Eye-opening book on integration by author with no black friends
Tanner Colby's "Some of My Best Friends Are Black" was written after the author worked on and celebrated Barack Obama's presidential win — and then realized he himself had no black friends. The book is part memoir of growing up in the South and part in-depth reporting on the successes and failures of racial integration in America.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Some of My Best Friends Are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America'
by Tanner Colby
Viking, 320 pp. $27.95
Tanner Colby grew up as a Southerner (Louisiana, Alabama) who ended up working in the advertising industry (known in shorthand as New York City's Madison Avenue). Intervals of published writing became part of the mix, including biographies of actors who died young: John Belushi and Chris Farley. In a self-deprecating passage, Colby explains that by 2008 he had become pigeonholed: "Huh. Dead, fat comedians? That's what you do?"
While Colby thought about where to steer his career after the publication of those biographies, he found time to become involved in the election campaign of Barack Obama for president of the United States. Obama's election led to Colby's euphoria, and then to morose reflection: "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."
Colby started asking fellow Caucasians — liberal minded, open to new experiences, not at all racially prejudiced as far as they could tell — about their African-American friends. Almost none could name even one African-American friend.
"Obama's election was astonishing, unprecedented," Colby says, stating the obvious, and then states the less obvious: "But what did it really prove except that it's easier to vote for a black man than to sit and have a beer with one." So Colby decided to propose a book about why he knew zero black people well. His pitch to his editor was deceptively simple: "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."
The book, "Some of My Best Friends Are Black," is part memoir, part in-depth reporting. To illuminate the successes and failures of racial integration, Colby immerses himself in four locales: Birmingham, Ala., where he attended high school, to examine school segregation; Grand Coteau, La., where generations of his family had been rooted, to examine church segregation; Madison Avenue, New York City, where he had been employed, to examine workplace segregation; and Kansas City, Mo., previously unfamiliar territory, to examine housing segregation. New Orleans, where Colby attended college, figures into his race-related experiences, too.
Every place Colby has lived contains substantial African-American populations. He figured that "to retrace the color line through all the places I've lived ... would have to yield a pretty thorough catalog of the mistakes that were made ... and something in that catalog might be the answer to fixing them."
Each of the book's sections is well-documented and well-written. It is difficult to imagine anybody — African American or Caucasian or some other ethnicity, female or male, elderly or young — finding the book boring. It is easy to imagine widely varying reactions to Colby's personal experiences and his reported findings. Is there cause for optimism that Colby found so many individuals laboring so tirelessly for meaningful racial integration, given the results? Is there cause for pessimism that Colby found so many individuals who show little interest in friendships across racial lines?
The book provides no easy answers, and that is one of its many virtues.
Steve Weinberg is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.