That resilient, inventive composite of the American demographic collectively called black America has put the children of many sociologists, musicologists, cultural anthropologists and statisticians through college. The different ways black Americans have survived and thrived in the United States (since before the United States existed) has been subject to slicing and dicing by a wide range of scholars stretching back generations.
Some of that analysis has been necessary; less of it has been inspired. But if these works of explanation, either scholarly or popular, are to mean anything, their explanation of where African Americans are as a people has to fully relate to how African Americans got to this point — this golden stair, this slough of despond — in the national life.
The sound analysis of African American history embraces the idea that, to borrow the saying, “Everyone stands on someone’s shoulders.” How it is that Disintegration, Eugene Robinson’s periodically diverting study of African Americans a decade into the 21st century, seems to grasp this so intermittently is anyone’s guess.
His book makes the hardly original observation that there’s more than one black America, that African Americans don’t constitute a social, cultural or even political united front. If this fact were offered to the reader less as an insight and more as an update, its presence might not be so jarring. In all fairness, we’ve known this for some time.
In Search of Black America (2000), David J. Dent’s landmark study of black Americans in a variety of life stations, examined intraracial diversity and dismantled the rationale for majority culture’s disbelief in that diversity, in a book that took five years to write.
The better to make his thesis accessible, Robinson, an associate editor for The Washington Post and a 2009 Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, divides black Americans into four groups:
- The Mainstream majority, the bedrock of everyday people, middle-income, middle management, economically middling along;
- The Transcendent elite, the few, the proud, the Oprahs, those whose success and influence is best defined in the broadest sense;
- The Abandoned minority, the ones seemingly left behind, caught up to one degree or another in the vortex of urban pathology, with fewer prospects for escaping that undertow since the end of Reconstruction; and
- The Emergent groups, a Janus-like offshoot that includes mixed-race Americans and recent black immigrants, and whose presence calls into question some of the more fixed, and cherished, tropes of black American identity.
There’s a descriptive convenience in those four categories, one that’s undercut by the author’s inability to fully exploit the histories each of these four came from. Each of the people of his four categories has an antecedence the author has largely underexplored, in a view of African American history that to some degree buys into the notion of black history as more event than process.
“To state the obvious, African American progress cannot be measured from the very beginning — the arrival of the first African American slaves at Jamestown in 1619”, Robinson stipulates. Fair (and accurate) enough. If progress is a journey, you have to start somewhere; 1619 is a good beginning. But despite moving forward through the nation’s history, Robinson manages to keep black Americans at the starting line of the pursuit of social and economic parity.
“It is equally useless to take emancipation [in 1863] as a starting point”, Robinson writes one page later, in a breathtaking chronological leap — an assessment of black progress that will certainly startle scholars and students of African American history. By Robinson’s view, for 244 years there was nothing that amounted to social, political, cultural or literary progress for African Americans. Thanks to the author’s historical pole vault, scholars of the black intelligentsia spanning the eras of the first 16 presidents of the United States (and the 157 years before the United States existed) can all stand down. Apparently, nothing much happened.
If you have the feeling you don’t know much about the Mainstreamers, the Abandoned, the Transcendents or the Emergents in the book, that 244-year time travel may be the reason why.
Robinson doesn’t fully detail as progress some of the very mileposts of black transition he documents in the book: he sprints past the “rapid gains” he concedes were made during Reconstruction, gains stripped wholesale from blacks by officials in the Jim Crow South, and a Supreme Court that acquiesced in Southern racism.
Then Robinson fast-forwards the narrative again. In the span of one or two paragraphs, it’s suddenly 1945 — the intervening years between Reconstruction and the end of World War II, about three generations, passed without (in his estimation) any progress made by black Americans. “Progress has to be measured, then, roughly from the middle of the twentieth century, which is when the economic and social ambitions of African Americans began to change as new possibilities emerged”, Robinson writes.
Generations of black Americans will be rightly chagrined to discover that, according to the author, progress by African Americans didn’t begin at any time before halfway through the 20th century they were probably born in. This pinched, confined view of black history is this book’s biggest failure. The four dimensions of black America Robinson articulates had their antecedents well before the people who now inhabit those handy categories.
Robinson’s plain-spoken narrative bears the attributes of a conversation with a scholar: both accessible and learned. In the first chapter and in one chapter specific to the Transcendents, for example, he brings sharp, deftly-written candor to that segment of black America that he (and the rest of us) are fascinated by: the boldface names of our economy, politics and culture: Oprah Winfrey, BET founder Robert Johnson; Obama White House senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; Fannie Mae CEO Franklin Raines, and others in the stratosphere of influence.
Robinson’s breakdown of the Transcendents’ intraracial sensitivities some years back — when some of them considered the merits of a young upstart named Barack Obama — has the virtue of being a pungent truth delivered with punch:
The elder Transcendents were used to surviving in terra incognita. They got where they are by being the “first black” this and the “first black” that, by taking on responsibilities that no African American had ever shouldered before, and by enduring the intense and unrelenting scrutiny that “first black” status always entails… They saw in Obama a man who gave no outward sign of harboring within him that hard nugget of suspicion — who seemed as if he were not artfully concealing the chip on his shoulder but in fact did not have one. They saw a man who seemed to glide through life on a cushion of good fortune… Never mind that his tastes and mannerisms were indisputably African American, down to the way he walked. To some Transcendents, he wasn’t black enough.
And Robinson understands, at an intuitive level, what may be lost by the economic and cultural balkanization of black America he describes: that ability to signal through the flames, to recognize a common identity:
It has been the custom for as long as I can remember: When a black person is walking down the sidewalk, particularly in a mostly white environment — the business district of a city like Denver, say, or a trendy shopping strip in Santa Monica — and meets another black person walking in the opposite direction, it is natural for these strangers to acknowledge each other with a small gesture or a mumbled greeting as they pass… It is an acknowledgement that even as total strangers, what we have in common is our racial identity.
I give the little nod without even thinking about it. Is it my imagination, or are fewer people nodding back?