The New York Times In America

January 29, 2004

Shaking Up a Racial Molotov Cocktail

Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners.
By Debra J. Dickerson.
306 pp. New York: Pantheon Books. $24.

"An American Story," the astonishing memoir by Debra J. Dickerson that appeared in 2000, showed her to be a sharp, fearless writer with a roller-coaster story to tell. She wrote about her parents, onetime sharecroppers; about a tough, tumultuous childhood; about her years in the Air Force and her rape by a colleague who wound up in military prison; and about her seesawing political evolution, evidence of idealism tempered by experience. "If a conservative is a liberal who has been mugged," she wrote then, "a liberal is a conservative who realizes that she can't have what's being conserved."

That lays the groundwork for "The End of Blackness," a dazzling diatribe that reveals Ms. Dickerson as a Molotov-cocktail polemicist. Drawing tacitly upon the racial self-doubt she experienced within her family and even reacting to the racial favoritism that she says paved her way to Harvard Law School, she has distilled a lifetime's worth of eye-opening realizations into a furious, bitterly funny indictment. Even readers whom she enrages — and there will be many — cannot ignore the range and ferocity of her attack.

"Whites, however unproductive or immoral, are born vested with Americanness," she writes. "The most uncomprehending (European) immigrant donned that mantle by simply arriving at Ellis Island. But blacks must strive to earn that which can never be earned, not as long as they remain unwhite and certainly not as long as they disagree, complain or critique." As its title has the temerity to suggest, "The End of Blackness" postulates a need for black Americans to free themselves from those assumptions. "The last plantation," she writes, "is the mind."

Ms. Dickerson's opening assumption is this: "Blacks must consciously give up on achieving racial justice. They must renounce any notion of achieving justice that is meant to even the historical score or bring about full racial integration." Whatever it would take to achieve this — "perhaps a giant Hallmark card signed by every Caucasian in America" — would be worth it, in her deliberately inflammatory view.

In what will strike readers of her memoir as a clear (and arguably too individualized) evocation of her own past, Ms. Dickerson predicates simmering feelings of inadequacy among blacks. She refers disparagingly to "the self-image of the 21st-century black woman in a waist-length blond wig." She cites such mocking verse on the Internet as "Leroy the Gold-Toothed Reindeer," and presents this and further evidence of black self-contempt disguised as humor. She also includes stereotypical views of whites from a black perspective. "White children are spoiled," she writes. "This is how they learn to grow up white."

Why, she asks, should whiteness even be a point of reference for a black self-image? Blacks have the power to cease being hamstrung by history and to transcend the grievances of the past. "Harry Houdini once famously struggled for hours picking a jail cell lock, only to lean against it in exhaustion and have the door swing open," she writes. "It had never been locked at all. All that confined him was in his own head." This, she maintains, describes the condition of being American and black.

Angry yet? Ms. Dickerson has been accused of employing reductive neoconservative logic and of pandering to white readers, telling them what they want to hear. But her position is not so easily pigeonholed, even if she leaps too quickly to generalizations, suffers a weakness for black-and-white debating dichotomies and resorts to oversimplifications that are more wisecracking than profound. Even so, Ms. Dickerson deserves to fan the same kind of flames that made an academic celebrity of Camille Paglia, and that routinely catapults us-vs.-them screeds to the best-seller list.

Whatever else this book accomplishes, it makes her a star. And the provocations presented here are often incontrovertibly formulated. Referring to Frederick Douglass, she writes, "If a fugitive slave could make America respect him, so can a black M.B.A."

If this book were not already destined to make enemies for Ms. Dickerson, she clinches the point by assailing the ideas of African-Americanism and the black academic establishment. "The black community needs to unravel the mystery of why its most successful act like the most dispossessed," she writes.

And as for academic curriculum, she insists, "The goal should be to expand the base of cultural literacy, one sinew of a strong nation, not to play a zero-sum game in which one nugget of Western civilization must be jettisoned for every multicultural nugget included."

The controversial core of this book is her assumption that American culture already is multicultural, even if black history is full of events and individuals that whites still ignore. "Blacks have access to the director's cut," she writes, about this more panoramic view of the past.

"The End of Blackness" is especially blistering about blacks who bring either shame or romanticism to an African past. Raising the rebuttal-ready point that a person of Irish and African genetic heritage (she has white and Cherokee great-grandparents) should be as curious about County Cork as about the Ivory Coast, she questions the assumption that American blacks should look to their African origins instead of to a less divisive future.

Besides, she says, African history is too complex to be embraced as a generality. And it prompts ambivalence, at least in her own case. But "one wonders what would happen if Africa awarded shares in diamond mines to any black who could prove lineage to the region."

Above all "The End of Blackness" appears intended less as an assault than as an invitation. Acknowledging her act of gauntlet throwing, Ms. Dickerson invites Americans of any race to consider the confusion of past and present, race and class, accomplishment and aspiration. "I need the guy who can take me to the Ice Cube concert and then to the White House," she quotes the actress Jada Pinkett Smith as saying, in one of the book's countless examples of mixed messages. "Living on a golf course with servants is not `black,' " she writes of Mr. Smith, "regardless of how hard one worked, while black, to acquire them."

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