The author of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race considers himself black, and certainly his father does (his mother is white) but has blond, blue-eyed children with his wife, also a white woman. And it makes him think about race, racism, and our perhaps unnecessary obsession with categorizing people in rigid categories.
Tag Archives: race
The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and the Crime That Changed Their Lives also tells a true story from Oakland, that of a very bad mistake from a teenager who lights on fire another’s dress, for a lark, really, on the bus of the title. The two come from two different worlds, one white and privileged, one black and struggling financially. The story unfolds both in the past and the present, showing the physical recovery of one and the harsh legal treatment of the other, despite remarkably generous interventions by the wounded teen’s parents. It’s a good illustration of why we should probably not treat teens as adults in the legal system.
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.
In Everything I Never Told You, the suspicious death of a teenager is the starting point for extended flashbacks that tell the story of a mixed-race family, from the parents’s alienation from their own families to the three children’s complicated reactions to their parents’ unrelenting push to achieve. I thought that the descriptions of the intricate relationships between siblings, both loving and competitive, were particularly well described. The unrelenting mother seemed to me surprisingly out of touch and forced, however.
Written in a lively and appropriately personal style (at least if you skip the awkward first two pages), The Invisible History of the Human Race: How DNA and History Shape Our Identities and Our Futures starts with entertaining and sympathetic descriptions of genealogists, moves to the terrifying eugenists and the gas chambers of the Nazis (who, among many others, killed hundreds of thousands of disabled children and mental patients in their quest to improve the Aryan “race), and then tells dozens of stories of how modern DNA analyses are helping to confirm individual family trees and, more intriguingly, to validate and disprove hypotheses about cultural mixing. No Ancient Italy genes in modern Britain, so the conquerors did not physically stay there (but lots of Norwegian DNA, pointing to the Vikings). An intriguing mix of science and history.
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.)
I find On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City to be barely legible in parts. It’s a book-length version of a years-long ethnographic study of a poor, mostly African-American neighborhood in Philadelphia, and it is not the wretched lives of many of the main actors (in juvenile detention by junior high; parents and drug dealers by high school; in prison for dealing or murder by young adulthood) that makes it illegible, but rather the relentless lying and pettiness in which they organize their daily lives. The author makes it clear that she believes that all the problems of the neighborhood are brought about by overbearing police action, and certainly it seems bizarre to lock kids up for possession of small quantities of marijuana, or for violent behavior at school that is reprehensible, but would not result in imprisonment in nicer neighborhoods. Why waste time checking that parolees are not drinking or smoking marijuana? And why not equip each released prisoner with an ID or a driver’s license? But it’s interesting to note that most of the inhabitants obey the law despite living in the same circumstances as the repeat offenders, and very sad to see how many children are brought up in the chaos and likely to suffer the same fate in a few years.