MAY 6, 2021
ELWOOD DAVID WATSON’S ESSAY collection, Keepin’ It Real: Essays on Race in Contemporary America, is a raw study of racism and a reminder that if we do not share the hardships and experiences of others, then we are better off listening. But we are fortunate to have such an engaging speaker in this case.
In a conversational tone, Watson walks us through various shades of racial tensions in the 21st century, including white nationalism, the degradation of Black women, the N-word debate, and Black Lives Matter.
The central argument: The United States’s racial problems will not self-demolish anytime soon. But he suggests several changes that must be made to accelerate the process toward a better state.
Some of these changes include the difficult territory of Black self-hatred. Context matters: Black Americans are born into a system of oppression that enslaved their ancestors and labeled their skin color a crime. Instilled racial bias means children see only lighter skin tones on television and believe darkness is “scary” or “evil.” Such patterns embed in children’s subconscious, which later translate into how they judge people based on their skin color. Watson avers:
[I]t is not really all that surprising that certain Black Americans would suffer from mental health issues, given the disproportionate number of Black people who suffer from racism, poverty, prejudice, personal slights, individual and systematic discrimination, and various other forms of micro aggressions.
The book’s structure and wide range of subjects are admirable. Watson fits an impressive range of content into every short chapter without producing underdeveloped critiques. A professor of history, African American studies, and gender studies at East Tennessee State University, he discusses topics such as Black history in the United States and sexual politics in the Black community with credibility and ease. He deftly aligns his essays to show how repeated patterns have been normalized, and argues that racism is a permanent and intrinsic component of the United States. In this way, Keepin’ It Real might be compared to Derrick Bell’s Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism.
Watson adeptly weaves pop culture and news into his observations. These short essays cover John Lewis, Rachel Dolezal, Bill Cosby, Philando Castile, alt-right loudmouths, Dylann Roof, Michelle Obama, and Black History Month. Watson recalls the O. J. Simpson trial and how it likely would not have exploded into the story of the century if the victim had been a Black woman. This “might have been a minor cover story in Jet or Ebony magazine and not much else,” Watson contends. And ordinary Black individuals do not get as much news coverage as white people, but do see their mugshots in news stories reporting crimes they had no part in.
While he focuses on the African American experience, the collection is accessible. I’m a Latina categorized as a “person of color,” and I appreciate how Watson frames his argument against white privilege. I, too, have been told to, “Speak English; you’re in America!” — often when I have correctly pronounced the name of a Mexican dish (carnitas, mulitas) while serving food at my catering job.
My childhood world in Boyle Heights was a completely different paradigm from my private college in Orange County, where my friends turned out to be almost exclusively nonwhite; most were Black students. Perhaps we recognized ourselves on the margins and sympathized. A white classmate once texted me, “Be careful; those people are dangerous,” while I was hanging out with my Black friends. Others asked me, “What are you?” as soon as we were introduced. Then there was the student who called my dog, Bean, a “beaner” — his fur was black and brown.
Conventional histories usually tell partial truths. What we are taught often exempts the firsthand experience of the people we learn about. There is a difference between knowing what has happened and understanding what has happened. Keepin’ It Real is a reminder to non-Black readers that it is easy to praise conveniently selected pieces of a culture that is tied to a different race when we do not have to live their everyday struggle.
Watson’s most powerful section deals with Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy murdered in Mississippi for allegedly flirting with a white woman in 1955. His face was unrecognizable after his murderers shot and beat him before throwing him into the Tallahatchie River. Till’s mother, Mamie Elizabeth Till-Mobley, insisted on an open-casket service to show the world what was done to her child, to always remember.
When racial violence occurs today, we evoke Till’s image. Though some seek to close the casket, racially fraught matters like police brutality persist. Each incident reminds us that people, especially public figures, may watch what they say, but monitored speech does not signify changed beliefs. Racists have just become better at hiding. Till’s ghost still haunts the land — not just Mississippi but everywhere.
“America’s racial problems aren’t going away any time soon,” writes Watson, and it’s a tough truth. I can relate to him in this way: both of our races are depicted as being part of the “minority,” partly defined by lack of power and shelved alongside every other group that is not white. We must learn to sustain ourselves and survive while constantly preparing for war. Even a diverse landscape like Southern California can punish us to the point that it is exhausting simply to exist. And so we say that all colors must be loved in exclamation — at a minimum, respected.
Watson’s book calls us to keep Till’s casket open to remind us of the repeated tragedies inflicted on Black individuals throughout United States history and still every day. Let it remain open until we see color and until we realize equality is not an inconvenience — it is a deserved right.