Monday, July 27, 2009


This morning, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics & African American Studies at Princeton, & frequent MSNBC contributor, had a frank exchange on Twitter with a follower about the idea & perceptions of race. She then clarified her position in a series of sustained posts. This is a clear, succinct presentation of a complex subject that bears reading. Though I do not know if this exchange was prompted by the recent arrest of Henry Louis Gates, it comes about in its wake, when there has been a lot of discussion about issues of race. Harris-Lacewell has weighed in mightily, offering insight & clarity when the subject at hand is rarely what it seems.

Read from the top down. I have not edited the content, which grammatically reflects the 140 character constraint on Twitter posts. For those familiar with Twitter, I have reordered the posts to read top down & arranged in conversational order. I have also reformatted the addresses to clarify who is speaking.

On Twitter @harrislacewell


[Jeff Eddings is a follower of Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Twitter. He lives in Silicon Valley, CA. This exchange began about 10:30am CDT this morning (July 27, 2009).]

[Just prior to Eddings’ first post, Harris-Lacewell was commenting on predicting that Barack Obama would not win the Democratic primary election in 2008]

jeddings @ harrislacewell Wrong pres. predictions aside, the biggest missed opp. w/BO as pres. & you in the mix is lack of discussion re: multiracial.

harrislacewell @ jeddings I'm not sure its a missed opportunity. From my perspective I am not "multi-racial" the term has no meaning for me.

jeddings @ harrislacewell We keep talking about race as if it were one thing. e.g. You & pres. are both multiracial, but only self-identify as black.

harrislacewell @ jeddings because race is a social construct it is clear to me that I am constructed as black and self-identify as such.

jeddings @ harrislacewell Being multiracial & having grown up in both cultures, I can tell you that I'm not constructed as simply one or the other :-)

harrislacewell @ jeddings Though I respect that ppl have right to think of themselves as anything they like, I think "multi-racial" is a weird idea.

jeddings @ harrislacewell I look like both or neither, and people usually have trouble putting me in one bucket or the other.

harrislacewell @ jeddings No I think its much more than that. I don't just self-identify as black. My entire life experience identifies me as black

jeddings @ harrislacewell Point well made and taken. Black because how others view and treat you, not because what you are.

harrislacewell @ jeddings I have parents of different race, but that doesn't change the realities of how binary race continues to be in USA.

jeddings @ harrislacewell Actually, I will insist that race isn't just about how society classifies you--it's also how you self-identify. (cont'd)

jeddings @ harrislacewell Just because society tells me I'm black doesn't change how I feel and what cultural norms I was raised with.

jeddings @ harrislacewell In short: I think it's both. :-)

harrislacewell @ jeddings Ok, hard to do my multi-racial idea in just 140 characts. So i am going to try a few tweets to explain my thoughts. I won't @ OK?


harrislacewell I don't believe multi-racial makes sense by my understanding of race.

harrislacewell Race is socially constructed and "multi-racial" seems to assume that race is biological: if parents are of different then the kid is "mixed"

harrislacewell But that is not how race works. Race is constructed through law, history, culture, practice, custom, etc.

harrislacewell Black does not designate having two parents who are both "un-mixed" descendants of African and African diaspora. Black=derived from society.

harrislacewell There is no "mixed race" history, institutions, cultural practices. There are mixed race ppl who are part of all these, but no group history

harrislacewell I believe all people can self-identify themselves in ways that feel comfortable and honest, but the social/political part is bigger.

harrislacewell I have a white mother and black father, but this doesn't make me mixed race. Race is not biology. In USA this combo makes me black.

harrislacewell My self-designation: Black with Access to Residual White Privilege (BWATRWP)

harrislacewell Funny tweeting about mixed-race identity from New Orleans.

harrislacewell @ jeddings hope this helps clarify my position.

Thursday, June 11, 2009


I intended my first post to be about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. However, I write this piece less than two days after the announcements that Shaman Drum Bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, & Conkey’s Bookstore in Appleton, Wisconsin, will be closing. What will we lose with the closing of these two stores? Are these simply two local businesses that have run their course, the former for 29 years & the latter for 113 years? What do bookstores provide to a community? Is it merely an array of products that we can get somewhere else?

We lose a lot more than a local business when a bookstore closes. It is a cultural nexus, where people & books come together in an intimate way. The community which it serves feels this loss most acutely. However, we are all poorer culturally since none of us live in isolation. To paraphrase Paul Kozlowski, we are diminished. Books & bookstores are key components in connecting a community together with itself & with the broader world beyond the city, state, & national borders. They are places where ideas & stories can be discovered in a way that cannot be replicated online, in a classroom, or even in a library. They are places where you can interact with other people face to face - staff, other customers, or authors – to exchange ideas or simply recommendations. When it comes to books they offer, they provide a curatorial function, as Alana Wilcox of Coach House Books has put it. They do this most effectively because they are the only ones that have direct relationships with both the publishers & the community.

I recognize that this is not the entire picture. There are many volatile issues in play in the realm of books these days. Some were touched on by Karl Pohrt & his staff at Shaman Drum yesterday when they were interviewed on local Ann Arbor radio. Karl Pohrt believes that the model for running a new bookstore that has been around for decades does not work any more. It is broken. LaTissia Mitchell was confident that we should not fear the new technologies, & that knowledge & stories can still be transmitted effectively by new platforms. While not entirely disagreeing with her, Karl wondered if we even understand what happens neurologically when we read a book, & asked how that will change when we are reading digitally. Regarding the function of connecting books with the community, Karl will continue to do this through the Great Lakes Literary Arts Center.

What these closures symbolize more than anything though is the retreat of books from everyday life. From bookstores disappearing from shopping malls to colleges & universities ceding their campus stores to third party operators promising a guaranteed return, which is then provided by licensed merchandise, not books. From disappearing reference books in homes to schools & colleges adopting e-readers in lieu of textbooks. From museums of all kinds drastically reducing, & even eliminating, book sections to libraries deaccessioning more & more books while adding more & more computer terminals. From the weakening of the chains to the ongoing demise of independent scholarly & Main Street carriage trade shops. Added to this is the threat to the physical book itself by the increasing interest & use of e-books. There will be no serendipitous encounters with books when they are all electronic. There will be no friend, teacher, librarian, or bookseller putting a book into your hand & saying, "You have to read this."

My apologies for having strayed a bit here & there. I do hope to engage some of these topics further, & others related, in future posts.