Obama’s Legacy

If we are ever to measure ourselves honestly on the state of race relations in America, it must be against Douglass’s original color line. We have made undeniable progress, but all the problems that bedeviled American during the Civil War remain. They are relevant to our electoral map and to our life experience, and should serve as a  barrier to any inflated sense of victory of self congratulation. This is even more true now that the ghost of America’s colonial past has broken free of any attempts to control it. That ghost now sits in the White House, forcing us to reckon with it. The ghost is ugly and sinister and as native to this country as biscuits and gravy. We won’t be rid of it until our legal system, our economic system, our education system, and our individual nervous systems are rid of it. This is what it would mean to move beyond the color line.

March 2017, Harper’s Magazine, “Black Like Who? How Obama Negotiated America’s Racial Tightrope”


James Baldwin, New York, 1975 (Anthony Barboza/Getty Images)

Color Blind: A Pocket Guide to Race in America

… Nor are black writers allowed creative freedom to shrug off the mantle of race to create as any other writer, presumably from the fullness of their experience, imagination, and erudition. As James Baldwin wrote: “I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negroe; or, even, merely a Negroe writer.” What the mainstream would seem to want from black writers are only stories of blackness written from a marginal position, on one hand to serve as witness and on the other to affirm for mainstream readers that they remain white, and so privileged. They want affirmation that the inner life of black folks is more or less the way black folks exist in the white imagination. On the narrative level it means the books presented seldom tackle the deeper complexities of 21st-century life, in which human experiences are ever more varied, all identity in flux, even as we as a nation continue to pay interest on our original, colonial sin.

August 17, 2015, Matter



The Death of Socrates, Jacques Louis David, 1787 (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A Requiem for the Culture Wars

The job of the African-American novelist is assumed to be to write about race and nothing else.

… Books operate on a multitude of frequencies, of course. The ones we tune in to, or imagine we hear, augur as much as our dreams and secrets. Bloom’s argument then was nuanced and contradictory, but the debate turned quickly from books to politics. The canon itself was a cipher for left and right. One side argued for things to remain as they had been throughout most of American history. Those of us who were not served by things as they were argued there was much eternal and relevant for our times that was unknown in Greece, and plenty in our emulation of Rome to question. It is easy enough to lament the prejudice by which the Athenians killed Socrates. Much more difficult to discern the poison in one’s own point of view. By creating an argument between the canon and greater cultural openness, a system of false opposites was produced. If great books are larger than their writers (and the greatest are) they are definitely larger than the biases we project onto them.

July 1, 2015, LitHub



Notes for a Spanish Odyssey

I first went to Spain in late 2010 for personal reasons. New York no longer made sense to me as a place to make art, at least not the kind of art I cared for, and my way of life was vanishing there. Culture had given way to the larger forces of 21st century America — technology, entertainment, money, and the forces they call up in us. The country no longer took its interior life seriously. Or perhaps I had only discovered, like any number of writers before me, my country and my calling to be mutually hostile. Whatever the reason, or quantum entanglement of reasons, I needed space for reflection and decided to jet.

I sought a more authentic place, and a friend suggested Spain. I had spent a fair amount of time in Europe and did not think it was where I wished to be. But Spain was a country new to me so I followed the thread, not quite knowing what to expect. To my North American imagination it was a mysterious place, floating somewhere in the ocean of the imagination between Latin America and Europe proper, trapped as well between an appalling colonial legacy and a place that seemed to have fallen behind ever since. Add to that an education whose Eurocentrism did not extend to Iberia, and the result of all my received ideas and occluded notions was that I realized I had thought of it subconsciously as an inferior place. Like all ignorance, mine had robbed me of part of the world.

It was a country I responded to as I had few others, and I went on to spend large parts of the next two years there. The longer I was there the more impossible it became for me not to note the ways in which its shifting population was changing the country — a phenomenon that is reshaping all of Europe — and the ways in which it was at pains to address this change. The answer, I knew, was connected not only to the fate of Europe, but also my own.


Other Nonfiction

NYTimes Magazine-Charles King