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

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

5.0 1
by Eugene Robinson

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…  See more details below


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.

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Editorial Reviews

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.

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
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.

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Free Press
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6.46(w) x 9.59(h) x 1.04(d)

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Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race 5 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
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