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Real Black

Adventures in Racial Sincerity

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: an African American high school student who excels in the classroom, for instance, might be dismissed as "acting white." On the other hand, sincerity, as Jackson defines it, imagines authenticity as an incomplete measuring stick, an analytical model that attempts to deny people agency in their search for identity. 

Drawing on more than ten years of ethnographic research in and around New York City, Jackson offers a kaleidoscope of subjects and stories that directly  and indirectly address how race is negotiated in today’s world—including tales of book-vending numerologists, urban conspiracy theorists, corrupt police officers, mixed-race neo-Nazis, and gospel choirs forbidden to catch the Holy Ghost. Jackson records and retells their interconnected sagas, all the while attempting to reconcile these stories with his own crisis of identity and authority as an anthropologist terrified by fieldwork. Finding ethnographic significance where mere mortals see only bricks and mortar, his invented alter ego Anthroman takes to the streets, showing how race is defined and debated, imposed and confounded every single day.


“John Jackson’s brilliant excursion in search of ‘racial sincerity’ is, as the title implies, a true adventure. It is as fast-paced and engaging as a novel, witty, sympathetic, and lyrical. Tweaking the dilemma of the anthropologist’s gaze, he takes his field notebook into the heart of Harlem as ‘Anthroman’—and is received as part friend and long-term resident, part super-educated superhero, part comic book. This book is a splendid and fascinating study of what it means to be ‘real’—and not just when it comes to race.”--Patricia J. Williams, Columbia Law School

Patricia J. Williams | Patricia J. Williiams

"To more effectively delve into the ’relationship between race and sincerity’ and its implications for the academic and popular debates on who or what is "authentically" black, Duke University cultural anthropologist Jackson regularly assumes the guise of his alter ego, the ’ethnographic superhero Anthroman,’ a cross between ’Harry Potter and Huckleberry Finn.’ Billed as ’art conspiracy theory, part rant, part novelistic storytelling, part autoethnography,’ Jackson’s book provides discerning readers with a provocative analysis of contemporary black subcultures: middle class blacks in a gentrifying Harlem who are split between a social justice-minded old guard and a neo-capitalistic new guard, conspiracy theorists, Black Hebrew Israelites of Worldwide Truthful Understanding and hip hop artists as exemplified by Mos Def. The strongest sections are his field interviews with residents of Harlem and Brooklyn, who furnish perceptive and unpretentious observations of their experience. Some of the interactions are thought-provoking: A conversation with a young man convinced that a fruit drink sterilizes black men gives the author pause; he returns the drink for bottled water. Others are more disturbing, such as the arrest of an individual who blares NWA during a neighborhood incident. The author’s powers of observation are indisputable."

Publishers Weekly

Table of Contents

1. Real Fictions
2. Real Harlemites
3. Real Bodies
4. Real Jews
5. Real Publics
6. Real Natives
7. Real Emcees
8. Real Names
9. Real Loves

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