MAXWELL: Black and blue in America
9/17/2006 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of The St Petersburg Times Newspaper

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL
Brian Copeland’s recently published book is titled Not a Genuine Black Man Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs.
Directly beneath the long title are three simple words: “A True Story.” They capture the real tragedy of Copeland’s saga. Indeed, the events in the book actually happened to a young black man in contemporary America – much of the hurt coming at the hands of other blacks.
As the title suggests, Copeland ostensibly violated an important rule of black cultural, social and racial identity.
His misery began in 1972, when his mother and grandmother moved from Birmingham, Ala., to San Leandro, Calif., a suburb that was 99.9 percent white. His mother was determined to make “a good life” for her children and to get away from a violent husband. Copeland was 8 years old.
Although a mere 15 miles from liberal UC Berkeley, San Leandro was so racist that its barbers, all white, would not even attempt to cut a black person’s hair. During his first week in his new hometown, Copeland was cursed and chased by a group of white teens. A day later, he was frisked and taken into custody by white cops because he was walking to a park carrying a baseball bat. The family’s white landlord schemed time and again to evict his only black tenants.
The list of affronts from white people goes on. But their affronts pale in comparison to the insults of black people. As he matures, marries, joins the Catholic Church and becomes a well-known comedian and radio personality in California, he finds his voice. His politics and independence – especially his insistence on taking personal responsibility for one’s own condition – make him popular in conservative circles, but he becomes a pariah for many of his fellow blacks.
His life changed after he received an anonymous letter from an irate listener that stated in part: “As an African-American, I am disgusted every time I hear your voice because you are not a genuine black man!”
Those words cut Copeland to the quick and sent him on a voyage of introspection that resulted in Not a Genuine Black Man, the book, and a one-man play of the same title. Amazingly, the play ran in San Francisco for two years and recently for three months at the DR2 Theatre in New York.
He found the indictment in the anonymous letter liberating.
“No one person or group of individuals holds the monopoly on what in this society is the ‘true’ black experience,” Copeland writes. “My world is as ‘black’ as that of Malcolm X, Colin Powell, Snoop Dogg, Jesse Jackson, Usher, Bill Cosby or Diddy. As their experiences in America are unique, mine are unique – yet it is the same. It is as valid as that of the poor African-American living in ‘the hood,’ the rich black rapper balancing a lifestyle of fame and violence, and the black scholar working to better this world through dissertation.”
Not a Genuine Black Man should be required reading for all black people – especially those who have crowned themselves as arbiters of what is and is not genuine blackness.
Bill Maxwell is a Times editorial writer/columnist.
By Brian Copeland
Hyperion, $22.95, 272 pp