Darryl Pinckney’s most recent book is Busted in New York and Other Essays. (August 2020)


Escaping Blackness

Thomas Chatterton Williams, New York City, 2019

Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race

by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Thomas Chatterton Williams, who belongs to the hip-hop generation of multiculturalism and diversity, is willing to risk being a throwback in his memoir/essay Self-Portrait in Black and White: Unlearning Race. To speculate on the racial future, he goes back to the days when the black individual who could do so took the side exit from segregated life to personal freedom. He deals with passing for white, class privilege, and his hopes for the possibilities of race transcendence, knowing perfectly well that because he is light-skinned he can contemplate racial identity as being provisional, voluntary, situational, and fluid.


Bradley Cooper and Lady Gaga in A Star Is Born

A Star Is Born

a film directed by Bradley Cooper
The excitement of A Star Is Born is in the music. The songs are kicking, or, when needed, haunting. Of the seventeen original songs, Lady Gaga, who plays the up-and-coming singer/songwriter Ally, wrote or cowrote twelve. Bradley Cooper, who wrote and directed the film and plays the country music star …


Miss Aretha Franklin

Aretha Franklin, circa 1971

Aretha Franklin had been at the piano, in church, on the road, all her life. When a child star comes of age, beware. Maybe she had a somewhat perverse streak, an imperviousness to advice. She will wear a sleeveless gown at her age if she wants to; she won’t agree to the release of the film of her recording Amazing Grace. She shall not retire. To sing was to have power, so why stop? In five decades, she released more than forty albums, and just as many compilations and greatest-hits collections, and I am forgetting how many live recordings. She left no ballad standing and wrestled even the tenderest lyrics to the floor. And when she was fast, I don’t know what to say about that, except that she stayed in control so that we could lose it.

The Passport of Whiteness

An African migrant, Sicily, July 17 2017

Everyone knows we are a nation of immigrants, that immigrants are good for the economy, and that freedom seekers are our kin. What I find sad is that we all know this history. We did not think the ideal of liberal democracy, the open society, would have to be fought for all over again. We are so spoiled we thought that it just grew naturally with everything else we have in our gardens of relative good fortune.

Looking Harlem in the Eye

Carl Van Vechten: Ethel Waters, 1932

Carl Van Vechten (1880-1964), enthusiast of Modernism and ally of the Harlem Renaissance, had a swell time while the Roaring Twenties lasted and his home became something of a cultural clearinghouse for black writers and artists. But his photographs of black people are perhaps his most personal work. Van Vechten’s admiration for his subjects was unambiguous and the portraits speak of his talent for friendship. They knew who he was. Even when the subject’s gaze is averted, as in Van Vechten’s 1936 portrait of Lottie Allen, described as a domestic worker, her “dates unknown,” the viewer believes that she, who appears to be in uniform, trusts the white man behind that camera.

Dancing Miss

Billie Holiday, 1938

Darryl Pinckney remembers Elizabeth Hardwick’s portrait of Billie Holiday, which first appeared in the March 4, 1976 issue of The New York Review.