Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man?, by Charles Barkley

Book 36

I came across Charles Barkley’s Who’s Afraid of a Large Black Man? at Half Price Books. I’ve always rather liked Barkley (except when he was playing the Bulls) and in this book, he interviews a whole bunch of people (Tiger Woods, Bill Clinton, Samuel L. Jackson, George Lopez)about race relations in the U.S. Yeah, I know. He’s kind of a blowhard, but he has a brain. Can he write? He doesn’t have to write; he hooked up with journalist Mike Wilbon to edit.

Then Senate-Candidate Barack Obama was interviewed (published in 2005, the interview happened during the campaign). Barkley did nod to the fact that Obama broke through in part because of a Republican sex scandal that didn’t even involve any sex. (As much as I like the President, I am still ticked at the Illinois Republican Party for being so stupid.) And this was after the speech at the Democratic National Convention. Interestingly enough, even while Barkley was saying that this guy could lead “our people”, he also said that there would never be an African American president. Not “not in my lifetime”. But never.

There were several themes in this book, and Obama hit a few of them. First, that while racism still exists in this country, the problems we have are much more about economics than about race. Second, that “white people” don’t “wish black folks ill”. They’re just taking care of their own business. Another variation of that was something like “white people are not thinking about black people as much as black people are thinking about white people”. Many of those interviewed talked about the idiocy of the concept of “acting white”. Pointing to something in the African American culture that thinks it is selling out to read books and educate one’s children. And then there were the discussions of Cosby.

Barkley didn’t actually interview Bill Cosby, but this was right around the time that Cosby began to talk, openly and loudly, about African Americans taking responsibility for their own families. His main points were about raising one’s children and getting an education. Barkley asked many people about it. Some said that Cosby is right on. Some said that he had a very good point, but could have communicated it better/more gently/in a different context. But no one said he was wrong.

One of my favorite interviews was with Jesse Jackson. I’ve never much liked the guy partly because to me, he has always been a politician. Barkley makes that point – that to younger people, that’s all he has been. But Barkley calls him “one of the last really prominent links to the civil rights movement”. But of all that Jackson said, the stuff about sports struck me the most. He said that the reason African Americans are successful in sports is that in that type of competition, the rules are clear. There is no subjectivity. (Well, of course there is subjectivity. But I like his point.) When the rules are clear, African Americans can compete.

Barkley took on this project in an attempt to start some dialogue. He said that the big takeaway for him is that people – successful people – are willing to talk about race issues in this country. It’s just that no one is asking them to talk.

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