Review: You Can Keep That to Yourself

You Can Keep That To Yourself, Adam Smyer. New York: Akashic Books, 2020

Summary: A humorous and pointed list of “things not to say” to Black friends or colleagues.

“HELLO, WELL-INTENTIONED PERSON OF PALLOR!

“It’s Daquan–the black coworker you are referring to when you claim to have black friends.

“You are reading this book because you want to know what not to say. They get mad at you when you say the wrong thing. But no one will tell you, up front, what not to say. Well, I will tell you. Because I am your friend. Your real black friend.” (p. 7)

Adam “Daquan” Smyer more than delivers on that promise in a book that made me alternately laugh and cringe (“I’ve said that–ouch!”). The book is literally a list of things not to say to Black people, organized alphabetically. Here is the first:

Ally

Well-intentioned people of pallor went seamlessly from not seeing color to being allies. Being part of the problem was never considered. And, really, “ally” was fine for a while. It was aspirational. But now “I’m an ally” is the “Don’t hurt me” of our time. Don’t nobody want you, Karen. You can keep that to yourself.

Smyer, p. 10-11

Smyer can be blunt and use vulgarities. But that has become commonplace both in publications and public discussions. Think for example of the reference of one president to “sh*thole countries.” I’ve heard most of what Smyer says even in informal Christian circles. I’m not keen on this trend but I wouldn’t let the language distract from the message of the book, which it actually underscores, of the simmering frustration engendered by the repeated insensitivities of “people of pallor” And if you think this is just being “over-sensitive,” that’s in the list as well:

Over-sensitive

Y’all snap after you have been unpopular for two weeks. I’ve been black my whole life. In America. And I’m at least functional. I’m oversensitive? The record reflects otherwise.

Smyer, p. 67.

As for one of my cringes?

Yowza!

It’s weird–one minute we are having a normal conversation, and the next you are blurting out a minstrel show catchphrase. Verbal blackface.

So inappropriate! But mostly just weird. A thought: you could not.

Smyer, p. 111.

I did not know that. Now I do. I will not.

So much comes down to being considerate–to trying to imagine being in another’s place. When it comes to being Black, I cannot. But I can listen to how I am being heard by a Black person. That’s what Smyer does for us here. He says what is often only thought when we say what we people of pallor should keep to ourselves.

So what do we talk about?

There is so much that you can say. If we are at work, you can talk about work. (It really would be great if you could only talk to us about work, but we understand that you don’t know where you are.) You can talk about weather and/or sports. You can talk about your favorite shows. You can even talk about current events if your family raised you properly.

Smyer, 121.

This is a quick read that might be worth a periodic review. Old habits die hard. And it is probably worthwhile learning that we don’t have to say all we think or want to say. The truth is, black people have been doing that for a long time.

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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary advance review copy of this book from the publisher through LibraryThing’s Early Reviewer program. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Where Have You Gone, Tom Magliozzi?

“Tom Magliozzi” by Unknown – Original publication: It was published on NPR blogs.Immediate source: http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2014/11/03/361190483/fans-and-colleagues-remember-car-talk-host-tom-magliozzi. Licensed under Fair use of copyrighted material in the context of Tom and Ray Magliozzi via Wikipedia

Actually, I have no idea of the answer to this question and won’t presume to guess the eternal destiny of one-half of the “Car Talk” dynasty. Rather, I was improvising on the old Simon and Garfunkel song Mrs. Robinson and its plaintive question, “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?/A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.” When many of us learned yesterday of Magliozzi’s passing, I think we realized we had lost someone special, a kind of national treasure. In the midst of all the acerbic dialogue between various contentious factions arguing online or over the airwaves, we could tune in every Saturday morning and listen to Tom and his brother Ray make us laugh over something as prosaic, but often more consequential to our daily lives, as car problems.

NPR has continued to re-broadcast old programs of “Car Talk” so we will be able to laugh and remember for awhile longer the special gift Tom and his brother Ray gave us. They not only gave us good car advice but the model of two human beings who thoroughly enjoyed both their work and each other. They also modeled two very intelligent guys doing something often thought “beneath” the intelligentsia–repairing cars. Both were MIT graduates and had careers in industry and teaching before opening their car repair shop in Cambridge.

As I reflected on Tom’s passing, I thought about how rare was the kind of humor they practiced as they bantered with each other and callers. They could poke fun without attacking the dignity of others. The humor was witty and reflected their intelligence. It was not vicious and attacking, nor was it coarse. And it gave a human face to stodgy NPR.

Car problems can be serious things–costly and dangerous. Somehow, these guys managed to talk about that without ever taking themselves seriously or fear-mongering. It makes me think about how many other matters of our national discourse could use a dose of this.

I also am grateful for the model of really intelligent guys who were never pretentious about their intelligence and who dignified working with your hands and getting them dirty. Instead of accentuating class differences, they bridged them and brought us together every Saturday around “puzzlers”, car problems, and the enjoyment of their creative “program credits” at the end of each show (we actually saw the offices of Dewey, Cheatham, and Howe on a visit to Harvard Square!).

We lost a kind of national treasure yesterday, one who stood for intelligent and rollicking good humor, bridging the social divides we love to create, and the dignity of work well done. Hopefully our reflections on what we’ve lost will also challenge us with what we need to preserve.