Race: An Anthology in the First Person


What is your race? In September 1994, The Hungry Mind Review's readers responded to this and nineteen other race-related questions in the periodical's now-renowned Race questionnaire. It was during the compilation of that particular issue that editor Bart Schneider recognized that Americans were ready for, and needed to have, a frank discussion about race.

Inspired by the momentum that September 1994 issue generated, Schneider compiled Race: ...
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What is your race? In September 1994, The Hungry Mind Review's readers responded to this and nineteen other race-related questions in the periodical's now-renowned Race questionnaire. It was during the compilation of that particular issue that editor Bart Schneider recognized that Americans were ready for, and needed to have, a frank discussion about race.

Inspired by the momentum that September 1994 issue generated, Schneider compiled Race: An Anthology in the First Person. In a range of twenty first-person idioms, some of the finest American contemporary writers and social leaders explore the issue of race. The power of the first person voice that drives this collection is in its directness and simplicity, says Schneider: it's you talking to me, me to you. It's Reverend Cecil Williams preaching to hundreds on a Sunday morning in San Francisco's Glide Church. It's Audre Lorde speaking to a women's conference in Connecticut. It's John Edgar Wideman talking in letter, and in spirit, to his son in prison. Listening closely to the human voice can keep us human.

Race continues what the questionnaire started by delivering direct and honest accounts of how race can impact an individual's life and alter the course of his of her future. To approach with passionate personal testimony a territory as fraught with suffering and shame, guilt and indifference, rhetoric and amnesia, is to stake a claim, explains Schneider. It is to demand a place in which we can talk to each other about who we are and what we hope America might one day become. Race will open your eyes, expand your mind, and may finally be a way for us to get the conversationgoing.
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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In May 1994, Schneider ran a questionnaire about the effect of race on readers' lives in the magazine he edits, Hungry Mind Review. The responses evolved into an issue of the magazine, which in turn inspired this book. But the pieces here are not the responses of the average white, middle-class, well-educated liberal Hungry Mind Review reader. Whether they are original pieces, previously published Hungry Mind articles or book excerpts (from John Edgar Wideman's Fatheralong, Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, Henry Louis Gates Jr.'s Colored People, for example), they are by heavy hitters. Richard Rodriguez considers the difficulty of teaching in the multicultural classroom, where reading Sherlock Holmes involves stopping at every sentence to define meerschaum and bell pull and dressing gown. John Powell recalls a discussion on the Million Man March and explains that while he lives a middle-class life, he and his son "return to the heart of the black community" for haircuts. Peggy McIntosh's examination of white privilege (which, she ultimately decides, should be more accurately labeled white dominance) includes a long list of items such as "I can choose blemish cover or bandages in `flesh' color and have them more or less match my skin." Bharati Mukherjee recalls the strong ancestral identity she wore in Calcutta and describes herself today as "an American without hyphens." Gates analyzes the trial of O.J. Simpson in the context of a culture in which "`official' news has proved untrustworthy." Leslie Marmon Silko tells tales of the Border Patrol, who not only raid public high schools to remove dark-skinned students but are suspicious of clergy "who wear ethnic clothing or jewelry, and women who wear very long hair or very short hair (they could be nuns)." Race is a touchy and difficult subject (Schneider himself admits to fear of "entering a messy territory in which it seemed nothing useful could be said"). It is a messiness that's reflected in the diversity and perplexity of many of these essays. (Feb.)
Library Journal
What is race? How does it define who we are and how we experience the world? In May 1994, Schneider, editor of the Hungry Mind Review, published a questionnaire about racial perceptions to gather answers to those questions. The responses are collected here in 20 essays by such writers and lecturers as Susan Straight, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Michael Dorris, and Ira Glasser. Some essays are powerful personal examinations about race, childhood, and understanding; others are uneven and less effective. This book serves as an introduction to current thinking about race in America while also stimulating readers to examine their own ideas and assumptions on the subject. Recommended for all libraries.Nora R. Harris, Marin Cty. Free Lib., Corte Madera, Cal.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780517705469
  • Publisher: Random House, Incorporated
  • Publication date: 2/1/1997
  • Pages: 256

Meet the Author

Bart Schneider is the editor of The Hungry Mind Review.  He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
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Read an Excerpt

Letter To My Daughters
-- Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

Dear Maggie and Liza:

I have written to you because a world into which I was born, a world that nurtured and sustained me, has mysteriously disappeared. My darkest fear is that Piedmont, West Virginia, will cease to exist if some executives on Park Avenue decide that it is more profitable to build a completely new paper mill elsewhere than to overhaul one a century old. Then they would close it, just as they did in Cumberland with Celanese, and Pittsburgh Plate Glass, and the Kelly-Springfield Tire Company. The town will die, but our people will not move. They will not be moved. Because for them, Piedmont -- snuggled between the Allegheny Mountains and the Potomac River valley -- is life itself.

I have written to you because of the day when we were driving home and you asked your mother and me just exactly what the civil rights movement had been all about and I pointed to a motel on Route 2 and said that at one time I could not have stayed there. Your mother could have stayed there, but your mother couldn't have stayed there with me. And you kids looked at us like we were telling you the biggest lie you had ever heard. So I thought about writing to you.

I have written for another reason, as well. I remember that once we were walking in Washington, DC, heading for the National Zoo, and you asked me if I had known the man to whom I had just spoken. I said no. And, Liza, you volunteered that you found it embarrassing that I would speak to a complete stranger on the street. It called to mind a trip I'd made to Pittsburgh with my father. On the way from his friend Mr. Ozzie Washington's sister's house,I heard Daddy speak to a colored man, then saw him tip his hat to the man's wife. (Daddy liked nice hats: Caterpillar hats for work, Dobbs hats for Sunday.) It's just something that you do, he said, when I asked him if he had known those people and why had he spoken to them.

Last summer, I sat at a sidewalk cafe in Italy, and three or four "black" Italians walked casually by, as well as a dozen or more blacker Africans. Each spoke to me; rather, each nodded his head slightly or acknowledged me by a glance, ever so subtly. When I was growing up, we always did this with each other, passing boats in a sea of white folk.

Yet there were certain Negroes who would avoid acknowledging you in this way in an integrated setting, especially if the two of you were the ones doing the integrating. Don't go over there with those white people if all you're going to do is Jim Crow yourselves -- Daddy must have said that to me a thousand times. And by that I think he meant we shouldn't cling to each other out of habit or fear, or use protective coloration to evade the risks of living like any other human being, or use clannishness as a cop-out for exploring ourselves and possibly making new selves, forged in the crucible of integration. Your black ass, he'd laugh, is integrated already.

But there are other reasons that people distrust the reflex -- the nod, the glance, the murmured greeting.

One reason is a resentment at being lumped together with thirty million African-Americans whom you don't know and most of whom you will never know. Completely by the accident of racism, we have been bound together with people with whom we may or may not have something in common, just because we are "black." Thirty million Americans are black, and thirty million is a lot of people. One day you wonder: What do the misdeeds of a Mike Tyson have to do with me? So why do I feel implicated? And how can I not feel racial recrimination when I can feel racial pride?

Then, too, there were Negroes who were embarrassed about being Negroes, who didn't want to be bothered with race and with other black people. One of the more painful things about being colored was being colored in public around other colored people, who were embarrassed to be colored and embarrassed that we both were colored and in public together. As if to say: "Negro, will you pul-lease disappear so that I can get my own white people?" As if to say: "I'm not a Negro like other Negroes." As if to say: "I am a human being -- let me be!"

For much of my adolescence and adulthood, I thought of these people as having betrayed the race. I used to walk up to them and call them Brother or Sister, loud and with a sardonic edge, when they looked like they were trying to "escape." When I went off to college, I would make the "conversion" of errant classmates a serious project, a political commitment.

I used to reserve my special scorn for those Negroes who were always being embarrassed by someone else in the race. Someone too dark, someone too "loud," someone too "wrong," someone who dared to wear red in public. Loud and wrong -- we used to say that about each other. Nigger is loud and wrong. "Loud" carried a triple meaning: speaking too loudly, dressing too loudly, and just being too loudly.

I do know that, when I was a boy, many Negroes would have been the first to censure other Negroes once they were admitted into all-white neighborhoods or schools or clubs. "An embarrassment to the race" -- phrases of that sort were bandied about. Accordingly, many of us in our generation engaged in strange antics to flout those strictures. Like eating watermelon in public, eating it loudly and merrily, and spitting the seeds into the middle of the street, red juice running down the sides of our cheeks, collecting under our chins. Or taking the greatest pride in the Royal Kink. Uncle Harry used to say he didn't like watermelon, which I knew was a lie because I saw him wolf down slices when I was a little kid, before he went off to seminary at Boston University. But he came around, just like he came around to painting God and Jesus black, and all the seraphim and the cherubim, too. And I, from another direction, have gradually come around also, and stopped trying to tell other Negroes how to be black.

Do you remember when your mother and I woke you up early on a Sunday morning, just to watch Nelson Mandela walk out of prison, and how it took a couple of hours for him to emerge, and how you both wanted to go back to bed and, then, to watch cartoons? And how we began to worry that something bad had happened to him on the way out, because the delay was so long? And when he finally walked out of that prison, how we were so excited and teary-eyed at Mandela's nobility, his princeliness, his straight back and unbowed head? I think I felt that there walked the Negro, as Pop might have said; there walked the whole of the African people, as regal as any king. And that feeling I had, that gooseflesh sense of identity that I felt at seeing Nelson Mandela, listening to Mahalia Jackson sing, watching Muhammad Ali fight, or hearing Martin Luther King speak, is part of what I mean by being colored. I realize the sentiment may not be logical, but I want to have my cake and eat it, too. Which is why I still nod or speak to black people on the streets and why it felt so good to be acknowledged by the Afro-Italians who passed my table at the cafe in Milan.

I want to be able to take special pride in a Jessye Norman aria, a Muhammad Ali shuffle, a Michael Jordan slam dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, James Brown's Camel Walk. Above all, I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they take, when no one else is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis' fights, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You've seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and how some reporter asked him, after the fight: "Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn't knocked Schmeling out?" And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat: "I'da run around behind him to see what was holdin' him up!"

Even so, I rebel at the notion that I can't be part of other groups, that I can't construct identities through elective affinity, that race must be the most important thing about me. Is that what I want on my gravestone: Here lies an African-American? So I am divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time -- but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience a humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. Bach and James Brown. Sushi and fried catfish. Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group ... but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.

I am not Every negro. I am not native to the great black metropolises: New York, Chicago, or Los Angeles, say. Nor can I claim to be a "citizen of the world." I am from and of a time and a place, Piedmont, West Virginia, and that's a world apart, a world of difference. So this is not a story of a race but a story of a village, a family, and its friends. And of a sort of segregated peace. What hurt me most about the glorious black awakening of the late sixties and early seventies is that we lost our sense of humor. Many of us thought that enlightened politics excluded it.

In your lifetimes, I suspect, you will go from being African-Americans, to "people of color," to being, once again, "colored people." (The linguistic trend toward condensation is strong.) I don't mind any of the names myself. But I have to confess that I like "colored" best, maybe because when I hear the word, I hear it in my mother's voice and in the sepia tones of my childhood. As artlessly and honestly as I can, I have tried to evoke a colored world of the fifties, a Negro world of the early sixties, and the advent of a black world of the later sixties, from the point of view of the boy I was. When you are old enough to read what follows, I hope that it brings you even a small measure of understanding, at long last, of why we see the world with such different eyes ... and why that is for me a source both of gladness and of regret. And I hope you'll understand why I continue to speak to colored people I pass on the streets.


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Table of Contents

The American Mysticism of Remembrance 4
My Two Mothers 18
Letter to My Daughters 29
Widening the Circle 36
The Exile Within/The Question of Identity 43
Mixed Blood 52
Asians 59
Civil Rights and Civil Liberties 78
The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism 99
Are You Going on the March? 112
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack 120
Beyond Multiculturalism: Surviving the Nineties 129
A Sermon at Glide 141
Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man 143
Two Generations 166
New Year's Eve 175
The Distance Between Language and Violence 180
The Almost Last Essay on Race in America 187
Paper Houses 200
Fences Against Freedom 212
Father Stories 227
The Hungry Mind Race Questionnaire 243
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