For white Americans, consciousness of race has tended to arrive without quite so much freight — as a discovery that there are distinctions, sure, but that white is the norm, the default mode for humanity.”
—James Bennett, editor, The Atlantic
The best story written once Barack Obama became president appeared in the January/February 2009 special “State of The Union” issue of The Atlantic. The same issue from where the words above originated. The cover of that issue said it all: “The End Of White America?”
What made it the best wasn’t necessarily what Hua Hsu wrote (although he did ink a helluva piece), but it was the actuality that he brought to the forefront—the true fear white America was privately having behind what was happening right in front of them. It was the anxiety that existed inside of America that had been covertly floating around everyone’s head prior to, during and after the campaign that was responsible for putting Obama in the one place no one ever thought an “articulate” (VP Joe Biden’s word), “light-skinned African-American with no Negro dialect” (Sen. Harry Reid’s words) would ever be.
Once that Pandora’s “black” box was opened, it was just a matter of time before everyone jumped in to write about the state the country was in concerning race now that there was a black man in the White (man’s) House. Or to just use “race” as the backdrop to tell their stories.
A literary epidemic. “We Ain’t What We Used To Be: The Black Freedom Struggle From Emancipation To Obama,” by Stephen Tuck. “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration In The Age of Colorblindness,” by Michelle Alexander. “I’m Down: A Memoir,” by Mishna Wolff. “The Breakthrough: Politics and Race In The Age of Obama,” by Gwen Ifill. “Between Barack and A Hard Place: Racism and White Denial In The Age of Obama,” by Tim Wise. “What Obama Means… for Our Culture, Our Politics, Our Future,” by Jabari Asim. Just to name several.
Now, two more books have entered the cipher. “Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Redemption” (Bantam), by Jerald Walker, and “Post Black: How A New Generation Is Redefining African-American Identity” (Lawrence Hill), by Ytasha Womack, both use race as the centerpiece to tell much bigger stories about their personal lives (and beliefs) and the existence of race in this country.
And although vastly different in approach, style and premise, the beauty and singular connection between these books is the fact that both authors (and the president) have deep Chicago roots and are shaped in thought and theory of how race plays out in the city. And how it has shaped the way we should see ourselves in the so-called “new” America.
Chicago, still, is by far the most racist city in America. And that’s a good thing.
We, more than any other city in America, know that the whole shift in paradigm and attitude adjustment on all things racial that was supposed to occur once Obama became president was (is) as faux as Heidi Montag’s left breast. We call a spade a spade when we are playing spades. We know there are still areas in Bridgeport where even the most unemployed of brothas knows better than to look for a job. We know that Milton Bradley was right about what he said about some Cub fans. And are comfortable with it.
We also are racially realistic enough to know that with all of the beauty that came with a nation coming together for the greater good in electing a black man to our most honored—but not necessarily most respected—position, there can still be continued incidents of discrimination, unfairness, prejudice and injustice in places like Paris, Texas and Jena, Louisiana; that, as it happened just last year, someone in Iowa can still put up racist signs and shoot his BB gun at black families that he doesn’t want living in his neighborhood; that gorillas might still get shot by white police officers in the cartoon section of the New York Post with captions over the cops heads that read: “They’ll have to find someone else to write the next stimulus bill.”
We know that as much as everyone wishes for unconditional and universal change, that despite what we were sold on a national level, change—when it comes to race in America—is not something we can believe in. We know better than that.
And because of the unique racial polarization that shapes our prism as Chicagoans, one that no one else in the country can claim, we are a little more comfortable with the realization that that “We Are The World” shit ain’t about to happen anytime soon.
The fact that in the now infamous political battle for Cook County Board President someone put out a campaign flyer with a picture of 4th Ward Alderwoman Toni Preckerwinkle with the words “Aunt Jemima” above her face is the unequivocal evidence that nothing’s really changed.
In “Post Black,” Womack deals with this issue of change directly. She finds ways through various stories of her life to paint a non-narrative picture of the change that has happened in the lives of African-Americans since the reality set in that Obama may become president.
At times Womack’s book reads like the female side of something by Nelson George. “Death of Rhythm and Blues,” “Buppies, B-Boys, Baps & Bohos”—short and often brilliant vignettes that tell large stories about the various states of Black America. Womack, unlike Walker, doesn’t spend the majority of the book telling first-person accounts of how she became who she is today. She keeps it brief. “I had decided during my senior year in high school that I would write about areas of black life that weren’t showcased in the mainstream media.” From that sentence on, as a reader, you have a clear idea of what Womack is about to give you.
Walker’s entry is the exact contrary. From one chapter to the next, his story jumps all over the place like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic” or Stephen Gaghan’s “Syriana.” You have no clue as to what the hell is coming next, which makes it such a great read—and Walker is a great writer on the level of a James Frey. Like both films (and a little like “A Million Little Pieces”), there’s a unique excellence in his approach to craft.
There’s one short three-page chapter about the author losing his virginity, but no overplay on words pushing to make the reader laugh. Yet you still laugh out loud. And when Walker writes, “I promise” as the last line of the chapter, you feel every word of it.
But outside of both author’s autobiographical dealings with life and the people who have shaped them into the writers that they have become… is race. And not just race for the sake of race, but race as (almost) the reason they exist. Both authors, it seems, are at bookends of how they feel about black people and about being black themselves. Where Womack seems to runtowards her blackness, Walker seems on almost every page to be running from it.
The belief is that we would change. You. Me. All of us. The belief is that there would be an “Obama Effect” that would have people of all races seeing one another differently, treating one another with more civility, actually taking the time to understand one another.
According to a story published in Time magazine (“Race and the Brain,” October 2008), “Humans,” Jeffrey Kluger wrote, “operate with an awareness of the future, which means we seek to extinguish not only a current threat but also future ones.” The Implicit-Association Test (IAT), a test that explores the instant connection the brain has with races and traits, can be used to determine the positive and negative feelings people have immediately when they encounter a person of a different color or race. “What happens when racism isn’t an unconscious bias that you wish you didn’t have but a hatred you embrace?” it asked? It concluded that “wisdom” of race will trump all of the nonsense that allows inherited racism to exist, but it’s going to take time for that day to come.
Time as in generations, not months or one presidential term.
Yet the amount of new black literature on race that line the back wall shelves at Borders on Michigan Avenue or in the middle shelves at Sandmeyer’s in Printer’s Row or that greet you once you enter and walk down the stairs of the 57th Street Books in Hyde Park seem to be implying a different story. An implication that Paul Mooney used as the title of his new book: “Black Is The New White.”
(And Mooney is not alone. Even comedian and “30 Rock” star Tracy Morgan turned author in this new age of post-black Obamaism, penning “I Am The New Black” last year.)
Yet the reality is, in spite of what Womack writes, and what I believe Walker would think if he addressed the issue in his book, one president don’t stop no show. Translation: Being black in America is going to be the same today as it was four years ago. No doubt, some things will change, but ever since that world-altering January 20 day of Obama’s inauguration, Santa Clauses remained predominantly white, black actors still won’t get top billing in “buddy” movies, and the Chicago Bears have a better chance at winning the Super Bowl next year than a black man does at being “The Bachelor.”
Just the incredulous anger that has been directed at Obama during his initial year in the White House is confirmation of this. And if anyone reading this believes that the hate and the significant drops in approval ratings that he’s incurred are all about his inability to lead, or because of the decisions he’s made (or not made) while in office, or his struggles to pass a healthcare bill, or magically erase eight years of a nation’s financial destruction in his first 365 days in office, and has nothing to do with the color of his skin, the texture of his hair, the size of his nose or the ethnicity of his wife, then you are the same person who believes Pat Robertson and Paul Shirley have nothing against the color or race of the people in Haiti.
It is the optimism of Womack that turns this existing falsehood into a premise of reality. Her exploration (which she calls a “revisit”) of the “talented tenth,” her drive into the new role black spirituality plays and will play in our lives, her breakdown of black entrepreneurship and its importance to our growth, her stand on “neofeminism,” her admittance and wonderment—even in these days of Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane—that what “if hip hop (is) now a black-consciousness litmus test, a de facto common denominator for black innovators with a voice?” all collectively present an element of faith that true change gon’ soon come. And being black in America is no longer the worst thing that can happen to someone.
I grew to have a large problem with Walker as he often claims in his book that he was “from the ghetto” when he actually left the West Side of Chicago at age 6 or 7 to a “four-bedroom bungalow on the South Side right in the heart of a middle-class white community.” Black folks know there is a difference in being from “the ‘hood” and being from “the ghetto.” Walker seems in his writing—and in his life—to use that as a badge to validate himself as authentic. It’s a tired and played-out trick that only fake blacks and naive white people fall for and I happen to be neither. But on the other hand, he finds a way to make you believe being black is life’s third strike against you.
With every little step he takes in “Street Shadows,” it seems he becomes more comfortable in his hidden denial. It’s almost like he’s ashamed of who we, black people, can be at times, not necessarily who we are, and he doesn’t want that “I gotta answer for Flavor Flav and Michael Vick” label placed on him.
His true feelings of race and all that comes with being black become cellophane clear and is summed up in the end when he is with his wife and two kids at the circus. “The blurb beneath his photo,” he wrote of the ringmaster while reading the program, “proudly proclaimed that he was the first African American to hold this position in Ringling Brothers’ glorious history. That was interesting, I suppose, but I really didn’t care. I doubted anyone else did either.”
Wasn’t it Chuck D who flipped the phrase, “Every brotha ain’t a brotha?”
In the chapter called “The Obama Factor,” Womack writes what this new era of LWB (living while black) in America is supposed to be about. “President Obama,” she theorizes, “who embraces the most nontraditional African American factors referenced in this book, campaigned for change but also serves as a symbol of these new, integrated ideas of how they play themselves out on the world stage.”
Then she asks, “Is he the new black?”
To which I can only offer this simple response: Believe what you wish, but don’t be a fool. Because just when you think that the evaporation of racism is beginning to take shape in this country, just take one look at the 2010 Census form.
They still have us listed as “Negroes.”