James Baldwin aptly noted that “To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” That proclamation is universal and time-tested, reflecting the protracted nature of antiblack racism in America, and a failure of this country to confront one of its original sins – the enslavement of the African and its aftermath, from Jim Crow segregation to the institutional racism of the 21st- century, most recently the white supremacist and revanchist backlash from the first Black presidency.
W.E.B. DuBois said, “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color line.” Most certainly, the same can be said of the current century, perhaps to a greater extent than the previous one. The circumstances in which the nation finds itself--with the COVID-19 pandemic and a pestilence of racial violence and police brutality with the murder of George Floyd – demonstrate the hopeless intractability of race in America. A new book from Elwood David Watson, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America (University of Chicago Press, 2019) tackles the prominent racial issues and inflection points of the past decade, always with an eye towards the prophetic truth-telling of Baldwin, which resonates today, and the poignant analysis of DuBois.
A Decade-Long Look at Race
Watson, a professor of history, African-American studies and gender studies at East Tennessee State University, looks at race over the past decade, a time period with the bookends of the hopeful and promising yet complex Obama presidency, and the rise of the alt-right under a white supremacist figure named Donald Trump. Published on the eve of the coronavirus outbreak and the birth of the largest social protest movement in U.S. history – Black Lives Matter 2.0 – Keepin’ It Real lays the groundwork for the current national reckoning on racism.
“As a Black college academic, I have had the privilege to converse over the past few years with fellow educated Black and non-Black professionals, some friends and others acquaintances. I have also investigated further, interacting through social media,” Watson wrote. “I can personally attest that there currently exists an unmistakable level of paranoia, anger, in some cases fear, and most certainly resentment, to the current volatile situation that has gripped the nation. The temperature is hot and the climate has become dangerously unpredictable.”
The book is broken into four parts that delve into several facets of race today.
- Part I, “The Politics of Whitelash” examines the white domestic terrorist and mass murderer Dylann Roof, white reactions to Colin Kaepernick, the Obamas and the birtherism phenomenon.
- Part II, “Staying Woke!” examines issues taking place within the Black community such as #BlackLivesMatter, mental illness, homophobia, self-hatred and misogyny.
- Part III, “Physical and Psychological Violence Against Black Bodies” examines the assaults on Black folks, Emmett Till, Sandra Bland, John Lewis, trauma, disenfranchisement and the effect on Black people.
- In Part IV, “Soulful Reflections on Entertainment Icons and Celebrities,” Watson examines high-profile people as they relate to Black America.
The commentary and analysis provided in Keepin’ It Real speak to the prevailing issues facing America around racism. For example, the book examines the controversy regarding NFL players kneeling in protest during the national anthem, and the ways in which Trump has served raw meat to his base and fanned the flames of racial division.
Battle lines are being drawn, as the white conservative racists view the American flag as sacrosanct, while people of color perceive a nation that has failed to live up to the principles of freedom, justice and equality the flag purportedly represents. Meanwhile, the White reaction to Colin Kaepernick taking a knee for racial justice – which focused on his supposed ungratefulness and the sentiment that he should just shut up and play ball – reflects “the not so subtle (in fact, blatantly racist) and profoundly arrogant and ignorant argument… that Black Americans are not legitimate citizens of America and that our very existence is supposed to be periodically reviewed and verified by others.”
Observing the present-day lynching of Black people at the hands of law enforcement, Watson has noted that since we arrived on these shores, Black bodies have been “scrutinized, objectified, sexualized and racialized,” and not regarded as human. Meanwhile, the White folks’ wrath reserved for Kaepernick was also visited upon ESPN journalist Jemele Hill, who as a Black woman had the nerve to call Trump a racist – as Black folks who call out racism pay a price – even as Trump faced no consequences for his white nationalist rhetoric and sentiment.
In many ways, Keepin’ It Real discusses Black people, race relations and the permanence of white racism in the tradition of Derrick Bell and his Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism and Cornel West’s Race Matters. In his latest work, a collection of thought-provoking and insightful essays, Watson continues this legacy of truth-telling and analysis undertaken by a previous generation of scholars. While he examines the universality of America’s original sin as others before him, he does so with a badly needed upgrade and within the context of the past decade, one of the most tumultuous periods in modern U.S. history.
The Prophetic Truth About Race in America
Examining the complicated and ubiquitous nature of racism, Watson has concluded that the prophetic truth of James Baldwin rings true today, a sobering reality decades after the civil rights and Black Power struggles of the 1960s. As the historian notes, the racial injustices and disparate perceptions concerning the history and treatment of Black folks are just as palpable today as they were half a century ago. Since the very beginnings of this nation, race was baked into the cake that is America.
“The election of a Black president more than a decade ago notwithstanding, race is still the rambunctious, unruly elephant running wildly through the room,” the author noted. “The feeling among many people across racial lines, particularly people of African descent, is that Black America is under unrelenting physical, psychological, and emotional rage.” In Keepin’ It Real, Elwood Watson reminds us that the fundamental problem of racism is unchanged, as he calls for the necessary changes for America to better itself.
Photo: Elwood David Watson on Twitter
Credit: Elwood David Watson