Ashgate, Aldershot (2014)
ISBN: 9781472415585 (hb)
Reviewed by Mengxi Pang, University of Glasgow
This book adopts an innovative scope to examine the impact of racism on African American families. With an aim to depict lived experiences of African American families, the book employs novels written by African American authors such as Toni Morrison and James Baldwin as a source of analysis. The book provides a new perspective to understand the power of structural racism, revealing the bleak life of ordinary African American families in the racist society. Perhaps already aware of doubts that readers might have, Rosenblatt defends his choice of using novels as a legitimate source of knowledge to study racism in the first chapter. He argues that there is a methodological similarity between novelists and social scientists in ways of learning about the world. Novelists, he contends, are just like sociologists: they draw on common experiences and pay close attention to everyday life to inform readers about the society. Besides, the boundary between novels and social research is usually blurred given the shared cultural roots and subjectivities in the choice of topics, descriptive language and observations incorporated into the writing. Having said that, Rosenblatt does acknowledge the subjectivities inherent in novels and the danger of ‘assuming fictional text as an authentic and accurate account of the culture it describes’ (p.3).
Having reflected on his own position as a white male researcher and mythological rationale in the first two chapters, Rosenblatt organises the rest of book into eight chapters addressing racism-caused harm on African American families with examples from selected novels. Two major themes can be extracted to summarise main arguments of the book, namely racism-caused misfortune (Chapter 3-6) and family practices associated with racism-related issues (Chapter 7-10). Under the first theme, novel depictions of poignant incidents such as forced family separation, inability of commitment, and grief derived from racial abuse were discussed, illuminating the profound and detrimental effect of racism and devastating consequence for individual families. What I personally found most appealing is the second half of the book, centred on the topic of parenting by examining techniques and mechanisms adopted by black parents to organise family practices in hopes of cultivating a positive identity for their children. Rosenblatt examines several aspects of racial literacy such organising the ‘race talk’ and planning racial socialisation, pointing out the struggle parents face in raising their children while navigating racism. The selected examples from novels highlight multi-facet disadvantages faced by African American families and reveal the ways in which inequalities are perpetuated by the racialised system.
Overall, this book presents a vivid account of African-American families in a lucid manner, allowing readers to gain a feel of the bleak experiences of the families even without necessarily reading the novels. The whole book is well complemented by direct quotations from the novels as well as sociological theories of family system, personal relationships and critical race theories, through which interpretations and argumentations are enhanced and supported. However, it is worth noting that while Rosenblatt strives to condense novel contents for discussion purposes, the varying scope of novels and depth of each story inevitably makes this job notoriously difficult to implement, which leads to a somewhat reductionist fashion in terms of presentation. Another unintended consequence is that within each chapter there are numerous small sections under subheadings. Rosenblatt’s effort to produce a comprehensive account perhaps has been achieved at the expense of a slightly distracting layout of each chapter. That said, this book proves to be a timely and valuable read for students and researchers alike who have a particular interest in family relationships, literary criticism and ‘race’ and ethnicity in relation to African American population. It offers a new possibility to study the sociology of racism rather than solely relying on ‘truths that some might claim from systematic research on a representative sample of live families’ (p.22).