W. W. Norton and Company, 2019, 192 pp., $25.95
Reflecting on why he decided to leave America for Europe, James Baldwin once explained that he wanted to “find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect me with other people instead of dividing me from them.” The racism of American society in the late 1940s prohibited him from doing so at home, where he was always “merely a Negro.” Only by going abroad could he find the freedom to really ask himself what it meant to be black, to be American, to be African-American. By encountering people so different from himself, Baldwin wrote, he felt at last “a shattering in me of preconceptions I scarcely knew I held.” The constraints of American notions of race and identity were loosened by the existence of entirely different notions. “The time has come,” Baldwin decided, “for us to examine ourselves, but we can only do this if we are willing to free ourselves of the myth of America and try to find out what is really happening here.”
The American writer Thomas Chatterton Williams has followed in the footsteps of Baldwin’s Parisian emigration. Raised in suburban New Jersey by a white mother and black father, Williams grew up thinking of himself not as half-white or of mixed race but as “black, period.” In his literary debut, Losing My Cool (2010), he recounted an adolescence suffused with hip-hop culture and received ideas about a particular kind of black identity. In high school, in the mid-to-late 1990s, Williams strode the hallways with a sweatshop’s worth of flashy apparel, paid homage to the gods of BET, and lived by the dubious moral code of the Big Tymers and Master P. At the local basketball court, he was awestruck by a player known as RaShawn, who sipped Olde English before games, kept in his pocket a knot of bills “as thick and layered as a Spanish onion,” and often resorted to viciously beating up his opponents. “He was like a star to me,” Williams admitted.
But his erudite and autodidact father, Clarence, kept Williams and his brother in line by making sure they did their homework and studied hard. As a result, Williams was eventually accepted to Georgetown University, where he slowly began to question his allegiance to street culture and its peculiar notions of young black masculinity. At the end of his sophomore year, Williams abandoned his initial goal of becoming a wealthy investment banker and decided to study philosophy instead. Under the aegis of his supportive professors, he encountered the work of Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Hegel, and came to the realization that the lifestyle he had spent his youth idolizing was actually one of stifling groupthink. For Williams, BET became a symbol of black cultural regress.
Yet it was not until he travelled abroad for the first time that Williams was able to make the decisive break with the cultural values of his younger self. “Being serious about realizing myself as an individual,” he wrote, “required nothing less than my leaving for an extended period of time the black culture I had grown up in, severing myself completely from the miasmic influence of my group.” As it had previously done for Baldwin, France opened Williams’s mind and irrevocably shifted the tectonic plates of his intellectual and cultural life.
If this innocence of experience made Losing My Cool, on occasion, a slightly moralizing tale (Williams’s conception of hip-hop culture can be extremely narrow), his new book is a far more subtle, courageous, and moving achievement. Contrary to its title, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race is less preoccupied with the self than with the world that surrounds it, and in particular with the culture and politics of contemporary American society.
The difference between the two books is partly attributable to the short but significant span of history that separates 2010 from 2019, or the early Obama years from the early Trump years: a decade of police killings of unarmed black men; Black Lives Matters and “woke” anti-racism; Donald Trump and the specter of white nationalism. From talk of a post-racial society and the promise of change, America now is a bitterly divided country presided over by a President who began his political career by popularizing a racist conspiracy theory about his predecessor in the Oval Office.
Yet the difference is also personal. Unlike Baldwin, Williams has not returned from France to lend his voice to any movement or cause, however just. Instead, he has married a white Frenchwoman and settled permanently in Paris, a vantage point that, as was initially the case with Baldwin, has afforded Williams the requisite distance to look with fresh eyes at the rigid logic of race in America:
Outside the confines of the United States, I was coming to the startling—and at times unmooring—realization that our identities are really a constant negotiation between the story we tell about ourselves and the narrative our societies like to recite, between the face we see in the mirror and the image recognized by the people and institutions that happen to surround us.
This adopted outsider’s perspective on American cultural and political life has been crucial to Williams’s emergence as one of the most original and interesting contemporary interpreters of that life. Since making his literary breakthrough in 2010, he has written a number of acclaimed and sometimes controversial essays for the London Review of Books, the Virginia Quarterly Review, and the New York Times Magazine, in which he has proven himself a forceful critic of the dominant anti-racist discourse on the Left and contemporary identity movements more generally.
Most notably, Williams has written at length about Ta-Nehisi Coates, the bestselling author of Between the World and Me and We Were Eight Years in Power. Williams may well be tired of seeing his name mentioned in the same breath as Coates’s, but the similarities between the two writers are too considerable to pass over. Both have written memoirs about race in America from their personal perspectives as fathers; both have lived for a time in Paris, where they described feeling liberated from American categories of race; and both have wrestled with the intractable influence of James Baldwin. (Toni Morrison said that Coates filled the “intellectual void” left after Baldwin’s death.)
They have also both written at length about what Coates has called “the invention of racecraft” and Williams the “fiction of race,” yet the conclusions they have drawn from the exploration of this phenomenon has taken them in two radically different directions. Where Coates can occasionally sound like a fatalist on race, believing it to be America’s inescapable original sin, Williams has taken to calling himself an existentialist, and in his new book expresses an ambition to break free of the categories of race entirely. “If the point is for everyone to build ships, set sail, and be free,” Williams wrote in a 2015 essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review, on which his new book expands, “if we are collectively ever going to solve this infinitely trickier paradox of racism in the absence of races, we are, all of us—black, white, and everything in between—going to have to do considerably more than contemplate façades.”
Self-Portrait in Black and White opens with the birth of Williams’s first child, a blonde and blue-eyed girl, and the author’s subsequent realization that “whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different.” For someone who has spent his whole life believing in the American binary between black and white, the sight of his “impossibly fair-skinned” daughter comes as something of a shock, Williams admits: “On some deeply irrational but viscerally persuasive level, I think I feared that, like a modern Oedipus, I’d metaphorically slept with my white mother and killed my black father.”
But rather than send him spiraling into a tragedy of Greek proportions, the birth of his daughter prompts Williams to reflect not only on the fluidity of racial borders but on their ultimate absurdity. His book, anchored in the personal, untethers itself to become a kind of existential meditation on the whole sorry “fiction of race.” Along the way, we are reminded that racial categories as we understand them were only invented during the European Enlightenment (“I have stayed in inns in Germany and eaten at taverns in Spain that have been continuously operating longer than that,” Williams quips); that Williams’s daughter would have been considered a “Negro” under the one-drop laws of the previous century; and that racial identity is determined not only by the color of our skin but by our geographical location.
This broadening of the discussions around race and identity yields unexpected results. Repeating some of his criticisms of Coates and the “woke” anti-racist movement, Williams likens what he calls the “one-size fits all contemporary populism around implacable white supremacy” to the German notion of Sonderweg, or “special path,” a once-common myth on both the Left and the Right that the trajectory of German history could be explained according to a collective essence peculiar to the German people. Some historians, for instance, have viewed the Holocaust as the logical product of centuries of German history, drawing a clear line from Luther to Hitler, which, as Williams rightly points out, leaves a lot of nuance, ambiguity, and general historical messiness unaccounted for.
Williams argues that a similar idea has recently taken hold in America: “Its roots lie in the national triple sin of slavery, land theft, and genocide. In this view, the conditions at the core of the country’s founding don’t just reverberate through the ages—they determine the present. No matter what we might hope, that original sin—white supremacy—explains everything, an all-American sonderweg.”
This view of race and history only further legitimizes the fiction of race, Williams argues. Race is viewed as real, not in a biological sense, but as a social construct that at bottom is no less deterministic.
Yet if race is not measurable in any biological or scientific way, why keep it alive by other means? One of the most salient arguments in Self-Portrait is Williams’s claim, gleaned from the critic and essayist Albert Murray, that “black” and “white” are essentially just bad metaphors that do not stand up to the complexity and messiness of real life, to say nothing of any kind of scientific security. (Williams is fond of quoting Murray: “But any fool can see that the white people are not really white, and that black people are not black.”) To go on using these terms is to become the victim of racism a second time, Williams claims, an insight he arrives at by quoting a passage from the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuscinski’s Imperium:
Only one thing interests the [dissident]: how to defeat communism. On this subject he can discourse with energy and passion for hours, concoct schemes, present proposals and plans, unaware that as he does so becomes for a second time communism’s victim: the first time he was a victim by force, imprisoned by the system, and now he has become a victim voluntarily, for he has allowed himself to be imprisoned in the web of communism’s problems. For such is the demonic nature of great evil—that without our knowledge and consent, it manages to blind us and force us into its straitjacket.
In other words, by continuing to use its metaphors we are merely prolonging the fiction of race. “The truth is that no matter how hard you try,” Williams comments, “you cannot struggle your way out of a straitjacket that does not exist. But pretending it exists, for whatever the reason, really does leave you in a severely restricted posture.”
Better, then, to reject the concept of race altogether. Williams is under no illusion that this will be easy or even, at times, desirable to achieve. “I am aware—and from time to time still feel it in myself—of the terror involved in imagining a total absence of race,” he admits. The proud and defiant traditions of black culture in America speak for themselves, yet the idea that in order to go on appreciating Bessie Smith or Ralph Ellison or Henry Ossawa Tanner one must accept the logic of race is absurd. On the contrary, we can reject the abstract mystifications of race and still appreciate the very real cultural and artistic achievements inspired by it, as indeed the worldwide appeal of so much “black” culture clearly demonstrates.
This is not to say that by rejecting race we can eradicate race hatred overnight (if at all), or that racism will disappear of its own accord if we acknowledge that race is fiction. Williams’s book is neither prescriptive nor blind to the injustices and crimes visited on the nonwhite populations of the United States. Here and elsewhere he writes sensitively of the sufferings of his father’s generation in the Jim Crow era and beyond, including the stigma his parents endured by entering into a mixed-race marriage, a union Williams’s white maternal grandfather disapproved of. On her annual visits to see her two grandchildren in Newark, Williams’s grandmother was never once accompanied by her husband, whose absence was always put down to a bad back or fear of flying. Not until adulthood did Williams fathom the unspoken reason his grandfather never visited. “I realized how profoundly ungenerous—how impressively unimaginative—my grandfather’s entire worldview could really be,” he writes. What strikes Williams most is the overwhelming poverty of the racist worldview, the significant loss his grandfather inflicted not only on himself, but above all on his wife, his daughter, his son-in-law, and his grandchildren.
Williams’s decision to reject race will undoubtedly strike many as eccentric, naive, or perhaps even disloyal—objections Williams both anticipates and addresses. But it is a protest entirely in keeping with the journey of self-realization he first embarked on as a young student of philosophy at Georgetown. It is a journey that has always been oriented toward greater individual freedom and away from group identity. Reading Self-Portrait, I was often put in mind of the Pied-Noir writer Albert Camus, whom Williams quotes in his concluding chapter: “Poverty kept me from thinking all was well under the sun and in history; the sun taught me that history is not everything.”
Williams knows that the pernicious and enduring history of racism in the United States is very real and unlikely to disappear any time soon, but he also knows that this history is not everything, and he refuses to accept a deterministic view of human identity. In this respect, Williams, whose appeal as a writer owes as much to the force of his arguments as it does the lyricism of his prose, is very much a latter-day Camus, especially the Camus of The Rebel, who rejected history as an object of worship and championed a “vigilant rebellion” in its place. Like Camus’s rebel, Williams says no to the abstractions of race and history in order to defend what is most important to him: the freedom and dignity of the individual human being. “History’s utility, while necessary, is diminished greatly when it smothers the possibility and beauty the here and now may contain with reference to nothing further than itself,” he writes. “We have a responsibility to remember, yes, but we also have the right and even the duty to continuously remake ourselves anew.”
Self-Portrait is a plea for us to live up to the promise of our democratic, multicultural societies, to develop a vision of ourselves that acknowledges our inherited historical and cultural differences without letting them define or divide us. Whether we are able or willing to do so is of course questionable, given the low, dishonest time we live in. But for crafting that vision with empathy and passion, Thomas Chatterton Williams deserves our gratitude.