May 30, 2024


The Book of Radical Answers. By Sonya Renee Taylor. Dial. $17.99.

     About that title: this is not so much a book of radical answers as a book of answers given by a self-proclaimed radical. Many of the thoughts in the book are reasonable rather than radical, and some are quite useful, but what matters here is the context: Sonya Renee Taylor is virtue signaling as a radical, and young people who want to virtue signal in the same way are invited to join her in seeing things exactly the way she sees them (deviation not allowed).

     In his libretto for the operetta Patience, W.S. Gilbert amusingly and pithily wrote, “If you're anxious for to shine/ In the high aesthetic line/ As a man of culture rare,/ You must get up all the germs/ Of the transcendental terms/ And plant them ev'rywhere… The meaning doesn’t matter/ If it’s only idle chatter/ Of a transcendental kind.” Something analogous is the required context of Taylor’s book. If you want to be perceived as a cool radical, there are things you must say, positions you must take, things you must do. Some of those things have, for better or worse, actually become mainstream, such as always capitalizing “Black” when referring to one group of individuals (which means not seeing them as individuals) and never capitalizing “white” when referring to a different group (also not seeing them as individuals). Other matters must be extended by radicals because accepted terms do not go far enough – thus, “LGBTQ” is not the radically correct acronym, and even “LGBTQIA+” is insufficient: Taylor uses “LGBTQQIA2S+” (and, unsurprisingly, self-identifies as a member of that group).

     To pull young people who are “anxious for to shine” into her worldview, Taylor continually praises readers for asking the questions that, of course, Taylor herself has made up. “What a good question!” “I am so proud of you for asking this question.” “What a smart question!” “I know you can’t see me, but imagine me giving you a big old round of applause for this incredibly brave question.” And so on – and on and on.

     The questions Taylor asks herself (although purporting to come from “real kids just like you”) and then answers herself largely fall into categories as predictable as those of the 19th-century aesthetes parodied by Gilbert. Her answers, however, are anything but intended for amusement: they are highly serious and, again, often useful and even intelligent when take outside the framework she creates. The difficulty is that she refuses to take them outside that framework, instead insisting that readers enter fully into the self-proclaimed-radical world and then absorb the thoughts, ideas and suggestions. In discussing religion and spirituality, for example, she talks about pluralism, interfaith dialogue, and how religions explain why bad things happen in the world. And she tells readers, “you can always access your own spiritual guidance by learning to listen to your inner voice about what feels right and what doesn’t.” This is all well and good and sounds eminently reasonable – but what if one’s inner voice is not fully attuned to all the goals of the LGBTQetc. movement in regard to, say, bathroom privileges and sports competitions? Taylor does not even admit of that as a possibility: a reader’s inner voice must be fully synchronized to Taylor’s for guidance, anything else being literally (in the context of this book) unthinkable.

     And what of racism, one of the most intractable and divisive topics in society today? Taylor reasonably says we need “to collectively acknowledge its current role in society, be honest about our history, and make lifelong efforts to repair it through justice-based policies.” But, again, what matters is the context within which she makes the statement: “All the systems in the United States have been influenced by white supremacist delusion,” she categorically states, adding that “all folks in Western countries internalize anti-Black racism in one way or another because it’s become part of the very air we breathe.” Ignoring the reality that Africans enslaved other Africans long before Europeans showed up and made the slave trade immeasurably more horrific, Taylor places 100% of the blame for the pervasive racism that she believes in on lighter-skinned people as an undifferentiated group, thereby tarring them all with the same brush – something that would be labeled racist if done to all Africans, but that is fine in self-proclaimed-radical circles because, as Taylor states directly, “reverse racism” does not exist and is not even possible.

     The Book of Radical Answers is, as a whole, a frustrating mixture of thoughtfulness and self-induced blindness, requiring readers to buy fully into Taylor’s worldview before being allowed (by Taylor) to hear some recommendations for living one’s life in a better, more self-aware and more societally beneficial manner. “Making assumptions almost never turns out well. It doesn’t matter what we are assuming,” Taylor writes at one point. And she is quite right. It is unfortunate that one of her many blind spots is her own ongoing making of assumptions about the world, the people within it, the ills of society, and the ability of young people to try to make things better by the way they live their future lives.

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