America through the eyes of ordinary blacks; Drylongso, by John Langston Gwaltney. New York: Random House. $12.95.

By , Peter Spotts is on the Monitor's American news staff.

Drylongso: ordinary (in black dialect).m These are the kinds of people Syracuse University anthropologist John Langston Gwaltney interviewed for his "self-portrait" of black America. And the portrait is must viewing for anyone trying to better understand blacks in the United States and what must be done to improve race relations in this country.

Noticeable by their absence in this volume are the well-known blacks in politics, sports, business, and entertainment to whom many white journalists and politicians might normally go for insights about civil rights and race relations.

Instead, Dr. Gwaltney, who is black and blind, has focused on drylongsom folk -- anonymous people who are seen by their friends and neighbors as having a great deal of wisdom, experience, and common sense. Some have college degrees; others do not. Some have little formal education at all. Several are elderly.

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In the tradition of oral historian Studs Terkel, Gwaltney entered the homes of his 42 subjects, asked them questions about their lives and what they saw as the differences between white and black cultures, and let the tape recorder run. Gwaltney as interviewer appears only indirectly in the printed interviews, when the subject refers to him.And while the interviews were conducted during the early 1970s, the current racial climate in the US makes them compelling reading today.

The result is a book full of candid comments on white and black America. Some of these interviews may make white readers uncomfortable, prompting the question "Is this really how others see me?" The language is occasionally coarse. Some of the people interviewed are just as guilty of applying sweeping generalizations (usually uncomplimentary) to whites as many whites do to blacks. But the sentiments are obviously from the heart. And, as such, they must be taken seriously if their value as insights into the thin king of black America is to be realized.

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