New York Times Magazine

MULATTO AMERICA: At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History

Stephan Talty, Author . HarperCollins $24.95 (288p) ISBN 978-0-06-018517-6

Miscegenation, both cultural and biological, brings forth new ideas and undermines narrow conceptions, argues Talty, a noted culture writer for the New York Times Magazine, Spin and Vibe. Describing his project not as traditional academic history but as "literary journalism," Talty draws on a hodgepodge of subjects that he admits cannot serve as a comprehensive survey. His chronology hops from the days when black slaves and white indentured servants mixed to the emergence of a European-minded black intellectual class at the turn of the 20th century and the use of hip-hop as one of the last strongholds of ghetto authenticity. Some of Talty's prose in the earlier chapters, which deal primarily with prevailing notions of blackness in the pre–Civil War era, lacks the forceful, imaginative analysis of later chapters, which showcase the pop-culture byproducts of race mixing. The careers of the first "Black" celebrities, such as Paul Robeson and Dorothy Dandridge, are regarded as complex instances of signification that invigorated the public at large while destroying some of their messengers. Talty's background as a critic is also reflected in his eloquent take on jazz: "It acted as an undertow pulling fans and musicians toward a realization of a complex black humanity, while only barely rippling the surface of 1920s and 1930s race relations." Few of Talty's ideas are revolutionary, but this book is an informed, occasionally inspired work that pulls its historical examples under a broad view of biracialism—as a phenomenon of memes as well as genes. It's a concept that more than sustains this smart, popularizing account. (Jan. 19)

Reviewed on: 12/02/2002
Release date: 01/01/2003
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