February 01, 1993 12:00 PM

by Walt Harrington

One day after hearing a racist joke, Harrington, a white Washington Post Magazine writer married to a black woman, decided to provide his two “tan and bright tan” kids with a document that “captures the breadth of black America.” His ensuing travels are an attempt to understand what it means to be black in America today.

The result is Crossings, a collection of short, vivid profiles of the people Harrington encounters. He visits a sharecropper’s son, now a clerk in a clothing factory, who talks sadly about the blacks who resent his rise into the middle class. Harrington visits historic racial hot spots like Montgomery, Ala., Little Rock, Ark., and Prince Edward County, Va. (public schools there were closed from 1959 to 1964 to avoid integration). People in all three places who remember those days tell him they feel race relations have greatly improved. He interviews Spike Lee, Ice-T and an outstanding teacher in Washington, D.C. And he spends time with an elderly crippled woman who has worked as a volunteer at Detroit’s Children’s Hospital for 10 years while living in a housing project on social security benefits.

Whether by design or by accident, virtually all the people Harrington includes believe success comes only from hard work—and that blacks shouldn’t blame racism for failure. There are no bad guys; even the ex-con murderer from East St. Louis, Ill., is making an honest living washing dishes. And while Harrington holds bull sessions with Illinois high school students, he doesn’t visit the campuses that today seethe with blatant racial disharmony.

Crossings could have been better balanced, but still it’s a fascinating and enlightening montage for blacks and whites alike. (HarperCollins, $25)

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