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Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race Hardcover – August 13, 1999

3.7 out of 5 stars 14 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Eugene Robinson, an African American assistant editor at The Washington Post, experienced strong culture shock when he went to Brazil and discovered that nation's staggering degrees of blackness: with over 60 million people of apparent African descent, Brazil is the world's largest black country after Nigeria. But as Robinson deftly articulates in the stunning Coal to Cream, most Afro-Brazilians suffer from race denial and an underdeveloped sense of racial identity, which keeps them from demanding social and political reforms. Robinson is awed by the nation's African musical, culinary, and religious influences, which, along with generations of cohabitation (in every sense of the word) with Indians and Europeans, have eliminated--at least on one level--the harsher aspects of racism. "The emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazil--the absence of racial conflict," Robinson writes. "There was no silent struggle going on."

But he also notes that black Brazilians occupy the lowest rungs of Brazilian society; many of them live in the hopeless conditions of the favela slums. He also observes the emerging black consciousness movements in Bahia and the Afro-eroticism of Carnival (which serves as a safety valve for the country's poor and discontented). And he contrasts Brazil's black population with the more marginalized Afro-Peruvians and the Afro-Caribbean Brixton area of London, two regions where race consciousness abounds. Yet, with all of its ambiguities, Eugene Robinson sees Brazil as a possible future for the United States, as the absurd "one drop" rule used to arbitrate racial identity becomes a thing of the past. --Eugene Holley Jr.

From Publishers Weekly

Frustrated by American racial politics, Robinson, an accomplished journalist for the Washington Post, assumed a position as a foreign correspondent in the newspaper's South American bureau. His trip to Brazil, which he envisioned as a tropical land of racial harmony, prompted this sometimes acerbic yet constantly challenging comparison of color, class and racial identity in his native country and that tantalizing South American melting pot. He opens with an exacting recollection of his childhood in segregated South Carolina before deftly examining the significance of race in everyday life in the U.S. and the potent racial and social myths that inform our concept of it. The outward absence of interracial animosity he finds in Rio and the surrounding countryside shatters his long-held views on the invincibility of the barriers posed by skin color. Following his detailed and exuberant observations of Caricoa society and its unique emphasis on color over race, his journey through South America, especially in Peru and Chile, compels him to reassess his views of himself both as a black man and an American. Particularly entertaining is his short, informative chapter on the Brazilian black church and the role of African influences in its rituals. Robinson wryly hammers home his key points on the destructive nature of racial prejudice in America, but repetition robs his effort of much of its cumulative impact. Despite its flaws, however, the book is full of provocative and worthy insights. (Aug.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press (August 13, 1999)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0684857227
  • ISBN-13: 978-0684857220
  • Product Dimensions: 9.6 x 6.5 x 1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (14 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #126,868 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Thaddeus G. Blanchette on March 13, 2001
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
In spite of my better judgement, I really like this book. As a quietly emotional, introspective and beautifully written report of one Black American man's reactions to Brazilian notions of race, it has no equal.
Why do I give it only two stars then? It upsets me that people across the U.S. will use this as some sort of "text book" to decipher Brazilian race relations. It is not. In fact, for an intelligent, sensitive journalist, Robinson shows a shocking lack of knowledge of Brazilian history and culture, especially as viewed through Brazilian eyes. This fatally undermines his analysis of race relations in Brazil.
To hear Robinson tell it, Brazil is in some kind of racial purgatory. Brazil's concepts of race never change. Or rather, its /lack/ of concept of race never changes. Brazilians, as we are told again and again throughout "From Coal to Cream" simply don't believe in the idea of race: they only see colors relative one to another. This theory of race in Brazil has a long and hallowed history in American academia. Unfortunately, Brazilian social scientists have pretty well demonstrated it to be full of enormous holes. There has been quite a long and well-documented tradition of seeing things in "black" and "white" in Brazil - a tradition which the Brazilian public ideologies of race would prefer to ignore. That this tradition remains alive and well in our quotidian world, however, is a fact that's brought back to me everytime I see some light-brown skinned kid wearing a "100% Negro" t-shirt here in Rio de Janeiro.
Ironically, the years that Robinson spent as a journalist in Brazil saw some of the greatest historic changes in afro-descended Brazilians' perceptions of themselves and their nation.
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Format: Hardcover
I read the book immediately after hearing Robinson on NPR's "Diane Rehm" show and found it one of the most quietly intelligent books I have read on the subject of race and color. Having been to Brazil recently (and speaking some Portuguese), I was eager to see how he analyzed the socio-racial scene there. This book is not a sociological tract--it is a highly personal book, the story of the author's own odyssey through his personal history and the various societies in which he has lived. By thinking about Brazil, he really does see issues of American society and history in a much clearer light--and helps us see them too. There are a string of revelations here. I would want to argue with him about some of his conclusions, but I thought Robinson came through as a man of great integrity who has put a lot of himself on the line here. I recommend the book highly.
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Format: Hardcover
As a white man, I'm sure I'll never really understand what it's like to be black in America. It's simply not possible. But Gene Robinson does his level best to give me a glimpse into that dilemma. The truth is, I think I was hoping for more of an in-depth memoir from Robinson, a man I grew to like and admire during the just completed presidential primaries and elections when I would see him often on Hardball or other cable news programs, offering his opinions. Robinson seems to me to be a man who has a pretty good sense of self, and also possesses a healthy sense of humor in the way he looks at life. I like that in a man. Some of that came out in COAL TO CREAM, but not enough, probably because it is, of course, about such a deadly serious topic: race and color barriers. Robinson's tales of his job assignments in South America (particularly Rio, in Brazil) and London are eye-opening, and he makes his case well about the continuing skin-color spectrum and how it operates in those countries. His initial enchantment and final disillusionment with how color is handled in Brazil is very reasoned and well thought out. But I'm most interested in personal stories, so I kept wishing throughout the book that there were more about his boyhood in South Carolina, his college years in Ann Arbor, and how he met and fell in love with Avis, his wife. Because they sound like such warm and interesting people. But maybe he'll get around to all that some other time, or at least I hope so, because he's a very good writer. - Tim Bazzett, author of Pinhead: A Love Story
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Format: Hardcover
Robinson uses his own personal sojourn through South America as a framework to discuss broader issues of race relations and racial identity. When Robinson first visits Brazil, he views it as a utopia for black individuals, a place where unlike America race was not an immutable construct but rather a broad spectrum of possibilities which ebbed and flowed: "[t]he emphasis on the more mutable issue of color (rather than the rigidity of race) was at the heart of what I loved so much about Brazail--the absence of racial conflict, the ease of coexistence."

At first, Robinson's exulation of Brazil as a paradigm for issues of race appears naive and simplistic. However, as Robinson's journey continues, he realizes that Brazil also suffers from its own insidious forms of prejudice and problems of racial conflict though manifested differently, exist there as well. Robinson's meditations on race are interesting and emerge from a well written and engaging story.
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