Inaugural edition of a new series proves that there’s always room for another delivery method for quality short nonfiction.
Series editor Early (English, African and African-American Studies/Washington Univ.; This Is Where I Came In: Black America in the 1960s, 2003, etc.) and guest editor Dickerson (The End of Blackness, 2004, etc.) have gathered a vibrant mix of voices that belies the volume’s anodyne label. Early states up front his ecumenical goal: collecting the best essays authored by African-Americans. Even at that, he leaves the door open for others to write on racial issues; many will be surprised to see Andrew Sullivan’s chest-swelling ode to Barack Obama concluding the volume. Whatever the criteria involved, the book is a solid piece of work gathered from a wide range of publications (the New Yorker, Vibe, the St. Petersburg Times, etc.), loosely collected into subject buckets like “Activism/Political Thought” and “Internationally Black.” Early’s contribution, “Dancing in the Dark,” is a smart take on race and the South in film that recasts To Kill a Mockingbird as possibly more insidious than even Birth of a Nation. Emily Raboteau’s “Searching for Zion,” a labyrinthine account of her odyssey to reconcile her blackness with the spiritual quest for Jerusalem, is a masterpiece, as is Bill Maxwell’s sad three-parter about his disillusioning stint as a professor at a historically black college. Between these long-form classics crowd a host of shorter, divergent viewpoints. The effect is something like a loud family dinner with plenty of opinionated relatives who don’t always get along. Right-wing scold John McWhorter pops by to complain about the lack of American identity in modern youth, and Chloé Hilliard talks brashly about young black lesbians in Brooklyn acting just as gangsta as the boys. Meanwhile, off to the sides where it’s quieter, Obama writes of reincorporating faith into the progressive dialogue, and Malcolm Gladwell offers fresh insights into what I.Q. testing actually measures. There are a few weak selections (Michael Eric Dyson, we’re looking in your direction); fortunately, they are on the shorter side.
A cracking good read, something that all too few essay anthologies manage to be.