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When Race Becomes Real

Black and White Writers Confront Their Personal Histories

Edited by Bernestine Singley

Publication Year: 2008

When Race Becomes Real is a critically acclaimed collection that pushes the boundaries of current discussions about race. In these personal and evocative essays, thirty contemporary black and white writers describe their own intimate experiences with race and discrimination, taking an unflinching look at both society and themselves. The result is an incisive and powerful anthology that rethinks what it means to be black—and white—in the modern world.

Only through frank and tough conversation, Singley tells us, can America hope to realize its goals of justice and racial equality. This collection opens that much needed honest dialogue, exploring a wide range of racial experiences in relation to a myriad of topics: from crime and religion to humor, history, and desire. Readers will find within these pages examinations of the roots of racial beliefs and the origins of the language and rules that have heretofore governed discussion; analysis of the reasons behind our reticence to discuss the subject openly; and suggestions for solutions to the problems that plague open racial discourse. The writers of When Race Becomes Real demonstrate the progress that can be made when our ingrained wariness on the subject of race is abandoned, and we instead confront the issue openly and personally. Included are contributions by a variety of authors, from Pulitzer Prize winners such as Robert Coles, Leonard Pitts, and Natalie Angier to popular writers and emerging voices. In each essay the author sweeps aside the cautious rules that often dominate racial discussions to address what race really means in the twenty-first century.

When Race Becomes Real directly tackles one of our most taboo subjects with bravery, wit, and emotion. Sometimes shocking, sometimes amusing but always honest, this collection encourages readers to move beyond the ineffective reluctance and objectivity that hinder contemporary conversations and in doing so forge a new path in racial consciousness.



Published by: Southern Illinois University Press

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. 2-7


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pp. 8-9

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pp. ix-11

I am eternally indebted to Gary Reaves, the extraordinary blessing who is my husband and without whom neither the luxury of my writing life nor my sanity would be likely; to Tina Wallace, my sister, for love, courage, and perseverance; to Derrick Bell for three decades of. . . to Marilyn Milloy for turning me into a real writer; Barbara...

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pp. xi-xvi

FORTUNATELY, I did not know when I started out how long or what it would take to complete this book. As David Bradley warns about studying American history, so it goes for race: you have to be crazy—or willing to go crazy—to seriously mess around with it. To mess around with a book on race—well, you have to be real crazy. ...

I. Genesis

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pp. 1-19

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Race Story

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pp. 3-19

IF THERE ISN'T a reason, there is at least a little story about why my brother and I, both white kids, attended an almost all-black school in Michigan when I was in the first grade and he in the sixth. My grandfather, a German immigrant who came to this country before the turn of the century, brought with him a bitter anticlerical bent. ...

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Crazy Sometimes

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pp. 21-27

IT HAS BEEN suggested—and fairly so, I think—that black people spend entirely too much time talking about race. That we interject it into situations where it has no business, use it to explain slights that could just as easily be explained in other ways. ...

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Experiences and Memories

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pp. 29-35

I HAVE NO childhood memories of racial awareness. I was born in a suburban town outside of Boston where only white people lived. My dad was born in Yorkshire, England, and moved to America in order to study science and engineering. My mother was born in Sioux City, Iowa, and moved to New England for a college education. They were both devoted ...

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The Night I Stopped Being a Negro

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pp. 37-49

A WHITE LAD once delivered a telegram to our Tuscaloosa home and my grandmother, as was the peculiar Alabama custom, addressed him as “sir.” Her deference to a teenager broke my six-year-old heart. Some will argue, and psychologists among them, that a child of such a tender age could not have been so repulsed by a community custom that ...

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Son of the South

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pp. 51-69

... Those who look at the region as it is today are entitled to wonder why we who were acculturated to the ways of an earlier time could not (or would not) recognize either the conflict or the curse. Here, I wonder myself. ...

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Talking White

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pp. 71-78

... Well, there is, of course, a catch: my feelings of envy are not rooted in self-hatred, internalized racism, or pining for any illusions of privilege that might come along with the “right” hair or skin tone. Rather, I am jealous that biracial folks in the United States are pardoned their apparent confusion when it comes to white and black culture. ...

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Central Park Samaritan

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pp. 79-85

MY FRIENDS AND I were in Central Park on a splendid weekend afternoon in August of 1970, down for the day from our cruddy Bronx neighborhood and now sprawled on the grass of Sheep Meadow, eating hot dogs and potato chips and arguing loudly. We ranged in age from twelve to sixteen, and we were a multicultural jambalaya: there was ...

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It All Started with My Parents

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pp. 87-98

IT ALL STARTED with my parents. As a little girl in Appleton, Wisconsin, I loved both my mother and my father, but my dad sometimes said things that hurt my feelings. Eventually I started to take sides between them: I got the message that my father didn’t think much of me because I was a girl. He said that girls weren’t as smart as boys, that girls could parrot facts and get good grades in school, but as they got older, their ...

II. Fear and Longing

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pp. 99-117

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Race, Rage, and the Ace of Spades

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pp. 101-110

I’m sitting on a panel, trying to get a word in edgewise. Four white men are stepping all over my lines, courteously (if gruffly) yielding to each other, but treating me as if I am invisible. My attempts at interruption are unheard, my throat clearing, hand raising have no effect. ...

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To Make Them Stand in Fear

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pp. 111-137

Once upon a time I made good money during what was then called Black History Month. Each February, I could be found on several college campuses—usually lily-white ones—leading class discussions, delivering a reading of my fiction, or lecturing on some black historical topic. ...

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pp. 139-142

... “What I don’t understand is what black people want, anyway. I mean they’ve got equal rights and now it just seems like they want special rights. And white people who think they should have them are suffering from what I call ‘white guilt.’ ” ...

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Black and White

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pp. 143-157

I AM AN academic and a journalist, trained to step back from myself, to analyze, to be detached and “objective.” Luckily, I have overcome most of that training, which is why I can begin this essay with personal stories of the anger and fear of a white boy confronting race. ...

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For Colored Girls Who Have Resisted Homogenization When the Rainbow Ain’t Enough

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pp. 159-171

ASKING ANGELA TO meet with our writing group to discuss a draft of this essay on the significance of “race” in my life, I flash back to Women of Color in Academia (WOCIA), a lecture series, then support group, she formed during 1995–96. All the members are dispersed across the country now, but those awful days were bearable only because we turned, ...

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Anatomy of a Fairy Princess

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pp. 173-182

... Why indeed, I thought, as I settled into an article about the mathematically unlimited ways to accessorize the same blouse and skirt over the course of a week. Hadn’t I read this someplace before? And what has it got to do with the national crises about which I usually write—suspect profiling, the death penalty, eugenics, human rights? ...

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A Rambling Response to the Play Marie Christine

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pp. 183-191

It is difficult, if not impossible, for me to respond to this play, mainly because I am not interested in responding to racist fantasy. Of course, that statement raises the question: What do I mean by “racist”? ...

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Black, White, and Seeing Red All Over

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pp. 193-205

It is spring 1995 in New York City. I descend the steps of my brownstone apartment in Fort Green, Brooklyn, and before I even hit the last one I am caught up in the glow. The sky is a bright, azure blue, kids are playing in the park across the street, people are actually smiling at one another, and I can feel the warmth of the sun hitting my shoulders. ...

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Race Fatigue

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pp. 207-211

I AM TIRED OF race. Bone-weary of thoughts about race. Fatigued by our society’s silence about race. Too broken down in spirit to shoulder the mantle of race. ...

III. Exodus

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pp. 213-231

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Choosing to Be Black—The Ultimate White Privilege?

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pp. 215-224

I RECENTLY HAD the opportunity to speak to a group of first-year students at a small selective liberal arts college in New England known for its liberal campus environment. It was the beginning of the new semester, and I was the opening speaker for their orientation program. The auditorium was packed full of the eager and wide-eyed faces so characteristic ...

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White Like Me: Race and Identity Through Majority Eyes

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pp. 225-240

THOUSANDS OF HIGH school students read these words every year, having been assigned the classic from which they come: Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin. Teachers are especially quick to assign the book to white students, in the hopes that it may get them to think seriously about the issue of race in America. Black students, who by then pretty ...

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Traveling with White People

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pp. 241-251

ONE EVENING—I must have been about five or six—I went with my grandfather for an early evening stroll before night and total darkness. We were giving the dog some exercise—and myself, if I could keep up. I skipped along to match my grandfather, his long legs taking giant steps. It must have been spring, because I don’t remember a coat or ...

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Race: A Discussion in Ten Parts, Plus a Few Moments of Unsubstantiated Theory and One Inarguable Fact

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pp. 253-267

RACE IS BULLSHIT. A meaningless line drawn in sand by men bent on world domination and oppression. It was introduced as a fixed notion, an unchangeable, undeniable fact of world order. Yet from the moment of race’s conception, the amazing diversity of body types, cultures, and traditions on the African continent alone complicated race’s claim on ...

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A Funky Fresh Talented Tenth

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pp. 269-272

I ALWAYS LOVED the first day of the year at Milton. Prep school people arrived fresh from Nantucket, a little sand still in their loafers, clutching new books and strolling to classes in ivy-covered buildings that stood over us as they stood over students a hundred years before. I loved being educated alongside extraordinary people, even though some were ...

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On Acting White: Mother-Daughter Talk

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pp. 273-281

Early in my life, race talk was a part of how I was taught to understand the world. I had white parents and grandparents who considered racebased hate to be an American brand of fascism, and it was their deepest fear about humanity. Authority by tyranny, politically sanctioned genocide, vanquished human rights—those were the nightmares of history. ...

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Country Music1

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pp. 283-289

SOME PEOPLE WERE incredulous, some amused, and some slightly unhappy when I let my three daughters listen to country music. I mean, they chose it, they changed the radio stations and sang the songs in the car and danced in the kitchen to “Prop Me Up Against the Jukebox if I Die” and “All My Exes Live in Texas.” But there were people who ...

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One Summer Evening

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pp. 291-301

One summer evening just after high school, I was walking in downtown Philadelphia when I saw a man spread-eagled against a wall, being searched by a policeman. The man was black, the policeman white. When the policeman finished patting the man down, he bade him turn around, and when the man did so, slugged him in the gut. I ran over ...

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Spelling Lesson

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pp. 303-306

JOHNNY COPELAND WAS my first white friend—or at least I think he was. We went to elementary school together in Nashville. We didn’t do things together after school like my kids and their white friends do today. Johnny was my friend at school only, because we lived miles apart, physically and figuratively. You see, I’m a product of forced busing. ...

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Jasper, Texas Elegy

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pp. 307-316

I AM OBSESSED with race, not by accident, but by design. I blame my mother first, and then the rest of my community, for raising me to be this way. ...

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All Souls: Civil Rights from Southie to Soweto and Back1

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pp. 317-321

I RECENTLY VISITED Portadown, Northern Ireland, where, on the Garvaghy Road in the Catholic neighborhood, the kids have nicknamed their isolated housing project “Soweto.” The British government had officially named the barren estate “Churchill Gardens.” But the Catholic kids were too conscious of their own culture and living history ...

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Pictures in Black and White

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pp. 323-326

I AM SHORT. I am skinny. I have long red hair and blue eyes. I have freckles. I have braces on my top teeth and no eyebrows. I don’t look like most people in my school. ...

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pp. 327-335

THE ESSAYS IN this volume run the gamut from heartfelt to soul wrenching. For me, after more than forty years of work in every aspect of the struggle against racism, they reinforce my decades-tardy realization that racism in all its myriad manifestations is beyond the power of law or the desire of most of our citizenry to reform. ...

Back Cover

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p. 353-353

E-ISBN-13: 9780809387366
E-ISBN-10: 0809387360
Print-ISBN-13: 9780809328857
Print-ISBN-10: 0809387360

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 30
Publication Year: 2008