Forecasting a revolution of consciousness that would sweep through the United States, Charles Reich’s The Greening of America (1970) soared to best-seller status. Consciousness III, as Reich called it, promised a rediscovery of selfhood in which the preciousness of all human life would be affirmed. Within a few months, despite its claim that this “greening” was inevitable, Reich’s book had come and gone.
Thirty years later, Richard Rodriguez announced the “browning” of America. Although Brown’s immediate impact did not match The Greening of America, Rodriguez’s book is likely to have greater validity in the long run. It is doubtful that Rodriguez has identified “the last discovery of America,” as his book’s inflated subtitle claims, but he musters considerable evidence to support his thesis that brown—not the red, white, and blue of the “Stars and Stripes”—is the quintessential American color.
When Rodriguez says that “the future is brown,” his thesis is complex, because he thinks of brown “not in the sense of pigment, necessarily,” but as a color that entails the mixing of earthy experience. Although Rodriguez hopes that “brown may be as refreshing as green,” that vision has to reckon with the fact that, historically, the dominant American color has been white. Contradicting the “innocence” often associated with that complexion, white ensures that Americans are not color-blind but color- conscious. Much of that awareness has manifested itself in black and white, as the African American sociologist W. E. B. Du Bois discerned in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) when he argued that the “color line” would be the twentieth century’s decisive problem. Dubious that America could solve it, Du Bois became an expatriate, leaving his native United States for Africa in the early 1960’s.
Not long before Du Bois’s departure, Rodriguez’s parents emigrated from their native Mexico to California, where Richard, the third of their four children, was born in San Francisco and raised in Sacramento. Although American census classifications have dubbed him “Hispanic,” a category he attacks, Rodriguez sometimes underscores the complexity of American identity by contending that he is “Irish,” which is his way of paying respect to the formative influence of Irish nuns who taught him English. In its “brown” form, English becomes a language best called “American,” and it is to the multiple expressions of that tongue that Rodriguez owes much of his hard-earned optimism.
Hunger of Memory: The Education of Richard Rodriguez (1982) andDays of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father (1992) were the first two installments of “a trilogy on American public life and my private life” that Brown completes. Emphasizing that Benjamin Franklin is one of Rodriguez’s heroes, the latter book shows how profoundly its author has continued to believe in the American Dream of opportunity, mobility, new beginnings, and self-invention. His reasons for doing so include the fact that he has never forgotten the true words that his father impressed upon him. As they polished the secondhand blue DeSoto that was the family car in the 1950’s, Rodriguez’s father would tell him: “Life is hard, boy, even harder than you think.”
Ironies, those gaps between expectation and reality that dwell in shortfalls between what Americans preach and practice, are part of what makes life hard in the United States. Rodriguez describes, for example, how it was during the first term (1969- 1973) of Richard Nixon’s presidency that “I became brown. A government document of dulling prose, Statistical Directive 15, would redefine America as an idea in five colors: White. Black. Yellow. Red. Brown.” As artificial as it was racial, as constructed as it was convenient for those who wanted American “minorities” for one reason or another, those color lines tagged Rodriguez not only “brown” but also “Hispanic.” That category, Rodriguez shows, is a misguided invention, for only in America are “Hispanics” to be found. They have no reality anywhere else. In Rodriguez’s case, however, being a “minority” and eventually “Hispanic” had advantages. These classifications put him on affirmative action’s fast track to opportunity. That track, however, did not mean full acceptance and inclusion in America, because white dominance left him tainted “brown.” As long as such schemes and classifications persist, Rodriguez contends, American life will be less than it can and ought to be.
Rodriguez does not find...
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