On race and making assumptions

Clearly, this is my summer of reading books about the African-American experience. There’s this, and this, and this and even this. Today, another one, this one written by a friend of mine. “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome” is unique, funny in a shake-your-head way, insightful and instructional. It creates, then perfectly fills a niche in the national conversation taking place on race relations.

nappyOneita Jackson and I met when we both worked at a major metropolitan daily. She did not have much newspaper experience, but made up for it with a spirit and confidence that is hard to ignore. Her route to the paper was circuitous, with stints in construction, and various other fields in major cities around the country. Her past isn’t entirely clear to me, even though I’ve known her for 14 years. Her background seems to change, or maybe she just fills in the blanks when necessary. This makes her something of an enigma, but a benign one and one who can be fun to be around.

Oneita started as a copy editor and not long afterward was sharing her skills and insights in all sorts of ways, culminating in a regular column about life in Detroit as seen by an out-of-towner. She looked at the region’s idiosyncrasies with a raised eyebrow that asked “what the hell?” and left us natives hard-pressed to explain them.

She does the same thing with identity and race in “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome,” a collection of, what are they, poems? anecdotes? microessays? In fact, I don’t know how to describe them except to say they are very much like their creator: original, funny, occasionally irritating, sometimes incomprehensible and, if you are open to them, ultimately rewarding.

After Oneita up and quit the newspaper a few years ago—she’s 46 now—she started driving a yellow cab. But she is much more than a cabbie. Her fares in Detroit are treated to an insider’s look at the city where she seemingly knows everyone from homeless people to the heads of corporations. In this role of ambassador of sorts for Detroit, she has been featured in interviews in Hour Detroit magazine, TV programs, Al Jazeera English and, she says a German cinematographer is doing a documentary on her.

She says people looked askance at her becoming a cabbie, saying she did it so she could write a stunt-journalism book about the experience. I believe her when she says that’s not true, though that’s what ended up happening. And, frankly, if someone is brave enough to quit a good-paying job to dedicate her life to writing, where’s the harm?

The stories she relates in “Syndrome” are not about race, she says. I’ll get back to that later. They are, she insists, satires about identity, judgment and assumptions. She points to the message on her keychain that reads, “Do you know who the fuck I am?” as the book’s theme and most of the pieces are variations on it: Someone misjudges Oneita’s words, actions, role or motivation and learns a lesson.

To my mind, the centerpiece of the slim volume—which she says is a preview of a longer book coming sometime in the future—is a cab ride she gives to a young, drunk white man following the St. Patrick’s Day parade in downtown Detroit. “Why do you black people always get so offended by shit?” he asks her. Everything he says to her is steeped in assumptions he makes about her based on her appearance or maybe the fact that she is a cab driver. To my ear, his assumptions smack of racism.

She tells stories that show African Americans make assumptions, too. When she asks for tickets to a particular movie, the ticket seller tells her “that’s a Indian movie,” implying that Oneita would have no interest in a movie about people who don’t look like her.

But Oneita is no Angry Black Woman. She’s more Bemused Black Woman. In many of the pieces, you can see her hand the other person the rope she intends to hang them with and that’s a lot of fun. She’s not bitter, but she doesn’t put up with much, either.

The pieces are cleverly written, though she often inserts allusions a reader may not understand, which slows things down. Perhaps that was her intention. While I’m talking about the writing, I should say it can be difficult to discern character: For example, is the woman at the Captain Jay’s (you buy, we fry) being snooty or helpful when she tells Oneita they don’t accept the Bridge Card (which Oneita never asked about) at that location. Read two different ways the story makes very different points. Does it matter? Maybe.

That brings me back to Oneita’s assertion that the book isn’t about race. In her mind, it may not be, but when you title a book “Nappy-Headed Negro Syndrome” and dedicate it (accidentally she admits) to “the people at formal events who assumed we were the help,” she instructs readers to look at the stories inside through the lens of race. She may need a pithy subtitle to address that when the full book is published.

The media blitz on this book is vintage Oneita. If you live in metropolitan Detroit, and haven’t seen anything about it, you’re just not paying attention. The cover boasts quotes from authors, professors and friends praising her work, for which she hustled hard. She’s free to use anything from this review, which I volunteered to write and for which she spent weeks sending me background information to deepen the review because she wanted to be sure I came across as intelligent. For that I thanked her, and told her this post would be as much about me as it was about the book. It’s my blog.

No one works harder to promote Oneita than Oneita. Perhaps that’s how it should be. But she believes in her work. Readers may not strictly enjoy “Syndrome,” she says, but at least they can learn something from what she has to say.

I think she’s right.

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One thought on “On race and making assumptions

  1. Pingback: Hey Classics Challengers (and everyone else): I’m back from a distant planet | Shelf Improvement

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