‘No, things aren’t getting better for African Americans’

Black in America: the question of race was thought to have been resolved once Obama was elected as president. But since the summer of 2014 it has become clear that none of it is true. How do you articulate racism?

By Guus Valk, translated by Annemarie Mattheyse

About this story

This book review originally appeared in Dutch in NRC Handelsblad on July 31, 2015. After controversy arose over the headline and the illustration originally accompanying the piece, we decided to have the full story translated to English in order to provide international readers with the context in which those were published.

We regret the original choice of headline and illustration, because they do no justice to the balanced point of view laid out in the story. Picking this cynical headline, the headline editor in Amsterdam intended to summarize the pessimism expressed in the three books discussed. The same reasoning led to the choice of illustration. It was certainly not our intention to offend anyone. The story’s author, U.S. correspondent Guus Valk, was not involved in picking the headline and the illustration. -- The editor

America, and especially white America, has been living in a dream for several years. A new era had begun in which the old problematic race relations were no longer a factor. The election of Barack Obama as the first black president underscored that America had entered a post-racial era. Naturally, there were still differences between Blacks and Whites, but these were thought to be based more on social class than on race.

And then came the summer of 2014, which saw the birth of the Black Lives Matter movement following the death of black teenager Michael Brown at the hands of police. A new generation of African American leaders rose up. They challenged the white illusion of progress and, as they called it, the tendency towards conformism among black Americans. Both groups were said to have been lulled into complacency by the words of Martin Luther King Jr., oft quoted by Obama: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

After Brown came Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner and, last week, Sandra Bland. She was stopped by a policeman in Texas because she failed to use her turn signal. She offered verbal resistance and demanded that her rights be respected, but was violently arrested. Three days later she died in prison of a suspected suicide. The [current] debate around race is deadly serious, especially from a white perspective. Not just because what prompted it is so serious, but also because a black writer like Ta-Nehisi Coates rejects the American Dream as “flimflam,” as the white New York Times columnist David Brooks writes. Brooks still clings to that dream, the idea that everyone can become anything in America. He acknowledges the inequality, but: it will get better!

Black America has long passed that stage. Ta-Nehisi Coats, a writer and essayist from West Baltimore, sets the tone. His book Between the World and Me, written in the form of a letter to his teenage son, became a bestseller this month. His view on racism is radically different from that of Brooks (or President Obama). To Coates, racism is an evil that needs to be fought; something that is in the very genetic make-up of society. The world of the “Dreamers” – and hence of Brooks – thinks that the idea behind America is ultimately noble and honest.

This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.

Every elite needs an underclass. Whether due to slavery, segregation or economic neglect, the effect is the same, writes Coates. He describes growing up in Baltimore as a terrifying physical experience. His hard-handed father, the gangs in the streets and the pathetic schools were, according to Coates, all expressions of the same institutionalized racism. “If the streets shackled my right leg, the schools shackled my left. Fail to comprehend the streets and you gave up your body now. But fail to comprehend the schools and you gave up your body later.”

A key concept to Coates is that of plunder. Black bodies were plundered on the plantations, and today they are plundered in the streets, by police. Along with plunder comes a destruction of black identity, which, according to Coates, “explained everything, from our cracked-out fathers to HIV to the bleached skin of Michael Jackson.” Between the World and Me is therefore not only based on a criticism of structural injustices in American society. It is also a call to self-examination: What is race?

Coates doesn’t feel at home anywhere: not on the streets, because he didn’t know the gangs’ codes, nor at school, nor in the (in his opinion too-meek) black churches. That theme of lack of rootedness, of searching for an identity, is a familiar one in African American literature – think, for instance, of Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama.

It also features in a number of remarkable recent novels by African American writers: Loving Day by Mat Johnson, and The Sellout by Paul Beatty. These books deal with the meaning of race – not to a group but simply just what it means to the individual. Both have a remarkably light tone that is reminiscent of the successful TV series Blackish. Race is not just problematic, but also a source of misunderstandings and taboos, and therefore a source of humor.

26 percent African

Mat Johnson’s Loving Day also differs from Coates’ Between the World and Me. The search for identity is much more a process that takes place from the inside out rather than a struggle with the big bad world. Johnson has good reason to struggle with identity. He has a black mother and a white father, and as a “biracial” man constantly runs up against issues of identity. His new novel, Loving Day, is feather light in tone, but is actually a pointed search for the meaning of race. Are you black if your skin is dark? Or are you only black if you identify with black culture? If the former, then the outside world determines your identity; if the latter, then Rachel Dolezal, the woman who presented herself as black but who was recently revealed to be white, has a point. Her claim was that she felt black, and that identity does not always correspond to the color of someone’s skin.

Johnson openly wrestles with his race. He grew up with his black mother in a predominantly African American neighborhood. There, he was seen as white because his skin is light. White people see him as Puerto Rican, or perhaps Eastern European, but not someone who entirely belongs. In The New York Times, Johnson recently wrote that he had had his DNA analyzed and that it was found that he has 26 percent African ancestry. But okay, what does that mean? For wont of a better term, he adopted the controversial descriptor “mulatto”, which for many African Americans is a direct reference to the slave era. Johnson feels at home with the term.
In Loving Day, artist and graphic novelist Warren Duffy must discover who he is. Like Johnson, Duffy has a white father and a black mother, and after his father’s death goes to live in his father’s house in a black neighborhood in Philadelphia. There, Warren has to constantly code-switch. To him the conventions among African Americans are a mystery. “There are blocks around here where you can be attacked for looking another man in the eyes and other blocks where you could be assaulted for not giving the respect of eye contact.”

Coates now sets the tone. His view on racism is radically different from that of Obama.

In Philadelphia, three languages are spoken: white American, street language, and “brotherman”, the language of educated African Americans. When Warren speaks to a black colleague, he consciously switches codes. For instance, he uses the (black) filler sentence, “Know what I’m saying?” “[Of course] he does know what I’m saying. What I’m saying is I’m black, too. What I’m saying is that he can relax around me because I’m on his side – that he doesn’t have to worry I’m going to make some random racist statement that will stab him when he’s unguarded [...].”During this conversation, Warren makes this discovery: “People aren’t social. They’re tribal. Race doesn’t exist, but tribes are f-n’ real.” The consequence of this is that the outside world determines who you are.

Warren learns that he has a 14 year old daughter, Tal, with a white woman. Tal is Jewish and knows nothing about African American culture, but Warren does his best to immerse her in black America. When he decides to care for her, he wants to send her to a school with black children only. It is an “Afrocentric” school, a type of school that became popular in the 1960s and 70s that aimed cultivate awareness of African in the diaspora. But eventually he selects an idealistic school consisting entirely of biracial children, the Melange Center for Multiracial Life. When he registers his daughter, a questionnaire is used to determine dominant race. “Was O.J. Simpson guilty,” “What was Jesus’ race?,” and, finally, the trick question: “Name your black friends [at least 3].” Warren refuses to complete the last question, which automatically makes him “black.”White people, the principal explains, always eagerly list their black friends.

In scenes like this, depicting light-hearted but tragic misunderstandings, Johnson truly shines. Warren reluctantly embraces his biracial background, but cannot separate this from loss. It is not only hard to be black in America; sometimes it can be handy, he realizes. Once you are on “Team Black”, he says, “your membership is clearly stated. In the bylaws.”

Satire

Coates wrote a book for his son, although he explains so much that it seems to be mainly intended for white readers. Loving Day also seems to have been written with white readers in mind. This is not the case with The Sellout by Paul Beatty. It teems with references to black culture, and the novel is difficult to follow for a reader who doesn’t immediately know who Buckwheat from Little Rascals is, or George Washington Carver.

“This may be hard to believe, coming from a black man, but I’ve never stolen anything.” With this opening sentence, Beatty sets the tone for a dazzling satire about being black in America. The book’s reception was extremely enthusiastic, while at the same time being a perfect illustration of the irreconcilability of the two worlds. The New York Times reviewer noted with regret that he could hardly use any direct quotes from The Sellout because of the frequent use of the N-word, code for: whites may not use the word “nigger.”

The Sellout is a grotesque satire of post-racial America. It is also topical. Beatty describes the world of a black man with just the last name “Me.” He grows up in an agricultural town in California called Dickens. With a glancing reference to recent events, his father dies after being shot in his car without cause by a police officer. To make matters worse, all the residents of Dickens move away. Me tries to rescue his town by restoring the old societal relations. He reintroduces slavery, segregates the schools, and creates black, white, and Latino neighborhoods.

Me’s slave, Hominy, is forced to cultivate marijuana. And although Me often tries to free him, the elderly Hominy refuses to be freed. “Massa, sometimes we just need to do what we are destined to do,” he says. Me realizes that a slave is not just useful. “Like children, dogs, dice and overpromising politicians and apparently prostitutes, slaves don’t do what you tell them to do.” No Go Down Moses, By ’n By or other field singing. He finds he doesn’t like it. Eventually, Me has to answer to the Supreme Court in Washington, DC. The conservative black judge Clarence Thomas breaks his legendary taciturnity with one question: “Nigger, are you crazy?”

The Sellout can be read as a hard critique of both progressive and black America. Both groups have allowed themselves to become complacent during decades of lack of progress. Beatty’s lesson, Mat Johnson said recently, is that he is biting and funny. “Beatty’s work is a beautiful reminder that sometimes you can say more by laughing at yourself than by screaming at everyone else.”