Somebody asked me which books I should read if I wanted to know how to think about race. It almost never occurred to me to put together that list. I think I know what books to list, but I cannot tell if that list would make sense to anyone but me. That's because I have read so many books on race and I have learned so much from practical experience, and in fact from Christianity, that I'm not sure it could be much more than autobiographical. Then again this is my blog, the proper place to do it.
The first that comes to mind is Cornel West's Race Matters, which I can hardly think of apart from its tandem book Breaking Bread co-authored by bell hooks. These two were the last theoretical works that I could bother to take seriously. So it has to be said that there are in this compendium books that appeal to the practical, and books that appeal to the theoretical. I think the theoretical might be most useful to get one prepared to deal with the practical, but one might get carried away. I understand all too well how much reading about race becomes something of an experiment in self-discovery. IE, I have an idea about what I think about what I believe people believe about me because of my race, but how can that be adjusted? So a theoretical book and make an enormous dent on a younger mind. That's the dangerous part, of getting one's identity clues from scholars, one could put oneself in a paranoid step, one that requires the conversion of millions of minds to be at peace. It is for this reason that the practical books are critical.
Here's the thing. Everybody knows how to be nice. So if you become convinced that your world needs more than just nice, then you've stuck your finger in the dike. You will be standing there, yelling at everyone to lend a hand, and you can't move yourself.
Race Matters kept one particular thing in my mind, as did Breaking Bread. They both emphasized the need of black Americans to have a special identity cookie that would help them to get to the point of acknowledging the Enlightenment framework of 'enlightened self-interest', because most black Americans according to West, have trouble accepting that this is what animates white people in America. In other words, most black Americans have a racial/mercantilist view of capitalist markets. They do not accept the idea of win-win in business and they use the examples of their own relative group poverty as proof. Therefore black Americans who believe this always need an alternative way of success to break through. I could go on about what I see correct and incorrect about this view, but it is an important and useful observation. Breaking Bread, about the Gramscian, emergent, organic black intellectual, is the perfect companion to the view of Race Matters as it establishes the special role of properly educated folks like Cornel West and bell hook is creating and maintaining disciplined thought along this alternative way of success. Is that a tautology? Hmm. I can't remember the last time bell hooks gave me a raise or a tax break, but that's just me.
On the practical side, the one book that meant the most to me was Thomas Sowell's Ethnic America. Years before I gave West any bit of my attention (or even knew who he was) I tied my fortunes to the wisdom of Thomas Sowell. Ethnic America was excellent for me because it gave a picture of practical ethnic identity in the context of economic life. If there was a road to be slowly trod, no matter how bitter the chastening rod, and led to the top of the mountain, it was on me to find it and follow it. Ethnic America thus, was a roadmap as well as a guide to how other ethnics and immigrants did so in America. Having read this one, it became perfectly clear to me that I would get married after the age of 30. That simple formula worked.
Running over to the theoretical side, there was no book that quite so effectively blew my mind as Derrick Bell's Faces at the Bottom of the Well. In it were thought pieces that were so far above and beyond the everyday yammering about race that I truly felt that I had finally heard clear thinking on the matter. The two and a half essays that remain with me are Afrolantica Rising, the Rules of Racial Standing, and one about the White Militia. In that last one, Bell proposes a survivalist militia made up of hardcore gun totin' rednecks who yeehaw with all their might against racism. They are willing, any day of the week, to fight and die for the equality of blacks. So would you as a black American, join and trust such a militia? People's reaction is to suggest no such thing could ever exist, which then only goes to show how thoughtless they are and how resistant they might be to positive radical change. I used the second essay, the Rules of Racial Standing, a great deal in my early race man writings. Now I think of it as an epistemological trap, so now it only gets half credit. That doesn't change how useful it is as an observation on how racial thinking operates. Afrolantica Rising, was a story about a magical island, the legendary Atlantis, that rose from the sea. It fulfilled all of the myths about Afrocentric Africa, and only blacks could go there. Even though most blacks did not, the very existence of that place, for one shining moment, gave hope to a people who felt they never had a homeland. It again underscored the need for black Americans to get some identity cookies.
An astounding book that will probably be pretty hard to find is Theodore Cross' Black Power Imperative. I found it to be fairly compelling back in the mid 80s when I read it. The difficulty is that all of the statistics it used are now long out of date. Still, the premise was one generally around proportional and direct racial representation which is a considerable matter. I can't say that I'm particularly passionate about this, as I de-emphasize the weight of politics in one's quality of life. So how do we disentangle all this? Well, from my perspective, the segregated ghettos have their own special problems as legacies (property values, police protection, school qualities, business density, healthcare delivery). So the logical priorities of voters in these ghettos will be around fixing that which is uniquely dysfunctional in their communities. So what is the better avenue for achievement? Well when it comes to college education and jobs, we think it's obvious. Go to the better place. But when it comes to residence, we tend to favor the ideas of racially segregated communities. For better or worse, one has to ask if it fundamentally more fair for people to vote with their feet or with their politics. My idea is that one shouldn't have to wait for an election to improve your station in life. So that privileges the move out of the ghetto to the better neighborhood. So with this in mind, I do not see the primacy of block racial voting, or the necessity on such a grand scale ever again of creating majority minority districts. All of this will make it more difficult to define the 'permanent interests' or a black voting bloc, but then again these were racial creations of the post-60s. They shouldn't be permanent. To the extent that hypersegregation out of the mainstream is prevalent, one should depend upon enterprise zones and discretionary political action from the top down, rather than to expect that over time, members of a race should be require to exhibit and discipline political racial unity en masse. With all that in mind, the Black Power Imperative illustrates the inequalities by race and makes a cogent and compelling argument for proportional representation. What I'm fairly sure is that the popularity of identical political ideology across racial lines is much more clear today than when it was written. The imperative is not entirely black. (Cobb Vision Video).
Linn Washington wrote the book Black Judges on Justice; Perspectives from the Bench. It must be said that when I was a college freshman, the second time, I went to the library and picked up a book. "Who's Who Among Black Americans" which had some 50,000 doctors, lawyers, engineers, military officers and others prominent. So I said to myself, all I will ever need is to make friends with a couple hundred of those folks and my life will be happy. So I had always looked, in that way, toward a black leadership class of Americans to guide me to the promised land. Not to find a shortcut, but to not waste my time around undesirable Negros who thought they were my natural kin. So yeah I've always been a snob if that's what it means to listen to the voice of actual black judges rather than the complaints of actual black criminals, or those who stand as proxies for their 'voice'. What I didn't find in this thick book, was anything that led me to believe that there was something fundamentally twisted about American jurisprudence. In other words, there was a diversity of black opinion, no conspiracy theories, and a status quo that didn't make me feel all squirmy. So there's two books to consider.
Now it must be said that part of any important understanding about race has to do with living. That is to say, you know how you live, how the people in your neighborhood live, how your various friends and relations live, but how representative is that life? Why would you care? Because you want to buck up or debunk what you hear about race and what you know about race. But there was no set of books quite so potent, as a fictional set, than the following three I'm about to mention. The first was White Boy Shuffle by Paul Beatty. The next was High Cotton by Darryl Pinckney and the last was Jazz by Toni Morrison. Everybody who read White Boy Shuffle said it was a story about me. I know exactly how that character lived. Then with High Cotton, well that was how I thought about myself, the closest any fictional or autobiographical character got to me. Jazz is the book that nobody really wants to read because it so satisfyingly delivers a clear case of how fragile people, afraid of race, destroy each other because they cannot handle the possibility of intimacy, family and equality. When it comes to matters of the heart, Jazz is the most profound book on race I've ever read.
When it comes to matters of history, Russell Banks' Cloudsplitter is the last word. I read it in 1997 years after I rather stopped reading books about race. Cloudsplitter is the closest thing we have to understanding John Brown, who in fact was that man who lead that militia into war precisely because he had no tolerance for racism or any inequality of standing between himself and the African in America. It's one of the most important books I've read, period.
In terms of clarified thinking, I found In My Father's House: Africa by Africa in the Philosophy of Culture by K.Anthony Appiah, to be profound. I never even finished the book because its thesis was so well written and concise at its very beginning. I had always asked myself the question of whatever happened to the greatest black minds, and their great thinking. If Marcus Garvey was so profound, why hadn't the Garveys prospered? Where was the chain of thought that made it clear how Africans in America should think of themselves? Why was there this perennial need to reconstruct and re-identify with the race a new and different way every generation? Hadn't anybody figured it out yet? And the answer was, as Appiah demonstrated, that the very idea of race, which is false, was indeed still the nugget of falsity that all of these thinkers held too close to their hearts and minds.
But really I would have to end on this one book. Because in all of my thinking on race, I was attempting to find a personal, social and intellectual connection, with the emphasis on intellectual, with the heirs of the best that African America had produced. It was important to me to have hung out with Wynton Marsalis. It was important to me to have hung out with Cornel West. It was important to me to play some part in the evolution of black cultural production. I wanted to be, for most of my life, a famous black author. I felt that my work, in my generation, could call out to everyone in a political and cultural way that was a smart inheritance. That was my avocation. I wanted to be in the elite. But a book called Drylongso: A Self-Portrait of Black America by John Langston Gwaltney solved all that. It proved to me once and for all, that ordinary black folks, without leadership, without scholarship, without assistance from anything but their own wits, knew exactly what they needed to know about race and their relationship to America. It showed me that everyone was their own solution, and there was never any need beyond the tweaking of the laws that was the Civil Rights Movement, for black Americans to do anything outside of what their spirits, guts and minds told them to do. It seemed that in the end, the more studying you did, the more you felt that there had to be some way to fix this race problem. But the fix was already in place with no need for poets, priests or politicians. There is no need for a revolution.
As long as I have been writing and thinking about race, I never took responsibility for 'the state of race relations in America'. I knew then as I know now, that people work it out for themselves, or they don't. But they have their own reasons and those reasons and capabilities cannot be abstracted for grand purposes. So in the end, emotionally, spiritually, intellectually or by chance, everyone finds their own equilibrium, and no history will do that justice. All any individual can do is satisfy their hungers and curiosity by comparing what they think and believe to others. But that will not make it, and cannot make it, a racial imperative. It comes down to individuals. The individuals are correct because they speak for themselves. It's when they try to represent a race or a racial movement when they fall foul.
I'm quite sure I have read just about everything considered relevant to the subject matter between 1982 and 1993, and especially from 1989 forward. I stayed on top of this with some intensity and I kept writing online with what I learned pretty much through to 2006(?). It is rather odd in retrospect to see all this as a half-baked writing career. Call it "The Fire Lost This Time", if you will. I can't make a whole lot of it because I'm very pleased with what I was able to write and communicate, and given the choice between total commitment to that writing career and my day job, I chose my day job. I could not ever believe that the world would stop rotating, even for me, if I never wrote that book. And even to this day I find it very hard to see my writing or fame owing to giving my own understanding of race to the world. There is only a limited amount of pride I could take from that. If that's an irony, I suppose I can appreciate it from a critical distance, but it's not about me. I just did what I did when it was compelling for me to do so.