A vibrant separation of an African-American vernacular tradition from the thickets of contemporary racial debate.

TALKING BACK, TALKING BLACK

TRUTHS ABOUT AMERICA'S LINGUA FRANCA

A compact, lively defense of the grammatical legitimacy of “Black English.”

McWhorter (Linguistics, Music History, American Studies/Columbia Univ.; Words on the Move: Why English Won't—and Can't—Sit Still, 2016, etc.) has been involved in the controversies surrounding African-American Vernacular English for 20 years, when the news of Oakland, California’s schools' consideration of an Ebonics curriculum provided him “fifteen minutes of modest media notoriety [as a] black linguist.” Although the debate on Ebonics faded, McWhorter concluded, “racism is hardly the only thing standing between how linguists see Black English and how the public sees it.” Thus, his approach focuses equally on discerning intricate grammatical principles within AAVE and on the larger mysteries of how shared culture affects seemingly individualized traits like speech patterns. He gradually expands his perspective over the book’s five essays, first defusing the question of whether African-Americans can be said to “sound black.” He notes that the issue’s sensitivity may be “because Black English is so often associated with stupidity that one can’t help wanting to disidentify from it.” Meanwhile, even well-meaning white people are reluctant to explore their own assumptions for fear of appearing racist. Similarly, many black and white Americans cannot accept the legitimacy of Black English due to its apparent inappropriateness for certain social or professional situations, despite the fact that “no Black English advocate is calling for Black English to be allowed in [job] interviews.” McWhorter notes that black Americans today are necessarily experts in code-switching, or utilizing both Standard and Black English in different contexts. “The two things do not cancel each other out: They coexist,” he argues. Still, the enduring taint of minstrel culture continues to quash intellectual inquiry into black linguistics, as many are convinced “that a black way to talk has something to do with white racist caricature.” The author confidently untangles these issues, writing in an accessible and wry yet precise style.

A vibrant separation of an African-American vernacular tradition from the thickets of contemporary racial debate.

Pub Date: Jan. 10, 2017

ISBN: 978-1-942658-20-7

Page Count: 192

Publisher: Bellevue Literary Press

Review Posted Online: Oct. 11, 2016

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 1, 2016

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A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

AN INDIGENOUS PEOPLES' HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

Custer died for your sins. And so, this book would seem to suggest, did every other native victim of colonialism.

Inducing guilt in non-native readers would seem to be the guiding idea behind Dunbar-Ortiz’s (Emerita, Ethnic Studies/California State Univ., Hayward; Blood on the Border: A Memoir of the Contra War, 2005, etc.) survey, which is hardly a new strategy. Indeed, the author says little that hasn’t been said before, but she packs a trove of ideological assumptions into nearly every page. For one thing, while “Indian” isn’t bad, since “[i]ndigenous individuals and peoples in North America on the whole do not consider ‘Indian’ a slur,” “American” is due to the fact that it’s “blatantly imperialistic.” Just so, indigenous peoples were overwhelmed by a “colonialist settler-state” (the very language broadly applied to Israelis vis-à-vis the Palestinians today) and then “displaced to fragmented reservations and economically decimated”—after, that is, having been forced to live in “concentration camps.” Were he around today, Vine Deloria Jr., the always-indignant champion of bias-puncturing in defense of native history, would disavow such tidily packaged, ready-made, reflexive language. As it is, the readers who are likely to come to this book—undergraduates, mostly, in survey courses—probably won’t question Dunbar-Ortiz’s inaccurate assertion that the military phrase “in country” derives from the military phrase “Indian country” or her insistence that all Spanish people in the New World were “gold-obsessed.” Furthermore, most readers won’t likely know that some Ancestral Pueblo (for whom Dunbar-Ortiz uses the long-abandoned term “Anasazi”) sites show evidence of cannibalism and torture, which in turn points to the inconvenient fact that North America wasn’t entirely an Eden before the arrival of Europe.

A Churchill-ian view of native history—Ward, that is, not Winston—its facts filtered through a dense screen of ideology.

Pub Date: Sept. 16, 2014

ISBN: 978-0-8070-0040-3

Page Count: 296

Publisher: Beacon Press

Review Posted Online: Aug. 18, 2014

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15, 2014

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Not an easy read but an essential one.

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HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST

Title notwithstanding, this latest from the National Book Award–winning author is no guidebook to getting woke.

In fact, the word “woke” appears nowhere within its pages. Rather, it is a combination memoir and extension of Atlantic columnist Kendi’s towering Stamped From the Beginning (2016) that leads readers through a taxonomy of racist thought to anti-racist action. Never wavering from the thesis introduced in his previous book, that “racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas,” the author posits a seemingly simple binary: “Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas.” The author, founding director of American University’s Antiracist Research and Policy Center, chronicles how he grew from a childhood steeped in black liberation Christianity to his doctoral studies, identifying and dispelling the layers of racist thought under which he had operated. “Internalized racism,” he writes, “is the real Black on Black Crime.” Kendi methodically examines racism through numerous lenses: power, biology, ethnicity, body, culture, and so forth, all the way to the intersectional constructs of gender racism and queer racism (the only section of the book that feels rushed). Each chapter examines one facet of racism, the authorial camera alternately zooming in on an episode from Kendi’s life that exemplifies it—e.g., as a teen, he wore light-colored contact lenses, wanting “to be Black but…not…to look Black”—and then panning to the history that informs it (the antebellum hierarchy that valued light skin over dark). The author then reframes those received ideas with inexorable logic: “Either racist policy or Black inferiority explains why White people are wealthier, healthier, and more powerful than Black people today.” If Kendi is justifiably hard on America, he’s just as hard on himself. When he began college, “anti-Black racist ideas covered my freshman eyes like my orange contacts.” This unsparing honesty helps readers, both white and people of color, navigate this difficult intellectual territory.

Not an easy read but an essential one.

Pub Date: Aug. 13, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-525-50928-8

Page Count: 320

Publisher: One World/Random House

Review Posted Online: April 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 15, 2019

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