Civil Rights

Is There Life After Race?

The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict, and Identity: Reflections of a New World Black, by Itabari Njeri

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The Last Plantation: Color, Conflict, and Identity: Reflections of a New World Black, by Itabari Njeri, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 308 pages, $24.00

In 1991, while most of the nation was caught up in the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings and the Rodney King phenomenon, Itabari Njeri, then a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was gripping her notebook throughout a tense murder trial. On March 3 of that year, Korean immigrant Sun Ja Du fatally shot a 15-year-old African American named Latasha Harlins. Harlins and Du had argued over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice in Du's Los Angeles grocery store.

It is this shooting and its aftermath that Njeri, a veteran chronicler of racial tensions, explores in The Last Plantation. She uses the story to argue that it's time for America to end its obsession with race. Njeri wants to redefine American identity for a post-racial age, and her provocative ideas will likely inspire some readers and infuriate others on both the left and right.

Njeri takes her readers on a MacGuyver-like chase through an L.A. whose every aspect seems racially charged, from its courts to its politics to its grief. This is a world populated by vivid characters, including Du's deal-making defense lawyer Charles Lloyd, calculating California assembly candidate and convicted extortionist Patricia Moore, fuming multiracial activist Velina Hasu-Houston, scholars Ibrahim Sundiata and Cornel West, and Latasha's little brother Joshua, who grows worrisomely quiet after his sister's death. Njeri often lets her characters tell the tale, quoting long conversations and entire segments of court testimony. But she also brings her own biography to bear.

A Brooklyn-born African American (she prefers the broader term "New-World Black"), Njeri is the offspring of a Guyanese-Jamaican-African mother and a father from the state of Georgia. Like many African Americans, she has a mixed heritage: African, East Indian, English, French, and Arawak. For almost a decade, as a reporter for The Miami Herald and the Los Angeles Times, she has written about color conflict, particularly between African Americans and a new generation of self-defined "multiracial" Americans, many of whom want political power and public funds of their own. Many African Americans, Njeri says, cleave to a "pure" definition of the black race and try to stomp out competing movements as a matter of political survival.

For her part, she concludes that the multiracial movement is just the latest manifestation of our unhealthy racial obsession and regards the attempt to add a multiracial category to the 2000 Census as not worth supporting. Indeed, Njeri hopes we can eventually do away with all racial categories. She italicizes the word race throughout her book to remind readers of her view that race, a concept that emphasizes differences, doesn't account for our daily miscegenated American experience. Nowadays, she argues, there isn't a single American black without white blood; a single white without black blood, and so on. While this may not be biologically true, as a metaphor for describing our mixed culture, it's useful.

Njeri is a staunch opponent of what she calls the "Li'l Dab'll Do Ya" school of racial thought, which assumes that even a drop of black blood makes an individual racially black. But Njeri carefully distinguishes her own hopes for America's cultural future from the old melting-pot myth, which she criticizes as a one-way street toward homogenized "Anglicization." In place of that cultural dead end, she joyously envisions "four-lane boulevards everywhere, with traffic in both directions and stylish cultural jaywalkers always making their mark."

But Njeri would have done well to examine that vision for contradictions. While espousing a culturally mongrelized society on one hand, she insists that African Americans must maintain cultural integrity on the other. There must be a way to do both, she says, but she never quite elucidates how. Doesn't "traffic in both directions" undermine the legitimacy of "cultural integrity"? Later, Njeri blames the "White Establishment" for using racial differences as a means of defining power and privilege. But she spends her whole book showing how people of other races do the same thing, demonstrating that people of any color can assume labels when it serves their interest.

Finally, when defendant Du is put on five-year probation from a 10-year sentence in a state prison, she concedes that the sentence is fair. But she later asserts that during the trial, it was Latasha who had been tried for her own death and found guilty, victimized by class biases and stereotypes of the "model minority" vs. the "shiftless Black."

The author isn't the only one contradicting herself when it comes to sticky racial issues; so do many of the activists and citizens she interviews. For example, Georgia state Sen. Ralph Abernathy III, sponsor of the Project RACE bill enacted by the state legislature in 1994, which recognizes a multiracial designation, calls for a colorblind millennium in one breath but in another declares, "I feel it is important that every race of people be acknowledged in their independent right." These contradictions highlight the competing human impulses at the center of the race debate--which is often less about color than it is about class or culture: We tend to associate with those whom, for whatever reason, we perceive as similar to ourselves. But we're also attracted to difference. So, what to do?

Njeri, long familiar with such contradictions in her own life, has found that syncretism yields the best solution. She grew up as an opera lover and even trained for a classical singing career, and as a result she was judged by her black peers as not black enough. Even so, the voice of Mahalia Jackson or James Brown on a Bermuda night stirs her to the core. Because she fit no physical stereotype, she says, she suffered alienation from many camps. Similarly, her light-skinned cousin Jeffrey spent his life trying futilely to be "the baddest nigger on the block," only to end up imprisoned and eventually shot dead in the street. In 1960, her physician grandfather, an NAACP integrationist in a small Georgia Klan town, was killed by drunken white youths as he drove home. When his fair-skinned wife arrived on the scene, a white bystander told her not to worry, "it was just a nigger." The youths, though identified, were never charged.

Such biographical details explain Njeri's own preoccupation with race, but not all the biographical material she has included supports her themes as well as she thinks it does. There are lengthy confessional forays--descriptions of highway panic attacks caused by the trauma of her grandfather's death, her allergies, her manic-depression--that are stuck between passages of reportage and analysis, distracting from the trial story and the compelling issues it raises. Njeri comes across as a passionate, humane--if conflicted--woman, but her melding of two genres--investigation and autobiography--is sometimes uncomfortable and prevents her from capitalizing on the dramatic potential of either.

Njeri carries around a lot of anger over her family's past, anger which erupts at unexpected moments with unexpected effects on her book. For example, a well-meaning politician tells her, "One day we'll look back and say, `In the 1990's they had all these race categories. But in the year 3001 race is not so important. How stupid they were back then. Now we're all living in harmony. We're all one color.'" Njeri becomes furious, taking these utopian platitudes as espousals of the total obliteration of distinct identities. So she tries "not to slam the phone down on its cradle after thanking him for the interview." It's an overreaction born of rage, and while the author has admirably put forth her biases, she has also raised questions about her judgment.

But when Njeri eschews confession, The Last Plantation is filled with captivating passages, such as when she takes us to the scene of an event or examines cases like that of Velina Hasu-Houston, a black-Japanese-Blackfoot playwright who decides to become a multiracial activist after experiencing a variety of humiliating incidents.

A policeman calls Hasu-Houston a "half-breed bitch" as she holds her half Euro-American baby after someone crashes into her car; she finds that neither black theaters nor Asian-American theaters will produce her play about an African American and an Asian woman. (It doesn't occur to Hasu-Houston to court a theater that doesn't define its repertoire in ethnic terms.) Hasu-Houston's multiracial actress friends spend their time shuttling back and forth between casting directors, who study them as if they are museum artifacts and send them away. In this way, Hasu-Houston argues, the people who embody the "melting pot" ideal most are shut out everywhere they turn. As the rate of interracial marriages continues to rise, more Americans will find themselves in dilemmas like Hasu-Houston, rendering the practice of using racial categories to define ourselves and our public institutions increasingly impractical.

The practice begins to seem downright absurd when, as Njeri describes, blacks who consider themselves "pure" but who are, like her, of mixed blood, focus hostility on the growing number of "multiracial" Americans for trying to secure a public platform of their own. Pulling the strings of tension still tighter are the hostilities between African Americans and new black immigrants, who, Njeri reports, look down on African Americans for their lower level of socioeconomic success. Add to that the pigmentocracy within the African-American community itself, in which lighter-skinned blacks are often preferred and pursued as mates, and one begins to see how endless internecine tensions obscure the larger goal of social justice.

Domination, Njeri concludes, breeds insidious offspring: Oppressed people internalize the values of the oppressor, much like an abused child becoming an abusive parent. Thus their minds become "the last plantation." To complicate things, multiracial proposals like Georgia's Project RACE bill fail to define who is multiracial after the first generation. What happens to, say, the child of a Sioux-Italian-Korean man married to a Sioux-Italian-Korean woman? Must each parent be of a different race for the child to qualify? The whole concept of racial categories--much less inventing still more of them--suddenly seems silly.

As the book draws to a close, Njeri slips into serious depression after a rude Asian-American cabdriver tells her she isn't good enough to live in her upscale L.A. neighborhood. The depression is hastened, she says, by years of writing about topics in which anger and death were the lead characters. Maybe those dark experiences are what goad her to the conclusion that most of America's social problems stem from "the nihilism infecting the American soul." She argues that in a nation fed up with therapeutic jargon, many refuse to acknowledge the connection between larger social disorder and personal pathology. To solve America's social problems, she suggests, we should wed our pragmatic politicking to psychotherapy and religion. As an example, she takes us to St. Paul's church in Brooklyn, where the charismatic Rev. Johnny Ray Youngblood bolsters his repertoire of religious activities with counseling services to lift troubled souls out of despair and re-engage those who have given up.

Njeri's racial vision and cultural daring are an important addition to an otherwise repetitive and defensive dialogue. She offers a view of our national identity that eschews both black-white bifurcations and the false promises of a multicultural mosaic. We are, after all, Americans--united by history, culture, and, yes, blood. Njeri says white Americans, particularly those who denounce pluralism for breeding Balkanization, need to step up and "make rhetorical perfume out of the phrase the miscegenated American experience." Njeri needs a nudge, lest she herself fall into the racial trap. Her call should apply not just to white Americans but to all Americans. But even as it stands, her book parts the curtain on the problems of those left out of the standard racial debate and helps set the stage for a new dialogue.

Kanchan Limaye (krl8@columbia.edu) is a New York writer.