Vintage Terkel: voices on our interracial drama

May 24, 1992|By Henry Louis Gates Jr. | Henry Louis Gates Jr.,Newsday

RACE: HOW BLACKS AND WHITES THINK AND FEEL ABOUT THE AMERICAN OBSESSION. Studs Terkel. The New Press. 403 pages. $24.95. I couldn't have been much older than 5 or 6 as I sat with my father and enjoyed an ice cream at the Cut Rate Drug Store in Piedmont, W. Va., the Appalachian mill town where I grew up. We were on our way home from my father's job as a janitor for the telephone company, my father being the only black person in town allowed to eat at Cut Rate sitting down, with real china and silverware. So it was that I was working on my two scoops of caramel ice cream when Mr. Wilson, a stony-faced, brooding Irishman, walked by. "Hello, Mr. Wilson," my father said.

"Hello, George."

I stopped licking my ice cream, genuinely puzzled. Mr. Wilson must have confused my father with somebody else, but who? There weren't any Georges among the colored people in Piedmont. "Why don't you tell him your name, Daddy?" I asked loudly. "Your name isn't George."

"He knows my name, boy," my father said after a long pause. "He calls all colored people George."

I knew we wouldn't talk about it again; even at that age, I was

given to understand that there were some subjects it didn't do to worry to death. Now that I have children, I realize that what chagrined my father wasn't so much the Mr. Wilsons of the world as the painful obligation to explain the racial facts of life to someone who hadn't quite learned them yet. Maybe Mr. Wilson couldn't hurt my father by calling him George; but I hurt him by asking to know why.

My father's world, so profoundly circumscribed by race, is one I ++ have gradually come to understand. But I also wonder about what it was like to be Mr. Wilson. And one of the real services of Studs Terkel's new book is that it retrieves the different voices of America's interracial drama. Mr. Terkel casts his net widely, and allows his subjects ample space to convey their own view of the world in vivid detail.

The result is as distinctive a piece of Americana as any of his previous efforts, which include "Hard Times," "Working" and "The Good War." It's also a more-than-worthy companion to such recent studies as Andrew Hacker's "Two Nations" and Christopher Jencks' "Rethinking Social Policy." Mr. Terkel supplies the voices -- angry, ashamed, confident, ambivalent -- behind the sociologists' columns and charts. You might say this is the "Hite Report" of the racial arena, brimming with people's confidences about their half-conscious attitudes, pet theories, hard-knocks experiences; their racial resentments, fears and fantasies.

A few words about Mr. Terkel's procedures, for readers unfamiliar with his books. Now in his eighth decade, he is perhaps best known as a radio talk-show host, and talk -- not just his own, either -- is his stock in trade. The book follows a genre that Mr. Terkel himself has largely established: It presents the voices of its subjects in monologue form. Often these monologues are prefaced by a few italicized sentences of introduction, but Mr. Terkel is mostly, as it were, offstage.

For "Race," he and his assistants have transcribed and edited conversations with more than 80 subjects, most from the Chicago area but culled from all walks of life. This "oral history" approach has a certain leveling effect -- obviously the gap between poorly and well-educated people is much more pronounced in writing than in speech -- that can be an advantage in a project of this nature. One piece of information not provided in the headnotes is the subject's race. A slightly depressing aspect of the book is that he doesn't need to. Within a few sentences, you always know.

What W.E.B. Du Bois famously called the "color line" is the overt topic of these oral commentaries, but they always ramify into such issues as street crime, project housing, gangs, anti-Semitism, affirmative action and poverty. The respondents in this book are teen-agers and octogenarians; they are blacks, whites, Asians and Hispanics. They are schoolteachers, social workers, lawyers and, sometimes, out-and-out thugs. Then there are a handful of VIPs as well, including the psychologist Kenneth B. Clark and such authors as Charles Johnson, Mark Mathabane, Rian Malan, Clarence Page and Lerone Bennett Jr. But the most stimulating people are quite likely to be new acquaintances.

Like Quinn Brisben, a black Chicago schoolteacher who wryly notes the good side of religious fanaticism, "especially the kind that says the world is coming to an end." After all, if a kid thinks the world is coming to an end, "you cut out the booze, you cut out the dope, you cut out the messing around, you show yourself up as a clean, upright person and you spend a lot of time in church. After a while, the world doesn't come to an end, and you're in the middle class."

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