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BOOK REVIEW: ESSAYS : A 'Race Man' Speaks to All Who'll Listen : WHAT BLACK PEOPLE SHOULD DO NOW: Dispatches From Near the Vanguard by Ralph Wiley ; One World/Ballantine Books, $22, 374 pages


There's a phrase that comes to mind when reading Ralph Wiley--something about sticks and stones and words never hurting. Not that Wiley is vicious; on the contrary, his essays about race are so enticing because he writes like an archer, sizing up his target and taking aim. As a friend of mine would say, Ralph Wiley can really sling ink.

Despite the book's title, the book doesn't fall into the traps of cant and soapbox speeches. "What Black People Should Do Now" is not a racial polemic, but a well-written series of often humorous essays about the black experience--Wiley's experience in particular.

The book is divided into five sections: About Media, About Personalities, About Perceptions, About Travel and About Life. Broad topics for sure, but made all the more interesting because of Wiley's experiences.

For example, in the About Personalities section, there is an essay called "Spike Lee, Denzel Washington and the Making of Malcolm X." Asked to collaborate on the behind-the-scenes book on "Malcolm X," after writing a Premiere magazine article on Lee, Wiley had almost unheard of access to the director. In this essay, Wiley reports about the trials and tribulations of Lee's epic work, but also ignores the traditional objective voice of journalism and relates to Lee as few other writers can ever claim to have done--black man to black man, brother to brother.

Although Wiley occasionally rambles or overstates the obvious because he finds it super-interesting (or maybe because he assumes the reader is super-unenlightened), there is an honesty here that rings true. One senses that Wiley is writing what he really believes, not what he thinks the literati or the people at Book of the Month Club want to hear. There is no attempt to obscure or illuminate black culture for a presumably white audience.

Take, for example, his essay, "It's a Black Thing That Nobody Understands": " 'It's a Black thing: You wouldn't understand.' This slogan confuses me. Has there been a code book passed out lately that I didn't get? Is everybody in on something I missed during a nap? . . . Just what qualifies as 'a Black thing you wouldn't understand?' Unfortunately, plenty. Here are some Black things I don't understand. See if you can help me out on:

1) Al Sharpton's hair and Don King's hair . . . I know you can't tell MY PEOPLE anything about hair. But seriously Rev. Sharpton, my man, needs a wash-n-set every week. People kept unfairly fettered by a double standard of applied law need justice. Rev. Sharpton needs an appointment. If his salon is open, that's justice to Rev. Al. . . ."

Wiley does not write with the hand of one unsure of what he wants to say or who he thinks might listen. The book is called "What Black People Should Do Now" because Wiley assumes he is addressing a literate, intelligent African American readership.

From the first essay, "Why Black People Don't Buy Books," Wiley attacks the popular publishing world falsehood that black people don't read and, hence, don't buy books:

"First of all, just about all the Black people I know and have kept up with over the years buy books by the pound. Of course, it depends on what you're selling. Black people did not rush out to buy 'Scarlett,' for example.

"And why should we? But Black people went right out and bought 'Roots' by Alex Haley and 'The Color Purple' by Alice Walker and 'Waiting to Exhale' by Terry McMillan. But if there are no interesting Black people in your book at all, well, then the book had better be entertaining in some other way if you want Black people to buy it. It had better be funny, powerfully convincing, or a wonderful story, or at least look good on the coffee table."

Wiley's essays vacillate between the descriptive and the prescriptive; he doesn't criticize without offering suggestions for improvement: "Most of us are sick of singing, 'Ain't Gon' Let Nobody Turn Us Around' in that sweet, mournful, slurring way we have, swaying back and forth and then singing 'We Shall Overcome' for good measure . . . so let us try a different lyric. Let us sing 'Ain't Gonna Let Nobody Run a Better Business Than Me'; and 'We Shall Not Buy From Racists.' Those are the songs that we should sing today."

It's refreshing to realize that one can be a "race man" (one who works for the uplifting of his race) and still be able to crack jokes. In "What Black People Should Do Now," Wiley proves time and again that there is room for levity--as well as vulnerability and risk-taking--in the movement.

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