The readable companion, in the oral-history tradition of Studs Terkel, to the PBS documentary series, peeking behind the veil “that still, far too often, separates black America from white.”
African-Americans, observes Harvard literary scholar Gates (The African-American Century, 2000, etc.), “often speak differently—more colorfully and openly—when talking with each other behind closed doors, as it were, than they do in interracial settings.” These one-on-one discussions are certainly open, in the main, and immediate; they speak of the considerable successes that many African-Americans have won in places such as Hollywood and Washington since the 1970s, but they also reveal how far the country has yet to go. Colin Powell, for instance, acknowledges that he “wears his blackness every day” and that when he travels abroad, “people see a black man.” Yet, he adds, as secretary of state, “I represent . . . the power of this country . . . and once we sit down and they get past whatever color I am, they want to do business with me.” Powell encourages young black people to find a white mentor, for “more and more people in the white community are anxious to help those who are less fortunate.” Colorblindness, at least of a kind, also extends to film stars, for, as the saw goes, the only color that counts in Hollywood is green. Even so, the actor Samuel L. Jackson tells Gates, “Hollywood can be perceived as racist and sexist, because that’s what audiences have said to them they will pay their money to come see.” Jackson suggests that more African-American directors, producers, and studio executives may help—but what’s really needed are African-American–owned theater chains. Not all of Gates’s interviewees are as familiar as Powell and Jackson; some are millionaires, others gang-members and prisoners. But many share similar ideas about what is needed if the lot of ordinary African-American citizens is to improve.
Provocative and worthwhile.