cover image Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

Thomas Chatterton Williams. Norton, $25.95 (192p) ISBN 978-0-393-60886-1

Williams (Losing My Cool) follows in the footsteps of James Baldwin and Ta-Nehisi Coates to craft a provocative philosophical argument about the role of race in human identity. He acknowledges during this trio of essays that he has had some highly unusual experiences. “The View From Near and Far” deals with his youth as the light-skinned son of a black father and a white mother; his first trip to France, where many people thought he was of Middle Eastern descent; and his realization that identity is heavily influenced by the way others see a person. “Marrying Out” explores his marriage to a white French woman and how his father conveyed to him that black American life is “conditioned by local historical circumstance... [but] not beholden to it.” “Self-Portrait of an Ex-Black Man” leads up to Williams’s decision to follow in artist Adrian Piper’s footsteps by “retiring” from race. Claiming the uniqueness of the black experience, he argues, is still buying into the racist idea that race is a centrally important facet of identity. The solution, he posits, is to live in “the humanizing specificity” of people as people, not as vessels for historicized prejudice. Regardless of whether readers agree with his conclusions, these essays are intellectually rigorous, written in fluid prose, and frequently exhilarating. (Oct.)