Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race

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9780684857220: Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race

Eugene Robinson didn't expect to have his world turned upside down when he accompanied a group of friends and acquaintances to the beach at Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro one sunny afternoon. He had recently moved to South America as the new correspondent for the Washington Post, a position he had sought not only as an exciting professional challenge but also as a means of escape from the poisonous racial atmosphere in America's cities, which he experienced firsthand as a reporter and editor covering city politics in Washington, D.C. Black and white wouldn't matter so much, he thought, if he gave himself a little distance from the problem.

At first Robinson saw Brazil as a racial paradise, where people of all hues and colors mingled together on the beaches, in the samba schools, and at carnaval. But that day on the beach, his most basic assumptions about race were shattered when he was told that he didn't have to be black in Brazil if he didn't want to be. The society looked at people through a broad spectrum of colors, ranging from "white" to "coffee with milk" to "after midnight," and not as members of two rigidly defined races. Like most African Americans, Robinson had always recognized the existence of color gradations within the black community -- the members of his own family span the entire range from coal to cream -- but he never looked at color the same way after that encounter at Ipanema.

Coal to Cream is the story of Robinson's personal exploration of race, color, identity, culture, and heritage, as seen through the America of his youth and the South America he discovered, forging a new consciousness about himself, his people, and his country. As he immersed himself in Brazilian culture, Robinson began to see that its focus on color and class -- as opposed to race -- presents problems of its own. Discrimination and inequality still exist, but without a sense of racial identity, the Brazilians lack the anger and vocabulary they need to attack or even describe such ills. Ultimately, Robinson came to realize that racial identity, what makes him not just an American but a black American, is a gift of great value -- a shared language of history and experience -- rather than the burden it had sometimes seemed.

A penetrating look at race relations in the United States and much of the rest of the hemisphere, Coal to Cream is both a personal memoir and a striking comment on the times in which we live. At a time when many are calling for the abandonment of racial identity, Robinson cautions that we should be careful what we wish for, lest we get it.

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Review:

Eugene Robinson, an African American assistant editor at The Washington Post, experienced strong culture shock when he went to Brazil and discovered that nation's staggering degrees of blackness: with over 60 million people of apparent African descent, Brazil is the world's largest black country after Nigeria. But as Robinson deftly articulates in the stunning Coal to Cream, most Afro-Brazilians suffer from race denial and an underdeveloped sense of racial identity, which keeps them from demanding social and political reforms. Robinson is awed by the nation's African musical, culinary, and religious influences, which, along with generations of cohabitation (in every sense of the word) with Indians and Europeans, have eliminated--at least on one level--the harsher aspects of racism. "The emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazil--the absence of racial conflict," Robinson writes. "There was no silent struggle going on."

But he also notes that black Brazilians occupy the lowest rungs of Brazilian society; many of them live in the hopeless conditions of the favela slums. He also observes the emerging black consciousness movements in Bahia and the Afro-eroticism of Carnival (which serves as a safety valve for the country's poor and discontented). And he contrasts Brazil's black population with the more marginalized Afro-Peruvians and the Afro-Caribbean Brixton area of London, two regions where race consciousness abounds. Yet, with all of its ambiguities, Eugene Robinson sees Brazil as a possible future for the United States, as the absurd "one drop" rule used to arbitrate racial identity becomes a thing of the past. --Eugene Holley Jr.

About the Author:

Eugene Robinson is an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, where he edits the "Style" section. He joined the Post in 1980 and has served as city hall reporter, city editor, South America bureau chief, London bureau chief, and foreign editor. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship program. He lives with his wife, Avis, and their two sons in Arlington, Virginia.

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