The Conversation
By Hill Harper
Published by Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 2009

**The rest of this review is posted over at Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K.***

“I am calling this book The Conversation because my hope is that these words that originate with me at my laptop will find their way to the book in your hands, pushing you and inspiring you to talk with your friends and families. I hope eventually to extend that dialogue across the barricades that men and women have erected to protect themselves from each other. We are growing jaded, cynical, tired, and world-weary before our time. We are expecting less and demanding less, and those lower expectations are making us unfulfilled and taking us farther from each other. The walls between us do not serve us.”

– Hill Harper, The Conversation (excerpt from Introduction)

The actor and scholar has come out with his third book. This time Hill Harper focuses on the state of the Black family, particularly the impact of the state of communication (or lack thereof) between black men and women on black love. I got an advanced copy and it doesn’t disappoint. This is one book to put on your reading list for the Fall.

Before getting into the purpose behind Hill Harper’s new book perhaps we should take a hint from one of his past movies. A small, seemingly insignificant, scene from a 1997 independent movie called Hav Plenty sets the table for many of the issues in Harper‘s new book.

Roughly five minutes into the film the protagonist, Lee Plenty (Christopher Scott Cherot), makes eye-contact with a beautiful black woman at a gas station. Just as she enters her car, Lee catches her attention, flashes a cheesy grin and waves at the sistah. Her response? Well, let’s just say it’s not so kind. In a brief yet heavy moment of contemplation the woman casts her glance downward only to look back at Lee in complete disgust. In one smooth yet dismissive motion her eyes roll to the back of her head. . . indeed, so far back that they cause her neck to follow suit. The message is clear: goodbye opportunity, hello could shoulder. Lee’s left with a confused look on his face as the audience hears the woman‘s car drive off in the distance. . . End scene.

This scene is symbolic of a thousands similar situations where black men and women operate from a position of distrust and low expectations of each other. Both Lee and the woman had sized each other up in a matter of seconds. Blame it on racial stereotypes. . . blame it on sexual politics . . . blame it on sheer ignorance, but for whatever reason that 10 second scene encapsulates a disturbing pattern that exists amongst parts of our community. At issue is the cultivation of distrust between black men and women. At issue is the lack of productive and healthy communication between black men and black women. And these are just a few of the issues Hill Harper tries to tackle in The Conversation.

This is a DISCUSSION, NOT a lecture:

Harper stays true to the title of the book. What he presents is an actual conversation. Harper, for the most part, stays clear of lecturing the audience. He doesn’t claim to be an expert in relationships, nor does he hold himself out as a spokesperson for all black men. No. What you see is what you get. And what you get is an honest, rather introspective look at the state of black relationships through the eyes of one man who is more than willing to admit to his fair share of mistakes and lessons learned along the way. He applies the advice and tough love he receives to challenge old habits as a new love interest comes into the picture. The evolution of Harper as he opens up to the possibilities before him serves as an example of how a healthy relationship challenges us to be better people.

And props also go out to Harper for keeping an honest discussion. This is a book where BOTH sides get their say. It’s not just a bunch of women pointing the finger at men for failed relationships or men blaming women for their own insecurities. To the contrary, Harper draws from the experiences of his male and female friends to share their thoughts on the state of black love. In fact, there are chapters where Harper simply yields the floor to his friends. The women have their chance to speak and so do the men. And, with the exception of a few predictable (if not bitter comments), both sides do an admirable job of tackling the issues from a shared space: to build WITH each other rather than tear each other down.

What happens in the process is quite telling. In a society where black men and women often speak past each other, the interviews in Harper’s book actually reveal how black men and women are on the same wavelength when it comes to evaluating the obstacles to black love. Both black women AND men express a lack of appreciation from the opposite sex. Both black women AND men cite friendship as a must in any strong relationship. And both black women AND black men reference their grandparents and past generations as providing a strong example for healthy relationships.

However the points where black men and women differ are also quite significant. Harper goes through great lengths to convey what black men and women are looking for in a relationship. The answers vary, but two requests, in particular, were quite poignant:

1. Black men have a desire to feel NEEDED; and
2. Black women have a desire to be TAKEN SERIOUSLY

And before the cynics attack such requests as being unearned – hold it right there! Harper does an excellent job of focusing the spotlight on successful black relationships . . . relationships that are built by men and women who don’t fit the stereotype . . . relationships that take time and cooperation to build. Harper makes it clear that these men and women are the norm, NOT the exception, and that, as such, they deserve the respect they seek.

“We can chart a completely new course simply by choosing to speak to and about each other in new ways. Let’s commit to dragging [stereotypical comments] into the trash and pressing PERMANENT DELETE. Let’s eliminate the poison and residual negativity that such comments yield. . . Let’s commit to publicly ‘checking,’ or stopping, someone from engaging in that kind of speech.” (Harper, 40)

The levels of commitment and trust necessary to build each other up rather than tear each other down are reocurring themes throughout the book. Commitment, communication and trust (as generic as they may sound) are powerful messages when conveyed in the context of black couples who are giving their all to preserve the vows they made to each other.

Indeed, Harper’s book is predicated upon the belief that black men and women can chart a NEW path. It is a challenge to us as a black community to do away with the temptation to cave to the very worst of stereotypical beliefs about ourselves and our partners. It’s a call to check the baggage at the door and be open to the possibility that a strong and healthy black relationship has to offer.

**The rest of this review is posted over at Operation Reach B.L.A.C.K.***

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