'White Man's' search for black experience gets lost in a tangle of too many voices

February 26, 1993|By John Bordsen | John Bordsen,Knight-Ridder News Service

The author's goal, stated in the book flaps and prologue, is as intriguing as it is immense: Hit the road and find out what it is like to be a black American in these times.

And so, Walt Harrington, a writer for the Washington Post's Sunday magazine, set off on three journeys -- through the South, the North and the West. Through more than 100 conversation vignettes, he offers a treatment that's somewhat interesting but inherently flawed.

Mr. Harrington's subjects are affluent and impoverished, urban and rural, old and young, meek and violent, unknown and famous (filmmaker Spike Lee in New York, author Dori Sanders in York, S.C.). A few very general -- and expected -- thrusts emerge: Elders who were alive when segregation was the law of the land say things are changing, improving; the young are wary of the future; African-Americans who've prospered in integrated society see less difference between the black and white worlds, and look askance at an urban youth culture that stresses entertainment and gratification over education and responsibility.

Aside from skin color, these people as a whole have little in common. Surprising or not, this shows the futility of Mr. Harrington's quest: There simply is no universally shared, cradle-to-grave black experience any more than there is a white one.

He'd have been better off talking to fewer subjects but going deeper -- letting flesh-and-blood individuals talk at length about their lives, hopes, fears and frustrations. Instead he ricochets from Darien, Ga., to Lacomb, Ore., offering vignettes that too often have unexploited details (an inventory of objects in the yard of a Tunica County, Miss., sharecropper, for example) and no end-of-episode punch.

Some of these pieces do work, though. The eight pages he spends in Charleston, S.C., with Police Chief Reuben Greenberg reveal an official whose war on black-on-black crime renders him chillingly detached and more than a tad arrogant.

Throughout, the author is propelled by the fact that he is a white man with a black wife. Where, Mr. Harrington asks from time to time, do his children fit in? While his concerns may be cogent, his findings pass through a racial filter: You don't hear black people talking as much as you hear a white guy listening to blacks and interpreting what they say. There's altogether too much "I" in here.

Keep in mind that some of this material was first published in the Post. An aura of quick-conclusion journalism remains, as does JTC the plodding, self-important, hair-shirt tone that often crops up in that paper's feature articles.

So how is a white person supposed to get a handle on what it's like being a black individual in Caucasian America? You'd be better off reading something by a black author. Better yet: Just talk with someone.

BOOK REVIEW

Title: "Crossings: A White Man's Journey Into Black America."

Author: Walt Harrington.

Publisher: HarperCollins.

.` Length, price: 448 pages, $25.

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