Book review: "Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America"
Gargoyle assistant editor
Posted Thursday, May 17, 2007, The OG, arts
TODAY, RACE IS much a part of the modern consciousness, but ironically, discussion about racism rarely addresses the diversity of situations in which it takes place. In fact, few people have lived in more than a handful of different communities, and while sometimes raised in formal settings, race is not a topic of casual conversation.
In “Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America,” former Uni parent Walt Harrington tries to explore issues of race from the black person's perspective through personal interviews with black Americans from different parts of the country.
Harrington, who is white, is a former Washington Post Magazine writer who now chairs the University of Illinois journalism department. His wife, Keran, is black, and they have two children. Their son, Matt, graduated from Uni High in 2001.
“Crossings” was first published in 1992, when Harrington still worked at The Washington Post. A second edition was published in 1999, by which time he had moved to the U of I, and it remains in print.
Harrington was motivated to write the book after overhearing a racist joke while at a dentist's office.
“How many racist jokes have I heard in my life?” he asks in the prologue. “Five thousand, maybe ten thousand, at least. But today, for the first time — who knows exactly why? — I am struck with a deep, sharp pain. I look at this man, with his pasty face, pale hair, and weak lips, and I think: This idiot's talking about my children! … I feel helpless. Am I, I wonder, feeling like a black man?”
So he begins his trek: “I wanted to leave for my children a document that captured the breadth of black America. I wanted to be the blind man who touches the whole elephant.”
- Author: Walt Harrington
- Publisher: HarperCollins (1st ed.) / University of Missouri Press (2nd ed.)
- Publication date: 1992 / 1999
- Pages: 466 / 480
- Summary: Walt Harrington, a white father of two biracial children, goes on a 25,000-mile journey of discovery into black America.
The book does not follow a strong narrative thread. Instead, it is almost a diary, recording disjointed parts of the same journey. Harrington travels from place to place — 25,000 miles in all — talking to people about how race affects their outlooks on life and accumulating thoughts about how these views tie together.
A few notable interviewees are Ishmael Reed and Spike Lee, but the book concerns a broad variety of people, from the destitute woman trying to hold her family together to the successful Hollywood manager for whom race mixes oddly with her profit-driven career.
In his travels, Harrington uncovers the usual reports of subtle racism as well as traces of overt racism. But more than this, he also discovered that many blacks are unfazed by the disadvantages incurred by the color of their skin, while others feel helpless against their adversity.
There's a former sharecropper who insists, at least to Harrington, that life was good back then. There's a wealthy man who has trouble getting into a country club because of his race. There's a black cop who wishes more blacks were thrown in jail.
No one seems to have quite the same perspective, but at the same time, they all have many common experiences. In the end, the reader indirectly meets people from all over America. The reader decides what to make of the acquaintances.
Despite sweeping across most of the United States, however, in the end “Crossings” draws no sweeping conclusions. Harrington is ambivalent about his own abilities as a white man to understand the mindsets of his interviewees. At the end of the book, he makes a minor effort to unify the various stories under general conclusions, but the point is that general conclusions don't work.
“Black America cannot be truly understood or explained, not by me or anybody else, black or white,” he writes. “Like every nation of people, it's too great and too petty, too beautiful and too ugly, too generous and too selfish for that. But it can be experienced. It can be demystified. It can be made whole.”
It is possible to summarize Harrington's “findings” in one or two pages, but that would defeat the purpose of the book. The reader is left to feel that he or she has only scratched the surface, yet the many close-ups of ordinary (and some not-so-ordinary) people nonetheless form a collective image of black America.
Unfortunately, the lack of a central thesis dampens the impact that the book can make — the book does not produce vivid impressions immediately after reading. The format is somewhat repetitive, usually with a character sketch followed by dialogue. Although the bite-sized chapters are inviting to the reader, they are not quite able to suck him or her in.
However, “Crossings” is the type of book that impacts the reader in small ways, whether through providing a little bit of context to crime and poverty in America's most run-down neighborhoods, or by allowing the reader to appreciate the sometimes different ways in which wealthy and poor blacks perceive racism.
“I wasn't a neanderthal on race when I took to the road; a mossback wouldn't have married a black woman in the first place,” Harrington writes. “But I've been awed by how much I didn't know, by how much there is to know about black America. I have learned this: We white people would be better off if we opened our hearts and our heads, listened more and talked less.”
Thus, rather than dealing with generalizations and abstractions, “Crossings” is down-to-earth and preoccupied with people's experiences. It shows us how complex and multifaceted the role of race is in people's lives. It makes us realize that defeating the problems that are tied to race is not simply a matter of spreading awareness or making public statements; it is a matter of changing how people live.
— External link: University of Missouri Press: “Crossings”
— External link: Walt Harrington's Web page