Jabari Asim

  • O Cousin, Where Art Thou?

    WHEN FIRST ENCOUNTERED, Cuz might remind some readers of books such as Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman and Parallel Time by Brent Staples. In those memoirs, accomplished authors compare and contrast their successful lives with those of siblings whose missteps led them to jail or death. In Cuz: The Life and Times of Michael A., Danielle Allen, a decorated scholar and Harvard professor, struggles with the short life and violent death of Michael Alexander Allen, a first cousin. He died at the hands of a lover in 2009, just one year after finishing a second stint in prison.

    He first

  • Bearing Witness

    A FEW WEEKS BEFORE these books landed on my desk, an urgently worded missive arrived in my in-box. A group calling itself Writers on Trump was circulating an open letter to the American people that they hoped other writers would sign in support. “Because, as writers, we are particularly aware of the many ways that language can be abused in the name of power,” it began. Seemed reasonable. But then it went on to declare that “American history, despite periods of nativism and bigotry, has from the first been a grand experiment in bringing people of different backgrounds together, not pitting them

  • Hard Laughter

    Scott Saul’s massive biography of Richard Pryor reached bookstores just months after Mark Whitaker’s biography of Bill Cosby, another of the twentieth century’s most important comics (and one with whom Pryor had a famously complicated relationship). Neither author could have chosen a timelier moment. Whereas Whitaker’s book—inexplicably—all but ignores the string of sexual-assault accusations that once again have Cosby’s name in the headlines, Saul’s dives unhesitatingly into every aspect of Pryor’s conduct, including the many sordid parts that Pryor did little to shield from public view.


  • politics August 19, 2014

    Tell the World the Facts

    As I monitor the images and information streaming from Ferguson, Missouri, I can’t help thinking of the novelist Charles Baxter’s observation about writing fiction: “If you want a compelling story,” he has advised, “put your protagonist among the damned.” Pictures, some from gifted photojournalists like Scott Olson and Lawrence Bryant, others from fearless amateurs with cell phones, give us glimpses of what hell might look like: smoke, sulfurous fumes, shadows, screams, and volatile armies clashing by night. In the United States right now, there may be no more compelling story than the violence

  • Whiteness Falls

    During the 2009 holiday shopping rush, a popular computer maker encountered an embarrassing problem—its vaunted facial-recognition program failed to register black faces. Much of the ensuing media discussion noted that such software was still in its infancy. It makes sense that computers would be confused about race. After all, their creators are often equally clueless.

    Much American racial ignorance probably stems from our stubborn insistence on “recognizing” race in the first place. “Race is an idea, not a fact,” Nell Irvin Painter reminds us in her impressive new book, The History of White


    Early in Mark Noll’s brief, smoothly paced exploration of “how religion interacted with race in shaping the nation’s political course,” Noll shares an observational nugget from André Siegfried. Nearly a century after his countryman Alexis de Tocqueville took a note-taking tour of the United States, Siegfried paid a similar visit to these shores. Whereas Tocqueville detected the underpinnings of a cult of individualism and a potential tyranny of the majority, Siegfried saw a nation of Calvinist pulpit pounders. “Every American is at heart an evangelist,” he wrote, “be he a Wilson, a Bryan, or