• Joe Pace

Favorite Non-Fiction Books, #21: Race Matters


"Are you taking a picture or painting a portrait? I got shit to do."

Once upon a time at UNH, I was on the Martin Luther King, Jr Day committee as a student member. (Yes, it speaks volumes about 1990s UNH that a straight white dude was a student rep on that committee. I like to remain optimistic that it speaks a little about me, too.) At the time, NH was one of two states in the US that did not acknowledge MLK Day. The other was Arizona, and when the state stood to lose out on hosting Super Bowls because of a threatened boycott by black NFL players, NH would soon stand alone. As students, we would bus up to Concord and testify, ineffectually, for the state to change the vapid "Civil Rights Day" to a holiday named for Dr. King. Remember, Tito Jackson?

In that environment, we invited Dr. Cornel West to be our keynote speaker at our UNH MLK Day event in 1995, I think. As part of his remarks, Dr. West observed that "politics is dirty...and ugly...and funky." It's a comment that has stayed with me for the quarter-century since because of its truth and its peculiar phrasing. Dr. West wasn't just lamenting the tawdry and cash-soaked nature of our politics. He was also encouraging us to seek leadership capable of functioning in such a rough-and-tumble environment. Too often we seek leaders who are better than us, better than politics, like seeking a surgeon who won't make us bleed. Except our leaders have never been perfect. Dr. King certainly wasn't. If we seek the perfect, we will always be disappointed. Watch the circular firing squad as Democratic presidential hopefuls are systematically torn apart by holier-than-though so-called progressive purists - it's as inevitable as it is self-defeating.

West's seminal work was first presented to me as a gift in 1992 by Christine St Jean when I won a student history award at Exeter High. I won't summarize the book here, but I will say that West identified the biggest issue for the American black community as an existential one, arguing that African-Americans inhabit a precarious place where their very existence is threatened. By conservatives who want solely to moralize about family failings, and liberals who want solely to throw money at programs with mixed track records. West's contention is that both are somewhat legitimate critiques - we need more investment in low-income schools and businesses, and we need stronger family cohesion and commitment in the ghetto. What he truly laments is the absence of black leadership in the conversation. And he seeks that leadership - not a paragon, but voices who can speak for the minority communities in this country and who are capable of helping to determine their own future.

I have many books signed the the author. One of my favorite inscriptions is in this book - I've attached a photo below. Yes, politics is dirty and ugly and funky. Yes, race matters. And we don't make progress with our hands clean.

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