The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide
By Carol Anderson
246 pp. Bloomsbury. $26.
As the Obama presidency draws to a close, it is clear that the post-racial democracy it was supposed to inaugurate has not materialized. But over the last eight years something very important has emerged in the way race gets discussed in America: the foregrounding of whiteness. From discussions of diversity on campus and white appropriation of black culture to #OscarsSoWhite, “whiteness” as a cultural and social category has become a subject for scrutiny and criticism in ways that “blackness” was in years past.
When people sometimes ask me whether I consider myself black, I have to tell them that I am, and I remind them that the possibility of the question is itself the answer. To be black in the United States can involve existing in a kind of special interrogative mode, which is like standing in the long shadow of a question mark. This point is not merely an abstract analogy. The “blackness” of skin means what it does in the United States not because of melanin, but rather because of the long shadow of the slave ship and Jim Crow. It is, to borrow James Baldwin’s words, “not a human or a personal reality” but “a political reality,” defined by the decisions and actions that have formed the history of the country we live in. Conversely, when white folks stammer that “white privilege” cannot possibly apply to them, I suggest that their very insistence is one small manifestation of that privilege, namely of not having to question or be questioned, of being able to choose to lead an unexamined life in this country.
Paul Beatty’s latest novel, The Sellout (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; $26), recounts the ordeals of a man who tries—and fails—to live up to his father’s, his community’s, and his country’s ideas of what it means to be black in America. But our narrator, nicknamed Sellout, does more than just fail: He threatens, as a certain saying goes, to set the race back 500 years, by landing himself a date before the US Supreme Court for owning a slave named Hominy (who refuses to work) and attempting to reinstate segregation in the deincorporated pastoral ghetto of Dickens in the greater Los Angeles area.
Beatty is smarter than most comic writers, and fearless: The Sellout at times seems to be based on a lost Dave Chappelle skit. Yet one fears that Beatty will be relegated to the Literary Negro League of comic novelists, with George Schuyler first up to bat and, awaiting their turn, Fran Ross, Cecil Brown, Ishmael Reed, William Melvin Kelley, and the recent call-ups Percival Everett and Mat Johnson. These writers find themselves in a perpetual search of an audience—not because of a lack of talent, but for the inexplicable reason that readers seem unwilling to have a “conversation” or “more dialogue” about race unless it is entirely sober, mostly cant, and, to judge by the state of things, perennially superficial. That’s unfortunate, because the novel has always been a good vehicle for dissecting the rhetorical essentialisms and mental shortcuts we live by.
There is a remarkable scene in Ava DuVernay’s ambitious new film, Selma, where Coretta Scott King (wonderfully played by Carmen Ejogo), fearing for the life of her family, describes being overcome by the “fog of death.” It’s an apt phrase, and all the more so for it’s subtle echo of the “fog of war,” that realm of deception and uncertainty that clouds our reading of human intentions under inhumane conditions. More than ever, one feels caught up in that “fog of death.” As the tragedies in New York City and Missouri among citizens and the police accumulate, and tensions escalate, so does the sense of an eerie fog of war.
For months a question mark hovered over the protests surrounding Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson and Eric Garner’s killing in New York City: Would the spontaneous and sporadic language of protest, anger, and injury become a sustained movement for equality and justice? Although the path forward remains murky and imperiled, there can no longer be any doubt: There is a social movement for racial justice in this country with a broader base and louder voice—particularly among millennials—than at any time since the late and tragic phase of the Civil Rights movement. Into this turbulence comes a film that sounds like a biopic, feels like a history lesson, and looks very much like an allegory of the present. But what exactly are the lessons today’s movement can draw from Selma?