Notes of a Native Daughter | The Nation


Notes of a Native Daughter

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I raise my fist in salute when Dickerson declares the mind to be "the last plantation." At the same time, she makes me wish she'd brought to her witness stand The Last Plantation, Itabari Njeri's quixotic and undervalued 1997 inquiry into shape-shifting multicultural America near the twentieth century's conclusion. Njeri challenged readers to broaden to a shattering point the same narrow parameters of "blackness" and "whiteness" as Dickerson does. But Njeri widened her view to take in the myriad rogue elements being brought to the American cultural bounty by Asian, Latino and other hyphenated Americans. Dickerson's focus is more on black-white dynamics--though, to her credit, she throws a well-aimed sucker punch at the white hierarchy's tendency to set nonwhite cultures against one another. "As whites squirm their way out of black demands, they turn to other minorities as guilt- and concessions-buffers." Thus Asians and Latinos are praised and even rewarded for diligence and hard work. "Whites remain on top, but they signal that Hispanics and Asians can outrank blacks while they work on their promotions to whiteness."

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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The End of Blackness scatters, flags, almost loses its legs toward the end, when Dickerson yields the floor to joke lists that members of the black middle class send to each other through e-mail as if in a cyberspace ritual of self-mockery. (Examples: "YOU KNOW IT'S A GHETTO SALON WHEN... All the stylists wear house slippers.... YOU'RE A CORPORATE NEGRO IF... You think anyone without an office job is ghetto" and so on.) All of which is marshaled to signify the dreary levels of self-loathing toward which African-Americans have allowed themselves to sink by investing their identities in hidebound concepts of "blackness." Get over it, Dickerson urges. Think outside the box and "transcend the ragtag reminders of racism by refusing to be demoralized by them."

So what is to be done? Those looking for a ten-point program or a well-marked road map toward direct action won't find it here--and will likely find more reasons to throw things at Dickerson. She may affirm charges of conservatism by urging blacks to "do for self." (Then again, when have blacks ever been told to do anything else?) She doesn't come down hard against seeking reparations for centuries of slavery and segregation, but rather aims a gimlet eye at the manner in which such pleas are submitted: "Bereft of a unifying and legitimizing intellectual-moral framework, blacks rarely respond by pointing out that reparations are demanded from America, not from the white residents of America, but from an America which includes blacks and is supported in large measure by the wealth created by blacks." She is cagey on the subject of affirmative action; without opposing affirmative action outright, she takes a swipe at black leaders for emphasizing it "above all other goals...even though the black masses derive little benefit from it. Why? Because it disguises the elite black interest as the general black interest. Also, because whites don't like it."

Point taken. But what does she propose? Apparently, nothing more than comprehensive attitude adjustment: "Blacks must monitor white people so as to safeguard their piece of the pie, but they otherwise should ignore them politically. Black self-worth simply cannot hinge on other people's behavior: So what if people eyeball them suspiciously? So what if rent-a-cops follow them around? So what if a random white woman clutches her purse when they pass? Is it not obvious that much of this behavior persists merely because it feeds whites' need to be central to everything? All blacks can control is their behavior, not other people's narcissistic and inglorious needs. If you know who you are, why does it matter so much that a powerless stranger has you all wrong?"

This may not be news to as many people as Dickerson--or, for that matter, her critics--imagines. If anything, it's possible that The End of Blackness, however much it goes over the top and gets too fast and loose in presentation, may have arrived in time to affirm many African-Americans' suspicions that something, anything, drastically new in leadership and collective attitude is needed right now. In her acknowledgments Dickerson nods to the "intellectual and political fervor emanating from the hip-hop generation," which, as is habitual among younger folks, wants to bust open and transfigure traditional social and political discourse among African-Americans. Many will persist in thinking of The End of Blackness as part of the problem. But no one should be surprised if future solutions can trace their emotional foundation to Dickerson's all-encompassing crankiness. Of course, the best thing a book like The End of Blackness can do is help make its what-blacks-must-do-next genre obsolete.

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