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STEPPING INTO THE LIGHT

THE END OF BLACKNESS

By Debra J. Dickerson

Pantheon, $24, 320 pp

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Every two or three years, someone comes along with a book that promises fresh insight into race, the nation's most enduring obsession.

The major problem with most of these works is that, no matter how much the language is gussied, their authors, mostly of conservative persuasion, blame the victim to a greater or lesser degree. These works make an instant splash but soon fade from the scene because they erroneously substitute the foibles of the individual for the residual, group-specific hurdles that institutions, such as home loan firms and auto rental companies, erected long ago.

Now, just in time for the Martin Luther King and Black History Month celebrations, comes The End of Blackness by Debra J. Dickerson.

Fortunately, the book is not a total blame-the-victim screed. Bold and appropriately documented, this book challenges the notions of the "civil rights Old Guard" by arguing from the perspective of what is now known as the "post civil rights generation."

A Harvard Law School graduate, Dickerson claims that her book "will both prove and promote the idea that the concept of "blackness,' as it has come to be understood, is rapidly losing its ability to describe, let alone predict or manipulate, the political and social behavior of African-Americans. Given its strictures and the limitations it places upon the growth and free will of those to whom it refers, it diminishes their sovereignty as rational and moral actors.

"Nearly 150 years after the end of slavery, a generation past the end of Jim Crow, the time is overdue for blacks to reforge their identity to reflect the progress already made and to prepare for that still to come. "Blackness' must be updated so that blacks can free themselves from the past and lead America into the future."

Dickerson's "get over it" view is a big challenge to a people who were hauled to this nation's shores as slaves, as subhuman creatures devoid of a soul. If contemporary African-Americans want to live as free and productive individuals, Dickerson maintains, they must erase their group memory or, at the very least, lessen the negative influence of that group memory in their lives.

But Dickerson does not dismiss all of the past. She lauds those wise African-Americans who were, as she refers to them, "worthy leaders and thinkers." In fact, she dedicates the book to, among others, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Carter G. Woodson, Albert Murray, E. Franklin Frazier and Martin Luther King because they were self-critical gadflies. Their messages were intended to help blacks free themselves from the psychological chains that had replaced the physical chains of peonage.

Of these men's influence on her personal life, Dickerson writes: "Now I know how to be both black and human. Now I know how to think because now, having sought out the un-Black History Month, Chicken McNuggetized, contextless quote, I know how thoroughly I've been bamboozled as to my true intellectual and moral heritage and I know who did the bamboozling. Now I know that it's black people they strove to challenge and perfect, not the rest of the world. They loved us more than they hated anyone else. That's a gift beyond measure for an orphan race."

As an orphan race, blacks must let go of their obsession with white racism because, for one, it is not going away. Most importantly, though, the obsession has caused blacks to adopt a warped view of their own potentialities. African-Americans must learn self-reliance if they are to "play the game" of success in the United States.

But Dickerson does not let whites off the hook. They, too, exploit blackness by holding on to lies and myths that absolve them of responsibility and guilt. The obsession with blackness is unhealthy for everyone. It is unhealthy for America, Dickerson argues.

In a surprising twist, Dickerson sees hope in black pop culture, especially in what she asserts is the "intellectual and political fervor coming from the hip-hop generation's burgeoning cohort of artists, intellectuals, activists, and entrepreneurs."

Indeed, the likes of P. Diddy, Snoop Dogg and Ice Cube and a growing number of traditional professionals are "playing the game" of success in America by redefining blackness. They have, for the most part, turned away from the Old Guard _ the NAACP, the Urban League, even the black church _ for leadership.

Dickerson praises this new direction: "Blacks, inner city or suburban, urban or rural, successful or struggling _ all hunger for leadership that leads up and out, not back to white people. Leadership that doesn't tell them to aim downward for the lowest common denominator but that links arms to elevate, with loving sternness, those blacks lagging behind. Leadership that believes in the unlimited capacity of black talent, not the unlimited capacity of white evil.

"Blacks need leaders looking to the limitless future, not the hunched-over past; leaders who are excited and hopeful, not bitter and defeated. Blacks need leaders who do have their hopes and dreams tied to the continued existence of white racism, the continued existence of black underachievement."

The End of Blackness will be a controversial book. Unlike other black writers, such as Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams, who write with a mean-spiritedness to ingratiate themselves with white conservatives, Dickerson writes with sincere concern for the plight of African-Americans. The End of Blackness is not an attack. It is a plea for blacks to look inward. They must do so, Dickerson argues, if they want succeed.

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.

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