BOOKS: The less you know, the realer you are

Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems ed Walter Mosley Norton pounds 16.95
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The Independent Culture
There's a curious paradox about African Americans. They count among their tribe some of the most glamorous, talented, sought-after and wealthiest human beings on the planet. This group stretches beyond Oprah and Bill Cosby, numberless Jacksons and the thousands of millionaire entertainers and sports stars. There are high achievers in business (usually called Johnson), journalism, politics (only four years ago, Colin Powell could have had the White House at the lift of a finger), the arts, universities, and crime - transgressors, enforcers and writers. Their average household income, at around pounds 25,000 per annum would make most Britons (of any colour) happy. They have a vibrant culture which most of the world desperately wants to import.

Even the specially creative brutality of the big-city police forces is nowmore likely to be turned against African or Latino immigrants.Yet Black Americans never stop bitching.

Of course, by American standards, they have every reason to complain. African Americans are still twice as likely to be out of work as whites; if they can get a job, they earn just 60 per cent of the average white wage. They are half as likely to have college degrees, and one third of young black men are either in prison, on parole or on probation. According to the former Director of Public Health, Dr Joycelyn Elders, black infant mortality is 16.5 per cent - almost Dickensian figures - compared to 6.8 per cent among white babies. Black male life expectancy is just under 65 compared to 73 for white males; the figures for women are 74 and 80.

To the essayists in Black Genius these figure are incontrovertible evidence of systematic racial bias in the American way of life. I find it hard to disagree with them about that. Several of the contributors eloquently testify to the persistence of racism even at the highest levels of American society. The writer Walter Mosley evokes both the diversity of the African- American experience and its common core: "The high-yellow socialite from a well-respected Atlanta clan knows the pain and emptiness of the coal colored cowboy riding the lonely northTexas range ... (they) are driven toward a common awareness by the blows rained down on us by a shared history. Black history, not white."

The preacher's rhetoric is much in evidence here. This is partly because of the origin of this collection - a series of community talks conceived by Mosley and organised by the African Studies Program at New York University. It must be thrilling to hear the likes of Spike Lee, Angela Davis, the former Black Panther leader, and still a potent icon of Black Power, and Melvin van Peebles, the film director who invented the Seventies blaxploitation movies and originated the blaxploitation movement, condemn "the system". But this collection leaves me with the uneasy feeling that none of its authors has noticed that black America has moved on from the 1970s.

Here and there, there are glimmers of the 1990s. Randall Robinson, who probably did more than anyone else to bring America into the war to end apartheid, writes powerfully of the need to acknowledge that African Americans have more resources and power than others in the West; he weighs in on behalf of the Caribbean banana producers, criticising the very administration he helped to elect. He rightly points out that if the Caribbean's tiny economies are deprived of this mainstay, the drugs that will be their only recourse will end up ravaging Black America. Polemicist Stanley Crouch attacks "gangsta" rap as a vision of "Negro imbecility", comparable to the music-hall minstrel acts put on to reassure whites of their superiority. Tellingly, he quotes the hot black comedian of the moment, Chris Rock, to attack the notion of black authenticity, much favoured by liberal critics and cultural commentators: "The less you know, the realer a black person you are ... ignorance is a form of vitality." And there is a fascinating and subtle analysis from a young journalist, Farai Chideya, of the American media's failures.

Set against these moments, there is rather too much dreary self-justification here; and I wish that editors had told their writers that campaign medals could be left at home. There is an irritating, petty thread of resentment at the success of black entertainers and sports stars; for some of the writers here, it is not enough for someone to be the best at what they do; they also need to give yet more money to black causes and, better still, champion the author's own particular take on race. Michael Jordan may have a responsibility not to embarrass black people, because he is the greatest, richest and most visible athlete in the world. We rejoice when he is generous to black causes. But as far as I am aware nobody elected him to be a black leader.

The truth is that for many activists, it pays dividends to forget that though black people have many experiences in common, we are also diverse in our backgrounds and achievements. There have been middle-class black communities in America for more than a century; but you would not imagine it reading these essays. At times the competition for the most oppressed contributor becomes almost Pythonesque. The black publisher Haki Madhibuti is worth quoting at length for sheer bathos:

"I grew up around pimps and whores slammin' Cadillac doors. We did not have a television or a record player, a car or a telephone; nor did we have too much food. We were lucky when the lights and the gas were on at the same time. We acquired much of our clothing from secondhand stores, and I learned to work the streets very early."

This is by no means an experience exclusive to African Americans; accounts of the early Irish immigrant life make even slavery seem comfortable. And not all black Americans share this kind of background.

Depressingly, none of the authors has stories to tell of achieving their success in fields other than black protest, opposition and identity. Even the appeal of a Walter Mosley or a Spike Lee is principally about making their special insight into what it means to be a black American available to non-blacks. Sadly, we don't hear from African Americans who, though not rejecting or downplaying their blackness, have made their way without exploiting that experience - Colin Powell for example.

But that's the paradox. Many of those writing here made their reputations and fortunes on the perfectly legitimate realisation that African Americans are in themselves a huge and growing market, especially for cultural products reflecting their own experience - books, films, education. Melvin van Peebles accepts that the system is not just; but he is also very explicit about the upside: "The truth is that success is possible in America." The whiff of self-interest would be less strong if the African American elite admitted that more often.