Not Black or White

One of America's pre-eminent essayists takes on the contentious question of race and explains why brown is the best thing to be.


by Richard Rodriguez (Viking Press, $24.95) "OUR SUBJECT today," Richard Rodriguez writes in Brown, "is the perennial American subject: Race Relations." That may sound as provocative as revisiting the morality of the Vietnam War, but Rodriguez is exploring relevant, radical ground. First of all, he says, "I am not a race. I do not have a race." If you're concerned with getting your mind in shape this summer, these collected reflections on race make for a perfect stretching exercise. While the effect of "brown" on America is the book's most obvious emphasis, Rodriguez, an editor at Pacific News Service in San Francisco and a regular guest on PBS' News Hour With Jim Lehrer, isn't concerned with staying within set boundaries of thought. In fact, pushing, prodding, and abandoning them is very much his raison d'괲e. In one section, Rodriguez remembers being approached by a white woman. "She feels she has no culture," he writes. "She envies me. She envies what I have been at pains to escape—the Mexican sense of culture." What makes Rodriguez's work interesting is his ability to recognize the underlying tensions surrounding American views on race while admitting his own painful relations with race, sexuality, and religion. The child of Mexican immigrant parents, Rodriguez is himself brown, of course. But he's also brown because he's gay and Catholic and Hispanic (a term that is relevant only in America, Rodriguez points out). It doesn't sound groundbreaking to celebrate the "melting pot," but Rodriguez's idea of brown is more complicated. It's a mix where there's less melting and more distinct elements rubbing up against one another. "Brown, not in the sense of pigment, necessarily," he writes, "but brown because mixed, confused, lumped, impure, unpasteurized, as motives are mixed, and the fluids of generations are mixed and emotions are unclear, and the tally of human progress and failure in every generation is mixed, and unaccounted for, missing in plain sight." We are all brown, or should be, or will be. Audrey Van Buskirk

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