With the election of Barack Obama, the first U.S. president of African descent, many people believed that America had ushered in an era of post-racial harmony. Harvey Young is not one of them. When it comes to the racial experience of black people, particularly, though not exclusively, of black men, Young takes James Baldwin’s sage advice: “Take no one’s word for anything, including mine—but trust your experience.” I interviewed Young about his new book Embodying Black Experience: Stillness, Critical Memory, and the Black Body (University of Michigan Press, 2010). In it, Harvey examines five “spectacular events,” including an opening autobiographical one, that persuasively reveal his argument “that embodied experiences develop, in part, from racial (mis)recognition and spotlight how an idea of the black body materially affects actual bodies” (11). In other words, Young points out how despite the multifarious identities that constitute what we know as the “African American” identity (i.e., it ain’t monolithic), all black bodies in America are subject to “compulsory visibility” (12). This hyper and unavoidable visibility didn’t begin yesterday. It is historical and is recorded in what Harvey calls the “repository of experience” (23), as revealed in a range of artifacts that he examines. These include such things as daguerreotypes of black captives to theatrical productions such as Susan Lori Parks play “Venus” (based on the “Hottentot Venus”).
What I learned from Harvey’s book is that being recognized as black is certainly not always negative. But when it is, and it is often enough, it’s very painful. And I would say, as I said to Harvey, that he has written one of the best books on contemporary identity politics in this still “retrograde racial” America. His book seeks to diminish the causes of that pain. Listen in. Read the book. And let me know your opinion.