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Self-Portrait in Black and White

The rewards of subordinating racial or ethnic identity, in the new memoiristic essay by the author of ‘Losing My Cool’

Daniel Oppenheimer
September 23, 2019
Library of Congress
Library of Congress

Thomas Chatterton Williams’ new book, Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race, is a few things. It’a memoiristic follow-up to his first book, Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man’s Escape from the Crowd; a meditation on what it means for a black man to discover that he’s fathered white children; and an impassioned argument for rejecting the whole modern paradigm of black and white.

It’s also, I think, an effort to answer for himself one of the essential questions that many older liberals, who were formed before the rise of identity politics, simply can’t answer or even adequately ask. What does one get in return for subordinating one’s racial or ethnic identity? Folks like Mark Lilla, Francis Fukuyama, Sam Harris, Laura Kipnis, Andrew Sullivan, Jonathan Chait, and Jonathan Haidt are on the front lines of the present culture war making compelling arguments that our society needs shared values and narratives to sustain itself, that collectively it is in our best interests to privilege our commonalities over our differences. They’re not, however, providing interesting or persuasive psychological answers to why any given individual would be moved to let his or her racial or ethnic identity attenuate when it is actively providing strength and solace. Or why young people, not yet fully formed, would abstain from the identities that are not just au courant but manifestly powerful in their capacity to compel deference or compliance from the establishment. They’re not offering a new synthesis that incorporates some of the insights and aesthetics of identity politics. They’re mostly arguing for a return to the previous liberal synthesis.

Most people don’t carve out a big chunk of themselves, however, in service to an old synthesis. Nor do young people typically buck the crowd, at pain of social exclusion, for abstractions, particularly abstractions that are most visibly defended by people who are so beige in their affect. We tend to take these identity leaps when a) the default identity isn’t working for us, when its internal contradictions grow too psychically painful, and b) when we can envision or are provided a sufficiently compelling alternative. It helps a lot, also, when our social world shifts, and new space opens up for being different without alienating friends and colleagues.

This kind of identity reformation has happened to Williams twice (or maybe three times) now. In adolescence, as he writes in Losing My Cool, he rejected the rather stoic values of his home life for the more hedonistic, and socially advantageous, values of hip-hop-inflected young male blackness. For a while it worked: He got girls and was cool. In college at Georgetown, among new people and incentive structures, he held on to that way of being for a while, but increasingly it seemed to him not just immature but ineffective. It was neither getting him the girls he wanted nor advancing him toward the life he wanted to build. Eventually he let it go and returned to the basic template provided by his father, a proudly black man who was also idiosyncratic and individualistic in his expression of what his blackness meant.

Had Williams gone on to marry a black woman, or at least someone dark enough to produce visibly dark-skinned children, it’s easy to imagine that he would have continued in this broad frame: proudly black, profoundly individualistic. And that was, vaguely, the plan. Then he fell in love with and married a white French woman, settled down in France, and fathered a white child.

“On the fourth or fifth push, I caught a snippet of the doctor’s rapid-fire French: something, something, ‘tête dorée …’ It took my sluggish mind a moment to register and sort the sounds; and then it hit me that she was looking at my daughter’s head and reporting back that it was blond. … Once she was calm and safe, the nurse passed her to us, and she squinted open a pair of inky-blue irises that I knew even then would lighten considerably but never turn brown. For this precious being grasping for milk and breath, I felt the first throb of what has been every minute since the sincerest love I know. And I also felt, if I’m honest, something akin to the fear of death electrify me to the core. What have you done?

What he’d done, he came to realize, was ended the blackness of his direct line. His daughter Marlow was not going to be black in any meaningful sense. She might incorporate some tropes of “black” identity into her own, but the world would see her, and almost certainly she would see herself, as white. Self-Portrait is his reckoning both with this fact of Marlow’s future identity and with how it has reflected back to inform his own.

Losing My Cool was a provocative book, much blunter about the toxicity of certain aspects of contemporary young black masculinity than one typically gets from young black writers, but it left in place the conventional premise that being a proud, self-identified black person was the obvious goal for someone like Williams. Self-Portrait rejects the premise. It argues, in a way that could be banal but in fact is fascinating, that the whole project of defining people as black and white (and brown and red and yellow) is bankrupt, and that the extraordinary work that black people have done digging themselves out from under the mountain of slavery, segregation, and discrimination has opened up a small but slowly widening escape route to other kinds of existences. And they should take it.

“I will no longer,” writes Williams, “enter into the all-American skin game that demands you select a box and define yourself by it. And it is a game, not in the sense of entertainment but in the sense of game theory—a veritable prisoner’s dilemma in which we are all trapped though highly unlikely to escape, since self-interest mixed with ignorance of each other’s intentions practically ensures we make the wrong decision. I have resolved to take a gamble and walk away.”

There’s an enormous amount to say about the political implications of Williams’s argument, and I hope the book will get the thoughtful attention it deserves in the critical press. Perhaps even more interesting, however, are the answers he gives to the intimate, psychological questions raised by personal and political transformation. What does one get in return for subordinating one’s racial or ethnic identity? What is big and powerful enough to fill the identity hole left by the excision of race?

The answer for Williams is freedom. Not an abstract, bumper sticker kind of freedom, but a very down-to-earth, minute-by-minute kind of freedom. By stepping away from race, and from himself as a black man, he is liberated to construct a more usable and coherent story of his family, of how his “black” father, “white” mother, “white” wife, “biracial” self, and … “quadroon” (?!) children all fit together. He can live his life without all the battles, internal and external, that come from constantly trying to titrate just the right amount of blackness to his kids, his wife, himself in the context of his kids and his wife, his parents, his kids in the context of their parents and grandparents, his family in the context of French society, his family in the context of American society, and so on and so on.

He can also hand down to his children a less fraught legacy than what he inherited from his father. His father had no choice; American society wouldn’t allow a black man of his generation to be anything other than a black man, though it (just barely) allowed him to marry a white woman. But Williams the younger does have a choice, for a complex mix of reasons, and it strikes him as wise to avail himself of it. Not to pass as white, or to ignore the history of racist oppression in the West, but to assert himself as an individual whose skin color is less salient to his identity and life than a thousand other things.

Deracing oneself is not an easy lift if one intends to do it, as Williams does, publicly and defiantly. He’ll be accused of disloyalty, of shallowness, of advocating a strategy that could only make sense, even remotely, for someone as privileged as he is, with his light skin, white wife, education, affluence, and ease in cosmopolitan realms. He has taken many of these hits already. But one gets the clear sense that the challenge feels morally and artistically generative to him, that it feels better and more purposeful to live newly in what he sees as good faith than to hold on to the old identity, which offered many consolations but did so at the cost of too much cognitive energy spent patching and propping up rickety constructions.

I don’t think it’s necessary to sign on to Williams’ final prescription to feel the fresh air that blows through his writing, or to note by contrast its absence in so much of the writing produced by the paradigm he rejects. This matters on artistic grounds, of course. Writing that’s alive tends to be better than writing that’s churned out by the ideology machine. But it also matters because it reminds us, at a time when identity politics of the left and the right seem so much more energetic and confident than liberalism, that there are bona fide good reasons that liberal individualism isn’t just a contender but still the reigning (if somewhat woozy) champion in the world-historical tournament of ideas. It feels good to author one’s own life. It can open up possibilities that will forever be out of sight to those who too willingly submit to the cozy straitjacket of the tribe.

“What I know now,” writes Williams, “is that I used to not just tolerate but submit to and even on some deep level need our society’s web of problems called race, its received and dangerous habits of thinking about and organizing people along a binary of white and black, free and unfree, even once I suspected them to be irredeemably flawed. [James] Baldwin pointed out that it is so much easier to sink deeper into a lukewarm bath than to stand and walk away. He was correct, but for my children’s sake if not my own, I can’t linger any longer. Now, if I find liberation in doubt, it comes with the one movement I always end up having to make, the only movement I can make—away from the abstract, general, and hypothetical and back into the jagged grain of the here and now, into the humanizing specificity of my love for my father, mother, brother, wife, and children, and into my sheer delight in their existence as distinct and irreplaceable people, not ‘bodies’—as contemporary lingo would have it—or avatars, sites of racial characteristics and traits, reincarnations of conflicts and prejudices past. Through these people I love, I am left with myself as the same, as a man and a human being who is free to choose and who has made choices and is not reducible to a set of historical circumstances and mistakes.”

Daniel Oppenheimer is the author ofExit Right: The People Who Left the Left and Reshaped the American Century. He is working on a book about critic and writer Dave Hickey.

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