Thomas Chatterton Williams: Wrestling with Race and Culture Part Two

Part Two: Self-Portrait in Black and White

Yesterday, after a somewhat defensive introduction dealing with the Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday and my Black History Month reading, I offered some thoughts on Losing My Cool by Thomas Chatterton Williams.

Now, obviously, the world is a very different place in 2021 than in 2010. And I am not really in a position to engage in the arguments about hip-hop and black culture. But for me, the beauty was the love between a son and a father and the determination of that father to mold his son despite some very powerful countervailing pressures in the wider world.

Thomas Chatterton Williams and Wrestling with Race and Culture

With this as background, I want to move on to Self-Portrait in Black and White, which is a very different book.

Now, here is where we deal with the challenges of reviewing a book you read months ago, borrowed from the library, and didn’t take notes on… Goodreads to the rescue.

While I enjoyed Self-Portrait, it struck me as too abstract, less grounded in some way. Not quite as engaging as his first book, despite some overlap, but still thought provoking.

Williams is determined to leave racial identity and determinism behind and this book is a discussion both of how he came to that conclusion and how his life and relationships, and his reading and thinking, have impacted the process.

Although I don’t share his politics or life experiences I applaud his determination to take on this issue and wrestle with deep questions. I too think we should give up racial identity and attendant perspectives which are harmful and focus on our shared humanity in all its variety and complexity. I fear we are headed in the opposite direction.

Allow me to offer, and react to, a few other reviews:

We see the author’s psychological struggle as he thinks through the conundrums, including what the confusion might mean for his white-looking children. In the hands of a lesser writer, the back and forth of his pondering could have sunk the memoir. However, it succeeds spectacularly for three main reasons: the author’s relentlessly investigative thought process, consistent candor, and superb writing style. Almost every page contains at least one sentence so resonant that it bears rereading for its impact. The lengthy prologue is grounded heavily in discussions of race as a social construct. Part 1 takes readers through Williams’ adolescence, Part 2 through his marriage, and Part 3 through dealing with his family on both sides. In the epilogue, the author speculates on “the shape of things to come.”

An insightful, indispensable memoir. – Kirkus

This raises a important point. By saying it felt too abstract and thus less engaging, I don’t mean to criticize the writing. Which Kirkus notes is resonant and beautiful. Rather, it is the mixing of the personal and anecdotal and the philosophical and theoretical that, to me, made it less engaging that Losing My Cool.

Williams writes beautifully, but his pages include quotations from great men that sometimes seem like scattered proof of his sophistication, a reflection of insecurities he disavows. Some readers will find his rhetoric perfidious and reactionary, with its dismissal of identity politics and the concomitant particulars of the African-American experience. But he is so honest and fresh in his observations, so skillful at blending his own story with larger principles, that it is hard not to admire him. At a time of increasing division, his philosophizing evinces an underlying generosity. He reaches both ways across the aisle of racism, arguing above all for reciprocity, and in doing so begins to theorize the temperate peace of which all humanity is sorely in need.

How Moving to France and Having Children Led a Black American to Rethink Race

I will leave you with two reviews, one largely negative and one positive (also progressive and conservative).

One can look askance at Williams’s insistence on “sovereign liberty,” which smacks of a retrograde and dangerous version of liberal politics that imagines each and every one of us can be, under the right circumstances, autonomous individuals, even if so much of what gives this autonomy meaning is the product of collective life. Far more frustrating than the ways in which Williams strips human freedom of its social context is that he seems to lack any sense of nuance when it comes to contemporary discourse around the question of blackness and racial identity. He repeatedly conflates racist and anti-racist thought, charging them both with the sin of reducing people to essentialist racial identities. That is a disingenuously broad caricature: While white supremacist thought constructs racial essences as a way to engender and protect racialized power, anti-racist thought views race as an analytic through which we might understand and destroy the racial order. 

Color Blind, The Nation

FTR, I lean very much more toward Williams on this argument but am in no way a scholar on the subject so take that for what it is worth.

In the tradition of many of the great essayists, Williams’s memoir chronicles the interplay between ideas and lived experience. He chronicles his childhood in a “mixed race” household, his uncertain identification with “blackness,” and how being father to a blond baby changed him. A thread throughout is the essential mixedness of “blackness,” the inescapable fact that many Americans who identify themselves as “black” have more than a few “white” ancestors. So much of American racial discourse assumes some kind of polarity between “black” and “white” as racial categories. For centuries in American life, this radical distinction was maintained by the force of law and private violence. Yet biological mixedness undercuts such efforts to maintain strict racial boundaries, and the weakening of state-sanctioned racial separation has made the conceptual duality even harder to maintain. Williams makes no effort to deny that racism exists, nor does he seek to dismiss the very real impact of racism past and present on contemporary America. He does, however, challenge his readers to doubt whether racial categories should have such force in American life.

Toward a Common Ground on Race, National Review

Even if you disagree with him, I think anyone interested in this most difficult of topics would find Williams’ thoughts and experiences interesting but it is controversial, obviously. I think if you read Losing My Cool you will understand the author better and then can see how what was started in that book is flushed out in this one.

This is one of those books that I feel like I really should read again; and perhaps I will given I am no longer obsessively committed to reading 100 books this year.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).

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