It’s always difficult to rate an autobiography, as it seems ludicrous to assign a star rating to someone’s lived experiences. Add in the racial tensions and the heavy content and I feel reluctant to assign anything below 5 stars.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown is a collection of the author’s lived experiences, a description of life for a black woman within a system created by white people with for the express purpose of promoting the white person’s interests.
The most compelling part of this book is the description of Channing Brown’s childhood and the experience of growing up in a world so far removed from my own. It was heart-breaking to learn of the mindfulness that people of colour in America are forced to live with, such as her father instructing her to be aware of her behaviour in a store:
“Even if you put it back on the shelf, Austin, you can’t touch store products and then put your hands in your pockets…”
Channing Brown recollects her life from elementary school through to post-secondary, focusing on specific experiences directly related to her skin colour which either caused her to experience discomfort or a sense of feeling understood. (Spoiler alert: the former occurs much more than the latter.) As she enters in the professional working world, she then once again meets racism and prejudice within her workplace, as both a black person and a female.
In some shared experiences, I feel that Channing Brown shares situations that she feels she experienced as a person of colour, but which one could argue are examples of patriarchal misogyny that every woman in North America faces. Furthermore, although Channing Brown doubles down on whiteness stereotyping her due to skin colour, she conversely does the same for white people. Do all white people sail, ski, or wash their hair every day? More importantly, do a majority of white people do so? In reading this book, I had to remind myself that Channing Brown can only describe the attributes of white people she had been exposed to. She seemed to lack basic understanding of life for a white person growing up in poverty and completely ignores the prejudice of classism that people of any skin colour face.
Continuing on, Channing Brown writes a chapter about valuing all black lives (brought to forefront of people’s minds due to the Black Lives Matter movement), including those of black criminals – her own cousin. This chapter was perhaps the most confusing of all in terms of logic. She describes her cousin Dalin who she states is a known drug dealer, but also a multi-faceted persona.
Due to the mandatory minimum sentences introduced by Bill Clinton, Channing Brown explores her cousin’s third-strike-you’re-out ten year prison sentence, and is left in anguish and rage when he dies needlessly due to poor care provided by the prison system. Unfortunately, Channing Brown conflates judgment of someone’s criminal activities (“drug dealer”) with a white person’s desire to hinge the criminal activity on one’s colour of skin.
“We don’t even talk about white murderers this way. Somehow we manage to think of them as people first, who just happened to do something bad.”
Who is “we” and where is this assumption birthed? For myself, I have never viewed murderers as “people first who happened to do something bad”. People, regardless of skin colour, make evil hurtful choices; it has nothing to do with “happening to do something bad” – it is a decisive choice made. Perhaps once again this a case of the quality of whiteness surrounding Channing Brown, but I know few white people who excuse away a notorious white murderer and attempt to humanize them due to the colour of their skin.
I believe this autobiography has an important message for it’s readers, regardless of skin colour. The experiences that Channing Brown shares and ordeals she has suffered through due to skin colour is wrong. What I struggled with the most reading this book was the generalized rhetoric that pervaded some sentences:
Even when the world doesn’t believe that Black bodies are capable of love.
Perhaps written to spur us forward into being allies to people of colour, I struggled with a book that offered no practical insight on how to be an ally. In fact, one of the sentiments expressed was that black people are tired and exhausted trying to explain to whiteness how to treat them. Yet, without knowing how to change and ways to help, it leaves one wondering what the aim of these essays are.
I suppose I am left extrapolating that this is a book for the author to rightfully rage in – to rage against the racial divide and stereotyping that people of colour in America face today. To rage again mistreatment, and to connect with others who have lived those same experiences.
For us, the white people – what we must do is listen. Listen to the stories, listen to the heart-break and pain, and to remind ourselves that these stories and books aren’t about us.
Barring my conflicting feelings about the general purpose of this book, I will add that I found there was a lack of cohesiveness to the writing quality and the outline of the book. An example would be the subject of Channing Brown’s cousin Dalin and the ensuing outcome of his life and lasting effects on those around him. Channing Brown spreads this lesson over a course of three chapters that feel disjointed, when it may have been wiser to have written a longer chapter, compacting the subject into a stronger piece of work rather than diluting it over the chapters. In some ways the autobiography feels like a stream of consciousness that Channing Brown has written, rather than an organized reflection; she touches on many subjects, but does not delve deeply, which leaves the reader wanting more.
Finally, Channing Brown leans strongly into the role of people of colour in American churches. Even though she touts Christian philosophy, Channing Brown implies that white people should give their power to people who have been marginalized, and uses the story of Jesus’ life as an example to support her stance. However, it is important to note that Jesus, who lived as a marginalized Jew during Roman occupation, did not urge any of his followers to demand power from the Romans as a wronged and marginalized people group. To be clear, I am not advocating that systemic racism and prejudice be allowed to continue unchecked and unquestioned – but I believe that using Jesus as a example for a transference of power in the American church is theologically incorrect.
It is disheartening to read of pervasive prejudice and racism within the American church. Channing Brown challenges the notion of “reconciliation” in the church, condemning halfhearted attempts to create racial equality, while failing to birth any tangible and lasting change. Once again though, there remains few practical pointers on how a Christian can be an ally within the church to people of colour.
As a person with a practical mindset, I enjoy reading non-fiction books that cause the reader to help exact the change needed and wanted by the writer. Unfortunately, this book left me flummoxed. Reiterating what I stated above – I came to the conclusion that this book was cathartic for the writer (which is, of course, important), and not meant to be a compass pointing us to practical steps and action one can take.