BN.com Gift Guide

Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race

( 1 )

Overview

Eugene Robinson didn't expect to have his world turned upside down when he accompanied a group of friends and acquaintances to the beach at Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro one sunny afternoon. He had recently moved to South America as the new correspondent for the Washington Post, a position he had sought not only as an exciting professional challenge but also as a means of escape from the poisonous racial atmosphere in America's cities, which he experienced firsthand as a reporter and editor covering city politics in ...
See more details below
Available through our Marketplace sellers.
Other sellers (Hardcover)
  • All (30) from $1.99   
  • New (5) from $5.00   
  • Used (25) from $1.99   
Close
Sort by
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Note: Marketplace items are not eligible for any BN.com coupons and promotions
$5.00
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(2)

Condition:

New — never opened or used in original packaging.

Like New — packaging may have been opened. A "Like New" item is suitable to give as a gift.

Very Good — may have minor signs of wear on packaging but item works perfectly and has no damage.

Good — item is in good condition but packaging may have signs of shelf wear/aging or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Acceptable — item is in working order but may show signs of wear such as scratches or torn packaging. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Used — An item that has been opened and may show signs of wear. All specific defects should be noted in the Comments section associated with each item.

Refurbished — A used item that has been renewed or updated and verified to be in proper working condition. Not necessarily completed by the original manufacturer.

New
New York, NY 1999 Hard cover New in new dust jacket. No marks on cover or pages. Excellent condition. Sewn binding. Cloth over boards. 272 p. Audience: General/trade.

Ships from: Sacramento, CA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$18.61
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(10)

Condition: New
New Gift Quality Book in Excellent Condition.

Ships from: Newton, MA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • International
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$18.90
Seller since 2005

Feedback rating:

(158)

Condition: New
NY 1999 Hard cover First edition. New in new dust jacket. Gift Quality. Brand New. Fast Arrival. Packaged, protected and shipped in bubble wrap. Free tracking. Sewn binding. ... Cloth over boards. 272 p. Audience: General/trade. Gift Quality. Brand New. Fast Arrival. Packaged, protected and shipped in bubble wrap. Pristine condition. Free tracking. Read more Show Less

Ships from: Derby, CT

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Canadian
  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
$65.00
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(194)

Condition: New
Brand new.

Ships from: acton, MA

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
$299.99
Seller since 2014

Feedback rating:

(9)

Condition: New
0684857227 -New! Still Shrink Wrapped! Perfect for Gift Giving. Ready to ship with professional packaging. 30043

Ships from: Chicago, IL

Usually ships in 1-2 business days

  • Standard, 48 States
  • Standard (AK, HI)
  • Express, 48 States
  • Express (AK, HI)
Page 1 of 1
Showing All
Close
Sort by
Sending request ...

Overview

Eugene Robinson didn't expect to have his world turned upside down when he accompanied a group of friends and acquaintances to the beach at Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro one sunny afternoon. He had recently moved to South America as the new correspondent for the Washington Post, a position he had sought not only as an exciting professional challenge but also as a means of escape from the poisonous racial atmosphere in America's cities, which he experienced firsthand as a reporter and editor covering city politics in Washington, D.C. Coal to Cream is the story of Robinson's personal exploration of race, color, identity, culture, and heritage, as seen through the America of his youth and the South America he discovered, forging a new consciousness about himself, his people, and his country. As he immersed himself in Brazilian culture, Robinson began to see that its focus on color and class - as opposed to race - presents problems of its own. Discrimination and inequality still exist; but without a sense of racial identity, the Brazilians lack the anger and vocabulary they need to attack or even describe such ills. Ultimately, Robinson came to realize that racial identity, what makes him not just an American but a black American, is a gift of great value - a shared language of history and experience - rather than the burden it had sometimes seemed.
Read More Show Less

Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
The Barnes & Noble Review
Admiring the dark complexions at the Rio de Janeiro airport, reporter Eugene Robinson imagined that he was entering a racial paradise, a place where the sheer range of the spectrum would annihilate prejudice. But he was wrong. Brazil did offer diversity: Standing on the beach at Ipanema, one might see swimmers of every hue emerging from the waves. But, instead of the rainbow convergence that Robinson expected, he found this sunny place a hotbed of discrimination, a tropical country in which class and shades of color were woven together to enforce social hierarchies. The racial consciousness and sense of identity that he had thought he left in Virginia returned to Robinson in a new way as he came to realize that Brazilians lacked the means to confront the discrimination and inequality of their lives. Even the vocabulary seemed lacking, although it had terms of every gradation of color. A sobering, yet reasuring study.
Sallye Leventhal
Anthony Walton
A solid model for a sorely needed new kind of book about race in America, one that does not simplify the intractable problem but doesn't traffic in easy doom either. Robinson is touchingly honest and forthright...
NY Times Book Review
Casey Greenfield

Academics have long worked to dismantle the tenacious construction that is race. But outside the limestone tower, it's rare to find a discussion of race that questions its very existence. Interracial adoption, affirmative action, fair housing -- each of these topical debates rests on one common-sense assumption: that race as we know it is, for better or worse, real.

In Coal to Cream, Eugene Robinson weighs the virtues and failings of a foreign culture that does not acknowledge race in the American sense. As South American bureau chief of the Washington Post, Robinson found himself spending as much time as he could in glamorous Rio de Janeiro. Chief among that city's seductions was not the sound of samba but the Brazilian vision of race -- or lack thereof. He discovered in a conversation on Ipanema beach that, while in America he could never have passed for white, in Brazil he didn't have to call himself black if he didn't want to. "That day on the beach was electrifying, eye-opening, liberating," he writes. "I felt as if I'd just been let out of an airless little prison cell straight into the glorious space and hot sun and cooling zephyrs of Ipanema."

Those zephyrs took Robinson across a racial Rubicon. In Brazil, the categories he had always regarded as fixed were, in fact, mutable: "I'd found a system that let people be themselves, that let people be individuals, rather than exemplars of groups." For a black American man who had succeeded in mainstream white institutions, the freedom to shed the exemplar's coil came as a huge relief.

But as Robinson spent more time in Brazil, he came to perceive an unpleasant truth about this raceless paradise: The poorest and most degraded people in the country consistently fell into the category Americans would call black, while the richest had lighter skin. His conclusion: Racial oppression exists in Brazil just as it does in other countries, but the disenfranchised are worse off there because they don't identify their oppression as racial.

Racial anger, then, has its virtues. Without it, Brazilians "had no sense of themselves as joined, embattled, mutually reinforced. Without it, they had no basis for demands, no scoreboard to tally gains and losses, no foreknowledge to cushion defeat and no suspicion to temper victory. Without it, they had no motor, no juice, no steam. No chance."

Academic theory has no place in Coal to Cream -- not because Robinson is unaware of academic debates but because the book primarily documents a personal experience. He does make a brief nod to the great question of essentialism -- whether characteristics are inherent in a person or group from birth or are culturally constructed: "I'm not a believer in any hereditary theory in which psychological wounds automatically get passed down through the centuries, like some kind of stigmata of the mind. But I do think that if the circumstances are conducive, the agony of one generation can echo in the next, and the next, and the next -- ever more faintly, perhaps, but still with the amplitudes and frequencies of the original."

After several years in South America and then London, Robinson and his family moved home -- to just outside Washington. His return to the States dovetailed with his embrace of his status as a black man. At the Million Man March, he found a calming atmosphere of kinship that had little to do with the media's portrayal of the event as a Louis Farrakhan rally. What impressed him was not the political agenda but something else: "We were hundreds of thousands defined as a group by our common color, but that color was common only in the loosest sense: some of us were in fact ebony, others every conceivable shade of brown or red or even yellow, a range that went all the way from coal to cream."

If that's true -- if the importance of black solidarity is about culture, not color, if community transcends physical characteristics, if skin color per se does not determine group membership -- then it's not exactly clear why Robinson still embraces the notion of blackness. Why do racial categories remain significant to him? In the end, the why of race seems as elusive to Robinson as the what he can't quite define.
Salon

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Frustrated by American racial politics, Robinson, an accomplished journalist for the Washington Post, assumed a position as a foreign correspondent in the newspaper's South American bureau. His trip to Brazil, which he envisioned as a tropical land of racial harmony, prompted this sometimes acerbic yet constantly challenging comparison of color, class and racial identity in his native country and that tantalizing South American melting pot. He opens with an exacting recollection of his childhood in segregated South Carolina before deftly examining the significance of race in everyday life in the U.S. and the potent racial and social myths that inform our concept of it. The outward absence of interracial animosity he finds in Rio and the surrounding countryside shatters his long-held views on the invincibility of the barriers posed by skin color. Following his detailed and exuberant observations of Caricoa society and its unique emphasis on color over race, his journey through South America, especially in Peru and Chile, compels him to reassess his views of himself both as a black man and an American. Particularly entertaining is his short, informative chapter on the Brazilian black church and the role of African influences in its rituals. Robinson wryly hammers home his key points on the destructive nature of racial prejudice in America, but repetition robs his effort of much of its cumulative impact. Despite its flaws, however, the book is full of provocative and worthy insights. (Aug.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
After moving to Brazil as a correspondent for the Washington Post, Robinson, now the paper's foreign editor, discovered that race matters. Initially, Robinson thought of Brazil as a "Colored People's Promised Land," free of racial tension and anger. He eventually realizes (though after the reader does) that Brazil's categorization of people by color, as opposed to race, doesn't protect dark Brazilians from discriminatory employment and housing practices and generally lower social status. Robinson's strongest point is that without a racial consciousness, the power and pride that accompany a black collective consciousness and foster social change are also missing. But Robinson's portrayal of race and color in Brazil is not convincing, and Coal to Cream is not as readable as similar memoirs by other black journalists: James McBride's quest for racial identity in The Color of Water (LJ 1/96) or Jill Nelson's exploration of authentic blackness in Volunteer Slavery (LJ 6/15/93). An optional purchase.--Sherri L. Barnes, Long Island Univ. Lib., Brooklyn Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Well-written but not well-thought-out account of the role of race in South America. Robinson, the foreign editor of the Washington Post, has composed a surprisingly flat, remarkably bland book about a subject•race and skin color•that ordinarily generates heated discussions. He is covering South America as a journalist based in Brazil when it occurs to him how carefree the people of that country are about skin tone and race, especially since he comes from a place•the US•that continues to debate the subject endlessly. Later he learns that Brazilian society is in fact roughly organized along lines of skin color. The most poverty-stricken people tend to be darker in complexion and hold more physically demanding jobs, while those who are lighter colored are in the better-paying, more responsible positions. In alternating chapters, Robinson, who happens to be black, makes comparisons between the US and South America in general and more often than not finds the US comes up short. But what seems to hurt this first effort is the lack of passion exhibited toward the Brazil the author holds so dear. He doesn•t seem to be aroused much beyond the superficial tourist attractions, such as the beauties on Ipanema beach and the fanfare of Carnival. He spends virtually half the book building up Brazil as a racial paradise, yet when it turns out to be something less than his expectations, he simply moves on quietly to Buenos Aires. No anger. No sense of loss or disappointment. He doesn't seem to have invested much in what he purports to be the Brazil of his dreams. It isn•t essential to be a journalist to periodically note story after story from this nation in which blacks are pitted against peoplewho are lighter- skinned. Surely Robinson knew that about the country before he went there.
Read More Show Less

Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780684857220
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • Publication date: 8/13/1999
  • Pages: 271
  • Product dimensions: 6.46 (w) x 9.59 (h) x 1.04 (d)

Table of Contents

Prologue The Girl from Ipanema

1 Escape
2 Behold the Promised Land
3 Cocoon
4 Invisibility
5 Absence of Malice
6 Colors
7 The Future That Never Came
8 Carnaval
9 From Cream to Coal
10 Let the Church Say, "Amen!"
11 Triangulation
12 Reconnection
13 Home

Epilogue One in a Million

Acknowledgments

Read More Show Less

First Chapter

Chapter 1: Escape It was a long journey from where I started to that Brazilian beach. I got there by engineering an escape from the confines of my own skin -- an escape from self, from family, from group, and above all from race.

I am a foreign correspondent by trade, and I was in Rio because the news had taken me there. But I also have a lot of other identities:

I am an African-American who once was black, once was a Negro, once was a colored boy.

I am a child of the segregated Deep South who came of age just as the civil rights movement changed everything.

I am a chronic integrator, sometimes by accident and sometimes by design, who since high school has always been either a black student at white schools or a black employee at white institutions.

I am a black man, the father of two black sons, in an era when black maleness in America is considered a deadly disease and those who suffer it are shunned like carriers of the bubonic plague.

I am a card-carrying member of the black middle class, which by definition means the stress of trying to live the good life on an adequate salary but with little or no underlying family wealth.

Because of all these things, I am a de facto mediator, a middleman. When I went to South America, I was at a point in my life when the feeling of being squeezed between worlds was particularly intense. I am also a writer, so I thought of my situation in terms of a writer's metaphor: I was like the tip of the pencil, the point where graphite meets paper, where black meets white. The part that is constantly ground into dust.

But this personal history explains only part of my reaction to Brazil. For the rest, I have to look back much further. Back a hundred years.

In the living room of the white clapboard house where I grew up, on the corner of Boulevard and Oak in Orangeburg, South Carolina, hang two old photographs, formal portraits taken around the turn of the century. One is of the gentleman who was the original owner and patriarch of the house, a man with flashing dark eyes, his skin very black, just this side of coal; the other is of a woman with dark hair and eyes but very light skin, almost like cream. They are Major John Hammond Fordham, my great-grandfather, and Louisa Gertrude Fordham, my great-grandmother, and their contrasting hues drew a set of borders for me in my early life, borders of race, identity, and color.

My grandmother, Sadie Fordham Smith, who lived to be ninety-eight and sassed the whole world until her dying day, used to tell stories about her father. She recalled how Major Fordham, "too slow and lazy and aristocratic to say good morning too loud," would stroll at a regal pace each day from his law office to the house for dinner, which was on the table at two in the afternoon. This was during the first few years to the new century, the major's ample middle years. On some days the sunlight would glint off his dark skin, highlighting his sharp cheekbones. On days when it rained he would approach through the gloom as slowly as ever, refusing to hurry one bit.

His wife, Louisa, would look down the street and see him coming on those rainy days. "Hammond!" she would yell, but he was oblivious. When he finally reached the house she would tell him he'd looked like a fool strolling through the rain.

"Not as much of a fool as I'd look running through it," my great-grandfather would reply. Then, removing his tailored jacket, now sopping and shapeless, he would make her exasperation complete with just the right touch of gall. "And now, Madam," he would say to his wife, "you may lay out fresh clothes for me."

In the house he ordered built for his family, the major installed a tiny window above the spot where he planned to install the piano -- it was believed at the time, my grandmother explained, that pianos needed to breathe. I think of that window when I think of the parallels between his life and mine. Each of us was born into a time when a window of opportunity was opened, one that was excruciatingly narrow but still passable to those with enough luck, determination, and drive. He made it through; I have always been buoyed and burdened by the obligation to try.

Major Fordham was born a freeman in Charleston in 1856. He witnessed the end of slavery and the upheaval of the Civil War as a young child, and came of age during Reconstruction, a time when blacks in the South had unprecedented opportunities. I witnessed the end of Jim Crow segregation and the upheaval of the civil rights movement as a small child, and came of age at a time when society's doors, so long closed to people of color, were suddenly thrown open. Both of us were reasonably successful. And although our lives were separated by a hundred years, both of us had to deal with race as a central issue, for ourselves and the society around us. Much had changed in that time, but much had not.

Major Fordham's title came from his rank in the Carolina Light Infantry, where he once headed a "colored" brigade. He was a lawyer, a landowner, a politician, a public speaker of some renown, a man of culture and learning and great ambition. But when he walked down the street, most people saw none of that. They saw in him their own assumptions about what a coal-dark Negro in the deep South should be.

He was subservient. He was no better than chattel. He was inarticulate. He was stupid. He was buffoonish. He was a schemer. He was limited. He was a sexual predator, potentially, and had to be watched at all times lest he despoil a white woman, which he surely yearned to do. He was simple. He was always happy. He was a laborer who made his living with his hands and his back, and when those wore out he'd have nothing left. He was lazy. He was shiftless. He was a host for something savage, something that could never be fully trained, something that would keep him from ever having the discipline to offer anything of real value to America. He was physically powerful. He was intellectually inferior. He was a mortal threat.

He was, in fact, none of those things. His family knew that, his friends knew it, anyone who ever took more than five minutes to get to know him would have found it out. But of course most people didn't take that time -- they didn't then, and they don't now.

Today, when people see me -- I should say when they see us, meaning men who fit into that improbably wide spectrum we define as "black," roughly from the color of coal to the color of cream -- they still assume, still pigeonhole, just as they did with the major. My teenage son Aaron, for example, can't just be seen as a teenager. When he puts on his clunky Timberland boots and his baggy jeans and his oversized sweatshirt and his knit cap, people see him as "thug" or "gangsta" -- potentially, given his size, as "assailant." When he wears his prep-school uniform of khaki pants and button-down shirt, on the other hand, some people see him as "paragon," others as "token," still others as "sellout."

My young son Lowell can't go to school and just be a kid. He is a black kid, in a suburban American school system where black students are not assumed at first glance to be achievers. Teachers automatically see him as an "at-risk" child. They expect less of him than they should. Invariably they are surprised to learn he has a mother and a father at home, both of them professionals, both of them interested in his growth and development.

As for me, when I go into a fancy clothing store, if I'm dressed well, the salesmen assume I'm interested in the flashiest and most expensive items they have, since everybody knows that's what black men want to buy. If I'm dressed down, on the other hand, they give plainclothes security guards the "shoplifter" nod. When I encounter people professionally, I encounter a range of assumptions, depending on the situation: "slow learner," in which people speak very loudly and simply, as if I were hearing-impaired; "Super Negro," in which people lay out an obstacle course and expect me to run it for their amusement; and, of course, like Aaron, "token," "paragon," and "sellout."

There are other categories into which we're sorted: "gigolo," "jock," "Rasta," "Mandingo," "Superfly," "Slick Willie," dozens more. It's only natural, I suppose, to build up frameworks around people you encounter for the first time, to try to put them in some kind of context. But it's not natural to make those frameworks and that context exclusively racial in nature. In many people's eyes, I can never be just "the tall guy." I have to be "the tall black guy," and that adds another whole dimension.

People assume, from the addition of that one adjective, that they know a lot about me. They think they know a lot about my personal history, about my family life, about my taste in music, about my attitudes toward women, about my politics. Some people think they know a lot about my intelligence and even my virility. These prejudgments are tempered by specifics: If "the tall black guy" were delivering a lecture on U.S. foreign policy, say, then the intelligence assumption would be modified. But the assumptions are almost never completely eradicated. People dump them on me -- on all of us -- like so much extra baggage, an awful lot of weight to have to lug through life. I've always resented it. More than that: It has always made me angry, not the kind of anger that boils over but the kind that simmers and stews, the kind that ultimately poisons.

A newspaper story of the day called my great-grandfather one of the state's "most prominent colored men. By his own efforts and perseverance he has overcome all obstacles and has come to the front, respected, esteemed and admired by his legion of friends...a progressive man and an honorable, upright citizen."

Substitute "black" for "colored" and that could be a quote from my own obituary, if I'm lucky.


Over the years, I'd grown weary of dealing with what white people thought they knew about me. More than weary: I was sick to death of it. But that wasn't the proximate reason for my escape to the tango parlors of Buenos Aires and the sands of Rio. The thing that had finally worn me down and impelled me to drag my family all the way to the bottom of the world was also having to deal with what black people thought they knew about me.

An illustration: When I first went to the Washington Post, I covered city government. One afternoon I was sitting at my desk in the press room of the District Building, Washington's city hall, when the mayor dropped by to banter with the press.

"Anybody home?" called Marion Barry.

This was the pre-cocaine-bust Marion Barry, when he still had a message and a mission -- and still managed to get through the day reasonably sober. He was full of energy and anger and even genuine idealism, and I admired him in many ways. But he was an official and I was a reporter, and so we were natural enemies.

"What you doin' here, Mr. Mayor?" snapped Mike Davis, one of my competitors. Mike was a sharp-eyed veteran who had cut his teeth covering civil rights in the 1960s.

"You got nothing better to do with your time?" Mike asked the mayor. "Is this what the citizens of the District of Columbia are paying you for? Or are you just here for some pointers?"

"Pointers on what? What you got to teach me, Mike Davis?"

"Nothing, Mr. Mayor, 'cause you wouldn't listen. That's why you got no money in your pocket. Let me see, Mr. Mayor, what you got?"

Barry grinned, pulled a money clip out of his pocket and started counting out twenties. Mike pulled out his clip and started counting out his twenties. They both cheated -- double-counting bills, inflating denominations -- so the contest was inconclusive. It ended with the mayor and his aides and all the assembled reporters sharing a moment of laughter.

The mayor wheeled. "And what about you, Gene Robinson?"

My turn. But I had no clip full of twenties. And anyhow, for me there was no street-corner bonhomie. With me, the mayor was all leverage, all pressure, all business.

"When's your newspaper going to stop with all those bullshit stories?" he demanded. "Always negative. Always putting everything down, putting everybody down. Tearing down what little black leadership we have in this city. When are you going to wake up and start doing something positive for the people of Washington?"

"I do, Mr. Mayor," I said. "I write the truth."

He snorted. "The truth? What the hell does the Washington Post know about the truth? Whose truth? Not mine. Not the black people of this city's. Why don't you print our truth for a change, Gene Robinson?"

The mayor left, the entourage left, everyone went back to work, and I felt like slamming the wall. I felt like my rival Mike had won, the mayor had won, and I had clearly lost.

At that time I'd only been in Washington a few months. But here, in this bastion of the black middle class, here in Chocolate City, for the first time in my life it seemed that somehow I wasn't black enough. Perhaps more accurately, that I didn't quite know how to be black.

This was absurd and insulting on its face -- I had grown up in the South and lived through the bitter end of segregation. But it was also true that I had spent my early years in a fairly unusual all-black environment, sheltered from anything resembling the accepted notion of the Urban Black Experience. I hadn't grown up in a ghetto. My mother wasn't a single parent, and life wasn't particularly tough. The streets weren't mean.

I hadn't gone to a historically black college, like Howard or Morehouse; instead, I'd gone off to the University of Michigan, where most of my good friends had been white. Afterward, I hadn't gone to New York or Washington or Detroit or Philadelphia, cities with long-established black communities and power structures that were bidding for control; I'd found my first job in San Francisco, viewed at the time as a weird place full of Asians and Hispanics as well as blacks, where the racial fault lines were harder to map than the many dangerous offshoots of the San Andreas. I'd married a black woman, but one who had been raised Catholic, attended an exclusive private high school, and developed her own distinctive way of navigating through the white world. I'm a confident person by nature, but suddenly I found myself actually wondering if I hadn't missed something somewhere along the way.

And there was more. It seemed that being black was supposed to mean sharing a certain set of attitudes, thinking in a certain way. Being almost paranoid. White people were trying to take back the little power we had. White people wanted to deny us everything. White people were determined to tear our leaders down. White people this, white people that, white people, white people...

My Post colleague Richard Cohen once reminded me that the word "paranoid" has no meaning for blacks and Jews, given what we've been through. But paranoia is also an abdication. To always imagine oneself a victim is to step aside, leaving center stage -- and the capacity to act -- to the protagonist, who happens to be the victimizer. He wins, you lose. It seemed to me that this was precisely what black people in Washington were doing, and that the logic that led to this abdication began with the traditional black-white zero sum view of race in America. It was a trap, a hole, and we were digging it ourselves.

I remember going to a community forum at a junior high school in the isolated part of Washington east of the marshy Anacostia River, far from the marble and the monuments and the Mall. It was the poorest and most crime-ridden part of the city, but the school was in a middle-class pocket, and that evening it was filled with civic-minded men and women determined not to let their neighborhood slip another inch down the slope. The occasion was the grilling of a panel of school board candidates. One of them, an ineffective incumbent, was taking more heat than she'd expected. She was dodging, weaving, sweating -- but then she spotted me in the audience and launched into what by then was a familiar gambit.

Good things are happening in the schools, she said, but the press doesn't want you to know. They won't tell you the good things our elected officials and our schoolchildren are doing. Why is that? Why do you think that might be? We should ask the Washington Post. In fact, there was a young man from the Washington Post right over there, in the back row. Why not ask him?

People applauded, as I knew they would, and then turned in their chairs and craned their necks, searching out the interloper. I sat there attempting to look neutrally pleasant, or at least not evil, having been caught red-handed with notebook and pen.

That time, fortunately, I wasn't compelled to stand up and address the audience, as had sometimes happened. The discussion quickly got back to more pertinent questions, such as why test scores continued to fall and how it could be that books were in such short supply.

But afterward, it took me a half hour to get out of the hall. People were lined up to harangue me, to beseech me, to jab their fingers at my chest or gently take my arm and demand that I write the truth "for a change!"

When I got home, I needed a stiff drink.

Being black or white was not just physical, it was political. It was less a matter of race than racial identification. And, most important, it involved choosing sides.

Well, I was tired of choosing. I was tired of feeling under such constant scrutiny, sorted and categorized by whites, judged and sentenced by blacks. The whole idea of racial identification being the defining factor in one's life seemed wrong to me, oppressive and wrong, and there had to be a better way. I was fed up with the assumptions that white people made, fed up with the assumptions that black people made, fed up with suspicion and paranoia and seeing the world as us on the one side and them on the other. I was fed up enough with America to just pack up the family and leave.

So that's what I did. And that's how I ended up on that beach in Rio, where now I was learning that the limits established by those portraits on my living room wall back in Orangeburg were not absolute, that all of the labeling and the conflict and the angst that I had assumed came inevitably with the issue of race in America were, in fact, optional.


I keep coming back to Rio and the beach because it was there that I first really understood that there were other ways to look at race than the way I was accustomed to seeing it, and that some of these ways might involve definitions of race radically different from my own.

American society sees race but not color; Brazilian society sees color but not race. It didn't take me long to figure out that this was an important distinction. What took much longer was to discover that the distinction wasn't quite as simple as it first seemed.

The emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazil -- the absence of racial conflict, the ease of coexistence. This was a big part of what made it feel so natural to me, so comfortable, to walk down the street or sit on the beach or mingle with a crowd in any part of the country. I could relax. There was no silent struggle going on.

But I could see that there was discrimination going on, beginning with discrimination in the sense of the word that means making fine distinctions. There were literally dozens of terms for skin color in Brazil -- black, white, mulatto, and pardo, of course, but also more fanciful and evocative terms. In surveys, Brazilians have described themselves or others as "burned," "burned by the sun," "around midnight," "after midnight," "chocolate," "coffee with milk," and "navy blue." One particularly subtle and elusive hue was called "miscegenation." Brazilians I talked to would sometimes use these distinctions as simple descriptive tools, the way I might say a person was tall or short, thin or heavyset. It was jarring for me to hear people's skin color discussed in this way, but over time the impact lessened until it began to seem a normal topic of conversation.

There was another clear difference, one that made the two societies in a sense mirror images. American orthodoxy is that a single drop of African blood inevitably darkens its host. In Brazil, the problem is approached from the other end of the scale: A single drop of European blood is seen to inevitably whiten.

There is at least one clear, indisputable effect of the one-drop-darkens view of the world versus the every-little-bit-lightens view: The American scheme tends to maximize the number of black people, or people of color, or nonwhites -- whatever term you prefer -- within a given population, while the Brazilian view tends to minimize the count.

In the United States, if your father is black and your mother is white, then you're black -- there is no way that our society is ready to consider the son of a black man anything but black. In Brazil, it's not that simple. If your father is white and your mother is black, then your own category will depend on a lot of things, most important your skin color. If you're very, very dark or very, very light, then it's an easy call. If you fall into a middling café au lait range of skin tones, then you're probably going to be thought of as more white than black.

Another effect, perhaps less clear-cut, involves the general level of racial tension. In Brazil, I learned, a person with discernible African heritage is not necessarily immutably black. If you're light-skinned, and if your hair can be called wavy instead of kinky, and if you're upwardly mobile, you can call yourself mulatto if you choose and perhaps even white. In the United States, black people can educate themselves and make money and enter the upper reaches of society, and still they and their children and their children's children will always be black. Except for a handful of people who "passed" as white, there has never been any conceivable way out, never been a means of escape. Black people thus had to make a stand. They had to demand their due from society as black people, now and forever. This led inevitably to ugly confrontation on a grand scale, and to more or less constant friction in the workplace and neighborhood.

It was a friction that I didn't notice until I'd been to a place where I could note its absence. Once or twice a year while we were overseas, we'd come back to the Washington area to visit; Avis's family lived in the Maryland suburbs, where she'd grown up. I'd invariably drop by the Post's newsroom to say hello to my bosses and catch up with friends. And I'd leave, a couple of hours later, shaking my head and muttering under my breath and wishing I could catch the next plane.

I was always struck, on those visits, by the degree to which racial tension and overt conflict was an element of daily life. I'd ask friends how things were around the office, and the answer always seemed to have a racial subtext. Either "senior" reporters (which meant white reporters) were unhappy about being passed over, or black reporters were displeased with the rate of their progress, or whatever. Whether there was true conflict or not, whether there was even a real point of dispute or not, everything seemed to demand consideration in black and white.

My heart always sank. This was just what I had run away from. This was what had been strangling me.

I remember one time in particular when I asked a black colleague what had been happening since my last visit. He responded with a tour d'horizon of office politics in which every issue -- who was going to cover city hall, how the city editor was treating her reporters, why the metro editor was displeased with his deputies -- had something to do with race. I think if I had asked about the weather I would have gotten a recounting of the different ways in which blacks and whites were affected by the unusually warm summer.

I finally just tuned him out. "Is everybody here just stuck?" I asked Avis in frustration later. "Is everybody so stuck on race that they can't talk about anything else? Haven't we gotten anywhere?"

I'd asked my friend a question that called for either an individual response ("I'm fine") or a universal response ("Things are fine"), and instead I'd gotten a response based on group -- specifically, based on racial group. More specific, I'd gotten this response from a man who had light-brown skin and wavy hair. A man who in the newsrooms of Rio de Janeiro would have had a hard time convincing people that he was black at all.


I was a bit confused by what I'd seen in Brazil, a bit unmoored, but mostly I felt unencumbered -- even liberated, to press an overused word into service. It was as if I had lived all my life next to a great wall, an insurmountable wall, resigned to the fact that no one could ever hope to get over it, and then one day I'd gone up in an airplane and discovered that others, not far away, dealt with the same wall by simply walking around it.

When we speak of race in America, we speak in the terminology of color -- we say black and white and yellow and red and brown -- but we don't really mean color at all, not the way they mean color in Brazil. What we really mean is racial identification, in the sense of group identification. We mean people who share a history, who share a culture, who share a status in the society, who even by and large share a political point of view -- people who are assumed to share these things, I mean, even if reality doesn't bear these generalizations out. We associate the word "black" with speech patterns, taste in clothing, sense of humor, attributes that would seem to have little to do with skin color. We see race as something absolute and immutable, and we recognize no in-between; we've traditionally considered being "a little bit black" as impossible as being "a little bit pregnant."

Only in the past few years have Americans in any significant numbers begun to see this whole construct as wrong. From the affirmative action wars to the clamor for a new mixed-race category in the census, there have been calls -- some disingenuous, to be sure, but others sincere and heartfelt -- to jettison all the ballast we attach to race and see people as the individuals they are, nothing more and nothing less. To me, it amounted to an attempt to reshape the world into something new, something better.

In Brazil, I found that new world already built, furnished, and fully operational. Here was a place where people didn't just talk about an idealized rainbow society, they lived it. All around me, all the time, were people of every hue, every color of eye and texture of hair, every variant of cheekbone and hipbone, every width of nose and shape of chin, every curvature of breast and butt, mixed up in all possible combinations. Here was a place where someone like me, accustomed to a frame of reference where black was black and white was white, didn't even know where to begin drawing racial lines, let alone enforcing them. Here was a place where a kind of benign racial anarchy seemed to rule, a lubricious, frictionless chaos into which one could simply disappear.

I loved it, I reveled in it, I wallowed in it. It was just what I'd envisioned in my dreams, just the kind of freedom I'd always wanted. It wasn't until much later that I learned an old truth. In these matters of racial identity, as in so much else, the adage holds: We should be careful what we wish for, lest our wishes be granted.

Copyright © 1999 by Eugene Robinson

Read More Show Less

Introduction

Prologue: The Girl From Ipanema I've always been black. The surprising news that there was a place where I wasn't, necessarily, or at least didn't have to be, was imparted to me one hot summer's afternoon in Rio de Janeiro on the beach at Ipanema.

It was a special moment in my life, a time when suddenly I felt free as a bird and open to all sorts of new possibilities. I'd survived a tough, grinding dozen years as a newspaper reporter and editor in San Francisco and Washington, covering corruption and decay and despair and all the other cheery aspects of modern urban America, and was now embarked on a completely different path: I'd just been assigned as a foreign correspondent covering South America. Some people deal with burnout by changing jobs or houses or wives or buying a red convertible. I'd gone to an extreme, literally, by running off to the bottom of the world.

My base was Buenos Aires, where I'd installed my family in a nice suburban house with a pool. Green parrots woke us in the morning with their chatter; iridescent hummingbirds paused to sip from hibiscus blossoms that spilled off the balcony; we plucked pomegranates from the bush and lemons from our own little lemon tree -- Argentina was a stunning and exotic new home. At least that's what my wife, Avis, told me: I was rarely there. My new job involved traveling essentially nonstop among the major cities of the continent. I lived mostly in hotel rooms, in airport departure lounges, and on the fleet of aging jets that airlines like Varig and Lan Chile and AeroPeru sent hurtling through the sky. I tried not to fly on planes that were older than I was.

Now I was taking my first real working visit to Brazil, and I'd looked up an American colleague who was living there temporarily. He invited me to spend a day of brilliant sun and gentle breeze with him and some of his friends, all Brazilians, at their usual spot on the beach.

One sure way of picking out the tourists in Rio, I quickly learned, was by the way they wandered aimlessly along the beaches, lacking destination or purpose, plopping down any old place, ogling the tanned bodies but otherwise providing themselves completely oblivious to the social landscape at their feet. Locals, on the other hand, headed straight for their niche sectors -- areas of the beach favored by singles, gays, bodybuilders, soccer players, retirees, whatever -- where they had arranged to meet their friends. Other Brazilians complain that gorgeous, dumb Rio has beaches instead of an intellectual life, but that's not quite true: The beaches are the venue for Rio's intellectual life, the local equivalent of smoke-filled cafés.

The sun shone hot that afternoon, the breeze blew balmy, and there I lay, amid a loose group of about a dozen young or youngish professionals -- lawyers, journalists, a young woman who was trying to design and market her own line of string bikinis -- all of us nearly nude, amply oiled, feeling the gritty warmth of the sand between our toes, languidly but earnestly discussing current events and the meaning of life. All around us was the wonderful Brazilian racial landscape, a mélange of blacks and browns and tans and taupes, of coppers and cinnamons and at least a dozen shades of beige.

Eventually, we got onto the subject of race. I was the one who raised it, trying to better understand the novel and amazing panorama I was seeing in Brazil. The conversation flowed into questions of what might be called racial taxonomy. Classification, in other words. Who, exactly, is considered black here? Who's white? Who's something else?

These weren't trivial questions. I could see that there were black people in Brazil, just like in the United States, and white people, although the proportions were obviously different. I knew that there had been a history of slavery and eventual emancipation. And yet I had the sense that the way people here thought of race was not at all the same way I thought of it. Even among my group at the beach, with the range of skin tones and hair types pretty much covering the whole spectrum, there was none of the obvious discomfort I had often felt whenever race came up in a mixed group in the States, none of the paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing. Still, I wasn't making much sense of the inconsistent and contradictory things I was hearing. Race was important; race was trivial. There were tons of black people in Brazil; no, there really weren't that many. I wasn't getting it.

I decided to give up on theoretical classification and focus instead on the concept of race relations, which I figured would translate more easily. I turned to my colleague's Brazilian girlfriend, whose name I recall as Velma, and asked what it was really like being black in Brazil.

She answered with a look of genuine surprise.

"But I'm not," she said. "I'm not black."

She smiled at me as one smiles at a child who just doesn't understand, an isn't-he-precious kind of smile. But then I saw her quickly glance around at the others, making eye contact, and I had the sense she was somehow seeking to validate the declaration she had just made.

Velma had been born more than a thousand miles away, in the poor northeastern part of Brazil, the equivalent of our Deep South -- a place where a plantation economy once flourished, where millions of African slaves had worked the fields, where slavery had persisted a full generation past the end of the American Civil War. It was obvious to me at first glance that Velma was primarily a descendant of those slaves. There was a lot of Indian in her, but mostly African. She was a small woman with long jet-black hair, flaring nostrils, high cheekbones, and brown skin at least a couple of shades darker than mine. It wasn't even a close call, in my book. But she was telling me she wasn't black.

I blurted out, "But you must be, Velma. I'm black, and you're as dark as I am."

She put her arm next to mine, to compare: Yes, she was darker. Positively, definitively darker.

"But this color isn't black," she said. "This isn't black at all."

Trapped on what she clearly saw as the wrong side of the color line I was trying to draw, Velma maintained flatly that as far as she was concerned, I wasn't really "black" either. I explained that in the United States I certainly was and always would be, and that so, in fact, would she. Velma found this hard to understand, and certainly wasn't about to accept it. She allowed that I might not be "white," but insisted that at the very least I fit well within the ill-defined parameters of pardo, which roughly means light-brown-skinned. "Black" was for her more of a description than a group designation, and it meant people with skin much darker than mine.

Or, of course, hers.

Others in our group, however, weren't quite so quick to settle on this classification. There were other factors. My hair, for example: It's kinky, clearly African, unarguably non-Caucasian. For some, kinky hair, in combination with skin as brown as mine, automatically equaled "black." Some thought that my physique -- tall, slim, high-waisted -- should somehow be factored in, that it was somehow an "African" physique. But foremost was the issue of my precise color, my own personal hue, which I'd never really thought about in this way -- which I'd never really thought of as a color at all.

It's a kind of oakwood brown, with undertones more yellow than red. I seemed relatively lighter to some members of my informal college of taxonomists on the beach, relatively darker to others. Try as I might, I couldn't get this group of Brazilians to agree on what, racially speaking, I was. The conversation seemed to go in circles, and there was no way to get to the center.

Finally, exasperated, I turned again to Velma.

"If you're not black, what are you?" I asked. "You said I'm 'at least' pardo. Is that how you'd describe yourself?"

But I got no satisfaction. Rather than answer, she smiled, shrugged, and changed the subject. A while later, she and my American friend left.

After they'd gone, someone pointed out to me that Velma had long, straight hair, and that she also enjoyed the considerable status and income that came from her job as a lawyer. So naturally -- and this was said as if it were the most natural thing in the world, though it made no sense at all to me -- she called herself white.

White? A woman darker than me considering herself white? Not in my world. But of course I wasn't in my world anymore. I was in a world where race seemed to be indefinite, unfixed, imprecise -- a world where, at least to some extent, race was what you made it.

Instead of what it made you.

That day on the beach was electrifying, eye-opening, liberating. I felt as if I'd just been let out of an airless little prison cell straight into the glorious space and hot sun and cooling zephyrs of Ipanema. In a way, I felt like I suppose Columbus must have felt. His business in sailing west had been to find a better route to the riches of the far east, and along the way he'd bumped into something unexpected, something far bigger and more significant, something life-changing. My business in coming to Brazil had been to write newspaper stories, and along the way I'd bumped into something unexpected, something big and life-changing, my own new world.

And if I'd been able to get my arms all the way around this new world, I'd have pulled it to me and given it a big sloppy kiss.

Copyright © 1999 by Eugene Robinson

Read More Show Less

Customer Reviews

Average Rating 5
( 1 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(1)

4 Star

(0)

3 Star

(0)

2 Star

(0)

1 Star

(0)

Your Rating:

Your Name: Create a Pen Name or

Barnes & Noble.com Review Rules

Our reader reviews allow you to share your comments on titles you liked, or didn't, with others. By submitting an online review, you are representing to Barnes & Noble.com that all information contained in your review is original and accurate in all respects, and that the submission of such content by you and the posting of such content by Barnes & Noble.com does not and will not violate the rights of any third party. Please follow the rules below to help ensure that your review can be posted.

Reviews by Our Customers Under the Age of 13

We highly value and respect everyone's opinion concerning the titles we offer. However, we cannot allow persons under the age of 13 to have accounts at BN.com or to post customer reviews. Please see our Terms of Use for more details.

What to exclude from your review:

Please do not write about reviews, commentary, or information posted on the product page. If you see any errors in the information on the product page, please send us an email.

Reviews should not contain any of the following:

  • - HTML tags, profanity, obscenities, vulgarities, or comments that defame anyone
  • - Time-sensitive information such as tour dates, signings, lectures, etc.
  • - Single-word reviews. Other people will read your review to discover why you liked or didn't like the title. Be descriptive.
  • - Comments focusing on the author or that may ruin the ending for others
  • - Phone numbers, addresses, URLs
  • - Pricing and availability information or alternative ordering information
  • - Advertisements or commercial solicitation

Reminder:

  • - By submitting a review, you grant to Barnes & Noble.com and its sublicensees the royalty-free, perpetual, irrevocable right and license to use the review in accordance with the Barnes & Noble.com Terms of Use.
  • - Barnes & Noble.com reserves the right not to post any review -- particularly those that do not follow the terms and conditions of these Rules. Barnes & Noble.com also reserves the right to remove any review at any time without notice.
  • - See Terms of Use for other conditions and disclaimers.
Search for Products You'd Like to Recommend

Recommend other products that relate to your review. Just search for them below and share!

Create a Pen Name

Your Pen Name is your unique identity on BN.com. It will appear on the reviews you write and other website activities. Your Pen Name cannot be edited, changed or deleted once submitted.

 
Your Pen Name can be any combination of alphanumeric characters (plus - and _), and must be at least two characters long.

Continue Anonymously
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 1999

    A Must Read

    It is an excellent book for any American to read, but especially great for Americans of color. For those citizens of color, who have lived or live abroad or have traveled abroad for an extensive amount of time, this book provides a new way of looking at the United States. 'Cream to Coal' forces one to reevaluate his idea of race realtions. 'Cream to Coal' gives great insight on the human need to classify everything into nice neat categories that don't exist when dealing with 'live' human beings. This book is a must read

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
Sort by: Showing 1 Customer Reviews

If you find inappropriate content, please report it to Barnes & Noble
Why is this product inappropriate?
Comments (optional)