America's foremost oral historian tackles the most difficult and complicated issue in America today — race relations — by interviewing nearly a hundred blacks and whites. The result is a riveting and deeply moving — and frequently provocative — look at our country.
jgeneric, October 31, 2007 (view all comments by jgeneric)
Studs Terkel's "Race" is another in a series of books that provides an excellent oral history about subjects that few feel free to talk about. If you like oral history, then you'll love Studs Terkel. Famous for his classic book "Working", he seeks out common "unfamous" Americans and simply asks them to talk about what they think about Race and race relations, in this book. Written in 1990, the book is a little dated, but still holds largely true. There are around 100 interviews in this book. He interviews about an equal amount of Blacks and Whites with some other ethnicities mixed in, and like in all of his books, he interviews about the same number of old and young, men and women, and middle-class and poor. (No mention of anyone's sexuality though.)
Some highlighted stories are from a white former Ku Klux Klan member and a black former civil rights leader are interviewed some two decades later. The Ku Klux Klan member has become a hard-core anti-racist radical who is President of his union which is more than 80% Black. The former civil rights leader has become a conservative republican (though he still believes in limited Affirmative Action). Many of the other stories are interesting because when you put the white point of view and the black point of view right next to each other, there are clearly some huge gaps in understanding each other, and usually the faults and ignorance seem to lie on the white point of view (though some of the interviewed are trying to change their understandings or admit they've changed). There is a lot of frustration on both sides, but at no point do you get an opinion exactly the same as another individual.
I have a belief that you should have 10% theory and 90% action, and lately I've been reading a lot of theory. Books like these are a good antidote to too much theory in your life. I love oral history, because it's straight to the point and doesn't require any detective work by the reader to find out what the author is talking about. Something like the subject of Race, being so linked to how people in the United States relate to each other, you need some straight-forward answers. People too often dance around the issue of race and in order to build a social change movement that brings real improvement in all people's lives; we can't squirt around race anymore than class or gender or sexuality or anything else. Most often, the real battle is the battle for the hearts and minds of people, and to understand what that is exactly. Oral history is important.
In conclusion, Studs Terkel is my favorite non-fiction writer of all time, because his work involves the words of thousands of ordinary people.
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