Black on Black: Exploring Racial Tension and Celebrating Black Culture
Daniel Black’s book, “Black on Black: On Our Resilience and Brilliance in America,” opens with these words:
“We are in pain, therefore I write. Because some forms of pain are indescribable, I write. Only the bones of a story or the lyrics of a song can convey it.”
Black’s latest collection of essays delves deeply into the topic of Blackness, history, and racial conflict in America, while also celebrating Black culture.
Reading “Black on Black” is a challenging experience. Black writes with a strong, knowledgeable, irate, and unrelenting voice, which makes his pieces powerful and moving. His writing is filled with righteous anger and backed by facts, which elicits a response from most readers who have a pulse. He discusses racism, the flawed justice system, the impact of the public education system on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), and the experiences of different generations of gay Black men with AIDS. The goal is for this response to lead to positive change.
There are no pointless essays in this book, and all the pieces fit together to give it a strong sense of coherence. However, some essays stand out and deserve special attention. One particularly moving essay, “When I Was a Boy,” starts as a story about feeling like a “freak” as a child, but gradually turns into a story about acceptance and a criticism of the way young Black males are expected to embody a particular style of masculinity. Throughout the collection, Black explores the emotional and psychological wounds from his formative years, and this essay serves as the ideal introduction that sets the stage for what comes next.
The question that still has to be asked frequently is posed in George Floyd’s insightful article
“The Trial and Massacre of the Black Body”: “…not whether a Black person is dead, but whether the cops we watch performing the deed will be held guilty.” Floyd, a perceptive observer and scholar, repeatedly exposes the cultural umbrella of protection that surrounds white male patriarchy and authority, and how this frequently results in the murder of Black people going unpunished. This essay is probably the most distressing to read because it is filled with examples of how, despite the Floyd case’s resolution, racial abuse and unchecked prejudice against Black people persist. Floyd takes readers on a harrowing tour of the terrible effects of unchecked racism, starting with the bodies of those on the Amistad and moving on through Emmett Till, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin, and Breonna Taylor.
And those are not the only essays that I continued to reflect on long after the book was finished. The aesthetic dilemma essay “Black, But Not Beautiful” demonstrates how “whiteness is deemed superior, while blackness is, by definition, disorderly, undesired, and unholy.” In order to investigate the claim that Black people struggle to perceive themselves as attractive in a society where beauty standards are “diametrically opposed” to their features, Floyd examines popular culture. In “When WE See Us,” Floyd analyzes the legal system through the lens of Ava DuVernay’s film “When They See Us,” which is the ideal companion piece to “The Trial and Massacre of the Black Body.” Finally, “The Beauty and Struggles of HBCUs” examines how historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and those who work and teach there approach the enormous and imperative task of convincing students of their intellectual superiority, which, in most cases, has not been done up to that point.
Black on Black authoritatively argues for reforms to the American criminal justice system
the Black church, the way that Black people view themselves, and the nation as a whole. The book never backs down and never pulls its punches, full of painful truths, from requests to kiss God on the lips to vows about the need to “spark discourse” about challenging subjects.
In an essay that both praises and criticizes Black churches and how they adhere to the same set of beliefs as enslavers did, Floyd mentions notable contemporary African American authors Kiese Laymon, Jesmyn Ward, and Jericho Brown, and then declares: “The Black pen never fails to produce spirit-filled work that, if read and heeded by Black people, would set them free.” Black on Black adds to that list, making it an essential piece of nonfiction that ought to be required reading in these challenging times.