Mixing It Up: Taking on the Media Bullies and Other Reflections. By Ishmael Reed. Da Capo. $15.95.
A Thousand Never Evers. By Shana Burg. Delacorte Press. $15.99.
Anyone who thinks the presidential candidacy of Barack Obama represents a moderating of racial tensions in the United States has only to pick up Ishmael Reed’s latest book of essays to find the same old stuff. The essays are well written and punchy, and they raise legitimate and often important (although equally often trivial) points; but if Obama’s candidacy helps moderate voices like Reed’s, the nation and all its people may in the long run be better off. These Reed pieces originally appeared in The New York Times, Playboy and elsewhere, and they range from a fine profile of jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to a rather tired complaint about gentrification destroying a historically black area (New York City’s Harlem). Reed starts the book with a 41-page (!) introduction, which includes such gems as: “Police plant evidence as they probably did in the O.J. case,” and a complaint that too many “talking heads rallied around the lacrosse defendants” from Duke University, who were falsely accused of raping a black stripper, while those young men “acted like angels during their encounter” with the woman (the sarcasm drips off the page). Reed’s selectivity in the service of his biases is impressive – never mind, for example, that the Duke lacrosse case originally involved a rush to judgment against the white athletes, turned out to be totally unfounded, and resulted in the disbarring and imprisonment of the district attorney who brought the unjustified prosecution. When Reed finally gets into the essays themselves, he uses a March 2006 CNN story about prostitution in Chicago to argue that “black social problems and criminality are played up while white problems are minimized.” Separately, in regard to a 2004 story, he attacks the same cable network by asking, “When was the last time you saw a black male author on CNN and I don’t mean a tough-love artist who preaches that the problems of blacks are internal, or a black man who wrote books as a way of financing his drug habit.” (He omits the question mark.) Elsewhere, Reed argues that “through terror and negotiation the Confederates got…back” everything they lost in the War Between the States (their name for what is elsewhere called the Civil War). He eventually gets to an item called “Going Old South on Obama,” in which he repeats his previous statement about Bill Clinton being “a black president as a result of his mimicking a black style,” talks again about “the Confederate Restoration,” and tosses out the notion that “flogging blacks was [Thomas] Jefferson’s idea of recreation.” For those who believe little has changed or is likely to change in race relations in the United States, Reed’s book will be like salve to the soul (strange salve, though). That Reed writes so well while wearing such blinders indicates that although his viewpoint is very limited, he seems to see clearly what he sees at all.
There is more hopefulness and less bitterness in A Thousand Never Evers, a book for ages 10 and up, than in all of Reed; and if that makes Shana Burg’s novel naïve by Reed’s standards, it also makes it a call for Americans today to look to their better natures instead of constantly dwelling on the worst they and their nation have had to offer. Set in Mississippi in 1963, Burg’s book focuses on junior-high-school student Addie Ann Pickett, who lands in big trouble in the Jim Crow South when she and her brother, Elias, make the mistake of laughing when they shouldn’t. Such a small thing – but not at that time. And Addie’s Uncle Bump gets into trouble of his own, hauled into court on charges of destroying the town’s new integrated garden and due to be judged by an all-white jury. Uncle Bump is eventually exonerated, leading Addie to say, “I reckon things in Kuckachoo might be starting to change, because up till now, even if a Negro man had all the evidence on his side, he’d usually end up in jail or worse.” Yet Addie is no Pollyanna, and A Thousand Never Evers is not a purely optimistic book: “Of course, setting an innocent Negro free isn’t the same as locking up a guilty white man.” And Burg herself points out in an afterword that “discrimination against African Americans and other minority groups still exists” and that “many public schools that were desegregated by law are still segregated.” Yet Burg’s statement that “you’re never ever too young to speak up for justice” has a ring and a challenge to it that Reed’s unending (although better written) complaints about the unfairness of being black in America never match.