Notes of a Native Daughter | The Nation


Notes of a Native Daughter

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The title does neither the book nor its author any favors. The End of Blackness, merely as a billboard, seems calculated to get a rise out of the people who will most likely reject on first contact whatever it's selling--the very people, Debra Dickerson would argue, who need to read it most.

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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It's a title that screams contrarianism. And for many African-Americans, "contrarianism" is almost always synonymous with conservatism, accommodation, even treason to the race. None of these charges effectively cling to Dickerson. But her armor's strapped on too tight for her to care what people think. "I'm spoiling for a fight," she declares in her acknowledgments. "I have pulled my last punch with the 'blacker-than-thou' brigade.... [This book] is my gauntlet thrown down to the black powers that be. Pick it up if you dare, but you'd better come correct."

I can relate to Dickerson's combative stance. I share the exasperation that provokes it. I think of all the times I would hear black people proclaim, with fierce and unyielding conviction, that the white man is the Devil. And of all the times when I would want to shout back, How is calling the white man the Devil any different from calling him God? Either way, you're ceding him more power over your destiny than he deserves. It's relinquishing autonomy over your own life. I kept such comebacks to myself, because I didn't want to be censured or ostracized for violating the customary loop of black discourse. I wish, on a purely visceral level, that I could throw down as Dickerson does here, if only to void the accumulated bile of so much stifled dissent.

Her force field's so thick she won't care if there are black readers who couldn't get past the introductory pages of her 2000 memoir, An American Story, which focus on her years as an Air Force enlisted woman and knee-jerk "blame-the-victim" Reaganite. Once a righty, always a righty, n'est-ce pas? Never mind that the sister went through all manner of psychic and intellectual changes, from her working-class childhood in St. Louis to her long, strange pilgrimage through the military, out the other end of which she's a born-again progressive bearing down on Harvard Law School like a laser beam. Even as both her self-esteem (from a series of clueless teachers, relatives and varied alleged grown-ups) and her body (via rape by a fellow serviceman) came under vicious assault, her mind stayed open to possibility and alert to complexity. She seems never to have met an idea or a presumption that she didn't hold under the light, checking for cracks or warped edges. Citizenship, she believes, demands nothing less than vigilant skepticism even toward one's own skepticism.

But for African-Americans embittered by citizenship's faulty promises, a permanent state of war has existed with white supremacy, a war in which any trace of skepticism toward tactics, ideology and agreed-upon beliefs is perceived as a back-door opening to concession, if not outright surrender. It will not please any of these folks to learn that The End of Blackness is being submitted to the general public as a brief for letting go, if not giving up.

"What blacks must surrender," Dickerson writes in her introduction, "is the notion that they can be made whole for the centuries of loss and degradation they endured, that whites can be made to suffer guilt and shame equal to the portion they have dealt blacks, that white America will ever see itself the way its black citizens do.... Whites will never cringe with the shame blacks feel appropriate; they will never welcome blacks nonchalantly into their neighborhoods and schools--or, at least, blacks should assume so. Practically speaking, as both intermarriage and black uplift continue, whites will passively participate in integration, but blacks still should not list it among their goals. They should ignore whites qua whites and focus on being prime movers."

Such rhetoric has been linked by some readers to the distant sounds of buckets being cast down. But Dickerson can't easily (or usefully) be linked to the ghost of Booker T. Washington, and The End of Blackness is too discursive and ill tempered to be taken for an echo of Washington's Atlanta Compromise. Washington's oracular prescriptions were lofted to the heavens, where his listeners were implored to reach. Dickerson, much in the manner of contemporary public dialogue, provokes, needles, gets in your face, sets off cherry bombs; anything to keep you awake, especially when you're least inclined to hear her out.

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