Books

Snapshots in black

'Blacks, in other words, are human; and all humans are narcissists," Debra J. Dickerson writes in her introduction in the first volume of a projected new annual series, "Best African American Essays." She goes on to suggest a rationale for such a collection, clearly anticipating all sorts of cavils about the need for such a race-conscious gathering in such a fast-forward age of African-American assimilation.

"We are creating a space in which blacks may be unpredictable," she writes. "Off message. Quirky. Individuals. Human. Black for no reason at all."

At times her introduction feels contradictory, but it is a harbinger of what a lot of the black intelligentsia will grapple with in the coming years. Is there still a place for Black Letters in an era of so-called post-racial America? Her aims seem so ambitious that by the end of her essay, one begins to think she might be undermining the necessity of such a collection.

Gerald Early, general editor for the series, has a more historical perspective in his introduction. He points out, rightly, how central nonfiction writing has been to the experience of Africans in America, even for the unlettered, going back to slave narratives in the late 18th century, through Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Richard Wright, James Baldwin and today's best-selling black memoirists.

The result, selected this year by Dickerson, is an interesting grab bag, more a collection of snapshots than a full-on exhibition. The book is divided, rather awkwardly, into sections that often overlap: Friends, Family; Entertainment, Sports, The Arts; Sciences, Technology, Education; Gay; Internationally Black; Activism/Political Thought.

One way Dickerson aims to stress the humanity of African-Americans is to make the diasporic nature of black folks an idée fixe -- which has a way of making the term African-American feel a bit inaccurate.

The set includes essays by several familiar names.

A particular standout is a short piece by best-selling mystery writer Walter Mosley, a haunting, dreamlike memory of his late mother as she suffered from mental deterioration. Unsentimental and lyrical, "Gray Shawl" is a small gem.

James McBride's short history of hip-hop music and culture is perhaps the best brief examination of the genre -- and the cultural phenomenon -- I've ever read: "Hip-hop culture is not mine. Yet I own it. Much of it I hate. Yet I love it, the good of it."

Jamaica Kincaid's brief piece on the 3,500 tulips (!) she planted in her yard is a masterwork of the short, lyric essay, and wondrously strange.

But many of the lesser-known writers here linger with the reader even longer.

The book's most fascinating piece is a three-part article by Bill Maxwell, a reporter for the St. Petersburg Times who left the paper for two years to teach at Stillman College in Alabama. It is a hard-hitting look at the troubles historically black schools face in the current climate and have been facing since the push for desegregation.

Maxwell writes that his class often resembled a high school class of noisome, restless, unprepared, nigh-illiterate students. Describing his students as improperly prepared or motivated for college-level work, Maxwell seriously grapples with some difficult, uncomfortable and centrally important questions about the education of the majority of young African-Americans, the ones who don't get to go to Columbia and Harvard, and whose mothers don't wake them up in the wee hours and force them to go over their homework.

I hope Maxwell writes an entire book about his experience and develops more of his thoughts.

That sentiment pervades the reading of this gathering. So much of the writing is good, featuring powerfully strong thinking and prose. But too often, their big ideas are squeezed into too little space. That is not to say the fault lies with the writers -- most of these pieces were newspaper or magazine articles

The collection also includes brief pieces on black male rage; the question of whether white men can be on the "D.L." (down low); black Jews in Israel; black soldiers in Iraq; the seeming delimited publication record of black authors; Nigerian food and other tasty treats. All are by truly worthy writers who left me with a taste for more, more, more.

Often I was happily surprised, as with a piece by Hawa Allan about the feud between Tyra Banks and Naomi Campbell, which used the challenges faced by black models to suggest the obstacles many blacks face as they enter new terrain. She quotes the legendary fashion editor Andre Leon Talley: "We have regressed. I often sit at a show and see not one black model on the runway. Can't they find some black girls?"

There is a bunch of Barack Obama in this book, including a mildly interesting excerpt from a speech he delivered about religion. The emphasis on Obama is understandable, but ultimately a bit fatiguing. One begins to get the feeling that 30-some million African-Americans are going to have to compete for attention with their president. But there are worse problems to have.

Though I admire this book greatly, I have two quibbles: Little information is provided about where these essays were originally published and, more annoyingly, the author bios are only available online. I was curious about most of these writers, and having to click through Web sites (and the information is not easy to find) to learn more about them seems antithetical to the purpose of a book. I hope the editors and publisher remedy this fault in the future volumes.

"Best African American Essays 2009" is a curious and important event. There is something prescient about what Early is attempting here, but also a sense of his train pulling into the station late. Both elements are germane.

This volume would have been markedly different in any decade of the last three centuries, especially in terms of how black folks define themselves. It is not melodramatic to say in 2009 that this redefining process is going through one of its most dramatic redefinitions. It will be a blessing to have this annual scrapbook to help us track the progress of this nation-within-a-nation as it becomes even more a part of the America.

Randall Kenan teaches English at UNC-Chapel Hill. His books include "Walking on Water: Black American Lives at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century."

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