folks, who never owned a slave, still benefit from the system of slavery both because of the wealth their families accumulated as a result but also, and this goes for everyone, even recent immigrants, because of the higher status that whites have enjoyed and still enjoy. Well done. Alas, he gets carried away, as when he presents his demented grandmother’s tirades as proof of racism. Sadly senile dementia may provoke all kinds of tirades that don’t prove much beyond the existence of dementia, right? And at some point he seems to suggest that non-whites don’t have time to look at serious issues as an intellectual exercise, which I thought was insulting. (Replace non-whites with “women” and I think you will agree with me.)