Blacks & Jews Entangled

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Judaism, Media Archive, Religion, United States on 2016-06-24 00:35Z by Steven

Blacks & Jews Entangled

The New York Review of Books
2016-07-14

Darryl Pinckney

Oreo by Fran Ross, with a foreword by Danzy Senna and an afterword by Harryette Mullen, New Directions, 230 pp., $14.95 (paper)

Google wasn’t around when Oreo was first published in 1974. You are hit with Greek mythology and Yiddish right away and just the look of the pages of Fran Ross’s novel about an Afro-Jewish girl’s quest to find her white father can discourage or intimidate. Oreo, by an African-American writer who died in 1985, promises a degree of difficulty; the chapter titles, paragraph titles (“Helen and Oreo shmooz”), different font sizes, a graph showing shades of blackness, letters, an elaborate five-page menu of a daughter’s homecoming meal, footnotes, and mathematical equations say this is no naturalistic tale of two ghettoes. The protagonist is called “Oreo” not because of the cookie—i.e., because she is mixed-race or reluctantly black, as in black on the outside but white on the inside. Her black grandmother had been trying to give Oreo the nickname “Oriole,” but couldn’t make herself understood to the family.

In addition to Greek myth and Yiddish, Ross makes use of black slang, popular culture of the time, puns, raunch, her own made-up words—but this is not vernacular, not jive. Ross’s voice is literary, and thrilled with itself, joking about Villon or Bellow, totally into what it takes to get up to outrageous parody. Nothing about the narrative is restful; you have to stay on the alert. Oreo is quick, obscure, sly, and every line is working hard, doing its bit. Ross makes Oreo relentless in her shtick. “Oreo was soon engrossed in ‘Burp: The Course of Smiling Among Groups of Israeli Infants in the First Eighteen Months of Life,’ the cover story in Pitfalls of Gynecology.”

In fractured, short chapters, Oreo decides arbitrarily that she has fulfilled a given task and therefore deserves another cryptic clue from her father. Ross gives us not a send-up of Theseus’s journey of labors, but her appropriation of his battles as her structure, her frame for her provocative urban picaresque…

Read the review here.

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Forward Passes

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, United States on 2015-12-20 02:55Z by Steven

Forward Passes

The New York Review of Books
2015-12-17

Darryl Pinckney

Loving Day by Mat Johnson; Spiegel and Grau, 287 pp., $26.00

The importing of human beings into the US from Africa to be sold as slaves was outlawed in 1808, after which the slave markets of the southern states traded in black people born in America. The rules of New World slavery decreed that a person’s status was derived from that of the mother, not the father. A slave owner’s children by an enslaved woman were, firstly, assets. Neither Frederick Douglass nor Booker T. Washington considered himself mixed-race, because of the one-drop rule that determined how much black blood made a person black. They loathed the thought of their slave-owning white fathers. Douglass never saw his mother’s face in the daylight, because she was always going to or coming back from the fields in the dark.

What outraged white southerners about Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only that Harriet Beecher Stowe asserted that black people were better Christians than white people; she was also frank about the immorality of the white man’s relations with the black women in his power. But Stowe had as much trouble as Lincoln in imagining the social destiny of mixed-race people who were pink enough in fact to pass for white (a problem central to Mat Johnson’s brilliantly satirical new novel Loving Day)…

Read the entire review here.

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Young Barry Wins

Posted in Articles, Barack Obama, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive on 2012-09-15 00:45Z by Steven

Young Barry Wins

The New York Review of Books
2012-08-16

Darryl Pinckney

Barack Obama: The Story. By David Maraniss. Simon and Schuster, 641 pp.

A white friend told me recently that he heard someone complain that he’d voted for the black guy last time around, did he have to do it again—as if Obama’s election had been a noble experiment we weren’t ready for. Only the big boys can deal with the global economy, so hand the keypad to the White House back to its rightful class of occupants, those big boys who helped to make the mess in the first place. President Obama got little credit from Wall Street for bailing out the financial system. Imagine the criticism had he not or had he tried to institute even more reform at that moment. It was an early display of his administration’s hope to lead by consensus.

Obama’s hold on the middle ground frustrates old liberals and engaged youth. But it remains one of his great assets that the Republicans can’t shove or provoke him from the middle ground. His entrenchment is perhaps why his opponents cannot make him lose his cool, his own understated black swagger. Think of the fierce need among Republican congressmen to try to insult him as chief executive. More so than his record, the accomplishments of his first term, his cool is his campaign’s best remedy for the negative messages that will get under the floorboards of the nation’s consciousness, placed there by Citizens United, the worst Supreme Court decision since Dred Scott.

No matter what, the Republicans are promising to bring Obama’s first term to a close with another budget crisis. The first term is becoming the story, the referendum. Meanwhile, Obama’s fight for a second term has had the curious effect of making books about his rise somewhat passé. We are familiar with the exoticism of his story: the absent African father; the young white anthropologist mother in Indonesia; the basketball team in Hawaii. We know about Chicago, the discovery of the black community and the future First Lady. YouTube has him when at Harvard. And then that Speech. Moreover, we know much of this from Obama himself. Dreams from My Father is justly famous.

Yet David Maraniss in his proudly sprawling Barack Obama: The Story presents a biography of the president that he is determined goes deeper than anything else out there. He is clearly pleased to have reached previously untapped sources. Barack Obama: The Story is well over five hundred pages and at its end the future president is just twenty-seven years old, on his way to Harvard Law School. Many share his subject, but Maraniss is the large beast come to the watering hole…

…Occasionally, Maraniss compares the young Obama to the young Bill Clinton, whose biography he has also written. He has evidence of ambition in Clinton’s vow to his mother that he was going to be president someday, and in his thirst for student offices. Robert Caro says he could identify early on LBJ’s hunger for power and follow it throughout his career. But Maraniss can’t find in Obama’s story the scene when he revealed to someone that he possessed a sense of having an extraordinary destiny. He can’t find it, though it is in his hands: Dreams from My Father is that moment. He does see Obama’s memoir, with its admission that he experimented with drugs while in college, as a subtle maneuvering into position for a run for office. However, because Dreams from My Father is the text in his way, so to speak, Maraniss takes it on, attempts to take it down, and in doing so diminishes the importance of the story Obama tells in his book: how he became a black American…

Read the entire review here.

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