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Book Review: Some of My Best Friends Are Black
Posted by Jay Readey of The Chicago Lawyers' Committee on Aug 3, 2012
I am a fervent believer that racial integration – by neighborhood most of all, but also in terms of our interpersonal relations and daily patterns – is the key to a more just and equal society on nearly every dimension. So you can imagine my pleasure when I saw an open letter, “Dear HBO: Please Make a TV Series About Race and Integration,” written by a young white guy, Tanner Colby. Not enough white folks engage publicly in discussions of racial equality, and the term integration has fallen into almost complete disuse in favor of “diversity.” Better yet, it turns out Mr. Colby has recently published a book, “Some of My Best Friends Are Black,” about America’s experience with integration.
"Some of My Best Friends Are Black" is a common phrase for disengaged white folks, and indeed, Mr. Colby sets himself up as a clueless white person. His other two books, about Chris Farley and John Belushi, focus on the bios of dead-by-overdose-at-33 overweight comedians. This leads to instant concerns about scope. He gets the broad strokes right, dedicating sections of the book to schools, neighborhoods, employment and worship. But it gets narrower from there, because even though Colby says this isn’t a memoir, each of his subjects is chosen based on how his life has touched it. Birmingham works for the school busing section, since Birmingham is Birmingham and an epicenter of civil rights history. And Kansas City works really well for the story of subdivisions and restrictive covenants (never mind that Colby had no personal tie there).
But then we get a section on African-Americans in advertising because, well, that’s where Tanner Colby used to work. One could imagine the importance of examining African-American employment in, say, teaching, government service, real estate or manufacturing (I’m kind of partial to the law). But we get advertising, which employs next to zero Black people; maybe it works anyways because Colby can use it to illuminate the competing narratives of Black folks in mainstream ad agencies versus starting their own Black agencies. And finally, Colby tells the story of “the most segregated hour” through the Catholic Church in small-town Louisiana, even though Black Catholics are a marginal 2% of the African-American population, or roughly 600,000 out of 30 million Black Americans.
As narrative, even through these sometimes narrow lenses, Colby’s stories work. He’s an excellent writer and a highly sympathetic narrator. Although the treatment is reductive and streamlined, Colby hits many of the key touch points of our late-20th-century racial history: court decisions and land use decisions, minority set-asides and Jesse Jackson’s economic empowerment plans, HBCUs and FHA schemes. And in the culminating section on religion, the “Miracle of Grand Coteau” is a moving and beautiful story, a real gem of a find that is gently rendered. The book is enjoyable to read.
There’s just this nagging problem of conclusions. In an interview with Ebony about the book, Colby suggests that he’s just telling people’s stories in the book. No, there’s a lot of Tanner here. The book is laced with his observations, conclusions, insights and voice. Problem is, as sympathetic as his narrative aims to be, he often reverts to the clueless white person perspective. In the section on school busing, Colby wishes that more black families had moved into the escapist suburb of Vestavia Hills to take advantage of the blue ribbon education available there. In Kansas City, the 49/63 neighborhood association makes a valiant effort to maintain integration in a city neighborhood, but trouble is, not enough Black folks are willing to become active in the association. In advertising, Colby laments the fact that so many Black folks opt for diversity-oriented ad agencies and fill their LinkedIn accounts with only Black people. In Grand Coteau we get Colby’s best summation of the book’s conclusion, that “Each side has given something up and each side has taken something of the other, and together they have built something new.” But even here, the Black church members gave up their chapel and essentially moved into the more numerous white church.
Is that the only road to integration, Black folks assimilating, giving up some of their prerogatives and joining white society with its greater resources and opportunities? I think not. And that’s my ultimate issue with “Some of My Best Friends:” the last chapter is missing. In the Preface, Colby suggests that “somewhere in [the] catalog of mistakes [made trying to take down the color line] might be the answer to fixing them.” But we never get the chapter about answers to fixing our mistakes. Instead, we’re left with the range of insights that usually indicate two sides each giving up something to find mutual ground, albeit with Black folks giving up more.
This is 2012. Twenty-odd years ago, I began my own voyage as a clueless white person writing about my racial baggage and ignorance, and I think Tanner Colby’s book deal could have produced more insights into how we move forward. I honor his decision to focus on the subject, and say welcome to the journey, Mr. Colby. But let’s get on with the dialogue about solutions, because there’s plenty of good material already out there examining the failures of our racial history.
Jay Readey is the Executive Director of the Chicago Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. and the Publisher of Race&Poverty.