Race, Action, Culture: Mulatto America: at the Crossroads of Black and White Culture; a Social History

Mulatto America: at the Crossroads of Black and White Culture; a Social History – Books

Lynne D. Johnson

By Stephan Talty

The notion that American culture is a hybridization of various cultures, with layers of assimilation–cultural, structural, marital–at its core is not far-fetched. Neither is the idea that the relationship of black and white, rife with both aversion and admiration, is the foundation of this amalgamation. Treading this familiar territory, journalist Stephen Talty has written a book that examines the mixing-both cultural and biological that comprises American culture.

Traversing centuries, from the 17th up until today, Talty, who is white, allegorizes the relationship of black and white through historical accounts of slavery, abolition, social intermingling, the black elite, and the Harlem Renaissance. Popular culture is also explored. There’s jazz, light-skinned actresses Lena Home and Dorothy Dandridge, black pop, the pimp ethos and advent of cool, and of course, there’s hip-hop. Storytelling is Talty’s gift here–by his own admission, the book is a work of “literary journalism.” Overall, the writing is clear and moving, but in revisiting the white fascination with the “other,” in terms of borrowing and adapting culture, we learn nothing new. Nevertheless, Talty does venture down seldom traveled roads to include how blacks adapted elements of white culture.

Full of observations, but short on critical analysis, Mulatto America doesn’t quite offer any new understandings of race or its place within the fabric of American culture. What’s most intriguing is his supposition that the color line is fading, given that today’s pop culture has enabled youth of varying races to come together as “the society of the multicultural self, in which one assembles an identity out of the widest possible cultural materials.” Surely for a white man, this could seem accurate. Hip-hop, as the driver of pop culture, stretches its ghettocentric tentacles into every form of media and into the mainstream. But by no means is it a great equalizer.

Yet when Talty finds himself in a conundrum, he turns to the black pop novel, stating, “But in these novels, the idea that whites are some kind of killer wraiths is fading, a touchstone from the past.” On some level people of color probably want to believe that what Talty writes is true. That “[America’s] singers and writers broadcast the lonesome truth of American equality long before the nation honored it.” That being American means being a mulatto. Leon E. Wynter, who recently released American Skin: Pop Culture, Big Business and the End of White America, would probably agree. “Today, wherever the real American identity is ready to be expressed in all its miscegenated energy and truth, some capitalist is ready to, as they say, monetize it,” Wynter offers.

The fact remains, issues of race and racism are still as prevalent as they were in the days of segregation, and since Talty has provided only minimal insight, there is no way to declare that it isn’t so.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Color Lines Magazine

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group