Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity

By Shipley, Jesse Weaver | Anthropological Quarterly, Winter 2007 | Go to article overview
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Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity


Shipley, Jesse Weaver, Anthropological Quarterly


John L. Jackson Jr., Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, Novemeber, 2005, 288 pp.

John Jackson's Real Black: Adventures in Racial Sincerity is a tightly argued essay that moves effortlessly through multiple loosely framed stories, portraits, urban snapshots, reflections on popular culture, religious fervor, economic meditations, and explicitly personal, and disarmingly vulnerable reflections. As anthropology struggles to invigorate and re-politicize ethnography this work offers a model of subtle fieldwork and personal engagement situated within the tradition of American anthropology's meaning-oriented ethnography. Jackson argues that sincerity provides an organizing framework for the always-incomplete practical, intellectual, and expressive engagements with racial being in contemporary urban America. For Jackson the search for authenticity and realness is an oppositional form of objectification that must be enfolded within critical practices oriented towards a sincere subject-position.

Jackson's second book on Harlem portrays a bubbling, urban world populated by a rich cast of business people, conspiracy theorists, apocalyptic pronouncers, musicians, religious figures, philosophers, and people struggling through daily life with both humor and frustration. Jackson's ethnography highlights moves with authorial fluidity from Harlem's gentrification to show how things such as the 1993 train shooter Colin Ferguson, hip hop artists, DNA testing for African ancestry, the Worldwide Truthful Understanding Black Hebrew Israelites enter into daily public and intimate discourse. As Jackson moves through the spaces of Harlem, an existential Black masculinity proves central to the political and ethical projects of racial consciousness. This text is a meditation of the possibility of ethnography of daily life in the contemporary American political climate.

Real Black examines contemporary Harlem as a set of loosely overlapping Black publics and counter-publics. Harlem is iconic in the popular imagination of blackness and African American identity. The text traces this neighborhood as a richly intertextual set of contexts within which race is often central to the production of subjects. Jackson traces the ways in which it is heavily contested and reworked in the context of gentrification. Urban renewal is internally manifest in the struggles of the "bifurcation of Harlem's black middle class" between those who see their relationship to community in "purely materialist, market-based terms" and those that argue for a "race-based social community" (51). But it is in "the realisms and idealisms of everyday forms of African Americanness" (39) that racial being is produced and contested. And Harlem stands for the urban core of Black America and the American racial imaginary more broadly construed. As a reflexive lifeworld where the performative aspects of social action are reflectively highlighted, Harlem is "a burlesque mimicking of realness that might comprehend globalization more through sympathetic magic than improved empiricism" (39). In the mapping of Harlem Jackson discerns an "anthropological numerology," "a mathematics of illusion...and contingency" (39), that points to a subtle logic of conspiracy, humor, performance and existential struggle that underlies the multiple levels upon which practices of daily life are experienced by Harlemites. Moving through apartments, streets, bars, and businesses, Jackson maps a set of public and private spaces within which social action for Harlemites is productively constrained and liberated through the "sincere" enactments of racial being.

The central argument traces the productive tension between notions of authenticity and sincerity and the continual presence of the ethnographer both epistemologically and ontologically in the ethnographic encounters where these are manifest. The narrative draws the reader through a rapid succession of sites tied together through a sustained conversation between Jackson and his main interlocutor Bill, an outspoken entrepreneur/philosopher.

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