The matter of black lives Writing from the New Yorker

Book - 2021

Bringing together reporting, profiles, memoir and criticism from The New Yorker to present a bold and complex portrait of black life in America, told through stories of private triumphs and national tragedies, political vision, and artistic inspiration throughout history.

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  • Foreword
  • Part I. Reflections
  • Letter from a Region in My Mind
  • On race, religion, and the future of America.
  • The Color Fetish
  • On skin color in literature.
  • Black Like Them
  • Why are West Indian immigrants perceived to be different from other African-Americans?
  • Barack X Jelani Cobb
  • A Presidents racial balancing act.
  • Now is the Time to Talk about What We are Actually Talking About
  • America's moral duty after the election of Donald Trump.
  • The Color of Injustice
  • Fighting racism by redefining it.
  • Part II. Personal Histories
  • Quilts
  • A writer's search for the genuine article.
  • Putting Myself Together
  • On surviving the heady days and nights of youth.
  • American Inferno
  • How a teen-ager becomes a crime statistic.
  • The Yellow House
  • Home, before and after the flood.
  • Test Case
  • The faultlines in New York's schools.
  • Part III. The Political Scene
  • Reaching for the Moon
  • A. Philip Randolph and The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
  • Saint Pauli
  • Pauli Murray's separate but equal struggles.
  • Letter from Jackson
  • Martin Luther King, Jr., debates a racist.
  • Letter from Selma
  • The epic trek across Alabama.
  • The Charmer
  • Coming to terms with the many faces of Louis Farrakhan.
  • Mourning for Whiteness
  • A response to the election of Donald J. Trump.
  • The Southern Strategist
  • The Rev. William Barber leads a movement against poverty.
  • Part IV. Life and Letters
  • Phillis Wheatley on Trial
  • A poet in constant question.
  • A Society of One
  • Zora Neale Hurston, American contrarian.
  • Hughes at Columbia
  • Columbia's Overdue Apology to Langston Hughes.
  • King of Cats
  • How Albert Murray inspired a generation.
  • Ghosts in the House
  • The singular storytelling of Toni Morrison.
  • Secret Histories
  • Saidiya Hartman reimagines Black America.
  • Part V. Onward and Upward with the Arts
  • Voice of the Century
  • Marian Anderson's complex legacy.
  • The Colossus
  • Sonny Rollins on the bandstand.
  • American Untouchable
  • P. Jay Sidney's fight to integrate early TV.
  • Brother from Another Mother
  • Key and Peele, chameleon comedians.
  • Radical Alienation
  • Arthur Jafa brings Black life to the screen.
  • The Shadow Act
  • Kara Walker's vision.
  • Gettin' Paid
  • Jay-Z and the rise of corporate rap.
  • The Mask of Metal-Face Doom
  • A nonconformist rapper's second act.
  • The Autofictions of Kendrick Lamar
  • On Kendrick Lamar's album "DAMN."
  • Part VI. Annals of the Law
  • Opera in Greenville
  • A 1947 lynching trial in South Carolina.
  • Black Bodies in Motion and in Pain
  • On Jacob Lawrence's paintings and Dylann Roof
  • A Darker Presence
  • A museum of African-American history comes to the capital.
  • Before the Law
  • A sixteen-year-old boy's ordeal in Rikers.
  • The Forgotten Ones
  • A child's journey through Georgia's special-education system.
  • The Color of Blood
  • Race, memory, and a killing in the suburbs.
  • Part VII. The Uprising and After
  • The Matter of Black Lives
  • How a movement found its moment.
  • The Uprising
  • On the streets of Minneapolis after the murder of George Floyd.
  • The Riot Report
  • A long history of government inaction.
  • How Do We Change America?
  • The quest to transform this country cannot be limited to challenging its brutal police.
  • The Trayvon Generation
  • On motherhood in the face of police brutality.
  • Homecoming
  • A son's reckoning with his mother's hope.
  • Acknowledgments
  • List of Contributors
Review by Publisher's Weekly Review

New Yorker staff writer Cobb (The Substance of Hope) and editor Remnick (The Bridge) present an expansive anthology of pieces from the magazine's archives on the "political, cultural, and economic questions surrounding race and Black achievement." James Baldwin's "Letter from a Region in My Mind," later published as The Fire Next Time, opens the proceedings, setting a high bar that the collection, for the most part, maintains. Other highlights include Hilton Als's "Homecoming," which interweaves reflections on the 1967 Brownsville uprising and the protests that followed the murder of George Floyd by police in 2020 with insights into the cultural burdens placed on Black artists; Renata Adler's report on the 1964 Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, which captures the homespun feel of the movement before it was mythologized; and Sarah Broom's "The Yellow House," a poignant meditation on the loss of her family home in Hurricane Katrina that became a National Book Award--winning memoir. Beyond the stellar prose, what unites these pieces, which range widely in length, tone, and point of view, is Baldwin's insight, paraphrased by Cobb, that "the American future is precisely as bright or as dark as our capacity to grapple with ." This standout anthology illuminates a matter of perennial concern. (Sept.)

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Review by Library Journal Review

In his introduction, Cobb (The Substance of Hope) grounds this essential anthology in the American experience: "Race has exerted a profound, distorting effect on American life--all of it, not simply the portion labeled with the racial modifier 'Black.'" More than an antiracist reading list, this collection of mindfully curated historic and contemporary New Yorker texts surveys a wide range of voices and narratives, from Rebecca West's 1947 account of a lynching trial in South Carolina to Kelefa Sanneh's recent analysis of corporate hip-hop. It includes canonical authors (James Baldwin, Jamaica Kincaid, Toni Morrison) alongside recent works by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Jill Lepore, and Elizabeth Alexander. Cobb and Remnick have assembled a dialogue across generations of New Yorker contributors that encourages readers to engage with the nation's history of racism and potential for change. VERDICT Recommended for all libraries, this anthology offers an engaging and highly relevant selection for American audiences.--Asa Drake, Marion Cty. P.L., FL

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Review by Kirkus Book Review

Exemplary gathering of writings on Black history, arts, politics, and culture in America. Not all the writers in this New Yorker compilation are Black--e.g., Renata Adler, Calvin Trillin, Malcolm Gladwell--but the most compelling of the pieces are drawn from lived experience. As Cobb writes, "in its early decades, [the magazine] largely kept the subject of race at a distinct remove from its readers." However, in 1962, as the civil rights movement grew in strength and intensity, the New Yorker published an essay that resounds throughout this book. Called "Letter From a Region in My Mind," James Baldwin's piece angrily denounced a system in which "the social treatment accorded even the most successful Negroes proved that one needed, in order to be free, something more than a bank account," one in which Black people "are taught really to despise themselves from the moment their eyes open on the world." In the following essay, Toni Morrison recounts an attempt to write about race in such a way as "to defang cheap racism, annihilate and discredit the routine, easy, available color fetish, which is reminiscent of slavery itself." Politicians come in for close scrutiny, with Barack Obama called into question for avoiding overt questions of race while addressing Black audiences with "veiled dispatches and surreptitious winks," while forgotten heroes get their due. For example, Kathryn Schulz praises Pauli Murray, whose "law-school peers were accustomed to being startled by her," both for her brilliance and foresight: In 1944, she prophesied that within 25 years, Plessy v. Ferguson would be overturned (it took a decade). Rappers, artists, curators, and scholars all get their say. Most urgently, the final section of the book addresses the emergence of an ever more organized Black resistance following the murder of George Floyd. Other contributors include Jamaica Kincaid, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Hilton Als, Stanley Crouch, Zadie Smith, and Edwidge Danticat. An essential volume for readers interested in the Black past and present, as all readers should be. Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

Copyright (c) Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.