Talking the Talk 

Cal linguistics professor John McWhorter has become a darling of the right, installed on national talk shows and courted by Clarence Thomas. What's a good liberal doing in a place like this?

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Still, as the heat generated by his book has spread around the country, McWhorter has begun to feel the strain of such exposure. When the San Francisco Chronicle ran a fairly even-handed profile of him in February, it went so far as to point out that the professor "is decidedly pro-choice and resents being used as a football by Rush Limbaugh and his ilk." (McWhorter despised the piece, describing it as biased and hostile.) What may have gotten under McWhorter's skin was the story's headline: "Why do black students lag behind? They don't really try, a Cal professor says -- and causes a furor in academia." The headline was accompanied by an unflattering picture of McWhorter, who spent the day of its publication being confronted with what he considered to be a distorted image of himself on every street corner. One Albany bookstore used that particular edition of the Chron to paper over its storefront when it closed, and McWhorter remembers slinking by a Warholian sea of his endlessly replicated face -- a face, the headline seemed to say, that had announced to the world that black people are lazy.

Such is the power -- and the danger -- of talking about race in America. The tragedy is that whenever McWhorter speaks about his book without the intervening scrim of the media, whether it be at Cody's or Marcus Books -- when, in other words, he is able to speak directly to other human beings, he usually manages to convey the gist of his work, and people walk away grateful for a sober dialogue. Even if they disagree with McWhorter -- even if they sense the undercurrent of delight he sometimes takes in playing the role of the mischievous racial prankster -- they usually leave with more textured views than when they came in. It's mostly when reading someone else's representation of McWhorter's work that one begins to doubt his motives.

After a year of negotiating the delicate territory in which discussion about race in America takes place, John McWhorter has been left a little shaken. He is now living in a land of tension and fear that few of us will ever directly experience.

During my final interview with McWhorter, we sat at a College Avenue cafe and were about to begin when he said he had a special request to make. Pulling out a number of newspaper stories about himself, McWhorter pointed out the many photographs of himself that he considered less-than-flattering as he expressed the hope that whoever shot his picture for this story wouldn't make him look like a foolish child. He is convinced, he said, that white photographers wind up distorting his image, and asked if we could assign a black photographer to shoot him. Shortly after this exchange, a young black man sheepishly approached McWhorter.

"Excuse me, didn't I read about you in a magazine someplace?" he asked.

"Possibly, yes."

"You speak Russian, right?"

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