The part of the book I personally found the most strange was the chapter “The Most Racist Thing That Ever Happened . . .” Airing his own feelings, sharing the thoughts of his interviewees, [Touré] essentially equates contemporary blackness with a state of perpetual self-consciousness, fear, and suspicion, with being stuck in the Harrison Ford/David Janssen role in a version of The Fugitive that has no ending. From wondering what plum job racism may have cost you without your knowledge, to worrying that you’ll confirm stereotypes if you eat fried chicken or watermelon in front of white people, blackness is presented here as one blood-pressure-raising moment after another, from the time of waking until your head hits the pillow. I read this chapter with rising discomfort, feeling as if I were having dinner with someone who kept turning to address a third person I couldn’t see. I know, everyone knows, that racism has not gone away. Like every black person, I am forced to think about it; sometimes I think about it a lot. Does the subject make me angry? Damn right it does. But it is not the center of my life, which means, to my mind, that it has not defeated me.
The acquittal of George Zimmerman in the shooting death of Trayvon Martin may make the views stated above seem naïve. The jury in that case concluded that Zimmerman was not guilty of murder—not guilty, after pocketing a weapon, following an unarmed kid who had done nothing to him, and taking that kid’s life. Zimmerman’s acquittal—even of the manslaughter charge—can be seen as making a mockery of the idea of justice and confirming that black males are something approaching an endangered species.
It is hard, especially right now, to argue with any of that. But as we rightly feel hurt and anger, as we rightly caution black boys about what they are up against, as we rightly seek other avenues of justice (I applaud the Justice Department’s decision to pursue a civil rights case against Zimmerman), maybe we can remember something else too.
Newspapers and books are full of statistics about black men’s overrepresentation in prisons, and that is certainly cause for grief. But can I tell you about some of the black men I know, friends and relatives of mine? One is pursuing both a PhD and an acting career; one makes a living as an editor; one has worked long and successfully to prepare minority students for college; one is the assistant pastor of a church; one commands a SWAT team; one chairs a department at a major university; one has had careers as a musician, photographer, and technical writer; one is a celebrated jazz pianist. I could go on. These men and I have had good lives—none of which would have been possible if we had accepted the “truth” that we were doomed from birth. And we are not as unusual as one might be led to think.
When I hear hyperbole to the effect that we are living in times not much better than the slave era, I consider it an insult to the work, sacrifices, and achievements of everyone from Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers to Geoffrey Canada and Barack Obama. Worse, I worry that this doom-saying could act as a self-fulfilling prophecy.