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BROWN by Richard Rodriguez Kirkus Star

BROWN

The Last Discovery of America

By Richard Rodriguez

Pub Date: April 1st, 2002
ISBN: 0-670-03043-0
Publisher: Viking

A poetic, often contrarian meditation on race in modern America.

Borrowing from writer/philosopher William Gass, who deconstructed the meanings of a less socially charged color in On Being Blue, PBS commentator and essayist Rodriguez (Days of Obligation, 1992, etc.) ponders the meaning of Mexicanness, Hispanitude, mestizaje, and all the other forms of being brown in the US. “I write about race in America,” he begins, “in hopes of undermining the notion of race in America.” With many asides on the origins of the notion that Hispanics are an ethnic minority—a recent idea, he suggests, adopted from the African-American struggle for civil rights—Rodriguez offers a few balloon-bursting observations on the tensions that have marked recent politics; the black-white argument, he writes, “is like listening to a bad marriage through a thin partition, a civil war replete with violence, recrimination, mimicry, slamming doors.” That’s not to say that those tensions are not real, and Rodriguez allows that plenty of doors have been slammed in his face as a brown, gay person. Plenty of others have been thrown open, though, affording him a privileged (and deserved) position as cultural commentator that he gratefully acknowledges. Without descending into sloganeering or us-versus-them rhetoric, Rodriguez argues for an inclusive “white freedom” accorded to all citizens; his democratic spirit and the absence of special pleading are both refreshing. In their erudition and irony, these writings recall the essays of the late Mexican poet Octavio Paz, who could easily have written the closing lines: “Truly, one way to appreciate the beauty of the world is to choose one color and to notice its recurrence in rooms, within landscapes. And upon bookshelves.”

Elegant, controversial, and altogether memorable.