My reading is full of racial/ethnic conflict these days. Audible.com was featuring Nathan McCall’s Them: A Novel , which caught my eye as my mind was sensitized to issues of gentrification by David Wilson’s Cities and Race: America’s New Black Ghetto. The story is told from the point of view of Barlowe Reed, a Black printer who lives with his ex-con pigeon-raising nephew in a rented house in Atlanta’s historic Old Fourth Ward, home of Martin Luther King. The story follows the area as it is settled or invaded (depending on your viewpoint) by the so-called “urban pioneers” – that is, White yuppies searching for in-city housing bargains. I could imagine teaching about the sociology of racial/ethnic conflict using this book. And as many of Amazon’s reader comments say, it would make a great book club discussion book. It is about the conflicts arising from wildly different backgrounds and experiences and the very real difficulties in bridging these differences. The conflict is very much two-sided. The Black residents don’t want the Whites there and try to get them to go away, with tactics ranging from a general refusal to speak to the Whites to muggings and thefts. For their part, the Whites see themselves as racial liberals and integrationists, but enact largely-unconscious White racial supremacy as they take over the neighborhood, replacing local institutions with their own, and destroying people’s lives in the process.
Although McCall works to give his characters individuality and particular histories, many come across as types rather than whole people. Nevertheless, there are a lot of different types and McCall has a great eye and ear for the ridiculousness and awkwardness and pain of real human beings when they encounter each other as well as a deep understanding of why conflict and withdrawal are so common. The novel has a very strong sense of place, and the locale and the interactions seem vivid and real as the neighborhood shifts from Black and working class to White and yuppie. There are painfully funny scenes about bike path advocates and coffee stores and winos being mistaken for robbers as well as painfully painful scenes about the damage we do to ourselves and others. The novel offers many opportunities for readers to reflect critically on people’s motivations and actions. While some people are straightforwardly hostile or self-serving, many of the characters of both races are self-doubting and reflective even as they completely misunderstand each other. Both Barlowe and his White neighbor Sandy muse to themselves about the possible parallels with the Civil Rights Movement. Barlowe asks himself whether he can in conscience oppose racial integration despite his hatred of all things White. The threat and ostracism Sandy feels brings to her mind the pain and suffering of the Black children integrating Little Rock High, and she sees moving into the Black area as a way to try to help undo the damage of racism, even as she seems oblivious to the actual consequences of her actions.
So Them gets two thumbs up from me. Worth your time, discussion-provoking, and helpful for teaching. I’m going to pick up a paper copy to search for some wonderful quotes I heard in the audio version. In particular, I want to find out whether the news story talking about the urban pioneers taming the wilderness of urban Atlanta was real or made up.
After I read Them, I tracked down Nathan McCall’s best-selling 1994 autobiography Makes Me Wanna Holler: A Young Black Man in America, which describes his youth as an angry delinquent, his time in prison, and his rehabilitation (as well as his marital troubles) and career as a reporter in Norfolk, Atlanta and Washington through the 1980s. The book is obviously popular: the library copy I read was battered and marked up. It is also a good read, and also very full of ethnic/racial conflict as McCall recounts his mistreatment as a sixth grader when he integrated a White school, his hatred of Whites, the self-hatred of Black men, and his experiences with discrimination in the news room; he also talks about finally being able to make friends with some White people who were OK. The book is also horrific on the gender front, as he recounts “trains,” group rapes of girls of their acquaintance – McCall makes it clear that he is especially ashamed of this part of his youth. McCall quit his reporting job after hitting the big time, and is now on the faculty of African American Studies at Emory. His web site includes a YoutTube video of him hyping Them while walking around the Old Fourth Ward, says he is devoting his life to making race relations better, and lists an exhausting set of appearances for February and March of this year, making me wonder how he lived through it. I have not read his 1997 book of essays, What’s Going On, but I’m adding it to my list.
I was going to contrast these books with a so-called “modern classic” about the 19th century Western Frontier, but I’ve decided I’ll finish reading the book before declaring the author to be white supremacist, just in case. For now, I’ll just say that the conquest and displacement of the indigenous Americans (which Barlowe references in his musings) and the interactions between Anglos and Mexicans along the Texas/Mexico border have a lot in common with the dynamics played out in Them. There’s a lot of sociology to be pulled out from drawing these comparisons.