[Blackstudies-l] Reading Whiteness (BOOKFORUM)

Maria Lima lima at geneseo.edu
Wed Jul 24 11:40:18 EDT 2019


CULTURE <https://www.bookforum.com/culture>
Reading Whiteness
July 23, 2019 • What does it mean to say, *She is white? I am white? That
is a white person?* • Jess Row
<https://www.bookforum.com/contributor/jess-row>

Because whiteness is a social and historical and imaginary phenomenon, not
a visible, verifiable set of qualities, those of us who live in a
profoundly racialized society like the United States acquire a racial
awareness largely through stories, indirectly, through implication and
absorption, long before we start naming names. Whiteness stands at the
center of our power structure, associated with control, authority, and
violence, and thus this automatic, almost autonomic recognition is often a
matter of survival. So many American stories about whiteness begin here: *I
am safe, *or*I am in danger.*

Whiteness was first articulated by Europeans (or, later,
European-Americans) in positions of power, but it was first studied, and
accurately described, by nonwhite writers, thinkers, and observers—a
tradition that can be traced back to Olaudah Equiano, Phillis Wheatley, and
William Apess. While the last decade has produced many excellent works on
the subject—*White Fragility, White Like Me, The History of White People,
White Rage*—the deep work of whiteness studies, which grows out of the
critical study of race, has been underway, largely unnoticed, for more than
two centuries. Here are some points of entry.

*Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination *by Toni
Morrison

Along with Leslie Fiedler’s devastating 1948 essay, “Come Back to the Raft
Ag’in, Huck Honey!,” *Playing in the Dark *is the starting place for any
conversation about whiteness in American literature—particularly the way
startling and surreal images of whiteness and blackness appear without
anyone (characters, readers, critics) seeming to notice. *Playing in the
Dark *is also a welcoming and participatory book, addressed to all readers
and writers, that intends to start conversations rather than end them. It
would be an excellent choice for a book group, especially paired with one
of the canonical texts Morrison describes—like Poe’s *Narrative of Arthur
Gordon Pym of Nantucket, *a surreal, haunting nightmare of racial
difference that was painfully misunderstood in its own time.

*Stamped From The Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in
America *by Ibram X. Kendi

An extraordinary recent work of cultural history that traverses a huge
terrain. Kendi begins with the first uses of white racial imagery in
medieval and early modern Europe, follows the path of colonization and the
slave trade, and then, in exhaustive (but not exhausting) detail, traces
the emergence of American white supremacy and its antiracist opposition
from Cotton Mather to Black Lives Matter. Kendi stresses the foundational
work of W. E. B. Du Bois, among many others, in constructing a systematic
picture of American racism (a key short text, for example, is Du Bois’s
“The Souls of White Folk”). The brilliance of this book lies partly in the
way it’s structured around the careers of certain key figures (Thomas
Jefferson, William Lloyd Garrison, Angela Davis) so that each section
creates a historical and biographical narrative over decades, drawing
together its many tangents in a memorable frame.

*The Hidden Wound *by Wendell Berry

A painful and introspective essay and memoir, written in the late 1960s and
then revised decades later, exploring Berry’s racial education as a white
person in the Jim Crow South. Berry is especially good at describing the
psychologically debilitating effects of racism on people who—largely
unconsciously—benefit from it. It would be an excellent counterpoint to
more recent books on racism, poverty, and rural life, like Nancy Isenberg’s
excellent *White Trash *or Sarah Smarsh’s *Heartland*.

*White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism *by Paula
Rothenberg

This little-known anthology should be on the shelf of every American: it
collects short pieces by many of the best scholars and theorists of
American whiteness, including David Roediger, Richard Dyer, bell hooks,
George Lipsitz, Robin DiAngelo, and Charles W. Mills. Here you’ll find
reflections on how white supremacy has maintained the enormous wealth gap
between whites and African Americans; the original study that became
DiAngelo’s bestseller, *White Fragility*; and James E. Barrett and
Roediger’s groundbreaking analysis of how white solidarity coalesced under
industrial capitalism in the nineteenth century. It’s essentially a
textbook, with discussion questions and introductory material for every
section, and would be ideal for book groups, workshops, diversity
committees, and other settings where fundamental (and sometimes gratingly
obvious) questions need to be answered.

*White People *by Allan Gurganus,

While it’s impossible to choose just one work of fiction to represent the
white American imagination, Gurganus’s 1991 collection of short stories and
novellas is an excellent place to start, not least because it’s layered
with mordant humor and self-lacerating observations, in stories like
“Nativity, Caucasian,” and “Blessed Assurance: A Moral Tale.” It should be
read alongside other story collections framed in a similar fashion, like
Langston Hughes’s *The Ways of White Folks *or Reginald McKnight’s *White
Boys *or James Alan McPherson’s classic collection *Elbow Room*.

*Who We Be: A Cultural History of Race in Post-Civil Rights America *by Jeff
Chang

*Who We Be *traces the cultural history of concepts like “diversity,”
“multiculturalism,” and “hybridity” in America after 1963, ranging from the
emergence of hip hop to the pioneering of Ethnic Studies to the first
debates over cultural appropriation and authenticity in the New York art
world of the ’70s and ’80s. It’s essential reading for anyone who wants to
understand how racism persisted, and even metastasized, in a society that
has become much more racially multilayered and superficially “tolerant”;
but it also preserves the work of activist groups and culture workers who
are often forgotten, even as the issues they cared about keep returning to
the spotlight.

Jess Row <https://www.bookforum.com/contributor/jess-row> is the author of
the novel *Your Face in Mine* (Riverhead, 2014). His latest book, W*hite
Flights: Race, Fiction, and the American Imagination* will be published by
Graywolf Press in August 2019.

Maria Helena Lima
Professor
Department of English
Comparative Literature Director
James and Julia Lockhart Professor, 2014-2017
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