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Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race.

edited by Paula J. Giddings Thunder's Mouth Press/Nation Books, June 2002 $16.95, ISBN 1-560-25384-3

The race problem in America is like the weather: no one seems able to do anything about it, but that hasn't stopped anyone from discussing it. The difference is that no two people have quite the same thing to say on the subject. This last point is driven home by the 77 essays that make up Burning All Illusions: Writings from The Nation on Race, edited by Paula J. Giddings, author of two other nonfiction books and a professor of African-American Studies at Smith College. Not all of the writers represented in Burning All Illusions are black; not all of the essays are even pro-black (one piece, originally a letter to the editor from 1916, is titled "Lynching Defended"). But all are, to one degree or another, and in a variety of ways, interesting.

The essays' original publication dates range from 1865, when The Nation magazine was founded, to 2002. As Giddings explains in her introduction, the book is divided into two parts--"Beholders," which contains "first-person perspectives," and "Reporters," made up of "third-person reportage firmly rooted within a particular time, place, and historical moment." These categories seem arbitrary, largely because Giddings herself doesn't observe them; many of the pieces could go in either one, and if Martin Luther King, Jr.--one of whose essays appears in the book's second section--was not a "beholder" of this country's racial woes, I don't know who was. Most of the essays, no matter what label is put on them, make for stimulating reading. Among the more memorable ones are Adolph Reed Jr.'s two-part examination of Louis Farrakhan's career--and its significance; LeRoi Jones' view of boxing in the era of Sonny Liston and Cassius Clay (who was not yet Muhammad Ali, just as Jones was not yet Imamu Amiri Baraka); Patricia J. Williams' sardonic take on the Million Man March; Langston Hughes' classic "The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain"; Derrick Bell's discussion of the Freedom of Employment Act, conducted partly through a dialogue with his outspoken fictional character, Geneva Crenshaw; and Roger Wilkins' clear-eyed defense of affirmative action.

In some ways, maybe the saddest thing revealed by Burning All Illusions is how little the race problem has changed. W.E.B. Du Bois' 1956 essay "I Won't Vote" has much in common with James Baldwin's 1980 essay "Notes on the House of Bondage," which he could have titled "I Will Vote, But I'm Not Too Excited About It." Du Bois writes, "There is but one evil part with two names, and it will be elected despite all I can do or say." The shock of reading such a passage, which was published nearly half a century ago but might have been written last week, is one of the many reasons to pick up this book.
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Author:Thompson, Clifford
Publication:Black Issues Book Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2002
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