Eddy L. Harris

Does a black man have to be black? David Talbot interviews Eddy L. Harris.

Published January 6, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

Eddy L. Harris has spent years trying to figure out what makes him black,
and what makes him an American. This search has taken him down the length
of America's most mythical river in a canoe, a quest he chronicled in
"Mississippi Solo" (1988), and on a long African journey that left him
feeling more American than ever ("Native Stranger," 1992). For his recent
book, "Still Life in Harlem," Harris made his home in Harlem, "the alabaster vessel
that holds the Blackamerican heart." He discovered a place far from its
glorious Renaissance days, a once shining cultural capital now filled with
the shards of broken dreams. While he found "there is still life in
Harlem ... there is a barrenness to it."

In the most jagged moments of anguish during his two-year stay, Harris was
even driven to declare, "I refuse to be black." One such moment
occurred in the middle of the night, when Harris was shaken from this sleep
by the sounds of a man beating a woman in the street below his apartment.

"In the few moments of my indecision I told myself that enough was enough,
told myself that I wanted no longer to be black if this is how black men
behaved, told myself that I wanted nothing more to do with a world without
beauty in it, and that cared not for beauty. It had been beautiful and
joyful once, but this  this man beating a woman  this is what
we've let it all come down to: this man beating this woman, the drug
dealers lining too many streets in the neighborhood, women willing to sell
themselves for a pittance and men willing to buy them, the rats and the
roaches, the joblessness, the fatherless children and the mothers who do
not care, the far too many people who do not seem to care."

Then Harris slipped on his jeans and T-shirt and went downstairs to confront the woman's attacker. "Perhaps in time I can indeed refuse to be black ... but not this
night. This night I am here. This night I am black and I am in Harlem and I
have no choice but to be in this moment and make of it what I can."

We spoke recently with Harris by phone in Baltimore, where he was stopping
over during his book tour.

When you were 10, your family moved out of the St. Louis ghetto and into
the suburbs. Later you went to Stanford, traveled far and wide, lived in
Europe, became a writer, someone who fairly easily crosses the color
barrier. Then you decided to move to Harlem, to the heart of black America.
To find out, in a way, in what sense are you black. So what did you
discover? What is it about you that is black, other than your skin

I still don't have an answer. I think it's wholly absurd, the notion that I
am who I am because of the color of my skin. If you come up to me at a
cocktail party, I want it to be impossible for you to make assumptions
about me because my skin is black and I'm tall and I wear a beard. I could
be the meanest guy; I could be the sweetest guy. If you want to know who I
am, I want you to have to talk with me. To find out who is the whole
person. So that's what I'm trying to explore in this book  what does
it mean to be black in America, apart from the fact that white people, and
black people too, expect something from me because of my skin color.

All right, so what does it mean to be black?

Well, apart from skin color, there is a rich cultural heritage. It comes
from the historical treatment of black people. There is blues and jazz and
gospel; there is barbeque, black-eyed peas. There is so much that is
emblematic of being black. But does that mean that a white person can't
enjoy black-eyed peas?

Yes, as Stanley Crouch has said, to a large extent black culture
is American culture.

Look at Michael Jordan and see how black athletes have changed this
American pastime, basketball  they're not playing Bob Cousey
basketball anymore. We're playing a different brand of basketball and
football and baseball, which then, because it's so inspiring, makes white
athletes want to play it. We are a part of this culture, another rich piece
of the fabric. We all need to recognize this and to stop trying to limit
ourselves based on our skin colors.

So if you feel that blackness is essentially just skin tone, why do you
encourage professionals, middle-class blacks such as yourself, to move back
to Harlem? Why "give back" something to a community if that community is
based only on such a superficial thing as skin color?

Well, in my ideal world, it wouldn't be only black professionals who move
back, it would be every stripe of middle-class person. Neighborhoods should
have more variety, period. I did a book reading in Seattle and some white
kid asked me, "Could I move to Harlem?" I would love to find a way
for her to do that, a way that would be no more dangerous than moving into
any urban neighborhood.

Do you really think that's realistic?

No I don't. But I think it ought to be. I think anyone who wants to live in
Harlem should be able to.

In your book, you draw a stark contrast between the world of your father
and the world of today. What went wrong with urban black America, between
your dad's generation of strivers and freedom fighters and the '90s?

Communities like Harlem sowed the seeds of their own destruction by
succeeding so well. My father's generation tried its best to deliver their
sons and daughters from the ghetto, by ending segregation. And because we
no longer have to live in a segregated neighborhood, those of us who can
have moved away from the black community. Even if we still live in the
Harlems, if we can afford to, we send our kids to private schools downtown,
take our trips to Europe, spend our money in fancy French restaurants
instead of the corner soul food place. So all of those institutions that
were underlying the black community in the days of segregation just
disappear, as people like my father climbed up and out and took his kids
with him.

You write about how when you were growing up in the inner city, you
lived across the hallway from a young up and coming St. Louis pitcher named
Bob Gibson and down the street from other impressive role models.

Yes, I looked out my window and could see the dentist who lived on the
corner, the piano teacher, a whole range of people I could grow up to be or
not be. I had all these choices. Now when you look at the black community,
at least what we consider the black community  the hard-core urban
centers  all these role models have disappeared. It leaves only the
gangster and the drug dealer for kids to see. There are no decent jobs
there anymore, no factories, nothing but the guy on the corner selling

And without legitimate male authority figures around to help guide them,
these young men grow up thinking the way of the gun is the only way. One
day, while walking in Harlem, you had occasion to meet one such young man
and it could have ended very badly for you.

Yes, I was just trying to tell this guy that he had options, that he didn't
have to automatically resort to violence. On this particular day, as I was
walking down the street, my way was blocked by this young man who who was
taking up all the room on the sidewalk, talking to his girlfriend who was
sitting on the stoop. In order to be who I am, I almost had no choice but
to brush by this guy, or otherwise I would have had to step off the
sidewalk into the gutter. I wasn't looking for a fight, but in order to be
me I had to intrude on his territory, and in order to be him, he had to
show me his gun and threaten me. And when he did, I turned to talk with him
and tried to show him that he had a choice, that he didn't have to use the
gun, he didn't have to shoot me. Somebody should have told this to the guy
years ago. All too often, because people in places in Harlem think they
don't have choices, they just fall in line, they pull the trigger. So it
fell to me, in this moment of terror, to explain this to the guy.

How much of Harlem's trouble is self-inflicted?

A lot of it. Because of what I mentioned earlier, all of the successful
people who left it and turned their backs on it. And also because of this
crazy disregard for education you see in black schools. Instead of saying
education is a good thing, you need to learn white English to infiltrate
the mainstream culture, kids are getting this message that if you're smart,
you're a traitor. So in that sense, it's totally self-inflicted.

Do you think the ebonics controversy is an example of that?

When I first heard about it, I just shook my head and said, "Well,
America's fucked. It's going right down the tubes into the realm of Bosnia,
where everybody is claiming his cultural quarter." But then I heard a woman
on NPR the other day saying that ebonics is actually a way to bring these
kids into the world of standard English. So in that sense it may not be so

The sad thing is that it's come to the point where we have to divide the
culture this way. Instead of retreating to our own corner, black people
should be saying we want ownership of all the country, we want to be able
to share in every aspect of this society. I can't stand it when I hear
people say that black culture is distinct from the general American
culture. We're all part of this culture.

When it comes to filling out the census questionnaire and you're asked
what are you  black, white, yellow, brown  do you think
people should be able to check "none of the above"?

I would like for people to check that box.

Would you be able to check that box at this point in your life?

Yes, if I weren't trying to get some advantage from checking the black box.
To get a scholarship or something like that.

But I mean for you personally, at this point in your life. You have a
career as a writer, you're not a kid anymore.

Yes, but in a sense I'm capitalizing on being black  by writing these books
that have an underlying theme of race.

So you're saying that's the only reason you identify as black, because
it's of some use to your career?

No, but it's a genuine concern. And I wish that the need for that wasn't
there. But it doesn't do anyone any harm for me to check the black box.

What about those opponents of affirmative action who would say that
claiming special privilege based on your skin color does in fact do harm.
If you want a genuinely color-blind society, should everyone drop these
special claims to privilege?

Yes, when we get to a certain point, I agree we should drop all such claims
to privilege. But no one's dropping these claims now, whether it's a black
kid filling out his college application or a white suburbanite using his
father's connections.

By David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of New York Times bestsellers like "Brothers," "The Devil's Chessboard," and "Season of the Witch." His most recent book is "Between Heaven and Hell: The Story of My Stroke."

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