There’s a joke that everyone in New York who’s reading a book in public is just doing it to be seen reading that book. This is not true in Atlanta, though, because no one here reads. Part of it may be down to the dearth of public transportation; reading while driving is not an option, unless you want to put your life at even greater risk than you already have by the mere fact of getting behind the wheel in this city (and, of course, there is the matter of texting, as Werner Herzog reminded us). If Atlantans do read, it must be in secret, and most likely the Bible.
But I have occasionally cracked a book in a bar in Atlanta, typically when I’m alone in the city and footloose, in the hope that something interesting might happen if I wait long enough. As a professor, I assign a lot of readings to students and generally it’s helpful to have actually read the books myself, so combining my self-inflicted homework with a stiff drink makes the whole ordeal more bearable.
I recently had the unique experience of reading Racecraft, the new book by historian Barbara Fields and her sister Karen, a sociologist, in a series of bars around the city. A searing indictment of Americans’ continued attachment to a spurious belief in the existence of race and racial differences, the book is bound to spark conversation and controversy. But I had no idea how much curiosity it would elicit in the race-conscious capital of the South.
It all started in Manuel’s Tavern, an Atlanta landmark that was founded by Lebanese-American entrepreneur Manuel Maloof in the late forties, before the proprietor launched a storied career in Dekalb County politics—a testament to the extent that Lebanese and other Arab Americans could be integrated into American society in the early and mid twentieth century, particularly if they were Christian. (Look at the careers of the Sununu family of New Hampshire.) Manuel’s remains a hangout of politicos, journalists, and other interesting folks and a meeting ground for the local Democratic Party. As I was reading the book, I overheard a conversation between a crabby, blunt hospice nurse who often hangs around the bar (and who has more than a few interesting stories of her own to tell) and a young Indian-American man who wanted to buy a cigarette from her. (His offer of $1 wasn’t enough, she said, improbably asserting that a carton of her Pall Malls costs $75. In New York, maybe, but not the Dirty South.)
After their heated exchange, the latter, Sanjay, struck up a conversation with me. Sanjay taught English literature in a suburb of Atlanta, and he was boisterous and opinionated in discussing Syria, beer, and his ranking of the greatest basketball players (a neighbor at the bar quibbled with the order of his list, but agreed that he’d basically picked the right players). Our conversation inevitably turned to race—particularly my ethnicity, which is ambiguous enough to be perceived as vaguely South Asian from time to time. I’ve spent my life slipping in and out of racial and ethnic categories like costumes others had picked out for me, being read as Arab, Italian, Greek, Jewish, Indian and Pakistani at times—and in one bizarre episode at a Baptist church in Charlotte, Chinese. (I’d known from day one that I was an “other” growing up in West Virginia, Indiana, and North Carolina, but what “other” that was always hovered along the line of white and a vague, all-encompassing brown. My family reassured me I could pass for white, though.) I told Sanjay I was Libyan-American, and immediately we were talking of what “our people” were like vis a vis family, money, careers, etc. (as if an Arab American and Indian American shared traditions). A sense of kinship in shared brownness instantly took root in this still very black-and-white city.
A week later, I was hanging out at the Earl, a rock venue and bar-restaurant in gentrifying East Atlanta Village (EAV), and a young woman next to me asked what book I was reading. I said it was a great book by one of my advisers in grad school, a sort of personal hero of mine. The young woman responded at length when I tried to explain the idea behind the book; despite the fact that she was the palest, blondest girl you’ve ever seen, she explained that she was half Japanese and half white, and that she had been persecuted for being white. “Here we go,” I remember thinking, but I soon learned that she had grown up in Japan and had indeed felt ostracized and picked on for being a gaijin (foreigner). Having had several close friends who’d grown up in Japan, I was well aware of the xenophobic discrimination that many non-Japanese experienced living there. I was surprised that this woman, who would undoubtedly be perceived by almost any American observer as being a white person, could have any identity other than being white, but this is who she was and where she came from. She made her living doing translations of Japanese to English for a law firm in Atlanta, and though her first name could be misread as a European one, her surname was unmistakably Japanese.
After she left, a man to my left looked at me and gestured toward his hair; he had a mop of curls, and my frizzy locks were at considerable length, along with a beard. I nodded and tapped my hair to show I understood the gesture. He sidled up and unloaded that, as a Jewish guy from Long Island, he felt very uncomfortable in Atlanta; as our conversation unfolded, he said he felt an affinity with me that he hadn’t felt with most people in the South, and he had immediately assumed I was Muslim/Arab/Pakistani/etc., asking about “my people” (which is to say, my thoughts on the Quran, Ramadan, and so on—subjects that someone drinking alone in a bar would undoubtedly have a great command of). He stressed that his people and my people had a lot in common, including DNA, and that Arabs and Jews weren’t that different (check out our hair). I had to agree on a social, if not biological, level; I felt pretty at home and comfortable in NYC, where everybody is from everywhere, but I’ve never felt as racially marked in any other place I lived as in Atlanta, where racial consciousness is pervasive and inescapable. It structures everything. So there was a commonality we felt as the odd-ones-out here, who both shared a curly mess of hair (and an imagined genetic or biological sameness).
A few days later, I went for a late dinner at the Graveyard Tavern, another watering hole/restaurant/music venue in EAV. As I poked at my salad and read the Fieldses’s thoughts about how racial hokum obscures Americans’ ability to perceive the gross inequalities of their own society, a young woman in a leather jacket bounded over and asked, “Fiction or academic?” Caught off guard by the question—and mentally befogged in the aftermath of a three hour long evening seminar—I had a hard time computing an answer. She was asking about the book, of course, and I blurted out “academic.” The questioner pumped her fist in the air and said, “YES!” gesturing back to her friend on the other side of the bar and saying, “I win! I told you so!” She told me she and her friend were philosophers, and that she teaches at Spelman.
Her specialty? Critical race theory. Not a subject that Barbara Fields, the scourge of whiteness studies, was likely to look kindly upon.
Race, race—in Atlanta it’s raining race. Whether it’s the sense that anyone who’s neither white nor black feels of being an outsider in the city, or an imagined sense of kinship between people who see their racial identities as somehow linked or overlapping, or a random encounter with a critical race theorist, the subject seems inescapable. It could be cut and traded by the block like the thickest Oregon fog on the dimmest day of December. Of course, it may very well be the fact that I was reading a book called Racecraft that prompted the discussion—though “where are you from?” or the hated “what are you?” question is one that comes up pretty frequently in Atlanta, more so than in New York, which is every bit and more so a crossroads of immigrants and émigrés.
In any case, it’s all the more ironic that I stumbled into so many extended disquisitions on race (as identity, as ethnicity, as culture, as a subject of academic study) when I was reading a book whose overriding, insistent, impassioned argument is that race doesn’t exist—that people are not distinguishable as biological groups, and that racial categorization is a fool’s game, a symptom of a racist ideology that hypnotizes Americans above all. The Fieldses may have written a book about how unicorns don’t exist, but most of us are too busy talking about unicorns to notice.