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Best African-American Essays Vol. 1

Best African-American Essays Vol. 1

by Debra J. Dickerson (Editor), Gerald Early (Editor)

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This exciting collection introduces the first-ever annual anthology of writing by African Americans. Here are remarkable essays on a variety of subjects informed by—but not necessarily about—the experience of blackness, as seen through the eyes of some of our finest writers.

From art, entertainment, and science to technology, sexuality, and current


This exciting collection introduces the first-ever annual anthology of writing by African Americans. Here are remarkable essays on a variety of subjects informed by—but not necessarily about—the experience of blackness, as seen through the eyes of some of our finest writers.

From art, entertainment, and science to technology, sexuality, and current events—including the battle for the Democratic nomination for the presidency—the essays in this inaugural anthology offer the compelling perspectives of a number of well-known, distinguished writers, among them Malcolm Gladwell, Jamaica Kincaid, James McBride, and Walter Mosley, and a number of other writers who are just beginning to be heard.

Selected from a diverse array of respected publications such as the New Yorker, the Virginia Quarterly Review, Slate, and National Geographic, the essays gathered here are about making history, living everyday life—and everything in between. In “Fired,” author and professor Emily Bernard wrestles with the pain of a friendship inexplicably ended. Kenneth McClane writes hauntingly of the last days of his parents’ lives in “Driving.” Journalist Brian Palmer shares “The Last Thoughts of an Iraq War Embed.” Jamaica Kincaid describes her oddly charged relationship with that quintessentially British, Wordsworthian flower in “Dances with Daffodils,” and writer Hawa Allan depicts the forces of race and rivalry as two catwalk icons face off in “When Tyra Met Naomi.” A venue in which African American writers can branch out from traditionally “black” subjects, Best African American Essays features a range of gifted voices exploring the many issues and experiences, joys and trials, that, as human beings, we all share.

Please click the "Behind the Book" link for contributor’s bios.

From the Hardcover edition.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Under six broad rubrics (e.g., "Entertainment, Sports, the Arts," "Sciences, Technology, Education," "Activism, Political Thought"), Early and Dickerson have assembled previously published essays by nearly 30 writers. James McBride recalls how he "sidestepped" hip-hop "the way you step over cracks in the sidewalk," and his realization that "I missed the most important cultural event in my lifetime." Uzodinma Iweala urges a redirection of Western media concerns away from "campaigns, [that] however well intentioned, promote the stereotype of Africa as a black hole of disease and death." Barack Obama is the subject of two essays and the author of one, which reflects on "the mutual suspicion that sometimes exists between religious and secular America." Malcolm Gladwell is instructive in discussing the Flynn effect ("that average I.Q.s shift over time") in the black-white I.Q. gap. The editors are inclusive: three essays are by "non-African Americans on African American subjects" and the well-known mingle with the unfamiliar. Flat moments are few, and Bill Maxwell's heartbreaking account of teaching at a black college in Alabama and Emily Raboteau's "Searching for Zion," on the Beta Israel and African Hebrew Israelite communities in Israel, rise to particularly affecting heights. (Jan.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Library Journal

This introductory volume of an annual anthology of previously published works addresses an array of issues: friendship, family, food, hip-hop, black writers, talent, fashion, race, stereotyping, IQ tests, sick relatives, historically black colleges and universities, gayness, slavery, Iraq, Darfur, justice, and Barack Obama. Early (English, African & African American studies, & American culture studies, Washington Univ.; This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s) and Dickerson (The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners; An American Story) claim that the anthology intends to achieve three goals: to bring attention to the best works of African Americans published in a particular year, introduce some lesser-known sources of African American essays, and offer an ongoing record of the yearly progression of African American essay writing. Though these goals are indeed lofty and laudable, the quality and intellectual depth of this volume does not live up to expectation. While some of the names are well known, the selections are mostly mediocre at best. But this is a start, if not an impressive one. Recommended for public libraries with funds to spare.
—Edward K. Owusu-Ansah

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Random House Publishing Group
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Black for No Reason at All 

 To be a minority is, among many other things, to live as a sort of cultural vampire: one is forced, by bad luck at birth, to subsist on the popular lifeblood of a majority which bogarts (if only by sheer force of numbers) the airwaves, bandwidths, museums, and performance halls. It’s to search hungrily for your group’s face in the zeitgeist’s mirror and rarely find it there. 

We at the margins hunger for glimpses of ourselves in the cultural viewfinder, for proof that we leave footprints in the earth, footprints that will still be visible in millennia to come when archaeologists, even extraterrestrials, comb through America’s myriad scientific, cultural, and artistic layers to figure out who, what, and why the hell we were. How we long to see black footprints embedded in amber and not just in the shifting, momentary sands of fads like novelty rap, Barbershop movies, and gauche clothing lines. That search, subconscious though it may be–and more necessary because of it–is not even primarily for the “positive” images that blacks so justifiably demand to offset America’s insatiable preference for encountering us via inner-city perp walks and welfare statistics. Rather it’s the unexpected, off- topic encounters with ourselves for which we most long. Blacks climbing mountains. Arguing environmental policy. Composing symphonies. Spelunking for lost treasures. Singing our children lullabies. Producing literature about the human condition. Blacks where you least expect to happen upon them and encounters that don’t require our race, which should be the ultimate non sequitur, to be what matters most about us or, most daringly, even to matter at all. 

Blacks, in other words, are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be widely acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we, no less than every other self- absorbed group, most definitely are. We’re here. We’re black. Get used to it. Get used to it, and for the love of God, let us talk about something else for just a few minutes please. That, dear reader, is the purpose of this anthology. 

Here, we are creating a space in which blacks may be unpredictable. Off message. Quirky. Individuals. Human. Black for no reason at all. Where better to happen upon ourselves than in the essay? Essays about life, essays about history, essays about nothing much. Essays by blacks, but not necessarily about being black, though that’s all right, too. With this long overdue inaugural collection, we ’ll go spelunking for memorable essays, by or about diasporic blacks, on any subject at all. Anything. Whatever they happened to be thinking about that day and felt compelled to share with the world. With this series we announce the hunt for black essayistic art. Art–not protest or politics, unless those topics are rendered with transcendent, time- testing mastery. If you’re interested in beautiful writing or thought informed by blackness but not required by it, this series is for you. Best African American Essays calls a time- out on the black artist’s duty to his people, his country, or his livelihood and provides a place simply to be an artist. It’s a place for the black artist to be free. 

Blacks Landing on the Moon 

In the 1960s, when blacks were first integrating television in real numbers, we set the phone lines asizzle, letting each other know whenever one of our own was on the small screen. As if the entire black community hadn’t already planned Sunday dinner or the kids’ homework around those pre- VCR, bated- breath events. Whenever Sammy Davis Jr. or Diahann Carroll was on TV, the streets of black America were deserted, just as they were during America’s landing on the moon, both paradigm- shifting, fish-out-of-water events that changed American life as we knew it. For the entire half- hour of The Flip Wilson Show or Julia, Afro’d kids would sit entranced while adults just held the phone that connected them to another equally bemused Negro. All silently watched ourselves take part in America as artists and not, for once, as invisible, underpaid, much abused labor or–god help our psyches– as the all too visible “Negro problem.” 

Shaking our heads in prideful wonder at seeing ourselves in the tuxedoes and evening gowns of the day, finally invited into America’s living rooms, blacks accepted that our public presence then had to be qua black people. We could not be simply the new neighbor–we had to be the new black neighbor that America could practice not calling a realtor at first sight of. We could not be the new co- worker, but the new black first-of-his-kind office mate, whose every utterance had to be wackily misinterpreted by well- intentioned whites (who had to be construed as well- intentioned, or integration was over) as racial protest, so that high jinks, neutered of any substantive politics, could ensue and be resolved before the credits rolled. It was Kabuki theater, a highly stylized enactment of catharsis whose preformatted, feel- good outcomes threatened the white psyche not at all and that achieved nothing but teaching whites that they could remain calm with us in the room without police protection. It was enough for us then–it had to be enough–simply to be allowed into the room. 

Cultural encounters with us then, as America took baby steps toward racial tolerance, could include us only as the proverbial Other, extraterrestrials landed on Main Street. People who’d been here for centuries, people who’d both cared for and borne the children of the majority–the inscrutable, unpredictable strangers who’d lived in America since before it was America–were taking blackness for a wary stroll on the other side of the color line. It was a perp walk of a different kind, the kind intended to teach America it could encounter us as humans, fellow citizens. We were free but on our best credit-toour- race closely-monitored-by-both-sides behavior. Literal chains were replaced by existential ones. 

Popular culture was the way America got to know its blacks–got used to its blacks–as something other than its volatile serfs; there was nothing then but for blacks to serve as the one- dimensional proxies via which America could confront its integrationist terrors: its terrors, its guilt, and its fear of justified confrontation. Hence the ritual thrashings from the overly but impotently politicized Negroes of Maude, Good Times, and The Jeffersons. Indeed, blacks then also felt a need for the existential training wheels of participation as symbols and tokens only, as refutations of innate white supremacy or black quiescence; our art, understandably, focused mainly on the black condition. In the 1960s, as we had for centuries, we primarily sought to answer the mind- strangling question that W.E.B. Du Bois implored us to resist: “How does it feel to be a problem?” As he did, black artists have either “smile[d] or [were] interested, or [were] reduce[d] to a boiling simmer, as the occasion [required].”* 

But them days is over. Now, more than a century later, we’ve caught up to Du Bois: “To the real question, How does it feel to be a problem? [We] answer seldom a word.” 

tick them off. 

The question is, and always was, stupid, a subject- changer, not to mention ingeniously devised to keep us on the defensive, looking up at our interrogators, trying to figure out what they were thinking and what we could do to change it. But it’s 2008. Let those determined to figure out what’s so fundamentally wrong with blacks–and who require us to flail in vain for the answer to the wrong question, their question–spin their wheels on that racist, white supremacist, and narcissistic notion (i.e., “why do we find you, with your Quintellas and your swagger, to be so disturbing?”). However fascinated by the construction of blacks as problems, as defectives, as Other, the world might be, blacks have increasingly struggled uphill to change the bloody subject from their race to their minds. As late as 2002, the acclaimed sculptor Ed Hamilton, who labored in obscurity until his commemorations of black heroes like those of the Amistad and Booker T. Washington brought him prominence, had to unleash his frustration at race ’s constriction of his art. In an installation called Confinement, “faces peer out of holes in slabs, as if looking to break free . . . [his curator] Julien Robson sees in Confinement an African American artist struggling to become visible on his own terms.”* Unfortunately for him, a Best African American Sculptures is not likely in the offing. 

Hamilton faces the same realities all black artists do: museums and editors industriously keep us on speed dial whenever “black” issues arise, but not when there ’s a mortgage crisis, an ecological issue, or a humanitarian disaster on another continent. We seldom occur to them except through our blackness. But art must take risks, and black artists have always done so; homes such as this collection will make that task a little easier. The only way to make the world see us as human is for us to act human–offering up, with great boldness, our two cents on whatever catches our fancy. Most excitingly, we hope this series will encourage more black writers to take a breather from the beaten path of the salable essay or the latest “black” controversy and ruminate on . . . life. Increasingly freed from the requirements of race, we have art to create and art already created to be unearthed from its non-racerelated obscurity. In that regard, at least, the black writer has it easier than most of his brethren artists; we don’t need twenty- foot ceiling heights and scarce gallery walls to be seen. Just anthologies like this one, which will hopefully inspire more editors to think of black writers for nonblack subjects and inspire more black writers to branch out. 

In this inaugural volume, James Hannaham recounts for us an uneventful night out and about with his famous artist cousin, Kara Walker (“Coincidental Cousins”). Emily Bernard beautifully bangs her head against the wall over a friendship that has inexplicably, onesidedly ended (“Fired”). Black but more than black. Art. 

These essays will help the world understand that the culture produced by blacks must be understood as exactly that–as culture, not “black” culture. As long as racism does, black art as protest can, will, and should continue. “Jena, O.J. and the Jailing of Black America” (Orlando Patterson), “A Dream Lay Dying, Parts I, II, III” (Bill Maxwell), and “What IQ Doesn’t Tell You About Race” (Malcolm Gladwell) are just a few examples of the internal, antiracist critique included herein. The time is long overdue, however, for blacks to abandon Du Bois’s double consciousness–the impulse to understand and explain ourselves through white eyes and the strictures of race–and to explore what essayist Albert Murray describes as the “ambiguities and absurdities inherent in all human experience.”* Whites can’t move on until we do. 

Writing in 1969 in his now canonical essay collection The Omni- Americans, Murray argued, among other things, that America’s myopic reliance on bare statistics and the other tools of social science to “understand” its blacks was at best a dodge, and at worst a gambit designed to keep us “constructed” as a dysfunctional national problem. We were not neighbors, not humans, not fellow citizens, but a naked litany of negative “facts” in a vacuum that appeared to speak for themselves. Whites might be understood via Shakespeare and Milton, but for blacks, poll data alone sufficed. He wrote: 

The prime target of these polemics is the professional observer/ reporter (that major vehicle of the nation’s infor - mation, alas) who relies on the so- called findings and all-too-inconclusive extrapolations of social science survey technicians for their sense of the world [where blacks are concerned]. The bias of The Omni- Americans is distinctly pro literary. It represents the dramatic sense of life as against the terminological abstractions and categories derived from laboratory procedures. Its interests, however, are not those of a literary sensibility at odds with scientific method. Not by any means. On the contrary, a major charge of the argument advanced here is that most social science survey findings are not scientific enough. They violate one ’s common everyday breeze- tasting sense of life precisely because they do not meet the standards of validity, reliability, and comprehensiveness that the best scientists have always insisted on. As a result they provide neither a truly practical sociology of the so- called black community nor a dependable psychology of black behavior . . . 

[These essays] are submitted as antidotes against the pernicious effects of a technological enthusiasm inadequately counter- balanced by a literary sense of the ambiguities and absurdities inherent in all human experience.*

 Leave it to a Negro to believe that literature is more valid than statistics! But with a group as targeted as blacks have been, an overreliance on agenda- driven statistics, coupled with a profound lack of interest in black interiority, can only lead us all astray. 

Increasingly, blacks are secure enough in their civic identities to resist the siren call of statistical debate and are instead striving to provide that “everyday breeze tasting sense of [black] life.” We want to talk about ourselves as ourselves. Preoccupied as we ’ve been trying to survive, we’re almost as much of a mystery to ourselves as we are to others, something Dr. Carter G. Woodson well understood when he wrote, “The most inviting field of discovery and invention, then, is the Negro himself, but he does not realize it.”† But he’s beginning to, as this collection will prove. With more opportunities to talk about ourselves in our own right, we ’ll be discovering and inventing enough to give white narcissism a run for its money. 

No process of black self- discovery would be legitimate without significant offerings from the black diaspora, so this collection ferrets out non- American black voices from around the world. American blacks can’t understand, or encounter, themselves in isolation from their cousins, however connected or disconnected the various groups remain. We hope they’ll be intrigued to learn how modern- day slavery works in a Ghanian- American’s family (“A Slow Emancipation” by Kwame Anthony Appiah), or how one African American encounters Israel (“Searching for Zion” by Emily Raboteau). 

I’ll leave you with a final quote, the one that drove the selection of essays to include throughout this process, the one with which Albert Murray opened The Omni- Americans

The individual stands in opposition to society, but he is nourished by it. And it is far less important to know what differenintroduction tiates him than what nourishes him. Like the genius, the individual is valuable for what there is within him . . . Every psychological life is an exchange, and the fundamental problem of the living individual is knowing upon what he intends to feed.* 

The essays chosen for this collection were written by writers (we assume they’re all black but haven’t inquired) who’ve chosen to feed on life, on art, and on their own humanity. They hunt for the nubbin of truth at the heart of any successful artistic enterprise. But that’s an artistic truth, not a statistical one or an agenda- driven one. It’s just one that makes you reread an essay, then share it with a friend–that kind of truth. However informed by their blackness, these writers would be equally arresting on topics that flowed from their Jewishness, their Ecuadorean- ness, or their Scottishness. They let us taste the breezes of life, and they nourish us. 

Debra J. Dickerson 
Guest Editor  

From the Hardcover edition.

Meet the Author

Debra J. Dickerson was educated at the University of Maryland, St. Mary’s University, and Harvard Law School. She has been both a senior editor and a contributing editor at U.S. News & World Report, and her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the Washington Post, the New Republic, Slate, the Village Voice, and Essence. She is the author of The End of Blackness and An American Story. She lives in Albany, New York.

Gerald Early is a noted essayist and American culture critic. A professor of English, African & African American Studies, and American Culture Studies at Washington University in St. Louis, Early is the author of several books, including The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture, which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism, and This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s. He is also editor of numerous volumes, including The Muhammad Ali Reader and The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader. He served as a consultant on four of Ken Burns’s documentary films, Baseball, Jazz, Unforgivable Blackness: The Rise and Fall of Jack Johnson, and The War, and appeared in the first three as an on-air analyst.

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