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Casey King is having some problems being a white guy: Other white folks don’t understand his “obsession” with little black kids and the civil rights movement.
“People look at me and say, ‘You’re whitewhy is this important to you?’ I look at the majority of white America and ask, ‘Why isn’t this important to you?’”
The 34-year-old King recently co-authored Oh, Freedom!: Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement With the People Who Made It Happen, which he produced by sending 31 D.C. elementary and middle-school children out to interview folks who had been active, or at least alive, during that tumultuous period in American history. King says the children, who were understandably naive about the history of the civil rights movement, were not uniformly enthusiastic regarding the assignment, but that once they were entrenched in the project, they developed a respect for a time they had never known.
The author says that Knopf, his mostly white publisher, didn’t quite comprehend his deep love for and curiosity about black culture. King pissed off the publishing house by holding up publication so that a few leading lights of the black intellectual world could give Oh, Freedom! a look-see. He says he was more than a little worried about being “culturally correct” as a white person writing on a “black” issue. “I’m a cultural outsider, so I needed to make sure things were being done fairly,” King says. “I had Cornel West and Henry Louis Gates Jr. look at the book before I put it out. I refused to let it go to print until West had given his opinion.” After securing West’s and Gates’ blessing, King was ready to go forward.
Knopf, however, still had reservations about a white man’s face appearing on the jacket flap. The company decided to leave King off the cover on the grounds that his picture might hurt the book’s sales. In his defense, King offers that he is part Creole. “Does that help?” he asks, hoping that the revelation will make him an honorary bro.
King thinks a lot of white people are ignorant about black culture and tend to stereotype the race; he is saddened by the notion that the white higher-ups at Knopf feel blacks would be turned off by a book so important to black youth simply because a nonblack face was on the cover. King’s co-author, Linda Barrett Osborne, is also white and is also absent from the book jacket.
King refuses to classify himself as a “white” writer, crediting a couple of Howard University mentors with opening his eyes to the black side of things while King studied filmmaking at the school for a year in the late ’80s.
King wants folksblack, white, and otherwiseto get it into their heads that admiring and loving a culture apart from one’s own doesn’t make one a sellout, but that in trying to uplift the consciousness of another culture one inevitably does the same to one’s own.