Race Becomes Tomorrow, Gerald Sider’s exploration of racial formations across time and space, probes the nature of history, time, and progress, stretches across genres, and forces the reader to consider the possibilities of solidarity across lines of researcher-researched, racially marked-unmarked, and Northerner-Southerner. While Sider asserts that the text is decidedly “not a memoir” (15), the book draws heavily upon the author’s experiences as an activist and scholar in the American South over the course of several decades, mingling ethnographic observations, personal and political recollections, and statistical data to make claims about the locally-specific processes that constitute racial formation in Robeson County, North Carolina and the United States more generally. For Sider, race is a process, and he encourages us to focus on “what race does” in order to grasp the utility of race as a way of naming “specific kinds of unavoidable struggle” (12). To do so, he pulls upon deep narratives of racialized struggle between whites, Blacks, and Indians (as they call themselves) in order to illustrate that “the history of how race is continually made, unmade, and remade – emerges in good part from the paradox that race simultaneously can and cannot be lived” (1). Race Becomes Tomorrow is a counterpoint to simple narratives of progress, demonstrating that while we inhabit what feels like a new present, we also live within a world shaped by “a past that will not stay past, and simultaneously in a future that struggles to be born” (3), what Avery Gordon might call the haunting of the past in the present.
While not a memoir, the book relies heavily on scenes from Sider’s past: organizing in North Carolina through the 1960s and 1970s, his own childhood among the working class in New York City, and his reading through canonical texts from the social sciences, critical race theory, and feminist thought. He engages heavily with present political realities – mentions of drone strikes, immigration legislation, and President Obama’s mixed legacy, for example, pepper the text – interwoven with carefully selected stories. These stories run the gamut from the struggle to find progressive people of color to run for the county school board to snippets of overheard conversation in urban contexts.
Reliant upon stories as the book is, Sider’s framing of them and his place in these stories warrants some note. Our introduction to the text ends with a note on the author’s use of “we” and “us,” a representational choice that Sider expresses some ambivalence about: on the one hand, he hopes to index his solidarity with and being-with self-identified Blacks and Indians in their struggles for political progress. On the other hand, his whiteness and Northernness make any equivalence in their struggle a tenuous claim, a point he illustrates through the differential vulnerability to the carceral state that he and his friends and interlocutors are subject to. He suggests the readers to rest within “contradictory simultaneity” of his use of “us” (18). An early example of this uneasy balance is the author’s stories about the conk rag, a lye-based method that Black folks used to straighten their hair during his time in North Carolina. Faced with a tough struggle for a school board that represented the interests of Black and Indian students, Sider and his compatriots set about to find an African American candidate that was “untouchable,” unable to be pressured out of the race. Having found such a man, they rejoiced, only for Sider to be dismayed upon finding that the man had straightened his hair in anticipation of his political campaign. For the author, it is a symbol of some larger symbolic struggle: “It was not just his hair that he thought was not quite good enough to the school board, it was himself. By my standards he was a wonderful man: smart, decent, and brave,” a perception that, nonetheless, could not overwhelm the power of whiteness (43). Over the course of the following pages, we see Sider’s shifting understanding of the conk rag, from a sense that the rag was this man’s way of “expressing his dignity” to eventually mobilizing it as a metaphor for respectability politics, those Faustian bargains that the marginalized make in their hopes that the dominant will come to recognize them, at least partially, in their least “offensive” form. Here, Sider’s positionality as an outsider in the community may produce some discomfort for those who wonder how much he can understand the motivation of someone whose experience is so different from his own, but to his credit, his subjectivity is always openly laid bare for the reader. The use of the conk rag, then, encapsulates what is so challenging and interesting about the book: while it is not a memoir, it is deeply engaged in Sider’s lived experience. The author’s imprint is all over this text.
From Black Lives Matter to recent struggles about immigration it is clear that race, and the stories it is entangled with, represents one of the “open wounds of our world” (2). This open wound marks a site of constant, ever-shifting struggle. That many might still agree with the quote that opens the book – “We dies in harness. That’s what it is to be colored” – despite its being uttered in the 1950s, highlights the lingering importance of racial designation for life chances. Not entirely hopeless, however, Race Becomes Tomorrow ends with a series of narrative reflections that capture the complexity of these negotiations for alternative futures, offering us tools for struggle built from the tactics that vulnerable populations have always used in order to make livable worlds for themselves.
Michelle Munyikwa, University of Pennsylvania
Reviewed in this essay
Sider, Gerald. Race Becomes Tomorrow: North Carolina and the Shadow of Civil Rights. Durham, NC: Duke University Press. 248 pages, paperback, $24.95.