New York’s urban neighborhoods are full of young would-be emcees who aspire to “keep it real” and restaurants like Sylvia’s famous soul food eatery that offer a taste of “authentic” black culture. In these and other venues, authenticity is considered the best way to distinguish the real from the phony, the genuine from the fake. But in Real Black, John L. Jackson Jr. proposes a new model for thinking about these issues—racial sincerity.
Jackson argues that authenticity caricatures identity as something imposed on people, imprisoning them within stereotypes—turning them into racial objects and inanimate things, instead of living, breathing human beings. Contending that such assumptions deny people agency—not to mention humanity—in their search for identity, Jackson counterposes sincerity, an internal and more productive analytical model for thinking about race.
Moving in and around Harlem and Brooklyn, Jackson offers a kaleidoscope of subjects and stories that directly and indirectly address how race is negotiated in today’s world—including tales of name-changing hip-hop emcees, book-vending numerologists, urban conspiracy theorists, corrupt police officers, mixed-race neo-Nazis, and high-school gospel choirs forbidden to catch the Holy Ghost. Enlisting “Anthroman,” his cape-crusading critical alter ego, Jackson records and retells these interconnected sagas in virtuosic detail and, in the process, shows us how race is defined and debated, imposed and confounded every single day.