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Provocative Narratives about Black Experiences

On Race(ism)

In 2008, the election of Barack Obama sparked claims of a post-racial society. Shortly after he was sworn in, Eric Holder was tapped as the nation’s first black Attorney General. Subsequently, Holder, in a speech to the Justice Department, argued that Americans were “cowards on matters of race” and went on to challenge us to take up discussions about race around healthcare, poverty, and education. Recently published books seem to be a direct answer to Holder’s call, providing a springboard for such difficult conversations.

Healthcare is political and it is linked to race. Just mention the words Tuskegee Experiment, Obamacare, or Henrietta Lacks in any setting and observe the responses. Alondra Nelson, an associate professor at Columbia University, tackles this politically charged subject in Body and Soul: The Black Panther Party and the Fight against Medical Discrimination (University of Minnesota Press, 978-0-8166-7648-4). Using sources as varied as government documents, interviews, and press coverage, including issues of the group’s weekly, The Black Panther, Nelson tells the story of the Black Panther Party’s health activism.

The organization was founded in 1967 with a mission that included protecting “poor blacks from police brutality.” As the Panthers grew, they added healthcare to their platform. To address their commitment to rectifying health inequities, the group argued that healthcare is a right. They established clinics, distributed food to the poor, screened for sickle-cell anemia, and worked to make medical information accessible to the general population. A search for information about the Black Panther Party usually yields images of stern faces, black attire, fierce weapons, and anti-white rhetoric. Rarely mentioned is the type of thick description of the group’s social and health politics that Nelson makes available here. The health-related concerns of the organization still warrant discussion today.

A conversation about race might naturally turn to personal stories of those who experienced racism in America. Yaël Tamar Lewin and Janet Collins, authors of Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins (Wesleyan University Press, 978-0-8195-7114-4), offer an example of such an experience. A classical dancer, Collins’ unfinished memoir opens the book, beginning with her birth in 1917 in New Orleans. Her formative years were spent in Los Angeles among family who were perplexed by her attraction to dance, perhaps anticipating the devastation she she would feel at sixteen after her audition with Ballet Russes led the director to state, “You will make a fine dancer… In order to train you and take you into the company, I would have to paint you white.”

From there, Lewin, herself a choreographer, uses research, photographs, and Collins’ art to continue the story. She asserts that when Collins became the first full-time black ballet dancer at the Metropolitan Opera, she “soared over the color line in an art form swayed by prejudice.” Lewin offers much to discuss when she tells readers Collins continues to be a pioneer, as Night’s Dancer is reportedly the first biography of a black ballerina, and blacks are still rarely seen performing classical ballet. Lewin maintains that despite years of racial integration in other fields, “Collins would have faced great odds” attempting to become a ballerina even today.

Renowned trumpeter Clark Terry reveals in The Autobiography of Clark Terry with Gwen Terry (University of California Press, 978-0-520-26846-3) that he also was a pioneer when he became the first black musician on staff at NBC in 1960. The accomplishment was not an easy one, but Terry was innovative. Surrounded by music, an eleven-year-old Terry made his first trumpet out of items he found in a junkyard and formed a street band.

While Terry’s story is one of an ambitious musician who worked with legends such as Quincy Jones and Billie Holiday, it also tells how racism impacted his journey. After all, it took place when few black musicians were afforded the opportunity to share their talent unencumbered by Jim Crow laws. In a section titled “Nigga,” Terry describes his early experiences with racism when a police officer knocked him unconscious and left him on the street, prompting two white crew members to protect him from a mob. Vignettes like this one provide an opportunity to discuss racial solidarity against injustice.

The editor of Prison of Culture: Beyond Black Like Me (Wings Press, 978-0-916727-82-6), by John Howard Griffin, writes, “[Humans] are 99.9% the same, and therefore ‘race’ is not a biological reality but merely a cultural phenomenon based on prejudice.” This collection of Griffin’s personal writings includes “Profile of a Racist,” where he offers a description of two types of racists as fodder for the debate on whether we indeed live in a post-racial country.

In “The Intrinsic Other,” Griffin explains why a post-racial society may be difficult to attain: We view those outside our culture as the “other.” It was when Griffin, a white man, donned a black face and lived in the South that he discovered his “own prejudices, at the emotional level, were hopelessly ingrained.” However, after living with blacks, he discovered “the other was not other at all” and argues that cross-racial dialogue will happen when we “perceive that there is no other… that the other is oneself.”

Similarly, noted historian Howard Zinn’s On Race (Seven Stories Press, 978-1-60980-134-2), a collection of personal texts, offers examples of how cross-racial conversation can be impactful. While a professor at Spelman, Zinn developed relationships with black students and civil rights leaders that eventually challenged his concept of others and of himself. Like Griffin, Zinn discovered that “once we’ve noted skin color, facial features and hair texture, we have exhausted the subject of race—everything beyond that is in our heads, put there by others and kept there by ourselves … The most vicious thing about segregation … is its perpetuation of the mystery of racial difference.” Zinn maintains this mystery can be dismantled by meaningful contact. He says this type of cross-racial interaction looks beyond physicality so that the “puzzle of race loses itself in whatever puzzle there is to human behavior in general.”

Zinn’s eloquently written essays paint a vivid picture of the struggles and successes of the civil rights movement. In the book’s final piece, a 2008 interview taking place amid discussions about racism surrounding Obama’s candidacy and his ability to “confront and change problems of race and foreign policy,” Zinn is asked if much has changed concerning “racial enlightenment” since the civil rights movement. He says progress has been made but is quick to point out that “Today, there is less overt racism, but the economic injustices create an ‘institutional racism’ which exists even while more blacks are in high places, such as … Obama running for President.” Zinn goes on to suggest that racial enlightenment does not exist concerning immigrants and Muslims and that Obama “should use his experience as a black man to educate the public about discrimination and racism.”

Clearly, the black experience in the United States is dynamic and multifaceted. These books celebrate the life and work of humanitarians, activists, and artists. Their efforts encourage us to debate and explore how far we have come in conjunction with how far we must go, a task that might someday lead to what Holder predicted, racial understanding.