DC at Night

DC at Night

Friday, August 10, 2012

Some of My Best Friends Are Black

On the night that Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for president, New York author Tanner Colby, who had been an avid Obama supporter, came to a startling revelation.

"I didn't actually know any black people," he says. "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-travelled, left-leaning white folks like me - asking them how many black friends they had. The answers were pretty pathetic."

Colby thought the idea of such black/white separation decades after laws had called for integration had the makings of his next book. But he encountered a few problems. His first 2 books, one about John Belushi and the other about Chris Farley, had pigeonholed him as a writer. "I was told 'you do dead guys from Saturday Night Live who die at age 33 from heroin and cocaine in hotel rooms,'" he says with a laugh. "I was running out of dead, fat comedians."

Then there was the problem of race. Colby's idea would involve a white writer writing about black people. That caused grave concern from his publishing company.  Finally, Colby was able to get a green light for his project and the result was his new book Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America, which examines America's still existing color lines in schools, housing, the workplace, and church.

Last night, Colby came to Politics and Prose to read from his book and talk about his findings in an America which he contends was created on 2 basically irreconcilable ideas - one that all men are created equal and the other that black slaves were inferior to their white owners.

For the school portion of his book, Colby returned to his Birmingham, Alabama high school.  There he began with the story of Ms. Alicia, one of the first black students to attend his high school, who today drives a bus from the same black community she lived in to the same high she attended as one of its few black students. For housing, he focused on the rigid segregation lines of St. Louis. For church, he returned to the Louisiana land of his birth to see how 2 Catholic churches in his old town - one black and one white - have handled the integration question.

Colby, who worked in the Mad Men-like world of New York advertising for 9 years, used the story of that life for his chapters on the workplace, arranging his ideas around Roy Eaton, who has been called "the Jackie Robinson of American Advertising" and Byron Lewis, an advocate for black firms advertising black products for black people.

Prior to the late-1960s, as accurately portrayed on the AMC TV Show Mad Men, blacks found themselves locked out of advertising. "There was a huge and botched attempt to change that, that ended in acrimonious failure," Colby said. "Black ad figures said 'if white people don't want us, we will take care of ourselves. Black agencies will serve the niche."

They began an experiment called soul marketing. Several examples of that approach still exist today. At the height of black power, black ad men created a "bold, cold Newport man," sort of the Marlboro Man of black pride. Today, 75% of all black people who smoke, smoke menthol cigarettes such as Newports. That corresponding number for whites is 23%.

Of course, when white ad men discovered the rising power of black stars such as Bill Cosby or Michael Jackson, they scrambled to produce ads for the black market, often with ridiculous results. In 1992, an agency used music star M.C. Hammer as a spokesperson for Kentucky Fried Chicken. "Really, a black man dancing for chicken," the black community answered, we don't think so. However today, the marketing world is still  often divided between white and black ideas and black and white companies.

In the question and answer period that followed Colby's reading and remarks, the author said he was hopeful that time and continued contact would eventually eliminate racial divides and gaps. "I now believe I am more thoughtful and more educated," Colby said. "I see the world differently."

Colby was asked how the black subjects he interviewed viewed him. "At first, they treated me like a curiosity,' he said. But when they realized he was making a serious effort to comes to terms with the reasons behind the racial divisions, they became quite willing to talk about the subject and share their ideas.

Tales, Tidbits, and Tips
Can you spot Price and Pope in this picture?
As I write this post, I am half-way through Colby' powerful book. It has prompted me to think about race in my own life. I was raised in an ethnically diverse community in South Jersey and remained there for almost 6 decades, leaving only to attend 4 years of college at Villanova University. As I look at my own life, here are my totals of close black friends. Childhood two, although almost all of my weekend sports playmates were black. High school one, college one. During my 10 years as a reporter and editor, my best friend was black and W. Leon Pope is still the unofficial godfather to my son, Michael. During my 27 years as an urban educator, I considered most of the black teachers I taught with good acquaintances, rather than good friends. I did maintain close relationships with most of my students, even jokingly calling many my other sons and daughters by different mothers. But, even if you have much contact and try to maintain an open mind, it is still difficult to see situations the way others do. Two cases in point. Once, in Philadelphia, Pope and I went into a club to get some beer. Inside, I couldn't help but notice that I was different than the other 400 people. Outside, Pope laughed. "You looked a little nervous in there," he said. "Well, I just felt I was different," I said. "Well, now you know how I feel," Pope responded. Pope was like my older brother, but I had never really considered seeing our reporting world through his eyes. And one more. One day, during class, I was talking to one of my special groups (yes, I know teachers aren't supposed to have favorites, but that is a lie those of us who try to do a good job keep well hidden). We were talking about race. "You know," I said. "I sometimes think we put too much emphasis on a person's skin color in education," I postulated. "Does it really matter if a teacher is black or brown or white if he or she is a good teacher? Both Warren and Osco answered the question almost in unison. "Mr. Price, look, you are a good teacher. But when we look at you, we know we can't ever be you. You're white and we're black. But when we look at Mr. Dunkins (at the time a popular black teacher and coach) or Mr. Lane (then the superintendent of the school system), we can be like them. And that's important,' they said. "OK, lesson learned," I said. They just smiled, reveling in the idea that once again - as was so often the case in my class - the students had had to school the teacher.

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