On 'Race,' it's Terkel doing the talking

April 07, 1993|By Tim Warren | Tim Warren,Book Editor

Can we talk? Sure, but chances are Studs Terkel will be listening in.

Because listening is what Studs Terkel does best. A Chicago radio and TV talk-show host for nearly five decades, he's made a career out of using the well-placed question and a running tape recorder. Ask and get out of the way, basically, but that's the art of Studs Terkel. He's done nine well-received books, most of them best sellers, simply by picking out a cross-section of Americans and letting them talk about their jobs, or the American dream, or the war, or race.

Especially race. Living in such a racially diverse city as Chicago most of his 80 years, Mr. Terkel knows how much we think about color. The title of his last book of oral history told it all: "Race: How Blacks & Whites Think and Feel about the American Obsession."

"I think 'American Obsession' is exactly right," says Mr. Terkel, who will discuss "Race" at a lecture tomorrow night at the University of Maryland Baltimore County. "The book tells how the issue drives us crazy, both blacks and whites, and how little white society knows about black feelings and black society."

Published in 1992, "Race" was widely regarded as a landmark book, much like Mr. Terkel's earlier "Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression," or "The Good War: An Oral History of World War II," which won the Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction in 1985. In his review of "Race" in Newsday, Henry Louis Gates, chairman of Harvard University's Afro-American Studies Department, wrote: "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 interview subjects in "Race" are diverse: a former Klan member, poor and working-class whites, a black woman who used to be on welfare, teachers of both races, Latinos and Asians. In one moving passage, a white teacher who is struggling to get along with student bodies that are increasingly black wonders if he, indeed, has become a racist:

"I just thought of something. The white kids and I banter, not a confrontation. I'm more like their parent figure. I just realized that I approach white kids in a way similar to black teachers approaching black kids. I think we exude signals we may not have control over."

And a black attorney remarks of Ronald Reagan: "This man represents something more than just a guy who was in office for

eight years.

He personifies the total indifference that most of white America feels."

"I wasn't surprised at some of the anger or the bitterness expressed," Mr. Terkel says in an interview from his office at a Chicago radio station. "But the extent was greater, especially from blacks. And whites, too, although they usually speak in code.

"You know, all the books I've done, in one way or another, have touched on race. It's there in all aspects. I guess what's upsetting is that blacks and whites were just beginning to get acquainted 20 to 25 years ago. Then came those tensions that were deep underneath."

Soft-spoken and garrulous, Mr. Terkel frequently uses stories to make his point. Is he optimistic about the future of race relations in this country? He responds with a rambling story about a drunk who's unsure if he can make it home from the prom. Mr. Terkel's answer comes from quoting the punch line: "I'm optimistic, but guardedly so."

On this day, he's got a visitor in his office: Quinn Brisben, a longtime Chicago schoolteacher and the Socialist Party candidate for president in 1992. He's appeared in a couple of Mr. Terkel's books, and said this of his friend's ability as an interviewer:

"You would be amazed how much listening Studs does," says Mr. Brisben, who met Mr. Terkel during the 1963 March on Washington. "He has a very good way of getting out what's honest -- what's really you. I'm a pretty fair public speaker and all that, but I was never able to talk much about my work, but Studs got it out of me. All of a sudden I had a better understanding of what I had been doing all along."

"He's provided a kind of authenticity that not only ordinary readers but social scientists realize," says Andre Schiffrin, director of the New Press and editor of most of Mr. Terkel's books. "He has a genuine respect for the people he's talking to."

Warren Belasco, chairman of the department of American studies at UMBC, says that Mr. Terkel's books are widely used at the college level.

"I use his 'American Dreams: Lost and Found,' for my Studies in American Culture class," he says. "It's really an amazing compilation of different interpretations of what the American dream is about. Some are quite depressing, but others quite inspiring. And his coverage is so great. People use his books all the time -- 'Hard Times,' 'The Good War.' They're particularly useful for a teacher, because students really relate to him."

Mr. Terkel allows that despite his approaching 81st birthday in May, he's continuing to keep an active schedule, though he adds cheerfully, "I'm slowing down slightly. I'm a 1912 baby. I was born in the year the Titanic went down."

His next book, he says, will focus on growing old in America. "It will be about old people who are scrappers, who still have that juice in them."

If that is the case, the interviewer will have as much to say as the people he interviews. For, Studs Terkel says, "Without curiosity, it would be all over. It would be bad. What's going on across the pond? What's out there? Without it, there's no taste to life. Curiosity thus far has not killed this cat."

TERKEL AT UMBC

What: Lecture by Studs Terkel. He is UMBC's Honors College Visiting Scholar for the spring semester.

When: Tomorrow at 7:30 p.m.

Where: University Center Ballroom, UMBC. Free and open to the public.

Information: (410) 455-3721.

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