MULATTO AMERICA

At the Crossroads of Black and White Culture: A Social History

By Stephan Talty

HarperCollins. 269 pp. $24.95

When you mix black and white cultural traditions, you can end up with something sublime -- like jazz. Or you can end up with something absurd, such as white men walking like pimps. I know, pimpdom and blackness are not the same thing. But more on that later.

I pulled those examples from "Mulatto America," Stephan Talty's brisk jog through "certain key moments of interracial mixing." For Talty, who is white, such episodes have proved to be endlessly messy and endlessly fascinating.

Talty is a journalist, not a scholar, and his prose benefits from this distinction. His sentences are clean, and he rarely falls into the jargon quagmire that undermines many academic attempts at cultural criticism. The downside of this, however, is his willingness to rely on glib generalizations in instances where documentation or statistics would have better served his argument.

His essay on the black elite, despite his puzzling insistence on describing James Weldon Johnson -- a real Renaissance man -- as a "secondary talent," contains some admirable grappling. He often overreaches, though. He describes W.E.B. Du Bois's advocacy of a classical education as "180 degrees opposed to the stance taken by many students and academics in the culture wars of the 1990s. He and the other radicals were fighting for the right to study the dead white males, not for relief from them." This seems a gross oversimplification to me. Talty's talk of "culture wars" makes me think of people like William Bennett and Pat Buchanan holding down the fort against an imagined horde of dark invaders bent on killing Homer and making Ebonics the official tongue. Du Bois's modern-day counterparts have actually engaged in a quieter effort, one less preoccupied with replacing the canon than with expanding it so that students might receive a closer approximation of the whole story. The Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, a triumphant product of that struggle, contains nary a word about relief from dead white males.

In an essay called "Vicarious Lives," Talty calls Nat King Cole "the first colored man with his own TV show," when Billy Daniels actually preceded him by four years. He calls Althea Gibson an Olympic star when, in fact, she was a Wimbledon champion who never competed in the Olympics. More disturbing than these errors, however, is his resolute plumbing of the emotional states of his subjects. Of Cole's encounters with racism, he writes, "there were times when the white heart must have been simply terrifying to him." As for Paul Robeson, Ethel Waters and Lena Horne, "their own physical selves must have on some level become repellent to them." These are risky leaps, especially coming from a writer who frequently alludes to whites' failures to truly understand the souls of black folk.

More effective, although still spotty, is Talty's essay attempting to make sense of the '60s. He astutely identifies the association of overt racism during that period with the white underclass, a linkage that left the elite free to inflict harm in their own ingenious style. "The 1960s punished the southern redneck for his honesty and rewarded the gentry for their discretion," he writes. He implies that semiliterate mobs and their supportive sheriffs were merely enforcing the policies legislated by their superiors, whose talons extended all the way to the highest levels of state and federal power. It's consoling to imagine racism as the province of the unwashed and uneducated, but Talty knows that the facts have always suggested otherwise.

Talty ventures farthest out on a limb when he argues that the black figure who "most captured the society's imagination" during the 1970s was the pimp. In the process, he unleashes one of the more stupendous sweeping generalizations in recent memory: "If you study footage from the 1950s and 1960s, you will see that most whites walked with a very correct, straight-backed carriage. . . . One could say that the average white American with any sense of physical cool walks today like a cross between a cowboy and a black kid." On one hand, this observation should provide great fodder for those self-appointed black culture cops with whom the media have been so enamored lately. "Not only are blacks stuck in a posture of self-immolating victimology," one can hear them saying with a smirk, "they are also responsible for the corruption of the American spine." On the other hand, we might ask Talty exactly what footage he's talking about. Shots of those aforementioned Southern rednecks, perhaps? I recall quite a bit of slouching and slinking among those angry housewives taunting Ruby Bridges and Elizabeth Eckford as they walked -- straight-backed -- to school.

Less outrageous is Talty's suggestion that even whites who admire blacks are often "deeply in the dark about their actual lives." After all, he tells us in his final essay, "most white kids know Method Man better than they know the quirks of an actual, breathing black peer living a mile away." An interesting thought -- and one that may prompt readers to question Talty's own qualifications when he cockily assures us that "negritude" has not faded from black life. On what does he base such confident declarations? Studies and statistics? His friendships with blacks? Close observation? It's often hard to tell.