In this slim book, Jeff Chang shares his perspective on various racial conflicts and controversies of the past few years. The word “Notes” in the subtitle is essential to appreciating what this book is. It’s not a comprehensive study of race relations, nor is it a complete history. It is “notes”—that is, reflections. An essay collection.
That’s not to say that this book isn’t serious. It is very serious. Chang puts the subjects he’s mulling over in context, sometimes by looking at history and sometimes by just stepping back and providing a more complete picture than we might get in the moment.
Chang considers such topics as diversity and whiteness, student protest, diversity in Hollywood, gentrification and suburbia, the Ferguson uprising, Asian Americans, and Beyonce’s Lemonade. He has smart things to say about all of these topics, but if’ you’ve been following a lot of the conversation around these issues, you may not find a lot that’s new.
For my part, I got the most out of the chapter on Ferguson. I followed that story pretty closely, but social media made it a little like drinking from a fire hose. There was so much information, not all of it accurate, that it was hard to get a sense of what was really happening. The essay immediately before the one on Ferguson discusses resegregation as it relates to the suburbs, using St. Louis as an example of a highly segregated region. He writes:
Resegregation matters because it pulls communities and regions downward, and because it impacts us not just right now, but the life chances of those not yet born.
And yet, too few of us were paying attention until Michael Brown was shot. In Ferguson, Black resistance revealed the structure of what America ha become, and began to point toward new ways of envisioning our shared future.
In the next essay, he tells the story of Michael Brown, his death, and the aftermath. I especially appreciated learning about what Michael Brown was like and getting a better understanding of the obstacles he faced. The story of who he was didn’t get nearly enough attention, and although Chang doesn’t claim to know exactly what happened in the moments before Brown was killed, he does present him as a full human being, writing:
Lives were complicated. The smallest things could trip you up. Those would could least afford it paid the most. Things could escalate in a heartbeat. The biggest mystery was how to turn it down without bowing down. And a life, in all its singularity and strangeness, was always worth the lifting, the telling, and the protecting, and never only for its fragility.
He goes on to describe the protests after Brown’s death, sharing stories from people who were there, and showing how it escalated. That essay, on its own, made this book worth my time. The others stand out less, although I enjoyed them well enough as I was reading them.