Notes of a Native Daughter | The Nation


Notes of a Native Daughter

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That title, again, could be a red flag or a repellent. Why The End of Blackness? Why does "blackness" have to get snuffed when it's "whiteness" that maims aspirations and kills dreams? If one goes, the other has to walk the plank too. Maybe even go first, thank you very much. "If I am not who you say I am, then you are not what you think you are," James Baldwin famously informed his white readers. (Along with Baldwin, W.E.B. Du Bois, Zora Neale Hurston, Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Carter G. Woodson, Amiri Baraka and E. Franklin Frazier make up the ancestral posse Dickerson deploys for backup.)

About the Author

Gene Seymour
Gene Seymour is a film critic at Newsday and a contributor to the Oxford Companion to Jazz (Oxford University Press).

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Dickerson isn't quibbling. In fact, white supremacy gets its omelet-fluffy head slapped around for more than half the book in a scathing if familiar litany of political and personal transgressions against Africans. We all know how bad things were from slavery through Jim Crow. Then again, Dickerson argues, maybe we don't:

Only the loss of understanding that blacks were once literally, officially second-class citizens and subject to the whim of any white anywhere in America can account for the fact that many blacks today claim that "nothing has changed" and equate the paucity of black faculty at Harvard Law School with Jim Crow. That charge is an obscenity. Jim Crow hanged black men for taking pride in their homes. Jim Crow cut fetuses from black women's bellies when they protested the lynching of their husbands for acting like men. Jim Crow taxed the black population, but refused to pave or police or educate the black part of town.... Jim Crow had white parents chuckling while their children threw rocks from their school bus windows at black children trudging to bookless, one-room shanty schools.... Jim Crow was active, pulsating evil that proudly detested blacks...

"Thanks to the civil rights movement," she continues, "black Americans are free and thriving. No one, apparently, is more surprised by that than some black Americans. Nothing else can explain their need to continue believing they are marginalized, that whites are all-powerful and all evil and that America wants to see them fail. Some blacks have absorbed white supremacist notions and cannot give up perpetual protest, their only avenue to receiving Caucasian attention."

As far as Dickerson is concerned, "whiteness" and "blackness," as they are commonly understood, are locked in a satanic tango over American consciousness, with "blackness" following the other's lead. "Whiteness" in post-civil rights America has congealed and hardened into what Dickerson encapsulates as "narcissistic know-nothingness." It may no longer literally lynch or bludgeon, as Jim Crow did. But it continues to covet its inflated sense of supreme privilege and deny its more complex cultural connections with blackness. "Not because whites hate blacks per se," she writes. "They ostentatiously fear and feel superior to blacks, both of which feelings have to do with how precious whites think themselves."

Meanwhile, "blackness," Dickerson argues, feeds off and further pumps up this narcissism by defining itself almost exclusively in terms of white oppression. "Blacks simply do not know who or how to be absent oppression. To cease invoking racism and reveling in its continuance is to lose the power to haunt whites, the one tattered possession they'll fight for while their true freedom molders unclaimed. It is to lose the power to define themselves as the opposite of something evil, rather than on their own terms. Much more bravery is required to assert black power, set an autonomous agenda, and court the failure that too many blacks fear is all they're capable of."

If these sentences lack polish, it's because Dickerson is opting for force over grace. The headlong momentum of her argument, propelled by anecdotes, quotes, homilies, one-liners and blogs, jumps and hums with a vitality reminiscent of high-end pop music, good chase movies or contact-sports television. This brawling abandon accounts as much for the book's appeal as it does for its problems. She does, in the manner of a relentless debater on a mission, have a tendency to repeat many of her key points, in case they're missed the first time around. And while broad-stroked generalizations can't be avoided in a polemic as unapologetic as this, The End of Blackness can sometimes seem as impervious to measured reflection as the attitudes it seeks to demolish.

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