We all have a little white girl inside us, some of us more than others. That might sound like a joke, but New Yorker critic Hilton Als will make you believe it’s true. He begins his captivating new book, White Girls, by examining the role white girls played in his life as a gay black man living in New York during the early years of AIDS. Then, in a series of essays, he claims that a diverse range of historical figures — Richard Pryor, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, even actual white women like Flannery O’Connor — were shaped by their relationships or identification with white girls. There’s no overarching manifesto: ”White girlness” isn’t presented as good or bad; it means something different to each of his subjects. But his theories are so original they’ll make you think differently about race and gender whether you’re a white girl or not.
White Girls’ arguments don’t always work. For example, Als plays Freud with Malcolm X and Eminem, insisting that both men needed to reject their white mothers in order to ”marry” their careers. (Huh?) But his willingness to rankle conservatives and liberals alike is thrilling, and his sharper ideas will be debated for years. Take his analysis of Truman Capote’s novel Other Voices, Other Rooms, whose cover shows the author posing like a pinup star. At the time, he notes, most female authors posed like men on their dust jackets, hoping to earn male peers’ respect. ”Capote became a woman in 1947 just when ‘real’ women would not or could not,” Als writes. Debatable? Sure. Fascinating? Definitely. Or take the chapter where Als admits to falling for Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. ”I would have made her forget that I was colored…because I knew I could make her love me,” he writes. ”But how do you get people to ignore their own history?” Of course, he knows how to get people to remember their history, and own up to their place within it: write a book about identity that challenges people as much as this one. B+