Monday, March 8, 2010

#BookReview: Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America - Walt Harrington

I don't even know where to start with this book. As a black person, this has to have been one of the most difficult books I've come across. Make no mistake about it, the author writes well, but his subject matter left a bad taste in my mouth.

Crossings: A White Man's Journey into Black America is a compilation of interviews Walt Harrington did in the early 90s with black Americans across the country. You might ask what drove him to do this. Are you ready for this? No really, are you ready? Though he is married to a black woman and has biracial children, he doesn't really know black people. Propelled by a racist joke he overhears at the dentist, he sets out on a quest to visit black people across America in hopes that he might better understand his children. Really, dude? I mean, really!

I can't tell you how many times I put this book down, walked away and cussed about it, but I will tell you that it took me over a month to read it. In that same month I read at least five other books while this one sat on the floor mocking me. So what angered me so much about this book? Let me count the ways.

Apparently Mr. Harrington believes that being poor and being black are synonymous and seems to go out of his way to find interview subjects that are not only poor and black, they're happy about it. From the small town he visits in Mississippi to the trailer parks of Tennessee, his cast of characters are one step, if that, removed from sharecropping. Yes, I know the history of the South. Yes, I know that poverty still exists. What I refuse to believe is that he couldn't find one person in his section covering that region that wasn't poor.

I believe the author intentionally skewed facts to portray African Americans in a bad light. For example, his section about the Midwest touched on East St. Louis, a city blighted by white flight and a loss of industry. The one that stuck out most to me was that teachers there only made $ 10,000. I'd be very interested in knowing where he came across that data. As a resident of the metropolitan St. Louis region (and the daughter of a former East St. Louis School District administrator), I'm well aware that even fresh out of college teachers in the district made a minimum of $ 35,000 in the early 90s. How do I know? When I was fresh out of college in the early 90s looking for a job, I considered teaching in the district. Had the author bothered to really do research, he would have learned that teachers in the district are the highest paid in St. Clair County, have more advanced degrees than any other district in the county, and that the average salary of a district employee with advanced degrees range from $ 50,000 to $ 95,000.

Of all the people Mr. Harrington met along his 25,000 mile journey, I was able to count on one hand the number of "success" stories he met along the way. Success in this case is defined as an elevation in socioeconomic status. So then readers are led to believe that being middle class and above is not the norm and that working to rise above poverty is not necessarily a goal that is achievable, nor is it a goal worth trying to reach.

The author is quick to discount his black wife as non-representative of the norms of black America. Why? Because she is an army brat and, as such, was raised overseas and across the states so her ability to adapt to any situation, to approach life logically,to not be jaded by the "real black experience" is the exception to the rule.

So you ask, why did I force myself to read the book if I disliked it so much? I kept reading in hopes that somewhere along the line the author would have an a-ha moment. I hoped that at some point a light bulb would go off. Unfortunately, it did not. I almost shudder to think about how his skewed views of black people affect his children.

466 pp
Published September 1999

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