In May of 2008, I was lucky enough to do something most writers only dream about. I’d written a book, The Chris Farley Show, a biography of the Saturday Night Live star who died from a drug overdose at the age of thirty-three. It was published to great reviews, hit the New York Times bestseller list, and stayed there for four glorious, ego-massaging weeks.
Then I was unemployed. I needed another book to write, but my sophomore publishing effort had proved to be as much a curse as a blessing. My previous book had been a biography of John Belushi, the other larger-than-life SNL star killed by a drug overdose at the age of thirty-three. Everywhere I’d go people would say, “Huh. Dead, fat comedians? That’s what you do?”
I’d pigeonholed myself. I wasn’t interested in writing about dead, fat comedians anymore, and there weren’t many of them left, besides. But I wasn’t an authority on anything else. As far as the market was concerned, it was all I was qualified to do. Even my literary agent and my editor, sympathetic to my plight, advised me that the only kind of book I could sell was something in the ill-fated celebrity genre. I pitched my publisher a number of ideas in a different vein, all of them politely batted down. So like any frustrated, unemployed person, I started watching a lot of television.
It was the summer of the 2008 presidential election. The twenty-four-hour news cycle was churning at full tilt, and I was glued to the drama. Hillary Clinton was desperately clinging to a primary campaign that was already mathematically over. John McCain was running around the country, rapidly shrinking before our eyes from a war hero “maverick” into some crotchety old dude. And there in between them was pretty much the awesomest guy ever to run for president in my lifetime, Barack Obama. I’ll admit it: I was totally in the bag for the Yes We Can crusade. I didn’t just drink the Obama Kool-Aid. No, I sucked those flavor crystals right out of the packet. The speeches, the audacity—I bought it all. My friends and I, we’d gather on Tuesday nights to drink and cheer as the primary results came in. For the first time in my life I gave money, and not a small amount of it, to a political candidate. The night he finally clinched the nomination, my friends and I all let out a collective “Yes!”
But somewhere in all my excitement over America’s first black presidential nominee, I came to a not-small realization: I didn’t actually know any black people. I mean, I’ve met them, have been acquainted with a few in passing, here and there. I know of black people, you could say. But none of my friends were black. I’d never had a black teacher, college professor, or workplace mentor. I’d never even been inside a black person’s house.
I knew it wasn’t just me. I started randomly polling friends and associates—most of them enlightened, open-minded, well-traveled, left-leaning white folks like me—asking them how many black friends they had. The answers were pretty pathetic.
“Um, I work with a black guy.”
“I had a biracial friend in high school.”
“I’ve got . . . one—wait . . . no, two! I’ve got two.”
“Real black friends? You mean ones that aren’t on television?”
By the time election season was done, it was pretty clear to anyone who was paying attention that there were black people supporting Obama and there were white people supporting Obama, but we were doing it the same way black people and white people do just about everything: in different zip codes. Even inside the big arenas, how many of those people cheered their candidate on only to return at the end of the night to separate homes, neighborhoods, and lives? Obama’s election was astonishing, unprecedented. But what did it really prove other than that it’s easier to vote for a black man than to sit and have a beer with one?
With a black president headed to the White House, every publisher in New York was being flooded with proposals for books about his candidacy and race and politics and all the rest of it—all coming from authors, academics, and important people with more impressive credentials than I. So I called my editor and told her I didn’t want to write a book about Barack Obama. I wanted to write a book about why I didn’t know any black people. I wanted to skip from dead, fat comedians to the history of racial integration in America.
There was no reason in the world for her to agree to let me do it. There was certainly no way she’d pay me actual money to do it. But in the end my pitch was a pretty simple one. Sure, I had no idea what I was doing, but to be a white person writing a book about race, ignorance was the only qualification I would need.
* * *
Exactly four years later, on July 9, 2012, Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America will hit the shelves in bookstores nationwide. To write it, I traced the history of the color line back through the various chapters of my own lily-white life, finding stories from everyday people and weaving them together. Starting with the clash over school busing in the suburbs of Birmingham, Alabama, my journey then took me through the sordid history of real estate segregation in Kansas City, Missouri; the tangled mess of affirmative action in New York’s advertising industry; and, finally, down to the swamps of Southern Louisiana, where Jim Crow first split the Catholic Church in two and where one small town decided that the only way to heal itself was to put its divided churches back together again.
Birthed from a simple question asked out of total ignorance, Some of My Best Friends Are Black offers a humorous yet unsparing take on the tortured legacy of Jim Crow—and lays bare the hard truth of what it will take to see that legacy undone.
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