A new memoir about race violates shibboleths on the left and right, and drives a stake through the heart of identity politics.
There is a saying from Roman antiquity: Nihil humanum a me alienum puto. “I am human and I consider nothing human alien to me.” I confess this swaggering pronouncement (by the Roman poet Terence) has always left me feeling a touch ambivalent. For starters, there is a great deal about the human condition that, upon reflection, is quite alienating. Ignorance, solipsism, envy, cruelty, capriciousness, bigotry, vulgarity, idiocy, superstition, provincialism, cowardice, to name a few. Not a very agreeable list, but then, as the scribbler put it, man is the only animal that blushes, or needs to.
Nonetheless, there is surely something to credit in the idea of the unity of human experience, and in the solidarity of human belonging. For better or worse, the concept of human nature is not infinitely plastic, and to a remarkable degree members of our species are the same everywhere. This insight is powerful ballast against the eternal promptings of race and tribe. As Thomas Chatterton Williams points out in his learned and candid memoir about race Self-Portrait in Black and White, Terence did not proclaim, as he might have, “I am Roman, therefore nothing Roman is alien to me.” Continue reading