In this unusually honest book of essays and other writings, Emily Bernard examines the complexities of interracial friendships: Latino and white, black and Asian, black and Jewish. In essays from such celebrated writers as Pam Houston, Darryl Pickney, Luis Rodriguez, and Susan Straight, among many others, you'll meet a young Italian American college student who rooms with a sophisticated young black man who can trace his college-educated elders back several generations; a second-generation Korean American from the "hood" who is more comfortable with Latinos and blacks than with Korean kids who grew up in the suburbs; and a Jewish man who reflects on his friendship with a black opera singer. Though culturally and ethnically at odds, perhaps, they call each other friends; working together, playing together, opening their homes and hearts, even when they have every reason not to.
Sometimes controversial, sometimes funny, but always thought-provoking, Some of My Best Friends is a timely work on a subject that has yet to be fully explored.
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About the Author
Emily Bernard was born in Nashville, Tennessee. She has a B.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from Yale University. She has received fellowships from the Ford Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the W. E. B. Du Bois Institute for African and African-American Research at Harvard University. She teaches in the English Department and ALANA U.S. Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Vermont. Bernard is editor of Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925–1964.
Read an Excerpt
Some of My Best Friends
Writings on Interracial Friendships
Crossing the Line: An Introduction
My mother will deny this but it's true. As a kid, whenever -- and I mean, without exception -- I came home from school and complained about some girl bossing me around, she would look at me and ask, "Is she white?" "Yes," I would invariably admit. Point made, she would arch a knowing eyebrow, and I would understand the discussion was over. My mother grew up in Hazelhurst, Mississippi, and routinely endured the rocks and clumps of dirt white kids, sons of millworkers, would throw at her and her grandmother as they walked to the dry goods store. For historical reasons, among others, my mother believed white people were not to be trusted. You could hardly blame her.
Despite the lessons of her history, my mother tolerated the steady stream of white girls who came over to play with me, occasionally with pleasure and amusement, at other times with barely concealed irritation. Sometimes her irritation had to do with being the mother of three young children; sometimes it had to do with being the mother of three young black children who had exclusively white friends. On one occasion, my mother caught me imitating the speech pattern of one of my friends and said, "Emily, you are not a little white girl." I had no idea what she meant by this. I still don't. At school, black kids equated "acting white" with making good grades and speaking formal English. At home, doing well in school was everything, and my parents' English was impeccable, so that wasn't it. Now I think she meant only that there was a line she felt it necessary to preserve between her daughter and the white girls who surrounded her. Maybe it's a line that all Old World mothers want to maintain between their daughters and strange New World customs and citizens. Maybe it was a line only my mother could see.
In the new world of suburban, upwardly mobile Nashville, Tennessee, in the 1970s, whiteness was not the only thing that irritated my mother. Every so often, she would respond to the invitations issued by black society types and lug me and my brothers to a party or a brunch. At these events, my mother was demure and polite, which let me know she was not having a good time. My diagnosis was always confirmed by the caustic observations she would make about these gatherings in the car on the way back home. I imagine my mother would not have been able to say what she found harder to stomach: the haughty airs and superficial ambitions of the black society types, or the inevitable loneliness that she feared lay ahead for her children if they were left to their own devices. She wanted us to meet and befriend black children who were like us. I appreciated and sympathized with her conflict, but only up to a point. Because for me there was no choice. I preferred the white girls, hands down.
Sometimes the white girls would come over, but as frequently as I could, I would go to their houses, usually after some battle with my mother, who would chauffeur me there in stony silence. She was tough, but she could always be won over with the "I thought you said people should be judged by their character" argument. Some of the white girls whose houses I particularly liked to visit were not of admirable character, but I didn't discuss that with my mother, even though I was fairly sure she suspected as much. Why did I prefer the white girls with poor character? First, most of them had money, and they abused their parents' resources spectacularly. They watched all the television shows and ate all the food forbidden in my own household. A few of them called their parents by their first names, and all of them talked back. None of the white mothers admonished their daughters about how they carried themselves, reminding them stringently of all they were representing. No set of white parents shook their heads in grim silence as they watched news reports about another black man arrested. The white girls of poor character cursed their parents, made jokes about farting, and slammed doors. They were without shame. They were free.
My mother was right, of course. Sooner or later, the white girls would slip up. In general, the freer the white girl, the uglier the moment of revelation. During dinner at Cathy's house, her stepfather admonished her by saying, "Eat like a white person!" Cathy giggled; my face burned. Later, in her room upstairs, I summoned the courage to bring it up. "My stepfather's not a racist. He's just a jerk," she said by way of reassurance. I asked her, "What does he think about me?" She said, "You're different." I wanted Cathy's family to like me, but her stepfather scared and disgusted me. Not surprisingly, this friendship didn't last. She didn't say it, but I suspected my mother wasn't sorry to see her go.
I liked being different.
The white girls with fine character thought I was different, too. Rebecca was the smartest person in the third grade. She talked the most and the fastest. One day, she needed a pencil, and I timidly offered one. I still recall holding out that pencil with my heart in my throat. It is my earliest romantic memory.
One day at recess, I saw Rebecca at the fence that bordered the playground behind our school. She was talking to a little white girl who lived in a house on the other side. As I approached them, I recoiled. My mother had warned me about the "poor white trash," as she referred to them, on the other side of the fence. Even from a few feet away, I could see the girl's face was dirty. She looked wild to me, like an animal. But I swallowed my fear and moved forward. Rebecca was there, after all. I was safe.
As I got closer, the dirty white girl's eyes widened, and she backed away. I wanted to turn around, look behind me, even as I knew it was I who frightened her. "What's the matter?" Rebecca asked the girl. "It's her," she said, pointing at me. "My mother told me not to talk to black people." Rebecca looked me over quickly. "Oh, Emily. She's different." Nearly thirty years later, what I remember is how desperately I hoped Rebecca's words would quiet the dirty girl. I knew what she meant. She meant what other white friends meant when they would say to me over the years, "I just don't think of you as black." She meant it as a compliment. I took it. Still, I remember wondering what it was exactly that Rebecca saw when she looked at me.Some of My Best Friends
Writings on Interracial Friendships. Copyright © by Emily Bernard. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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