Self Portrait In Black And White by Thomas Chatterton Williams: notes and comments

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ new memoir Self-Portrait In Black And White examines the complexity, the pain, and the contradictory dynamics of “race” thoughtfully and articulately. He presents several broad themes: race is a question of class, the African experience in America isn’t universal, and the psychological toll of racism is insidious and detrimental to everybody. He makes his arguments with vigor, his points are supported with a foundation of historical perspective, and his anecdotes about race ring true. Williams is not neutral, but neither is he raving. His writing is clear and his points are well made.

Of course none of this is new; Stanley Crouch made the same kind arguments in The All American Skin Game.

But William’s is telling his own story, and because it’s his story it represents primary evidence of a life that is full of astute observations and honest narration. In other words this isn’t second hand, it’s real and up close. His voice is clear, immediate, and without rancor. (Mostly without rancor; he saves a bit of vitriol for a cousin that he found recalcitrantly ignorant and tone deaf.)

The thing that makes Williams’ story unique, besides his talent as an essayist, is that his mother is white, and his father black. (See his previous work, Losing My Cool for reference.) As he says in Losing My Cool he had a choice to make: what side of the color line was he going to live in? In the new memoir he continues to examine the process of choosing an identity.

The idea of race isn’t just an intellectual pursuit to Williams, it’s a question of survival, and it goes beyond his own person. In Self Portrait In Black And White we find him married to a blond, blue-eyed French woman, and he has a daughter with blond curls and very blue eyes. Is his daughter white? Why does it matter? Williams examines those questions in detail.

The examination of the fluid dynamics of race is pressed again and again. Perhaps the most important question driving his debate about race is this: isn’t it self-defeating to identify with either “white” or “black”? Isn’t either choice an acceptance of victimhood?

Williams himself has fair skin and can be mistaken for someone of Middle Eastern descent; but in America, with it’s notion of racial purity (e.g. the “one drop” test) he ought rightfully to be considered black. But instead he takes a reasoned approach and rejects the idea of racial identity.

Williams weaves his own history into the discussion, allowing the reader to participate in the experience of intellectual and emotional discovery.  Throughout the book he acknowledges how lucky he was to be born into a particular family, which is most firmly (at least for me) established in a footnote: his mother was cheerful to the point where the emotional state of being happy was conflated with race — she was happy in a way that established her as distinctly “white” (page 50). I would suggest there is something subtle, and quite powerful, in that observation; it wasn’t so much his mother was cheerful, but rather she was confident enough in her life to be cheerful. (His parents possessed a strong and healthy sense of self worth, something Williams makes clear at various places in the book.) What this implies is that “cheerfulness” (i.e., a happy life) relates directly to the privileges that come with social status; the main advantage of which is the lack of persecution. His family might not have been perfect, but they did not lead quiet lives of desperation, and they were not ashamed of themselves.

One can distill Williams work down to a couple of simple core ideas: social status, and self-image. The distinctions of race come down to a cultural affectation that allowed a certain financial expediency to become the norm: inferior people (e.g. Africans) should do the bidding of superior people (e.g. Europeans) and therefore subservience (i.e., slavery) was their natural condition.

But while the essence of the problem can be stated simply, the solution tends to be a bit harder to get at.

Williams steps across the lines of “race” and “victimhood” and posits the idea that the truest human identity is one where anyone’s suffering is worthy of consideration, no matter what the DNA pie-chart says about one’s identity (pages 76, 79). He implies that the way out of the dilemma is really a question of how broad the notion of “family” can be.

He wants human beings to do something that tends to be difficult, which is to replace fear with empathy. Despite how well he supports his arguments with appeals to reason, optimism, and compassion, it’s difficult to see a society where people don’t revert back to tribalism and give in to the imperative of self-interest by seeking out that which seems familiar: family, custom, ritual, and self-defense.

History reveals a trend — the fiery language of demagoguery never seems to lose it’s appeal. The reason is simple: it’s easier to find safety in the rhetoric of anger. Demagogues always provide a focused target and a solution you can really get your head around: exclusion. Demagogues are popular because their penchant for violent rhetoric makes them seem confident, strong, and righteous. Within the confines of intense anger you can hone the expressions of self-interest; this grants individuals a feeling of guilt-free power. Once this anger scales up into a group dynamic it’s a powerful force.

William’s makes that point himself when he talks about “tribal identitarianism and Panglossian utopianism” (page 26). He also writes that “overcoming deep seated fears in never rational” (page 83). The point is: fear is a strong emotion, and in some cases strong enough to become an integral part of individual, and social, identity.

Which brings us around full circle to what is the central theme of his memoir: to identify as “black” brings with it a constant need to be redeemed from shame and the constant need to live within a social structure that defines “black” as a threat. This is because the social identity of “black” is warped and twisted towards inferiority and victimhood. And those are notions Williams strongly resists with the full force of a fine-tuned scholarly intellect. His solution is not to play that game. In practice what this means is to unite with others who also don’t want to play that game through one social contract or another: friendship, or marriage.

His argument to move towards a culture that rejects the cultural formalisms and affectations of tribalism, particularly “race”, is persuasive. But it seems to me something is missing, and it has to do with Williams’ observation about the difficulty of overcoming fear with rational thinking.

Identifying our nation’s dysfunctional tribalism comes up frequently enough to call it a theme and he makes the point clear enough. But there is one omission that also stands out, a point that Williams does not make — if “race” is really about exclusion and the status quo of privilege, and if you follow that idea of “us vs. them” around to “us vs. other”, sooner or later you arrive at something that looks a lot like patriotism. Because isn’t what patriotism is about? Isn’t the core idea of patriotism to protect us against some external force that threatens to redefine us in ways we don’t understand and find frightening?

And once at that point on the scale of reason, doesn’t it mean that racism is so popular because racism is patriotic? Is it not the case that racism is a form of patriotism that protects us against the frightening idea that our heritage is suspect, our customs based on lies, that we are mere thieves? And worst of all, that we should be ashamed of ourselves. Isn’t all of that a prelude to self-destruction? Williams doesn’t put it like that, but I wish he had. Because then the argument, and the solution, would have been easier to fathom.

Yes we need to respect each other’s differences and celebrate diversity — but patriotism is of a whole, isn’t it? Where does diversity fall into that model? How can we make it fit?

I would suggest the solution to racism is to make diversity a question of patriotism, and find a way to define patriotism to mean everybody participates, and everyone is honored for their participation and their contribution regardless of their appearance. We would have a new tribe, and a new level of comfort in our collective skin.

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