Blackness as Folly

Debra Dickerson gambles on telling blacks to give up

A book white folks will like. That's how some describe The End of Blackness, Debra Dickerson's polemic on race in America. "A book white folks will like" is shorthand for a book by an African American dealing with the subject of race that demands no reform on the part of white America.

"I hear that all the time: 'a book that white folks will like,' 'you're doing the white man's job,' etc.," Dickerson told the Voice in a phone interview last week. That's no surprise considering that she says at least four times in her introduction that African Americans need to "surrender," starting with "The first step in freeing one another is for black people, collectively, to surrender. Blacks must consciously give up on achieving racial justice. . . . " That is followed by a real zinger: "Blacks must surrender themselves to America. Why not? Their enslaved ancestors did."

"I just wanted to shock people out of the rut, so we can have a real conversation," she said. Two weeks ago, though, she told Lorraine Kee of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "I'm not trying to be a provocateur." Maybe now she's decided to get out in front of the criticism of her book, but she is throwing down a gauntlet. "If blacks had nothing societally to answer for before the [civil rights] movement, they certainly do now," she writes. "Scholastic achievement, crime, family breakdown, welfare reliance—all are now as bad as or worse than they were during Jim Crow. Why?" Never mind that personal responsibility among blacks did not begin in the 1960s; this kind of loose rhetoric, like saying "overt police brutality" is "no more," is just a pitch for airtime. She reduces years of protest, litigation, and legislation to ego-massage with comments like "A focus on ending racism is unlikely to produce results that are more than masturbatorily symbolic."

What is interesting is that the book has as yet failed to take off, as might have been expected with a work that so rebukes black activism. The problem may be bad word of mouth. The book fails to mount any rigorous arguments for its call for surrender. Its essays ramble through history and pop culture without building proof for their conclusions.

Still, what seems saddest and most ironic is that white reviewers did favor the book's content, while reserving little space for its historical inaccuracies, saying briefly that it's "baffling" to read, or "leaps too quickly to generalizations." African American reviewers, on the other hand, attacked the shoddy exposition, calling it muddled, contradictory, and old hat. Black booksellers have been lukewarm at best. An informal survey of black-owned bookstores and their websites showed that The End of Blackness is nearly invisible among the titles shown for Black History Month. Booksellers report some book sales but are not raving.

"I got a lot of e-mails from black bookstore people with barely veiled contempt," said Dickerson. "They were just barely able to respond with civility. I think they expected something abrasive from me." But that was before a glowing New York Timesreview in the daily pages by Janet Maslin. Now, Dickerson said, "I'm getting, 'I disagree with 80 percent of what you said, but why don't you come to my bookstore?' " Reaction was similar among readers, she said: "The response started out overwhelmingly hostile.

"Things they think I got wrong, they think I got hideously wrong, and things they think I got right, they think I got extremely right," she said. "People are shocked, but I'm now meeting with people with opening minds. The book just went into a second printing. I appear to be voicing things that people have been thinking but have not wanted to say. The book is—I think 'liberating' is the right word.

Her beef with black folks? We're "trying to get white people to admit there is racism—this notion underlies the reparations strategy—as if something is going to reconcile us to our history. That's not going to happen."

Whites account for half of her e-mail, she said. "I hadn't thought about whether whites were trying to move beyond where they are. I thought they think the race issue is for black people. At first, I was sort of dismayed by all the e-mails, and said, 'Maybe it is just what white people want to hear.' "

The End of Blackness is divided into three main sections: a 24-page prologue, a 72-page Part One that is a catalog of white tactics for denying the powerful role of racism in society, and a 134-page Part Two, a litany of black self-hatred, self-defeating behavior—including 20 pages of Internet "ghetto" jokes—and a diatribe against Afrocentrism and the black left. All three sections are primarily general observations about black and white group behavior, and describe both groups as in psychological denial. The white case she deems irreversible, and thus she recommends that the rest of us give up our frustration by letting go of our desire for racial justice. I guess that's like when your shrink advises you against waiting for your family to apologize for making a mess of you.

White reviewers, like her e-mailers, did respond well. Maslin's review was by far the most enthusiastic. Calling the book "a dazzling diatribe that reveals Dickerson as a Molotov-cocktail polemicist," Maslin said even enraged readers would not be able to "ignore the range and ferocity of her attack." Finally, she declared, "Whatever else this book accomplishes, it makes her a star."

Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, writing in The Washington Post, praised Dickerson's "welcome declaration that 'blackness is collapsing under the weight of its contradictions, just as overt racism did.' " But after listing many of the generalized critiques of all black people, Lasch-Quinn charged that whites were stereotyped.

"Dickerson's entire argument—that blacks need to let go of old notions of black identity and the forms of identity politics and racial grievance at their core—is subverted early in the book by a surprising [my italics] chapter on 'white intransigence' in which she presents a litany of complaints against whites," wrote Lasch-Quinn. "Here she lumps all whites together—just the thing she opposes in the case of blacks—and casts them as still in denial about the nation's racial crimes. . . . After urging blacks to forsake old patterns of complaint and redress for a newly courageous civic participation . . . she invokes the usual culprit—white supremacy—as if it were an unmitigated and eternal force."

This is downright amusing because Dickerson repeatedly states in that same chapter that whites no longer want to hear about racism and white supremacy, and identifies one white strategy for maintaining privilege as claiming to be victimized by blacks.

Black reviewers, on the other hand, were an unhappy crew, led by Gerald Early, who wrote in The New York Times Book Review, "The problem is that the author does not know enough, has not researched enough, to write an incisive book on African-American life or American racism." Darryl Lorenzo Wellington in The Christian Science Monitor found the book "a patchwork" that "suffers from the very confusions it seeks to critique." Brian Palmer in Newsday said the author lost her way "in a thicket of recrimination and frustration." Sylvester Brown Jr. of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch concluded, "A huge dose of credibility could have been added to the book had the author used polling data, statistics or surveys—anything validating that blacks actually feel and think the way Dickerson says they do. . . . [The] book is a rant marketed as a scholarly thesis on racial advancement."

Is Dickerson just another neo-conservative? "I have a lot of friends who are black Republicans," she said. "We argue a lot. We end up at the same places, but we get there by different routes. I'm like a working-class, work-ethic conservative. In a more just world, I would be a libertarian."

Asked if she really thinks we black folk are, all of us, waiting for white folks to say they're sorry and "send a giant Hallmark card," she replied: "Yes, I do. Not consciously, but yes. I think this book can help with that." I didn't know we were waiting for that card, but since Dickerson won't need it, forward it to me.

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