White Boy: A Memoir

Mark D. Naison, White Boy: A Memoir (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002).

For two months I have carried an increasingly dog-eared copy of White Boy: A Memoir, by Professor Mark Naison in my bag. I had flown through the book in a few hours. Yet it took two months of contemplation before I could sit down and write this review. And after all this deep thought I am still stuck on the title: White Boy. Perhaps that’s the place to start.

It is very difficult not to judge this book by its title. The provocative words elicit the awkward silence that often follows a slur. Many will stumble over these words and miss the value of this memoir. Seeing the cover, the two words echoed in my memory, colliding with Nigger, Nigger Lover and Uncle Tom. But unlike some people, I like a thing that pushes my buttons. Naison delivers, in the thousands of words that follow the two-word title, a fascinating personal and historical narrative of a sixties radical.

The sucker punch title and unvarnished vistas into Naison’s personal, professional, political and romantic development are consistent with Naison’s real life persona. He is a scrappy Brooklynite who still haunts the same borough of his childhood. Naison’s memoir is an in-your-face-New York-paced read from an eyewitness to the tumult of the protest movement of the 60s and 70s.

Through the device of the memoir, Naison presents some of the major political, cultural and social themes of the sixties. Part of Naison’s premise is that class and racial interest have created tensions between groups that should, in a perfect world, find more in common.

White Boy chronicles Naison’s childhood in Crown Heights Brooklyn; periods of scholarly, romantic and amorous pursuits at Columbia University; and finally his pioneering work as an early member of one of New York’s first Black Studies programs on the campus of Fordham University in the Bronx. Naison dedicates significant space in his life story to the interracial romance that forced him to reevaluate his relationship with his family and his race. Yet the content of more lasting importance are the profiles of institutions and neighborhoods caught up in the economic and political turmoil of the 60s and 70s.

In the Bronx, Naison organized working-class white communities into progressive coalitions, something that simply doesn’t happen today. He also witnessed the burning of the South and Central Bronx and the rise of rap, all the while stoking his passion for schoolyard basketball. If Naison wishes, and publishers see fit, he could explode this book into multiple sequels: White Boy on Sports; White Boy on Hip Hop; etc.

A recent review of White Boy in Crisis, the official organ of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, laments that Naison’s volume is not “from the heart.” I suppose this is a criterion one could use when reviewing a memoir, but the very autobiographical nature of the medium is inherently subjective. Memoirs suffer from the unavoidable vanity of the author in casting the events and material of one’s life in the best light possible. The reader must assume that the reconstruction of all events is biased and of only partial value as a historical record. But in matters of race, where taking a sip from the wrong water fountain can start a revolution, heart is in the chest of the reviewer. For Naison, just showing up to work is an act of “heart.” For a white professor of black studies, every lecture is infused with the juxtaposition of scholar and subject matter.

Other readers will understandingly want to know more about the author’s long-term relationship to an African-American woman named Ruthie (Naison changes the names of most of his subjects, a practice that Crisis also took exception to). James Baldwin knew how closely behind race dwells sex. Naison clearly conveys the radical impact on his life and on the lives of dozens of family members and friends. What more do we want? Frankly, I thought he kissed and told too much.

What’s missing from White Boy is not heart, but more details. I wanted to know how Jackie Robinson’s exploits on the baseball diamond affected black and white kids in the sandlot. What is it like to be a witness to the creation of Rock and Roll? Why has Columbia University gone from the racial vanguard of student activism to the bastion of corporate training? Why doesn’t the South Bronx have more innovative sports programs like the one Naison founded in the 70s? Race is the bumpy driveway that leads to the story of Naison’s life, but as we all hopefully desire, race is not the determining factor in the memoir and this review.

To dispense with the title once and for all, White Boy is actually a boast. Naison sets out his racial and political bona fides. Clearly the man who lived this story is qualified to be a Professor of African American studies, a post that he holds to the chagrin of black and yet simultaneously white rednecks. Naison seems too conscious of his whiteness, uncomfortable in his white skin. It is rare to see someone other than a woman or person of color feel uncomfortable in their politicized body. Race obsession is a part of American culture, and I hope this fact and the provocative cover will lure readers who would not normally grapple with issues of pedagogy in higher education and the rise and fall of the South Bronx. This is what the book is about. White Boy is just the title.

As a part of exorcising my own demons and checking Naison out, I attended a lecture that he gave to students at Columbia University, his Alma Matter. The group was small, but representative. I could see that the students loved talking about race. Despite the fact that race is an element of almost every detail of our lives, the classrooms of our nation’s schools are tragically silent on the subject. The activism that Naison chronicles is gone from the Columbia campus, which sits on a hill above Harlem. When Naison attended Columbia, he was warned never to venture down that hill. Students are told the same thing today.

As I write this review, Naison is teaching his ground-breaking course “From Rock and Roll to Hip Hop: Urban Youth Cultures in Post-War America.” I’ve heard the class is the hottest offering at Fordham this semester. Naison loves rap, and his relationship with music as a cultural and political tool is evident in the book. His children made a soundtrack for the book, White Boy: The CD! It becomes a bit much when Naison starts to rap himself, but let me not hate.

Naison’s tale ends in the here and now. Naison’s daughter Sara became such a good basketball player, thanks to her dad’s coaching, that she led her team to the top of the Brooklyn Catholic Youth organization’s boys’ league. The coaches met and changed the rules so that girls could no longer play. Shades of Jackie Robinson in earshot of Ebbets Field? So what does our White Boy do? A media and legal blitz later, Sara is the Rosa Parks of girls’ basketball in Brooklyn. Naison’s activist example provides a cautionary tale. Many of those who failed to dismantle the system of race-based oppression are doomed to have their children punished by that same vile engine because of their gender, or religion and sexual identity. Maybe Sara moves us ahead in this discourse with her own history in the making.

In 1994 I wrote a personal account of my first trip to South Africa entitled “Black Is a Political Color.” I learned during my travels of a tendency in the new nation towards non-racialism. Here at home we practice non-stop racialism. But if there were to be a nonracial movement in America, it would be peopled with men like Naison. His work is courageous and personal. It screams from the bookshelf like Wright’s Black Boy and Dick Gregory’s Nigger. In a world where academic language waters down essential issues of truth and commercially driven art warps beauty, Naison’s attempt to keep it real should be applauded. The author has suggested on some radio interviews that the progressive Jewish journals have shifted away from his work. Well, from one White Boy to another, get used to it. No one likes a race traitor. And even when people get beyond the preconceived notions of the title, race will tint every glimpse of this autobiography. That is the sad truth of being American.

When you go around shouting White Boy in a crowded bookstore you are going to make a lot of people uncomfortable. To quote another “White Boy,” Shell Trap, the agitator is the part of the washing machine that gets the clothes clean. To quote King, a man Naison insures is part of the curriculum of New York’s Jesuit university, peace is not the absence of tension, but the presence of justice.

If you want to see what all the fuss is about, read White Boy. The timing of the release of Eminem’s new movie begs the question, is this a genre in the making? White Boy would make an excellent holiday present and certainly add some spice to the family discussion around the dinner table. There’s also a White Boy tee shirt for those who wish to make a bolder statement.

Reviewed by Bill Batson
Staff Member, New York State Senate

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