And so I can’t help but notice that—if there is, indeed, a crisis of the Black intellectual who, by so many measures is thriving today, more sought out and provided with platforms than he or she has ever been—then it probably has something to do with this very disconnect. Many of our most audible black voices today will say things that do sound radical. In one small—but not frivolous—example, we might use a formulation like, “people who believe they are white” in their writing.” That is not at all empty rhetoric. It’s quite radical. It’s a way of saying that whiteness is not something that is real, which is a way of saying that race itself is an illusion. This is a decades-old insight, of course. James Baldwin made the point as well as anyone. But it is nonetheless one that is, by any measure, still subversive, capable of raising many readers’ eyebrows, or worse. But many of the intellectuals using such penetrating rhetoric today too often leave it on the page. They seldom ever display the kind of radical imagination, or perhaps just the willingness to face ridicule, that would force them to conduct their lives as though they genuinely believed, or wanted to believe, that the implications of such statements were true. In fact, much of the time the rhetoric itself can seem inconsistent. And thus they represent whiteness, and therefore race, as something much more like an essence, resulting in anti-racism work that can be powerful, testimonial, well-meaning, and even convincing, yet paradoxically capable of reinforcing the same received and deeply constricting ideas of racial difference they claim elsewhere to want to counteract. And so even though this is not at all what Cruse would have meant, I have come to believe wholeheartedly that the only action sufficiently radical to accompany a statement like “people who believe they are white,” which is just a way of saying that race is a lie, is to follow that logic to its necessary endpoint. This would mean unequivocally renouncing racial categories and, to the extent possible, taking into account one’s class position and other factors, finding ways to live one’s life accordingly, in defiance of the convoluted logic upholding the color caste system. One radical, non-violent, and possibly self-sacrificing act for the black intellectual would be to start refusing to check boxes.
Let me backtrack and admit that I have not always been so willing, or able, to question conventional ideas of race and identity. I’ve spent almost the entirety of my life believing the fundamentally American dictum that a single drop of black blood makes a person black, primarily because that person can never be white. My father, a brown-skinned man from segregated Texas, is old enough to be my grandfather, and his grandfather was old enough to be born in the final year of chattel slavery. My mother is a pale-skinned Anglo-Saxon protestant from a bible-thumping, evangelical family in southern California. As a family, we were an island unto ourselves in a de facto segregated New Jersey town, whose white side we lived on as a form of silent protest against the attempts of various realtors to steer us across their invisible, but ultimately real, red lines. Yet despite these particularities we never questioned that ours was an unequivocally black household. Sometimes my father, a sociologist by training, would even joke, half-jest, that his wife wasn’t really white at all—she was just light-skinned, he’d laugh. Once, when I was ten or so years old, I pressed him on this, saying “Come on, you don’t really believe that, do you?” “Well, she’s got black consciousness, doesn’t she?” is what he’d say. It strikes me now, as an adult, that this exchange could occur nowhere else in the world but in the United States. And yet it made a certain amount of sense to me then. What I know is that my parents tried to prepare my brother and me for a reality beyond their doorstep as best they could, by proudly and confidently proclaiming and championing our blackness, so that, in turn, we might do the same, when the world would inevitably demand that we take a stance. As recently as 2012, a year before my French wife got pregnant, I published an essay in the New York Times defining my future children as unassailably black. They would be mixed, yes, but they would be as black as W.E.B. DuBois, if they wanted to be, I reasoned. In retrospect, I can see that it was a defiant last gasp of something, some way of looking at the world that I must have understood as being, whether I wanted to admit it or not, under dire threat.
At the time, I was convinced that I was in the right, and even pressed my wife to accept the same view, which was completely foreign to her European mind—a mind which had, frankly, never been exposedto plantation logic. Today I wince when I read that Op-ed. Parenthood changes everyone, but looking back on it now, I can say without exaggeration that I walked into that delivery room as one person, and came out an altogether different man. The sight of my blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me, along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine. I thought of Albert Murray’s wonderful line in The Omni-Americans: “But any fool can see that the white people aren’t really white, and the black people aren’t black.” And I did feel myself to be a fool right then. Like confronting the irrevocable knowledge that the sun does not, in fact, rise or set, contrary to linguistic convention. The reality of my daughter’s appearance laid bare for me a convenient fiction. From that moment on, I was consumed by three deceptively simple questions: What, if anything, remains black in my child? What—if I am a black man capable of having a daughter who looks like this—does race, as we construct it, even mean? What might all of our lives look like, should we dare to see past the color line? I began to write a book attempting to address these questions. Before long, I had to face the fact that it would require nothing less than for my actions to become commensurate, as commensurate as possible, with my rhetoric.
What has any of this to do with the black intellectual? While I was living in Berlin in 2017, I became intrigued by the notion of sonderweg in German history: literally the “special path” down which the German people have been fated to wander. In different eras, and depending on who employed it, the term could imply different things. It began as a positive myth during the imperial period, as some German scholars told themselves about their political system and their culture. During and after the Second World War, it turned distinctly negative, a way for outsiders to make sense of the singularity of Germany’s crimes. Yet whether viewed from within or without, from left or right, the Germans could be seen, through such a conceptual lens, as possessing some kind of collective essence. A specialness capable of explaining everything about them. And that’s why one could speak of a trajectory from Luther to Hitler, and interpret history not as some kind of chaotic jumble, but as a crisp, linear process. There’s something both terrifying and oddly soothing in such a formulation. For better or worse, it leaves many important matters beyond the scope of choice or action. It imagines Germans as having been either glorious or terrible puppets, powerful agents of forces nonetheless beyond their control. A similar unifying theory has been taking hold in America. Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft, and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages—they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin—white supremacy—explains everything: an all-American sonderweg.
The most shocking aspect of today’s mainstream anti-racist discourse, still the primary arena for the black intellectual, is the extent to which it mirrors ideas of race, specifically the specialness of whiteness, that white supremacist thinkers cherish. Woke anti-racism, even when it pays lip-service to phrases like the aforementioned “people who believe they are white,” actually proceeds from the premise that race is real—if not biological, then socially constructed, and equally, if not more, significant still. This woke anti-racism puts it in sync with the toxic presumptions of white supremacism that would also like to insist on the fundamentality of racial difference. Working towards opposing conclusions, racists and many anti-racists alike eagerly reduce people to abstract color categories, all the while feeding off and legitimizing each other, while any of us searching for grey areas and common ground get devoured twice. Both sides mystify racial identity, interpreting it as something fixed and determinative, and almost supernatural in scope. This way of thinking about human difference is seductive for many reasons, but it has failed us.
In the months since the outcome of the 2016 election, I’ve been dismayed to see an opportunistic demagogue provoke racial resentment across the country and within families (mine as well). But I’ve also been troubled to watch well-meaning white friends who, on my Twitter timeline and Facebook News Feed, flagellate themselves, sincerely or performatively apologizing for their whiteness as if they were somehow born into original sin. John McWhorter has called this development “the flawed new religion of anti-racism…the current idea that the enlightened white person is to regularly—ritually?—‘acknowledge’ that they possess White Privilege.” He wrote this in a 2015 essay. Classes, seminars, teachings are devoted to making whites understand the need for this. Nominally, this acknowledgement of white privilege is couched as a prelude to activism. But in practice, the acknowledgement is treated as the main meal. The call for people to soberly acknowledge their white privilege as a self-standing, totemic act is based on the same self-justification as acknowledging one’s fundamental sinfulness as a Christian. “One is born marked by original sin; to be born white is to be born with the stain of unearned privilege,” McWhorter writes. And so, it is therefore to be born with an essence; in other words, to walk that “special path” without excusing the racists or the sexists, which are, by all indications, both numerous and emboldened. Today’s dominant liberal discourse, which the black intellectual plays a powerful role in shaping—and which sets up all whites as the nation’s only genuine actors, and all blacks and, to varying degrees, other minorities as their hapless props—has too often been counterproductive. The essential tendency, whether explicitly or implicitly stated—which Baldwin described as the “insistence that it is [man’s] categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended”—is always an evasion of life’s complexity. Of course, black and other non-white people cannot meaningfully renounce their race if a significant number of whites do not join them. But neither can even the best-intentioned white people do this in a vacuum. We are a composite nation, as well as a nation of composites. And alt-right fantasies of an all-white ethno-state in Montana and the Pacific Northwest notwithstanding, we are stuck together. The racial resentments conjured and magnified by the 2016 election amount to a giant step in the wrong direction. It is impossible to deny that. But falling back into our narrow identities, even those forged by legitimate grievance, and foisted upon us by the bigotry of others, only delivers a further victory to the opponents of a healthy society.
To shift this dismal paradigm, thinking people of good will across the political spectrum are going to have to find a new vocabulary to move beyond abstract racial categorization and reflexive tribalism. And then they’re going to have to allow that vocabulary to change the way they act. Merely gesturing at the notion that race is a construct will never be enough. Treating race as a social fact amounts to nothing more than acknowledging that we were mistaken to think of it as a biological fact, and then insisting that we have to keep making the mistake. Walter Benn Michaels incisively points that out. A more durable rejection of the racism and xenophobia animating our public life requires an appeal to a deeper, more profound, and racially transcendent humanism. This, in turn, would demand the convincing expression of shared ideals and democratic values. At its rhetorical best, “the American bedrock,” these are accessible to all, regardless of personal background. As James Baldwin, Dr. Martin Luther King, and many others have eloquently pointed out, racism—which I don’t believe can be meaningfully eradicated while maintaining the belief in race—hurts us all. It denies to those understood as black their humanity, while consigning those deemed white to inhumanity and indifference. But this hurts black people even more.
My wish, then, foolish as it may be—foolish in Albert Murray’s sense, I hope—would be for as many people as possible, of all skin tones and hair textures, to turn away from the racial delusion. But I don’t think that it would be unfitting in the least for black intellectuals—who too often, for so many reasons, end up reciting an American sonderweg notion of white supremacy—to take the lead here. Not only do we have the most to gain from the dismantling of the American black/white binary, we also have scarce incentive to wait for all, or even most, of the people deemed “white” to get on board. The fact is that we are all here because race, as well as the invented category of blackness into which so many of us have been thrown, has functioned first and foremost as a problem to be solved, distracting the so-called black intellectual from other pursuits, draining precious mental and spiritual energy. That the dreadful deceit was not put forth by the people most powerfully oppressed is an objection that resonates emotionally, but once we accept that truth, it does little to move us forward. One pressing task for the black intellectual—and it’s far from an easy one—will be to develop and model a rhetorical framework compelling and persuasive enough to inspire us all into a genuinely radical action.
ROBERT BOYERS: I have a first question for Thomas. It has to do with an extraordinary essay you wrote about Ta-Nehisi Coates’s attack on Kanye West. You speak in that essay about Coates’s “Mullah-like authority to assert communal possession of other people he deems to be a part of his community.” Coates claims for himself, you say, “the right not merely to refute a person’s argument, but to deracinate [that person] entirely,” as if he knows what all black people must share. Would you talk a bit more about that notion of “Mullah-like authority” and about that sense that there is a way to read people out of the race.
TCW: The Coates essay was really disturbing to me. In his essay, Coates essentially pulled Kanye West’s black credentials from him, and he assumed his authority to do so, as though there is one way to think that is properly black, which is terrifying. It was an interesting thing to look at in our popular culture, because both of these men are extremely popular. And a lot of black people weren’t comfortable giving up Kanye West, even though in sidling up to Donald Trump, he was doing things that really bothered a lot of people. I think that there were still far too many who felt comfortable that Coates had the authority to come down with the tablets and make a proclamation. And I said it was Mullah-like because there is, in fundamentalist religion, an idea of correct and incorrect behaviors. You know, I want to get into a conversation where we talk about the fact that we’re moving beyond race, but this idea that there’s an essential blackness, and that one can violate it, has long been imposed upon black figures—Michael Jackson, for example. It was a moment in popular culture that really shocked me. Kanye West has this line, “This is my life, homie, you define yours.” And there are too many black people thinking in too many different ways for there to be one correct way.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Thomas, I disagreed with Coates on that, too, but I want to fill in a little bit of what you’re saying about the idea that he was behaving as a Mullah. Because I think that if Coates were sitting here, he’d be clicking his tongue and rolling his eyes. I think that what he’d think we were misunderstanding is this: it’s not that he was behaving like a Mullah; he feels that if you’re not fundamentally committed to battling the racist abuse that we suffer, then there’s something wrong with you. He’d say that it’s not Mullah-like, but just basic moral logic that if you’re not on certain barricades, then clearly you’re not interested in defending yourself. What’s on Coates’s mind is two things (though I can’t be in Coates’s mind, this is an attempt to reconstruct it): people are battling racist cops, and that’s the defining experience, particularly for any black man. Therefore racism is powerful in that way primarily. When anyone talks about America being founded on racism, what they are mainly thinking about is the cops—and we know that Coates is definitely thinking about the cops. The second thing is that in general, Coates has his line that there’s nothing wrong with black America that the eclipse of white supremacy couldn’t fix. What he means is that if there are black teenagers killing each other over sneakers every summer, that’s because of how white people feel about black people and how that’s inculcated itself into our structures. If there are not enough black people going into STEM subjects, if they are under-represented in any way in any profession, the reason is because white people don’t like them and because racist structures control how America works. If you believe that—and Coates does—then it’s not Mullah-like behavior: he is behaving as a rational, self-concerned, moral actor, and he doesn’t understand why Kanye West isn’t one.
Now, Ta-Nehisi Coates’s vision of how cops and race work is vastly oversimplified, and you and I have talked about how there’s a whole article to be written about that, but Coates doesn’t know that, and even if he’s told, he’s not going to listen. We have to think of ourselves as in his head. As far as discrepancies in society, the idea that all racial discrepancies are due, to some extent, to something white people did or are doing wrong, is an oversimplification. You and I agree. But Coates doesn’t regard this as oversimplification, and he’s not going to hear it described that way. Here Coates is representative of a certain kind of black thought, as well as a kind of thought that many non-black people, who consider themselves fellow travelers, represent—and they’re not going to let go of it either. So, what we are faced with are different takes on the world. I worry that if you say—and I’m with and understand everything that you say—that he’s imposing his Mullah-like vision, he immediately dismisses that because I don’t think that’s what it is. And the same goes for his fans, which is about every second person who’s concerned with these issues, of any color at all, in the United States and beyond, and the danger then is that we don’t have a real conversation. After all, everybody’s thinking that you must battle the role that racism plays in black lives, so that really there is a conversation to be had.
TCW: What struck me as so terribly unfair about the whole thing is the idea that you have a claim to somebody else’s thoughts or behaviors. Even if he’s coming from the perspective that you’re describing, he still doesn’t have a claim to pronounce on other people’s ability to draw on their experience to inform an outlook that deviates from what’s expected. It’s scary to think that there’s an orthodoxy governing that.
JM: But he—and we’re using “him” as a metonymy for lots of people— thinks that we just don’t know. He thinks that he can determine this because the truth is so obvious. We’re married to white women so, you know, there’s a problem there. We’re not representative; we just don’t understand the real problem. “You live in France”—I’ve never heard anyone say it, but you know that they must say it, so you just don’t know. And I’m an Ivy league professor, and I like musical theatre, and I don’t really know. So, as far as he’s concerned, he does know—and for reasons that I don’t think make him an idiot. But you’re not saying he’s an idiot, either.
TCW: You know that Coates is a Francophone.
JM: I’ve heard that.
TCW: And of course I’m not saying Coates is an idiot. I debated about whether I should get into the Kanye West altercation because I think you lose something in turning to him. He’s not a thinker; he’s drugged out of his mind on painkillers, and in any case writing about celebrities is always problematic. But what seemed interesting and important about this was that someone could tell you that you’re out of line, that you have a choice to make: to come back in the fold and to get in line, or to be ex-communicated. And I think that that’s relevant.
ORLANDO PATTERSON: Did Kanye West sort of bring that on himself? I mean, he has a vast following, so I suspect, in a way, that he feels that he is speaking for his people when he speaks. There is some problem in his relationship with Trump, but they are both, in a sense, coming from the same place, aren’t they? That, in a sense, almost validates the clash, in that both really do feel that they speak for others. Now, I’d love to know, as a sociologist, what those fans of his are now thinking about him: Did they stay with him, or not? The question goes to the heart of the identity issue.
RB: I can’t help thinking here about an essay Thomas wrote about the artist Adrian Piper. In that essay, Tom, you say that at a certain point, Piper stopped allowing her artwork to be exhibited in all-black shows, not wanting to fulfill expectations based upon her race. When I read that, I thought of a number of white women writers who at one time or another refused to allow themselves to be included in anthologies of women’s writing, and of a gay poet who refused to allow his work to be anthologized in anthologies of gay writing. I suppose that this may well have something to do with a reluctance to speak for other people, though also with a desire to say ‘no’ to racial or gender categories altogether.
TCW: Though I understood Piper’s frustration, I don’t know if I would do the same thing. I recently thought about this question in the context of T Style Magazine, which recently had a cover featuring black writers. And some very notable black writers weren’t included, and I cannot say for sure, but I imagine that some of them simply wanted to be writers and didn’t want to be black writers—not because there’s anything wrong with being black, but because that’s not something that white writers have to go through. You just want to be a writer, and you happen to belong to a tradition, or a group, but that may not be how you think of yourself when you think of all the singular experiences that go into comprising you as a person and as a creator of work. There’s a struggle between being an individual and being thrust into a larger collective to which you have no choice about belonging. And I think that this tension is very poignant for the black intellectual—it always has been, and it will remain so going forward. It’s one part of our responsibility to push against it. You know, Kafka wrote, “What have I in common with the Jews? I hardly have anything in common with myself.” That’s not something you’re supposed to ask, or say, but it doesn’t invalidate the question.
RB: In some respects that is the essential question, no?
JM: Bob, this is the first time since 2010 that I have said yes to something where I was invited as a black anything. I decided in 2010 that that was enough, I am a person, and if I am invited somewhere I will talk about race issues but I will not be invited as a Negro representative. Because it feels like an abbreviation of myself. I don’t want people to think that that’s all I am. It’s not as if I think that they’re going to think I’m white. I just thought that it isn’t right, that it’s too narrow, and it’s antediluvian. This is different, because it’s so special, and I just wanted to sit here with these people you’ve invited. But I hesitated at first. I sat at my desk, and I thought, this is one of those things where I’m being invited because of the color of my skin. That’s not what you meant, but my first thought was no, none of that—I’ll be invited as a Happy Linguist, and if they want to talk about how it feels to be colored, I thought, no, I’ll just write about it. And I’m happy to write about it. But I thought, no, this I have to do. But—don’t laugh—this is the last time—unless there’s something equally special—I’m not doing this again…at least, not until 2029. And that’s because of the abbreviation I feel in the way I’m allowing myself to be represented. Don’t ask why I don’t feel the same way about writing.
MARGO JEFFERSON: When you say you don’t feel that way about writing, do you mean with what kind of assignments you’re offered? Because I find that interesting. And I think about that a lot.
JM: No, I will happily write about the black experience. Again, for me, writing is different. I feel it as a mission. And I wish to get my writing out there, but it’s less—you’re making me really think here—it’s less personal. You write it, you’re hiding behind the wall of the fact that you’re not there, and you go make your dinner and raise your kids. All this is opposed to “Hello, Professor McWhorter, standing in a blazer”—which I’m not wearing— “I wish to speak to you about 1/100th of your life, and that’s why I find you interesting, and why you’re here.”
MJ: “Let me remind you again that this is why you’re here,” yes.
JM: Yeah—that’s too much. This is great. But in general, no. Not as a way of life.
MJ: I must say, as someone who spent so many years in commercial journalism, I felt a lot of this pressure in terms of the kinds of pieces I would be asked to write, by which I simply mean 1,200 reviews of black writers, with no interest in whether I was making distinctions between those I was interested in and others I was not. However, I always felt that my desire—my mandate, my mission—was, in places like Newsweek or the Times, to bring as much textured attention as I could summon to minority writers, as well as to various women writers. But there’s always a line you cross: “It’s Marian Anderson’s 100th anniversary. Would you write about her?” Now, I know some stuff about classical music, but the fact is that I’d never been a classical music critic in my life. I’d only written about musical theatre, jazz, et cetera. And I said I wouldn’t do it. For me to do this piece, well, it was clear that the Times was not taking Marian Anderson seriously, by their standards, as a major opera singer. I wouldn’t do it, and won’t do it.
JM: But, of course—I’m always trying to put myself in other people’s heads— they’re thinking that there’s something about Marian Anderson that only you are going to understand. Which doesn’t really make any sense.
MJ: I know. And that was, to some extent, probably true, but given the kind of piece they wanted, what I understood would probably have been so foregrounded that it would have become almost pure sociology. I really wanted her to get her due on her 100th anniversary. She was a soprano! And I could have decided that I could find a way to do it. You know, the Times is really obsessed with black women opera singers, from Marian Anderson, to Shirley Verrett, and others. And actually, if you do hear earlier recordings, Marian sounds more like a soprano than a mezzo. But they feel that black women are automatically pushed towards being mezzos rather than sopranos because it’s earthier. And it’s usually not the lead role of the heroine, the beauty, the star. This is…what to call it? History?
JM: Margo, can I geek out for what is going to be eight seconds?
MJ: Let’s geek.
JM: Are there recordings of Anderson before the early 50s so that as time passes, you can hear how her voice changes?
MJ: Yes, I think you can hear the Lincoln Memorial recording. But there are also other recordings from the 40s. And isn’t it fun to geek? That’s why we came, right?
DARRYL PINCKNEY: Forgive me for going back to Thomas’s first sentences, but just the mention of that title— The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual—brought back so much from my student days. It was one of those books that was always on the shelf, that a lot of people owned, but hadn’t read. And it was always very intimidating because you would open any page and feel that you weren’t black enough.
MJ: And there were many pages.
DP: Many pages! It’s a work of extraordinary vehemence about black cultural nationalism that also included a very inconvenient species of anti-Semitism, looking at the Marxist influence on black radicalism, and blaming American Jews for sort of imposing Marxism on black writers. And one of the most extraordinary changes that we don’t talk much about is that Marxism as an alternative social vision is gone, so that black intellectuals had to find ways to hold onto it by looking to other countries. Even the Panthers thought they were Marxists. But that was a long time ago. Nowadays, a lot of black intellectual life takes place without an idea of alternatives or social visions other than what we have. And people had always looked to black culture as a place for different answers. It wasn’t always a prurient interest. It was to experience another America, or a truer America, and especially a freer America. And that’s the thing that’s left, now—everyone is sort of echoing what Jack Kerouac’s character says when he walks through the ghetto in Denver: “Oh, I wish I was black because there’s more music, there’s more night, there’s more this, there’s more that…”
MJ: There’s less guilt.
DP: There’s less guilt. And this idea of there being a “this” side of town and a “that” side of town is still very much with us. I feel very funny, because I’m a big fan of white privilege…It’s just a joke, nobody laughed.
JM: I was laughing inside.
DP: But I also have to say that with my generation in school, there never was a black writer. There just wasn’t. And even in college, there wasn’t. You know, black writing was something done at home, it was in the family, it was personal.
MJ: And sometimes it was compensatory—your family wanted to make sure that you learned about the black writers that you weren’t going to get in school.
DP: Absolutely, yes. And insisted on their value that way. So, early on, after I’d failed at poetry, and failed at fiction…you know, Mary McCarthy said that young writers should write reviews. And I actually discovered that I was very interested to write about these black writers I’d never studied. And I found that it was something of an honor. And I learned a great deal, and that was added to my feeling of humility about literature and the past. I used to have arguments with people who would ask me, “You know, aren’t you a writer who happens to be black? Why do you call yourself a black writer?” But actually, I think that it’s a term of honor. I don’t mind going to events centered around these subjects because I learn something. Because there’s actually no other way in my life for me to take it in, or to have these conversations and these experiences. I also think that blackness means so many different things historically, as well as from place to place and person to person, era to era. But when we talk about it, we mean something specific, especially in the United States. And it has to do with its social aspects—maybe not so much with the psychological, anymore, because that’s the thing that really broke apart. A thing we’ll talk about.
But then we were also talking about Kanye West. Someone like Kanye is criticized by someone like Coates because we are still in that world where black success is meant to be representative of possibilities, of change, and of virtue, and to speak to (and for) those who aren’t there. We don’t talk enough about class and race in the United States. We also don’t talk about the class divide between black spokespeople and black people, which I think is an important thing. It’s as though black intellectuals have been made to take the place of civil rights leaders, now that we say that we don’t have any, because nobody’s paying attention to the NAACP, or other such groups. We turn to black intellectuals to take the positions and to speak in the way that civil rights leaders used to. Yet often, black intellectuals aren’t civil rights leaders and actually shouldn’t be, since the two aren’t quite the same.
As for Kanye West, he wouldn’t be the first black star to say something stupid. And I think that a lot of people who listen to his music can make the distinction. He didn’t just say something about Trump—he said something really ignorant about the Civil War. He wouldn’t be the first entertainer—black or white—to be ignorant about American history. The saddest thing about Michael Jackson was how badly educated he was, as someone who had grown up having tutors on the road. He didn’t know a thing.
OP: Let me play the age card, as the oldest person here at this table— and that includes you, Bob. I have this really strange feeling of déjà vu. When I came to this country almost fifty years ago, we were having this same debate. We were in the middle of it! And my response to it was to write a book, published in 1977, called Ethnic Chauvinism: The Reactionary Impulse. In the 70’s we were going through something called the ethnic revival. You are all too young to remember that. And I thought that all this was getting out of hand. Over the years I came to believe we’d gotten over that, in part because of the Civil Rights Movement, which had several major achievements, apart from the growth of the black middle class. But I’ve had to accept that the ethnic revival and ethnic chauvinism are not things entirely of the past.
When I visited this country for the first time, in the early 60s, there really were two Americas. I’ll never forget. I stayed at my aunt’s, in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, for three months. And towards the end of the three months, I remember turning towards my aunt and saying, “I’ve been here for three months and I’ve not met a single white person! And as a matter of fact, I’ve not met a single black American—not in any kind of meaningful relationship.” This was a very segregated society, a white society. The Talking Heads on television were all white. You opened the New Yorker, it was all white. Even in the New York Times, blacks were represented mainly in the murder reports. It was the absence of blacks in most areas of American life that was impressive to me.
But something profound happened. Blacks became, in many important respects in the public sphere, a profound presence in America. In many ways they define American society. Their influence on the popular culture is out of all proportion to their numbers; one cannot imagine popular culture without seeing black persons. A dominant part of the Democratic party is comprised of black people. We had a black president which, for me, was the culmination of this movement of blacks in the public sphere. We know a lot about failures and persisting problems, but to neglect what has happened to American society in these decades is to miss something extraordinary. I find myself wondering about all of this in my relationship with graduate students, who often talk as if nothing significant has happened. And I don’t know how to explain that.
Of course there is no such thing as a unified black culture. The thing that we used to call “black” people doesn’t exist any more, apart from what we mean when we say “people of color.” What I’m getting at is the remarkable diversity within the black community, starting with class. Those class differences in the 60s really didn’t matter as much as they do now. But I’m especially interested in the ethnic diversity which has emerged within the black community. One in every three black people in this great state of New York is of West-Indian Caribbean ancestry. While color still remains an important factor, it seems to me that one cannot seriously have an important debate without recognizing the enormous complexity of the black community which has emerged, a complexity not only based in terms of class, but in terms of region, ethnicity, and so on.
We have had a retrogression with Trumpism, but it seems to me that how we interpret this is going to be very important. Because there are already huge debates within my own discipline over what explains Trump. The original consensus was primarily concerned with globalization and economic resentment. The evidence is becoming increasingly clear that it was racial resentment that was the critical factor. One way or the other, the America we are talking about today is profoundly different than the America to which I returned in 1970. And I feel like we are still talking about that America, which is also what irritates me about Coates. To pretend that the election of a black president meant nothing strikes me as just absolutely weird. We have to acknowledge the existing sociological and political realities, so as to acknowledge that this is a different world we’re in. This is not the old Jim Crow, and it’s ridiculous to act as though it is. But that’s where we are. Complete refusal to acknowledge the changes. We have to accept them and then ask ourselves what exactly it is that we’re dealing with here. Obviously there is a problem: we have a racist asshole as a president, he has a hoard of racists supporting him. But then racists were always there. And yet this is a profoundly different society. We cannot talk as if we’re confronting what James Baldwin saw in the 1960s. Am I wrong?
TCW: There can be two profoundly different realities at once, right? There can be a profound, racist core that provides a foundation upon which Trump can attract support, and we can also be making progress—and be a much-improved America, as compared to Baldwin’s time. And I feel like a lot of the commentary doesn’t allow for this complexity of multiple realities. So I’m with you on this, Orlando.
JM: Orlando, here’s the thing. I know what you’re talking about, and I’m interested in fixing this problem. And I especially know what you mean about how there was a certain kind of black person who was very angry in 1971. And that person still exists now, just as angry, as if no time has passed. I’m 53, and many people would be surprised to hear that my mother was actually quite the race-man. She even taught a course called “Racism 101” at Temple University in Philadelphia, when that was a newer course for white people to take. And so, there were often people at our house, with combs in their afroed hair. I was about 6 or 7, and I remember there being a certain type of guy who was angry and, looking back, was angry for reasons which make perfect sense when considering how things were, then. The Panthers still existed at that point. And now, I see black undergraduates at Columbia walking across campus with that exact same expression on their faces, trying to dress as much like that as possible. There’s a certain kind of black person who’s just as mad, as if nothing has changed. And it won’t do to call that person crazy—because they aren’t crazy—but you have to wonder why they are pretending that nothing has happened in 50 years. And I think that Ta-Nehisi Coates and William Jelani Cobb, and Melissa Harris-Perry, and Jenée Desmond Harris, Michael Eric Dyson, you know, all the people that you can name—all of these people would listen to you (and I think you’ll take this where I’m coming from) and they’ll think that you’re out of touch, that you’re a person who has gotten beyond a certain age, and that you just don’t know. And what you don’t know, according to them, is the cops—and this is what intellectuals interested in race at this point have to focus more on than we usually do. Why that person is still sitting on the same couch now, with his lips stuck out as though nothing has happened in this vastly changed America, is this myth about how all of our lives are constantly constrained and determined by having to be afraid of the police at all times. And if we don’t counter that myth—if we don’t work on that with data—the discussion is just going to sit still. Also—to go back to another thing you mentioned, Orlando—why is it that so many people pretend? You’re saying it’s partly that when things become so much better, it’s easier to focus on the details. I want to ask you a genuine question, as you’re a sociologist and I’m not: is part of it that it’s a handy way for a person who happens to be black to find a sense of group membership? As human beings, we seek the warmth of a group, and maybe, as you become ever more middle class and affluent, you’re less organically connected to what we might think of as “true” blackness, and so you want a group. There’s someone I am very close to, in whom I have seen this happen over the past thirty years—the idea that you feel a fellowship with people based on this oppression you supposedly always feel. And that means that you’re not going to let go of that picture of things. So, nobody’s crazy, nobody’s in willful denial, but I do think that a lot of people are getting a certain warmth and comfort out of this pretending.
OP: Okay. That seems persuasive to me—up to a point. And yet you know, this isn’t just a black problem. I’ve spent a lot of time reading about Jewish Americans. So much of what John just said applies also to Jewish Americans. Once, I went to speak to a group of older Jewish people in a very wealthy synagogue in Washington, and I was discussing segregation, and they were making exactly this point—that they grew up in a segregated America, which they’re old enough to remember. They said exactly what John just said—that several of their colleagues lived within Jewish communities and were invested in Jewishness for purposes of a felt organic connection. There’s a fascinating book called How Jews Became White Folks and What That Says About Race in America , about how though Jews ostensibly gained their whiteness, they still felt the need for community and identity. We black people are not the only group of people to have gone through this sort of process. In the conversation about identity, I’m saying that the reason why my upper-middle class graduate students are looking at me as if I’m out of touch is linked to the identity-searching that still has them in its grip. I grew up as a poor person in the poorest part of a poor colony, and when I look at my students I think, “Okay, well, your daddy was a lawyer and your mama was a doctor, and you’re looking at me and thinking that I don’t know what I am talking about…” And maybe that’s fair enough. I hope not. But I do think that whatever it is, these students are somewhat different than the boy John saw in his mother’s home, the angry black boy with the comb in his hair. Because that boy went through Jim Crow, alright? You know what I mean? That was not a middle-class person. That was real. And this is something else—when an upper middle-class black person looks at me and talks to me about the anguish of being black. On one level, I suppose it’s real—because if you think it’s real, it’s real—but on another level, it’s hard to take too seriously. And this is where I’m at right now. I think other groups of people went through this, and prompted similar confusions and questions.
MJ: Women, LGBTQ people…all of these groups are grappling with genuine issues and legacies of exclusion. I also want to say, parenthetically, that black women are worried about cops, too, but I understand that that’s not at the core in the same way it is for black men. Maybe this is going back to what we were saying much earlier about intellectual and linguistic distinctions. The fact is that, class notwithstanding, expectations rise in people. If your family has done better, they are telling you that things are going to be better for you, that you’re not going to go through the same things that they did. And major aggressions are not the same thing as micro-aggressions. The moments of bigotry that my parents experienced at the University of Chicago and the University of Southern California were far more vicious than anything I experienced at Brandeis, or Columbia, or the University of Chicago Laboratory School. But I still experienced some. Let’s talk about class: everybody can tell you that as you move up in class, you begin to notice all kinds of things that range from the words people use to little slights that you never would have noticed before. Yet once you’re in a particular group, you see them, you feel them, and you are made to feel them. And I think that is what your, my, all of our students are experiencing: the legacy of raised expectations and of, in some ways, naïveté, but also of genuine hopes. Maybe, yes, a certain kind of grandiosity; there is a kind of solidarity in grandiosity that can come from legacies of aggression and kind of taking their place in that honor roll. But micro-aggressions are real. We need a much subtler, finer language for it. And we need to make cultural, emotional, and sociological distinctions, and perhaps that’s what we’re not trying hard enough to do.
JM: I agree completely. Micro-aggressions are real, and there indeed needed to be a word for them. And I think that micro-aggressions are an important thing to talk about. What disturbs me is the idea that you’re supposed to collapse in front of them. I’m too old to get that. If some person gives you a funny look, or if you don’t get chosen for some group, or if somebody asks you where you’re from and you’re from Cleveland, frankly, it just doesn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter.
MJ: If it matters to that person, then they have to find an intelligent way to cope with that mattering. If it matters, it matters. We always say to people, “Get over it.” But what if you can’t get over it? Then, you start getting neurotic, you start acting out, et cetera. So, you know, you find a way. Everybody doesn’t have the same…
DP: I sort of don’t know where to start. I thought we had sort of indicated that this was a very complex question with many aspects…And so here I go. When I was growing up, the only place we could swim was the Jewish Community Center. The kids that asked you home were Jewish, because they didn’t know any better, but also because they wanted to know you. Twenty years doesn’t seem very long to me now, but when I was young, it did, and it’s only now that I see how soon we were after World War II, and the effects that all that had on postwar life. When the Black-Jewish coalition fell apart in the late 70s and early 80s, it was a big trauma, really.
MJ: Yep, it sure was.
DP: And it’s only now that we’re sort of getting over it by forming new coalitions.
Another big trauma at the time was a general falling apart of coalitions, in general. A lot of blacks asserted a kind of black separatism. And in order to feel the tragedy of that, we would have to read something like How I Became Hettie Jones by Hettie Jones. And the world LeRoy Jones walked away from to become Amiri Barka is a dream culture of integration and mixed things going on. It was a real tragedy. I’m not saying that black America didn’t need to go through that in order to come away with a kind of black consciousness, but we take for granted now that that didn’t exist before the 60s. When I was in school, the people who were saying that I wasn’t black enough, or that I was an Uncle Tom, were black kids richer than I was. It’s always that a black authenticity is something militant, something of the street, something of the ghetto, and we still have that. The attraction of hip-hop for so many people is that it’s transgressive, which is why young white guys liked it as much as young black guys.
MJ: “Have you ever seen the crowd goin’ apeshit?”
DP: There are so many angry things I’d meant to say, but I’ve forgotten them all now. But, you know, in the 17th century, the House of Burgesses in Virginia ruled that an African could be a slave owner, but a European couldn’t be brought into slavery. So, whiteness was invented then, and we’ve lived with this the whole time. Many things have changed, because change is not uniform, and things go on at different times. All through the Obama years, everyone said “We have a black president,” yet the living conditions for most black people are the same as they were in 1960. And no one could account for that.
At the same time, it’s important for blacks in the Democratic party to think of itself as a voting bloc. If the same number of people turned out in Milwaukee, Philadelphia, and Detroit in 2016 as those who voted in 2012, then Hillary Clinton would have won the electoral college. What this election showed us is that there’s no such thing as not voting. This is what you get—this kind of minority government. I don’t think that white supremacy defines most white people. I don’t even think that white privilege defines most white people. I think white people have as hard a time being white as anyone else, especially now that white has come to mean this, and black still means that. You know, that white is “have” and black is “have not”; white is “luck” and “the future” and black is something like “no future.” These are kind of almost symbolic categories or allegorical words. They describe a social reality, but they also describe destinies, as Americans. You can be with the winners; you can be with the losers. And behind it all is this terror of the future and of what’s happening in the world, which is driving everyone’s fear of scarcity, status, and what’s happening in America. The answers aren’t simple… I’ve lost my point. Shit. I had such angry things to say but…I just couldn’t disagree more with some of the things being said…
OP: Nothing you’ve said sounds angry.
DP: Well, I don’t speak that way, but…
OP: Well, how do you think it’s angry?
DP: Well, I think there’s still a lot of things that black people go through that other people don’t. I haven’t lived in a black neighborhood since I was a child, and I see, in the neighborhood in which I now live, that people live very differently than the way white people live. Even the black middle class is different from the white middle class, because the black middle class is based primarily on earnings rather than assets. And that’s a big difference when it comes to fragility, stability, and what you can pass onto your children.
MJ: And how you behave.
DP: These discrepancies and challenges are real.
OP: Absolutely. Blacks are as segregated now as they were in 1970. And black schools are slightly more segregated now than they were in 1970.
DP: But this is in the context of the entire school system falling apart.
OP: Yes. And you haven’t said anything that I don’t fully agree with. This is consistent with everything I said earlier, about the complexity of what we’re dealing with now. I don’t want to anticipate too much what I am going to say on Sunday, but we are agreeing on things. Everything you’ve said is perfectly true.
DP: I have to think of something else, then. No more Mr. Nice Guy.
RB: There have been several references to James Baldwin—Thomas, Darryl, Orlando. And there’s a passage in one of Thomas’s writings in which he cites the Nigerian-American writer, Teju Cole, who—Thomas says—rejects what he interprets as James Baldwin’s self-abnegation in the face of European high culture: “what he loves does not love him in return.” I’m interested in this—talking about whether there has been a significant alteration as we move from Baldwin’s moment to the moment of Teju Cole. “This is where,” writes Teju Cole, “I part company with Baldwin,” asserting that “I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait.” I am not an interloper when I look at a Rembrandt portrait. And that may mark one significant change as we move from one very important black writer, James Baldwin, to Teju Cole.
MJ: And two very different generations.
RB: Exactly, that’s what I am trying to suggest. Thomas, do you want to talk a little about that?
TCW: This sense of not being alienated in the world is critically important. For example, I take for granted that my father, who grew up in the Jim Crow South, no matter what changes materially in his life, can never feel what I do. That’s ingrained in him. I live in Paris, and I feel like all of this culture is just as accessible to me as for my wife—maybe even more so, as I’ve put in more work to access it. And I don’t think she can’t access John Coltrane because she’s white and French. The experiences that I’ve had don’t contradict the idea that anything human cannot be alien to me. And my dad wanted something like that, but he would definitely fall into Baldwin’s category. What I think Orlando was getting at was that the shift we see in Teju Cole hasn’t happened for lots of black people. Or at least for some of them there’s a kind of dishonesty in denying that a change has occurred.
DP: Baldwin also said that he didn’t feel an affinity for Shakespeare. And he read all the time. It shocked Mary McCarthy how much Baldwin read. But he said some very ignorant, or hostile, things about European culture in his time. The problem with quoting Baldwin is the same problem encountered when quoting Malcolm X: there’s so much of it, and you can always find the statement you need at a given moment.
RB: But would you agree, as you just said, that there is a very decided shift of perspective from Baldwin to Cole?
TCW: To your question, as well as to the earlier point about micro-aggressions, I want to mention a moment that I included in my book: It happened when I was a newlywed with my wife, who is Parisian, and we were at her grandmother’s country house in Normandy. Her grandmother is from a much older, wealthier generation that’s accustomed to much greater ease and mastery in the world that even my wife, as a white woman, doesn’t know at all. It’s not racial so much as generational and a matter of class, representative of a time before global competition and things like that. Anyway, this woman has, on her coffee table, a porcelain head which, I realize when looking at it, is a slave head. And I think that counts as a micro-aggression: a visual representation of your inferiority in the room. But she’s super nice, she loves me, she’s extremely kind to my father, who is clearly a black man. And, in reality, we are making a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural, multi-national, multi-linguistic family work, and we love each other. And I am trying to think through and gauge how mad I am supposed to be about this thing…
DP: Not at all…
TCW: Maybe not at all. My wife and her cousins would try to hide it when my grandmother-in-law wasn’t there, but sometimes there’s not a diplomatic way to do that, and the head would just be there, and everyone would be super uncomfortable. But my grandmother-in-law would have no idea that anyone could be uncomfortable…
DP: Is it a caricature, or…
TCW: It’s a big-lipped, super dark-skinned slave head. You open the top of the thing and you put bonbons and your keys inside. But the thing is, I would get angry about it, at first, and my wife and I could argue, and we could argue until we started laughing, because I realized at some point that I am playing a role, that that anger isn’t my own, that anger belongs to someone else, and that micro-aggression isn’t the realest aspect of my lived experience, not even of my black lived experience. My black lived experience is this: my family knows I’m black, and encounters me as an equal, and I think that they’re aware that I’m better-educated than they are…
DP: So you can accept them.
TCW: Exactly. So I can accept them. While trying not to be a total sellout, I have to ask myself: “Are you strong enough to get through that?” And everything about the way I was raised prepared me to get through that. It doesn’t debilitate me.
DP: Black people used to collect that type of thing.
TCW: I have black friends whose fathers used to collect that type of thing.
MJ: I have dolls in my house, yeah.
TCW: I mean, it’s different when her grandmother collects it than when you collect it.
DP: Everyone’s into it now. All these Venetian lamps that people used to be ashamed of have come down out of the attic. You can’t get anything for a bargain anymore if it’s black representation. It’s true! You used to be able to pick up this stuff at auctions. And you can’t anymore because everyone’s into it.
TCW: The French love it. They never gave it up, and they never gave it away.
DP: They never hid it, either.
TCW: And it’s something that I don’t think is a good thing—I don’t think it’s a fine thing. But I don’t think that it means everything about my life or my experience, either. I have a lot more experiences that are more meaningful than this.
OP: There are all kinds of complexities here. We have to distinguish between conscious and unconscious micro-aggressions…and this complexity I’d rather leave to my literary colleagues.
MJ: Let’s go with deep versus shallow micro-aggressions.
TCW: But my understanding of micro-aggressions is that intent can never matter. I think that it can’t matter.
MJ: I’m not sure…There used to be a joke among black people that the only time the word “articulate” was used was when bourgeois white people were talking about an educated black person, particularly a news commentator. And this has changed. I hear the world “articulate” flutter around a lot now. But I also had a white friend say, “You know, it’s very interesting how often white people feel compelled to say the word ‘niggardly’ when they’re around a black person.” I swear to God, a white person who has mixed race children told me this. So, you know, the unconscious exists. As does the subconscious.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: I’m uncomfortable with the notion that we might try to move beyond being a black person, as that’s a main part of my own experience. Or maybe I’m not so much uncomfortable as puzzled.
OP: It’s impossible for me to dissociate myself from the fact that I grew up as a working-class Jamaican. It’s also impossible to dissociate myself from being a black person in America. What’s important is the degree of self-consciousness that I have about this. I would rather be someone who can simply be myself in a way which will express and reflect all of the things that went into my becoming who I am, and that will always involve my Jamaican-ness, and that will always involve my 50 years living here as a black person. It’s impossible to escape the reality of what you were, of how you grew up, of all the people you knew, of all the people who hated and loved you, and so on—most of whom, in my case, were black and Jamaican. There’s no way I can ever escape that. What we’re talking about is how self-conscious I’m going to be in defining that. Is it possible to live in a world in which I can just be myself? You know certain kinds of exaggerated self-consciousness can distort your sense of self. If I go around pretending to be a Jamaican nationalist, I’m being extremely unfaithful to myself, because I am not. If I go around insistently articulating my blackness as if that completely defined me that would be inauthentic. That’s all we’re getting at here. Can you accept that?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 1: What if I feel like my most authentic self is holding onto being black? Is there a contradiction between being a black intellectual and yet holding on to black identity, insisting on it?
JM: One answer to that might be rage. Of course, you want to seek social justice, because racism and structural racism exist. What some of us might question is whether the feeling that you might have, in 2019, is rage—that you feel same way as the guy who my mother invited over to our house, fifty years ago. Because conditions have changed, that’s all. It’s not as if you needn’t be concerned. The whole issue about whether we want to get beyond race is a very local one. You might feel that you don’t want to think of yourself as not black, and that makes perfect sense. I don’t think of myself as not black, either. I’ll use myself as a litmus test: my wife is quite white. I have two daughters, and one of them is classic high yellow. Here, in 2019, I find myself wondering whether or not my daughter is going to grow up to be “black,” by which I mean black-identifying. If it were twenty years ago or more, there would be no question at all. But in today’s world, and in the neighborhood that we live in, I think that she might not be thinking of herself as, if you will, “African-American.” She’s light, and in terms of cultural traits associated with being black, she may not develop any. And if you can hear that and not flinch, that’s what we mean by getting past race—that you let go of the idea that one drop means that you better know what color you are, especially because you’re going to have to think about how the cops are going to treat you, or whatever it is, in this context of talking about a young girl who’s light-skinned. It’s not as if we’re going to pretend that race doesn’t exist, but we’re going to let go of the balkanizing tendencies that frankly remind me of The Birth of a Nation. So, two things: 1) letting go of race doesn’t mean that you’re not black. It just means that we want to get beyond D.W. Griffith. 2) If you think that I’m crazy in questioning that you be enraged, hear this: the bit about the cops that’s been served to you is vastly distorted, and while I know that there are other things, the cops are central. And that’s the only thing I can think of that would evince rage in 2019.
DP: When we talk about black life and black history, it’s important to remember that we’re talking about American life and American history, since the destiny of the country has always been mixed with race and racial destiny. But I don’t think that black intellectuals do anything different from white intellectuals or anyone else. I think that when we talk about black lives, we’re forgetting about the universality of the lessons that can be gained. They’re not just for black people—they’re for everyone. There are many things that go into being a black intellectual that you cannot see, or do not know—it’s not just the things you write about. And every other black intellectual I know has many other interests. You can’t talk to someone more interested in classical dance than Margo Jefferson. There are lots of things that go into your identity as a black intellectual, many of them white and not immediately bearing on what you’re writing about, but your experience as a human being certainly informs what you think of historical and social questions. So, maybe it’s not rage you’re feeling, but simply the passion of being young and alive and looking for answers. And it’s a wonderful place to be. Stay that way.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: You mentioned the cops, and the police, and the way that things have changed. And yet there is such a thing as trauma, and collective memory. The cops may not play so much a role in our present life, but there may be people in our families who have been impacted by cops and by mass incarceration. It may not necessarily be that a cop is going to take your life, or that you have to walk around wondering about that. And yet the cops exist, they can deprive you of all sorts of things.
JM: Of course. The question is whether black men are preyed upon and/or killed by the cops disproportionately to their numbers in the population. They aren’t. The facts are in.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: Sure, that’s a fact. But it’s worth considering what the state can do through law enforcement—not just taking one’s life, but depriving one of liberty.
JM: Sure. But the question is whether we should think of that as racialized. In 1965, yeah. In 1975, no doubt. But things do change. So yes, it’s traumatic if your father is up the river. But the question is whether that’s a black problem. And I thought it was, until about two years ago when I had a very interesting conversation with my constant interlocutor, Glenn Loury. What we’ve been fed is not true. I maintain that if we weren’t taught that particular message, then all of the other things that black people suffer—and racism has something to do with a lot of them—would not condition this idea that our responsibility is to have the same rage that Huey P. Newton did. And in terms of disproportionate incarceration, it’s complicated. Despite what Michele Alexander put forth—God bless her, I wish her well—it’s not a new Jim Crow. These issues are much more complex than they seem when you refer to people in positions of power not liking black people and deciding to lock us all up. That’s a good story, but that’s not how it works. Not anymore. And you can consult people like Michael Fortner, who are black and who grew up poor, to see how we got where we are today. I think that we are encouraged, as black intellectuals—if we are going to call it that—to oversimplify and claim that in our case, and only in our case, things really haven’t changed much. It won’t do. That’s all I’m saying. It’s not that I’m denying people’s pain, or that I’m denying what the cops were like not too terribly long ago, but this is the thing: thank God it’s changed. And yet notice how uncomfortable it makes all of us for me to say that. We feel like we’re supposed to not admit that it’s changed, no matter what the numbers say. I refuse. I will not allow that to be the way that America’s intelligentsia thinks, and boy, am I gonna catch hell for it.
JM: But I’m gonna keep fighting because the numbers are crystal clear. I am not just expressing an opinion.
DP: Right. The difference between what Michele Alexander says and what James Forman Jr. says is this: Forman is saying that black communities themselves supported tougher prison laws for drug offenses. But Alexander’s not making up the numbers of black men in prison. Nobody is. That comes from somewhere.
JM: But was it racism, either deliberate and face-to-face, or structural? I think that that’s an oversimplified way of looking at how we got to this point. There are too many black men in prison and that needs to be fixed— and thank God the ice is breaking—but was the reason for that something that should make you enraged that white people aren’t good to black people? I don’t think so.
DP: Except that the policing of black men has been the experience of black people in this country since we got here. The plantation system was organized to police the population; immediately after the Civil War, vagrancy laws were passed in many southern states and used as a tool of controlling the men who were on the roads looking for their families who’d been sold away. This policing of the black population has been a part of social policy since we got here. Nobody made that up. It’s just been around for so long that we’re looking for other reasons.
JM: But Darryl, are you really supposing that I don’t know those things or am denying them? All of those things are very real, but my question is, what now? How should we feel right here, in 2019?
DP: Obama should have pardoned all the marijuana offenders.
JM: I agree with that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: A former colleague of mine has authorized me and several people to speak about this…and I wasn’t going to bring it up until the last several comments here. A professor at Skidmore College, who was not tenured, was living near Saratoga Hospital in a condominium complex. He was a single parent because his wife was in Uganda, and a few months ago, his toddler son got out of the apartment for just a moment, no more than a minute or two, and the neighbor called the cops and this man was arrested for endangering the welfare of his child. He was called into the Dean’s office. Now, I realize that endangering the welfare of a child sounds alarming if you’re an administrator of a college, but what happened after that? The charges were ultimately dropped! And there was no real sensitivity towards this issue on the part of the college administration, even though we are publicly doing “everything we can” to fight the injustices of society at large. And even though the charges were dropped…
AUDIENCE MEMBER 2: The expenses for the attorney come to $2,000. Not everyone has access to that kind of money.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: And ultimately the man’s contract was renewed, albeit with a line, “And if there’s anything else…” What do they mean, anything else? The charges were dismissed. There was no sensitivity. And when I raised this issue on the floor with the faculty, a lot of people acted as if they didn’t know about it, though I later found out that while he told a lot of people, there was simply no outrage. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s where we are now.
OP: Can I ask you something? In Saratoga Springs, if a white parent had allowed his or her child to run around in the street, are you saying the cops would not bring down charges of child endangerment?
AUDIENCE MEMBER 3: But he never actually got out of the building. He actually just knocked on his neighbor’s door. It’s not as if the neighbor just came upon a neglected or abandoned child. And I don’t think there’s a chance that any of my white colleagues would be called on for that.
JM: They wouldn’t have. You’re right. Last summer, I wrote an article called “Starbucks and the Swimming Pool.” What that was about was that every week, something you just described happens—where you know that if it had been a white kid, the something wouldn’t have happened. Every week, something like that happens to a black person: someone is barbequing on the side of a lake and someone calls the cops on them. That is real, and that is one of the things that I mean when I say that racism exists. Racist bias exists. And this is where, Margo, you and I might have a disagreement: I’m saying yes, that stuff is real, and I can even dredge up one thing that happened to me in my life, but I have a problem with the idea that those things—as opposed to the sorts of things that used to happen in the past—define your life, as well as the idea that those things constitute something that black America should be as enraged about as we were enraged before. I don’t mean this as hyperbole, and I’m getting a cold, so my voice sounds a little sharp, and I don’t mean for it to sound this way, but I’m going to say it: if any of you implies that one of those Starbucks or swimming pool incidents, or others like them, defines my life, and suggests that I should fall to pieces either in front of the person or when I go back to my apartment, I am insulted. I cannot think of any other group of human beings who are thought of as so delicate as that. So, these things ought to be decried. One of the great things about social media is that we hear about them every week. All of this has been happening forever, but now we can hear about it, and so maybe there’ll be some movement on it. But does it mean that we aren’t at home in America and that something that happens to some guy in Oakland defines his entire 50-year life? No. I feel like I have to defend that man.
MJ: I would entirely agree with you that it does not define that man’s—or woman’s—life unless that happens to that man every day of his life, 24 hours a day. But again, I would say that this whole “You’re too damn delicate when you really get angry and really act up and act out”— black people are always charged with this, women are charged with this, gay people are charged with this. The fact is that I have no problem with rage. My question is, how do you proportion it, how do you sift through it, how do you channel it into action and thoughts that are useful, and that are not self-destructive? We need rage. But we need intelligent uses of rage and we need a sense of its historical space. There’s plenty to be angry about, and that anger does not have to define your life. It is one of the many aspects of what one makes of discrimination, sorrow, grief, depression—all of that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: I think what’s often missing in conversations like this is a reminder of developmental arcs, and the importance of what it was like to feel 18 versus what it’s like to feel 51. Sometimes, I’m as angry as I was when I was 18—not all the time, thankfully. It’s easier for me to let things wash off my back than it is for some of my students. And I guess what I regret sometimes is this culture that seems to be clicking its tongues at younger people who are angry. And there’s a way in which young people are rightfully angry. It’s part of what we go through to get to the other side. You want to hang onto some of that anger, but not be quite as angry as we were.
MJ: Or at least we want more pitches and tonalities to our anger.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 4: Exactly. I just want to remember ages 18-21, college-age, is a very different time, particularly if you find yourself for the first time at a predominantly white institution, as a black person, or an openly gay person. These are moments punctuated by rage and the solidification of identity that seem important developmentally.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: I recently visited the Legacy Museum and Lynching Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, and then read Bryan Stevenson’s book [Just Mercy], where he talks a lot about the criminal justice system. And he went to Montgomery, to live there and to work on death row cases. What this young man [gesturing to Audience Member 1] talked about, regarding generations of incarceration, really speaks to what Bryan Stevenson is doing…
MJ: You’re talking about trauma studies, in part, as well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 5: Yes, as well as the criminal justice system—and I don’t just mean arrests, but black incarceration and death-row incarceration. Stevenson’s book reads like a novel: he describes case after case, where people ended up on death row for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with what they did wrong, or what they didn’t do. And in terms of African American Civil Rights leaders, Bryan Stevenson is a major force. For the young folks here who aren’t familiar with his work, I suggest that you look at his book Just Mercy which is amazing, and go to the Legacy Museum which is really just one room that goes from slavery, to Jim Crow, to mass incarceration. And he lays out the history almost year by year. I just want to encourage people to go to the museum and take in the knowledge that he has amassed in a really radical way.
JM: This is the hardest thing. Those disproportions some people are referring to are real. They have to be changed. But those disproportions are not completely due to racist bias, are not even due to what we would call structural racism. And that’s hard to fasten upon. And I know it sounds like I’m some kind of naive denialist. But what we take from a disproportion of, say, black men on death row is, 1) we want to make sure that that stops, and 2) we have to realize that talking about how white people hold on to their privilege isn’t going to be what stops that. Because that’s not simply what created it, nor was it even 80% of what created it. It was more complicated than that. And you might disagree, but I just hope that we can be open to this kind of disagreement. It’s not that I don’t know the score, it’s not that I don’t read, it’s not that I don’t like black people, nor that I’m a Pollyanna. I’m a very pessimistic person. It’s that social history is many threaded. Whenever you read about these stories, it turns out to be more complicated. For example, what happened recently in Covington, Kentucky. You know, you see this picture of this sneering kid in front of this Native American. And then you look at the whole two hours and you see what a complicated business that whole thing was. That’s all that I mean. Yes, we need to read about death-row and the disproportionate number of black men on it. But, as a white person—and I’m sorry, here I’m putting myself in your head—I’m not sure that the white person is supposed to be looking at that and feel like “I’m complicit, it’s my fault, and that it’s all my race’s and all of my fellow white people’s racism that put that man there.” I think that you should have thought that in 1932, but I don’t think that that’s the way it is now.
TCW: I also think that one of the key words here is “affluent,” and I think that race, when it intersects with poverty or the cultural signifiers of such, is a very potent thing in our minds. But I can’t think of any instances or situations where someone like Darryl or John would have allowed them to define their lives completely. I certainly have never experienced that kind of impression in my life. At the same time, we have to acknowledge that there are many black experiences, even as we concede that many millions of black people are having experiences like mine, like John’s, never intersecting with the criminal justice system. I’ve never had a problem with the criminal justice system. And that’s still a real black life. And that doesn’t deracinate me. I think that a lot of times when we’re talking about race, culture, and ethnicity, we’re also really talking about class.
JM: It is our duty to know these histories and to be as informed as possible. 1932 is not that far back, so we need to understand those legacies and those emotional resonances.
OP: It’s our duty, also, to know just what the sociological and criminological facts are. There’s a lot of work done on death row and the death penalty. We have a pretty good idea of what the biases are. The leading scholar of incarcerations, a former colleague of mine named Bruce Weston, was the editor of what is supposed to be the definitive work on incarceration put together by the American Academy of Sciences, a 500-page volume. And there was not a single chapter in that volume on the question of violence. Interestingly, Bruce and several other criminologists have recently stated that they must bring in an understanding of the issue of violence. All studies I’m acquainted with show that the criminal justice system has profound racial biases, and that one of the main factors accounting for increasing incarceration is the fact that attorneys and prosecutors have a considerable amount of leeway in who they charge and who they don’t. That has been emphasized as a critical factor. But one has to take account of the fact that the black homicide rate is eight times greater than the white homicide rate: an unpleasant fact. We have to allow for the possibility that there may be more people in prison of a certain group because they commit more crimes. Now, we have factored that in, but the proportions are still much greater than they should be. A lot of work has been done on this, and as John said, it’s not as simple as it first appears. Even a lot of the die-hard scholars have had to backtrack a bit, and are now saying that, while there’s a strong element of racism involved, we have to consider other aspects of the situation. You won’t get that from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who comes out with completely erroneous statements. He wrote a cover story in the Atlantic on the black family and incarceration. Afterwards, the Atlantic asked me to write a response to it. And after reading it, I just thought, no, absolutely not, because he hasn’t even taken the trouble to acquaint himself with the basic facts. It’s simply not true that incarceration is causing the decline of, or the problems within, the black family. It’s the other way around! And if you say that, you know what kind of response you’re going to get. Coates simply won’t acknowledge the obvious. Of course, a woman whose lover is in prison is having difficulties. But what does this tell us? To claim that the crisis of the black middle-class family is the result of incarceration, in the face of overwhelming sociological evidence to the contrary, is totally irresponsible.
DP: One of the things that bothers me about Coates and his species of Afro-pessimism or fatalism is that a large part of it is grounded in the idea that black people and black culture are not pathological, that this is not an expression of any pathology. That we are healthy and society is sick. I’m afraid that this can’t be true. Ruling out the possibility of looking at black life as having pathological aspects cuts us off from exploring problems and coming up with solutions. You can’t say, “We’re healthy, but the society’s not.” It doesn’t separate that way, for me. There’s a lot of suffering that we don’t face. And mass incarceration aside, there are more poor people who are white in the United States than poor people who are black, yet black people remain the face of poverty.
AUDIENCE MEMBER 6: Two-part question. The first part is somewhat open-ended. It seems to me that, over the course of your conversation—even just now—the subject of class has kind of risen up and skittered away. I would just like to invite more thinking about that conjunction between race and class, and how their intersection might open up some other pathways that don’t point towards rage. The second question is to put some pressure on the other identity category in the conference title, namely the word intellectuals. I want to ask whether being an intellectual is itself its own social and psychological identity position. I raise that because even before I knew that I was from a petit bourgeois family, or even before I knew that I was Italian-American, and even before I knew I was queer, I knew that I had some intellectual differences of some kind. And with all due respect to Gramsci, who says that every human being has the capacity for intellect and for being an intellectual, I knew from age 3, when I was beginning to read, that I was growing up in an anti-intellectual family, and that the culture was anti-intellectual. So, I wonder if thinking of such things substantially alters your perspective on the question you’ve been discussing.
DP: We have to go now.
JM: Black intellectuals don’t talk much about class because if you’re a middle-class black person, you are taught very firmly not to distinguish yourself from your poorer brothers and sisters. I was taught that. To think of yourself as belonging to a different class is to deny that the cops don’t like you either. I’m oversimplifying only slightly. So, I skitter away from talking about that because I feel that I would be interpreted as being snobbish, to say that there are any differences between me and poor black people. Those differences are there, they are profound, but I will never write about them, and I’m uncomfortable talking about it now. As far as Gramsci is concerned, the problem is that one is taught just as explicitly that to be a black intellectual is to pretend that you’re a black Gramsci. The idea is that we’re suffering from the implacable kind of impression that Gramsci was writing about, believing that we must model all of our actions and positions as a kind of performance of politics. I think that the idea of that as the only valid or the most interesting way of being a black intellectual is anti-empirical, and also highly limiting of black endeavor, and I question it.
OP: There’s one exception to your impression, and that’s black sociologists. Because we do spend an awful lot of time talking about class. Too much. Intersectionality is big, among sociologists—we invented the term, which takes in gender, class, race, and so on. Sometimes I feel like that’s all we ever talk about. But these are critical issues. There can be no doubt that a lot of what we’re attributing to race has a lot to do with class and poverty. And we can see that by simply making comparisons and seeing how other poor people behave. There are interesting studies contrasting the behavior of poor and working-class blacks and Latinos. That’s intersectionality. Per your second question, it’s a hard thing, being an intellectual—spending all of your life thinking about thinking. It isn’t what most people do. We are odd, and we should always remember our oddity. I always get a funny feeling whenever a cleaning or landscaping person comes to my house and always sees me sitting down at my desk. They must find me very weird. And I can understand that that’s the case. This goes back to the first question raised here by a young and clearly budding intellectual. I spent a good deal of time studying black youth in Boston, and for the most part they don’t have your concerns. The interesting thing emerging in the sociology of black youth is that, if you ask them, “What do you think accounts for the fact that you’re in this really difficult situation?” in most cases, in over 90% of the cases, the answer is this: “I fucked up.” And when asked by the eager sociologist, with bated breath, “Well, what about race?” invariably, the answer is “Of course race is important. The police are pigs. I know all that. But that’s not why I’m in this shit.” And this has come up over and over again. And it presents quite a dilemma for sociologists. One of the funniest things is to see a sociologist who is reading his interviews and observations, and is trying to come to terms with the fact that his subjects are not cooperating with them by saying the standard thing: “Racism is what got me into this.” Sociologists then say that they are too isolated to understand how structural racism was the cause, while their subjects tend to say simply that they dropped out of school and they shouldn’t have done that, along with other related mistakes. I describe this sort of thing in my 2015 book The Cultural Matrix. It’s patronizing, isn’t it, to deny people’s interpretation of their own situation. And once they start becoming intellectuals—and some of them do become intellectuals—they do start to realize that race is a central factor in their lives. And that’s true, structural racism is an important factor in the reality and the persistence of the ghetto. But I can also tell you that almost every sociological study of non-intellectual black youth comes across this dilemma, where people will not attribute their problems to racism. As intellectuals, of course, we are in a different situation. We know that this situation exists, that perception can be highly individualistic, in a way that can be annoying to sociologists.
MJ: I just wanted to say very quickly that I’m obsessed with writing about race…not race. Class, actually. I mean class. What an interesting slip. It’s what I call the secular trinity of race, class, and gender. It is difficult. Like John, I was brought up to feel solidarity with all black people. And in my world, I was also brought up to feel superior to most black people, as well as superior to most white people, but that doesn’t necessarily make it much better, does it? What are the verbs…you document, you dramatize, you reveal, you confess, you examine. It’s very difficult, and shameful in certain ways, because obviously race history demands race solidarity. If we don’t have that, what do we have? On the other hand, there is that legacy, which is partly honorable, that is part of a black—I don’t like the word elite—privileged class that also did do some good things for the race. One is constantly negotiating that. I think that being an intellectual sets some of the same strains in motion: the pressure to be yourself in your work, to honor your mind and temperament and yet, as someone already said, the pressure also to be a black intellectual or a black woman intellectual and to honor those things with as much subtlety and directness as required. It’s very demanding. You were right, John, to divine that the pressures are acute, and Orlando’s right to say that the perceptions of an intellectual may be very different from anyone else’s.
RB: There’s a terrific story by Danzy Senna. It’s called “Admission,” 2 and it has to do with a number of the issues we’ve been talking about. And as we’ve all read it, I thought we might use it as a way into questions of class and privilege. The story revolves around a middle-class black family and the headmistress of a private school who is desperate to enroll the child of that family.
DP: Let me say right away that it’s a comic story, and that the elite people in the story are at least slightly ridiculous. At the same time, deep in the story, there is a kind of pain about what to choose, what to do. And that’s part of the experience many people are confronting. Parents are going through this now; I have some friends who are just absolutely determined not to send their children to private school, but when I hear this from them, I want to say, “You live in three houses around the globe, so what’s the point of a public school if you want to protect them from class stupidities?” The mother in Danzy’s story is genuinely torn and ambivalent, while the husband is determined not to send his kid to a posh school, even if it is reputed to be first-rate. The husband isn’t exactly the boss in that family, but he does get his way.
MJ: I was very interested in the handling of class and gender power hierarchies. I liked the way that diversity was marshalled and appropriated by this school as a form of privilege. “Do not come”—those classic conservative verbotens. “Do not come if”—ah—if you are “conservative” in any way. These are broad oppositions that Senna handled with, I thought, real emotional subtlety. For example, the way the husband, Duncan, who is privileged, and who has had the rewards of being an “iconoclast,” likes to slip into a kind of very simple, black-inflected lingo. It’s a power tool: “I’m black, I haven’t forgotten.” It’s part of a class critique that’s also a form of comedy, which allows us to see the ways in which people are driven by historical, psychological, interior forces that can really thwart logic or just plain sense. It’s both painful and funny to see the wife wrestling with her humiliating longings to have her child in an elite school, and feeling that she needs to learn the rituals and mores of the city’s elite. This came up earlier in our discussion—the rituals and mores of class status, of gender status, of being an intellectual, and of being an intellectual of color. How do you place yourself? How do you attempt to show that you embrace a so-called progressive agenda within the rituals and mores of an elite, which you must master in order to succeed? What can you afford to feel, do, act on, and what must you avoid?
DP: That class moment—do you go with this chance, or do you let it go so as to move…what exactly?
MJ: I myself have tried to be the umpire in family arguments about just this. Everybody’s childhood comes roaring to the surface as they pretend to be rational. In Senna’s story the mother’s anxieties relate to generations of rearing black children. The fear is if you make one mistake, you are off the path, no matter how much I am protecting you—there is no safety net for you, however privileged you are as a black person. That has changed, but that old fear is still clearly circulating, hovering over the story, and hovering over the mother Cassie more than the father Duncan.
TCW: Here I can’t help thinking of Nikole Hannah-Jones’s piece in the New York Times Magazine about consciously choosing to send her child to a working-class/poor public school in Fort Greene, Brooklyn. Her husband, I believe, is black, but African or Caribbean, and he was profoundly bothered by the decision of taking a young kid and putting him in a worse school situation than they have to be in. Whereas she works through the logic that for everyone’s kids to do better, educated parents have to put their kids in the local school—that if you take educated families out of those schools, innocent kids are suffering, deprived of a rich learning environment. I’ve thought about this as a parent, from every angle, and I don’t think that I could do that. My father is a very typical black person who grew up in the segregated south, and education was the only thing that could allow his family to have a better life, was the only way that he could get out of a situation where his people were domestic workers and menial laborers. He would kill me if I did something like what Hannah-Jones did, no matter how high-minded it was, and I think that’s a pretty typical reaction. I really relate to the narrator’s position in Senna’s story, because it takes an extraordinary degree of privilege to be as dismissive as the husband Duncan can be about privilege.
MJ: In fake black English…
TCW: In fake black English, from a family of doctors, no less. There’s lots of irony in Senna’s story, and a level of humor, but also a degree of realism that really resonates with the contemporary black experience. It takes a lot of privilege to be able to not strive for bourgeois markers of success, access, network capital, and things that you need to actually achieve before you can be a bourgeois bohemian.
RB: The question of privilege has entered the mainstream—white and black—in unmistakable ways. This was brought home to me a few months ago in Anthony Appiah’s column “The Ethicist” for the New York Times. There was a question put to him by a young white girl, of high-school age, who had been accepted to a privileged private school. She felt that this was somehow a bad thing, that she shouldn’t go. She was on the verge of saying no to the acceptance. Should or should she not say no? And Anthony wrote a characteristically thoughtful response saying, of course you should go. You’re refusing to go when the alternative for you, as you’ve described it, is a far inferior school, which makes it very clear that you must not refuse. Your refusing won’t change the system—it won’t change anything—if you deprive yourself of this advantage. Call it by its rightful name, he says, it is a privilege—but take it. It was, for me, a sign that privilege is on many people’s minds, and that often it is not at all understood. It’s a term promiscuously employed, a sort of a noise-word which has sown more confusion than clarity.
DP: It’s such a Protestant issue, privilege. I find it bewildering that a people—who always believed that education was the way out of Egypt—should balk at these opportunities as though they were committing a kind of race treason. It doesn’t make any sense to me, especially as they were always told, education, education, education. People misunderstand privilege the way they misunderstood integration and affirmative action and thought of those things primarily as access to education. But they were never really about that, and yet education became the only thing that affirmative action was about. Presented with chances and advantages, it seems to me a privilege to turn them down, that it’s acting on, or acting out, a certain kind of cultural logic: “it’s better to be déclassé.” I don’t have kids, so I can’t put myself in a parent’s position, but it never seems to me a question—that of where someone should go to school. Saving the school system doesn’t start with my children going to a bad one. There are other things you can do first before you sacrifice your own child. Because people who are sending their kids to public or state schools are saying that to do otherwise is to support “the system,” but these are really broken schools that won’t be fixed in their child’s school career.
JM: The story exposes a number of things that people—the characters—are doing wrong, and so I really wanted the mother Cassie to tell the headmistress what’s really entailed in her obsession with landing another trophy black kid in that school. Sure I laughed at her, but if we take seriously what Danzy is saying—and I don’t know how she feels about it—then we must consider this: Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York wants to set aside 20% of slots in the top three high schools for brown students, with test scores not being an issue—the idea being that you must have not brown Indian faces, but brown, black, and Latino faces—so that standards have been changed, rather than making it so that students’ parents know of and have access to testing services that are available. And then you find out that Harvard is calling Asian students “boring people” and not letting them in, meanwhile letting in black and Latino students with substantially lower academic qualifications, talking about how “spunky” they are. You read this in the Times and you’re not supposed to shake your head and say, “That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” You’re supposed to not like it. Because all of that comes from the same place as that headmistress calling the mother, this Cassie character, again and again and eventually showing up at her house, uninvited. And I have no idea how Danzy Senna feels about those issues. But if that passage is telling us something important, we are supposed to question the derailing of affirmative action from what it was originally intended to be. And I’m not sure we’re ready to do that. So, I didn’t think most of this was very funny at all. I have dealt with that woman my whole life, and she wasn’t funny, and she never learned what she was doing wrong.
MJ: I have seen that same scenario recently played out just as crudely. I think that many of the parents who bring their kids—black parents, mixed-race parents, Latino parents—to these elite, private schools are told in a code very similar to the one in the story: we’re courting you; it’s “You’ve Been Accepted” day, and here’s what we have to offer you. The “progressive” values are always tucked in. The word “diversity” is used. I don’t think you find out late. You know when you’re applying what your “credentials”—your race, class, economic status—are going to get you, or what you hope they’re going to get you.
OP: For me this is personal. I have a daughter who goes to one of the most selective schools in Massachusetts. The school in Senna’s story is a bit of a caricature, at least in my experience. That talk in the story that the school is all about art, and sculpting, and no mention of high academic standards…I don’t recognize that. The schools I know of are promoting high academic standards. Maybe I don’t know California well enough; perhaps New England is the other end of the spectrum. But I had to think hard about this, when putting my daughter in such a school. For us, we thought about the fact that this was the best and most intellectually—and academically—demanding school that there was. I remain concerned about the diversity of the school but, for me, the choice is stark and clear. Do you want to send your child to one of the most intellectually demanding schools in the state? Several factors come into play. One of the things that sociologists have shown, which comes from Pierre Bourdieu—though it’s become pretty well established—is that when you send a child to a school, you’re acquiring different kinds of capital: intellectual capital, especially. You’re also acquiring cultural capital, which is the declarative and procedural knowledge that you learn not from the teachers but from the other kids, the knowledge of being upper middle class. You’re also acquiring social capital, in terms of your interactions with people; these interactions are far from trivial. I think it’s a trade-off; I constantly think about it. There’s a simple solution, which is to make sure that your child has friends outside of the school. It is not a problem if you make an effort to get the kid to be involved in relationships.
But other challenges emerge as your child becomes a teenager, and we’re dealing with this right now. While the intellectual payoff has been great, the social and cultural factors become more important, and we are now struggling as to whether to send our daughter to the public high school, which is quite good, or on to a private high school. Do we want our daughter, in her teenage years, to think of herself as part of an elite? Do we ourselves want to regard our family as a part of the ruling class?
It seems to me that there are two kinds of integration through which individuals can achieve the desired goal of a more diverse society: differential and integral diversity. The differential type is when we think of diversity as a large number of different people participating or involved in a particular community. That’s the way we often think about it although, while it works sometimes, most of the time it doesn’t work very well because it looks like this: each group in its own corner, doing its own thing. You may participate in Irish-American or Black history month, and so on, but we’re still a long way from genuine cultural interaction. The second way through which diversity is achieved is thanks to individuals who integrate within themselves all these different forms of cultural capital. Such individuals are very important. In a way, Obama was a bit like that: he integrates all these different styles and cultures—that is what was so attractive about him. As I think of my daughter, and of my older daughters, I think that they did achieve that, which is to say that they are the kind of Americans who could easily interact in almost any kind of setting. They have the cultural capital of both the elite and what I, as a Jamaican, brought to them. The country needs such people.
This is a complicated issue we’re struggling with in America. And really it’s too easy to mock successful elite schools—they do attempt to produce complex, integrated persons. But you know there are other factors, like the real differences between black boys and black girls. Something happens with black boys around the age of 13 or 14—it’s been written about a lot. At around that age, they struggle with identity issues, which makes it yet more difficult for parents faced with these decisions. There’s often a big fallout of black boys. Most of the girls continue to do well. And what most annoyed me about the father in Senna’s story is that he’s viewing things in a very superficial way.
DP: The success of the story is that we’re arguing about this.
OP: Of course! It’s a very good story.
TCW: One thing I wanted to briefly note is the way Senna handles power dynamics. I find her handling of it very accurate, especially in the way she complicates and emphasizes the power entailed in the “victim” position. She really presents—shows, but doesn’t tell—that the narrator, by the end, is completely in control over the white institutional power, which is craving her presence. That speaks to not all of black life, but to a kind of black life. It’s also interesting to think about the disincentives to ever give up that kind of power once you’ve tasted it.
DP: But it’s not power.
TCW: It is a kind of power.
DP: It’s not power.
TCW: It’s a kind of power.
DP: “I reject you” is a power moment.
TCW: No, I’m not speaking of the rejection, the ability to say no, I won’t send my kid to your school. I’m speaking of the fact that her presence is desired because her family would satisfy the institution’s need for a kid like their child in that school. Harvard needs a certain number of kids like that to be there. The New Yorker needs some writers like that. And you become a powerful…
DP: Because the moment demands that they look a certain way.
TCW: It’s not just a moment. It’s a long moment.
DP: Twenty years ago, there were all these memoirs by black kids who were very tormented by the experience of going to very elite schools and then coming home, learning how to navigate being black, and so on. At the time, I thought about how different that was from the days of what used to be called “negro Firstism,” where the act of going off to these places was seen as something that everyone should be proud of, for everyone. Everyone should be proud that Suzie had been called to do this; you would expect her to change, and you would be disappointed if she didn’t change. You know, the intention of a work of fiction has to be what it is. Cassie’s own story is there, in a kind of private, closeted world. Cassie and Duncan never have a talk regarding their respective school experiences. We don’t know anything about his background other than that it’s sort of bourgeois, middle-class, and that he has the confidence to not want traditional markers of success. But he is an elite himself. This is the question for many black intellectuals. You disguise your own class allegiance by holding on to the idea of the intellectual as the bohemian, as outside of things. That seems to be what’s at play here—a different definition of what is “elite.” But I don’t call that power.
TCW: The power is that the headmistress needs them. They do have an enormous amount of demand for the slots in that school, but they can’t all be filled with only white kids. She’s on the doorstep because they need Cassie’s family in there. You do have an actual kind of cultural capital, or power…
DP: Or is she instead saying, “This is what you really are.”
TCW: But she wouldn’t be on everybody’s doorstep that way, I gather. Duncan alludes to this—they have over 600 applicants for 12 spots.
MJ: Duncan, the privileged husband, the man, gets to claim the power— “we’re too good for you.”
OP: I’ve lived here for over forty years, and I don’t know a single black middle-class person like Duncan.
TCW: I do!
OP: I don’t know a single black person who is so privileged that they can putter around as an artist…where is the money coming from?
DP: We’re to think that somehow the husband is successful.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: There’s an actual answer: the husband has a teaching job.
RB: I mean, what could be a surer sign of privilege than that?
I said that my living abroad was a protest. I was getting away from the U.S. One creep of a president had been followed by another creepy president, and his campaign advertisement supported the death penalty because of a felon such as the black murderer who raped a white woman while out from prison. It is what black writers did: get away from battlefield America, and manage the guilt of not being there, then decide that they could take better aim at the enemy because of the distance. My father thought I was kidding myself. He said I was going to find that racism was everywhere, simply because the European slave trade had gone on for 400 years, dispersing Africans to South America and southeast Asia. Moreover, what did I know about the racism of the classical world? If racism was so forever, I once asked him, then what was the point of struggle? “To struggle, well, that’s what we were put on Earth for,” he said, and quoted Kipling, the poet of imperialism. This from a black man who had been on the way to his office by 7:30 the majority of his mornings of the past four decades, so that his son could sleep past noon in a foreign language.
West Berlin feared Germany’s past and I was sure, therefore, that my father was mistaken. “Be careful,” my mother said. “Mrs. Pierce said there are a lot of drugs and blacks in Berlin.” A U.S. passport was a shield, but nothing was safer, in its unreality, than Cold War fortress life. The walled city’s orchestra, opera, chamber music, jazz venues, rock clubs, gay bars, hip cinemas, and the famous cinema festival. Its newspapers, bookstores, universities, anarchists with their skinny dogs, the smattering of Lebanese, Indians, central Europeans, some Asians, black Americans, Palestinians, memorial Jewish population, together with the large Turkish population. All of that made the city seem cosmopolitan as a refuge. I was lucky. I found work as a text doctor for the American director Robert Wilson. Theatre in Berlin was exciting, something to get into fights about. And the actors were proud. Of course, they knew all their lines before rehearsals began. I adored hanging out with them. When drunk, they recited Schiller and Schlegel, Goethe and more Goethe. “Beer leads to Bismarck, and Bismarck leads to Beer,” the East German playwright Heiner Müller said to me one autumn, when he solved my homelessness problem. He lived in East Berlin, but offered me sanctuary with two actors beloved by their peers, in a large and crazy apartment he had at his disposal in a leafy part of West Berlin. I remember becoming ill from Heiner’s relentless cigar smoking, and how scathing he—always dressed in undertaker black—could be about German literature. I’d never met anyone who had hated Thomas Mann. Heiner was fifteen when World War II ended. He said that the happiest years of his life were from 1945 to 1949, when the German Democratic Republic was founded, because “there was no government, only jazz.” His plays had been banned in East Germany in the early 1960s, but became popular on U.S. campuses and in West Germany and France in the 1970s. His prominence in the West restored his status in the East. However, after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, Heiner was harshly criticized as an artist who had enjoyed privileges under the Communist regime. Heiner died in 1995 of a broken heart. I don’t know why I said I understood what it meant when he said he was a nigger in Germany. I expected reforms after the fall of the Berlin Wall, not the collapse of the German Democratic Republic. The future had never competed with the past in the still scarred city. Berlin was supposed to be the tomb of what had already happened, but to deny the changes was futile. Hungarians, Croats, Romanians, Russians, Germans from over there: The East Bloc had been coming to town even before the Wall fell. The traffic intensified. If there were tourists, then they were on missions. Berlin went cowboy, briefly. Departing Soviet soldiers were said to be selling their weapons. Suddenly, Berlin real estate had value. Big shots were flying in. Architecture exhibitions were held in fields of mud. East-West subway systems were being integrated. They used to say that, like the Great Wall of China, the Berlin Wall was visible from space. That was, perhaps, the civic boastfulness of an edgy kind, that was easy to trace where the wall had been. The overwhelming fact was that it was gone physically, if not psychologically.But in 1990, crowds were on their way to the reunification of Germany ceremonies at the Brandenburg Gate, avoiding the leaflet tables of the party of right-wing extremists. A period of hope was being inaugurated in Germany. For me, it was like being handed my coat and shown the door in a dream. I couldn’t hear what the short man who resembled Jimmy Durante was saying as he held the curtain aside. A whole society was asking about its future, making it near impossible not to question my own.
It didn’t matter where I was, so long as I wasn’t in the United States. I suspected that I was really in Berlin because it sounded cool. “Where do you live?” Berlin was not the expected answer. It had a radical, ringing bell of defiance. A city famous for having been destroyed, not for its beauty. The mother of my best friend from junior high school was Polish. She and her mother had been in London on September 1, 1939. They had not gone back to Poland that day because her mother had a cold and couldn’t fly. She told me she spent the war sitting in a hotel lobby, making up stories about passersby. When I came to Indianapolis to see my parents at Christmas, she never referred to the fact that I lived in Berlin.
I had to show up at Christmas. It was the unspoken deal between my mother and me. My antique word processor resembled a toy oven. One time it blew a security testing fuse at the Berlin airport. To fly with my bizarre word processor on Pan Am after the Lockerbie bombing sometimes made me one of the last passengers to board the plane. But security officials had been pulling me out of airport lines ever since Munich.
My father held forth at the dinner table in the family room; my mother did not let us leave. It was the only thing she asked of us: our time. I listened to what was the latest in the Black Freedom Struggle. There were things I had to understand. After all, I was the one calling myself a black writer. My father spoke to me as though the title had to be earned. It was also reliving my resistance, as a teenager, to his blackness tutorials. To correct me was his duty and his joy. His tone was adversarial. In order to talk about racism, he had to be arguing about it. My mother and my two sisters debated with him, but I kept quiet through his rebuttals, because I felt that they were addressed primarily to me. I owed him the respect his father never showed him, as a committed civil rights volunteer. Respect that my father did not have for his malicious, self-hating, Brown University, Harvard University father, as a result. Deflection of emotion in my family made the subject of politics, racism, or black history acceptable sources of anger, indignation, and rue. Occasions outside the self were handled as such. To talk about the black condition made conversation seem personal, but then, black history was personal, intimate. The history in the books my father referred to, over and over again, was real, on the ground, not up in the air. Most black families have lived every chapter of it. To talk about things black when home, in Indianapolis, Indiana, was a way of not talking about myself while seeming to. I used my being black as a way to hide from my black family.
My father said I reminded him of his Uncle Lloyd, a jazz pianist whom I can now see on YouTube playing with Noble Sissle’s orchestra at Ciro’s in London in 1930. He toured Europe until 1938, when Americans alarmed by fascism were going back across the ocean. I thought my father meant that we shared a wish to be expatriates. No, he said. His Uncle Lloyd couldn’t get himself together either. Uncle Lloyd, who died sometime in entirely in capital letters. He used no proper names, only initials, and it took a while for me to work out that he’d played with musicians such as Sidney Bechet and the prodigy Johnny Hodges.
In 1980, I found the two large spiral bindings containing the type script of his life story, wedged inside a vacuum cleaner bag, under my preacher grandfather’s bed. We never discovered how my grandfather got the only copy of his brother’s book. My father said he must have been hiding it for years. He suppressed it, my father insisted, not only because he considered his brother disreputable, but because he, too, had written an autobiography, published by his church in the mid-1960s, a pamphlet of family lore and reminiscences that my father was disinclined to trust. For starters, our family did not originate in Norfolk, England, just because our so-called masters had. My father could have destroyed his little brother’s testimony but he didn’t. I hoped that Uncle Lloyd hadn’t considered himself disreputable or care what his family, or the black church, thought of him, the trained musician. There was a tradition of black artists either looking for, or finding, personal and professional freedom by escaping Jim Crow’s jurisdiction. It didn’t all go to Europe, but for most of the twentieth century, Europe was the big tent where you thought it was an accomplishment to be, or that having Europe too much on the mind was self-betrayal for a black person. I’d made promises to my parents while packing to go back to Berlin. I’d be conscious that I was fleeing my family, what they represented, as well as white America. Susan Sontag liked to remember Gertrude Stein asking, “What good are roots if you can’t take them with you?” I’d liked to leave mine behind, in the shelves, hanging in the closet. The last thing I wanted were roots. The rules of what would let down the ancestors watching over me in Indianapolis, Indiana, were severe. Achievement was self-sacrifice. You must not forget where you came from. You stood on the shoulders of the past; this was serious. You were one of the fortunate and therefore you had a historic destiny to help other black people. My black life was straight, and in my white life, I could be queer. I called it individualism. I blamed my high school German teacher who challenged us to imagine how far we would go to worship beauty. Can you find your complex in Frantz Fanon? Would you want to?
The connection, in my mind, between expatriatism and freedom was very strong. It had a lot of fantasy and self-justification in it. My generation of expatriates in West Berlin had reveled in an atmosphere of being outlaws, and the city became preoccupied with the business of being the capital. Germany was asking Berlin to grow up, like a parent expecting maturity from members of the family when times were hard. Nothing was asked of me. Mary McCarthy said that an expatriate was a hedonist delaying going home as long as possible.
In 1990, I didn’t feel like an expatriate. I wasn’t an immigrant, either. I was a boyfriend. Someone I’d fallen for had a garden in the English countryside. I know what it is to live in paradise. My history began long before my life, and maybe that was why I tended to keep score when I read English literature. Locke, Burke, and Hume gave themselves over to the pro-slavery side; William Beckford, that gothic queer, collected art and built houses as the beneficiary of enormous plantations in Jamaica. William Cobbett may have reflected majority opinion when he deplored blacks going into the king’s army. But enough English people and Americans considered the slave trade an offense to God. Addison, Defoe, and Edward Gibbon spoke up against slavery; Sterne tried to express the nobility of Africans in his work, was encouraged to write against the slave trade by his friend, Ignatius Sancho. Enslaved at birth, Sancho was educated in an aristocratic household where he was a butler. Eventually, he set himself up as a shopkeeper, and earned a reputation as a musician and a man of letters. Samuel Johnson did not think it enough to advise slave owners to be kind. Chatterton, Cooper, and Erasmus Darwin wrote anti-slavery verse. Blake and Crabb showed sympathy for the black man in their poetry. The cause of freedom for black people mattered to the leading writers of the Romantic movement: Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Hazlitt, de Quincey, Lamb, and Leigh Hunt, who descended from West-Indian planters. Keats, given to other musings, is noticeably absent. “But there is no freedom, even for Masters,” Byron says in detached thoughts, adding that he wished he owned Africa. The Lord Chief Justice’s ruling in the Mansfield Judgment held that no man in England could be held in bondage. My father said something like, “That was 1772, and if they got a black person back to the Caribbean, then that person reverted to being a slave.” I understood why my father thought racism deep in the English psyche went back so far as when black people were brought to England in 1555 and Mary Tudor, persecutor of Protestants, refused to permit English participation in the guinea trade. However, the English slave trade began after her death, in 1662, and 300 Africans were kidnapped by an English captain and taken to the Caribbean. The trade expanded greatly after Restoration in 1660.
When I found myself living in England, I could not look at the wonderful Georgian architecture without thinking of the sugar plantations that provided the wealth. Edward Said’s analysis of Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, in Culture and Imperialism, came to mind, as well. Heinemann’s African Writers Series led me, when I was a student, to Senghor, to Ngugi, founded in 1967. Clive Allison was white, but Margaret Busby was the first black woman publisher in the U.K. The Allison & Busby list included C.L.R. James, George Lamming, Roy Heath, Nuruddin Farah, and Ralph de Boissière. Literature in English had become an international literature—Walcott, Naipaul, Gordimer, Rushdie, Coetzee, Kincaid. And not every non-white writer was black. But I tended to view it as a literature of exile, because these were stories more about where the writers came from, and were, for the most part, written in an elsewhere.
We are now as far from modernism as modernism was from Romanticism, and I sometimes wonder what a later time will call this era. Zadie Smith, an expatriate, or commuter, herself, is right when she says that our time may be fragile in many ways, but a second black renaissance is going on, and it is international. Moreover, it is not happening in literature alone, but in art, and film, and music as well. The culture of the black diaspora has arrived, again. Maybe hip-hop led the way, and ceased control. This is the age of intellectual property rights enforcement, though Shakespeare is the wizard of appropriation. White editors accused of inhibiting black writers, acting as gatekeepers and censors. I am reminded of the fury of the Black Arts Movement fifty years ago, though these accusations are not coming from a militant fringe.
I look at Zadie, who hates Thomas Mann, and other black writers of her generation and younger, and think I know what Sterling Allen Brown would say: “let the light shine upon them.” Many of them are mixed-race, descended from, to me, exotic combinations. The range of blackness has expanded. But Sterling also really minded being thought of as a Harlem Renaissance poet in his youth, because he contended that it was certainly not a renaissance for most black people. I look at the young, and also experience a twinge, because I am not fluent in what they’re talking about, or don’t agree with what I think they’re saying. I spend so much time dwelling on the past that when I wake up and realize that the present is out there, it makes me anxious. Sterling Brown was a formidable presence. He seemed to know everything about black culture and black history. We were cousins, but alas, he hated me, and would hang up when I would say, yet again, that I didn’t know Allen Tate. Perhaps the most profound change in black culture, since his death thirty years ago, is that one person cannot know everything there is to know about black culture and black history any more. Someone told me to reflect on how Sterling reacted, knowing that a renaissance was going on around him, and sensing that he was not a part of it. “Be yourself until the end.”
I returned to Berlin, after several years away, for what became my own private observance of the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, with Alfred Döblin’s tetralogy, November 1918, very much on my mind. I watched the sun come up over the gray, undulating rows of the Jewish Memorial; I turned away from the little stage in front of the Brandenberg Gate. The end of World War I meant trouble for Germany. It was not a day to be celebrated. Angela Merkel deserved praise for the refuge she offered Syrians fleeing war, whether Germany could afford to help or not. But I heard a woman say that it was dangerous for German women to have young, single, Arab men on German streets. She was not alone in her old-fashioned racial hysteria. The hope of thirty years ago has vanished. I noted that in the German History Museum, the chapter on German colonialism occupied a single glass case under some stairs. A wall of text acknowledged that the German army massacred thousands of the Herero people in the early twentieth century. I left the museum and walked the rainy streets, sat in places where I used to hang out for hours, and waited to feel something.
MJ: So many kinds of history being experienced, chronicled, pulled back from in those reflections, Darryl—those places where the narrator feels he has the right to pry and prod. And I loved that insight about how talking about race with your family can be a way of seeming to talk personally, a way of disguising a more particularized temperament. I think that’s so uncannily astute. And the parallel but never symmetrical interrogation, Germany asking itself questions, Darryl questioning. There’s a very interesting blend: the authority of your description and the refusal of total authority in the stance of the narrator. A multi-quest narrative.
RB: You say, Darryl, that one person cannot know everything there is to know about black culture any longer. When did you have the sense that that was so and then, presumably, not so?
MJ: Did Sterling Brown feel that he knew all there was to know?
DP: When you talked to him, you knew he knew everything. He just clearly knew everything. But I think that in the last five years, as new names come and spread out, it’s clear that no one can keep up. The secret of black intellectuals is that we have other interests. And I don’t follow social media, so there are a lot of names I don’t know. It’s all happening there and I’m out of it. What I need is from a longer piece largely about Claude McKay, when he came back after many years away; as for me, I’ve come back after decades away, with no idea of what’s going on.
RB: And yet, for us—and by “us,” I mean people who read you—the sense is that even though you can’t know everything that’s going on in black culture, in some ways, you are alerting many of us to the things we ought to know. You find yourself not only writing about black writers—you write about all sorts of things. You give yourself permission to write about Kerry James Marshall, and Kara Walker, and others. And for many of us, that’s our introduction to those artists and writers, ones we are going to want to go to the museum or gallery to see. When you wrote about the Kara Walker exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins, that was an assignment to many of us. I’m going to turn this into a question. Does that seem, to you, in some fundamental way, your object or your mission as a black writer or black intellectual? You seem, to me, to perform that mission pretty consistently.
DP: Well, with Kerry James Marshall, for example, I didn’t know his work very well before that retrospective, and it was unbelievable. I just write about discoveries, in that way. The presence of black artists is so profound and noticeable today—representational art, at that. It’s not abstract. When I was young, there was a struggle among black artists against representation. The idea that African influences would be in the abstract. All those kinds of issues are gone now, and these artists today have no problem referring to European traditions, and to specific works from the European canon. This is very new and different, as compared to the structures under which people used to work, where you had to do something specifically black, with no reference to European standards or judgments. Things like that are very interesting for me. It comes back to what I’ve often said: many things I did not have in school, so I had a chance to learn about them as a writer.
TCW: You hit on something that seemed very authentic about the black experience, which I have lived for, off and on, about nine years—the idea that there was some sacrifice in an earlier generation, and now you’re sleeping until noon in a foreign country. For many years, I had to get over that feeling, whereas my wife never had that. I had to allow myself not to feel guilty for being in Paris, Berlin, or other places like that. The black expat experience is a long tradition, and it’s one of both liberation/freedom and also guilt, a sense of having escaped or avoided something, which comes with its own cost.
DP: I think that people used to think of expatriatism like passing. It was an individual’s solution to the mass problem. Nobody knocked black jazz musicians for their lives abroad the way black writers were knocked. I was always very interested that both James Baldwin and Angela Davis gave their reasons for coming back in the same sort of language, which expressed not being able to be distant from the struggle. But no one asked that of Dexter Gordon or Miles Davis.
TCW: I always go back to something that Richard Wright said, which was that every week that you’re fighting for your freedom back home is a week that you’re not actually free. But in Paris, he experienced more freedom in a square block than in the entire United States of America. Another example would be Paris Blues., with Sidney Poitier: should he have to go home, if the point is to be free, and he found a way to be free? How does the individual reconcile the obligation to the group?
DP: Things also changed, because being away isn’t what being away used to be. People come back and forth a lot. To cut yourself off, you really have to make the effort.
TCW: You do have to make the effort to cut yourself off mentally, but I, living in Paris, walking through the streets, can go weeks without thinking about a police officer.
DP: They’re armed to the teeth there—what do you mean?
TCW: But they don’t regard me; I don’t exist.
DP: They don’t think you’re an Arab in Paris?
TCW: Sometimes in the airport, until I open my mouth. But my number one identity in France, which it never was in America, is my nationality. And that’s a profoundly different experience. When Black Lives Matter was really getting going, and the names of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin and Tamir Rice started circulating, I saw all of my friends’ concerns on social media, but I was really outside of it, even though I was plugged in. It’s an odd feeling.
DP: Same thing for me. It’s always been strange that Europe was the refuge, for so long, to black Americans while being also the capital of the suffering of black Africans, given its history of colonialism. That’s always been difficult to navigate. Early on, Baldwin didn’t talk about Arabs, but later on in his life, he sort of Arab-ed up his Paris life, so to speak. And he would say that he noticed how, of course, he was treated very differently from how Arabs were treated. Now, if black Americans in Paris at the time were too outspoken about the Algerian War, they would risk deportation. That’s why people like Richard Wright didn’t say too much, because he’d found this refuge. He’d left Greenwich Village because he couldn’t find a place to live with his Jewish wife and his kids.
RB: Could I circle back to something you said, a little while ago, about Kerry James Marshall? I’m referring, in particular, to his exhibition at the Met Breuer that you wrote about. The exhibition was, of course, extraordinary and exhilarating. There was a strange feature to that exhibition, which you noted in your piece: an entire room, or gallery, set apart for a wide range of works selected by Marshall himself, from the Met Collection, some of which were from black artists, some from white artists, some quite recent, some ancient. That was something I’d never seen before in a major museum exhibition. It seemed, to me, an extraordinary statement, both by the artist himself and, in some ways, by the institution. Perhaps you might talk a little about that.
DP: For me, the subject of Marshall’s paintings is painting, and how difficult he could make it for himself, so I wasn’t surprised that he had this conversation with the collection in that way. It was very interesting what he was drawn to, though of course I can’t remember a single one right now.
MJ: It also seems to me that that is a kind of mode of educating viewers in the same way that one might do with a close reading or a deconstruction of a black writer, to make sure that readers understood that every literary allusion was not from another black writer. I’d love to know how that was arranged—did Marshall request it? did the museum offer?
DP: I think the curator suggested it.
MJ: For me, it was definitely an educating mode.
DP: It sort of fits, the allusions Marshall made to Invisible Man, since Ralph Ellison went out of the way to tell people how to read him and how to view him. That’s one thing that Toni Morrison did get from Ralph Ellison, as she told people how to read her, too.
MJ: And now, she’s taught as connected to Virginia Woolf, and Gabriel García Márquez. It also occurs to me that we’ve been talking so much about what’s taken for granted, or permitted, or to be challenged and scrutinized and perhaps punished in a black intellectual’s life and choices. The passages in which the narrator of Darryl’s story recounts moving to England and studying these white writers, and taking account of the ways in which they confronted slavery, in good or bad ways. Once upon a time, certainly from the mid-late 60s through the 70s, that would have been a passage that many would have responded to with vehemence: “That’s so pathetic that you people need white literature!”
DP: I think it went away with Derek Walcott’s poem, “The Schooner Flight.” He took this form, and wrote this poem, and that was, for me, the end of the debate on content and form. His European and aural, African influences. Masterful disposition.
JM: Why did people keep on calling that Marshall exhibit “exuberant?”
MJ: A version of “articulate”?
JM: Shades of that. This is a genuine question, and in art, I’m a faker, but still. I’m willing to be completely shot down here, but I can’t think of a white artist in that same room, or the one across town, where you would see their paintings and the adjective that would be used is “exuberant.” A word used in several reviews of the Marshall exhibition. Because it would seem a little bit simplistic. If it were Courbet, or even Stuart Davis, or Hopper, or Turner…these are people where you could see a certain exuberance. But such artists are not typically called “exuberant.” And ever since that exhibit has started—and I’m not calling anybody out, because I don’t have the authority—I’ve been thinking, did Marshall mean that work to be exuberant? I think of Marshall as somebody who probably wasn’t smiling when he painted and who has a remarkable technical ability. I am flying blind here, and I may be all wrong, but why exuberant?
RB: I hadn’t noticed “exuberant” in reviews of Marshall, but I too can’t think of him smiling when he painted the works that we’ve just seen. I used the word “exhilarating” rather than “exuberant” when speaking of how it felt to us to be there. I think that one of the effects of that exhibition was to introduce many of us to an artist we’d never seen before. I had never seen a single painting of Kerry James Marshall before that exhibition. I had seen his prints in a number of places, including one at the Met Breuer, but I had never seen an exhibition. So, that was an extraordinary event, because suddenly we felt we had been introduced to a major painter who was, I believe, already 61 years old at the time of the exhibition. That was, to many of us, truly amazing. We also read, in the material that we got at the museum at the time of that show, that he had been offered a show at the Met eight years prior, and had turned down the show because he didn’t think he was quite ready yet. That seemed extraordinary. It spoke of a certain kind of ambition, self-possession, and patience that seem, certainly to me, completely unusual. And so, the whole thing—the story, the narrative, and then, of course, the work—created, in many of us, that feeling that we rarely have when we go to a retrospective exhibition. By the way, I did feel that way in the 80s about Anselm Kiefer and wrote about the exhilaration many of us felt back then. When Kiefer broke upon the scene in the mid-1980s, in a show at the MoMA, that was a revelation. Other people knew about him in the way that other people knew about Kerry James Marshall, but I think that most of us in New York had no idea who this was. That’s an anecdotal kind of answer to your question…
JM: But was Kiefer’s work called “exuberant” or were people exuberant to be there?
RB: I think that they were exhilarated by it. I wouldn’t say exuberant, but exhilarated.
DP: I agree with you that “exuberant” is not the right word, though “exhilarating” does describe what many people felt. I remember looking up reviews of Pop Art in the early 60s, and they would say, “Roy Lichtenstein and his exuberant blah-blah-blah…” They mean the paintings were playful.
JM: But these [Marshall’s] are different kinds of paintings.
DP: Yeah. They’re very dignified.
RB: I love “dignified” to describe Marshall’s work, though I’m not sure others would approve.
OP: I want to return a bit to Darryl’s thoughts on exile, which say a lot to me. I spent most of my life in exile: exile in England, where I studied and taught for some years, and exile in America, where I’ve been for the past forty years. I remember in England, in the 60s, coming to reflect on the extraordinary variation in the black experience around the world. I listen to you [Darryl] talking about your exilic experience in Berlin, and what it meant to you, as an American, finding refuge there, along with the other black Americans before, who found refuge in Paris and other places. I thought how different it was in my case, going to Britain at 22. I grew up in colonial Jamaica, and Britain was said to be the mother country, as one learned as a child in school. In fact, I went to Britain on a British passport, as a British subject, as a colonial. Once in Britain, you had to think about what the colonial experience meant, and what your own society meant to you in Britain. A lot of Caribbean writers reflect on the exilic experience. Perhaps the best-known example is George Lamming. The title of his first collection of essays was The Pleasures of Exile . But what exile meant for me was not the same thing as what exile meant for Aimé Césaire who, as a fellow Caribbean, was nonetheless in a different kind of exile. For Césaire, France always was the mother country. And his encounter with exile was underpinned by the relationship between France and his native Martinique.
The Times Literary Supplement once asked me to reflect on the concept of négritude in a long essay, and this was one of my early essays, during my literary days, actually. I was once a literary person; that’s when I used to write novels and stuff like that. The title of the TLS essay was “Twilight of a Dark Myth,” though you won’t find my name there because it was published during a time when British newspapers did not name the authors of such pieces. It was an important moment for me, comparing Senghor with Césaire and Lamming. The difference was that Senghor going back to Senegal was really a going back home, to Africa, the motherland. And, as you know, a lot of his poetry then developed on the theme of exile, which became problematic for him, developed into a poetry in which he then had to explain what it was like back home. That forced a kind of shift towards a concept of Africanity, of African essence, departing quite significantly from the exilic theme central to négritude. When Césaire went back home to Martinique, he was still in exile. And that became the profound problem of West Indian intellectualism for a long time. Because the Caribbean was itself an exilic condition. It was kind of a double exile for Césaire to be in Paris in a way that it was not for Senghor. That experience of exile in Paris brought home the exilic nature of the experience of exile in the Caribbean, which was somewhat hidden from you in being part of the empire. The Notebook of a Return to the Native Land, the glorious poem of Césaire, is precisely about that. Unlike Senghor’s native land, my native land was not my own. You had to think, then, about the slave trade, about the deracination, about the profound rupture that slavery was in a part of the world where perhaps the most brutal form of plantation slavery existed. But, unlike the black American existence, you were also the majority there. You were in exile in a country in which you were the majority, and I began to think about that quite a bit, and much of my earlier writing was about the experience of exile abroad and exile at home.
DP: I’d had no idea that you’d written on that.
OP: Well, that was another life, as Walcott would say. But I did want to add something about the dangers of extreme particularism, the dangers of seeing one’s experience in totally inward-looking terms. Because those experiences of exile force you to think of yourself as sort of set apart from something else. Césaire’s poem is all about that. But I still think that we’re immersed in the problem of particularism. In extreme cases, I see it in my students, 90% of whom are involved in a me-search. Ironically, so it seems to me, there’s a sense in which you can only ultimately find yourself in finding out what you’re not and what others are. You don’t get that when you’ve limited your sense of self to the me-search. My first novel—and I did publish three novels, though they’re not called “classics”—was about extreme poverty in the slums of Kingston. And what I felt I had to do, then, was to find a broader experience within which I could locate my particular experience. For me, an important text was Camus, and The Myth of Sisyphus, which I then used as an anchoring metaphor for the tragedy of what I experienced in Jamaica. The Sisyphean metaphor is very powerful for describing the conditions of living in utter turmoil, on a dump. How do you survive on a dump, on a mound? Sometimes you crawled up, and sometimes you fell down—just like Sisyphus. For me, that dialectic was a driving force. Looking at slavery in Jamaica—not just spending the rest of my life mourning my people’s slavery, but becoming curious as to what it was like, slavery for other peoples—led me down a long, long journey of looking into the nature of slavery, which then carried me to the roots of Western civilization, ancient Athens, which was the first slave society. And from that, I discovered that there was this peculiar relationship between Western civilization itself and slavery—that at all the high points of Western civilization, slavery was key. Athens was a slave society, and so was Rome, even more so. And, as historians are now discovering, capitalism itself rose on the backs of slaves. Slavery was not an oddity, an anomaly, antithetical to capitalism, as Adam Smith taught. On the contrary, capitalism rose on the backs of West-Indian and black American slavery. What does this all tell me? That, in fact, my experience was a crucial way of understanding the world, of understanding white people, of understanding Western civilization. And this is why I find me-search so disturbing—because I can’t get my students to think in these terms: not just about things beyond their experience but about their experience as reflected in the broader world in which they live. In every respect, one can see the ways in which your own personal experience is vital, and then the universalities of Western civilization are also essential if you hope to explain your own condition.
DP: The not-me takes in a lot of territory.
OP: It’s surprising how you come to see affinities and connections where you never imagined you would find them. As an example: The last long essay I wrote was on Leon Battista Alberti, the great Quattrocento Renaissance founder of architecture, whom Walcott described as the great genius of the Renaissance. You could say, “What could be further from the black experience than Leon Battista Alberti?” But because I was curious, I learned that the man was obsessed with slavery. In three of his later pieces, he imagined what it was like to be a slave. In one of the most powerful scenes, he described a moment in which slaves had arrived in Genoa, and were waiting to be shipped; Genoa was one of the great slave trading ports in the Renaissance. This perplexed me at first, but it led me to look into his life, and it turns out that it was not only very likely that he’d been brought up by a slave, but that he was illegitimate. And in Renaissance Florence, that was a condition of utter alienation, despite his upper-class status. That identification that he had with a slave was his way of describing his own illegitimacy and alienation. All of this is a way of expressing my frustration with the me-search—in forty years, I’ve never been able to get one of my black students to work on slavery, much less to explore that dialectic between the personal and the universal. Yet, contrary to what they may think, their experience resonates in powerful ways with the most fundamental aspects of civilization. In many ways, black Americans are in a position to understand some of the essential issues of Western civilization more than any other group of people, because they are so close to slavery, but also as the most Christian group of people. The birth of freedom, of the social construction of freedom, grew out of the condition of slavery. So, in this way, I am able to tie myself to the very broadest elements of the not-me. Listening to you read, Darryl, I couldn’t help thinking of the extent to which your exilic experience was a way of universalizing, of generalizing, of getting away from the utter particularism which denies you this rich dimension of self-understanding.
DP: Henry Louis Gates pointed out that slave narratives in the United States were the first time in the history of the world that the slave population left documents about what it had been like to be a slave. The very existence of slave narratives reassured the reader, because it meant that the enslaved person had gotten away to a place where he/she could look back and reflect on what happened. I think of exile in the black literary tradition in a similar way, as this distance that helps you look back. It kind of stops time. The danger of expatriatism is that you think time is standing still, but actually, everything is going on without you. One of the things that happened to Richard Wright is that his voice sort of fell out of date; he sounded like a dime-store novel from the 1930s, in the 1950s. It didn’t quite work. This is something that never happened to Baldwin, who always sounded like he was eighteen. It’s the magic of his prose that he never got old.
Seneca warns people, “You could be a slave at any moment. You may be fine now, but it could flip and your fortunes could worsen.” But the problem, of course, was that New World slavery had never been imagined before. Everything about it had not been imagined before. And you’re quite right that in the Caribbean, it was more brutal than anywhere. But this idea that slavery was an inherited, or permanent, condition…the ancient world didn’t have that.
OP: Oh, absolutely they did! It’s a great thing that Gates did to elevate the slave narratives to part of the coming of literary writing, but in fact, one of the great slave narratives is kind of hidden behind what is one of the great philosophical treatises in Western culture, and that is the Discourses of Epictetus .
DP: Which I haven’t read.
OP: Epictetus was born a slave! He wasn’t just born a slave—he was a house slave, though he was eventually able to buy his freedom. And the Discourses are all about his reflection on the nature of this freedom that he had won and which profoundly disappointed him, in a way. I see this as a slave narrative by a philosopher reflecting on the nature of freedom for someone who was once a slave. So, the slavery of condition was a permanent one.
DP: And your children became slaves?
OP: Absolutely! That was permanent.
DP: I can’t believe he got that wrong.
OP: Oh, yes. Slavery was perpetual, though you inherited it from your mother, not your father. And if you were born the child of a slave-woman, you, too, were a slave. America just inherited their slave laws from Rome. To bring us back to what is central, it’s essential to explore that dialectic between the particular and the general. There’s a model for that: much of the writing by Jews explores this dialectic. You’ll find it in Marx, in Freud. Don’t you think so?
RB: I have no reason to doubt what you say. But I see some hands of people who may feel otherwise.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE [Honor Moore]: As a teacher of creative nonfiction and memoir, I just want to say that there are a lot of students who begin by looking at their own very particular experience and then move outwards from there. I try to engage with that straw-man of the me-search and the me-moir as often as I can because in the trenches, that’s not what I see happening. I guess that’s not so much a question as a comment.
RB: Margo, do you have that experience in your nonfiction classes?
MJ: I’m with Honor there. I won’t pretend that there aren’t manuscripts that come in and say, “I’m doing therapy on myself. This is a story that I have to tell that I haven’t worked out fully,” and that’s just it. But there are many other things. I teach a seminar called “Cultural Memoir,” where my students are looking at the selves, or the various selves, shaped by and in relationship to family, region, ethnicity, race, gender, aesthetics—all of that. Not the selves as separated from these cultural contexts. And I find that they respond to that in their writing as well as their reading. The nature of interesting, well-written memoir seems to be changing, moving towards a kind of memoir that is open to cultural criticism, which is what Darryl’s piece certainly demonstrates.
DP: My parents gave me so much trouble for going to Europe, because they were of that generation that didn’t want to go to World War II to fight for what they considered empires. That made me hunt for the black historical presence in Europe. There was this journalist from the 1920s to 1940s named J.A. Rogers, who wrote this mad work called Sex and Race. He did all this bizarre, auto-didactic stuff throughout many volumes. And people thought he was nuts. He said that Bronzino painted a portrait of a black Medici…and everyone thought he was nuts. But it turned out to be true! They exhibited it at Princeton a few years ago. I remember that I would go to the Luxemburg to see Henry Ossawa Tanner’s “The Resurrection of Lazarus” and then talked a lot about it. They had no idea what I was talking about. All was very buried, but now it’s sort of coming out. English people never ask themselves, “What happened to the black populations of 18th century Bristol and London?” People are running around with black ancestors and they don’t know it. There were so many black people in London in 1598 that Tudor wanted her Sheriff to promulgate an order expelling them. The debate is, did she want them gone because they were black or because they were, in her view, not Christian? Another example: There was a wood painting that, for many years, nobody could locate. It was a street scene. There were as many blacks as whites in it, in all stations of life, including a black knight. They finally realized it was Lisbon before the earthquake, 1554 or something like that.
JM: Darryl, can I ask you a question?
JM: This is something I could have asked Baldwin, or I could have asked Fitzgerald. I’ve realized over the past year that I’m just weird in having this as a question. I’m a nonfiction writer, but if I were going to write fiction, my immediate impulse would be to write not not-me, certainly because I would figure that I’m in me. Nor would I write about a reserved, middle-class black guy who grew up in Pittsburgh, and wound up writing in Los Angeles, and married another white person…I wouldn’t write that either. I just feel like, “Aren’t I supposed to create some other person?” And I couldn’t, and therefore I will never write fiction. What is the payoff you get from when you artfully write about yourself? You do it so well. But what happens after that?
DP: I don’t know how to answer that. You should write that story, about being this reserved guy who grows up in Pittsburgh.
JM: But I’m in me!
DP: But the “you” on the page is not you. It’s a stand-in, or an approximation, or device, or anything to engage in whatever subject you’ve chosen. I don’t know why I always prefer to write in the first-person. Maybe it’s because of the authority the first person gives you. It also gets you off the hook, in many ways. But I only mean this for myself; you could accept it or not. Because I’m not a social scientist or anything like that, I can’t write in another way.
JM: And what you do is beautiful. But after you’re done, finished writing, how do you feel?
DP: Like I’m finished.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: I have a question for John, who has sometimes made the point that, however much we’re committed to conversation, we do also need to be committed to action. But am I wrong to hear in that some, I don’t know, some impatience with mere conversation? Why would we not say that we need conversation at least as much as action?
JM: Conversation is what we’re doing here, and it’s great, and I am really enjoying listening to what everybody has to say. But consider: You could go back in time fifty years—1969, no Internet yet, color TV is becoming universal, everybody smokes—and let’s say we’re on a campus, maybe in this room, and instead of the five of us, and Bob, it would be, I don’t know, Shirley Chisholm, and Ralph Ellison, and Claude Brown. So, early versions of all of us would be there, and a convener, who would be—back in 1969—Bob Boyers. That event happened. More or less. Bob can attest to that. We’re having the same conversation, and I’m not sure where it led, but too much of this ends up being just for itself. Bob knows I think this is a great event, but I know you understand my point, Bob.
RB: I do. And though it wasn’t quite “the same conversation,” there were resemblances. No doubt about it.
JM: In 1969, we knew there was beginning to be a problem. In 1959, they were asking the questions, “What are we going to do? What are we going to go out and do? What are we going to say to Congress?” But after the Civil Rights Act, it became a matter of sitting and talking more, talking more, about where we’re going to go. And I just worry that we talk too much. That’s all. Of course we have to set the terms. But I wish it were more a matter of “Here’s what we’re going to do, politically, to change lives” rather than exploring how we feel. And maybe it’s just that I’m not a literateur, and so I figure, “Who cares how I feel?” So, in that, I’m a little bit more limited in thinking about this.
DP: I care.
JM: Thank you, Darryl.
TCW: I’m conflicted, because I’m young enough to have read everybody here and to have thought about the things you’ve been saying since I made the transition from being a student to being a professional, and then I’ve become friends with some of you, and with others of older generations. And as I’ve read more, I’ve seen that Leon Wieseltier wrote, in the 90s, almost word-for-word a piece I wrote, without my having ever read his. Some of Orlando Patterson’s writings inspired my first book. John’s book, Losing the Race , inspired me.
JM: Orlando inspired me.
TCW: So I was young, barely 27, writing my first book, having something to say, and wanting badly to get involved in the cultural conversation. Now that I’ve been in the game for ten years, I do start to worry that we’re just spinning around the same conversations indefinitely. It gives me some anxiety. I’ve almost never heard somebody say, in one of these situations, that we need pragmatic solutions. And so I ask Bob, do you feel any despair, or deep frustration, in the fact that you’re still having these same conversations, 20, 30, 40 years on?
OP: I’ve been a part of these conversations with Bob for thirty years, so I can’t wait to hear his answer.
RB: Well, as Orlando says, we’ve been running conferences on race for many years now; this is the sixth one we’ve run. Not all had the word “race” in the title. We ran one on identity not long ago. Some years earlier, we ran one called “Race, Religion, & Nationalism.” And no. I don’t feel despair. Because I do agree, for one thing, that very substantial changes have occurred over the course of these years. I would never presume to say that they’ve occurred because of these conversations of ours, but because, in some degree, at least, many good people have been having important conversations over these years. At least, I think that for some of us who have been in academic life for a long time, the most disappointing aspect of academic life is that there are so many things that you’re not allowed to say—which is something you never, ever feel at a Salmagundi conference, where people can say all sorts of things, can disagree furiously with one another, and keep on talking. Darryl and Orlando can tell you of conferences on race that we’ve had in the past where people on the panel have stood up and walked out of the room. They’d come back after a while—sometimes an hour, or an hour and a half later.
OP: Sometimes driven to walk out after something I said. [Laughter.]
RB: But my sense is that these conversations are more than spinning our wheels. Of course, there are real conversations, and there are phony conversations. My sense is that out there, in what passes for “the real world,” often real things aren’t being talked about. And again, if you spend your life in academe, you know that many of the conversations that take place have nothing to do with what matters. One of the things that we’re trying to do is to create an environment in which it’s possible to have real talk, so that the next conversation will lead to what John called “action.”
TCW: I was also thinking that in some respects each generation has to re-learn the same lessons or the same insights, which can become frustrating.
DP: It’s not the same. Everything changes.
MJ: The thought alters the language, which is huge. If there’s real thought, it will alter the thing itself.
OP: We’re always changing. Let’s take the thing we call “America.” We are going to continue forever, without end, in discussing the nature of this thing. The same kind of conversation which Moynihan and Glazer had in 1970 in their book, Beyond the Melting Pot. Any group which has any vibrancy, any vitality, is going to be involved in endless conversations, and that’s good. What’s problematic is when you’re spinning your wheels. That’s what is bothering John and Thomas, and that’s what sometimes bothers me: the sense that we are still swirling in, for example, the same black identity conversation of the late 1960s and early 1970s, which gives the impression that the conversation hasn’t moved that much (even though there’s been undeniable change). That’s the danger.
AUDIENCE MEMBER THREE: Darryl, when you were talking about Derek Walcott’s “The Schooner Flight,” you said that for you that ended the self-questioning about how much of Western civilization one was allowed to have as a black writer. In terms of where we are now, there’s something very pertinent, because when I taught the poem last year, I had many students—white and black—who were dumbfounded that Walcott was writing in pentameters, and felt that he was doing something wrong, and said so. Some said that he was being untrue to himself as a black writer, that he was being untrue to himself as a Caribbean writer…I had quite an uphill battle to persuade them that what freedom means for an artist is the freedom to do these things. A couple of them had gotten hold of Langston Hughes’s attacks on Claude McKay for writing sonnets, and so were re-rehearsing an argument from the Harlem Renaissance about whether black poets in America are allowed to write sonnets because they’re too “Anglo.”
DP: You’re kidding.
AUDIENCE MEMBER THREE: No! I’m not. And it was really interesting, and a little disconcerting. I hope I persuaded them. And to me, the essence of what you do as a writer, and what you’re doing as a self-recording and self-questioning intellectual, apart from those magnificent, lapidary sentences, is also this quiet insistence on freedom.
DP: I find that really depressing, about the Walcott. It’s simply a great poem. And Claude McKay, who’s a writer I love, is a terrible poet. And Langston Hughes was my father’s favorite poet, but not mine.
AUDIENCE MEMBER FOUR: Just a small thought. People have been referring to the Civil Rights Movement, and the Voting Rights Act, and civil rights legislation from the 60s. And I think that once all of that passed, a lot of people felt as if they had done what they needed to do for black folks and minorities. And where we are now is trying to get the Voting Rights reversal reversed, and we’re trying to protect Roe v. Wade; we’re trying to protect a lot of the things that we got in the 60s and 70s. While we haven’t backslid into being the America of the 50s, we’ve backslid because of the evisceration of some of the laws that were so important, and have been so important. It’s pretty hard to think about an ambitious civil rights agenda because we’re just trying to convince the Supreme Court that there’s still racism. That’s part of the moment that we’re in. There’s been a lot of backsliding, in terms of legislation, so it’s really hard to think about the next push for new acts.
DP: In 1969, as a kid, I can remember people impatiently saying, on repeat, “We’ve talked enough. Now we need to do something.”
OP: But it’s not either/or, not conversation or action. We can never talk enough. The question is rather whether we are talking about the same thing. In fact, the Supreme Court likes to justify its recent actions by saying, “Wait a minute, this hasn’t prevented black people from becoming a dominant part of the Democratic party, and there are more black congressman now than there were in the past, and those have far more power than they did before.” The conversation has got to not simply be “Oh, we’re back where we were.” We’ve seen significant movement, which some reactionary forces are trying to push back against. The conversation we’re going to have now is going to be different from the conversations which took place when we had no power at all. We need to distinguish between the two situations, to not get them confused. I want to make sure the conversation is about where we are now, and not an imagined situation in the past before we made any progress.
JM: You’re completely right. What worries me is this: in 1972, there was the National Black Political Convention in Gary, Indiana, which was almost 50 years ago. I find it so poignant to look at the film—color film—of it and to look at the new coverage of it. I’m obsessed with that event. Because everybody got together, people were arguing for reparations, it was a newer argument then. Van Peebles’s music is being played out of big speakers, which was the equivalent of hip-hop for the time. Everybody was very excited. At the end, a microphone is shoved in this guy’s face; the guy is wearing a very loud, smart jacket. “So, what was the purpose of the conference?” “We met; therefore, we’ve won.” Nothing came of that conference.
DP: That’s not true.
JM: Ok, you can tell me that I’m wrong after one sentence. I have always thought how good that must have felt to be there at the time, but I’d wished that they had planned to do a thing. That’s all. I just fear that we’re recapitulating that conversation.
DP: So much of what people talked about in 1972 eventually got into our national politics. That conference actually had a lot to say about electoral politics, which was unusual at the time because a lot of people had dismissed electoral politics. They didn’t let white people come. It was just this black gathering that went across the board. It wasn’t just militancy; everybody was there. Things did come from it. It’s just so far back—it’s like Seneca Falls or something.
After all, I had chosen this, and I wanted to wield my black woman’s version of that authority, and to push at its boundaries, especially in a culture that had so recently been pushed and prodded to grant a certain amount of authority to a small number of blacks, of women, of black women.
But time passed, and I began to tire of, and even resent, that authority. To illustrate why, I am going to appropriate and revise some words that Janet Malcolm wrote about being a reporter and journalist: “Every critic who is not too ignorant or full of herself to notice what is going on knows that what she does incites and promotes a dangerous form of omniscient narrator hubris.” Once I’d proven that I could be that “omniscient cultural narrator,” I began to chafe at its limits. I thought that I needed to figure out how to write with some form of authority and order from intellectual ambivalence, even from vulnerability. To write about the passion you feel for an artist, or art form, an idea that might feel like unrequited love. It leaves you so exposed and uncertain. So obsessed.
I tried to make room for these feelings and stances in my writing. I needed to work with them in a book, so I decided to write about Michael Jackson. He was multiple personae and multiple traditions. He was this abyss, center, lightning rod—all of the above—for so many cultural, physical, racial, gender, pop-culture, mass culture, body dysmorphia, sexual transitioning obsessions. He would ingest styles and types, would flaunt tropes and threats. He was like a human lab of mutations, desires, demands, and perversities. And he wanted us to see all of them, but not to ask him questions about them. As such, I couldn’t approach Michael Jackson as a full authority.
About ten years ago, I began the process of beginning a memoir. This was not a form I had ever been deeply committed to or fascinated by. I called it, in my mind, a “cultural memoir.” It really started with my wanting, with the tools that I had, to write a record, a combination of story, research, interpretation, dramatization, self, confession, analysis. I wanted to capture the world I’d grown up in which, even as I started to write about it, became this site of slippage, because the first thing you do when someone asks what you’re writing about, at least in my case, is to say, “I’m writing a book about, well, DuBois called it The Talented Tenth ; previously it’s been called The Black Elite [Lois Benjamin, 1991], and The Black Bourgeoisie [Edward Franklin Frazier, 1955].” Already, the problematics are huge, and each one of those terms would make me try to gauge what the other person was thinking and to challenge myself. It was, fair enough, a version of what one might call me-search ; I was very interested in the psychological, in the way that a group’s histories, facts, emotions, griefs, traumas, and injustices leave their mark on subsequent generations. I was very interested in the borders and limits of privilege, internal and external. I was interested in this mixing, in a certain time period, of race, class, and gender privileges, prejudices, and prescriptions. (I stole “prescriptions and prejudices” from one of Frederick Douglass’s narratives.)
I called this memoir Negroland because I wanted “negro” to stand in for a whole nexus of historical facts. “Negro” was the word of choice among progressive, forward-looking colored people looking for respect; all this started in the late 19th and early 20th century. And then there was the fight to make “negro” capitalized, and that was a big fight; I think the Times didn’t capitalize it until something like 1943. I wanted that “-land” to signify not only the lands of segregated neighborhoods—I grew up in Chicago, and there was literally only one integrated neighborhood— but also to signify the historical search for a kind of homeland, as well as the sense of a group of people who, even if they have a land, lack historical prestige and power. Those borders are always being pressed upon. That was Negroland. There was some chronology, but I found that I was digressing a lot and changing between the first, second, and third person. This was not meant to be a cute literary trick, though we all like to be cute and literary sometimes. It seemed, to me, that part of this life was very much the construction of personae for different situations—for being at an all-black party, for being at an all-white school. It’s not that literally your behavior changes—I wasn’t changing languages—but the assumptions, inflections, and tiny little things that you said or held back from saying change according to those situations. At school, I might be very aware of certain things my parents did not want me to say in front of white people. At a hospital benefit, I would be very aware of not wanting to try to talk like the girl who was poor and rough, who lived down the street and who was also black, because I thought it was cute to sometimes talk black slang. You were always manipulating and maneuvering at the mercy of that.
I did a lot of historical research for Negroland, lest anyone think I was just remembering things, or like Gatsby, who says “It was just personal.” The whole second chapter was a long historical and sociological account of origins—albeit with a slightly snippy, narrative edge—and about the black bourgeoisie’s evolution. In any case, when that was done, I found that while I still wanted to do criticism, I didn’t want to do it full time. I wanted to keep examining this mutant, or hybrid, form in which the personal stuff of memoir, memory, and a singular life mingles with the sociological, the historical, the parental, as well as the aesthetic, and what happens when one encounters certain art objects. Negroland was obviously very focused on race as a kind of central way of viewing, but I was also interested in those moments in one’s life in which race doesn’t disappear, but isn’t the central lens ruling the experience. There were moments in Negroland in which I felt that I was cleaving a little too much to the notion of, “This is a life ruled by my black perceptions and consciousness.” And I wanted to get away from that. So, now, I’ve written a series of short pieces that range from vignette-like encounters with cultural objects and people, to longer literary and historical narratives.
A young novelist asked me: Why do you choose to write criticism?
I wanted to make my way to the center of American culture, claim it, and find ways to de-center it, I told her.
Why did you choose to write memoir? she asked.
I wanted to make my way to my own American center and find language for the fractures there, I answered.
1960. I stare at the album cover: BUD POWELL: JAZZ ORIGINAL.
When I’m alone I take it out of the record cabinet and stare, whether or not I intend to play it. Sometimes I put it back, unplayed. And think on that face, that dark, sweating face.
The camera presumes to walk up and stare. He’s closed his eyes. His face is shadow and smoky light against a grey and muted-black night expanse. His hair and mustache are black. There’s a patch of white shirt and striped tie, a patch of suit. He could be floating alone in a cosmos of his own design. His lips are parted. (Humming, breathing, as he sweats.) He’s possessed by his music. In a state of ecstatic—let us use the Greek word for sweat—diaphoresis.
Black people with ambitions need to be wary about their relationship to sweat. Sweat is a word for hard physical labor, sweat is for workers who have no choice but to labor by the sweat of their brows, the sweat in their armpits, the sweat that soaks through their clothing, making it stained and smelly. “Sweat Sweat Sweat! Work and sweat, cry and sweat, pray and sweat!”
Louis Armstrong, Satchmo the Great, dares to sweat before multitudes. He knows many of his white fans think it’s happy sweat. Smile and sweat, laugh and sweat, play music, sweat! Onstage and on television he’s never without his white handkerchief, wiping the sweat from his face, wiping the spit and sweat from his trumpet valve. His African mask of a face (the beaming-grimace smile, the fixed popped eyes) makes this a ritual though not a necessity. His ritual of artistic diaphoresis.
I play Ella Fitzgerald’s records but I do not enjoy looking at her album covers. I am a teenage girl, I am a black teenage girl and I long to be physically impeccable. Even when she is posing sweat-free for a photographer, Ella Fitzgerald is without the sumptuous glamour of Billie Holiday, without the meticulous beauty of Lena Horne. And she sweats—in concert halls, in nightclubs, on national television shows. Sweat dots her brow and drips, even pours down her cheeks. Sweat dampens her pressed and curled hair. Sweat runs into the stones of her dangling earrings. Like Louis Armstrong, she uses a white handkerchief. But he wipes his sweat vigorously, proudly; she dabs at hers quickly, almost daintily. If one dabs at sweat it becomes more refined. It gentrifies into euphemism; it becomes “perspiration.” White women, even white ladies are permitted to perspire. But on television white women singers do not perspire. Which means that, even as she swings, scats, and soars, Ella Fitzgerald’s sweat threatens to drag her back into the maw of working class black female labor.
Does she perspire this much because of her size, her heft? Do her fans, white and black and other, call her “big” or do they just go ahead and call her “fat”? Did she start to sweat like this when she entered menopause? Do her male musicians, black and white, joke about menopause behind her back—offstage, where she can’t control them with her ravishing diaphoretic musicianship?
Ella Fitzgerald, you worked hard for your sweat.
You earned your sweat like real musicians do. Like artists who must labor to be beautiful.
You sweated comme des garçons.
And those garçons should have begged for the elixir of your sweat. I do. I beg for it.
This next one was an experiment in wanting to get at the slight embarrassment of a relationship to a mediocre piece of art. Here I also look at how a young woman who is raised, as so many women are, to put a certain kind of decorum first begins to become a bit awakened to something more feral. I like Willa Cather, I do.
I’m in my twenties; I’m standing in front of a painting with a friend I have known and loved, then liked with reservations, then loved again, since we were eleven and I signed my name in blue ink on the front of her red leather clutch bag, then crossed it out in black ink two weeks later when we quarreled. We’re quiet now, in green thought, green shade mode, as we gaze at “The Song of the Lark” by Jules Breton. What is it about this large painting which Willa Cather claimed for her ecstatic tale of solitary female genius, yet had to assure readers she understood was rather second-rate? What is it about this painting that, even now, stirs young women, again and again? Why does it matter to us that in 1854 France, a youthful peasant girl on her way to work in the fields, early morning, stops and looks up to listen to a lark?
Forgetting the harsh scythe in her hand, her dull, brown skirt, and her rough white blouse, the blue cotton apron, the pale, brown hair shut up in a scarf, she listens, lips parted, eyes skyward. The title was meant to suggest a young girl’s awakening to something beautiful, Willa Cather wrote, and she used that title to tell the story of a provincial girl, a peasant of the American Midwest, awakening to her own astounding gift for music. But she could not publish her book without assuring readers that she fully understood that the title alluded to a rather second-rate painting.
Now, we study it. “This picture gave me my first sense that I could have a separate life, even though I was young,” my friend says. “A life away from ceaseless queries, intuitions, mergings, and dispersals, feared and longed for.” This moves me.
“I think it’s even harder to live a life separate from a powerful older sister,” I tell her.
She tells me, “Margo, you’re so competitive you could be a twin.” And my heart soars, for I’d never thought of myself as competitive in that way, no, I strove to follow the counsel of my honorable father; I strove to compete only with the best in myself—my higher self. What did I do with unconscionable amounts of fear and envy when they seized hold of me? I did my best to redirect them to longing, resignation, appreciation for the plentiful gifts of others. Though what a revelation, this awakening to a force I hadn’t known I’d possessed. It had chosen me. It had slipped across my threshold like a small animal, driven and cunning. An animal I thought was too feral to thrive in my sheltered domicile.
RB: I think we’re all speechless. Anyone want to jump in? … Much that you say here is astoundingly beautiful and fresh, but I want to ask you about Ella. I was wondering whether you thought, in a way that you might not be able to say of any comparable performer, that for Ella Fitzgerald, ace had virtually nothing to do with the effect that she had on generations of listeners. I may be totally wrong about this, but in my household (a working class Jewish household), Ella Fitzgerald was the queen, she was the thing that everyone wanted to listen to, and I don’t think that anyone had the slightest sense of her as a Negro singer.
JM: It’s because she didn’t sing all the words. Ella Fitzgerald had an incredible instrument, but part of the reason that she had such a crossover success—Marilyn Monroe loved her—was that the lyrics weren’t on her mind.
MJ: Sometimes they were.
JM: I don’t mean to criticize her as an artist. But Billie Holiday is the other extreme, so I think that was part of why Fitzgerald was so great in that 50s Wonder Bread living room.
MJ: But if you track her career back from the 30s, she always varied. She loved Connee Boswell; she loved Ethel Waters. But I would say that her Gershwin albums with Ellis Larkin, as well as some of the work she did with Ellington, are more felt. Here is where words like “ebullience” do work—for the young Ella Fitzgerald with that high, beautiful voice, and that lovely pitch, this wonderful sense of play, in the big band, when people were dancing. That was glorious. I think that Fitzgerald had several musical lives: the jazz singer who then went swing, then became sympathetic and responsive to Bach. By the way, she and Coleman Hawkins were about the only two of that generation to move into Bach. Then, she entered the all-American songbooks stage, with the big Nelson Riddle arrangement. In that way, she had a number of careers. And what overlapped with that were her lives as a black singer. You must remember that in the generation from which she emerged, black style overlapped with what people later came to call white American style. But it did influence that side of things. You didn’t have to sound like Muddy Waters, who’s great, don’t misunderstand me. You just didn’t have to sound like Bessie Smith—that was one version of black music. She was part of the generation of jazz singers who took from everything. And black audiences, our parents’ generation, loved them. So, she had a life as a black and as a white singer. She also took great pride in it.
RB: Even in later years, when her voice wasn’t quite the instrument it had been before, she made a series of albums with Joe Pass, and those were just extraordinary. Her musicianship remained. In my experience, wherever you travel, anywhere in the world, you’re likely to go into a café with Ella Fitzgerald on the soundtrack.
MJ: Though I do have to say, because we’ve talked so much about generational gaps, I have had students, white and black, who, when I have taught Ella Fitzgerald and Billie Holiday, have said, “Oh, thank you for showing me that there was something other than the one track that plays in Starbucks.”
JM: I’ve had similar experiences with students under thirty. All like Billie Holiday, but they find Ella’s musical emphasis corny. And I can hear it through their ears.
MJ: Holiday was glamorous, too. She was a great artist, but she was tragic, glamorous, and sexy. Ella was not any of those things.
JM: Nor was Diana Ross.
MJ: There’s also a long history of these public and private distinctions between people of color and white people. Much of it was in that realm of rumor—you could tell someone was passing for white by the moons of their fingernails, for instance. And dresses weren’t being made to accommodate a fuller black behind. There were whole codes of skin color and what was needed to keep black skin going—the question of whether black feet were suitable for ballet, for instance—and I know that men felt this too, but female culture and ideologies being what they were, women were particularly attuned to some of these obsessive distinctions.
JM: Margo, help me. I’m going through my mind, pretending I’m watching TV before I was born, trying to find the people who sweat, and you’re right: Ella, Sarah Vaughan, and Sammy Davis sweated on TV. [And Louis Armstrong.] Yes, and Louis, right! They are the only four I can think of.
MJ: Nat King Cole, never.
JM: Yeah, he never sweated on TV. Most people didn’t sweat.
MJ: Sweat could be embarrassing. You were always watching to see if Sarah Vaughan’s straightened hair would start going back if she was singing too hard. You were constantly chronicling these things.
DP: It’s one of the strange, magical things that you do. That you can take things that should make us cringe—that have made us cringe in the past—and created a way of talking about them in this new way, a beautiful and delicate way. The same is true of Negroland. The subject of the black upper-class is supposed to be slightly embarrassing. But yours is the most open and interesting book. I also like the way your language is so surprising; unlikely words come up for these subjects. The freedom of thought that you work from, or work towards, is mirrored in the form you use. The page is laid out in such an intriguing way. We move from mood to mood so quickly, and without knowing you’re taking us around. You make us supply the transitions. Your leaps are like that of a poet. It’s the most beautiful stuff. In something I’m doing now, I find myself consciously imitating Margo Jefferson. Even if it’s just to say, “This doesn’t have to be a paragraph.” Margo, you’re a whole new opening up of subjects that, while I understand what you’re writing about, have never been written about before in this way. It’s a woman’s contribution, if that’s not a weird thing to say.
MJ: I’ll take it.
DP: I don’t think a guy could do it, this kind of visual memory for movement and fabric.
MJ: Well, it’s for particular things. A guy might do it about…
DP: You’re not writing about trucks or things like that.
JM: And that’s why I don’t want to write a memoir. “And I saw that truck go by…” Margo, I’ve always wanted to ask you something, and here you are. In Negroland, you’re writing about this world which I was not in. I have a woman friend who’s about the same age as you are, but she grew up in Pittsburgh. And she told me that she felt that 1968 was the year that everything changed in black America. She said this with her tongue in her cheek, but I said that “it always looked to me like that’s when everything was different”—when I was about three years old, it seems like that was the pivotal year. And she said that she agreed. She said this with great humor, but she said that it happened when the flavor of activism and what it meant to be black changed. She talks like you. She was at a party, and there were two black men who had not grown up like her, who teased her all night because she couldn’t say “motherfucker” properly. They were saying it in a certain, shall we say, savory way. And she could only say “mother fucker.”
MJ: And “savory.”
JM: And she was very humorous about all this—she didn’t walk out of it crying or anything like that—but she said that that was something that had never happened to her and she thought that the culture had kind of changed. Does that resonate with you at all, things changing around that time? Not necessarily with that word, but in general?
MJ: I think things started to change in 1966; for me, in 1967 or 1968. Absolutely pivotal. We ceased to be desirable role models. Instead, Negroes like me became race traitors in certain ways, and we were no longer relevant.
JM: And you could feel that.
MJ: Totally. With many of my friends, when we came out of the Civil Rights Movement, we were getting the first black studies courses, and forming our black student groups on campus. We were, and we considered ourselves, leftists. We were engaged in this, and we were taking what was dished out. One friend was told by someone that when the revolution really comes, she was going to be lined up against a wall and shot. At that, she wasn’t feeling the camaraderie. It was humiliating, and there were a lot of additional gender games played in all this. It was another aspect of that power. But you felt it was part of what you had to go through if you were going to be part of those changes.
DP: Angela Davis was the figure who made it okay to be bourgeois, and bookish, and still black.
MJ: And a lot of us would grow huge afros. We were wearing them anyway, but we would make them look as much like Angela Davis’s as possible, wearing our little mini-dresses, and hope that someone would mistake us for sister Angela.
JM: I’m so glad I asked that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: I know you wrote about hair in Negroland. I wonder whether you’re going to have a hair-related object in your next book.
MJ: I don’t yet. But that might change.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: Well,—if it’s not putting you too much on the spot—would you talk about where black women are, at this moment, vis-à-vis hair.
DP: We went from afros to Beyoncé’s blonde hair.
MJ: I’m sure that everyone here observed this as much as I: It does seem true that afros had a very short shelf life, or glamour life. And then lots of black women were straightening their hair, and then coloring it. Beyoncé’s hair, and its fetishized glamour, is not surprising. Look at models—Beverley Johnson, Iman, and even very brown-skinned models like Naomi Campbell—they all had straight hair; either they were wearing wigs or they were straightening it. Now, I see women who are showing their frizzy hair and, more and more, I see naturals and afros again. There’s a lot more variety than there was in the 80s.
RB: One aspect of Negroland , which I think strikes all of us, is the uncommon candor. I think of the passage when you talk of the use of the word “nappy” in the expression “nappy hair.” Or another place, where you talk about a friend of yours who discovered that Audrey Hepburn was much more important to her than Thurgood Marshall.
MJ: That’s so akin to my father and grandfather and Thurgood going through what they went through so we could sit around and sleep late in Paris.
DP: You always laugh, but everything is very deep. I think of the moment in Negroland where you’re talking about how black women are not permitted to be depressed, or to have breakdowns. I freaked out, because I had a sister who…well, you know. You have this tone that’s perfectly natural—so it seems—when you’re speaking of things that are very deep.
RB: Would you turn back to Michael Jackson, just for a second? I was wondering if you could tease out the relationship between post-racial and trans-racial.
MJ: When we say “post-” anything, what do we mean? We’re putting the concept in some form of quotation marks. But it’s supposed to mark that some further development of thought has happened. But “post-racial”—we never bought it. These other, more academic terms are supposed to signify something, I don’t know, deep, but “post-racial” just sounds…
DP: Like you don’t want to deal with it anymore.
MJ: Exactly, exactly.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: Where did it come from? Didn’t we hear it three days after Obama?
TCW: But it was real for those three days.
OP: You’re so right, because 99% of the references to post-racial are people saying that there’s no such thing as post-racial America. So, I keep wondering: Who are the people who are saying “post-racial”? Maybe two or three white racists.
MJ: There was that moment after Obama came in that everybody was publishing pieces about how it looks like we’ve gone beyond…
JM: I wrote one. I openly admit it. I wrote one saying that “This proves that racism is no longer black America’s main problem.” And then I did my outline of what we needed to do. I did write that.
DP: I remember that.
JM: I didn’t mean that there was no more racism.
MJ: And you didn’t say “post-racial.”
JM: No, I never used that word, but it looked like it. So, I’ve been accused of being one of those people. Really, Orlando’s so right—the only reason we started bringing up the question of whether America is post-racial is to say that it wasn’t.
OP: Every time I see the word, it’s someone saying it doesn’t exist.
TCW: Of course, Touré had that book, Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness?: What It Means to Be Black Now…
JM: I didn’t like that. It bothered me.
OP: I reviewed that book on the front page of the Times.
JM: But he didn’t mean anything by it. Because his book didn’t have anything in it that Ta-Nehisi Coates wouldn’t agree with. He called it that because it was an attractive book title, I think. And it was his breakout book.
DP: I was just thinking about something I said about Negroland. Is saying “woman’s contribution” patronizing?
MJ: Did you say that?
DP: I was thinking about having said “woman’s contribution.” Is that patronizing? I mean something that only a woman would, or could have written.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: To that point, I was going to say that I think that you couldn’t have written Negroland as Negroland without having been a second-wave feminist.
MJ: I think that’s absolutely true. Anyway, Darryl, maybe it’s the word “contribution” you’re worried about, as that feels a little period. Perhaps “perception,” or “perspective”? I’m trying to think about why it worries you.
DP: I’m not sure. Maybe because Negroland is just one of those small books that really feels very large.
AUDIENCE MEMBER THREE: Margo, would you talk about how you grew up, and your family’s relationship to white people? I know you said that your family raised you to feel superior to most white people. Can you add some texture to that, tease it out a little bit? Did you worry about what white people would think of you?
MJ: We were taught all of the prejudices. And “prejudice” really was the word in the 50s. We could talk about uglier things, but “prejudice”—
AUDIENCE MEMBER FOUR: —was Gordon Allport’s word. Remember The Nature of Prejudice?
MJ: That was part of your education. You had to know what the worst kind of white people, and even mainstream white people, would think of you. You had to be armed against that, both internally and externally. The arming was also both offense and defense; for example, the defense was that you were not going to speak super loudly and your diction was going to be perfect. We were working constantly to counter stereotypes. I was going to a mostly white school, and it was as progressive as any white school—
DP: It wasn’t just any school.
MJ: Well, it was a progressive, private white school.
DP: It was the University of Chicago Laboratory School.
MJ: Historically, the University of Chicago Lab Schools had no Jews, and then they let them in. It was World War II and the Holocaust that made the Lab School, and probably some other private schools, decide to accept a tiny little group of black people; it had to be voted on and discussed. What I’m still trying to get at, in that Lab School experience, is that many of my days there were just ordinary, fun school days. I liked being there. Yet there was this other life that was a racialized life. I find it hard to capture both of those things. After my book came out, some white classmates, who had been good friends of mine, told me that something felt off—because I hadn’t given that impression at the time. And I said, “Well, it was my job not to give that off,” by which I meant that I was going to be a perfectly integrated person. And I was, down to the egregious period girl-ness of being a cheerleader. But I also thought that the fact is that I didn’t always feel it, and I didn’t always want to feel it. I didn’t always need to feel it.
DP: In the early days of integration, most white students didn’t call attention to your being black, not as though it were a handicap, but as though it would be intrusive to do so. And your racial life was at home…
MJ: At church, with family and friends. Exactly.
DP: And your white school life was just Leave it to Beaver .
MJ: Though you could always pick up slight tensions between white and black parents, by which I don’t mean hostilities exactly, but a certain distance.
DP: They were surprised that your parents were like them.
OP: This is all very fascinating for someone who didn’t grow up in this society, but who grew up in a society that was 90% black. In the little village I grew up in, I don’t think I laid eyes on a white person until I was eight years old. We did have colorism in the Caribbean, so I was aware of the fact that the elites within my little town were the whites whom you never saw, the colonials, and that they ran the show. Then there were the colored groups. But one didn’t have to struggle with this. Even when I went to Kingston with my high school class, that was 90% black as well.
If I were to write a memoir, there’s nothing like your experience that I would be able to recall, until, that is, I went to England. I discovered blackness in exile. I discovered race and color in England, likely from the prejudice there, but also in looking back onto the Caribbean from an elsewhere. But color was, and remains, something else in the Caribbean. One of the biggest debates in Jamaica right now has to do with skin bleaching.
MJ: Skin bleaching ?
OP: Yes! But people are defending it. It’s even more complex because the people who are doing it are the people I’d most associate with radical cultural expression. It’s coming from the dancehall queens who are the embodiment of Jamaican culture, a celebration of blackness. It’s also coming from men. About a year ago, a male reggae singer went to the university to defend the practice, insisting that this was his body, that he has a right to do with it as he pleases, and that it has nothing to do with race—that we’ve transcended that. That was his argument. None of the students believed him, but they listened politely. The women, too, are insisting that their bleaching has nothing to do with race. They are saying that it’s no different from tattooing your body; there’s also the argument that it’s no different from white people bleaching their hair. But I’m interested in something we haven’t yet touched on—which I was crucially aware of growing up in the Caribbean—and that’s the color question. You talk about it in Negroland, as I recall.
MJ: Yes, it didn’t come up in what I read today, but I do talk about it a lot in Negroland—about the categories, the grades of hair, what different colors indicate and consequently permit. About how if you’re a certain shade of brown, there are certain loud colors that you’re not supposed to wear because that makes you look sluttish, and it also calls too much attention to your body. And this persists.
OP: Where are we with that?
MJ: I think that all of us have some experience with this. It’s still there, absolutely.
TCW: In the car, yesterday, I was telling Margo that at this point, my wife and I have produced two Swedish-looking children. And my dad comes from the segregated South. When my dad flew to meet my daughter after she was born, he was holding her when I asked, “What do you think?” He said, “Oh, son, she’s just a Palomino.” I had to Google what that word was. And it’s a horse-breeding term that Southerners have; it’s like a pale white and golden horse in the Southwest U.S. My father said, “I had three girls like this in my segregated high school in Texas; this is nothing new.” And then my friends from the Caribbean diaspora in Paris told me that she would be chapé, which is slang for échappé—escaped—and that there are 36 skin colors in Martinique and that the lightest color is chapé.
I’ve just finished a new book about the experience of having two children who have forced what I call “the fiction of race” into my life in a way that’s neither abstract nor theoretical, but which is lived. I’ve been thinking so much about skin gradations, as well as some things that do bother me within the black community and the white community. Blonde hair and blue eyes are so prized. My niece and nephew in my French family are brunette, dark brown eyes, and I can see how strangers on the street prioritize the blue eyes and the blonde hair that my daughter has. We value these superficial traits so much.
DP: But they’re not superficial, I’m afraid. There’s still a kind of hierarchy of values.
TCW: Yeah. And blacks value them too. I’ve had so many compliments on my daughter’s blue eyes from blacks.
OP: As an outsider in this respect, my sense is that there’s been great progress made in this regard among black Americans. I am not saying that we’ve transcended anything yet, but there’s been far more progress than in the Caribbean, for example.
JM: Orlando, in many circles, if you said that we had gotten beyond it, or had undergone major progress in colorism, you would be swatted down. In certain quarters, it’s highly unpopular to say (what is a fact) that it’s not what it was 25 years ago.
One of my daughters is my color, and looks exactly like me; she has kind of generic, white girl brown hair. The other one is in-between my skin tone and Thomas’s, and she’s got kind of funky blonde, curly hair—kind of how Margo’s looks right now—and that’s how it came out, nobody knows why. On my side of the family, there are so many colors (unlike my wife’s family, which is just one color): there are many black colors, Latinos have married in, whites have married in. It’s just not an issue, and frankly, a lot of my cousins live in the ghetto, and even there, white people have married in—there are blondes and blue eyes. Fifty years ago, it would have been much more of an issue, but I don’t see it now. But Orlando, many people would say, “McWhorter doesn’t have enough of a perspective.” So, I don’t know.
MJ: I think that we’re not completely past it everywhere, but these differences are huge.
TCW: Margo, is there still—only Margo has access to elite black America—is there still, in certain parts, the Brown Paper Bag Test?
MJ: Not that I know of. “Elite black America” now alludes to people with whom I no longer hang out, and to a group of people who, apart from work, still lead class- and race-segregated lives. None of the ones I still know would do anything with the Paper Bag Test except roll their eyes. Does that mean that they wouldn’t be pleased that they’re a lighter brown as compared to a browner brown? I don’t know. But it’s not embraced any more.
OP: In his memoir Colored People, Henry Louis Gates claims that he and this group once formally abolished the Paper Bag Test at the Yale dorms, so it was still around even as late as the 70s. This varied in terms of region, as well.
AUDIENCE MEMBER FIVE: I heard my students speculate that Meghan Markle wears dark colors to make herself look lighter. They deplore this. Also, in bringing up Willa Cather, whose Song of the Lark (in a way, a portrait of the artist as a young woman)  came out about the same year as Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man , Margo has supplied us with an addition to Darryl’s list of great conservative writers. Maybe Darryl said that at the break, not in front of a microphone.
MJ: Actually, that is absolutely true. About Cather, and about the list.
JM: Women in Cather’s novels sweated, too. Those are some sweaty women.
MJ: I love her sweaty peasants!
DP: You can sweat on the farm.
PEG BOYERS: I’ve been thinking about my own family. My mother was Cuban, from an upper-class family, and she and my Irish-American father were in complete denial about their racial difference. When we came to this country, people would ask me if my mother was Chinese; she was olive-skinned, yellowish. One of my aunts was absolutely mulatta . And it was never talked about. We were absolutely unconscious of that as an issue. Later, after the revolution, my brother-in-law once had the temerity to say to my mother, “Isn’t it great that all black people in Cuba will now be literate?” And she said, “Cuba doesn’t have any black people.” That’s how in denial she and my father were. I don’t begin to understand it; I’ve been so unaware of my family’s racial complexities for most of my life. And I just wonder if you’ve ever come across this, and what your thoughts might be.
MJ: What’s interesting about this kind of denial is that it was maintained by adults, by grown-up people. It’s tricky, because there is the history of Cuba and other Caribbean countries. But I have a question for you: wasn’t there a sort of sotto voce conversation that you overheard at times?
DP: Were they from Havana?
PB: No, they were from Cárdenas.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: I spent most of my adult life in Miami. Did they believe they were Spanish?
PB: Yes, Spanish was very much part of the legend.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: Because there is a very big divide in Cuba: are you Spanish or are you black? And being black is seen as bad.
DP: Eastern Cuba is very brown. And they always said that the revolution was good for the countryside, because the country people could go to school. Everyone always said that the Cuban revolution was a disaster for the middle class, but you have no idea how vast it was until you go to Havana and see these neighborhoods—villa, after villa, after villa, after villa. It was huge. Cuba was California for the people in Spain and Valencia. And Havana was very light-skinned, and the rest of Cuba was not. They never saw it if they never left Havana.
JM: I have a good friend about my age who came from Cuba, and she identifies very strongly as black. She thinks of herself as the same thing I am, and I’ve gotten used to that, and I accept it. I have another friend, a little older than myself, who is about the color of me and Orlando. And she does not identify as black. She’s from Panama, and she looks black to me, but I’ve had to learn that she identifies as Latina. Both of those women are very aware of racism, and of suffering, and have all the sympathies that you would expect. And it always makes me think how stupid our conceptions of it are, here, even though I myself have internalized them. If Thomas wants to question whether one of his progeny is black, he gets yelled at on Twitter; at a party I had, where I asked, “Are my children black Americans?” I was told by very wise white friends of mine that I was out of my mind to even consider it. Something is wrong, but we have to decide what the real problems are. But I think we’re going to get laughed at, in one hundred years, for the way we educated Americans tend to think of these things. But we’re stuck in our own time.
DP: There was always the one-drop rule which determined where you were in the caste system. 1/16th, one drop, and if they found out, then you were sent back into being black. I was on a panel and a woman said that Obama was half-white, and I kind of laughed. I said, “he’s black.” And she said “no, he’s half white.” And I laughed and laughed. Afterwards, she asked, “You think I’m white, don’t you?” I said yes. And she said, “I’m William Grant Still’s granddaughter.”
MJ: Oh my god.
DP: And I must say, she could have embarrassed me on the panel. But she waited till the event was over.
TCW: Going back to what you were saying: the one-drop rule is so interesting, but it really only exists in America. In Brazil, having any blood that’s not black makes you not black. The football star, Neymar, was asked if he experienced racism and he said, “No, it’s not like I’m black or anything like that.” His dad is a black Brazilian.
OP: But he got into a lot of trouble over that, and later retracted it.
MJ: I always thought it would have been really interesting if Obama could have run as both a black and a mixed-race president. Because in terms of American history, that’s what he is.
TCW: Totally. The black community didn’t accept him at first. And Stanley Crouch—and many others agreed with him—wrote an article about how Obama wasn’t black because his dad was African. Yet the black community, at first, was big time behind Hillary Clinton.
JM: If he hadn’t been married to a tall, dark woman, I don’t know that the black community would have gotten behind him.
OP: My barber certainly would not have; he made it clear to me that that’s why he voted for Obama.
DP: One of his classmates said that in Hawaii, everyone is a mongrel. And it didn’t matter. But when he got to L.A. and the cops treated him as a black youth, then he realized what his mother had been talking about.
OP: Can we go back to the Cuba conversation, since I teach Cuba and race? The simplistic way of saying it is that they have this system of color gradations, in which they recognize all these different categories in Spanish terms. Whereas in Brazil, there are over 133 Portuguese words for different color variations.
In Cuba, the lower down you go on the socio-economic ladder, you find whites and blacks just walking around together. The higher up you go, you eventually reach a certain point at which it becomes very white, exclusively white. It’s significant that there was a certain period after the revolution in which blacks were promoted a lot, and so on, but within 15-20 years, the Cuban political world was white.
I see America as almost the opposite. The lower down you go, the more segregated it gets—the more important whiteness becomes, positionally; for many in Appalachia, it’s all they have. America is different from Brazil in that the higher up you go, the more integrated things become (to the degree to which we have integration). There’s no counterpart anywhere else in the world—certainly not Brazil. In America, you have such a substantial number of middle- and upper middle-class black people. 51% of the Brazilian population self-identify as having African ancestry. Yet there is, if not legal, actual segregation. And more crucially, the elite is almost exclusively white.
There’s a little book of faux-pas of George W. Bush, and one of them happened when Fernando Henrique Cardoso, the sociologist-turned-president of Brazil, visited Bush. They were talking, and Cardoso mentioned that in Brazil, they were then in the process of adopting America’s affirmative action. And Bush looked at him in amazement and said, “You have blacks there, too?” That is a true story. And I like to finish by adding a little defense of Bush by saying that if his only relationship to Brazil was with an ambassadorial group, in Washington, then he had every reason to think that Brazil is a little white country.
And the same is true of the officer class. Over 10% in the officer class in the American army are black. That’s one of the incredible changes that we don’t talk much about. The military was the most segregated part of America until as late as the 60s. No country has come anywhere close to this; it’s one of the major achievements of integration. But in Brazil, in the ambassadorial classes, in the upper echelons of the civil service, and in business, a country which has over 50% of its population self-identifying as having black ancestry is very white.
DP: Brazil also has the largest Japanese population outside of Japan.
AUDIENCE MEMBER SEVEN: There’s a saying, “All skin folk aren’t your kinfolk.” And so I wonder how that might inform some of the critique, scrutiny, or skepticism that black Americans have towards the candidacy for president of Senator Booker or Senator Kamala Harris?
OP: Good question, my friend.
JM: You know what? Everybody forgets something very important about the year 2009—it wasn’t only when Obama took office. It was the year that it became, “Oh, you’re not on Twitter?” as opposed to “Are you on Twitter?” 2009 was also the year that “your mother” was on Facebook—it was the year that everyone joined Facebook. That year, which is now ten years ago, is the beginning of this: everybody has the Internet in their pocket all the time, and you can communicate with everybody in the world all the time. As clichéd as this is beginning to sound, that changes the world, in some good, though probably mostly bad, ways. One of the bad ones is that it focuses groups upon one another and reinforces negative, or positive, sentiments. Of course Obama’s blackness was going to matter to many people, but the internet focused and exacerbated a resentment of him that threw him for about a year. Then, social media elevated cop-killings of black men, and that became the thing we thought about more than anything else for a very long time. It took a certain attention away from Obama, even getting him roasted for supposedly saying the wrong things about it. I think that Obama’s presidency ended up not being as galvanizing as we might think, because what people ended up thinking about race, instead, was Michael Brown and all those other people that got killed in that way.
Obviously, there was racial animus directed at Obama, and that persists among many of Trump’s supporters who think they want America to be great again. But Obama was elected twice, and there had to be some magic to get to that. Is there any magic in Cory Booker? He is a very interesting and earnest figure, but I’ve met him a few times and, I don’t know. And Kamala Harris is a great idea, but there already was a Kamala Harris and it was Barack Obama. There’s no novelty there. And the idea is going to settle that it won’t matter to have a black president anyway. And that’s a damn shame.
DP: I don’t think we’ll have a black president again for a long time.
MJ: I don’t either.
AUDIENCE MEMBER SEVEN: Can you speak to the skepticism, or detachment, which is currently swirling within Newsfeeds and social media in the black community?
JM: Well, if people want to sit around being skeptical and disaffected, then Trump is going to win again. I hope that we don’t start wallowing in this wise skepticism, as if that’s the proper black way to be, and let that motherfucker wind up president again. I think we have to be very pragmatic and think about what could actually happen. Booker is deeply committed to prisoner re-entry. He was doing it in Newark, and is deeply committed to helping black America in pragmatic ways. Kamala Harris, I’m not sure. We have to think action.
DP: I think that we shouldn’t buy into the populist disaffection for the political process. Because it’s too important for us. We don’t need “symbolic” candidates. The only symbol we need is victory.
OP: One interesting thing about Kamala Harris is that both of her parents are immigrants. Her dad is Jamaican—we actually graduated in the same class at the University of the West Indies—and her mom is Indian. Whether that generates even greater skepticism about her—she doesn’t have the “real roots”—I’m not sure.
DP: It used to be that the narrative of progress was that you were the child of immigrants, and now you were running for president. What happened to that? Is it because they’re brown immigrants? I guess so.
JM: Mark Lilla, philosopher and all-around genius at Columbia, writes a book saying that the left needs, at least temporarily, to suspend its focus on identity politics in order to do undramatic things like elect the right people into the state legislatures, which define who is allowed to vote. That’s not as much fun as thinking who’s going to be president, but it’s absolutely crucial. But he got roasted by various well-meaning people, of all colors, as a white supremacist. That is our problem.
RB: You mean stupidity is our problem, yes?
JM: You’re right. But it also means we have to focus on more mundane things than how this person or that person feels about black people, including what Joe Biden did in terms of the crime bill at a certain point in the past—let it go. He would be better than what’s in the white house now.
DP: Not exactly the politics of hope.
I think that today, what is considered the proper way to think about black people among non-black people has become a religious creed rather than a political program, and the problem with that is that the religious creed doesn’t help any poor black people be less poor. Therefore, I am not with it. And when I say it’s a religious creed I don’t mean that it’s like a religion; I’m not saying that for rhetorical power. I am saying that it is a religion. Any Martian who anthropologized the way that a typical New Yorker reader thinks about race today would recognize it as no different, in any significant way, from a fundamentalist Christian faith. It’s exactly what I feel about Mormonism. A friend of mine who is black became—believe it or not—a Mormon at 14. I used to think, “How could you be in that brain and be that Christian?” I don’t wonder any more. Because I see it all the time in white Americans, especially educated white Americans, and take in what passes for “woke.” What I mean, very briefly, is this: “I have white privilege, I own up to my white privilege, and I know I can never get rid of it, but I must think about it every day.” That’s original sin. It’s the same thing. It’s exactly the same thing. It’s not like it—it is it. Or, to say “America must come to terms with racism, and when it does—”…what would the coming to terms mean? What event are we referring to? When would it be? What would it consist of? We don’t even think about it. It’s like saying “take for granted”—have you ever thought about that expression? What’s granted? “When America comes to terms with racism”—When? Which? What? Nobody thinks about it, and that is because when America “comes to terms” with racism, it’s through rapture. It’s Judgment day. It’s the exact same thing. When people say, “I think that’s problematic” they’re saying, as nicely as they can for the moment, that a blasphemy has been spoken. When you’re sitting around and having these discussions as to whether or not something is problematic—as if it’s that difficult—what you’re saying is, “is that blasphemous?” Is it against the anti-racism God? And you really do know that we’re talking about a religion.
Look, I was all for Black Lives Matter at the beginning. Because yes, there are grievous incidents in which a rogue, or an undertrained white cop, kills an innocent black man, or boy, for no justifiable reason. But then, when you say, “Let us also consider that this same person who was killed was more likely to be killed by someone of his same color and demographic in his neighborhood, and we need to work on the level of violence in those neighborhoods,” as Orlando Patterson mentioned yesterday, then you’re considered a heretic—though nobody uses that word. You’re not supposed to talk about it, everybody rolls their eyes, because the rogue cop is the racist, whereas what’s going on in the neighborhoods can’t be called racism, and therefore we don’t want to talk about it. That’s the exact equivalent of asking, “Why does God let such bad things happen?” Your priest says something not quite satisfying, and yet you’re not supposed to ask any more. You ask, “Why are we supposed to be more concerned about Darren Wilson in Ferguson than the high level of murder rates in urban neighborhoods?” Someone’s going to give an answer saying something along the lines of, “State power is different from individual power.” That’s not an answer! And if you’re a person with basic social graces in today’s American thinking culture about race, you know not to ask any further questions. This is a religion. And I know that the people who have the religion have the best of intentions and that some would even say, “I own it. That’s my religion.” But the problem is that it doesn’t address the problems that the supposed objects of this religion have. It’s inwardly focused; it’s about displaying your faith à la what Martin Luther called Protestants to do. It’s more about you than about the people. It’s not political activism. It’s something that wouldn’t have been recognized by the equivalents of non-black fellow travelers 50 years ago. Nobody decided or conspired to do this—it’s not malevolent. But it’s inert.
Here is the black problem: Because we were freed so quickly, and we’d been treated like animals for so long, it’s difficult to have a true sense of self-regard, of identity, of place, a true sense of our feet on the ground. As a result, it’s not surprising that black America would come out with a deep insecurity. One thing that we didn’t do—some people would say we could not have, but that’s a different issue—was crawl up from the bottom entirely by virtue of our own efforts, with the overlords never changing in any way. We can’t think about it the way that the Irish can, or the way that the Jews can. We got help, and that help was an unprecedented intellectual revolution. But it had an unpleasant byproduct, which is that we can’t say we did it only on our own initiative. And this isn’t to say that there weren’t a great many extremely heroic persons who died in order to create me sitting here in this sweater, talking about all this. Nevertheless, what was created was a massive revolution in laws and thought, and that had every bit as much to do with it as Martin Luther King. That’s what he fought to do. That means that you have these people—people like my parents—who were freed from segregation. (Of course, the world didn’t change overnight, but that was still a big deal.) After a while, these people freed from residential segregation, moved us—my parents did—from a ghetto to a very nice middle-class neighborhood as a direct result of the Fair Housing Act of 1968. Was this in itself enough for us to have a true sense of our own self-worth? Maybe, because people like my parents had been beaten up for so long that self-worth wouldn’t come for a while.
What happens after that? One way that you might develop a sense of standing on your own two feet is by using, as a crutch, your experience as a noble victim (I am sure that psychologists could predict that this is the way it could be, and I hope that social psychologists don’t find this counter-intuitive). The idea is that what makes you important, legitimate, and okay, is that you are a survivor of a racism that is no longer what it was, but is always around. It’s always something that can be referred to. You are a survivor, and you’re also concerned with helping your fellow victims. That doesn’t mean that racism doesn’t exist, but the question is this (this is also the reason I wrote a book about this in 2000): Why are we supposed to exaggerate? Yes, racism very much exists. If I wanted to stretch my talking here to another half hour, I would carefully give you about three stories of racism I’ve experienced over the past year. Yeah, it’s not overt—sometimes you have to think about it—but yes, it’s there. I do know what structural racism is. I accept the term. Nowadays, we call it white supremacy, though I think that’s a barbaric distortion of the term. But I do know what it refers to.
But we exaggerate. And we have to listen up when Orlando Patterson asks, “Why is it that a person sitting on a sofa in 1963 was radiantly upset, and now his grandson is just as upset at Harvard?” That’s a major and urgent question. I learned that in the early 90s when I was a grad student at Stanford; I learned that you’re supposed to exaggerate, as an enlightened black person—you’re supposed to pretend that no significant changes happened. You’ll say, “Oh, yeah, change has happened,” but you won’t believe it. And you’ll think that you’re really supposed to focus on a notion that my life, today, if I’m enlightened, is as grievously compromised as my father’s life was. Or, that the reason that poor black people are poor today is because of the same racism as that which existed before. All of us know that this is, quite simply, an exaggeration. It’s a distortion. Yes, racism exists, but if we are human beings with basic cognitive functions, we can deal with grays as well as, shall we say, blacks and whites. Why do we exaggerate? This whole white religion and the black victim complex feed into this exaggeration. They’re founded on it.
Right now, what I am saying sounds really sour, really unpleasant, and it doesn’t sit right. You’re thinking, Well, he’s making a certain kind of sense, but still, I don’t like it, he doesn’t sound nice, he doesn’t sound like he loves his people, he doesn’t sound like he thinks anything needs to be done. So, I’m going to tell you what I think needs to be done. I am not a conservative; I am not a Republican. I do know how racism works. That’s not where this is coming from. I do not think that people need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps; I have never written such a thing. That’s not my message. This is my message: There are problems in the black community that can be solved. I’m thinking of ten, but I am going to give you three.
First, there needs to be no war on drugs, and the reason that we need to get rid of that is because if you’re an underserved black male, it is too tempting to jump into that black market, and that ruins the rest of your life. That is my main reason for it. I think that if there were no war on drugs, black America would turn upside down within about ten minutes. It’s as simple as that. I have fought for this, I have spoken before the NAACP three times about this. There should be no war on drugs because it would change black America. Everybody should lobby for that. Yes, ou should be allowed to buy heroin at the drugstore. We can talk about the details. There should be no war on drugs. We should fight for that.
Second thing: all poor kids should be taught via phonics. Why in the world am I mentioning that? Because it is tragic to watch somebody from a bookless home—and too many black kids come from bookless homes; the Bible isn’t enough—to see teachers trying to teach them to read through a method that’s basically a matter of reading them nice stories and showing them pages with unicorns. And they’ll just pick it up. That will work for a kid in Scarsdale, New York—that’s the way I learned to read, sure. But that does not work for kids from different kinds of homes. They need to be taught how to read via a method that is, frankly, a little harder, and a little tedious, but I did it with my daughter when I found out they weren’t going to be doing it in her school. It’s tedious teaching somebody how to sound things out. But it works. And that’s been shown again, and again, since 1963. And yet we hear all these things about how poor kids can’t be taught to read. If we’re going to solve our race crisis, this needs to be addressed. Part of the issue is that if you don’t learn to read, the rest of school doesn’t quite work. Phonics. One should agitate for it. One should agitate to the teachers’ unions; one should agitate in one’s school. This is an issue with a brown face on it.
Third thing: too many kids are born to people. This is no longer a race problem, but still, it disproportionately affects black women. Too many black people have children because they just happened rather than because they planned it. No one is deliberately having a lot of kids, but you can be in a situation where it just happens, and you might not want to have an abortion. So, then you have the child before you really are ready. You don’t have a job, you don’t have a partner. That can happen to a person. One thing to solve our problem is Long-Acting Removable Contraceptives (LARCs). We have the technology now. You can give somebody something, and for five years, you can have all the fun you want, but what comes out of it isn’t a child. That should be given, for free, to any woman who wants it. That is not true now, and it should be. It doesn’t mean that I am quietly suggesting that black women be sterilized, though there have been programs of that sort directed at poor black women. But women like LARCs. They like them very much, and have asked for more. That’s civil rights.To conclude, three things: 1) get rid of the war on drugs; 2) use phonics; and 3) use LARCs, and you are 60% of the way there. That is a civil rights program. Notice how all of that can happen without there being any kind of unprecedented psychological revolution in the way white people think. We do not need to pretend that there’s going to be a time when all white people harbor no biases; we do not need to pretend that there’s going to be a time that any of us are ever going to live to see in which white people don’t for the most part have more privilege. What I mean is that that’s not needed. If I could wave a magic wand, I would create that world. But I don’t have one. Nor does anyone else. The issue is that none of that stuff is needed. And if I point it out to you, I think most of you see what I mean. “I own up to my white privilege”—good for you. But still, there are poor people whose lives could be changed without anybody owning up to the fact that they happen to be privileged. Or, to say to yourself as a black person, “I am a victim of a racism that you can’t quite smell or fear but it’s there, and therefore we must patrol the world looking for every hint of racist bias and make vague references to the past saying the past needs to be addressed.” None of that helps anybody who is poor. That isn’t what Martin Luther King meant, and I don’t think it’s necessary.
I think we need to change the way we talk about race. We need to say things that we mean, and we need to focus on action. Imagine somebody who says, “We need to focus on the legacy of racism in this country, and black people helped build the capital, and there was Jim Crow, and redlining didn’t end as soon as we think, and we need to focus on that. We need to acknowledge it.” Okay. Why? Yes, those things happened, and they are absolutely hideous. But what do you mean “focus on” and “acknowledge” it? If what you mean by that is that we need to have reparations for slavery, then say it. By “focus,” do you just mean “sit and talk about it?” I presume that the idea is that we need to address those things by giving black people something back. Now, if what you mean is that we need to have reparations for slavery, but you know that was discussed and rejected twenty years ago, and you know that if you say it straight it’s going to be shot down, are you okay with talking about it in a circumlocutory way? If you think it has that little chance of ever being taken up by the powers that be, then why talk about it? Why not get back to contraceptives, and phonics, and the war on drugs? Action is very important. You think that we need to have a conversation about race—what would that be about? Are we just going to mouth off? Because that seems to happen all the time. Don’t you really mean a conversion about race? You mean a conversion about race. You mean that someone needs to be made to realize that there are many racists in the country, that we need to focus on what happened in the past. And if you want to address that, including the demand for reparations for slavery, and you know that has no chance of leading somewhere beneficial, why don’t we just let that go?
Or, maybe you don’t mean we need to have reparations for slavery, but you mean that all black misdeeds, if there are any, must be seen through a different moral lens than they would be for anybody else’s misdeeds? Do you mean that black people need to be put into schools with lower standards than others because of what happened in the past? Is that what you mean? Because if what you mean is that black people can’t be seen through the same moral lens as others, and if you mean that black performance is going to be credited until it amounts to just showing up, rather than doing as well as everybody else, why not just say that? And if you don’t want to own it, then just drop it.
Why, I’m asking, do we have to focus almost exclusively on things that went on in the past? By “why” I mean, “For what purpose?”—in terms of helping the black poor. Of course, we need black history. Of course, people need to understand that if there are black ghettos, and if it can be hard to find an equivalent white ghetto, the reasons for that, as my mother taught me, have to do with processions of historical factors which have legacies. We seem to keep mentioning Ta-Nehisi Coates. He has a great line in his piece about reparations: “I watch people scarfing their hot dogs on the fourth of July, not acknowledging the role of black people…” Okay. Why does everybody who is eating that hot dog have to understand black history that exquisitely? Again, when I ask why, I mean, for what purpose? What would it do if everybody eating those hot dogs, including Indian or Muslim immigrants, were thinking, “Hmm, well, the poor black people who created this landscaping in 1921…Mmm, this is good, but that man’s grandfather suffered…” What purpose would that actually serve? Why do we “call for” that sort of thing? We call for it because we don’t like ourselves. It’s not because it would actually serve any purpose.
Many of you agree with the perspective I’ve been outlining, or, frankly, pretend to, because you feel that it’s what makes you good people, even though you know it doesn’t technically make sense that people shouldn’t enjoy their hot dogs without thinking about black people on the fourth of July. I’m a liberal Democrat who is supposed to be a linguist. I don’t study black English for a living, though I seem to have this second career as a race commentator who a lot of people hate because I am dedicated to making a real difference. Remember: I am not a conservative; I am not a Republican—nor am I an asshole. What I’m saying is that our civil rights perspective needs to be based on action for living people, in the here and now, in pragmatic ways. That involves changing the power structure in various ways, but it has nothing to do with ritual atonement, and it has nothing to do with fashioning oneself as a noble victim for reasons that have more to do with seeking a sense of fellowship than helping people who genuinely need help in their lives. Really helping is what we should be about. And we’re not doing it lately. And it scares me to death.
OP: As John knows, I agree with a lot of what he’s just said. I would perhaps express it differently, hiding behind the seal of sociological jargon, all the while saying much the same thing. But I do want to add something which might affect the way we talk about an idea like reparations. Think, just for a minute, about how the white poor made it out of poverty. A colleague of John’s who I greatly admire is a political scientist by the name of Ira Katznelson, who wrote a volume called When Affirmative Action was White . What Ira documented, in great detail, was how the white working-class, the white poor, did not make it by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. On the contrary, Ira showed that there was a systematic, highly funded government effort to help them. Over and over again. The GI Bill was white affirmative action, from which blacks were excluded. A good part of the shift towards suburbia, suburbanization—which was when a lot of the white poor and working-class made it into the middle-class—was overwhelmingly funded by our government. The whole idea that whites made it on their own is just a fiction. In fact, for most whites, it was a lot more complicated than that. There was heavy government subsidy for their movement into the middle-class.
And why does that matter? Because that has implications. For one, it’s not because we suffered slavery and Jim Crow that we need some sort of reparation in the form of affirmative action. That’s not my story. My story is that because the government used white affirmative action to promote the white middle-class, and given the fact that, for several hundred years, the state legitimized the oppression of blacks, there’s every reason why the state has major responsibility to promote programs to help blacks out of the horrendous dilemmas they now face. My justification is not reparation; my justification is that if they’ve done it for whites, they gotta do it for blacks, too. And the politicians have got to be persuaded. I totally agree with John that calling for reparations isn’t going to work. What does work is the logic of “You’ve done this already—the suburbs were your creation, including taxes paid by black people.” That’s why we need large-scale intervention. There is a moral responsibility, not to mention the fact that there were several hundred years of slavery and Jim Crow. We’re talking about billions and billions and billions of dollars that are going to be needed to do the things that John mentioned, and a few more we’ll be talking about here, which I believe to be essential in getting blacks out of the ghettos.
DP: A terribly nice woman on Fifth Avenue apologized to me for her white privilege, and I had to tell her, “You’re not the one who needs to make this apology just because you’re white.” What she’s really saying is that American history upsets her. And I don’t see anything particularly wrong with her saying that, it’s just that she didn’t have to. I think that most white people don’t think about social questions, or black people, at all. In the same way that I don’t think that most Americans read. And affirmative action works. The presidents of Princeton and Harvard published a book called The Shape of the River  following a class of affirmative action beneficiaries and found that they were, for the most part, all very successful. Affirmative action works. Affirmative action began, formally, not for education but for jobs. In Alaska, there were no Inuit managers at a particular fish canning place, whereas the town had a large Inuit population. And that’s what affirmative action was—to hire to reflect the population. Same thing with desegregating the police forces, fire departments, that sort of thing. The educational aspect came later.
Let’s remember that King spoke of American politics in very religious terms; the Civil Rights movement was a religious movement. When I was growing up, you couldn’t tell the difference between a church service and a civil rights meeting. They were very much the same—they used the same language. This is also very American, as the foundational documents of America are all couched in these terms of “salvation,” “the city on the hill,” “realizing ourselves,” “closer to God,” and so on. This is in the American rhetorical character; I don’t know how else to say it.
But also central to the American rhetoric was talk about coalition politics. The reason there had to be changes in hearts and minds was that everything depended on coalition politics. This is what we’re always fighting to preserve. To discover common interests, common goals. One of the things we’ve lost is the sense that just because an idea or a strategy doesn’t pertain to you personally, doesn’t mean it’s not a viable thing to have, to be for, or to engage with. Your personal stake in things doesn’t always have to be the deciding factor. Ideas, feelings, passions, beliefs, and visions also have something to do with what we are and with what makes us engage, especially as people who read, and who are concerned with these kinds of issues. I had all these notes from when John was talking that I can’t read now, including that I think that Coates—even though I’m so tired of people talking about him—was invoking Frederick Douglass’s speech on the Fourth of July.
JM: But he was talking about hot dogs.
DP: I didn’t say he did it well. Also, I don’t think that being concerned with state power or the role of the police in representing state power, and being concerned with black-on-black violence, are exclusive. And I don’t think that one has been neglected at the expense of the other. It’s just that social media and the camera dramatize the stories we’d always heard. And we forget that Black Lives Matter was founded by young black women who looked to people like Ella Baker as their inspiration. They were very conscious of, and drew from, the Civil Rights Movement. History matters because we get our ideas from the past, not from the thin air of Now. History is sort of the sum of what we are; or we are the sum of our history. I don’t know.
JM: I want to interject very quickly. Reparations is something I am very much for. I’ve written about this, and my point has always been that we had them. The Great Society was reparations. Affirmative action, which I’m for, is reparations. There were also a lot of reparations, like the Community Reinvestment Act, that weren’t called reparations. I almost wish that somebody had called it the Reparations Act. The question is whether there should be more reparations. For me, affirmative action is great until it becomes about diversity. I’m all for affirmative action in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. When it changes from “We’re going to give you a leg up because you grew up disadvantaged” to “We’re going to change standards so that your brown face gets in”—that starts especially in the late 80s—that’s where I lose my feeling for affirmative action.
DP: “Diversity” became the word once you couldn’t say “affirmative action” any more. “Diversity” became a code for affirmative action, and now it’s everywhere. But it still is affirmative action. Again, I go back to this idea of the culture of the poor. And in the U.S., the one thing you’re really ashamed of is being poor. Being poor is the hardest thing for whites, and now for blacks. Because television, and everything else, tells you that no one else is—just you. You’re not leading that life; you’re leading this sad, real life. The problem is how we talk about poverty and class. The struggle is ongoing. The sixties didn’t just start all that—it came from somewhere. There was this particular moment of American prosperity, the postwar culture of liberal institutions, and wanting to solve the world’s problems, that made people receptive to the idea of civil rights and equality. The militancy of the late 60s freaked most people out, especially when it married with the anti-war movement.
JM: And it had an effect.
DP: Well, yes and no. The forces against equality, and this liberal vision of America, never stopped. And you can’t look at the court today, at what happened to the Voting Rights Act in 2013, and not know that they never stopped opposing these laws and these measures, and that in many places, they never got a chance to work. We had Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, and where is the school system now? The Voting Rights Act in 1965 had an immediate effect: in 1966, the number of black representatives skyrocketed. And that’s because a lot of organizations sent people into the South to show them how to vote. The thing about discrimination, segregation, and exclusion is that there are a lot of things that you don’t know how to do because you were never taught, or shown, or welcomed to do, or given the chance to do. I think that things are sort of ongoing, and a success here or here isn’t necessarily across the board.
And you know, regarding the victim thing…In writing classes, I always noted that white guys struggled because they felt they didn’t have a subject as good as the women or the minorities. People were, at last, interested for the first time in stories these women and minorities had to tell. The history of so many groups in America has been, Don’t talk about it; Shut up; Don’t say anything. And so we told these people, you should talk about it, even if you’re saying something wrong, or making a mistake, because you don’t find out what you think until you speak to others and have these sorts of discussions. There’s just been such a history of what you couldn’t say in this country, so that for me it’s always, chatter away, write what you’ve got.
JM: I don’t mean that people should avoid talking about obstacles the way a person probably would have in 1942. We do need to talk about power differentials.
DP: People didn’t talk that way in 1942.
JM: This is one of those “Where do you draw the lines?” situations. I think that we’re trained to exaggerate. That’s all. I think that you should talk about what actually happened to you and why it wasn’t fair, but, to say, for example, “Some white drunken idiot at a fraternity did something kind of icky one night, and therefore I am attending a racist institution” is exaggerating.
DP: That’s a slight caricature of what is said, isn’t it?
JM: No, it’s not. That is the sort of thing that happens all the time. This is important: Yes, children are young. Yes, there’s anger in children. But the powers that be encourage undergraduates to say things like that. And I think that we are abnegating responsibility in training them to exaggerate. And no, people should not keep their problems to themselves. Yes, we should talk about things. Real things.
TCW: John—I don’t want to keep pushing the same point—but this exaggeration is where the power comes from. Power is the incentive to exaggerate. You get a lot out of it. As a writer, as a public intellectual, there’s a lot of incentive to exaggerate.
JM: Yeah, definitely.
DP: Well, it’s telling a story. Twain exaggerated. Everybody has a friend who can’t get in touch unless he or she has a crisis. Otherwise, that person doesn’t feel that they can ask for your attention or your time. And you want to say, “Come around when there’s nothing wrong, too. You’re just as welcome.” I think that’s part of it—that we can’t bring up race unless there’s a controversy. Another thing: in black history, we forget that for a long time, the shame of slavery hung over everything we did. When you think about how long New World slavery has defined the world—500 years—nothing is going away tomorrow.
JM: One quick thing. Remember how I said, “I could give you ten, but I’ll give you three?” Here’s another. One’s attitudes and opinions have to change over time. I used to resist this. But about five years ago, I changed my thoughts about the Voting Rights Act. There needs to be a renewal on it, and Shelby needs to be reversed because of what the Republicans are pulling. I think that it’s a bit of an oversimplification to say that what the Republicans are doing now is the same thing as what the Dixiecrats were doing fifty years ago, but maybe that’s just quibbling. What’s going on now is denying so many black people the vote. It needs to be fixed.
DP: They kind of were doing that fifty years ago…
JM: I think the motivation was different. Now, it’s a naked, nasty pragmatism.
DP: It was nasty back then—and how is it different now?
JM: Do you really want to know? Because today, if you are a Republican, and you want fewer Democrats to vote, you might be enough of a jerk to think, “Well, since black people vote Democratic almost to a man we’re going to do everything to keep them from voting so that we—”
DP: And get the Russians to help us.
JM : —So that we can win. It’s repulsive, but it’s different from someone telling somebody in 1950, “We don’t want you to vote because you’re less than a person, and if you do, we’re going to beat you up.”
DP: But they didn’t believe that in 1950, either. The problem is that everybody knows that racism is wrong; everybody knows that so-and-so is equal. It comes down to a kind of power—that somehow your having power diminishes my power. That any advance for anyone else—women, Latinos, and so on—diminishes their power.
JM: But—here’s the weird thing—the Dixiecrats were denying themselves power by not letting people vote often. A lot of those people would have voted Democratic anyway. They were telling these people, “You can’t vote because you’re an animal and you’re not supposed to be in control.” I don’t know how one would measure the morality, but that is a different thing than someone saying, “Let’s keep Democrats from voting by focusing on black people.”
DP: I still think it amounts to the same thing. The founding of America has a central contradiction, which is the founding fathers’ terror of the popular will. That’s why we have the Senate and the Electoral College—people are afraid of direct democracy without the mediation of certain powerful interests. We still have that. You have the conservatives saying that voting is a privilege, and you have the progressives saying that voting is a right. We are essentially acting out this generation’s version of that drama, which has been with America since our founding. Last thing: when white people are interested in minority stuff, they’re just recognizing that is American history; the way Americans treated the enslaved and indigenous population is American history. It’s sort of learning who you are.
OP: On the matter of the pernicious growing practice of reducing the Democratic vote by deliberately reducing the black vote, two things are happening. There is a racist element to it in the fact that I see almost no attempt at reducing the white poor vote even though most of them vote Democratic. And there are ways of reducing the vote of non-blacks. We saw a good example of that down in the South, in Kansas. Dodge City has some 19,000 people, the majority of whom are Hispanic. What they did was just to move the voting office out of town. There was no place for them to vote. There are many ways in which you can get Democrats in West Virginia not to vote.
DP: They do it already.
OP: I repeat: While the primary focus may be to reduce the Democratic vote, there is a racist element. I was discussing this the other night—what accounts for the Trump victory. At first, I was strongly persuaded by the economic argument as a reason for his being elected—the gutting of jobs, globalization, you know the story. People had voted twice for Obama, yet turned to Trump for economic reasons. But a growing body of evidence suggests that while that may be a factor, the primary factor was racial resentment. There were at least three major pieces in social science journals that examined that problem. What does that mean? It may well mean that those people were around all this time. An important dimension to the Trump vote, particularly in the Panhandle in Florida, were people who had never voted—that’s how Hillary lost Florida. And that was pure racial resentment; people were coming out, after Obama, and thinking, “What happened to our country? We lost our country! What happened to our freedom?” Race was critical. But is it a new resurgence of racism? Is it a return to the pre-Civil Rights norms? I don’t think that’s true. This resentment, this strong hatred of Obama, was coming from people who were racist all along. An important part of the current debate is that, as John said, and I agree, the emerging story about how Civil Rights never happened is just bull.
DP: One of the reasons that we’re so offended by the idea of a black conservative is that we expect black people to be on the side of progress, not just because he or she is black but because that’s what “black” means: it means freedom. One of the things that’s happened is that the constant right-wing attack on liberal culture—of which blacks are the chief representatives—comes from this kind of envy of liberal culture, because right-wing culture has never produced anything to match the achievements of liberal culture.
JM: What do you mean?
DP: What book can you think of by a right-wing person that matters to you? Think of one.
[Silence. Clutches microphone and says nothing.]
JM: It’s not because I can’t name them. I’m really surprised. If I name you some right-wing books, will you just say that they’re bad, so they don’t count?
DP: Mostly they will be bad.
JM: I find that a rather arbitrary judgment.
DP: I know, but it’s also true.
DP: Liberal culture is a minority culture. It’s the prestige of liberal ideas that the right-wing really resents, or hates, because it governs how we imagine America. The fight is getting over this inconvenient notion that the country should be about equality, fairness, and the chance for everyone to realize himself or herself. Instead of it just being about the way things were. What really drove people crazy about Obama was not that he was in the White House, but instead that he was a black guy in charge of the money, that this black man was at the top of the pinnacle of patronage, and this offended so many white guys who assume that the money is their inheritance, their legacy, their power.
JM: Wait a minute. There are, in fact, conservatives with worthy ideas. I just left my daughter, who is learning, by heart, the Declaration of Independence. There are lots of great ideas which came from conservatives. The problem was that they restricted it to the white group. But a lot of Jefferson makes a lot of sense. Wouldn’t you say?
DP: The conservative liberal is not something that really translates across historical periods.
JM: Conservatism can be quite coherent and moral, even if you’re not a conservative.
OP: Let me give one example from a dear friend of mine who recently passed, the sociologist Daniel Bell. He was one of the founders of The Public Interest . Dan was quite explicit about this; he always said, “I’m a conservative on economic issues, but I’m quite radical on social issues.” A lot of conservatives, either because of libertarianism or something else, are quite liberal on race, but are downright reactionary when it comes to economic issues. I think Dan was a great thinker; his work on culture was just wonderful. You have to distinguish between the conservative side of conservatives and what is sometimes liberal or even radical.
DP: For example, the Declaration of Independence and Notes on the State of Virginia .
JM: Right now, on the New York Times Op-Ed page, the most brilliant person, as far as I’m concerned,—even though I agree with him maybe 1 out of 3 times—is Ross Douthat. Not Krugman, certainly not David Brooks. Ross Douthat makes a lot of sense within that bubble in which he writes. He’s the hardest thinker. And he’s very conservative.
DP: I’ll sort of take it back for the sake of peace.
OP: I don’t want to go on the record defending conservatives. Strike my comment from the record.
RB: We’ll decide, when we’re assembling the Salmagundi issue built from this conference, what deserves to be taken seriously. We are, however, going to take some questions.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: John, one of the things you said early on is that educated whites have more or less stepped away from bigotry and racism. And I agree with you that there have been changes, and still I wonder, do you really think we’ve gotten past bigotry and prejudice? I know you say it’s complicated, and I know that when we talk about white cops killing young black men, we should also note that there are black cops, brown cops, and women cops, killing young black men, too. Those are the facts. And yet we still have to ask—don’t we?—which prejudices are allowable? Should Jews in the Catskills be allowed to have all-Jewish resorts? Should Gentiles in New York have all-Gentile clubs? Should we have all-white country clubs, or all-black country clubs? Are those okay prejudices, and why?
JM: Here’s some classic conservatism—how good does it get, and how good could it get? In 1950, black people were considered by most white people, including educated white people, as a kind of lesser beings—think of the attitudes you see in the TV show Mad Men . In 1975, that same person wants to fight what was then called, more universally than it is now, “prejudice.” You’re not supposed to be what we call “racist” today, and you work against it as much as you can, and you wouldn’t have a bigot in your living room. There’s a notion that we have now that you can take this a third step further, and that you can cleanse white people’s psychologies of any kind of bias, of any kind of what you’re calling “prejudice,” a quieter feeling. I understand the idea that now we can and have to get rid of that altogether, though it seems to be a quixotic venture; it never seems to work. And I’m not sure how it could work other than through intense one-on-one sessions where one could conceivably change, though not eradicate, someone’s deep-seated bias (this has been shown, in some academic papers, to really happen). That’s never going to be imposed on all of the population. A month ago, I wrote a piece in the Atlantic that got a certain amount of attention, in which I said that the third wave that people are waiting for doesn’t seem like it’s going to work. In my view, I don’t care about that prejudice, those slight biases, because I figure that that’s the way life is. Life is not perfect; one way it’s not perfect is that we are programmed to be prejudiced. There will always be those biases. I don’t mean this to be as hostile as it’s going to sound, but I don’t care if a white person looks down at me a little bit, because if I sense that they do, frankly I look right down on them. I get the feeling that that might just be me, that it might be an unusual way to be, because a lot of black people have heard me say that, and they think that I am unusual there. But I don’t really think I am that special. Margo, my family raised us to think that we were superior, too. And my mother was classist against lower-class black people, which was surprising given that she was a social worker, though of course she didn’t put her prejudice in so many words. My father was not prejudiced in that way, but we were definitely raised to think that we were better than whites. I was born in 1965, and we were perhaps the last generation to be raised with this sense that “You’re better than anybody.” About a year ago, I was teaching a philosophy mini-class to a group of older Columbia alums; one of them held it in his lawyerly offices in some Park Avenue tower. After work, I go down there, and I’m wearing a blazer, which I don’t like to do, but this is the outfit, and I’m also wearing an overcoat, which I only use about three times a year, and I’ve got this briefcase. I walk into the office, and a white woman—I would put her at about 30 or so—asks me, “Are you here to do tech?” And I knew that the only reason she thought that was because I’m black. Yet what I thought was not “Oh dear, she hurt my feelings, how am I going to go in and teach Kant now.” What I did think was, “You have a bias.” And I didn’t think about it again for another six months. I wish all black people would be that way. I just don’t care about that woman.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: I think that’s right. You can’t cleanse biases. What I’m suggesting, though, is that there are prejudices more dangerous than the one you just mentioned. Cops having images of black men that we know are racist, and are often a product of racism. But sometimes it’s not racism—sometimes it’s prejudice, which isn’t evil, but is often there. Those kinds of conversations need to happen; distinctions need to be made.
JM: Confronting prejudice in the cops would be crucial, and for years I said how scary a thing it is that for them to have this prejudice means that someone gets shot. What you never hear about—and you’re going to hear about it—is that for every Tamir Rice, for every Walter Scott, for every Michael Brown, there’s a white guy who you never hear about. And I’m not saying that the media has some conspiracy, but it happens to white people just as often, which suggests that the cops aren’t as “prejudiced” as we might think, which I resisted for years—they just are; we just know—but the data isn’t supporting it. If you had said this to me three years ago, I would have had a different answer. Yes, prejudice can be pernicious, and it worries me to an extent. But we have a distorted sense of the cop issue.
DP: But the precincts always know who the problem cop is, because he often comes with a past and a record from another precinct, where no one wants to work with him. The problem with cops are the people who become cops. The best ones are ex-military because they have some discipline; the others are people who want to play around with guns, and they play around with guns in neighborhoods where the most socially powerless are, and that includes certain kinds of whites as well as blacks. The real problem with cops are the people with guns, and how little training they have.
But, to respond in part to Orlando’s earlier comments about voter suppression, the poor white vote is suppressed. If you can’t get off work to vote, that’s voter suppression. If you’re afraid to register because you have fines, debts, or things like that, that’s voter suppression. And if you can get them to answer truthfully, that’s what a lot of white people state as their reason for not voting—the fear of getting in trouble. And that’s because of an existing relationship with the state that makes them feel afraid. I’m speaking, to be clear, of poor whites in general—both Republican and Democrat.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: John, I loved your three suggestions for action. And you teased us, because you said there were ten, though I am not going to ask you for more. But I would like to ask where education fits into your action plan?
JM: It is absolutely crucial that schools of education, in particular, have a complete revolution in the way teachers are trained. It’s not as if I have some huge problem with teachers. If you get a degree—and I don’t know what goes on at Skidmore, so I hope I’m not stepping on someone’s toes—but what is promulgated as training in how to educate children, in all but a very few of the educational schools in America today, is a kind of social politics masquerading as training in pedagogy. And that does no good for almost any kid who is lower middle-class or below in a public school. I’m not sure how to change that; I can’t be glib about this. Even at Columbia, I am frightened by what people have “learned” at the Teachers College, which is considered elite. They have no idea how to teach children how to do anything. They just learned that people are oppressed and that they should just teach children that people are oppressed, which doesn’t help. And if children aren’t learning anything, they have a way of fidgeting around and acting up. The next thing you know, you have all sorts of subcultures existing within the school, because people aren’t aware that they’re supposed to be there to learn. And so my action Thing #8— I’m pretending I have it numbered that carefully—concerns this new idea of keeping the miscreant in school because you don’t want to over-punish black kids. This is killing education for an awful lot of black kids. Three years ago, in New York City, it was decided that because more black kids get suspended (without talking about reasons why they get suspended more often), they were going to stop suspending them and keep them in the classroom, or were only going to suspend them for a day. And the performance plummeted in every school where that was applied. Nobody’s gonna tell you that in the New Yorker. That sort of thing is really a problem. So there you have two responses about school: suspension policies, and the teaching of teachers.
AUDIENCE MEMBER THREE: This is a question for John. You drew a very emphatic line between structural racism and white supremacy. Can you unpack that a little bit?
JM: Of course. “White supremacy” referred to 1865, or even to 1965. That’s people hanging from trees. That’s someone like Richard Russell from Georgia, saying in full color on film strips, that segregation is forever. There’s a euphemism treadmill with words. I grew up with the word “prejudiced.” “You’re prejudiced”—now that sounds like somebody with sideburns. Then, it became “racist,” though now even that word is getting weaker because if you call someone racist, there’s the immediate pushback of “no I’m not.” The new rhetorical strategy is to say, “You’re a white supremacist.” That started about seven years ago. Frankly, in doing so, you’re recruiting a term that refers to something much more awful, so that you end up crying wolf by yelling “white supremacy” now. Basically, say what you mean. White supremacy is a useless euphemism. For example, I don’t think it’s white supremacy behind that woman seeing me and asking if I was there for tech. Perhaps semantically you could call it that, but it’s a bit much. That woman probably lives with a black man. These things are subtler than that. Actually, there’s a coda to that story. It turns out she lives in my neighborhood, and it was only about a month ago that I was coming home late, and went to the corner store to get some Jolly Ranchers, because that’s my favorite candy, and this white woman was looking at me with kind of shining eyes—meanwhile I was thinking, “Who is this?” Finally, she said, “Oh, you’re from the Pan Am building, right?” and she seemed perfectly nice, there with her golden retriever. She wasn’t a white supremacist. She just slipped one night. I just think we have to be more honest in the ways we use our terminology.
MJ: And we can have a continuum of terms.
AUDIENCE MEMBER FOUR: Quick question for Darryl, which I’m asking you because you knew Elizabeth Hardwick better than anyone else. Hardwick wrote a review essay about some books on poverty. In the essay, Hardwick wrote about how when a young, poor woman becomes a mother, she acquires an importance she’s never had before, and if there’s any truth in that, I wonder what birth control could do, if it isn’t better to be a mother, and to be, in a way, important…
MJ: But if your birth control options are not very good, then that emotion may have a great deal to do with the fact that you became a mother! You did not have other options, and so it becomes a source of compensation and self-importance. I would also add, in addition to LARCs being widely accessible and free, that there are free and safe abortions.
DP: There’s also a class aspect to it. Orlando said earlier that he was surprised when he read that one of the main reasons these pathologies continue in young blacks is that they kind of give them status. What we would think of as undesirable choices are, in the world as many young blacks imagine it, things that give them status.
OP: It doesn’t even have to be something as extreme as being a gang member, or even with notably undesirable choices. Thinking of the enormous role blacks play in popular culture or in sports, I can see how important it is, for a kid from the inner city, that many of the celebrated figures in popular culture and in football or basketball are black, and are deeply admired by white kids, too. However, that can become a diversion. The study I drew made it quite clear that they devote a great deal of time engaging with these heroes, which detracts from their academic pursuits. That’s one of the great ironies of the situation here. I couldn’t believe that the kids on the football team were spending thirty hours a week in this extracurricular activity, so that of course they don’t have time to work on their studies. There is a real issue there. Among the educational reforms I’d like to see, altering the role of sports is one.
And John, I totally agree with you about education schools. In fact, several universities have ditched their schools of education, saying that rather than doing what they’re supposed to be doing, they’re doing secondhand social science. The University of Chicago did that. I often wonder what the hell goes on at the Harvard School of Education. It’s one of the best in the country, yet I still wonder, where’s the teaching of teaching? The most prestigious professors there are, in fact, social scientists. I can’t agree with you more on that. And if I can add something else, it’s that what works for middle class kids doesn’t work for inner city kids (white or black). We know, for example, that the number of words that a middle-class kid brings to school at age 5 is something like ten times more than what a lower class or inner-city kid does (sorry to use these terms).
JM: 20,000 for middle class kids.
OP: You have to begin by acknowledging the deficiencies, and if the gap between the two groups of students is so large, then you’re obviously going to need a different kind of teaching strategy for kids who are so far behind in their vocabulary. What is considered virtuous in teachers—to self-righteously ignore the differences and make no pedagogical modifications—is, perhaps, the worst possible thing they can do. Of course, teachers should offer kids the same enrichment, but only when they’re ready for it.
JM: An essential point here: “you have to begin by acknowledging the deficiencies” and not ignore what’s obvious.
RB: And not censor yourself when you see it and want to say something about it.
But then think of something very different: Imagine what the typical, white working Joe does with his day. He spends his day at work, but most of the remainder of his waking life is spent watching television, usually watching sports. And what he sees is the major presence of blacks in that arena, as in pretty much every other area of popular culture.
Blacks are now, also, a major force in the Democratic party, a fact noted several times in these discussions, and a fact, moreover, that reflects important changes in the standard attitudes of white people. The leading research organization of sociology, the General Social Survey (GSS), has been tracking this since 1972. The survey consists of a series of questions regarding whether home sellers can discriminate in their sales, the right to segregate neighborhoods, intermarriage, whether blacks should be in separate schools, and so on. Any readily available graph will show that the slope of change is precipitous. I think that intermarriage best reflects this change of attitudes, because it gets to the nitty-gritty of racism: blacks and whites “miscegenating”—that ugly word—was what drove Southerners crazy; the imagined assault on white women was the reason for most of the five thousand lynchings. The changing attitudes have been measured in various ways. The share of whites who would oppose the idea of a relative marrying a black person—that’s one of the standard questions. As late as 1992, 63% of white folks, from the North and the South, strongly opposed the idea of a relative marrying a black person. Today, that percentage is down to 14%. Of course, the question remains, what does that mean? This is always the dilemma with survey questions.
In practice, one way of testing this is to see the actual amount of intermarriage that actually takes place. This has been increasing quite substantially. For example, black men are now intermarrying at extraordinarily higher rates. In fact, some 30% of marriages of educated black men are intermarriages. At the same time, despite this public integration and, to some extent, these intellectual bourgeois marriages, there is still an extraordinary level of segregation in the private sphere. The saddest aspect of this is perhaps the segregation in housing and living conditions. The great majority of black Americans now live in segregated neighborhoods. And this doesn’t apply solely to the ghettos. In fact, the great majority of middle-class blacks live in segregated communities.
Mary Pattillo-McCoy is an African-American sociologist who wrote a book called Black Picket Fences . Her book provides ethnographic detail to these statistics. In that work, she shows that the black middle class is still segregated. That may come as a surprise to many of us here, because I think all of us, on this panel, live in integrated neighborhoods.
I’ve never had any problem finding a place to live, and I don’t go around wearing a badge that says, “I’m a Harvard professor.” In fact, I usually play that down. There are too many odd responses when you tell people you’re a Harvard professor, like someone asking you if you’ve read this book that you’ve never heard of. So, I say that I teach “in the Cambridge area,” which satisfies most people.
Anyway, what’s going on right now is a puzzle and a major problem. In work, there is, again, a significant degree of segregation, despite the strides of affirmative action. Moreover, in terms of real, meaningful friendships, groups are still quite segregated. The question is, what is happening?
The Civil Rights Movement did achieve a lot: it reduced the income gap; it led to an increase in the middle classes. But there are things which it didn’t succeed in doing, and I want to emphasize this: it did not close the income or wealth gap. In 1970, the household income of black Americans was 65% of the household income of white Americans. In 2017, the household income of black Americans is 65% of the household income of white Americans. There’s been no change. The wealth gap is even greater. In 2017, the assets of whites come to about $171k; the assets of blacks to about $17k. If you break it down in terms of class groups, it becomes even more extraordinary. By the way, this wealth gap persists regardless of household education, marital status, age, or income. The median wealth of black households with a college degree equals about 70% of the median wealth of white households with a college degree. The recession wreaked havoc in all this. Of course, it reduced the wealth of everyone, but much more so among the black middle class.
There’s another dismal development which I find especially depressing. We often refer to the rise of the black middle class as one of the great achievements of the Civil Rights Movement. But here’s the bad news, and it’s really bad news: when we think of the middle class, we think of stable wealth; we think of passing one’s status, and standard of living, to one’s children. The really terrible news is that black Americans are not maintaining their middle-class status. There’s an extraordinary level of downward mobility among the black middle class.
Here’s one way of expressing this: White children in the top fifth of the income distribution have about a 41% chance of staying there. For blacks, there’s only an 18% chance that a middle-class person in the top fifth of the income distribution will have kids who would stay there. Here’s the even more disturbing news: when black middle-class kids move down, they don’t just move a little downwards—there’s almost an 80% chance that they move to the bottom fifth.
This partly has to do with the wealth gap, because one of the ways in which we ensure that all kids maintain our status is through the assets we pass down to them. Owning a home is where you have most of your assets. Middle-class white kids will inherit their parents’ home. I live in an upper middle-class area of Cambridge, where property values are escalating, and when I meet my neighbors, we mourn the fact that our kids won’t be able to live in our area, given the rate at which the prices of our homes are going up. They’d be better off, we figure, selling the homes and living someplace else. And that’s the privilege of a middle-class status.
The final piece of bad news is that poverty rates remain very high, over 20%; it’s now at 21.2%. My last book was called The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth . The term being used now, by economists and sociologists alike, is “disconnection,” and what they are referring to here is a group of young people between 16 and 29 who are not in the labor force. It’s not just the case that they’re unemployed—they’re not in the labor force, they’re not looking for work. Secondly, they are not in school, so they are disconnected. And that figure averages about 23% of the youth group not in school. This figure goes as high as 28% in places like Detroit, and as low as 15% in Boston. Yet herein lies the paradox: black youth nonetheless dominate the popular culture. At the same time, the incarceration rate is incredibly high. Bruce Western, my former colleague and a leading scholar on incarceration, notes that there’s a 1/3 chance that black youth who drop out of school will end up in prison. It’s this major paradox that drove me to several years of research with colleagues on black youth.
That’s all the bad sociological news I have for you. Two questions remain: What explains it, and what can be done about it? There are various explanations. For one, the most popular explanation is various kinds of racism: attitudinal racism, or institutional racism. On the attitudinal level, we’ve seen that attitudes have changed quite substantially. But if you ask the typical undergraduate or graduate student, attitude is the answer, despite the data. There are various ways of interpreting that now: attitudinal racism is interpreted as crude, old-fashioned racism, but what we now have are microaggressions. Microaggressions are a very slippery concept, as the question of what is and isn’t racial is problematic. As John has pointed out, it is difficult to conclude that microaggressions can really explain the kinds of gaps I’ve noted.What is true is what I call “persisting Herrenvolk,” the German word that upholds the idea of a master race. Attitudinal racism didn’t start with Trump—there has always been a residual group who held firm to the old, Herrenvolk type of racism, the zero-sum type of racism in which there is a strong investment in whiteness. Whiteness is more negative than positive: whiteness is not being black, and any success of blacks is seen as something you’ve lost. That was always there. My estimate is that approximately 20% of whites persisted in this profound and chronic type of Herrenvolk racism. That’s what Trump tapped into.
But there is another, more sophisticated explanation for persisting, attitudinal racism (as opposed to institutional racism). The main advocate of this view is a colleague of mine named Lawrence D. Bobo; he’s now the Dean of Social Science at Harvard. He has a rather subtle take on how attitudinal racism persists, and he calls it laissez-faire racism. He argues that it involves the persistent negative stereotyping of African Americans, the resistance to meaningful policy efforts to ameliorate America’s racist social conditions and institutions, as well as the tendency to blame blacks themselves for the black/white gap in socio-economic standing. He points out that Jim Crow racism was at its zenith during an historical epoch when African Americans remained largely in the rural South, in the agricultural workforce. Bobo isn’t talking about when anti-black bias was formal state policy, nor when most white Americans comfortably accepted the idea that blacks were inherently inferior. Rather, his work has shown that these attitudes are declining. What he calls laissez-faire racism is crystallizing in the current period as a new American racial belief system, at a point when African Americans are heavily organized, nationally dispersed, and occupationally heterogeneous; at a point when state policies are formally race neutral and committed to anti-discrimination. That’s how he explains why you can find a decline in racial attitudes. But he claims that there exists this new form of laissez-faire racism, a shift towards explaining black disadvantage in terms of cultural attitudes. Bobo notes that most whites no longer hold the view that blacks are inherently inferior; instead, he argues that whites simply believe that they must defend their group interests. Overall, this seems to me a more sophisticated interpretation of the current situation.
For me, the most important factor in trying to understand the persistence of these inequalities and poverty is this: if 20% of black youth hose who graduate from high school and don’t go to college are doomed to working-class jobs—and that’s if they’re lucky.
We all know that segregation and ghettoization are critical. So is the persisting educational gap. It’s sad that society remains so segregated, sadder yet that the most segregated parts of America are the most liberal parts of America. Among the most segregated cities are New York, Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee. The irony is that the least segregated cities are in the Southwest. Places like Houston are far less segregated than good ole’ New York. A reason for this is the fact that these are relatively newer cities, which means they’re not dealing with long traditions of neighborhood segregation. This may partly explain something curious that’s been happening, which is a reverse migration of Black Americans back to the South.
But there is one other factor I want to mention, which I admit is a bit contentious. Let us remember that the great ideal of the Civil Rights movement, as expressed by Dr. King, was desegregation. But somewhere during the seventies, something happened, and desegregation, as well as getting out of the ghettos—which were once the primary challenges to be overcome—became less and less of a priority among black leaders. When Douglas S. Massey wrote what has become a classic work on segregation, American Apartheid , he bemoaned the fact that sociologists and social scientists, as well as black leaders in general, weren’t taking segregation seriously. And it’s interesting to speculate why that was the case. There’s an element of black pride that is involved, but there’s also a sense that community ought to be cherished and developed, rather than fled. People like Nixon played on this direction—not to leave the ghetto, but to stay there and to “bring the jobs back.”
The point is that there was certainly a shift of priority in terms of seeing desegregation as less important, and I think that was a disastrous decision. Being in the ghetto is terrible. It’s toxic—not just socially and psychologically, but it’s literally toxic, chemically, which becomes incapacitating and is also linked to violence. All of this has been corroborated by numerous studies by economists and sociologists.
There’s good and bad news about education. The good news is that education accounts for the rise of the black middle class. The bad news is that reduction of the gap stops somewhere in the late 80s and is now getting worse. There’s a high level of non-performance and dropping out among black youth, especially inner-city black youth. One of the great hopes of education is for it to be a way of increasing social mobility. Yet what’s coming out of recent research is that education no longer reduces inequality. In fact, the best recent work indicates that education is one of the major ways of reproducing inequality. The irony of the idea of college education for all—which is what we’re hearing from younger Democrats—is that it doesn’t work for the simple reason that if you make college education free for all, it benefits mostly the upper middle class. If you’re seriously interested in mobility, the best policy is to focus on education for the lower classes.
Then, finally, there are the cultural issues, which is where I’ve done most of my work. There’s often an extreme hostility towards any kind of cultural explanation, though cultural explanations don’t necessarily involve blaming the victim, which is what is often assumed. Another assumption is that black culture is an immutable, monolithic thing. All of this is wrong. Even in the ghettos, there’s a heterogeneity of black culture. Therefore, the argument that to speak of culture is to blame the victim is nonsense.
What is true, however, is that there are aspects of African American culture and behaviors that are problematic. The most controversial factor—it’s controversial even to mention it—is the high proportion of poor single mothers. Between 70 and 72% of black children are being born to poor single mothers. That’s a disaster. One isn’t blaming the woman for this. But even if you’re the perfect mother, it’s very difficult to be poor, single, and a mother of one or more children. And the consequences have been thoroughly documented in sociology. One way in which you can deal with social and cultural issues is this: you can talk about it for a while, and then you can just forget about it. And that’s where we are right now. It’s like seeing the elephant in the room and pretending it’s not there; even worse, if you point out that the elephant is there, you’re accused of blaming the victim.
Clearly, to speak of these matters is not to reduce the responsibility of the state, which is another wrong assumption. We know that there are ways in which the state will have to intervene. We have to have ways of helping these women, in terms of pre-K education and in terms of income support. We know how to do it—the welfare states of Europe have shown us how. And despite the typical right-wing argument, the state has everything to do with it, for it is the state that has been complicit in this problem for hundreds of years. The state has a moral responsibility to change the situation.
DP: Thank you very much for that. Several things crossed my mind, though not in any particular order, so I’ll just ramble. At one point, I thought of Nella Larsen, a black writer from the 1920s. She was born in Chicago to a Danish mother and a black man from the Danish West Indies, and lived in Chicago around the turn of the 20th century. Her black father eventually disappeared, and her mother re-married a white Scandinavian. And the only place where they could find somewhere to live, as an integrated family, was in the red-light district of Chicago. They had previously been in another neighborhood, but the city authorities had actually forced white families to move, to leave black neighborhoods. Segregation is an artificial creation. There’s that.
I was also thinking about the tuition. In England, no tuition has made a great difference, culturally, especially when it comes to class mobility. It used to be that when you went off to Oxford or Cambridge, you came home and your accent hadn’t changed, and your family would be disappointed. You were supposed to go off and become different. Another thing that has vanished in England is working-class culture itself. In a way, the same thing has happened in the United States because people are ashamed of being poor. You have a kind of ethnicity that replaces the idea of working-class roots, or working-class culture. It’s rather gone.
I remember that we were saying—not long ago—that one of the problems in Ferguson was the disaffection of black youth, not just from electoral politics, but also from the existing institutions in black life, starting with the black church, which they were very disconnected from. And in time, the black church filled in for the state when it came to social responsibilities, renewal, and group adhesiveness. I don’t want to always blame mass media, but there’s a certain kind of mainstream culture that has replaced these working-class or group cultures from place to place.
Lastly, I remember a 2012 poll: 43% of the black women polled said that they didn’t want to get married but they did want to have children. The interesting thing about the poll was that it crossed class lines. Middle-class black women and professional black women were saying this. And it’s a change in America itself: now, 35% of the electorate are single mothers; it’s not confined solely to blacks. This has been on my mind since Professor McWhorter spoke yesterday about the need to end the war on drugs, and the great tragedy that we don’t have a kind of New Deal, and desperately need one because the infrastructure of the country is falling apart and it would employ everyone.
One of the things Orlando said made me remember the days when black people really resented Korean delis in New York, because the immigrants could get the loans to open businesses, whereas black people couldn’t. The resentment in Harlem for the current wave of gentrification stems, in part, from thirty years ago, when middle-class black people tried to buy homes in Harlem. You could get them very cheaply. But you couldn’t get bank loans for a new furnace, for example. You’re right—it comes down to money.
OP: Yes. Segregation is state-sponsored. That’s well-established. The British sociologists have a name for that: it’s sponsored mobility. But you know that there are so many ways to mistake what we’re seeing, like thinking that the ghetto is a sort of monolithic culture, or believing that, because most blacks who stop going to church at 17 or 18 haven’t been deeply affected by that experience—without which, in many cases, things would be much, much worse than they are.
With respect to single parenting, one new thing we are starting to hear is “Hey, look, white women are also becoming single mothers!” And in fact the proportion of white women who are becoming single mothers is about the same as it was for blacks when Moynihan wrote his report in 1965. But this is simply a misconception—we are talking about apples and pineapples. The vast majority of white single women end up becoming single mothers after being married, as a result of divorce. And they can still depend upon the fathers of the children, either by court order or by the father’s choice; they know who the father is, and the father is still involved. Moreover, the fact that you have kids out of wedlock doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re headed for trouble. The great majority of kids in Iceland and in Sweden are born out of wedlock. The question is what happens afterwards, and it turns out that 90% of these single parents then end up in relationships, with two parents bringing up the child. It’s somewhat similar to the case of white women. In other words, they, too, have support. I have nothing against single mothers bringing up children. A single mother can bring up a child quite well—that’s not the question. The question is what kind of support she has. And the problem with black single mothers is that most of them remain single and poor and not having support. It is not true that blacks have a large network; that’s a sociological myth. In fact, it’s not true. Network studies have shown that blacks have the smallest network of people they can turn to.
I absolutely agree that we need a New Deal. Everything I’ve said indicates that. Any modern state has a responsibility to its poor. We don’t have to justify it historically. And if we spend over a trillion dollars fighting in a war that was based on a lie, in Iraq, well, a third of that money would solve all of the problems here. It’s thus a kind of racism that you will not support policies that will alleviate these problems, even if you “don’t mind” that your half-sister or your cousin marries a black person. At the same time, you—even if you say you’re a liberal—will not allow re-zoning laws that will cut down on the size of land units in your suburbs.
But we can also say that black Americans must not only fight for the New Deal but also acknowledge that they have the responsibility to make behavioral changes. Because it’s their life. It’s a two-front strategy. That’s why I’m so very encouraged by a younger generation of politicians who are talking about socialism (though I wish they called it social democracy).
DP: We’re facing a future where we’ll have to give up a lot. And nobody wants to.
JM: I think, Orlando, that we’re in a situation where smart people are told that any negative cultural trait must be due to something going on in modern society—that there’s no such thing as a trait that takes on momentum of its own based on things that happened in the past. I think that this vision of how human culture works, which is kind of a Larry Bobo way of looking at it, is going to look like Phlogiston in a hundred years—that idea that if something is going on for people it must be because, for example, of the racism happening now. There is a cool pose culture. I live in New York, I ride the subway every day, and there’s a certain kind of mostly black or Latino man, who has a high school education, who is really hell-bent on showing society that he can do anything he wants, who works half-time and who’s uncivil, and you can tell that nothing is quite ever going to go right for this person. This person is not rare, and he’s not doing it because the cops don’t like him. He’s doing it because his big brother was like that, and he just grew up watching other people do it. That’s how human beings work. He’s not evil. My question is: How do you get to him? Like you say, of course the state has to help. But is there any way that you can change him?
OP: Good question. I agree with you entirely. We call him “disconnected”—that’s the term that sociologists and economists know. How do you get to them? You have to have a minimum education to survive in a post-industrial society. So how are we going to get them to stay in school? And how do you get them to change their attitudes? There are policies that have worked: community programs aimed at getting black youth involved in education, and later in entry-level jobs, for example. One of these programs is run by the National Guard, surprisingly enough. In The Cultural Matrix, I studied one group that takes youth—half of whom have a prison record—and, in a crash course that spans eight weeks, teaches them how to change attitudes. And that had a moderate level of success. One of the things the research shows, however, is that the problem isn’t job availability. Most of the people we studied had had jobs. The problem isn’t getting a job—it’s keeping a job. And this goes back to cultural attitudes, the notion of respect. There are volumes written on the importance and centrality of respect. If you’re in a job for which it’s important that you smile occasionally, or that you don’t get offended if the boss says something to you that you don’t like, it’s important that you don’t just walk away and give up.
JM: The guy I was describing will last, like, two weeks in that job.
OP: Yes, exactly. The problem, again, is not having the job, but staying in the job. Remember, again, that we’re talking about 20 to 28 percent of the black youth population. One of Obama’s last big policy initiatives was My Brother’s Keeper, with which I was involved. The term “disconnected” is appropriate here, because these boys are disconnected from everything that’s important. How does one get reconnected? The My Brother’s Keeper program is trying to do just that. This program emphasized community work, and was an initiative to expand opportunity for young men and boys of color.
There are several programs geared towards women, too. One program that has been surprisingly successful is called the Nurse-Family Partnership program, in which nurses enter the process when the women are still pregnant. For some reason, nurses are the best change agents: they help the mothers cope, and they give basic training. The nurses also stay with the mothers after the kids are born. That has been proven to be one of the most successful programs. So, we shouldn’t be pessimistic. We know that there are things that work.
DP: In the excerpt that Bob gave us to read from The Cultural Matrix, one of the things you say is that these guys behave this way because of the status it gives them, and they are admired for it, even among white youth. I was going to say that black cultural history also has in it black people who take these negative stereotypes against the group and turn them into virtues. The Harlem Renaissance took all attitudes such as “you’re too musical,” “you’re too emotional” and “you’re not rational,” et cetera, and made them virtues, which the white world was interested in after World War I and the slaughter that rational societies had visited upon one another. After World War II, you get the same thing with Norman Mailer and “The White Negro”—this idea of the black male as this disaffected rebel protesting, through the way he lived, against a square, unjust, or unfeeling American society. We have it again with hip-hop, the difference being, of course, that hip-hop has made it quite alright to make money. A lot of kids don’t want these entry-level, patient jobs—they want the kind of success that strikes like sainthood.
OP: I’m glad you mentioned that because I spent a lot of time looking at this, which I call the Dionysian syndrome that has come to affect black culture, especially black youth culture in advanced, industrial societies. An example of this would be suburban white youth going to hip-hop concerts, getting this Dionysian kick from this aspect of black youth culture. But for them, there’s the fact that they know when to opt for the SAT prep book. The problem for black youth is that it reinforces a deep satisfaction that is, in the long term, problematic.
TCW: I have a comment and a question for you, Orlando. I love The Cultural Matrix, and I worked a discussion of your book into a long essay I wrote for the London Review of Books on Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me. I felt that Coates’s memoir described a black experience that was very comprehensible to me but which didn’t describe my black experience, nor found a way to articulate things I knew to be true about my generation’s experience. My first book is a memoir called Losing My Cool, about the kind of Dionysian pleasures of making these choices—not feeling that history was making these choices for me but instead liking being anti-intellectual, or at least pretending to like being anti-intellectual, because my father didn’t actually let me.
I have two examples of something that I think might relate to your other point about downward mobility. My high school girlfriend of four years, a daughter of two black parents, was materially better off than my family was: two cars in the driveway, a large home. But she never sat for the SAT—she just never took the test. I went off to college and we dated, long-distance, during my freshman year, and by the time I came home for summer break she was pregnant, moving in with a crack dealer in the housing projects in Newark, New Jersey—going from a black middle-class suburb to the housing projects. The guy was going to support the family dealing crack.
At Georgetown, there was a black classmate of mine who had gone to Milton, one of the good New England prep schools, played on the tennis team, and had a side life dealing drugs and carrying a gun. He eventually got busted and got expelled from school during the second semester of our senior year, right before graduation. You could say that white kids, at good schools, deal drugs all the time and don’t have the same experience with the criminal justice system, but the fact remains that he felt an urge like Robert Peace did—from The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace—an urge to live up to an authentic street pose that became too real, and that wasn’t a pose any longer. I wonder about the ways in which blacks can slip out of the middle class, how much of that is based on behaviors, choices, cultural imperatives, and how we can disentangle that from the kind of laissez-faire racism that might also impact it?
JM: I’ve known dozens of stories like that in my life, too.
MJ: Yes, I was so struck by this when I read it in your essay, Thomas, we’re from different generations and yet we share some of the same narratives.
OP: This is where desegregation becomes important. You are influenced by the network of people you’re with, and one of the things we do, as middle-class people, is try to make sure that our kids end up with a good network and peer-group. Let’s remember that the majority of middle-class black people live in the ghetto.
JM: Orlando, I have a question that is based on something Margo said. There’s a generational thing here. I grew up in a middle-class, all-black community, and even though I’m of a different generation, I saw the kind of story that Thomas told again and again. There was a guy who lived next door to me who even looked like me—people would mistake us from far away. His family had more money, he started selling drugs from his garage, he ended up going to jail, and now I’m sure he washes cars, or something. And that’s because he identified with this street culture. Margo, why do you think the same identification with street culture was happening for your generation?
MJ: It even happened often for guys who were going to white schools. It was toxically glamorous masculinity.
DP: The first person to be sentenced under the Rockefeller Drug Laws of 1973 was a white kid from Columbia University. He ruined his life.
OP: But white kids are often able to enjoy the Dionysian thrills of the ghetto “fabulous culture” without getting entrapped.
TCW: My white friends loved hip-hop as much as or more than many of us did. But I believe that they engaged with it ironically—it didn’t speak to their deepest sense of self, whereas we took our sense of self from the lyrics and models that we were trying to emulate. That was the key difference. Regarding Orlando’s point about the elephant in the room…What I’ve noticed is that pointing out the elephant in the room becomes, or is interpreted as, giving in to respectability politics. You embrace Lil’ Kim or Cardi B as a real feminist, or something like that…and to point out that it’s problematic means that you’re a dupe of mainstream white respectability, that you’re trying to live up to false white standards… I like Cardi B, by the way.
MJ: Cardi B is, in some ways, showing a real political intelligence.
TCW: I hadn’t known that she was the political commentator I needed, but she is, actually.
RB: I want to briefly underline, and ask a little bit more about, one aspect of this that Orlando mentioned, which was that at a certain point, black leaders seemed no longer to be interested in the idea of desegregation. And when you said that, I couldn’t help but think about a piece I read in the New York Times a couple of weeks ago. It was about the development of Afro-centric schools in Bedford-Stuyvesant. In the story, a number of people who were excited about these Afro-centric schools said that the schools their children had previously attended weren’t doing a hell of a lot to help them. And these Afro-centric schools are being supported by the city of New York. I’m wondering what you all have to say about this story.
JM: There’s no record of that working. That’s an old story; the Times writes it every five years. What really helps kids from poor homes, in terms of doing well in school, is being taught how to read with phonics. And that doesn’t make as good a story, so they don’t write about it.
AUDIENCE MEMBER ONE: I’m thinking about the possibility of Medicare For All being an issue for the upcoming presidential election, and about how ready most of us are to think that even practicable solutions are out of reach. Would you say something about that, John?
JM: Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez is my Congress person and eight months ago, no one thought she was going to win. And now, here she is. I had no idea that Medicare For All was going to be on the table, as it is now. I hadn’t even processed it yet, that we might think of that as part of a civil rights platform, but obviously there’s an idea that might solve a lot of life problems. I didn’t think that it was practical…I’m not a leftist, and I generally think that things don’t happen that quickly. But lately, some things kind of are. So, when things like this happen, I have to re-adjust. But yes, definitely. I am a liberal—I always think things are going to happen slowly. And all of a sudden, we’re talking about Medicare For All. Yes. It sounds great.
OP: She has the full support of the social science community behind her, because the overwhelming conclusion from numerous studies is that the best way you can spend public money is through healthcare for mothers, pre-K education, and infant education. Economists and others have worked on this, and the returns for every dollar you spend is greater than anything else you can do.
AUDIENCE MEMBER TWO: Not you nor anyone else on the panel, John, has mentioned the role of organized labor, or unionism. I’m wondering if that’s a dead duck in terms of considering solutions for the plight you describe. And I have a second question: Yesterday, you had me sold on your severance between white supremacism and structural racism. But when I listen to you today, talking about the role of the Herrenvolk idea in imposing the racialized vision that’s created the drastic situation you describe, I wonder about the validity of that separation—if white supremacism, period, is not precisely the term for what’s happening now…
JM: I could say that the term is applicable to an extent, but I would still question whether white supremacy is why that poor guy on the subway—that guy who’s mad, who’s never going to have a good job—is in the condition that he’s in. He’s an innocent, but I don’t think that it’s white supremacy that we need to talk about in order to help him. So yes, there will be what we might call white supremacy—some of this is just semantics—and I can allow that, because this Herrenvolk idea does imply white supremacy, that whites are on top and should stay on top. Certainly, there are people who feel that way. But there’s that guy, and how are we going to help him? I worry that if we talk about our guilt over white supremacy and how terrible white supremacy is, we might forget that what’s going to help that guy will involve something very different. On labor, yes—it’s just kind of early. I want those guys and those women to have the sorts of jobs where that would even be an issue. But in the organizations that Orlando is talking about, the union is not the point. The idea is teaching people to stick with a job. There’s a whole literature that doesn’t get talked about, about how hard it is for a certain kind of guy to keep a job, and you have these candid interviews with the people who hire them, you have black sociologists interviewing the men, and we see that in the main there’s no coded racism. It’s that it’s hard for them to stay in a job. The union part would come later—let’s talk about that in twenty years, once people have their feet in. But that’s why I’ve never said much about the labor aspect of things.
OP: Many studies confirm that the great majority of whites are not white supremacists. John is right that we can’t attribute, under normal circumstances, the problems of black Americans to white supremacy. But we have to acknowledge the twenty percent of whites who remain white supremacists with a zero-sum view of race and freedom were themselves responsible for Donald Trump. Until Trump was elected, my too optimistic view was that this 20% wouldn’t have much of an effect on the other 80% of whites, that they were a declining group…
JM: I thought that, too.
OP: Clearly, I was wrong in that, because that twenty percent did make a difference, and the difference they made was Trump.
As for unionization, sure. One path towards working class success is getting good union jobs. The unions have a peculiar history here. And we know that it’s because of the decline of union power that the income of working class people has declined—there’s no doubt about that. But we also hope that unions will become more progressive in the incorporation of blacks in skilled jobs, because that’s one of the few ways in which you can make a meaningful middle-class income even if you don’t go to college. The decline of unions is one factor contributing to the growing inequality in America. Can we be optimistic about a revival of the union movement? I’m not at all sure about that.
AUDIENCE MEMBER THREE: I would like to thank you for bringing DuBois into these conversations. In 2003, there were a number of conferences focusing on DuBois because of his 1903 publication of The Souls of Black Folk, in which that phrase, “the color line,” became popularized. One of the questions posed at these conferences was whether the problem of the 21st century would be the problem of colorblindness. Now, I wonder whether the problem of the 21st century isn’t something very different.
OP: A word on DuBois. About 2-3 months ago, we had a conference at Harvard that was devoted to the restoration of DuBois’s status as one of the founding scholars of sociology. Now, for a long time, he was neglected—not by people in the humanities, by the way—by the discipline to which he was so dedicated. Aldon Morris just wrote a wonderful book on DuBois called The Scholar Denied: W.E.B. DuBois and the Birth of Modern Sociology. DuBois’s work on slavery influenced me greatly. At the same time, there’s one aspect of DuBois that is very unpopular among students and scholars today: DuBois recognized not just the centuries of oppression, racism, and slavery as being critical, but he was probably the first scholar to emphasize what’s now called “the wages of whiteness,” as well as what I’m calling a zero-sum approach to race that operates on the belief that what benefits blacks detracts from oneself as a white person. DuBois had this wonderful term, the “psychological wage” that whites got from being white. DuBois’s work is now being re-read, and is of great significance. White supremacy is not to be ignored, but we have to grapple with both the cultural language we use to describe our situation and the social/economic factors that explain the persistence of the many problems that black Americans face, in spite of the progress that has been made.
DP: It’s about power, and about acquiring power that can determine policy and direct social change. Power for black people in the United States will only come in coalitions with like interests. In some ways, the history of lynching somewhat disguises the fact that it was a form of class warfare against black middle-class men and women. There’s a very interesting book called White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth-Century South by Martha Hodes that went in and described a lot of these relationships as consensual and voluntary, but the guys accused happened to be newspaper editors, business owners whose businesses whites coveted, and things like that. Lynching, as well as the accusations of rape, often went with displacing men of property. I just think it’s about power. And if you have power, then you don’t have to care what someone thinks. I’m not interested in reforming racism or white supremacism. I’m interested in creating a society in which their views are not governing my life.
AUDIENCE MEMBER FOUR: Yesterday, Darryl spoke of a canon of writers from Africa, which is to say of writers we should have already read. Is this canon important to black writers in this country? Should it be? Are there names and books you regard as essential?
DP: No, I mean, we all hear “You should read this,” or “you should read that,” or “you should pay attention to it.” Some people I know say that Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing is a wonderful novel to read. So you listen, accept recommendations, or not, and try. There’s no way to read or know everything. Not any more. You’re just open to various books that people you trust are talking about.
MJ: Yaa Gyasi is Guinean, and I’m sure you’re at least somewhat aware of the writers that are coming from Nigeria: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie [Americanah] is the best-known, but there’s also Oyinkan Braithwaite, who wrote My Sister, the Serial Killer, as well as Helen Oyeyemi, who wrote Gingerbread. There are others whom I can’t name, but whose books are in my head. It’s now part of a global literature in the way that we first saw with South American literature, and then with South Asian literature. There are works entering the current canon, and most of us will have a hard time keeping up with that.
TCW: I don’t know if everybody would agree with me, but I’m from a kind of Black American cultural tradition that’s quite distinct from Africa. My father was kind of a Southern black guy. So, I’m interested in Teju Cole and other writers, but I don’t really connect reading African literature to my identity any more than I do reading German literature.
MJ: I’m sure we could all give lists of black American writers that we haven’t kept up with, whom we know are on the list, or whose books are in our houses…
DP: And there’s so much from the past that I’ve not read, that I’m more interested in reading. In the time I have left, I want to read those things I’ve always meant to read. I’ve never read all the way through Proust, and I think I’ll do that before I read Homegoing.
RB: Margo used the expression “global literature,” and there is the sense—which, I think, many of us have had for quite a long time—that global literature, no matter where it comes from, is apt to be as compelling to students as books that they think they should be reading because of an ethnic connection. Of course black students in my classes on the political novel are deeply interested in books by Achebe or more contemporary African writers, but they’re also very much taken with a book by an Algerian writer named Kamel Daoud ( The Meursault Investigation) or Ondaatje’s Anil’s Ghost—or, for that matter, with Russell Banks’ novel The Darling.
DP: But it’s a good thing for us all to be reading things from all over. An essence of freedom is to have many choices.
TCW: James Baldwin has a wonderful essay called “Encounter on the Seine: Black Meets Brown,” about when he went to Paris and met Senghor. And it was through this encounter that he realized he was black, and that something happened over the course of 400 years: the collision of Europe and Africa, and much that followed, and though it’s not exactly the same thing, I kind of feel that way. I am an American living in France. And I meet Africans and Europeans and feel that I’m neither of those things. I’m a Black American.
AUDIENCE MEMBER FIVE: I know you like talking about writers and books when you get the chance, but indulge me: I’m curious as to what your opinions are regarding whether the black community is better or worse off because of hip-hop culture. Especially interested here in what Thomas has to say about this.
TCW: Ten years ago, as I’ve mentioned before, I wrote a memoir [Losing My Cool] about the enormous influence that hip-hop, as a culture and as a secular religion, seemed to wield over blacks born in the civil-rights era, known as the hip-hop era. My father is 81 years old—he’s old enough to be my grandfather—and he had a very different black experience. My generation had very different concerns than his. The main argument of my book was that in the hip-hop era, black culture had been narrowed, or reduced, to a kind of cool-posed, black street culture that had been mainstreamed and largely sold to people from a variety of black backgrounds. At the time, I felt it was extraordinarily detrimental. Ten years later, I think that this critique still holds—certainly so, when I think about my own life—but there seems also to have been a certain empowerment that’s come through hip-hop culture, as well as the economy it created, that can’t be denied. It’s a mixed bag. I think that a lot of my friends really derailed their own lives through choices that were largely inspired by trying to live up to a kind of street authenticity that hip-hop glorifies. But that’s not the entire story. And I think that the older I get, the more I realize that a lot of it is more complicated than that.
OP: Those are the right words, aren’t they, Bob, for wrapping up a conference like this? “A lot of it is more complicated than that.”
RB: Thanks to all of you for allowing us to arrive there, without thinking there’s nothing more left to say.
ROBERT BOYERS’s latest book is The Tyranny of Virtue: Identity, The Academy and the Hunt for Political Heresies. He founded Salmagundi in 1965 and continues to edit the magazine and to direct The New York State Summer Writers Institute.
MARGO JEFFERSON is author of Negroland, On Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson: On the Wall and Ripping Off Black Music. She is currently Professor of Professional Practice in Writing at the Columbia University School of the Arts.
JOHN MCWHORTER is Professor of English & Comparative Literature at Columbia University and a frequent contributor to The New Yorker, and other national publications. His books include Word on the Street, Losing The Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America, Authentically Black, Winning The Race, All About The Beat and The Language Hoax. He also hosts Slate’s “Lexicon Valley” podcast.
ORLANDO PATTERSON is John Cowles Professor of Sociology at Harvard University and author, most recently, of a book about Jamaica, The Confounding Island as well as editor of The Cultural Matrix: Understanding Black Youth. His earlier works include Freedom in the Making of Western Culture, Slavery & Social Death, The Ordeal of Integration and Rituals of Blood. He is a frequent contributor to the op-ed page of the New York Times and is a regular contributor to this magazine where he has been a central participant in ten previous Salmagundi conferences.
DARRYL PINCKNEY is author of two novels, High Cotton and Black Deutschland. His nonfiction works include Sold and Gone: African American Literature & US Society, Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy, Out There: Mavericks of Black Literature and, most recently, Busted in New York and Other Essays. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books .
THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS is author of Self-Portrait in Black and White and Losing My Cool: Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd. He is a contributing editor for the New York Times.
1. The “original framing” appeared in a letter to the participants invited to this Salmagundi conference. ↩
2. Danzy Senna’s story from her collection, You Are Free, and is included as well in the most recent edition of the Norton Anthology of Short Fiction ↩