A Harvard professor of English and African American studies offers his take on a range of subjects, from literary figures such as Sappho and Phillis Wheatley to trap music, all filtered through the lens of what it means to be Black in America.
... genius. McCarthy’s analyses and observations are masterfully articulated, as are his dissents ... McCarthy’s essays are richly varied, and one surmises the abundant intersections of art and race were in large measure informed by his own experiences growing up Black in America and in France ... [Toni] Morrison’s moral and social criticism and the Black humanist tradition in which she wrote are the underpinning of this collection. It’s distinctly evident in the title essay, wherein McCarthy argues against monetary recompense for slavery ... With a younger readership at the top of his mind but an open invitation to all, McCarthy seems determined to draw attention to African-Americans’ 'true strength' and 'worth.'
... [a] remarkable book of essays ... The earliest pieces (including the title essay) date from 2014, but most are essentially contemporary, and their cumulative range and force are as exhilarating as they are compelling ... The book’s tone is broadly inviting ... McCarthy writes with equal authority and scrutiny about trap music and the seventeenth-century Spanish painters Diego Velázquez and Juan de Pareja, the latter a black man and a freed slave of the former. In his brilliant essay 'To Make a Poet Black'—originally delivered as a lecture in his Introduction to Black Poetry course—McCarthy brings together Sappho, Kerry James Marshall, Phillis Wheatley, Theodor Adorno, and Ntozake Shange in what feels an entirely organic exploration of the cultural reception of two essential female poets, Sappho and Wheatley ... The finest essays in this book function like origami, folding together the apparently disparate into a unique and seemingly inevitable form ... he believes passionately in possibility, and a revolutionary, almost joyful sense of mission suffuses the book.
McCarthy’s book is a fascinating addition to the literature that shows an involved, first-rate mind at work. But if you are looking for a policy wonk’s introduction to the crafting of reparations, or a treatise on whether Blacks ought to be paid cash money—and if so, when, how and by whom—you will not find an answer in McCarthy’s book ... McCarthy is interested in addressing deeper and broader questions ... Indeed, he seems less interested in the details of public policy than in the challenge of wrestling with complex ideas. In doing so, his arrestingly original mind draws connections and conclusions that are not necessarily apparent ... There are ideas enough in this book of essays for 10 books; but there are no pat answers. Instead, there are endless interesting questions raised by a gifted, restless mind.