We’re still hoping/praying for a rave review of 30 Days a Black Man from The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. Or a nice Sunday Morning segment from CBS.
Until then, let’s go way back to Feb. 14, in mid-Black History Month, when Smithsonian.com ran a long and thoughtful article about my book on Ray Sprigle’s exploits:
How one journalist became black to investigate segregation and what that means today
The first thing written about my Sprigle book, Lorraine Boissoneault’s piece included the opinions and academic spin of Alisha Gaines, an English professor at Florida State University with a PhD in English and African and African American Studies from Duke University. Gaines’ 2017 book Black for a Day: Fantasies of Race and Empathy deals with Sprigle and other cases of whites passing as blacks.
I exchanged friendly emails a year or two ago with Gaines after my online discovery of her Ph.D thesis, which she ultimately turned into her book. Based on what I had learned over the years about Sprigle and his motives for going South, I tried to gently tell her that I thought she was doing what others have done — unfairly dismissing his dangerous undercover journalism mission as a stunt designed to win him another Pulitzer Prize.
The project rethinks the political consequences of empathy by examining mid-to-late twentieth and twenty-first century narratives of racial impersonation enabled by the spurious alibi of racial reconciliation. Black for a Day constructs a genealogy of white liberals who temporarily “become” black under the alibi of racial empathy.
At Amazon.com the synopsis of her book leads off with a mention of pretend black guy Ray Sprigle:
In 1948, journalist Ray Sprigle traded his whiteness to live as a black man for four weeks. A little over a decade later, John Howard Griffin famously “became” black as well, traveling the American South in search of a certain kind of racial understanding. Contemporary history is littered with the surprisingly complex stories of white people passing as black, and here Alisha Gaines constructs a unique genealogy of “empathetic racial impersonation–white liberals walking in the fantasy of black skin under the alibi of cross-racial empathy. At the end of their experiments in “blackness,” Gaines argues, these debatably well-meaning white impersonators arrived at little more than false consciousness.
Complicating the histories of black-to-white passing and blackface minstrelsy, Gaines uses an interdisciplinary approach rooted in literary studies, race theory, and cultural studies to reveal these sometimes maddening, and often absurd, experiments of racial impersonation. By examining this history of modern racial impersonation, Gaines shows that there was, and still is, a faulty cultural logic that places enormous faith in the idea that empathy is all that white Americans need to make a significant difference in how to racially navigate our society.
The Smithsonian.com piece was not so deeply academic and treated Sprigle with respect. It didn’t give Sprigle’s guide, the great John Wesley Dobbs his due props, but it quoted me accurately, which is always nice. Plus it didn’t accidentally or mistakenly twist around anything I said to make me look like an idiot.
At some point I pointed out in my interview with Boissoneault that it was only because Sprigle was a white guy writing for an important white newspaper that he was able to write a series of articles that delivered the harsh realities of life for blacks under Jim Crow to an unknowing white audience of millions in the North.
Newspapers — like virtually everything in the South and North — were segregated in 1948; the greatest black journalist of the day could have written exactly what Sprigle did and only a few whites in the North would have read it.
It sounds like Sprigle played what today is derided as the “white privilege” card. But that, unfortunately, was the reality in 1948.
For Gaines, Boissoneault wrote, Sprigle’s privileged position “was just another effect of racism.”
“Black people have been writing about what it means to be black since 1763. At the end of the day, as well-meaning as I think some of these projects were, it is a project of white privilege,” Gaines says. “It’s a lack of racial navigation when a white person says, ‘I have to assume this authority in order for other white people to get it.’”
I like the Smithsonian.com piece much better after reading it again two months later. It was well done.
As for Professor Gaines’ take on Sprigle’s “expose” of the Jim Crow South’s mistreatment of ten million black American citizens, it’s a good example of how much people in ivory towers see the world differently from the rest of us.