- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 28, 2004


By Debra J. Dickerson

Pantheon Books, $24, 306 pages

Debra J. Dickerson’s second book “The End of Blackness,” treating the subject of race relations in America, is a polemic through and through, manifesting every glory and weakness of that literary mode.

The author doesn’t sidestep the numerous pitfalls in the polemicist’s path — for starters, a tendency towards lazy Manicheanism (the world boils down to Us vs. Them); occasionally shrill rhetoric; and arguments based on sweeping generalizations about diverse groups of people.

Luckily for us, Miss Dickerson is also courageous, smart and well-informed. She has a wonderfully sharp sense of humor, enlivening what could have become a depressingly bitter diatribe. (“It is hard to know what will satisfy the ‘woe is me’ race men,” she observes; ” … perhaps a giant Hallmark card signed by every Caucasian in America.”)

Her thesis in “The End of Blackness” can be summarized as follows: The concept of “blackness” must be overhauled if black Americans are to face the future with confidence.

For too long, the author argues, blacks have tried to wring shame and gain approval from whites, when they should be striving for black excellence — regardless of white opinion. “[B]lacks need to free their minds, that last plantation, of misleading comparisons and focus instead on self-actualization.”

If you think you know what comes next — a plea for blacks to pull themselves up by their boot-straps and fully join in mainstream American (i.e. white-dominated) society — you’re right, sort of. Although Miss Dickerson emphasizes black responsibility and intra-community black uplift, her aim is not to eviscerate fellow blacks for their alleged failings.

Nor does she let whites off the hook. Their racism against blacks, she claims, “has been defined out of existence and repackaged so that whites [can] retain its perks … It has undergone existential plastic surgery.” Hence, she concludes, “many whites believe that nonwhites have no right to criticize them since whites are superior and alone responsible for the success of America.”

Offended readers will be spluttering denials into their coffee mugs about now. One major problem with the book is that the author essentializes “whiteness” as much as she resists any constricting definition of “blackness.”

Initially, the stereotypes she presents of typically “white” thinking and behavior are rhetorically effective, a means by which whites can, briefly, feel what it’s like to have all their complexities and differences trumped by their skin color.

But how does it benefit anyone when the author argues that “whites usually respond [to black complaint] with a great deal [of] cunning and intransigence”? No doubt white racists have in the past characterized blacks as “cunning” and “intransigent,” but what can be the justification for recycling such suspicious language?

At her most clear-eyed, however, Miss Dickerson points out an important and overlooked truth about race in America. Contrary to her polarizing of black and white elsewhere in the book, she acknowledges that America is “inherently, organically multi-racial and multicultural.”

History lessons in school classrooms across the country still fail to reflect this fact, as the author points out; black participation in (for example) the Revolutionary War is downplayed, while the slave ownership of the Founding Fathers is often glossed over. (The author recalls a white tour guide at Montpelier, James Madison’s plantation, who sniffed that “I call them servants, not slaves” — as if her euphemism could make history more palatable.)

Meanwhile, black history is set aside for February, when it is “Chicken McNuggetized,” to use Miss Dickerson’s term, into contextless, feel-good quotations.

“The End of Blackness” comprises eloquent passages on the emptiness of Afrocentric “ancestor worship”; the insecurity of the black bourgeoisie; and the selective use of statistics to reinforce negative stereotypes (how many Americans know that white high school students are seven times more likely than blacks to have used heroin, and twice as likely to binge drink?).

In her bestselling 2001 memoir “An American Story,” the author recounted her singular odyssey from a poor neighborhood in St. Louis to the U.S. Air Force — where she thrived despite being the victim of a rape — to Harvard Law School. With wit and candor she described how an individualistic, working-class black woman came to prosper in a very white (and very male) world.

This book’s provocative title signals that Miss Dickerson hopes to spark a public debate on race in America. “The End of Blackness” isn’t balanced or objective — and one doubts it was ever intended to be.

The author offers little in the way of practical advice for the future. If black leaders are failing their community, as she claims, who are the worst culprits, and who ought to replace them? How exactly can upwardly-mobile blacks resolve their identity crises?

Though repetitive and overlong (as books of this sort can be), “The End of Blackness” at its best serves as a fitting tribute to the achievements of Miss Dickerson’s heroes, among them Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison and especially Carter G. Woodson — who founded Negro History Week, the forerunner of Black History Month, in 1926. It is above all for celebrating their legacy that Miss Dickerson’s voice deserves to be heard.

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