Get our free newsletter
There, yet again, was the Word: “Niggerrr!” This time it issued from the lips of a white boy hanging out the window of a car screeching past me, warning me that I was behind enemy lines. “Niggerrr!” was the consequence of being six blocks east of an imaginary line dividing black from white, and my antagonist was marking his territory, making sure I knew the geography, in the human equivalent of pissing on a tree. But on another level, what he was actually screaming was “I’m white!”euphorically affirming his membership in the epidermal club of clubs. Never mind the fact that Canibus, Wu-Tang, Biggie, Jay-Z, and Puffy were in hot rotation on his CD player, or that his old man dug Miles and his sister got weeded to Marley; no matter that he had honed his b-ball aesthetic with visions of Shaquille Barkley-Jordan dancing in his head. He remained blissfully, irrevocably, and unconditionally white. Or so he thought.
David Roediger is wise to some things that precious few white people in this country have figured outnamely, that he isn’t white. In an attempt to spread the word, he has edited Black on White: Black Writers on What it Means to Be White. The fact that America’s contemporary “dialogue on race” is, at the very least, founded on some faulty premises is made blisteringly apparent by this book. Roediger, a historian at the University of Minnesota, has traveled this terrain before. His previous books, The Wages of Whiteness and Towards the Abolition of Whiteness, are cornerstones of that latest trend in Caucasian navel-gazing known as Whiteness Studies. But, unlike other permutations of American narcissism, this is self-examination with a measure of revolutionary potential.
It is no accident that this is a collection of black writers discussing the meaning of whiteness; with precious few exceptions, black people have been forced to reckon with the reality of white identity far longer than whites. As Toni Morrison and James Baldwin tell it, the first word 19th-century white immigrants to this country learned was “nigger,” because the primary step in becoming American was learning to participate in the delusion of whiteness. The stigma of being a wop, mick, or kraut was greatly reduced by the presence of niggers (who were themselves an ethnic amalgam), because whether they hailed from Italy, Ireland, or Germany, they at least shared skin color. Nothing fosters unity like a common enemy. Short of a massive social epiphany or the creation of an interracial screwing corps that will miscegenate America into a mutually palatable shade of beige, it seems that these mythical categories are unchangeable and as permanent as a birthmark.
Roediger’s book makes painfully clear that although “Irish need[ed] not apply” in the 1890s, white skin ensured that within a few decades they would be eligible to conduct the interview. The works included span more than a century, from William J. Wilson’s 1871 science-fictional “What Shall We Do With the White People?” to Mia Bay’s cutting-edge discussion of “the white image in the black mind.” In between is a virtual canon of black thinkers: Du Bois, Hurston, Hughes, Ellison, and Morrison, to name only a few. None figure, however, as prominently as James Baldwin; no fewer than three of his works are excerpted here. It was Baldwin’s relentless interrogation of the nature of black and white in this country that, more than anything else, established the parameters of Roediger’s current discussion. As Baldwin writes:
The crisis of leadership in the white community is remarkableand terrifyingbecause there is in fact no white community….There is…an Irish community…[in] Belfast, Dublin and Boston. There is a German community: both sides of Berlin, Bavaria and Yorkville. There is an Italian community: Rome, Naples, the Bank of the Holy Ghost and Mulberry Street…but this does not describe a [white] community….No one was white before he/she came to America. It took generations, and a vast amount of coercion, before this became a white country.
For his part, Roediger has done an excellent job in selecting material. Amiri Baraka’s succinct, two-page excerpt details a black worker and a white worker who come to understand that their pay differential is a result of the latter having “a dollar’s work of skin color”; Toni Morrison surgically dissects Herman Melville’s racial metaphors; and Ellison’s “What America Would Be Like Without Blacks” should be required reading. This is not a perfect collection, but the flatliners are few and far between.
I could have done without bell hooks’ inane blathering on whether Madonna is a “plantation mistress or soul sister.” hooks, an academic Quixote tilting at the windmill of pop culture, writes
[I]t is the expressed desire of the non-blonde Other for those characteristics that are seen as the quintessential markers of racial aesthetic superiority that perpetuate and uphold white supremacy. In this sense Madonna has much in common with the masses of black women who suffer from internalized racism and are forever terrorized by a standard of beauty they feel they can never truly embody.
Funny, I was just saying the same thing to my wife the other day. Such bloated phrasing is, fortunately, the exception. Perhaps the central virtue of this collection is the fact that it is among the most accessible of its generation of “identity studies,” a book that can be understood by the average personeven the white boy who yells “Niggerrr!” out the window of a car that goes screech in the night.CP