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'Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line' review

Erin Aubry Kaplan's essays address the black condition in America.

November 12, 2011|By Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times
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Erin Aubry Kaplan writes with a quiet, erudite fury. Her passionate sentences are a lament and a celebration of the black experience. She's a black intellectual, in a time when race isn't supposed to mean anything anymore.

Kaplan, a columnist for the L.A. Weekly, Los Angeles Times and other publications, knows the idea that we've entered a "post-racial" era is a lie. Her black identity is indelible, defining. It's literally following her everywhere she goes.

"I have a big butt," she begins, in "The Butt," one of the many outstanding pieces in her new collection of essays, "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts, and Walking the Color Line." "My butt refuses to follow the current trend of black marginalization.... My butt sees things very clearly."

Kaplan feels comfortable in her skin, while at the same time being acutely aware of how others see that skin. This back and forth makes "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts" an often-painful read but also an essential one.

"It's almost impossible to describe what it means to be African American anymore," she writes in the essay titled "Blackness Itself," a manifesto written in prose that is, at once, lyrical and bitter.

In lieu of any definition of blackness, Kaplan recounts in "Blackness Itself" her day as an educated, conscientious African American person. Between teaching eager but "underperforming" black kids at Locke High, and work at an office where she's the only black person, she endures a few encounters with homeless people and street toughs, all of whom are black men.

"Why we got to be like this?" she asks in frustration, and then turns her anger on "lesser schools and low ambitions and low-hanging pants that sag like eternally unrealized freedom dreams."

To much of the nonblack United States, Kaplan concludes, "we are not common folk to be admired for their efforts, but a cursed and vaguely corrupt people … the damning, countervailing force to the American can-do mythos: slothful, foot-dragging, impudent."

Kaplan follows that startlingly statement with another one: "Dire as all this feels sometimes, I'm not sure I'd want to feel any other way."

In the early 21st century, the promise of the civil rights movement remains unfulfilled, she writes. Who's to blame? Plenty of people. For starters, Kaplan argues, there's the leadership of sundry black advocacy organizations — they've settled for the social mobility of a relative few while the masses remain in poverty.

Like any collection of essays, "Black Talk, Blue Thoughts" can feel a bit disjointed. The reporting on the education and political crises in Inglewood and Compton, for example, is excellent but also a bit dated.

Still, many other pieces in this book will endure as documents of a difficult time of transition in African American history. Today, the U.S. has a black president, although black empowerment feels as elusive as it's ever been. "Our votes helped carry him to the promised land," Kaplan writes of Obama, "but now he's gone from us."

Kaplan's book ends with a story about racial conflict that turns, unexpectedly and wonderfully, into a tale of love and romance. Like the essays that come before it, "The Color of Love" is really a story about being human, and it's a triumphant and fitting ending to a book in which every page screams with the writer's deep sense of the beauty and yearning of her people.

Hector Tobar is a Times columnist and the author, most recently, of "The Barbarian Nurseries," a novel.

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