Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricotte

Since the election of Barack Obama there has been a lot of discussion about whether or not we live in a post-racial America. Does race still matter? I have spent a lot of my professional career thinking about questions of race and diversity. Race does divide us and even the election of an African American president cannot erase years of prejudice and hatred. Sometimes, being a well-meaning white woman, I don't know what to say or do. Ignore someone who is different, ask about difference and acknowledge it, pretend like there is no difference. There are no easy answers and this memoir by poet Toi Derricotte does not give me an easy way out.

I loved this book because it explains a point of view about race and race relations that I can never understand because I have not lived it. It acknowledges racism and the burdens of hundreds of years of collective mistreatment of African Americans through the eyes of a black woman who looks white. Her discussion of race and it's implication in her life are very very compelling. She considers the subtlest of racist comments and how they make her feel to the barring of herself and her professional husband from a country club because of their race or even the utter isolation she feels at an artists' colony when she realizes she is the only black face among a sea of well meaning artists. She does not want to be branded as "being too sensitive" but it is hard not to see and hear and take in all of the racial divides at every turn.

What I understand best about race and about being black is that you cannot escape it. One is black 100% of the time, and I have the white privilege of living in a society where my race is not considered all the time. I had heard that before in diversity seminars which I have attended, but never really understood it until I read and thought about Ms Derricotte's story.

In some ways her story seemed hopeless. As if we will never escape these feelings for each other. We will never be able to join hands and take part in the famous dream, but I also believe that in reading stories like this and in striving to understand each other we take tiny steps toward healing and ending racial divides. The writing and the insights in this book are beautifully rendered and emotionally compelling. Ms Derricotte is a fabulous and insightful storyteller. I think white folks need to read this book.


Anonymous said...

I'm going to read this. Sounds fascinating. Mary

Steph said...

Wow - it does sound like a very good one. I'll add it to my list!