Books, Existential Stuff, History, Opinion

Books, Race, and Other Things I admit I Know Very Little About

July 29, 2014

I can imagine little more challenging than writing about the experience of being black in America if you are not black.  I don’t think it’s possible to write or think about race unless you admit what you don’t know (which is nearly everything), and then use that as a starting point.

I feel it’s sort of like 9/11: I have long said that the only people who really have the right to talk about what that gruesome day actually felt like are the people who were in New York City.  Everyone else was just a spectator, not subject to the riot of conflicting emotions, anger, and fear that the residents of New York actually experienced on that day.  Others may be able to write about why 9/11 happened, or the geo-political events that may have precipitated it or resulted from it, but New Yorkers, and only New Yorkers, can tell me what 9/11 felt like.

And I think the very same is true of anyone trying to write about race in America.  Academics can analyze it effectively from historical and economic perspectives, and can tell the story of the how and the why, but how could a non-African American writer, even a great one, tell us what it feels like to be black in America?

The idea that any white American could pretend to understand or empathize with the experience of being black in America (especially the experience of being an African American descended from slaves) is absurd and insulting.  The moral obscenity of slavery, underlined by the crime of the institutionalized and authorized failure of reconstruction, created an obscene, permanent underclass in America (N.B.:  When discussing the crime of racial inequality and oppression, the failure of Reconstruction is far too frequently left out of the dialogue; in theory, after the Civil War Reconstruction was supposed to ease the transition to a more racially balanced American South; however, flawed by corruption from the very beginning, any attempt at Reconstruction collapsed following the absurd, monumental Presidential election of 1876, when Democrat Samuel Tilden beat Republican Rutherford B. Hayes.  The Hayes/Tilden election is one of the most important moments in American history, and it should TOTALLY be a required part of our curricula, but that’s another story, huh?  Anyway, after Tilden’s victory, the South – then firmly the undisputed land of the Democrats – agreed to allow Hayes and the Republicans to “steal” the election, in exchange for the end of Reconstruction.  In essence, the Civil War didn’t really end until the mid-1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson finally and formally used legislation to address the more blatant inequalities that had been, essentially, legalized since the Emancipation 100 years earlier.  And here I will further note if it wasn’t for his murderous blunders in Vietnam, LBJ would have – should have – gone down as one of our greatest Presidents; he ended the fucking Civil War).

Where Was I?

White people know nothing of the Black experience, not only of the more obvious dirty looks and police oppression, but the inevitability of horrific Inner City schools and unequal job opportunities; I address these atrocities only in the most general terms, because I am far from an authority on this crime, the second worst abomination in the story of our continent (the first, obviously, being the complete annihilation and disenfranchisement of the indigenous population of our section of North America).

So, unless approached from a purely academic point of view (and I will have to ask my friend Paul Sherman, a great and exhaustive reader of tracts on race in America for a reading list), it is extraordinarily rare to read books where white people write, with real empathy, meaning, and impact, about the black experience.

I can think of two examples, both of which I highly recommend (Finally, the gist of this column!).  I’m a little late on both of these, by the way; though neither of them are archival, neither are exactly new, either; but just give me a pass on that, okay?  Anyway, both these authors recognize that a Caucasian cannot write about the black experience without part of the story being that very inability.

Josh Alan Friedman’s autobiographical novel Black Cracker (2010) is a deeply moving, deeply funny, deeply tragic, and absolutely unique tale, so well executed and so full of extraordinary social ironies and tragedies that it is both difficult to read and difficult to put down.  Due to some very unique circumstances (i.e., local experiments in integration coupled with very well-intended liberal parents who wanted to put their money where their mouth is), in the early/middish 1960s in Glen Cove, Long Island, (very) young Josh was the only white child in an all-black elementary school; subsequently, he found himself caught between many different social, economic, cultural, and historical worlds, and not just the obvious ones.  The black children at his school didn’t fully embrace him (and when they tried, their families rejected him, with occasionally horrific results); the local white children rejected him, violently, for his ties to the blacks; and everyone was a little suspicious of his long hair and love of the newly arrived Beatles.  All of adolescent’s “normal” signposts are covered in this fleet, deep, gorgeous book, but they’re all set topsy-turvy against the absurd and frequently dangerous environment young, innocent Josh is thrust into. Black Cracker hits so many raw nerves in the story of race in America that at times one literally has to put it down out of fear; likewise, Friedman successfully conveys the feeling he had every day, akin to walking through a busy six-lane highway carrying an enormous pane of glass, that pane made up of all the history, anger, resentment, and longing that young Josh never asked for, but found himself the loci of.  A joyous, terrifying book.

(I also must note that Josh Alan Friedman is the author of Tales of Times Square, which is literally one of the ten ESSENTIAL books ever written about New York City.  No library of books about New York City is complete without Tales of Times Square, and it is likely no library of books on race in America in the 1960s is complete without Black Cracker.) 


Our generation has been chock full of people trying to assimilate elements of African American music, art, culture, and language into their own, while simultaneously trying to hold on to (what I will refer to) as the “privileges” of being white.  Which is all to say you can dress like a Beastie Boy all you want; you still won’t ever remotely know what it is like to spend (literally) 5 minutes as a black man in America.  You know, in this weekend’s Times, I read an interview with some young actress in which she whined, at great length, that her life had been oh-so-hard because some people at Horace Mann had called her ugly; seriously, she was talking about this like she was telling the story of Anne Fucking Frank.  Now, let her IMAGINE that she was at one of the nightmare-crates masquerading as a high school in Inner City New Orleans in the 1990s, crumbling shit-holes so dismal that the valedictorian couldn’t even pass the standard GED, and someone calls her ugly THERE.  Yeah, it hurts to be bullied at Horace Mann or Fieldston or Ramaz, I’m sure it does, BUT IMAGINE SPENDING ONE SECOND BEING BULLIED AT A PLACE THAT ISN’T FUCKING HORACE MANN.

Anyway.  Where Was I?

Nik Cohn’s Triksta: Life and Death and New Orleans Rap (2009) is, without exception, the best thing I have ever read about the absolute inability of a white person to ever fully understand and be part of the world of the disenfranchised, African American poor, despite their best intentions.  Cohn – I will explain a little of his extraordinary history shortly – found himself living in New Orleans in the years before Katrina, a town where the “right side of the tracks” and “the wrong side of the tracks” are often indistinguishable.  He soon found himself mentoring, befriending, and attempting to quasi-manage some of the city’s up-and-coming rap acts, and becoming very immersed in the singular social world of New Orleans’ rap.  He ends up not just telling the story of a vibrant and original rap scene, but of a city deeply disenfranchised from mainstream America, where the stains of slavery, failed reconstruction, and federal disregard for a city that is largely defined by its’ low-income people of color runs deep, hard, and ruinous.  And ultimately, Cohn’s awareness that he will never fully understand the native African American experience, even as he tries to empathize with it and truly holds its’ culture in regard, becomes a huge part of the story.

One cannot follow contemporary American culture for the last half century without being aware of the assimilation of African American cultural memes by White America.  It is an essential (if largely unspoken) part of that story that white America can walk it, talk it, but never really be it.  No book has ever captured that dichotomy, the tragedy of attempting to wear the affect of a life you can never truly assimilate, better than Triksta.

Now a word or eight on Nik Cohn, who I intend to write about at greater length in the future:  Nik Cohn is the greatest rock-pop journalist/author of the last half-century; although others make claim to the crown (Lester Bangs and Nick Tosches both spring to mind, and quite effectively, too), Cohn is The King; no one has better combined an extraordinary and original perspective on the half-century of post-Fabs Anglo/American pop-rock with an almost riotously original imagination and a deeply talented, almost scarring, skill for reportage.  I cannot sing Cohn’s praises more highly – he really is the pinnacle representative of his strange and often disgraceful profession; and lest you think I am exaggerating his importance, Cohn wrote the “source” material for two of the premiere musical/cultural phenomena of our time:  His non-fiction piece for New York Magazine, “Tribal Rites of the New Saturday Night,” was turned into Saturday Night Fever, and his utterly brilliant surreal novella, Arfur, about a strange, precocious pre-pubescent pinball goddess wandering through the back alleys of a mysterious night-city, was adapted by Pete Townshend into Tommy  

Okay, back to music (or some suchlike facsimile) tomorrow…I am willing to confess I know nothing about race, about what it is like to be on the wrong end of the American dream, to be the constant victim of the abomination of inequality and cultural insult; and this, I think, makes it absolutely appropriate for me to write about two brilliant books that are all-knowing by admitting everything that the authors could never know.

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  • Don Waller

    Good work. Gotta love the props to Nik Cohn, whose body of work is even greater than mentioned here.