Crossing the Color Line

by Nicholas Lemann
CROSSINGS: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America
by Walt Harrington. HarperCollins, $25.00.
IT HAS BEEN thirty years since John Howard Griffin published Black Like Me, a harrowing description of his travels through the segregated South. The African-American world that Griffin described was dominated by poverty and oppression:
whites as a group . . . contrive to arrange life so that it destroys the Negro’s sense of personal value, degrades his human dignity, deadens the fibers of his being.
Existence becomes a grinding effort, guided by belly-hunger and the almost desperate need to divert awareness from the squalors to the pleasures... .
Walt Harrington’s contemporary version of black America is almost unrecognizably different. Most of the people he encounters are reasonably well off—living in nowhere near the kind of material privation that was standard in Black Like Me. Usually they answer yes to Harrington’s persistent questions about whether they have ever personally experienced racism, but it would have been absurd for Griffin even to ask. Still, it’s noteworthy that both authors felt that the color line in this country is so pronounced that it would be impossible for them, as whites, truly to understand black life. Griffin underwent a series of dermatological treatments to have his skin dyed brown. Harrington became black “by proxy,” as he puts it, by marrying a black woman and having two children who, by one of the immutable customs of American race relations, bear the racial designation of the minority parent. Being the father of black children made him sensitive to a whole range of racial issues that as a white man he had missed.
One day in the dentist’s chair Harrington heard the kind of casual racist joke that most whites barely notice and found himself, to his surprise, enraged: “This idiot’s talking about my children!” The incident made him realize how little he really knew about the whole subject of race, and he decided to embark on an ambitious cross-country trip to learn as much as he could about black life. It’s in the nature of the mission that the resulting book is episodic: it’s made up of sixty-four set pieces, each built around a visit to a particular place. As a technique, this has one substantial disadvantage, which is that there is no narrative drive through the book; but it has advantages, too. Harrington is able to cover more ground, and work in a wider range of observations, than would have been possible in a book structured around a single location, family, or story. He can let people talk, even if they contradict one another. Each chapter is well crafted, and what emerges from the whole is not one great theory but a lot of interesting material.
If some partial claim to blackness is a great help to a writer seeking to convey a sense of black America, then so, in terms of ability to get the findings across to whites, is a certain degree of whiteness. What drives Black Like Me is a sense of shock and outrage over the sudden descent into Negro status—an ability to be surprised by degradations that a black writer would have been used to.
Harrington uses his whiteness in a different way, as a kind of filtering device: he knows what questions whites want to ask blacks, and how whites will react to black opinions. To use the most basic example, it’s just assumed in black America that racial prejudice is part of the everyday experience of most African-Americans—but to sell this idea to a white audience is tough, and requires a sure instinct for the unstated racial assumptions of whites.
As the book went on, I thought I detected Harrington becoming “blacker,” in the sense of growing more inclined simply to accept items that are part of black conventional wisdom but throw whites off (for example, he passes along one interviewee’s assertion that “the Egyptians were black,” and, in describing a musically inclined black child’s discovery that his local symphony was all white, writes, “He’d been excluded as surely as if Bull Connor had shown him the door”)—and therefore less effective as a salesman of the black side of the story to whites. Nonetheless, Harrington’s own brand of double consciousness—the ability to see things from the black and white points of view simultaneously—makes Crossings work.
THE MOST recent edition of the U.S. Census Bureau’s booklet The Black Population in the United States tells through numbers what has become a familiar story: since civilrights days black America has divided. Black married couples continue to gain ground economically, and are now up to 85 percent of the median family income for whites. But in 1991, for the first time, the proportion of black families headed by married couples dropped below half. Only one third of black children (as compared with four fifths of white children) live with both parents. Black “female householder” families—46 percent of the total—are stuck economically: their real incomes are the same today as they were in 1967. Because welfare benefits have not kept pace with inflation, the incomes of black families with no employed adult have dropped significantly during the same period. About a third of all blacks, and 44 percent of black children, are poor—roughly triple the white proportions.
Crossings, which Harrington says he intended “to be less like a social scientist’s analysis and more like an artist’s collage,” doesn’t reflect these statistics. By numbers, and also by emotional weight, it’s dominated by people who are doing well. Some of them are celebrities and intellectuals (Spike Lee, Ishmael Reed), some are successful entrepreneurs and professionals, and some are people of “plain decency,” with close, warm families, high community standing, and pleasant homes. It appears that Harrington had some difficulty getting inside the worse-off part of black America. He refers once to some appointments with poor people which fell through. When he does go into a ghetto, it’s often with a social-service professional of some kind acting as intermediary and main character. His lone one-on-one interview with a woman on welfare doesn’t use her full name, and she seems atypical anyway, having once attended college.
This lacuna isn’t crippling, though. In fact, it works to Harrington’s advantage, because the power of Crossings comes substantially from the healthiness, the impressiveness, of his black America. It is true that the press is now full of determinedly positive depictions of blacks; but many of these have a posed feeling, and they are counterweighed by the enormous volume of material about drug busts, drive-by shootings, gangs, AIDS, homelessness, and so on. What Harrington has done is produce a portrait of the black middle class that feels honest and devoid of flackery but is so different from what we’re used to reading about blacks that it seems almost subversive. It’s the black middle class as it sees itself, which is something whites would have difficulty finding elsewhere in print (except, perhaps, in the pages of Ebony).
All sorts of themes that are almost a daily part of black middle-class dinnertable conversation but are usually discussed only within the race appear in Crossings, and Harrington has the ability to bring them to the fore without ever resorting to the kind of clinical, judgmental tone fear of which kept them hidden from whites in the first place. Among these private subjects are preoccupation with skin color and with hair; the anger that black women feel at black men for so often being either feckless or, if not, drawn to white women; intramural jealousy, especially jealousy of successful blacks; the deep longing for the absent father many black men feel; and conspiracy theories. Harrington records a good deal of the antiwelfare, anti-crime sentiment that is common in the black middle class, without falling prey to the oversimplification that these views are identical to white conservatism. Not always avoiding a sentimental tone, he takes on the difficult task of trying to delineate the approving black view of what black culture is: warm, intuitive, resourceful, pious, musical. He even absorbs a good deal of the black stereotype of whites, as an undifferentiated mass of privileged, prejudiced people who are “stiff and formal, cold and uncaring,” “corny,” “discreet, unflamboyant, emotionless,” and obsessed with making money.
Also, by virtue of his being white, Harrington notices a lot of w hite hostility to blacks that is never expressed within earshot of blacks and that most whites tune out. The word “nigger” appears a lot in Crossings, especially in the southern section, and, subtly, Harrington describes his own vulnerability to generalizations about blacks. Told by a white man that a particular black neighborhood is too dangerous to visit, he is clutched by fear as he drives around it; then, when he begins to meet people who live there, it seems jarringly normal.
The theme that Harrington handles most awkwardly is the congeries of social ills connected with the ghetto. The awkwardness can be seen as an aspect of Harrington’s success at getting inside the mind of the black middle class: the ghetto is an uncomfortable subject for it, too. Whatever occasional exasperation middle-class blacks may privately feel about the poor is overwhelmed by a sense of racial solidarity and, even more, by the suspicion that when unflattering information about poor blacks falls into the hands of whites, they use it to punish all blacks. Whites, Harrington is told again and again, don’t understand the weight of historical racism that created the problems in the ghettos. Blacks can see “each black face as an individual,” but whites always seem to make an immediate leap from some blacks to the entire race. Thus, to the minds of middle-class blacks, “the white brush of prejudice that tars . . . disrespectable people also tars them.” White prejudice generates black selfhatred, which is perilous to all blacks and has caused many of the problems of the black poor; thus, in a closed circuit, racist attitudes produce social conditions that reinforce racist attitudes.
Avoiding the subject of the ghettos can look like a way of breaking the circuit, but if it is discussed, the essential tinderbox question is not “How bad are things?” (everybody agrees there) but “Whose fault is it?” Harrington almost always lets his considerations of ghettos fall into apportionments of blame, and then he always blames white society. He seems to fee! that he lacks the standing to come down on the other side, or to avoid the intellectual trap entirely, as his black interviewees often do. For example, after touring East St. Louis with a murderer, he muses.
So much drivel comes down about how poor, city blacks have lost touch with the American values of hard work, honesty, fairness, fair play. But . . . values begin as seeds and grow from the conditions of the soil, the conditions of our lives. This simple truth has somehow come to sound smarmy. But Eskimos didn’t invent air-conditioning. People like Tyron must face the world as it is, not as we who reside in virtually another country would dream it to be. As Michael Cross said about the third-grade boys I met in Detroit—the Tyrons of the future—“What do you expect?”
When he’s writing about the black middle class, which is what Harrington knows intimately, he never presents people as helpless objects of oppression. Indeed, whenever he hears a defeatist bromide, such as that nothing has changed in American race relations, he disagrees—in this case insisting, convincingly, that things are better than they were a generation ago. He has the skill to capture the shadings of that truth: he is never Pollyanna-ish, he doesn’t forget that much of black America is in real difficulty, and he fully communicates the continuing difficulty of the position of blacks who aren’t in physical need. The overall impression of black America that Harrington creates is of a people in transition from caste to ethnic group. What he does most skillfully is evoke the poignancy of the change, without ever taking the position that it won’t or shouldn’t take place. There is a real love of black culture in Crossings. a feeling that it represents an alternative vision of American life which ought not to be wholly discarded on the road to assimilation. It’s natural for even well-intentioned whites to be impatient with the black hesitation about joining white culture: why postpone success? Harrington brings that particular tangle of black emotions within range of white understanding.