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Starting a Conversation Between the Races


More than a decade ago, I spent an afternoon listening to former '50s black militant Robert F. Williams reminisce about his years on the run in Cuba, China and elsewhere, unwilling at the time to return to the U.S. to fight politically inspired kidnapping charges.

Williams, by then a radical in repose in northern Michigan, made many points that day, some more logical than others. Two stand out. First was his explanation of how, after the U.S. government trained him to kill enemy soldiers in Korea, it shouldn't have been surprised when he came back and armed his Monroe, N.C., neighborhood to fight off gun-toting Klansmen.

The second point was more chilling. After centuries of not getting along, argued Williams, a proponent at the time of black nationalism, why don't the black and white races just accept the obvious and go their separate ways?

The pragmatic answer is that it's much too late to tumble to what is, in essence, a defeatist solution. And those centuries of discord are exactly what make it so important to focus on the unavoidably shared future.

How to approach that future is the focus of "Black Genius: African American Solutions to African American Problems" (Norton, 1999), based on a New York University lecture series organized by author Walter Mosley, Manthia Diawara, director of NYU's Africana Studies Program, and Clyde Taylor, a professor in the department.

The essays stand as an act of literary agitation, prodding us to consider fresh avenues to that shared future. And like that long-ago conversation with Williams, some of the arguments make more sense than others.

There are recurring, pragmatic themes. One is that a society dominated by a white middle class isn't likely, even granting high levels of altruism, to sacrifice for a better standard of living for impoverished minorities. Gains in the future, as in the past, will have to be fought for.

And the way to fight is at the beginning, with schools, neighborhoods and independent institutions.

Among others, social critic bell hooks, an English professor at City College of New York, points the finger at academic institutions.

"Their primary function is to produce a professional managerial class that will serve the existing social and political status quo," she writes. "It should be evident that [their] fundamental concerns are at odds with any effort to affirm black self-determination."

Other essayists stand at other points on the continuum of conservative-radical politics. Author-critic Stanley Crouch weighs in on self-reliance and the importance of heroic individuality--personal stands for the greater good, not the personally rewarding.

And columnist Julianne Malveaux argues that welfare reform and a minimum wage below the poverty line have institutionalized poverty with an overwhelming impact on minority neighborhoods.

"Let's face it," she writes. "This is not South Africa. African Americans are in the minority. We have to make strategic alliances with other people in order to have economic self-sufficiency. That is not impossible."

Yet playwright Anna Deavere Smith argues that society must have "open conversations" before those alliances can form. And they have to be predicated upon action, not talk.

If that's the case, then consider "Black Genius" to be a conversation starter.

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* This Sunday: Carlos Fuentes on "Americanos: Latino Life in the United States"; Paul Fussell and Gloria Emerson on Vietnam; Johanna Neuman on George Stephanopoulos; and the Magic Bookshelf, a parents' guide to the best children's literature.

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