Library Book Review: Crossings: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America , By Walt Harrington

    I read this book so long ago that I’d entirely forgotten about it, but I’m glad to have fished it out of my list:
The idea of “the decents” providing continuing hope for humanity moved me to tears of hope. That came toward the end of this, one of the few books I’d warrant as worth owning (and for which I interrupted my reading of Cook’s A Brief History of the Human Race). In a slightly different context, but still salient to my point that each person is an individual, nearer the start of this book, one of the telling questions he asks (on page 102) is “Isn’t the result the same?” To see that context, you’ll have to read the book, please, please, please.

Much of what struck me in this work, for which the author, a white man, left his family, a black wife and their kids in the DC area, was just how difficult it is to understand life from the perspective of another. I think that as a writer, whose job it is to get across the perspective of others, he did admirably well. Both from my perspective as a Black American, and from my perspective as someone who has lived in five countries and tried but failed to both understand and convey the perspectives of others.

Specifically, some of the things that struck me as I read include a very sharp agreement with one black man’s comment (page 19) of sometimes being “angry and you don’t know what you’re angry about.” But it comes from that permeating sense of not being taken seriously, of low expectations (as when I am asked “why do you know all of this” in the tone of surprise that says I should not…) and of always being underestimated, because of who you were born.
I also very much identified with another comment (page 21) that black folks “must act as if they can control their lives, whether or not they can” but still feel the rage and helplessness of losing a house just a few years short of paying off the mortgage when myself and all of my renters lost our jobs all at the same time, and I had nowhere to go but out of the country to take the only job on offer at the time. Control?

Few people ever understand why I identify so completely with the cries (page 23) of “I hate this hair!” That is how I grew up feeling about my own so-called “good” hair, and for the very same reasons. Yet I wonder if I would have made the cut to play the part of one of the house slaves in Williamsburg? I remember the controversy (page 25) over the reenactment of a slave auction a few years ago. All this, particularly page 28, reminds me of Johanna’s comments regarding thee dignity and strength she saw in the faces of my adoptive Great Grandparents , who also recall the time on the plantation, again, their survival and love being “all the more remarkable.”

I agree heartily (page 29) and happily that we black folks certainly do tend to be far more vocal and animated in a natural (not for effect) way, at least what feels more natural to me, and to comment more freely when watching films or TV, etc (and we know how to do so AROUND, not during, the dialogue!). Part of the louder and more lively interaction may be the fact that we come from a culture that is used to walking long distances, but I wonder (page 30) how long a slave, presumably barefooted on dirt roads, would take to talk the 75 miles down to Richmond, and whether than would be during the day or night (with permission, presumably, so day?)

My note on Kingsmill, from page 31 is Yup: and thank you. Yet again, someone (as in Cornell West’s Race Matters) has given voice to my feelings that “I wanted to be served once in a while, rather than always doing the serving.” Yet, very nicely put, in the end (page 32) “The harsh truth has set her free.”

This is a point that could not be made by a person of color: (page 33) “…we whites rarely comprehend: it is we who create…” please just read the entire preceding page in order to comprehend Page 33. Partly (page 40) it also explains that famous “Crab Mentality” among black folks (I guess it’s not only in DC…). 😦

But Pages 33-42 sum up nicely the fact that many are “telling different sides to the same truth.” (This reminds me of a famous Babylon 5 theme, that “The truth is a three-edged sword.”) Just as (thank you for recognizing this!) it is uplifting to have the author explain his experience, which is what I experience, but in reverse, when those around me discuss their vacations growing up, their going to parties, their boy/girlfriends in high school, none of which I had at that same time. Just night-shift work at People’s drug store and Gr. Marie worrying about me taking the Dupont Circle metro so late at night, when I had no choice.

Crucially, on page 53, at the bottom, it is gratifying to see that having the hard conversations, gently, does indeed help. He, and perhaps we, start to understand…

Ha!! 🙂 (Page 62) Someone fairly recently complained that I often fail to finish my sentences: I am waiting for the other person to do so, just as the author describes here! (See, I am maybe normal, somewhere!)

Regarding Charleston, I’d like to see some of the documentation he has not cited (page 66), but I do agree that it does explain the high number of skilled slaves and freedmen, like my 5xs Gr. Grandmother, a dressmaker, who purchased her freedom before having my 4xGr. Grandfather James Ward Porter, a colored GA state Rep. during the Reconstruction.

Excellent A Jewish police chief in the deep South having white prisoners clean sidewalks in black neighborhoods!! (page 68)

On page 125 he credits Richard Wright’s Black Boy, in particular and also Native Son with helping him to begin seeing one black perspective, and the reason for so much distrust. On page 151 he again points out that bastions of privilege in particular need the voices of other perspectives, like scholarship students from less well-off backgrounds.

Wow!! (page 310) “searches for only the ‘decents‘ … and never let ’em go.” Which can be people in any corner or walk of life, just as a movie (p 357) can indeed lead to “major social change” -which is why we write.

Finally, I love how he points to both film and literature (on pages 364 and 365) to show that James Alan McPherson’s earlier point is the same, which is to say that one must measure a person by “the best in all of us” and that duty” of art “is to write about” the relevant for humankind, to help build “… the pillars to help him endure and prevail” whether or not people listen.

Excellent work.

A Mile in My Shoes

   Continuing Education is crucial to our republic, and to our future.  Reading and critical thinking on the work like this is crucial to how we vote, as well, in the immediate term.  Over the long term, empathy, built through tools like free adult education, probono legal aid, and #languagelearning, is crucial.

We really can Do Better.



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Shira Destinie A. Jones, MPhil, MAT, BSCS


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12 thoughts on “Library Book Review: Crossings: A White Man’s Journey Into Black America , By Walt Harrington

  1. That sounds like a really excellent book!
    I agree, we are all individuals and should drop all that categorizing after the groupings that we make up or our forfathers made up, just stop it.

    I am glad that nowadays in advertisements on tv and such there are always people of different colour or religion, so that more and more it sets itself into the mind of people that this is normal. In Denmark at least they involve people of different ethnicities and gender in sports and weather events or whatever there is on tv.

    When I was a toddler (10 years after WWII ended), there simply weren’t any Africans in my hometown. In some select areasin Germany, there were American soldiers, but the first black person I ever met was when I was two years old, my brother five. Our parents had never told us that there existed people of different colour, so naturally my brother assumed that the man had painted himself, and when he clapped my brother’s shoulder, he thought the colour had come off on his clothes. My parents scolded him and laughed at him, but it was really their fault in my eyes. How was he supposed to know?

    Liked by 1 person

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