Review of Best African-American Essays 2009, Eds. Gerald Early and Debra J. Dickerson, Bantam, 2009, 320 pages, $16.00
That question trailed Reverend Al Sharpton during the celebration of Barack Obama’s inauguration. In a talk delivered at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro on January 27, 2009, Sharpton revealed how frustrating that question can be for a social justice advocate. That question oversimplifies Martin Luther King, Jr.’s dream of social equality; it glosses over the forty years of African-American history and thought between the time of King’s assassination and Obama’s election.
The inaugural edition of Best African-American Essays strains against the oversimplification of the African-American community’s concerns. The collection does not only cull the voices concerned with the politics of race, but it also includes essays that deal with matters of the heart. That is, this collection is a far cry from the obligatory Black History Month lessons on Important Black People.
In the first introduction to Best African-American Essays 2009, series editor Gerald Early offers a concise list of goals for the collection as well as a “broad definition” of the label “African-American.” The collection emphasizes inclusion in its mission to garner attention for the many voices that speak both to and from the African-American community. Following the tradition of historically black colleges and universities, the collection even features voices from non-African-Americans. For this reader, that inclusion became a cause for concern. Who, after all, has the right to observe and interpret the concerns of African-Americans? Where is the boundary between an outsider’s analysis and his or her erroneous presumption? This initial anxiety speaks to the complicated task of establishing and maintaining the boundaries of race.
Further, this collection stretches the boundaries and definition of the term “essay.” In the second introduction to the collection, guest editor Debra J. Dickerson writes, “Blacks . . . are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be widely acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we . . . most definitely are.” The narration of these existences takes on various forms in this volume, which includes essays in the traditional format as well as other nonfiction pieces. Walter Mosley’s haunting memories of his mother live in the same section on “Friends, Family” as Emily Bernard’s “Fired,” a straightforward recollection of the end of a friendship. “Entertainment, Sports, the Arts” includes “Hip-Hop Planet,” James McBride’s struggle to appreciate rap music through its origins, as well as Michael Gonzales’ Vibe piece on the rise and fall of the DeBarge clan in the 1980s. In “Sciences, Technology, Education” Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on the instability of the IQ standard precedes Kenneth A. McClane’s memories of his parents’ mental deterioration. In this section, science is not divorced from painful personal experience. Bill Maxwell’s three-part essay on the experience of teaching at a historically black college in Alabama further emphasizes the high emotional stakes of engaging the political and social realities of inequality in this country. This inclusion of deeply personal narratives and popular journalism makes this collection of essays and non-fiction surprising, frustrating—but ultimately delightful.
The last couple of sections in the collection deal more with the politics of race, with the section entitled “Gay” serving as a kind of bridge between a discussion of education and the experiences of being “internationally black.” There are only two pieces in the “Gay” section—one that continues the discussion of the “down-low” phenomenon and another that observes the machismo of young African-American lesbians in Brooklyn. Does the brevity of this section speak to the reluctance of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered African-Americans to speak up and out? Or is it more proof that another minority group is struggling to find a place for its voice in American publications?
The section “Internationally Black” further confuses the boundaries of race. Kwame Anthony Appiah’s “A Slow Emancipation” addresses the pervasive and enduring impact of slavery in Ghana. Jerald Walker’s “We Are Americans” details the frustrating experience of claiming a racial identity in Zimbabwe. The label “African-American” becomes inadequate—perhaps even offensive—when the reader reflects on the gap between the dark people who live here and the ones who live in Africa.
The section on “Activism/Political Thought” includes three pieces by and about Barack Obama. Andrew Sullivan, in “Goodbye to All That: Why Obama Matters,” refers to the then-senator as the “bridge to the 21st century.” His successful bid for the presidency raised many of the questions that emerge in this section of Best African-American Essays 2009: Are religion and morality inextricably linked? What exactly are the limitations that African-American men and women face in the years following the 1960s civil rights movement? Where do “bad” words—like the N-word and the words that degrade women—belong? Is being ashamed of being American part of being an American? What is our national destiny?
These are all complicated questions that push beyond whether or not Martin Luther King, Jr.’s inspirational dream has been realized. Instead, this collection acknowledges the complicated history and personal experiences of Africans and African-Americans. The result is a rich and engaging portrait of the modern African-American experience.