Irrational Man

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race BY Thomas Chatterton Williams. New York: Norton. 192 pages. $26.

The cover of Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Something is happening out there in the dark fields of “the discourse.” Incoherence is now a virtue. Rather than irony, modesty, discernment, ambivalence, or the mental sprightliness needed to parse conflicting views, a proud refusal to make solid arguments may be the cure for our divided times. Incoherence strikes a blow to partisan bickering and campus groupthink. Incoherence recoils from “tribes.” If an opinion sounds half-baked, or a claim brashly obtuse, it’s simply plowing through your pieties and wrenching open your padlocked mind. Incoherence is courage, incoherence is pluralism, incoherence is an ideological opera full of swordfights and forbidden love. Incoherence thrills and exhausts people; in this way, it resembles thinking.

By incoherence I don’t mean an “extreme” position or the shriek of the provocateur, but a specific genre of chin-stroking, brow-furrowing, “eye opening” sophistry that’s now robustly represented in mainstream newspapers and magazines. Fluttering near the political center (they refuse to be pinned down!), the exponents of the new incoherence look at the Right’s mushrooming despotism, then at the enfeebled, regrouping Left—and, with theatrical exasperation, declare that both are a bit tyrannical. These pundits are the opposite of adherents; all hail the Incoherents! Like the dadaists and the X-Men, the Incoherents are bound by a shared mission: in their case, the valiant disputation of other people’s missions (which we now know are really “orthodoxies”). Anecdotes and dazzling inanities draped over an individualist common sense—this is the technique favored by the scramblers of our discourse. Faced with Incoherent writing, the reader embarks on a psychedelic saga: the truly trippy liquefaction of virtually all of social reality, especially those parts that have been politicized by the Left. So if you crave a “fresh” opinion, feel free to open the New York Times—on class, read David Brooks; on gender, read Bari Weiss. And on race, read Thomas Chatterton Williams, who has now published his second book.

It has been interesting, at the very least, to observe Williams’s ascent. His first book, released by Penguin in 2010, was the memoir Losing My Cool: How a Father’s Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture—the subtitle is now Love, Literature and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd—which strode boldly, if rather late, into the “conversation” about black youth culture. (The Washington Post had run Tipper Gore’s famous op-ed “Hate, Rape, and Rap” a full twenty years before.) The volume’s original cover was a picture of the author in a suit: jacket collar popped, tie whipping in the wind. Behind him is a building emblazoned with graffiti.

Lodged at that book’s heart is the argument—the ardent belief—that the black youth of Williams’s generation are drawn not just to rap music, but to its creed. The effects have proved disastrous. Hip-hop, gangsta rap, the glorification of violent criminality: There are many names for this force, which Williams sees as the towering barrier between young black people and—what, exactly? What does “hip-hop culture” repel, disdain, preclude? The answer is embedded in his pat, triumphant Bildung, as Williams reveals that he, too, was at first seduced by rap. Then he arrived at the enlightenment of which his book, of course, is proof.

Thomas Chatterton Williams, 2019. © Kris Graves
Thomas Chatterton Williams, 2019. © Kris Graves

That arrival was made possible by his father, Clarence, a black man raised in Jim Crow Texas by an impoverished single mother. Pappy went on to earn a Ph.D. in sociology. Then he married a white woman. Born in 1981, Williams grew up in a mixed-race family in suburban northern New Jersey, where Pappy made a point of installing them on the white side of town. And there were sides, harshly marked ones. A light-skinned child from a middle-class home, Williams longed for a way to be truly, fully, irrefutably black. To him, this meant abiding by a set of rigid codes: low pants, big sneakers, foul talk, frequent fights; a fixation on basketball, disdain for school, obsession with girls, contempt for girls; and a ferocious love of hip-hop, the alleged root of this moral style.

But at home, Williams and his brother were strapped to an exacting regimen of extracurricular study, supervised by their father. He was stern. Williams claims to have undertaken—at the age of seven—a summer program of “syllogistic and spatial reasoning, vocabulary-building, Miller analogies, arithmetic, and reading comprehension,” all administered by Clarence in a house extravagantly packed with books. (These are the 15,000 of the original subtitle, and the subject of breathless litanies.) A conflict thus slices the tender soul of our young hero: Live the unexamined life of thuggish hedonism and machismo, or cultivate self-discipline and become an intellectual like Pappy? Some version of this tension drives every scene in the book, as the battle between brains and “hip-hop” is restaged with plangent, tiring zeal.

Brains win the day. Life blooms with meaning. We arrive at this glorious ending after two hundred pages of rank contempt. It’s instantly clear that Williams is of a different species from the people he pals around with; he may be the only black kid in Jersey who fully occupies three dimensions. And the prose in which Williams renders his “hip-hop” milieu wobbles between awkward and appalling. Foiled attempts at vividness quickly curdle into cliché, as when black high school students are described as “psyching themselves up like child soldiers drunk off blood in some war-ravaged African province.” This language is not merely frank; nor is it unfamiliar. The book is stuffed with ciphers that slot into racist tropes.

But could it be that I, by making that hysterical accusation, exemplify that “intangible smallness of mind and inability to transcend skin-deep superficiality, this moral childishness and sheepish conformity, that is the root problem in black life today and the true subject of this book”? These words appear in the penultimate paragraph of the memoir; they present both the argument and its central slippage: We’re meant to accept that Williams’s single narrative is so marvelously capacious that it can correct the course of all of “black life”—but also that it is by and about a man who refuses to identify with the collective.

Instead Williams rakes through his story for glittering lessons in respectability. He used to be ensorcelled by hip-hop; now he speaks French and reads the existentialists. He’s entered a lofty, sophisticated milieu, and truly, all black people ought to. I suggest they begin by making sure they have light skin, a suburban childhood, a Ph.D.-holding parent, and a voluminous pool of cultural capital, to be drawn from as they please. These days, Williams listens less to Jay-Z and more to jazz—but he declines to mention that the latter was once demonized using the very arguments he flings at rap.

Yet all of Williams’s own misdeeds stand as a howling indictment of “hip-hop culture.” As a teenager he thrashes his black girlfriend Stacey across the face after dragging her into the woods. This isn’t the routine horror of misogynist violence as inflicted across the planet by men of every color; Williams’s brain, perhaps the real victim, has simply been warped by Biggie Smalls. And Pappy had never approved of Stacey; he found her coarse and disappointing. After the incident, he refers to the “herd of mules and donkeys” that threaten the “thoroughbred,” his son.

Such righteousness, such haughtiness, such flabbergasting resentment and open disdain—naturally, Losing My Cool won Williams an established perch in anglophone media. As a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine whose byline dots many other august publications, he serves the regular, titillating function of impaling our pieties about race. The “pessimism” of Ta-Nehisi Coates is a repeated, irresistible target. And Williams is always willing to revise our view of Black Lives Matter. But if Losing My Cool had dreamed aloud about a splendid new attitude for black people, his new book—Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, also a memoir—proclaims, with intriguing relief, that the thing we call “black America” does not, in fact, exist.

Nor does white America. This is because race, as Williams now realizes, is a fiction—a punitive way of thinking that imposes a preposterous simplicity upon the sensuous texture of human life. Race has no biological basis, but manifestly barbarous social effects. Race relies on and furthers racism, throttling our minds and splitting the world. One might politely reply that well, yes, race is a social construct; many of us already think that. But Williams scoffs at that wheedling mantra. He thinks it’s blithe and merely chic, because we nevertheless insist on describing ourselves as “white” or “brown” or “black.”

Williams was moved to these reflections by a single event: the birth, in 2013, of his first child. At the close of Losing My Cool, we see him—freshly released from “hip-hop culture”—nurture an interest in travel, especially France. Now he lives in Paris with his white French wife, Valentine, whom we meet at the start of Self-Portrait when, after dinner, her water breaks. The excited couple rushes to the hospital, and after twenty-four hours of labor and frayed nerves, the French doctor announces that she sees a “tete dorée”—Williams’s daughter, to his astonishment, is blonde.

But is she black? “I have spent my whole life,” Williams writes, “earnestly believing the fundamentally American dictum that a single ‘drop of black blood’ makes a person ‘black’ primarily because they can never be ‘white.’” The arrival of his little girl sweetly punctures that illusion, launching a flotilla of speculations that destroy Williams’s belief in race. He no longer thinks of himself as black. He’s a person, as his DNA test can verify, whose genetic makeup reveals a voluptuous panoply of diverging origins. Each chapter follows an episode that loops us back to this central point: his daughter’s birth, how he met his wife, his stint as a volunteer for Obama, and his revelatory meeting with Adrian Piper, a Conceptual artist who famously “retired” from blackness in 2012. Williams also retreads quite a lot of Losing My Cool: Stacey reappears as a fourteen-year-old who “danced beautifully, like a woman not a child”—though he neglects to mention the time he backhanded her across the face.

In both works, a catastrophic delusion is debunked by our gallant hero. This is the swashbuckling intellectual style of a man born to be Incoherent; after all, Williams was raised by an “anti-tribal” family that “did not belong to any collectives,” so his thought is freer and fresher than ours. As an adult, he’s “come to further appreciate other, subtler advantages of being cut off from any substantial we.”

“My own life has shown me repeatedly,” Williams promises us, “that racism at once persists and is also capable of being transcended—especially at the interpersonal level.” And it’s at that level—of personal identification and conversation—that the great dismantling will take place. Williams claims that so-called “black” people will have to make the first move. He knows that this will be easier for him than for those who are dark-skinned, and easiest of all for his daughter, who can pass for white. So with dauntless conviction he commits them both to what he calls—without irony—an “avant-garde.”

It’s incredible. Vast chasms in argumentation are spanned by the rickety bridges of TED Talk prose:

We know that the Roman playwright Terence observed, “I am human, therefore nothing human is alien to me.” And we know that Imperial Rome was a dizzyingly cosmopolitan milieu, men and women speaking all manner of tongues, worshipping all manner of gods, displaying all manner of skin tones moving through it. And yet it’s worth lingering a moment longer on the fact that Terence did not proclaim, as he might have, “I am Roman, therefore nothing Roman is alien to me.”

Imperial Rome may not have maintained the concept we now call “race,” but was nevertheless a violently stratified society whose bottom layer was occupied by slaves. So it’s unclear what this exercise in close reading achieves. Williams has an appetite for aphorism. He opts for a kind of ideological dim sum, plucking thinkers from the sundry platters of politics Left and Right: The libertarian Kmele Foster; the Marxist literary critic Walter Benn Michaels; the black radical theorist Paul Gilroy; and Williams’s comrade at the Times and seminal Incoherent David Brooks are all drafted to prove his point that we can flatly dispense with race. Williams is likely pleased to be seen as politically amphibious. But these positions are profoundly incompatible, largely due to their clashing views of the distribution of wealth.

In Losing My Cool, class is the distinction that Williams both relishes and elides: He can’t quite admit that having a professional father made his tale one less of escape than of return. But in Self-Portrait, class is a stick to beat race with. It brutally trumps identity claims (and is not itself the basis for a thorough critique). So Williams can happily declare that “there are few things more American than falling back on the language of race when what we’re really talking about is class—or, more accurately still, manners, values, and taste.”

One point at which class collides with race, of course, is in the lives of an astounding number of black people who have been forced into the “informal economy” by generations of bigoted policies, who serve as the rhetorical whipping boys for elected officials busy ventriloquizing the rich, and who are killed with impunity and ghastly frequency by leagues of armed police. Williams voices a few doubts about Black Lives Matter, which he sees as essentialist. (In a 2017 article in the New York Times Magazine, he couldn’t help but mention that Michael Brown looked “unsympathetic . . . on that convenience store video.”) Williams asserts in a footnote that actually, American Indians experience the highest rate of police murder, at 10.13 per million; for black people, it’s 6.66. It does not particularly move him that for whites, it’s a mere 2.9.

The fact is that “race” is made and remade at the vicious, jam-packed crossroads of class stratification and the force of the state—which is one reason why, as Williams notes with uncomprehending triumph, different countries have different racial paradigms. What he cannot grasp is that any effective challenge to white hegemony would have to take place not in the perfumed realm of private choices and elective affinities, but on the harsh terrain of real life: where collective struggle is waged, and wealth is made and spread. Apart from a single glancing mention (in parentheses) of the social democrat Bernie Sanders, there is no serious and explicit treatment of the gap between rich and poor.

The omission reveals the fantasy that throbs beneath this memoir: that race can be yanked from the clanging machinery in which it’s lodged. Nothing could be more reassuring. No other hierarchy—not the advantages that, say, one gender or class lords over the others—will have to change or be abolished, as Williams attempts to leap through his little trapdoor in history.

This might strike you as naive. “A certain degree of naïveté,” Williams bellows at the end of this book’s prologue, “is what is needed most if we are ever to solve the tragedy of racism in the absence of human races.” There’s nothing to say to this—every possible observation about the world and the people in it simply pings off the metallic surface of an assertion so inane—but a line floats to mind that might appeal to our latter-day existentialist: “All writers of middle-class origin,” Sartre writes, “have known the temptation of irresponsibility.”

What is this book: cynicism or foolishness? A flash of contrarian novelty in a media industry tickled by its own fecklessness—or proof of a truly boundless naïveté? After this fabulous lesson in eluding labels and blurring boundaries, the question might really be: Why choose?

Tobi Haslett has written for n+1, the New Yorker, and Artforum.