How Race Is Lived in America: Pulling Together, Pulling Apart. By Correspondents of The New York Times. Introduction by Joseph Lelyveld. Henry Holt. $27.50.
Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from The New York Times. Introduction by John Darnton. Henry Holt. $23.00.
However good, most newspaper articles are destined for the same fate as yesterday’s lead story—they wrap fish or line garbage cans. Sometimes, however, fate spares them such ignominy and places them between hard covers. This was the case recently when Henry Holt brought out two collections of pieces originally published in The New York Times—one, an investigation of “how race is [currently] lived in America”; the other, a sampling of writers talking about writing. Let me begin with the former, not only because the series was awarded a Pulitzer Prize, but also because race remains a tricky, paralyzing subject. What the editors hatched up was surely an ambitious project, one that promised to be more than the “usual mosaic of dreary census, school, and income statistics, studded with pious quotations from the civil rights era of blessed memory or from academics and clergymen speaking earnestly.” The result takes us to a slaughterhouse in Tar Heel, North Carolina, a restored plantation in Natchitoches, Louisiana, and a platoon in Fort Knox, Kentucky. We meet, among others, a white quarterback who played ball at a historically black college, a white rapper on the college lecture circuit, and two young wheeler-dealers, one white, one black, as they make their way up (and down) the e-business fast track. Above all else, the series wanted to give race in America a human face, or perhaps more correctly, a series of human faces. To accomplish this, the Times assigned reporter(s) to cover 15 especially juicy stories, and then gave them the time necessary to watch as the arc of the respective sagas unfolded.
No doubt their project will get no end of raspberries from those academics who want to reach for a pistol whenever they hear the word “race.” Why so? Because, they will tell you, “race” is a 19th-century social construction, one that, at best, misrepresents, and at worst, continues to perpetuate stereotypes. For better or worse, the Times reporters were not given to ruminations of this sort; instead, they simply assumed that race continues to matter, and perhaps even more so as we increasingly live in a multicultural America where blacks, whites, Asians, and others now work together and presumably have more things that bind them together than pull them apart.
What the series was out to explore is precisely this: why, if things are so good, are they still so bad. Regular reminders of how America divides itself along racial lines seem always to be with us: the infamous Tawana Brawley case in 1987, the videotaped beating of Rodney King in 1991, the O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, and most recently, the 41 shots that felled African immigrant, Amadou Diallo. Small wonder, then, reporter Michael Winetrip was sent to find out how Harlem drug cops would react to the Diallo verdict: “Feelings ran deep. No case in recent years has hit the police closer to home.” As Sergeant Maria Brogli, a white officer, put it: “There but for the grace of God. . .”To which Winetrip added: “Every officer with any sense, white or black, fears mistakenly shooting an unarmed man like Amadou Dialoo. Talk about jamming up a career.”
But if this was the unspoken fear, the point Winetrip makes again and again, is that it remains unspoken. True enough, race colors everything if your beat happens to be the drug wars in Harlem, but race is also what cops don’t discuss—”It’s too risky. They need to get along.” And get along they do, despite the undercurrent of suspicion. As Winetrip tells us, giving the moment as much melodrama as he can muster:
When the Dialoo verdict was read charge by charge that rainy February evening and it became evident that the four officers would be cleared on every count, Brogli was so delighted she felt almost as if she had been personally exonerated, and Derrick [a black officer] was so bitter he could not stop pacing. But despite the enormous emotion of the moment, the whites did not cheer or whoop; the blacks showed no outrage. There was hardly a sound in the room.
In one way or another, probing beneath this wall of silence is what the Times series is about, for talking openly about race is what blacks and whites in the 21st century prefer not to do. Nobody, after all, is particularly interested in buying trouble, and that is what abandoning the safe pieties about race, how the old-bad-days of segregation and openly uttered racist slurs are over, will get you. After all, blacks and whites have long gone to the same schools, competed for the same jobs, and lived in a society that tries hard to put on a colorblind lace. Who really wants to dwell in the past when a better, brighter future presumably looms ahead?
The reality, of course, is quite different, as we learn when following Ageelah Mateen, Kelly Regan, and Johanna Perez-Fox, a tight rainbow coalition of friends, as they grew up, and eventually apart, in Maplewood, New Jersey. Throughout middle school, their friendship didn’t miss a beat or hit a rock. Ageelah, an African-American Muslim, Kelly, an Irish-Catholic, and Johanna, half Jewish, half Puerto Rican, had an uncomplicated friendship in what was largely an uncomplicated [racial] time. High school changed all that, as it became clear that where you sat, and with whom, during lunch period mattered greatly, just as your clothing, hair style, taste in music, even your grades also mattered greatly.
Granted, adolescence was always filled with confusion, but it is hard to think of a time when youngsters like Johanna, Kelly, and Ageelah were forced to choose between a “black” life or a “white” one. Old friendships are, alas, no match for the relentless peer pressure that governs nearly every aspect of contemporary schooling. Take ability grouping, for example. Designed to distinguish between stronger, more motivated students and average performers, the result often boils down to this: whites and blacks no longer attend the same classes, and not surprisingly, a set of in-your-face attitudes soon develops: “. . .as students notice that honors classes are mostly white and lower-level ones mostly black, they develop a corrosive sense that behaving like honors students is “acting white,” while “acting black” demands that they emulate lower-level students. Little wonder that sixth grade, when ability grouping starts, is also when many interracial friendships begin to come apart.”
Unfortunately, the seeds of this “mirror, mirror on the wall/Who’s the blackest of us all?” phenomenon continue to grow (I would say, “fester”) long after high school. Throughout the series one encounters far too many places where, say, hip-hop music becomes a—sometimes the—defining culture of black culture (this despite the fact that a good many white boys also knew who Grandmaster Flash is), or when people who work together never visit each other’s homes because, so the argument goes, they have nothing to talk about or listen to.
Diversity, in short, seems to be a principle that people easily acknowledge but generally prefer not to practice. The same thing is true when it comes to talking candidly about race. Blacks worry— more than many whites imagine—if they are being too sensitive about perceived racial slurs, if they’ve got an unnecessarily large chip on their collective shoulders; while whites are flat-out afraid to say anything that could end up sounding (however unintended) as if it slipped off a racist’s tongue. Better, far better, to play it safe, which means to continue thinking of race as the dead moose sprawled across the dining room table. Everybody knows it’s there, but decorum demands that you smile, cover your nose, and ask the person three seats down to pass the salt.
Perhaps nothing makes the case for what can happen when somebody sets out to call a dead moose a dead moose than the tale of Carl Chancellor, a black reporter, and Bob Dyer, white columnist who, together, wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning series on race relations for The Akron Beacon Journal. One would think that here are professionals of the first-water, people fully capable of traveling through the mine fields of race without ending up at each other’s throats. After all, they had spent months behind a two-way mirror listening to panels of citizens talk about race: “White women admitted that they still crossed the street to avoid black men. Black fathers said they still did not want their daughters marrying white boys. When blacks and whites were thrown together, they mostly smiled politely and talked about the need to get along.” That, in a nut shell, was the problem—not only in racially troubled Akron but indeed across the country. Chancellor and Dyer earned their Pulitzer by cutting through the crap and making it possible for honest talk about race to begin.
Ironically enough, sweetness and light did not envelop the Beacon Journal in the months following their big coup. When the story broke of a Washington, D.C. politico who was summarily sacked because he used the word “niggardly,” Chancellor and Dyer came to very different conclusions; moreover, they conducted their quarrel in the very newspaper that had tried mightily to seek out the common ground that blacks and whites shared. Interpretations of “niggardly” were clearly not a good example: Chancellor insisted that people use the word as a “sophomoric, smart-alecky and cowardly way to deliver an insult through the back door.” In the old, bad days people simply thought—and said—the N-word; now, they still think the N-word, but are careful to say “niggardly” instead.
Dye, however, would have none of this—and said so in print: “To defend the firing of a man who used a word that somebody misunderstood is to defend ignorance.” After all, he went on to argue, if you say two plus two equals four and “somebody among the oppressed masses sincerely believes the answer is five,” then the person who said “four” is not only wrong, but also possibly a racist. Dyer clearly enjoys playing the gadfly—later he would write a controversial column in which he described Afrocentrism as “the scholarly equivalent of flying saucers”—but it was the flap about “niggardly” that drove a wedge through what had formerly been a fairly close relationship, both inside the office and beyond its walls. “If I say that I’m offended by the word niggardly,” Chancellor passionately argued, “my objection may make no sense to you, but I have a right to those feelings.” And as he went on to insist, “If, for example, you are standing on my toes, it is completely up to me to determine if my foot is hurting and to what extent.” This, from a wordsmith who knows full well what “niggardly” means, but who also filters what he hears through his experience as a black man in America.
Again, what the various portraits come down to is perception, and the silences on both sides of the racial divide that reinforce suspicion. People, alas, are never more than their identity politics, however much one suspects that there is more to these stories than the Times correspondents want us to see. They have, after all, trained their eyes on the exotic, the sensational, and what they imagine fairly drips with literary possibility. But lively as they are as journalists, they are not, I’m afraid, worth two shakes as writers. When they go rolling, what rolls out is often overheated and just plain purple: “The workers filed in, their faces stiffened by sleep and the cold, like saucers of milk gone hard.”
Like his efforts to put together a national health plan or to broker peace in the Middle East, former president Clinton’s national conversation about race began with high expectations and then slowly slipped down the memory hole. By contrast, the Times series certainly had its moments, but none of them can be found in its self-serving introduction (“I think it reasonable to declare that this journalistic venture had some of the ambitions of literature or theater, in that it looked for dramatic situations that conveyed deeper meanings and that it placed the burden of discovering those meanings in large measure on the audience”) or in the nearly 100 pages of extended conversations, sound bites, polls, and graphs that seem both unnecessary and unwanted, given all that the introduction had promised and the profiles themselves had accomplished.
Still, with all its warts, How Race is Lived in America is a book that reminds us of how much has changed on the racial front, and how much still needs to be done. If the series gets people to talk about race around the water cooler or, better yet, in living rooms, it will have done its job of work.
Writers [on Writing] is, by contrast, a less complicated affair, at least at first glance. As John Darton puts it, he wondered if it wouldn’t be interesting to commission a series by writers “to let them talk about their craft.” Not, I hasten to add, in the way that the famous Paris Review series worked—that is, questions about craft followed by generally thoughtful answers—but rather as an opportunity for writers to ruminate about anything they figured was important or just simply interesting. They were free, in short, to fill up the space any way they wanted—with no strings or preconditions attached. The resulting collection is as free-wheeling (and often wonderful) as its writers are diverse. Some belong to the old-and-established school (Saul Bellow, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates), others to the up-and-coming class (Rick Bass, Gish Jen, André Acimen). No matter, because what we learn is the fundamental truth that Joyce Carol Oates spilled when she talked about how she went about writing her Detroit novel, Them: “What a curious experience! Without the bouts of running [Oates’ essay is about the necessary conjunction, at least to her, of running and writing], I don’t believe I could have written the novel; yet how perverse, one thinks, to be living in one of the world’s most beautiful cities, London, and to be dreaming of one of the world’s most problematic cities, Detroit. But of course, as no one has yet remarked in this diverse and idiosyncratic series, Writers on Writing, writers are crazy.” Indeed. As I tell my students, serious writers divide themselves into two camps: those who take one or two days off a year (for a birthday, anniversary, Christmas or the like) and those who don’t. The latter regard the former as lazy and unserious, or worse. Walter Mosely counts himself among the daily writers because the muse only comes to those who position themselves at the writing desk: “You don’t go to the well once but daily. You don’t skip a child’s breakfast or forget to wake up in the morning. Sleep comes to you each day, and so does the muse.” By contrast, Richard Ford makes an eloquent case for “goofing off” while the muse recharges herself. Is one writer right and the other wrong; or is this a case in which there are infinite ways to be crazy, which is to say, to be a writer? I’m not sure, but I still think that my playful exaggeration about how serious writers divide themselves hits close to an important truth, one that students who think of writing as “romantic” need to know—namely, that writing is, among other things, hard work and that discipline will knock the socks off an inspired vision any day of the week.
John Updike is a good example of the lunch pail writer I have in mind, the sort of guy who goes to his writing desk every morning arid well. . .pounds out words. He might have set type (as his character Rabbit Angstrom does at one point) or done something else, but the fact of the matter is that he sets his table by being a professional writer. And Updike, being Updike, feels no particular need to wax rhapsodic about this. So, his contribution is a playful romp in which one of his characters, Henry Bech, takes him to task for writing Bech at Bay. The result is writing-about-writing that hides important truths just inside the folds of humor: “To be a writer at all, it seemed to me,” Updike pronounces, tongue firmly in his cheek, “is to be to some extent Jewish—outsiderish but chosen, condemned to live by your wits.” Cynthia Ozick (conspicuously absent in this series) would, I feel certain, not agree with Updike’s “definition” of the Jewish writer, nor has she been a particular fan of the Bech books, but this is only to say that contemporary writers are a testy bunch, hardly the sort to toss bouquets at the competition.
Generally speaking, though, most of the writers Darnton collects spend their time talking about themselves. We learn, for example, what Rick Bass learns by dogging the heels of his dog, or what Annie Proulx discovers at yard sales. We also learn why, for Mary Gordon, the right pen and the perfect notebook are crucial. Mostly, though, what the various writers in this series celebrate is what art can tell us about the world. David Leavitt speaks about the ways in which the imagination can “impose upon ordinary life the very coherence that ordinary life so often fails to sustain” while Barbara Kingsolver says much the same thing, even as she extends the range in which our best writers work. For her, what is a cause for joy is that writers find “elegant ways to describe life on other planets, or in a rabbit warren, or an elephant tribe, inventing the language they needed to navigate passages previously uncharted by our tongue.”
If race continues to be perplexing, writing will, I suppose, always remain a mystery. To make a dream come alive on the page, to write—and, yes, rewrite—a passage until the right words appear in the right places, is what serious writing is all about. That is why Saul Bellow’s abiding faith in a republic of letters is so bracing, even as oceans of technological innovation seem at the ready to roll over us. One thing is clear: the specifics of “how race is lived in America” will certainly change, and one hopes for the better. But writers talking about writing is likely to be permanent chatter. Granted, the writers will change, new voices will announce themselves and become part of the ongoing discussion, but the essential battle required to put words on paper, the “craziness,” if you will, remains unchanged. For 19th-century writers, stacks of blank paper cried out to be filled; now it is a cursor that blinks no matter how many words one writes. Small wonder that the really serious writers of my classroom anecdote scribble away every day; art, as always, is long while life, alas, is short. And here may well be the difference between writers on writers and those who would urge us to talk more about race. Even the most engaged of the latter camp take time off to notice that not everything is racially encoded; some things, such as sunsets or children laughing, are just there, and are wonderful. Writers notice the same things, of course, but they feel an additional need to put the feelings down in paragraphs so that others might experience what they already have.