The Washington Post political columnist Eugene R. Robinson is especially sensitive to color—not because he is a tall, 60-year-old African-American male in an overwhelmingly white elite profession, but because he is a careful observer. His eyes send messages to his fingers and they begin to type. He named his first book, a memoir, Coal to Cream: A Black Man’s Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race (1999), after two portraits on the wall of his house: one a portrait of his great-grandfather, whose skin was very dark, like coal, consistent with his stern look; the other a portrait of his great grandmother, with a café-au-lait complexion and a winsome Victorian look. This transition from coal to cream, suggested his editor, summed up the pattern of his life.
Later, as a reporter in Brazil, he noticed the various shades of complexion but couldn’t collect his reflections on paper, he said.
As a student at the University of Michigan, he said, he found the racial mix was like a “World War II movie foxhole.” He was thrown together with a Hawaiian Japanese roommate, Jewish friends and lots of white and black students. He also could not help observing that in America the darkest-skinned Negroes were also “the most ill fed, ill housed, ill educated, ill prepared to make your way in the world.”
Of 50 of Robinson’s most recent columns, plus another 10 earlier pieces covering the presidential campaigns of the Clintons and Barack Obama in 2008—for which he won a Pulitzer Prize—eight are about being black in America and its consequences.
One of them is about Clayton Lockett, a black man and a convicted murderer, who spent 43 minutes dying as the State of Oklahoma tried to kill him by an injection of an untested cocktail of drugs. Instead of losing consciousness, he writhed and tried to speak. The state stopped the execution and planned to make another, successful attempt later, but he died of a heart attack. Robinson concludes that there is no way to impose capital punishment without betraying our moral standards: “When we murder we become murderers.”
At the University of Michigan, a new world opened up when he joined the student paper. He loved interviewing people and making sense of what they said. A teaching fellow encouraged him, and he wrote about the 1968 Orangeburg massacre, when highway patrolmen killed three black student demonstrators. The article won a prize, and he was on his way.
He moved to The San Francisco Chronicle in 1976, then to The Washington Post in 1980, which sent him to Latin America and London, then brought him back to edit its Style section.
Though his principles emerge in his writing, he is far from an ideologue: he favors the defenseless, the multitudes who would never have had health care were it not for the Affordable Care Act, whose triumph he celebrated (4/14). For him Congressman Paul Ryan’s line—“blaming poverty on the mysterious influence of culture”— is an “excuse for doing nothing to address the problem” (3/24). He is “outraged” that the 400-page executive summary of the report on detention and torture during the George W. Bush administration is still secret. We should care about what is in the report not because torture might have been ineffective. Rather, “It’s that it was immoral”(4/8).
If I were to ask him about his favorite book, he would refer me to his reflections (4/21) on Gabriel García Márquez, who recently died at 87, and Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, which changed Robinson’s life by giving him a new way of looking at the world. Reading it was like “stepping through a portal into a Technicolor reality where the streets are paved with metaphor and the air is fragrant with dreams,” he wrote (4/21). He recalls a three-day trip through Colombia with Márquez as a guide, during which Márquez suddenly perceived that the arranged trip might be a propaganda exercise by the Colombian government. Márquez said he had come because he “wanted Americans to understand what their insatiable demand for drugs was doing to the country.”
For the most part Robinson hides his emotions, except for election night 2008. Tears flowed as he called his parents in Orangeburg, recalling “the sacrifices they endured so his generation could climb higher.” On that night I, and many others, shared his tears of joy.