The situation may be less dire for white journalists, but they are in no way off the hook. Even the most sympathetic white chronicler represents a cultural intrusion. John Howard Griffin may dye himself sepia to report on racial injustice in Black Like Me, but where is the justice in the underlying assumption that black experience isn’t real until a white man tells us about it? The white journalist must be especially careful he is not engaging in some sort of literary jungle fever, expropriating instead of exploring black experience and turning it to personal use. White writers are too often tempted to inflate themselves whichever way they go, by criticizing blacks (thereby elevating themselves in their own minds) or by championing blacks (thereby elevating themselves in their own minds). Either way, the elevation’s bogus. And the least little bit bogus, whether a black journalist’s race loyalty or a white journalist’s race envy, will destroy the truth of the story.
America desperately needs to hear true stories. Black history is more important to our country than we commonly admit. That history is usually promoted in two ways: as an overdue recognition of black contribution — of Garrett Morgan’s traffic light, for instance — and as a deeper recognition of black travail at the hands of white prejudice. Both are important and that’s a good start, but there’s something more. Black experience can offer America guidance through national quandaries that have nothing essentially to do with race. A country that is publicly debating every day the issue of money vs. morality can find no better leaders than the urban black entrepreneurs and executives who succeeded during Jim Crow. Because their race was harshly embattled, those men, more than anyone in 20th-century America, had to meld their capitalism with community uplift, and their profit making with public good. Similarly, a country trying to figure out how to maintain a vital, authentic culture in an era when that culture is dominated by the distorting influence of entertainment conglomerates can find no better leaders than the Harlem Renaissance writers, who had to figure out how to maintain an authentic black culture in an era when white sponsorship turned every expression into minstrelsy.
And a country whose every Enola Gay exhibit and impeachment trial reveals an intense war over the meaning and uses of history can learn many lessons from the current fight in the black community over its own history. Is history a propaganda tool to be employed in a community’s defense? Or is it an avenue of inspection that opens a community to the world? Answer that, and you’ll have the answer to the question posed to any journalist, black or white, who dares to cross the color line: "Why you? Why this book?"