Book Review

Confronting Race in America

The Matter of Black Lives: Writing from The New Yorker
Edited by Jelani Cobb and David Remnick
828 pp. Harper Collins

(Harper Collins, 2021), edited by Jelani Cobb and David Remnick, provides a portrait of the impact of race in America from a wide range of voices represented by novelists, poets, essayists, journalists, and public intellectuals. Beginning with James Baldwin’s essay, “Letter from A Region in My Mind” written in The New Yorker in 1962 and closing with Hilton Al’s “Homegoing” written in 2020, readers gain a comprehensive view of race relations in areas such as politics, the arts, history, legal studies, and popular culture.
The reading of these essays in a nation divided by race, politics, and the meaning of democracy is particularly relevant as we approach Juneteenth, a day commemorating the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. Juneteenth symbolized a path towards reconciling and embracing democratic values for African Americans, yet we continue to face inequities, the lingering effects of racism, and an upsurge in violent acts across this country. How far have we come and what can we collectively do to address these transgressions and crimes in our nation? In the foreword to this collection, Cobb informs readers of The Matter of Black Lives of his hope that the array of writers, the depths of political thinking and argument connected to race in America, and the range of cultural accomplishment will provide a lens by which to envision a different America.

The breadth and comprehensiveness of the essays in this book require multiple readings over extended periods of time. Divided into five parts, each section contains five to seven in-depth essays that complicate what it means to be Black in America and that require meditation and reflection from readers. A sampling of some of the titles affirms this: “Black Like Them” (Why are West Indian Immigrants Perceived to be Different from Other African-Americans) by Malcolm Gladwell; “Barack X” by Jelani Cobb (A President’s Racial Balancing Act); “The Color of Injustice” by Kelefa Sanneh (Fighting Racism by Redefining It); “American Inferno” by Danielle Allen (How A Teenager Becomes a Crime Statistic); “Test Case” by Vinson Cunningham (The Faultlines in New York’s Schools,” “Letter from Jackson” by Calvin Trillin (Martin Luther King Jr. Debates a Racist); “The Charmer” by Henry Louis Gates (Coming to Terms with the Many faces of Louis Farrakhan); “Black Bodies in Motion and Pain” by Edwidge Danticat (On Jacob Lawrence’s paintings and Dylan Roof); and “Hughes at Columbia” by Charlayne Hunter-Gault (Columbia’s Overdue Apology to Langston Hughes).
Baldwin’s essay “Letters from a Region in My Mind,” later published as the book, The Fire Next Time provides a setting for this critical examination of the impact of race relations in America. He closes the essay with a call and warning that if Blacks and Whites do not come together to end the racial nightmare in this country, the prophecy from the Bible will come true. “No more water, the fire next time.”

Elizabeth Alexander’s essay “The Trayvon Generation” (On Motherhood in the Face of Police Brutality) will resonate with mothers and boldly illustrates the hopes, fears, and reality of Black motherhood in America. She begins with scenarios that immediately jolt you. “This one was shot in his grandmother’s yard. This one was carrying a bag of Skittles. This one was playing with a toy gun in front of a gazebo. Black girl in bright bikini. Black Boy holding cell phone.” These are the ones we know about recounts Elizabeth Alexander. She calls the young people who grew up in the past 25 years, “The Trayvon Generation” and reminds readers that these tragedies surrounding young Black people shape their worldview and how they move in this society. A mother of two sons, Alexander describes her constant fear that she cannot protect them from the violence they may encounter as young Black men. She asks: “Can I protect my sons from being demonized.”
In “How Do We Change America” Keeanga-Yamata Taylor argues that the quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging police brutality. She advocates having expanded discussions that include strategies for mitigating factors such as racist violence, housing inequity, the criminal justice system, the history of racial segregation, job discrimination, and under-resourced schools. This will not be accomplished argues Taylor unless funds are allocated to address these critical issues. Taylor also notes that the Black Lives Matter Movement lays the groundwork for current protests and that both White and Black people are compelled to protest because of their anxiety about the instability in this country and their compromised futures.

The Matter of Black Lives is essential reading for examining and assessing the intersections of race, politics, history, and culture with respect to Black lives in America. It begs the question of how far we have come and what can be done to address the transgressions and crimes in our nation.
Dr. Brenda M. Greene is Professor of English and Founder and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, CUNY.

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