Darryl Pinckney on Race, Class and Being ‘Busted in New York’

BUSTED IN NEW YORK
And Other Essays
By Darryl Pinckney

According to a rumor in New Orleans, an old family restaurant used to give a free ham to any police officer who killed a black person in the line of duty. The restaurant stopped doing this only in the 1980s, the story goes, when a black police officer came in to claim his ham. The lesson: In white America, a black man in a uniform is still just a black man.

Observations like this one are at the heart of “Busted in New York,” a new essay collection by the novelist and essayist Darryl Pinckney. Pinckney has written for The New York Review of Books for decades, and most of the 25 essays here appeared there first. In his two novels, Pinckney focused on the interior lives of his black characters in settings including Berlin, Chicago and Indianapolis, where Pinckney was raised. Here, he reveals himself to be a skillful chronicler of black experience in literary criticism, reportage and biography.

In the essays, written between 1994 and 2018, Pinckney reports from the streets of Ferguson, Mo., in the aftermath of the death of Michael Brown. He traces the ways in which the Rev. Jeremiah Wright’s fiery sermons nearly derailed Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2008. He charts, block by block, the gentrification of Harlem, and visits a recovering New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where he tells the story of the ham.

[ Read an excerpt from "Busted in New York.” ]

In “How I Got Over,” he reflects on black expatriates — from Richard Wright to James Baldwin, Pinckney’s lodestar — who left for Europe to escape Jim Crow, only to witness racism by another name: Islamophobia.

But what stands out in this collection are the moments when Pinckney turns his eye toward the contradictions of the black bourgeoisie, of which he is a longtime member. Pinckney grew up in a middle-class family, in the 1960s, when being black and middle class often meant being accused of “trying to act white,” he writes. His mother and father were civil rights foot soldiers who in their spare time would do things like sue their hometown police department to force it to desegregate. His father “hawked N.A.A.C.P. memberships in airport men’s rooms.” His mother’s cousin was lynched in 1931, while a student at Atlanta University.

Pinckney’s parents make appearances in several essays in the book, and even when they don’t, he finds ways to make their spiritual presence tangible. In the title essay, he considers just how much has changed from his parents’ generation to his own as he recalls being arrested on the Lower East Side with two female friends — a banker and a scientist — for smoking a joint on the street in Rudy Giuliani’s New York. “Injustice had only to ring their doorbell, and they were off to the poorhouse,” he writes of his parents. “And here was frivolous me letting a white man put me in handcuffs for something other than protest.”

A hazard of growing up black and middle class is the misguided belief that money and education will provide refuge from discrimination. Pinckney shows how those presumptions are often manifestations of internalized racism, and that even he is not immune to them. In his essay on Ferguson, he describes being afraid of two young black men on the street who turned out to be peaceful protesters. “I had to ask myself, and not for the first time, when did I become afraid of black youth?”

Similarly, Pinckney wonders if the successful black men who complain of racial profiling in Charles Ogletree’s book “The Presumption of Guilt: The Arrest of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Race, Class and Crime in America,” written after Gates was arrested by a white police officer while trying to enter his own home, knew they sounded elitist and out of touch. Though their grievances are troubling, he writes, “one quickly understands the irritation of the black working poor with the outrage of black professionals at the social indignities they encounter. There are worse things than not having one’s high social status acknowledged by whites.”

Not all of the essays have aged well. In “Dreams From Obama,” from 2008, Pinckney writes that “however unpopular it has been as a public policy, affirmative action has succeeded in integrating the middle class,” a statement that rings hollow now, especially in light of the recent college admissions scandals. His prose can also seem belabored and overwrought. Writing about Louis Farrakhan in 1995, in the aftermath of the Million Man March in Washington, he notes, “By locating disunity in the historical conspiracy of whites against blacks, he showed that acclaiming him was not a personal but a collective triumph over those who did not want to see blacks united.”

The crown jewel of this book is “Banjo,” an essay that first appeared last year in the literary magazine Salmagundi. In it, Pinckney pinpoints a devastating irony of growing up in a privileged, intellectual milieu like his: Frequent conversations with his parents about race became a way for the family to deflect real intimacy. “To talk about the black condition made conversation seem personal,” he writes, “a way of not talking about myself while seeming to.”

The pressure to live up to his parents’ expectations led to its own kind of oppression, one he sought to escape by traveling to Europe but addresses head on in this essay, which captures his journey toward self-discovery. Through race, Pinckney implies, we hide from each other and ourselves.

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