The End of Blackness: Returning the Souls of Black Folk to Their Rightful Owners

by Debra J. Dickerson

Published by Pantheon Books

320 pages, 2004



 

 

 

 

The Legacy of Slavery

Reviewed by Emru Townsend

 

For my money, the single best part of Debra J. Dickerson's The End of Blackness is the prologue. In it, Dickerson outlines the dance that American whites and blacks have performed since before there was an America straight into the present day. She starts with the invention of the concept of race in the 16th century (largely as a tool for justifying slavery); continues through to American slavery, emancipation and the Jim Crow era; and screeches to a halt at the end of the civil rights movement. At every step of the way, she details how American whites systematically dehumanized, violated and murdered blacks in the name of physical and psychic subjugation.

And then, after briefly tallying up the many fields in which blacks excel at the dawn of the 21st century, she delivers the killing blow:

Thanks to the civil rights movement, however, black Americans are free and thriving. No one, apparently, is more surprised by that than some black Americans. Nothing else can explain their need to continue believing that they are marginalized, that whites are all powerful and all evil, and that American wants them to fail. ... Black or white, those who deny how terrible things were for blacks before the movement, and those who deny the movement's overwhelming success, announce themselves as unfit to speak, let alone lead.

As a manifesto, the prologue is hard to beat. It's well researched, passionate and spares no one. This last point is the most important, as it's the thread that holds the entire book together. The majority of white people in America have, for the last 400 years, subjugated or benefited from the subjugation of blacks. And despite four decades of legal equal rights, a significant number of whites still knowingly or unknowingly harbor racist sentiments. However, it's equally true that, at the end of those 40 years, blacks have a love/hate relationship with themselves at a cultural level -- and at its most pernicious, that conflict uses the same racist structure that whites used for centuries, including the assumption, to some degree, of white superiority. These factors are among the main reasons why equality has yet to be fully achieved -- and guess which one blacks (the target audience of this book) have the direct power to affect?

I should stop for a moment and mention that I identify with Dickerson. Black, intellectual and analytical, she's angered by wasted opportunity in black America: rote, simplistic responses to any situation even marginally involving race; a notion of black history and pride that is superficial at best; and a near-pathological obsession with who is or isn't "black enough." But whereas some of us choose to withdraw from these games, Dickerson instead declares war on them.

Her approach in confronting these issues is to switch back and forth between several fronts, always advancing her main thesis: that blacks should step up to the plate and fully claim their right to be considered as full-fledged Americans -- and part of that right means letting go of the existing definitions of blackness.

One major contention, of course, is reading "American" as synonymous with "white," something both blacks and whites do on a regular basis. And yet who has a greater claim to being American than the people whose blood, by and large, built the country, and whose music continues to define it? It's the height of irony that Rush Limbaugh should excoriate John Kerry for his fascination with hip hop by stating that Kerry wasn't standing up for "white music" while millions of white teenagers flock to the latest 50 Cent CD. I'd also bet that Limbaugh would consider rock & roll, just one outgrowth of the blues, to be "white music."

I mention music because as I read through The End of Blackness, I found a certain resonance with Leon E. Wynter's American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business, and the End of White America, in which Wynter traces the assimilation of black culture (if not blacks themselves) through pop culture. Wynter is less combative than Dickerson -- he's the good cop to her bad -- but while they take different approaches to how they look at the current state of black and white culture, they come together on certain points. The most important, to my mind, is that black and white cultures in America have, in the past century, become noticeably less distinct -- Wynter speaks of white b-boys and Dickerson of middle-class suburban blacks; both examine the ways that even well-meaning whites (and there are many, both contend) sometimes make assumptions that are fundamentally racist, even if they don't realize it. But they both draw a similar conclusion: the old definitions of black and white, on a cultural level, aren't the same as they were 40, 30, or even 20 years ago, and blacks have to reexamine how to frame the current issues facing a society that still has major racial fault lines even as it undergoes significant demographic changes.

Like any good work, there's much to agree with in The End of Blackness, and at the same time there's much to disagree with as well -- but it's all wholesome food for thought. However, I do take exception to this first footnote, which clarifies the scope of the book:

For our purposes, blacks are those Americans descended from Africans who were brought here as slaves. … Immigrants of African descent, even if descended from … slaves, are not included in this definition. The End of Blackness is specific to the American experience of slavery and its aftermath.

I understand the need to compartmentalize from a debating point of view, but this is perhaps overly restrictive. I'm a black Canadian with Caribbean parents, and even while growing up in suburban Montreal, I understand all too well many of the prejudices that black Americans face -- all I have to do is meet the wrong person or be in the wrong place at the wrong time to be brought up to speed with our southern neighbors. The fact is, regardless of where he or she was born, a black person living in North America is affected by the legacy of slavery. And as such, the black communities in Canada, immigrant or not, are subject to many of the same problems both political and personal that Dickerson rails against. One way or another, we're all in this together -- and that's why a smart, angry voice like Dickerson's is welcome on either side of the 49th parallel. | July 2004

 

Emru Townsend is co-creator of the Black History Pages.