Best African American Essays: 2009

A nonfiction collection examines African-American concerns in the Obama era.

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Initially, it’s a jolt to see the names of two old sparring partners together on the same book cover. Guest editor of the first of an annual series of Best African American Essays: 2009, Debra Dickerson is best known for having written the conservative-leaning, black bootstrap-line manifesto, “The End of Blackness.”

The culture critic – and the series editor – Gerald Early resoundingly panned her book in 2004. But here the two are working together. It’s a healthy sign of eclecticism when the two primary forces behind a project can put aside past feuds and, for the sake of a well-rounded collection, agree to disagree.

Early and Dickerson both provide introductory essays to this wide-ranging and thoughtful compendium. They don’t waste space airing their differences – and the beauty of this collection is that they don’t need to.

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Instead of cat fighting, Early and Dickerson ponder some of the larger questions surrounding this project.

Who speaks for black America?
Should this be an annual collection of nonfiction exclusively by black writers, or a collection of essays on social issues involving the black American population?  And how relevant is a collection of essays that isolates black America – especially at a time when the president of the United States is a biracial man sworn to fairly govern us all?

For Early, the answers lie in appreciating the diversity of opinion that has always characterized dialogue within black communities, even during segregation.

“I cannot remember a time when black folk did not fuss, cuss, quarrel, and remonstrate with one another (and with whites) about their condition, about the world, about why we are here and about what it all means,” he writes.

He also briefly addresses the question, “What is an African American?”

The annual series will use a broad definition, he decides, guided by his personal acknowledgement that, “I have learned over the years as much about African American life from non-African Americans writers as I have from African Americans.”

Dickerson’s case for the necessity of this anthology emphasizes the unique perspectives of minority members living in a country where the majority have historically ruled.“We at the margins hunger for glimpses of ourselves in the cultural viewfinder,” she writes, “for proof we leave footprints in the earth, footprints that will stay visible in the millennia to come.”

In keeping with her belief that the literary essay is, at its best, a personal medium, Dickerson stayed away from essays heavy on polemics. You will not find in this collection the kind of statistically driven dissertations which reduce African-Americans to a sociological problem.

Instead, she writes, “Blacks are human; and all humans are narcissists, enamored of their own existence and frustrated as hell not to be acknowledged as the fascinating creatures we most definitely are.”

From there, the essays take off in a series of fascinating directions. James McBride discusses his problematic relationship with hip-hop culture even as Orlando Patterson decries the injustice of the Jena Six and the incarceration of large swaths of the black male population. Malcolm Gladwell makes a strong case that there is a cultural bias in IQ exams while Kwame

Anthony Appiah suggests that in Africa and the United States the scars of slavery have been passed down from generation to generation.

At the same time, John McWhorter exhorts black Americans to remember their enormous debt to America’s great experiment in democracy, even as Jamaica Kincaid, undistracted by the world of politics and public affairs, tends to her flowers.

(One absence that must, however, be noted: There is no piece by any black American humorist.)

But by the time you finish reading “The Best African American Essays: 2009,” you’ll come to see that a collection this strong and diverse has no need to justify its definition of blackness.

The question is the essence of the book.
Taken together, these essays demonstrate that the issues of black Americans – regardless of the stance that readers may take on them – speak in fascinating terms to a broad readership. The many arguments over black incarceration and unemployment, Afrocentrism  vs. American identity,  systemic racism vs. personal responsibility – to name a few – are all here.

A new figurehead in Obama
It would, of course, be impossible to talk about this book without mentioning another name: Barack Obama.

If this book had been published five years ago, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X would have still been its symbolic figureheads, and their lives and legacies would be the focus of heated debate and reinterpretation.

But today, it’s Barack Obama who is the subject of two essays and the author of another excerpted from a campaign speech.

African-Americans are not one; they are many. But of the many, it’s Barack Obama whose life – including his rise from fairly humble beginnings to the highest office in the country and his eloquent commentary on identity issues –  must encapsulate both the contradictions that vex and the dreams that inspire the African-Americans of 2009.

Darryl Wellington is a poet and freelance writer living in Charleston, S.C.

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