Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity / Edition 1

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New York's urban neighborhoods are full of young would-be emcees who aspire to "keep it real" and restaurants like Sylvia's famous soul food eatery that offer a taste of "authentic" black culture. In these and other venues, authenticity is considered the best way to distinguish the real from the phony, the genuine from the fake. But in Real Black, John L. Jackson Jr. proposes a new model for thinking about these issues—racial sincerity.

Jackson argues that authenticity caricatures identity as something imposed on people, imprisoning them within stereotypes: an African American high school student who excels in the classroom, for instance, might be dismissed as "acting white." On the other hand, sincerity, as Jackson defines it, imagines authenticity as an incomplete measuring stick, an analytical model that attempts to deny people agency in their search for identity. 

Drawing on more than ten years of ethnographic research in and around New York City, Jackson offers a kaleidoscope of subjects and stories that directly  and indirectly address how race is negotiated in today's world—including tales of book-vending numerologists, urban conspiracy theorists, corrupt police officers, mixed-race neo-Nazis, and gospel choirs forbidden to catch the Holy Ghost. Jackson records and retells their interconnected sagas, all the while attempting to reconcile these stories with his own crisis of identity and authority as an anthropologist terrified by fieldwork. Finding ethnographic significance where mere mortals see only bricks and mortar, his invented alter ego Anthroman takes to the streets, showing how race is defined and debated, imposed and confounded every single day.

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Editorial Reviews

Patricia J. Williiams - Patricia J. Williams

“John Jackson’s brilliant excursion in search of ‘racial sincerity’ is, as the title implies, a true adventure. It is as fast-paced and engaging as a novel, witty, sympathetic, and lyrical. Tweaking the dilemma of the anthropologist’s gaze, he takes his field notebook into the heart of Harlem as ‘Anthroman’—and is received as part friend and long-term resident, part super-educated superhero, part comic book. This book is a splendid and fascinating study of what it means to be ‘real’—and not just when it comes to race.”--Patricia J. Williams, Columbia Law School

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226390024
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 11/15/2005
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 986,403
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.00 (d)

Meet the Author

John L. Jackson Jr. is assistant professor of cultural anthropology and African and African American Studies at Duke University. He is the author of Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America, also published by the University of Chicago Press.

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Read an Excerpt

Real Black
Adventures in Racial Sincerity

By John L. Jackson Jr. The University of Chicago Press
Copyright © 2005
The University of Chicago
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-226-39001-7

Chapter One Real Fictions

We have entered a realm of all-performance-all-the-time. This is not to say that "the real" has disappeared, but it is to acknowledge that it is impossible to recognize "the real" without a concept of performance in view. Peggy Phelan

Sincerity is key. If you can fake that, you've got it made. George Burns

Welcome to the desert of the real. Morpheus/Slavoj Zizek

* * *

Working with Watermelons

"Look here, let me tell you something," Bill says, wiping down the counter in front of him with a frayed and dirty white towel. In another uncanny example of those sometimes short-circuited differences between people and their things, the towel matches his own gray-bearded scraggliness. It is a resemblance that I jokingly point out to him just about every chance I get. Bill even laughs occasionally, grudgingly, almost agreeing with my not-so-innocent comparison. But he also blames me for his tattered, rag-like state-me and people just like me. "And I'm serious about this," he continues, "serious as cancer about this here. So you listen to me. Listen good to what I'm saying. You think you have all those degrees and letters behind your name; people make you think you're a big shot. I don't care about any of that, none of it. It don't mean nothing to me. Nothing! Absolutely nothing!"

"What makes you say that?"

"W-w-w-what m-m-makes you s-s-say that?" he mocks inexplicably, as though I had just stuttered, which I had not. So I simply furrow my brows, smile with nervous politeness, and continue watching his handiwork. My eyes cannot help but follow Bill's machete blade-sharp, silver strokes back and forth against lush, wet redness. He is cutting whole watermelon into halves, those halves into quarters, each quarter into smaller cubes, and those same cubes into even tinier bite-size chunks-all to be packaged for sale in 20 oz., Saran-wrapped plastic containers. When the cutting is done, he will march the chopped watermelon pieces upstairs to the sidewalk and arrange them atop a metal foldout table that one of his daughters, Margaret, should already have draped in kente cloth. Bill is running late and has missed the morning rush of commuters and pedestrians, but he is working on several different kinds of projects this day, which means that he slows his chopping down even more just to lecture me:

"You are like all these other black people running around here who refuse, absolutely refuse, to follow their own destiny. Refuse to do it. You'd rather follow someone else around. They can't teach you what I can teach you. They can't teach you your destiny. They can't teach you that. They can't teach you how to stand up like a man and control your own resources. Control your destiny. Raise your family. These black women here, the worst thing they have are African American men like you. That's why they go after everybody else-West Indians, West Africans, Panamanians-anybody but you. Because they're raising you instead of you raising them, instead of you taking care of them and showing them how to take care of themselves. You know who I respect? You know who? Palestinian women. They raise warriors. Warriors! They raise warriors, while we send people to Duke University. It's a damned shame."

As Bill cuts, sweats, and scolds, he braces himself against the rusting metal countertop inside the leaky kitchen basement of a small Pentecostal storefront church. The church is letting him temporarily use its building, along with a portion of the sidewalk out front, as a base for his family's vending operation. He will sell watermelons and health books here for the next few months-either as long as they let him, or until he finally does what he has been threatening to do since the very first day I met him: "give up on these ungrateful black people once and for all" and "let go of the ghost."

This morning, however, Bill simply continues to work, cutting up watermelons in his brand new location, a spot that seems to be doing minor wonders for his vending business's productivity. The church, conveniently located right on 125th Street, Harlem's key commercial drag, is only a couple of blocks from the supermarket where he buys his melons, on a good morning, for $5.99 apiece. It is also across the street from Harlem's only commuter rail stop, just forty more yards from the bustling IRT subway line, and a mere five traffic lights down from the one-room, second-story loft where he stores his thousands upon thousands of book titles, collected over some fifty years of bookselling-once as a storeowner, now as a street vendor. Bill's books clutter just about every square inch of his wood-paneled loft space, precarious hard-covered towers that peak at the paint-chipped ceiling above and leave only the thinnest, snaking footpath from the front door to the back window. With Harlem's housing stock rising rapidly these days, and everyone trying to cash in on the changes, Bill's landlord has already officially started the eviction process. If he can get Bill evicted and "flip the apartment," he can charge more than triple the current amount in rent. Deciphering the proverbial "writing on the wall," Bill has already begun to search out alternative storage spaces, even as he simultaneously contemplates walking away from the books and the loft and the watermelon altogether, part of his threatened attempt to "let go of the ghost." Today, however, Bill is not talking about any of that. He just keeps cutting up those melons as he simultaneously reproaches me for my misguided life choices.

The first morning I catch Bill's daily watermelon-chopping routine in its newly Pentecostalized location, he makes sure to introduce me to the pastor's mother, an elderly matriarch who spends about as much time milling around the basement most mornings as Bill does-sweeping floors, dusting cabinets, scavenger-hunting for something or other that a church member might need, silently leaving Bill alone to do his watermelon work. That day, the first chance he gets, Bill stops her briefly to let her know that I am writing a book and will be following him around as part of my research. "If you want to write a book about Harlem," he says to both of us, "you gotta start with a place like this one. This is a real black church. Working for the community. Open every day. Every day. And lovely people. How many other churches around here would let me do what I'm trying to do here? Let me set up like this here? Full access to everything, whatever I want. I just try to keep the place clean. Make sure that when I leave, it's just the way I found it. Respect their building."

By the time I make my first visit, Bill has not been working out of the church for more than a couple of weeks; so everything is still relatively new to him, even ad hoc. He is only beginning to figure out his daily system, some kind of efficient method for negotiating this new space. There is a broken, cluttered, room-temperature freezer in the back where he stores his uncut melons and related business supplies: an assortment of knives, two large cutting boards, plastic containers, spoons and wrapping paper, aluminum bins, napkins, brown paper bags, and Clorox bleach. A storage room upstairs, right next to the main sanctuary, houses his three metal foldout tables, a rickety shopping cart, two collapsible canvas stools, and several crates of health-related paperbacks. The church's kitchen, just below that, has a running faucet, a sputtering gas stove, and one large, metal garbage can that he uses to discard rinds and seeds. "This place is just perfect," he almost croons. "It's like it was built especially for me. Just right. I couldn't have designed it any better than this. We don't need anything more than this. This is just the way we need it."

When Bill finally gets a chance to introduce me to the pastor herself, an angular and serious-faced woman who designs, manufactures, and sells her own clothing on the side, he is effusive about the church's hospitality. Since he appreciates her letting him use the space and does not want to wear out his welcome, Bill makes sure to tell her exactly what he has already told her mother: that I will be hanging around with him in the basement some mornings and "learning something about Harlem, if that's okay." "Sure," she says nonchalantly, wishing me luck before heading out the church lobby and up the block in search of fabric for a new design idea. Bill and I will not be too far behind her. He is preparing to take me on my first vending trip to Jamaica, Queens, where he says black people treat him much better than they do in Harlem. "People in Harlem don't read," he sneers matter-of-factly, rewiping the countertop and tossing his doppelgänger of a towel into a dingy heap in the corner.

Bill hands me a melon sliver to taste and inserts the last few chunks into three remaining plastic containers. He is in a relatively good mood today, which is probably why he feels comfortable enough to divulge some of his cherished trade secrets: strategies for choosing the tastiest Pathmark watermelons, special techniques for slicing them (accumulated over five decades of vending), and foolproof tricks for packing the containers so that they appear most appealing to pedestrians. Bill is quite meticulous about all this, mildly famous in certain local circles for his fastidiousness-even though his same white towel will be a makeshift scabbard for his stored machete's rusty blade; despite tiny pools of watermelon juice running along the floorboard by his worn, wing-tipped shoes; and regardless of how much his liberal application of Clorox (on what seems to be every reachable flat surface in the entire kitchen) chokes the last of the oxygen from the basement air. Bill is clearly very good at what he does, and these techniques keep his family fed.

He quickly fills his last few containers with watermelon pieces, puts everything else back in his storage space, and promises to return later that afternoon for a more thorough cleaning. For now, he is more focused on getting to the subway station and setting up in Queens. All the while, of course, he continues reprimanding me for my many ignorances. I smile awkwardly as I listen, not always knowing what else to do with my ethnographic face, and Bill even finds my smile disheartening.

"I don't know why you're smiling," he censures. "This is serious stuff. You don't even know how messed up and sick they have you. You can't even see it. And you're worse than some of these broken-down people out here on the street. Because at least they can see it. They know something's not right. They can't tell you exactly what's wrong, but they know something's not right. You? You think you're living the American Dream. Brainwashed! You don't even know what knowledge is. I can show you knowledge. Stick with me. I'll show you what they can't teach you at your Duke University. You ever took a class on numerology? On astrology?"

Before I even get a chance to answer with the no he expects, Bill launches into a discussion of his wife's many psychic powers. He does take some credit for training Gina (making her drop out of college, quit her secretarial job, and practice her "calling"), but he also readily admits that she is actually the one with all the "natural gifts." After more than a decade's worth of astrological experience, she now does individual psychic readings for about $10 an hour-or sometimes even less, depending on how much her clients can afford. "We try to work with people," Bill says, "but she'd be making ten times as much if she had an office in mid-town. Twenty times that much. But these people need the knowledge. They need it, so we bring it to them."

Bill and Gina regularly organize psychic fairs (at least a few every year) to sell astrology books and to teach others about the basic mechanics of psychic energy. Many of the titles in Bill's book-filled loft are new-age treatises on numerology, palmistry, and the astrological sciences. "Gina," he says, "has read just about all of them." Even though she was always naturally gifted, he boasts of helping her to improve on those gifts, to master her craft, to follow her destiny. His books supplemented her intrinsic abilities, which means that if Gina is not watching watermelons or helping Bill sell books at another vending table further west, she is leaning over a kitchen table in someone's Harlem or Brooklyn apartment conducting a personal reading. Gina and Bill take astrology very seriously. It is their "life and love." In fact, one of the first things they ask any new acquaintance is nothing more than an antiquated pickup line for other people: "What's your sign?" It serves as a kind of pickup line for them too, but in a decidedly different sense. I divulged my astrological sign to Bill within seconds of our first handshake. In fact, he was still squeezing my hand, not intending to let go until I had answered his question. I told him that I was a Cancer, and he just shook his head sympathetically. "Boy," Bill responded, "you're going to have one tough year. Whew!"

Bill may not have Gina's "natural" gifts, but he does know some of the basics. For example, he can tell you how Malcolm X's death was unequivocally fated by the stars, why Africans ever got enslaved in the first place, and what President GeorgeW. Bush really cares about in the Middle East-all with recourse to astrological signs and numerological equations. This doesn't make him a "crackpot," he maintains, because it isn't all that different from the stuff he learned almost half a century ago as an undergraduate at MIT and Boston University-or from what he learns nowadays in the lectures he still frequently crashes at Columbia University. "The right knowledge can be power," Bill says, "not any old knowledge, the right knowledge. That's what I'm trying to give people." And he accepts the increased social responsibility that seems to come with such knowledge. Still, Bill and Gina have a more playful side, too.

"We used to have all kinds of fairs and carnivals for the kids," he says, as we carry his watermelon containers up the church steps and out to the sidewalk. "Not just astrology events. We did all kinds of things. We had rides for the kids, and clowns and things. Games. We'd set the whole thing up. From beginning to end. Rides and clowns. Collect money and organize the thing, manage everything. We did it all."

"And what happened?"

"Whatever happens when you take the time to invest in us? What usually happens? You get burned. They turn on you. Black people aren't like white people. They have no loyalty. They have no sense of destiny. They have no desire to be self-sufficient and self-employed. They want to keep sucking on their momma's teat. They want to cry about, 'The white man did this, the white man did that.' Garbage! Nonsense! The white man didn't do a thing to you. I love white people. And I have respect for white people."

"Why is that?"

"Because they understand the importance, the undeniable importance, of destiny. Destiny! Everything I learned, I learned from white people. They're brilliant."

"Black people aren't brilliant?"

"Look around Harlem, and you tell me. You think white people would let Harlem look like this if they lived here? You think they'd have their young girls walking around the street in these tight jeans like they're prostitutes? They think about the big picture. They think about their own destiny. They want to be their own boss. They want to conquer and control. All we want to do is suck wind up under the white man, just like you, at somebody's Duke University. It's pathetic. You should be ashamed of yourself."

"White people work at Duke, too, you know. Plenty of white folks are right there, 'sucking wind' with me."

"But the institution is theirs," he says, raising his voice slightly, gesticulating with a clenched fist as he arranges the watermelons on the kente'd tabletop. "It's their daddy's institution. So they are accepting their destiny, which is what they should be doing. What's your excuse? All you want to do is suck wind up under the white man and get your little paycheck and take it home to your wife, who probably controls you. Do you let your wife walk around the street in pants?"


"You heard me. Do you let your wife wear pants?" Bill temporarily stops laying out the watermelon containers to wait for my answer.

"She wears pants, yeah. Why?"

"You have your wife walking around there at Duke University, while you're sucking wind up under the white man for his little job, and you think you know something. It's sad. It's really sad. It breaks my heart to see you ignore your own destiny for someone else's."

"What kind of destiny have you grabbed?" I shoot back. "Cutting watermelons is supposed to be better than teaching? Don't we need more black teachers?"




Excerpted from Real Black by John L. Jackson Jr. Copyright © 2005 by The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Table of Contents

Contents 1 Real Fictions....................1
2 Real Harlemites....................35
3 Real Bodies....................63
4 Real Jews....................89
5 Real Publics....................125
6 Real Natives....................151
7 Real Emcees....................173
8 Real Names....................197
9 Real Loves....................225
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