RACECHANGES

WHITE SKIN, BLACK FACE IN AMERICAN CULTURE

Synthesizing the remarkable work over the last 15 years of scores of cultural historians, theorists, and critics who have been engaged in documenting and analyzing the ubiquitous legacy of blackface minstrelsy and racial posing in 20th-century American culture, Gubar has assembled a comprehensive catalog of cross-racial iconography. The paradox that despite our preoccupations with social divisions by race, the identities and psychologies of black and white Americans are inextricably interdependent is nowhere more evident than in modern popular culture. Gubar, coauthor with Sandra Gilbert of a groundbreaking work of feminist literary criticism, The Madwoman in the Attic (1979), examines the pervasive role of cross-racial impersonation in the development of American melodrama (beginning with Uncle Tom's Cabin) and musical theater, motion pictures (D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation and Al Jolson's The Jazz Singer), popular radio shows (Amos 'n' Andy), and new journalism (John Howard Griffith's 1960 study Black Like Me), as well as in European experimental literature, painting, and photography. She also clearly identifies the ethical issue at the center: ``How can white people understand or sympathize with African-Americans without distorting or usurping their perspective?'' Of course, who is the subject and the object of the gaze has a great deal to do with whether the act of ``racechange'' is transgressive or regressive, but there are persistent ambiguities in the act. Gubar appreciates and articulates multilayered complexities and ironies that evolve along with American cultural expression, although occasionally she comes up with an interpretation that seems overdetermined. Gubar addresses the major issue of why potentially liberating acts of racial masquerade so often end up serving racist ends and are only now being used to envision postracist ways of being and seeing. This is an important book for the way it highlights an active but underacknowledged field of cultural inquiry, and a study bound to prompt further debate. (96 photos, not seen)

Pub Date: May 1, 1997

ISBN: 0-19-511002-1

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Oxford Univ.

Review Posted Online: May 20, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 1997

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A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular...

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WHEN BREATH BECOMES AIR

A neurosurgeon with a passion for literature tragically finds his perfect subject after his diagnosis of terminal lung cancer.

Writing isn’t brain surgery, but it’s rare when someone adept at the latter is also so accomplished at the former. Searching for meaning and purpose in his life, Kalanithi pursued a doctorate in literature and had felt certain that he wouldn’t enter the field of medicine, in which his father and other members of his family excelled. “But I couldn’t let go of the question,” he writes, after realizing that his goals “didn’t quite fit in an English department.” “Where did biology, morality, literature and philosophy intersect?” So he decided to set aside his doctoral dissertation and belatedly prepare for medical school, which “would allow me a chance to find answers that are not in books, to find a different sort of sublime, to forge relationships with the suffering, and to keep following the question of what makes human life meaningful, even in the face of death and decay.” The author’s empathy undoubtedly made him an exceptional doctor, and the precision of his prose—as well as the moral purpose underscoring it—suggests that he could have written a good book on any subject he chose. Part of what makes this book so essential is the fact that it was written under a death sentence following the diagnosis that upended his life, just as he was preparing to end his residency and attract offers at the top of his profession. Kalanithi learned he might have 10 years to live or perhaps five. Should he return to neurosurgery (he could and did), or should he write (he also did)? Should he and his wife have a baby? They did, eight months before he died, which was less than two years after the original diagnosis. “The fact of death is unsettling,” he understates. “Yet there is no other way to live.”

A moving meditation on mortality by a gifted writer whose dual perspectives of physician and patient provide a singular clarity.

Pub Date: Jan. 19, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-8129-8840-6

Page Count: 248

Publisher: Random House

Review Posted Online: Sept. 30, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Oct. 15, 2015

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This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

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BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME

NOTES ON THE FIRST 150 YEARS IN AMERICA

The powerful story of a father’s past and a son’s future.

Atlantic senior writer Coates (The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood, 2008) offers this eloquent memoir as a letter to his teenage son, bearing witness to his own experiences and conveying passionate hopes for his son’s life. “I am wounded,” he writes. “I am marked by old codes, which shielded me in one world and then chained me in the next.” Coates grew up in the tough neighborhood of West Baltimore, beaten into obedience by his father. “I was a capable boy, intelligent and well-liked,” he remembers, “but powerfully afraid.” His life changed dramatically at Howard University, where his father taught and from which several siblings graduated. Howard, he writes, “had always been one of the most critical gathering posts for black people.” He calls it The Mecca, and its faculty and his fellow students expanded his horizons, helping him to understand “that the black world was its own thing, more than a photo-negative of the people who believe they are white.” Coates refers repeatedly to whites’ insistence on their exclusive racial identity; he realizes now “that nothing so essentialist as race” divides people, but rather “the actual injury done by people intent on naming us, intent on believing that what they have named matters more than anything we could ever actually do.” After he married, the author’s world widened again in New York, and later in Paris, where he finally felt extricated from white America’s exploitative, consumerist dreams. He came to understand that “race” does not fully explain “the breach between the world and me,” yet race exerts a crucial force, and young blacks like his son are vulnerable and endangered by “majoritarian bandits.” Coates desperately wants his son to be able to live “apart from fear—even apart from me.”

This moving, potent testament might have been titled “Black Lives Matter.” Or: “An American Tragedy.”

Pub Date: July 8, 2015

ISBN: 978-0-8129-9354-7

Page Count: 176

Publisher: Spiegel & Grau

Review Posted Online: May 6, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 2015

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