White men feel sexually threatened by them. White women covet them. Black women try to hang onto them and children hunger for their love.
Or so it is written in Toni Morrison’s 1973 novel “Sula.”
“And if that ain’t enough,” Morrison writes, “you love yourselves. Nothing in the world loves a black man more than another black man. — It looks to me like you the envy of the world.”
From this passage, author Ellis Cose has taken the title for his newest book, “The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America.”
The book’s impetus, though, comes from another admired literary figure: “Envy” updates James Baldwin’s missive, “Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” which was incorporated in his 1963 essay compilation, “The Fire Next Time.”
It wasn’t actually a nephew he had in mind when he wrote “Envy,” but rather himself as a teen-ager, and what advice he might have appreciated along the way on being “black and male in America.”
The result is a tome that fills a void in a community whose population of imprisoned men could fill a city the size of San Francisco and in a culture where many black men don’t share their traumas and triumphs over racism.
During a recent interview in that same city — the halfway point on his publicity tour that will wind up in Cose’s current hometown of New York — the Newsweek columnist and contributing editor projects a distant, easy confidence.
Cose abandoned physics for journalism when he began writing a weekly opinion column at the Chicago Sun-Times while still in high school. The approach and style in “Envy” are clearly those of a longtime newspaperman, interspersing personal observations with anecdotal profiles of successful men, such as Franklin Delano Raines, the first black director of the Office of Management and Budget and first black head of a major corporation (Fannie Mae).
“Envy” also mixes sobering studies — a Harvard study revealed black students are three times as likely to be labeled “retarded” and twice as likely to be judged “emotionally disturbed” as white students — with encouraging accounts of programs like the Mississippi boarding school Piney Woods, which has funneled a significant number of black boys to college.
At the same time, Cose confides his own experiences as a boy who squandered early opportunities because it had not been made clear how much school could provide a route from the Chicago projects to the outside world.
“My mom and dad didn’t have much education themselves,” Cose recalls. His father didn’t complete grammar school, but both parents had a deep respect for education. Yet while they understood the importance of a library card and regular attendance, they couldn’t fully grasp the opportunities that lay waiting for those who knew how to ask for them.
In some ways, “Envy” says little that’s new, offering up familiar statistics of imprisoned black men, the emergence of “incarceration chic” or the clash between black men and women.
What Cose has accomplished instead is to gather in one place the contradictions of being a black male: a trendsetter feared for his dangerous sexuality, yet wasting away in prisons — or just wasted on the streets. Why, Cose questions in his introduction, should someone of such status carry such “self-loathing”?
“We are less sure of our place in the world than our predecessors,” Cose writes, “in part because our options, our potential choices, are so much grander than theirs.”
At once hopeful and bleak, the book is ultimately uncompromising in what it recommends for a young black man to survive: self-determination. The last chapter gives “12 Hard Truths” (excerpted in the Jan. 28 issue of Newsweek) such as, “Don’t expect support for your dreams from those who have not accomplished very much in their lives,” or, “Don’t force innocent others to bear the price of your pain.”
Cose knows that not all young black men — much less the gangbangers he writes about — spend their discretionary income on hardcover books. Those who have come to his book signings, however, have included parents bringing their sons. One mother wanted him to write the inscription to her young child. “‘He’s only 6 years old,'” the mother said. “‘He can’t read this yet, but I wanted him to meet you.'”
Cose may not have children of his own, but in a way his book of harsh realities and uplifting encouragement might serve as a kind of a paternal surrogate.
At an early age, young Cose knew that he would never learn the truth about the South from his Louisiana-born father.
“My father, much more than my mother, was livid at how the South treated him,” says Cose. He would tell his son about his youthful adventures in San Francisco, “because in San Francisco, (a black man) can rent a room in a hotel,” or his journeys to Mexico where he claimed people didn’t focus on color.
When it came to the South, his father “would shake his head and never talked much about it.” Much as Cose pressed him, “it was just a place he didn’t want to go.”
Vera H-C Chan is the Times event editor. She can be reached at 925-977-8428 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
WHO: Ellis Cose
WHAT: Author of “The Envy of the World: On Being a Black Man in America” (Washington Square Press, $22)