Coal to Cream : A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race

Format: Hardcover
Pub. Date: 1999-08-01
Publisher(s): Simon & Schuster
List Price: $24.00

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Eugene Robinson didn't expect to have his world turned upside down when he accompanied a group of friends and acquaintances to the beach at Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro one sunny afternoon. He had recently moved to South America as the new correspondent for the Washington Post, a position he had sought not only as an exciting professional challenge but also as a means of escape from the poisonous racial atmosphere in America's cities, which he experienced firsthand as a reporter and editor covering city politics in Washington, D.C. Black and white wouldn't matter so much, he thought, if he gave himself a little distance from the problem. At first Robinson saw Brazil as a racial paradise, where people of all hues and colors mingled together on the beaches, in the samba schools, and at carnaval. But that day on the beach, his most basic assumptions about race were shattered when he was told that he didn't have to be black in Brazil if he didn't want to be. The society looked at people through a broad spectrum of colors, ranging from "white" to "coffee with milk" to "after midnight," and not as members of two rigidly defined races. Like most African Americans, Robinson had always recognized the existence of color gradations within the black community -- the members of his own family span the entire range from coal to cream -- but he never looked at color the same way after that encounter at Ipanema. Coal to Cream is the story of Robinson's personal exploration of race, color, identity, culture, and heritage, as seen through the America of his youth and the South America he discovered, forging a new consciousness about himself, his people, and his country. As he immersed himself in Brazilian culture, Robinson began to see that its focus on color and class -- as opposed to race -- presents problems of its own. Discrimination and inequality still exist, but without a sense of racial identity, the Brazilians lack the anger and vocabulary they need to attack or even describe such ills. Ultimately, Robinson came to realize that racial identity, what makes him not just an American but a black American, is a gift of great value -- a shared language of history and experience -- rather than the burden it had sometimes seemed. A penetrating look at race relations in the United States and much of the rest of the hemisphere, Coal to Cream is both a personal memoir and a striking comment on the times in which we live. At a time when many are calling for the abandonment of racial identity, Robinson cautions that we should be careful what we wish for, lest we get it.

Author Biography

Eugene Robinson is an assistant managing editor at the Washington Post, where he edits the "Style" section. He joined the Post in 1980 and has served as city hall reporter, city editor, South America bureau chief, London bureau chief, and foreign editor. A member of the Council on Foreign Relations, he is an alumnus of the University of Michigan and Harvard University's Nieman Fellowship program. He lives with his wife, Avis, and their two sons in Arlington, Virginia.

Table of Contents

Prologue The Girl from Ipanema 9(6)
Behold the Promised Land
Absence of Malice
The Future That Never Came
From Cream to Coal
Let the Church Say, ``Amen!''
Epilogue One in a Million 261(10)
Acknowledgments 271



The Girl From Ipanema

I've always been black. The surprising news that there was a place where I wasn't, necessarily, or at least didn't have to be, was imparted to me one hot summer's afternoon in Rio de Janeiro on the beach at Ipanema.

It was a special moment in my life, a time when suddenly I felt free as a bird and open to all sorts of new possibilities. I'd survived a tough, grinding dozen years as a newspaper reporter and editor in San Francisco and Washington, covering corruption and decay and despair and all the other cheery aspects of modern urban America, and was now embarked on a completely different path: I'd just been assigned as a foreign correspondent covering South America. Some people deal with burnout by changing jobs or houses or wives or buying a red convertible. I'd gone to an extreme, literally, by running off to the bottom of the world.

My base was Buenos Aires, where I'd installed my family in a nice suburban house with a pool. Green parrots woke us in the morning with their chatter; iridescent hummingbirds paused to sip from hibiscus blossoms that spilled off the balcony; we plucked pomegranates from the bush and lemons from our own little lemon tree -- Argentina was a stunning and exotic new home. At least that's what my wife, Avis, told me: I was rarely there. My new job involved traveling essentially nonstop among the major cities of the continent. I lived mostly in hotel rooms, in airport departure lounges, and on the fleet of aging jets that airlines like Varig and Lan Chile and AeroPeru sent hurtling through the sky. I tried not to fly on planes that were older than I was.

Now I was taking my first real working visit to Brazil, and I'd looked up an American colleague who was living there temporarily. He invited me to spend a day of brilliant sun and gentle breeze with him and some of his friends, all Brazilians, at their usual spot on the beach.

One sure way of picking out the tourists in Rio, I quickly learned, was by the way they wandered aimlessly along the beaches, lacking destination or purpose, plopping down any old place, ogling the tanned bodies but otherwise providing themselves completely oblivious to the social landscape at their feet. Locals, on the other hand, headed straight for their niche sectors -- areas of the beach favored by singles, gays, bodybuilders, soccer players, retirees, whatever -- where they had arranged to meet their friends. Other Brazilians complain that gorgeous, dumb Rio has beaches instead of an intellectual life, but that's not quite true: The beaches are the venue for Rio's intellectual life, the local equivalent of smoke-filled cafés.

The sun shone hot that afternoon, the breeze blew balmy, and there I lay, amid a loose group of about a dozen young or youngish professionals -- lawyers, journalists, a young woman who was trying to design and market her own line of string bikinis -- all of us nearly nude, amply oiled, feeling the gritty warmth of the sand between our toes, languidly but earnestly discussing current events and the meaning of life. All around us was the wonderful Brazilian racial landscape, a mélange of blacks and browns and tans and taupes, of coppers and cinnamons and at least a dozen shades of beige.

Eventually, we got onto the subject of race. I was the one who raised it, trying to better understand the novel and amazing panorama I was seeing in Brazil. The conversation flowed into questions of what might be called racial taxonomy. Classification, in other words. Who, exactly, is considered black here? Who's white? Who's something else?

These weren't trivial questions. I could see that there were black people in Brazil, just like in the United States, and white people, although the proportions were obviously different. I knew that there had been a history of slavery and eventual emancipation. And yet I had the sense that the way people here thought of race was not at all the same way I thought of it. Even among my group at the beach, with the range of skin tones and hair types pretty much covering the whole spectrum, there was none of the obvious discomfort I had often felt whenever race came up in a mixed group in the States, none of the paralyzing fear of saying the wrong thing. Still, I wasn't making much sense of the inconsistent and contradictory things I was hearing. Race was important; race was trivial. There were tons of black people in Brazil; no, there really weren't that many. I wasn't getting it.

I decided to give up on theoretical classification and focus instead on the concept of race relations, which I figured would translate more easily. I turned to my colleague's Brazilian girlfriend, whose name I recall as Velma, and asked what it was really like being black in Brazil.

She answered with a look of genuine surprise.

"But I'm not," she said. "I'm not black."

She smiled at me as one smiles at a child who just doesn't understand, an isn't-he-precious kind of smile. But then I saw her quickly glance around at the others, making eye contact, and I had the sense she was somehow seeking to validate the declaration she had just made.

Velma had been born more than a thousand miles away, in the poor northeastern part of Brazil, the equivalent of our Deep South -- a place where a plantation economy once flourished, where millions of African slaves had worked the fields, where slavery had persisted a full generation past the end of the American Civil War. It was obvious to me at first glance that Velma was primarily a descendant of those slaves. There was a lot of Indian in her, but mostly African. She was a small woman with long jet-black hair, flaring nostrils, high cheekbones, and brown skin at least a couple of shades darker than mine. It wasn't even a close call, in my book. But she was telling me she wasn't black.

I blurted out, "But you must be, Velma. I'm black, and you're as dark as I am."

She put her arm next to mine, to compare: Yes, she was darker. Positively, definitively darker.

"But this color isn't black," she said. "This isn't black at all."

Trapped on what she clearly saw as the wrong side of the color line I was trying to draw, Velma maintained flatly that as far as she was concerned, I wasn't really "black" either. I explained that in the United States I certainly was and always would be, and that so, in fact, would she. Velma found this hard to understand, and certainly wasn't about to accept it. She allowed that I might not be "white," but insisted that at the very least I fit well within the ill-defined parameters of pardo, which roughly means light-brown-skinned. "Black" was for her more of a description than a group designation, and it meant people with skin much darker than mine.

Or, of course, hers.

Others in our group, however, weren't quite so quick to settle on this classification. There were other factors. My hair, for example: It's kinky, clearly African, unarguably non-Caucasian. For some, kinky hair, in combination with skin as brown as mine, automatically equaled "black." Some thought that my physique -- tall, slim, high-waisted -- should somehow be factored in, that it was somehow an "African" physique. But foremost was the issue of my precise color, my own personal hue, which I'd never really thought about in this way -- which I'd never really thought of as a color at all.

It's a kind of oakwood brown, with undertones more yellow than red. I seemed relatively lighter to some members of my informal college of taxonomists on the beach, relatively darker to others. Try as I might, I couldn't get this group of Brazilians to agree on what, racially speaking, I was. The conversation seemed to go in circles, and there was no way to get to the center.

Finally, exasperated, I turned again to Velma.

"If you're not black, what are you?" I asked. "You said I'm 'at least' pardo. Is that how you'd describe yourself?"

But I got no satisfaction. Rather than answer, she smiled, shrugged, and changed the subject. A while later, she and my American friend left.

After they'd gone, someone pointed out to me that Velma had long, straight hair, and that she also enjoyed the considerable status and income that came from her job as a lawyer. So naturally -- and this was said as if it were the most natural thing in the world, though it made no sense at all to me -- she called herself white.

White? A woman darker than me considering herself white? Not in my world. But of course I wasn't in my world anymore. I was in a world where race seemed to be indefinite, unfixed, imprecise -- a world where, at least to some extent, race was what you made it.

Instead of what it made you.

That day on the beach was electrifying, eye-opening, liberating. I felt as if I'd just been let out of an airless little prison cell straight into the glorious space and hot sun and cooling zephyrs of Ipanema. In a way, I felt like I suppose Columbus must have felt. His business in sailing west had been to find a better route to the riches of the far east, and along the way he'd bumped into something unexpected, something far bigger and more significant, something life-changing. My business in coming to Brazil had been to write newspaper stories, and along the way I'd bumped into something unexpected, something big and life-changing, my own new world.

And if I'd been able to get my arms all the way around this new world, I'd have pulled it to me and given it a big sloppy kiss.

Copyright © 1999 Eugene Robinson. All rights reserved.

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