Book Review: A Change of Color

(Crown, 296 pages, $25)
By Leon E. Wynter

THE DAYS OF civil-rights leaders calling for integration are long gone. In most quarters “black authenticity” is thought to mean maintaining a wary “black identity,” out of a fear that “whiteness” will extinguish “blackness” and “negate” the African-American soul.

What too many miss is that, while success in our society requires that black people assimilate to “whiteness” to an extent, white Americans have become significantly “black” in the meantime, creating a hybrid conception of the “American.” Leon Wynter’s “American Skin” is the most eloquent exploration yet of this phenomenon.

Surely many black and white writers have made the point, Stanley Crouch most insistently. But their appeals to the black-white fusion that created ragtime and jazz, or to the interracial cooperation of the Abolitionist and religious movements, are too abstract to touch most readers beyond the ivory tower. The events are too far in the past and the results too ingrained for immediate perception: Fish don’t know they’re wet.

Instead, Mr. Wynter focuses on the seismic shifts in the meaning of “American” over just the past 20 years. He briefly covers earlier instances of the “browning” of America (Stephen Foster, jazz, etc.), but his emphasis is on our own time. He has a bracing gift for seeing crucial changes in two decades that most of us have just finished living through but have barely processed yet as the past. More than a few black writers on culture appear to have locked in their perspectives at 1978, labeling all changes for the better since then as mere “exceptions.” Mr. Wynter sees past this, realizing that the very definition of “American” has become deeply “black.”

Mr. Wynter, a former columnist for this newspaper, deftly notes that success in the realm of “pop” today often requires that white artists channel blackness. He contrasts this imperative with Fanny Brice irritating a producer in 1910 by singing a song she learned from blacks with “black” cadences. Similarly, the 1950s record producer Sam Phillips recalled that black auditioners tended to shift to “whiteness” out of a sense that this was what was required for mainstream pop success.

But this Doris Day/Pat Boone model is now hopelessly obsolete. Mr. Wynter points out that Britney Spears was doing a dead-on imitation of Billie Holiday as early as high school. Ms. Spears sings and moves in a way that traces back directly to black performers, and she would have made no mark otherwise. Imagine Judy Garland doing anything similar!

Mr. Wynter also notes that the white characters on television dramas like “E.R.” and “NYPD Blue” show a hipness and a comfort with nonwhites that instantly makes their Wonder Bread equivalents on “Dallas” and “Dynasty” seem antique. Ray Charles representing Pepsi with his “You got the right thing, baby” ads in 1991, intended as mainstream, would have been unthinkable just 10 years earlier.

In 1997, “The Wonderful World of Disney” produced a version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” starring the black singer Brandy, with Whitney Houston as the fairy godmother, Whoopi Goldberg as an evil stepsister and a Filipino as Prince Charming — and a score adapted to rhythm-and-blues sensibilities. The show was not aimed at the black market specifically and was nevertheless a hit. The contrast with the lily-white original of the Eisenhower era, starring Julie Andrews, is striking — and heartening.

Mr. Wynter argues that this trend is not a mere matter of advertisers cynically creating a pop fantasy to target minority consumers. He quotes one executive after another saying that multiracial America is now a reality, especially among those under 40. Young whites often sport dreadlocks, while blacks just as often dye their hair blond. Interracial marriages are more common by the year. “Generation Y,” born in 1979 or later, mostly sees interracial relationships as “no big deal.”

Nor can this be chalked up as whites “co-opting” blackness: Mr. Wynter shows, for example, that while Elvis Presley blithely aped blacks’ singing style and mined it for riches without comment, there has arisen no “Elvis” of hip-hop. Vanilla Ice came and went, and Eminem is eternally conflicted about his appropriation of black rappers’ routines. In any case, Eminem hardly threatens the popularity of the top black rap hip-hoppers. Times have changed: 70% of hip-hop’s audience is white. They are quite content with the real thing and aren’t waiting for a white artist to give them a “cleaned-up” version.

Mr. Wynter pegs the beginning of Transracial America to the 1980 commercial where football star Mean Joe Greene gives an admiring white boy his jersey in return for a cold Coke. The notion of a white boy adoring a black athlete simply for his prowess on the field was portentous. The watershed moment came four years later: Vanessa Williams broke the color barrier in the Miss America pageant, Eddie Murphy’s sassy “Beverly Hills Cop” was just shy of the top-grossing movie of the year and “The Cosby Show” became the most popular show on television shortly after its debut. All this would have sounded like science fiction just 20 years before. Meanwhile, Michael Jackson had become the first black artist to become a true pop mega-star, as opposed to triumphing only on the rhythm-and-blues charts.

We haven’t looked back since. But Mr. Wynter detects ominous signs that while Asians and Latinos are melding with whites into a “beige” American race, many African-Americans may end up left out as a “distinct” group. The problem is that many black Americans are stuck in the Black Power conviction that assimilation is a defeat rather than a triumph. Mr. Wynter devotes a chapter to black magazine magnates who prefer the affirmative-action “shakedown” model when they solicit advertisements and who also preach a “buy black” philosophy that rings hollow for blacks living in an opportunity-rich post-civil-rights America.

Mr. Wynter could have gone further: Modern black ideology, for instance, is often as chary of assimilation as the white segregationist philosophies of the past. But he occasionally strikes anti-white notes himself. He claims that the essence of “whiteness” is “what is not black.” This “dissociation,” he says, has “created a vacuum that people and cultures of color have been conscripted to fill.”

But this James Baldwin notion of white identity has always struck me as underargued. Old-time white Americans cannot be deemed as lacking a “culture” just because they didn’t sing the blues, were not descended from slaves and didn’t eat spicy food. Just how were the quintessentially American pioneers in the “Little House on the Prairie” series, or the people in Sinclair Lewis’s novels, “defined” by black people they almost never met? Mr. Wynter sees whites as knuckling under to “nonwhiteness” out of pragmatism: “They will adapt to what they cannot assimilate by force.” But couldn’t the impetus behind such “adaptation” be simply the reality of interracial mixing and social contact?

But overall Mr. Wynter provides an invaluable message. Most black writers append any acknowledgment of black progress with a grim hedge, out of a sense that black authenticity means keeping whites aware that they are “on the hook” regarding the situation of blacks. There is refreshingly little of this in “American Skin.” Mr. Wynter knows that racism is still with us on the edges, but he also sees a marvelous new reality and is not afraid to shout it out loud. He asks: “How do we move as a society toward valuing all members as individuals if we insist on special recognition of group identity?” Few black writers today find it in themselves to tackle that sobering question as honestly as Mr. Wynter.

Mr. McWhorter is the author of “Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America” and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.


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