Sunday, April 10, 2016

Three Black Lives

Accepting the premise that Black Lives Matter, I figured I should be reading more about contemporary black lives, and so I picked up three very different memoirs, each essential reading in its own way. I started with How To Be Black, by Baratunde Thurston. Much of the book skewers the uneasiness of race consciousness in contemporary America, with satirical advice on topics like "how to speak for all black people" and "how to be black at the office". The satire is funny and sharp (as one would expect given Thurston's long career at The Onion), puncturing perceptions, making you think and laugh at the same time. Interspersed with the advice chapters, we get the fascinating story of Thurston's own life, growing up with a single mother in Washington DC during the height of crack, then being one of the few black kids at an elite private school and later attending Yale. And the third component of his book is a series of interview questions with what he calls his "black panel", a set of "experts" on being black (which included one white guy for a scientific control), who added another dimension with the fascinating diversity of their experiences. The questions were all great, but the most interesting one for me was "When did you first realize you were black?" This particularly struck me, since as a gay man, I had always assumed gays were unique among minorities in having to realize later in life that we are gay. But the question, while humorous, elicited some serious responses. Even though black kids always know they're black, many of them did remember particular experiences when they first realized that being black was more than just a skin tone, that it was a social category. The whole book was entertaining and gently illuminating. 

From this light start, I then turned up the gravitas with Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between The World And Me, a memoir written in the form of a letter from a father to his teenage son, telling his son the things he needs to know about where his father came from and what it means to him being black in America today. Coates grew up in a really rough part of Baltimore, and describes at a young age learning the rules of the street just to avoid being stabbed or shot. He later went to Howard University, which he calls "the Mecca", and was enthralled with that center of black culture. He describes people he knew and who influenced him, and things he has experienced that instilled in him an understanding of the particularly breakable vulnerable nature of "black bodies" -- everything from minor but telling affronts to personally knowing a man who was shot by police basically for being black in the wrong neighborhood. Everything is grounded in his very personal experience, avoiding polemics or politics, and that makes it profoundly powerful. It's all what he saw, what he lived, and what he felt. Polemics invite debate, but experience has a raw truth with no place for debate. His intense missive is elevated by the words with which his experiences are described. His prose is masterful, emotionally vivid and evocatively poetic. It is truly a brilliant work of writing, and a must-read for anyone wanting to understand this experience. In Coates' book, he spoke of his complete alienation from the white suburban lives he saw on TV as a child, and of those suburbs being built on piles of "broken black bodies" by the "people who need to think of themselves as white". While I understood his feelings, he didn't really explain what he thought caused that situation, and I didn't understand it until Cory Booker spelled it out for me.

The third book I read was United: Thoughts on Finding Common Ground and Advancing the Common Good by Cory Booker, former mayor of Newark and now US Senator from New Jersey. His memoir is an inspirational story: we get some brief glimpses of his childhood growing up in one of the first black families to integrate themselves into the very white Harrington Park, New Jersey, and then attending Stanford, Oxford, and Yale Law School. The meat of the story starts with him as an idealistic newly-minted lawyer wanting to help improve the city of Newark, and getting a real hands-on education by choosing to live in one of the most crime-ridden parts of the inner city. He tells the story of Brick Towers, a 16-story housing complex built in 1970, initially a promising place to live, but ultimately dragged down by landlord neglect to suffer rat infestations and broken elevators, and its location in a neighborhood of the city effectively semi-abandoned by the City of Newark to become a center of drug dealing. In the years he lived there, he got to know just about everyone, and he tells the story of the indomitable woman who lead the tenants association, of parents and kids who live there, and even of the drug dealers who worked there. He gains and shares fascinating insight into who these people are and how they got to be where they are. This is all intermixed with his own story of how he went from being a public interest lawyer to city councilman and eventually mayor and senator. Some skeptics will say that his actions and his book are all politically self-serving, but I think he came across as genuinely concerned to improve his city and his country. Living in blighted housing for a few days or weeks is a publicity stunt; Cory Booker lived in Brick Towers for 10 years until it was torn down, and then he sought another crime-ridden area of his city to move to. I don't see how one can say that's not the real deal. I found his book inspirational, in terms of gaining a new understanding of deep social problems that suggest practical solutions, and in terms of the faith that drives him, a combination of religious faith and a faith in his fellow citizens to work together to find solutions. I think Cory Booker is a new hero for me.