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Coming to grips with race in America



Published: Sat, February 7, 2009 @ 12:00 a.m.

I have had a book in my library for years that I finally decided to make time to read. It is called “Crossings: A White Man’s Journey into Black America.” The book, published in 1994, was written by Walt Harrington, an award-winning staff writer for the Washington Post Magazine.

Harrington says the idea for the book sprouted from a racist joke his dentist told about a stupid black man. Harrington is married to a black woman, and they have two children.

Harrington points out that just white people were around, and the dentist felt that it was all right for such a joke to be told.

Harrington wrote down his reaction: “How many racist jokes have I heard in my life? Five thousand, maybe ten thousand, at least. But today, for the first time — who knows exactly why? — I am struck with a deep, sharp pain. I look at this man, with his pasty face, pale hair and weak lips, and I think: This idiot’s talking about my children!”

Harrington was 39 then, and for the first time, he wrote that he really felt the “intimate intrigues and confusions of race in America.”

So the journalist, who grew up in Crete, Ill., embarked upon a 25,000-mile journey that would take him to the rural backwoods of Mississippi, to the urban areas in Detroit and Chicago, the vastness of Texas and the mean streets of South Central Los Angeles. He interviewed older black people who lived their entire lives in segregation and were treated as second-class citizens. He also would interview rich and famous blacks, including movie director Spike Lee and Ed Gardner, founder of the hair-care business Soft Sheen, which Gardner and his wife began out of his kitchen sink in 1964 in Chicago.

“Crossings” is based on Harrington’s handwritten notes taken during his numerous interviews at the scene of his travels as well as more than 250 hours of taped interviews and his own taped observations.

The book is a fascinating look at how whites look at blacks, how blacks look at whites, and how blacks look at themselves.

Harrington points out some historical perspectives as well, including this nugget: American Indians owned slaves. The Chickasaw Indian Nation denied blacks the right to vote and their children the right to attend Chickasaw schools. That prompted Harrington to write, “How crazy is our racial history: red men discriminating against black men in white America.”

Harrington does an excellent job describing the people he meets, the homes they live in, and the conditions they face. He writes about one of the sore points within the black community: light-skinned blacks vs. dark-skinned blacks. And, of course, there are many words dedicated to black men dating and having sex with white women.

I recommend you get a copy. I’m sure you can find one with all the help that is available on the Internet.

In the book’s epilogue, Harrington reflected on his travels. He found white prejudice, black prejudice, white ignorance and black ignorance. I found this statement he made especially appropriate: “Today, the advantages of privileged birth and excellent education are as real for blacks as they are for whites, and it’s simple dishonesty or disingenuousness to deny it. But so also is true that white prejudice and discrimination are real and are not going away soon. In short, race still matters, but it is no longer all that matters. It is time for whites to admit that despite all the changes of the last several decades, racism is still a plague on America. It is time for blacks to admit that as bad as racism is today, great strides have been made.”

And, thus far in this century, the greatest stride has been America electing the son of an African man and a Caucasian woman to the highest elected office in the land.

ebrown@vindy.com


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