Escaping Blackness

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy, United States on 2020-03-07 02:03Z by Steven

Escaping Blackness

New York Review of Books
2020-03-26

Darryl Pinckney


Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019
Dominique Nabokov

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Norton, 174 pp., $25.95

The black individual passing for white in nineteenth- and twentieth-century American fiction by white writers is usually a woman, and usually when the truth emerges, the purity of the white race is saved. However, in An Imperative Duty (1891) by William Dean Howells, a Boston girl is ashamed to find out that legally she is colored, but her white suitor marries her anyway and takes her off to a life in Italy. In the beginning of Charles Chesnutt’s The House Behind the Cedars (1900), a “high-bred” black man in North Carolina returns to his hometown to ask his sister to take his dead white wife’s place and bring up his son. A young aristocrat she meets in her new white life proposes marriage, but soon learns the truth of her origins. Literary convention, in the form of a fever, kills her. The white suitor realizes too late that love conquers all. He promises to keep the brother’s secret.

The secret was as radical as Chesnutt could get. From a North Carolina family of “free issue” blacks—meaning emancipated since colonial times—Chesnutt had blond hair and blue eyes. He wouldn’t pass for white, because if he became famous then he chanced someone appearing from his past. He preferred to pursue reputation as a black man. Chesnutt had cousins who crossed the color line and he never told on them, viewing passing as an act of “self-preservation,” a private solution to the race problem. The big escape from being black was an American tradition. Three of Sally Hemings’s six children ended up living as white people.

The nameless narrator of James Weldon Johnson’s novel The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man (1912), a widower and a father, says little about his life as a white man. He is interested instead in his past as a black person, his life with different classes of black people, his wanderings around Europe as a young musician. When he returned to the United States and went on a folk song–collecting tour of the South, he witnessed a lynching—a black man being burned alive. Terrified, he got himself across the color line. He didn’t want to belong to a racial group so utterly without power…

Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid…

Read the entire review here.

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What if We Just Forgot about Race?

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, Social Science on 2020-02-13 16:26Z by Steven

What if We Just Forgot about Race?

National Review
2020-02-11

Kyle Smith, Critic-at-Large


Opponents of a white nationalist-led rally hold a Black Lives Matter flag in downtown Washington, D.C., August 12, 2018. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

In his beautifully written new book, Thomas Chatterton Williams disputes the notion that his blackness should be central to his identity.

Picture a graph of American racial preoccupation over time. Over the last 50 years, the downward trend is unmistakable. After the civil-rights era, anger and frustration and dismay diminished in the Seventies. It diminished more in the Eighties and the Nineties and the Aughts. Then, after the election of Barack Obama, which was presented as the final victory of post-racial thinking, what? A steady increase in focus on race. Today everything is racialized. Race is inescapable. There is no sociopolitical subject that can be discussed without a prominent voice insisting “Actually, this is about race.”

And it’s exhausting. It’s hard to see how we bend the curve of race anguish down again. But then again, it’s a mistake to think that present trends must carry on indefinitely. Attitudes do evolve, adapt, grow. What if we dropped our fascination with race?…

Read or listen to the entire review here.

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Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Identity Development/Psychology, Media Archive, Philosophy on 2019-12-24 02:48Z by Steven

Autobiography of an Ex-Black Man

Harpers’s
December 2019

Emily Bernard

Thomas Chatterton Williams loses his race

Self-Portrait in Black and White, by Thomas Chatterton Williams. W. W. Norton. 192 pages. $25.95.

What a strange thing is “race,” and family, stranger still.
—Elizabeth Alexander, “Race”

“I’m the happiest I’ve ever been!” declares Wanda Sykes in her 2016 Epix special, What Happened . . . Ms. Sykes? As one of her fans, I was glad to hear it. As a member of a racially and culturally mixed family, I was particularly charmed to learn the circumstances of Sykes’s joy. For ten years, Wanda Sykes has been a mother. Her wife, Alex Niedbalski, gave birth to twins Olivia and Lucas in 2009. “My kids are white white, you know? I mean blond hair, blue eyes. I’m talking Frozen,” says Sykes.

“Never in a million years would I have imagined myself in this situation.

“Here’s the thing. I’m a black woman from Virginia,” she continues. “I went to an H.B.C.U., historically black college—I went to Hampton University. I pledged the first black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. So I got a lot of black going on.” The audience roars. “And now I’m married to a white French woman, and I have two white kids. Fucked up my legacy.” She throws her arm up to the ceiling.

“Now, don’t get me wrong,” she says. “I love my family. I love my family dearly, you know, and I wish we could live in a color-blind society. Yeah. But I gotta admit, I see shit.”…

Self-Portrait is Williams’s attempt to liberate his mind from the shackles of conventional racial designations once he realizes that his children will never be seen by anyone—not even, most likely, by themselves—as black. Williams, the son of a white mother and a black father, whom he calls “Pappy” and who serves as an intellectual and ethical anchor in Self-Portrait and a previous memoir, marries a white French woman, and their firstborn child, a daughter named Marlow, emerges in the delivery room with blond hair and blue eyes. Because Marlow will not share his racial identity, Williams decides that that identity no longer suits him. Instead of black, by the end of the book, he calls himself “ex-black”—which may be a bit like threatening to run away from home but never making it past the front porch.

Still, Self-Portrait is a fluent, captivating, if often disquieting story. Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wanda Sykes have many of the same questions about the way race will affect how they relate to their children, and how their children will see themselves. “In all of these white rooms that she is being brought up in, what will she learn to think of herself?” Williams writes about Marlow. But there is not much to laugh about in Self-Portrait, which begins with a lot of hand-wringing over Marlow’s fate. “Will she develop my ancestral GPS,” Williams writes, “or will that signal fade—would it even be right for me to transmit my habits of orientation, some of which are riddled with guilt and steeped in illusion, to her untroubled head?”…

Read the entire review here.

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Color Blind

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Passing, Philosophy on 2019-11-12 19:02Z by Steven

Color Blind

The Nation
2019-11-11

Ismail Muhammad, Reviews Editor
The Believer


Charts for testing color blindness. (Wellcome Collection)

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s argument against race.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race (New York: W. W. Norton, 2019)

Early in Nella Larsen’s 1929 novella Passing, Clare Kendry speaks nervously of her daughter Margery’s birth. “I nearly died of terror the whole nine months before Margery was born,” she confesses. She is, for all intents and purposes, a white woman married to a wealthy white man. Yet she finds herself fearing that her child’s birth will reveal her for what she is: a black woman who passes for white. If a child of Clare’s came out dark, it would be evidence of her passing. Luckily, Margery was born fair skinned. “Thank goodness, she turned out all right.”

A similar scene unfolds at the beginning of Thomas Chatterton Williams’s new memoir, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. In 2013, Williams—the son of a white woman and a black man—and his white French wife are living in Paris when she gives birth to their daughter, Marlow. Like Margery, Marlow arrives with fair skin. But this is not a comfort to Williams; instead, it comes as a shock. “It took my sluggish mind a moment to register and sort the sounds; and then it hit me that [the doctor] was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond,” he recalls.

Unlike Clare’s child, Williams’s blond baby is not the cause of relief but of psychic agitation. For Williams, she’s a portal into a new conception of his own racial identity. “I was aware…however vaguely, that whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different,” he writes. While Williams had long considered himself black, Marlow’s arrival unsettled his assumptions about how real race is to begin with. “The sight of this blond-haired, blue-eyed, impossibly fair-skinned child shocked me—along with the knowledge that she was indubitably mine,” he writes. How can the world consider this child black, and what does it say about his racial identity that he has fathered her? Even more important, his daughter’s birth raises a set of deeper existential and political questions. What does it say about race that some of the key assumptions that buttress Western conceptions of racial identity—that one’s skin color can tell us one’s race, for instance—dissolve in the face of reality’s manifold intricacies?…

Read the entire review here.

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“Self-Portrait in Black and White” doesn’t meaningfully engage with centuries of work from black-identifying scholars who wrote accessibly about their backgrounds, especially those with mixed-race ancestry.

Posted in Excerpts/Quotes on 2019-10-27 17:15Z by Steven

Nor is he [Thomas Chatterton Williams] the first thinker to ponder how multiracial people navigate a world so obsessed with the minutiae of race. Self-Portrait in Black and White doesn’t meaningfully engage with centuries of work from black-identifying scholars who wrote accessibly about their backgrounds, especially those with mixed-race ancestry. Nella Larsen’s novel, Passing, was published nearly a century ago; the former NAACP leader Walter White published his memoir, A Man Called White, in 1948. Upon his death in 1955, The New York Times wrote that the fair-skinned White “could easily have joined the 12,000 Negroes who pass the color-line and disappear into the white majority every year in this country. But he deliberately sacrificed his comfort to publicize himself as a Negro and to devote his entire adult life to completing the emancipation of his people.” Absent from Williams’s memoir is any critical analysis of texts written by White or even by major figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Angela Davis, or Malcolm X.

Hannah Giorgis, “A Simplistic View of a Mixed-ish America,” The Atlantic, October 26, 2019. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/mixed-ish-thomas-chatterton-williams-race/600679/.

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A Simplistic View of a Mixed-ish America

Posted in Articles, Book/Video Reviews, Communications/Media Studies, Media Archive, United States on 2019-10-26 18:34Z by Steven

A Simplistic View of a Mixed-ish America

The Atlantic
2019-10-26

Hannah Giorgis


ABC / Byron Cohen

ABC’s Black-ish spinoff joins a new memoir by Thomas Chatterton Williams in presenting a seemingly enlightened but ahistorical view of race.

Mixed-ish, the prequel of the Tracee Ellis Ross–fronted sitcom Black-ish, begins with a rupture. At the tender age of 12, Rainbow “Bow” Johnson (played by Arica Himmel) is ejected from the hippie commune where she and her family live. As the adult Bow, Ross narrates the predicament that follows the government raid of the utopian community: Bow’s black mother and white father must now raise their three biracial children in the harsh world of mid-1980s suburban America. Though it’s set during the broader tumult of the Reagan era, Mixed-ish is driven by the identity crisis that Rainbow and her siblings, Johan and Santamonica, face. On their first day at their new school, the trio are stopped by a pair of dark-skinned students who ask them, “What are you weirdos mixed with?” When the fairer-skinned Johnson kids naively respond, “What’s ‘mixed’?” their classmates laugh.

Ross, who also serves as a series writer and executive producer, talks viewers through this confrontation in a didactic voiceover. “I know the idea of not understanding what it means to be mixed sounds crazy, but you have to understand—growing up on the commune, race wasn’t a thing,” she says. “Do you have any idea how many more mixed babies there are today? Probably because interracial marriage was illegal until the Loving Act of 1967,” she explains, adding that she and her siblings were “were basically the beta testers for biraciality.” In this scene and in later episodes, Mixed-ish falls into the trap of framing its protagonists as pioneers of mixed-race consciousness, rather than inheritors of a long and complex history…

…In addition to Mixed-ish, Loving and the mythos surrounding it has provided fodder for another recent work about biraciality. In his new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, the author Thomas Chatterton Williams notes that his “black” father and “white” mother met the year after the Loving decision. (In an author’s note, Williams explains that he sought “to cast doubt on and reject terms … such as ‘white,’ ‘black,’ ‘mixed,’ ‘biracial,’ ‘Asian,’ ‘Latino,’ ‘monoracial,’ etc.” by placing them in quotation marks.) The author’s second memoir, Self-Portrait was inspired by a moment of shock. When Williams’s white French wife gave birth to their daughter, he was stunned to see that the child had blond hair. The baby’s appearance upended Williams’s self-conception: How could he, a biracial man who’d identified as black and written Obama-era columns about his future children being undeniably black, produce a child who looked, well, white?…

Read the entire article here.

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Can Americans Unlearn Race?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Europe, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:51Z by Steven

Can Americans Unlearn Race?

American Interest
2019-10-15

Morten Høi Jensen


“Willie and Holcha” by William H. Johnson (Wikimedia Commons)

In his lucid new memoir, Thomas Chatterton Williams channels Albert Camus and James Baldwin—and offers a thoughtful counterpoint to the tired racial dogmas of both Right and Left.

Reflecting on why he decided to leave America for Europe, James Baldwin once explained that he wanted to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” The racism of American society in the late 1940s prohibited him from doing so at home, where he was always “merely a Negro.” Only by going abroad could he find the freedom to really ask himself what it meant to be black, to be American, to be African-American. By encountering people so different from himself, Baldwin wrote, he felt at last “a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held.” The constraints of American notions of race and identity were loosened by the existence of entirely different notions. “The time has come,” Baldwin decided, “for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”

The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams has followed in the footsteps of Baldwin’s Parisian emigration. Raised in suburban New Jersey by a white mother and black father, Williams grew up thinking of himself not as half-white or of mixed race but as “black, period.” In his literary debut, Losing My Cool (2010), he recounted an adolescence suffused with hip-hop culture and received ideas about a particular kind of black identity. In high school, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Williams strode the hallways with a sweatshop’s worth of flashy apparel, paid homage to the gods of BET, and lived by the dubious moral code of the Big Tymers and Master P. At the local basketball court, he was awestruck by a player known as RaShawn, who sipped Olde English before games, kept in his pocket a knot of bills “as thick and layered as a Spanish onion,” and often resorted to viciously beating up his opponents. “He was like a star to me,” Williams admitted…

Read the entire review here.

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How to become an ex-black man

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 01:25Z by Steven

How to become an ex-black man

The Washington Post
2019-10-11

Carlos Lozada, Book Critic

Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)
Protesters march in the street in Ferguson, Mo., on Aug. 20, 2014. (Jeff Roberson, File)

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
By Thomas Chatterton Williams. Norton. 174 pp. $25.95

Thomas Chatterton Williams has seen the future, and he is it.

The son of a mother who is “unambiguously white” and a father whom none has described as “anything other than black,” Williams grew up in middle-class New Jersey suburbia, where he sought to assert his black identity through hip-hop, basketball and BET. Blackness, and America’s racial binary, became “so fundamental to my self-conception that I’d never rigorously reflected on its foundations,” he writes.

But now Williams has reflected, and he finds blackness lacking. Not just blackness but whiteness, too, and any divisions and hierarchies based on race or color, those resilient constructs to which Americans attach such weight. Williams, a contributing writer at the New York Times Magazine, has come to see himself as an “ex-black man,” a transformation he contemplates in a thoughtful yet frustrating memoir, “Self-Portrait in Black and White.” The precipitating force was the birth of his daughter, Marlow, who entered the world with blond hair, light skin and “a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown.”

Upon seeing her, Williams realizes that “whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different.” It is for Marlow, and because of her, that Williams comes to embrace the “fluidity of racial borders.” To that end, he painstakingly reconsiders just about every potentially relevant aspect of his life — his relationships, his distant relatives, his DNA test (39.9 percent sub-Saharan, 58.7 percent European), his elementary school days, the shape of his face, even a single strand of light hair emanating from his clavicle — as part of his attempt at “outgrowing the bounds and divisions of identity, of touching the universal.”…

Read the entire article here.

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Race to the finish

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-16 00:16Z by Steven

Race to the finish

The Spectator
2019-10-15

J. Oliver Conroy

chatterton
Protesters in Chicago on the 50th anniversary of the killing of Martin Luther King

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race by Thomas Chatterton Williams reviewed

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race
Thomas Chatterton Williams
W. W. Norton & Company, pp.192, $25.95

‘I have observed,’ Joseph Addison wrote in 1711 in the first article in the first issue of the first version of The Spectator, ‘that a Reader seldom peruses a Book with Pleasure, ’till he knows whether the Writer of it be a black or a fair Man, of a mild or cholerick Disposition, Married or a Batchelor, with other Particulars of the like nature, that conduce very much to the right understanding of an Author.’

Thomas Chatterton Williams has earned a reputation as a tough, thoughtful and genuinely interesting commentator on race. In an influential 2015 essay in the London Review of Books, he criticized Ta-Nehisi Coates for discounting the individual autonomy of black Americans. In a 2017 op-ed for the New York Times he argued that the essentialism of leftist identity politics is dangerously similar to that of white nationalism.

Williams’s first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd (2010), was a memoir of growing up as the son of a white mother and a black father from the segregated South. His extraordinary, self-taught father filled their small house with thousands of books and tutored his sons daily to ensure they would succeed…

Read the entire review here.

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Black No More?

Posted in Articles, Autobiography, Book/Video Reviews, Media Archive, Philosophy, United States on 2019-10-15 23:57Z by Steven

Black No More?

Los Angeles Review of Books
2019-10-15

Cinque Henderson

LAST NOVEMBER, Thomas Chatterton Williams appeared on a podcast with four other black intellectuals who had gathered to discuss the state of race relations in America. Together, the men, who included Brown University economist Glenn Loury and Columbia University linguist John McWhorter, comprised an “all-star” team of what in our crude political nomenclature might be called black conservatives, though at least one of them confessed to voting for Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election. They were not there to discuss the nature of affirmative action or racial inequality, but rather to discuss how those types of things get discussed: an hour-and-a-half-long discourse on racial discourse in the United States called “On Anti-Racism.” They seemed to agree on many things, especially the failures of #BlackLivesMatter, but their central concern was that that there is no hope of getting past racism in this country as long as commentators on the left keep calling things racist when there are more complicated explanations at play. As a listener, I was not entirely unsympathetic to this view.

If there was an intellectual nemesis in the conversation, it was Ta-Nehisi Coates, whose blistering polemics on the intractable and unchanging nature of racism has dominated racial discourse over the past six years. If there was a political nemesis, it was perhaps DeRay McKesson, the de facto leader of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, and maybe Barack Obama, who came in for a mild rebuke, even though I don’t think any of them harbors any particular animus toward the former president. The conversation was fascinating, frustrating, enlightening, bizarre (at one point McWhorter asked, “Why should I care that a certain number of whites are racist?”), but ultimately it was less than satisfying — the format hopelessly ill-suited to the type of ambitious, boundary-expanding discussions these men were interested in having. Williams’s new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White, represents a better medium for such ambition. It is equally bizarre…

Read the entire review here.

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