Whether from a friend, family member, or while eavesdropping in on a conversation between strangers, we have all heard this hackneyed statement before—we may even have uttered these words ourselves—”Some of my best friends are black, Jewish, gay…” This phrase, usually employed defensively when one is faced with charges of prejudice, can be completed with a number of descriptors of race, class, religion, or sexuality. As the title of her second work alludes to, through a number of hard-hitting, humorous, and candid essays, short stories, and poems by various authors, Emily Bernard's Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships explores the nuances, intricacies, rewards, and benefits that come with befriending those of another race. Some of My Best Friends moves beyond the conventional discussions of black and white, to discuss the ways in which crossing the color line in spheres other than romance could in some way remedy or help to understand “larger social problems” (Bernard 12).
In her introduction, Bernard follows the path of many early twentieth-century black authors such as James Weldon Johnson, Nella Larsen, and Ralph Ellison through her description of race as a learned category as she chronicles her entry into race consciousness as a young girl growing up in Tennessee and the impact this entry has had on her identity and opinion of the world around her.
What's at stake when someone concludes that the race problem that continues to plague the nations of the world can be solved through interracial friendships or through embracing races, religions, and classes different from our own? In an attempt to answer this and other questions concerning race, these fifteen selections delineate how this is no simple gesture.
Jee Kim's “Bi-Bim-Bap” and John Gennari's “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” not only permit the reader to gaze into the heteroglossic dialogue between friends of varying racial backgrounds but also challenges our definitions of multiculturalism and diversity. Both show how society has skewed our perceptions of diversity, wherein we believe diversity signifies a gathering of an array of disparate nationalities, religions, and ethnicities. “Bi-Bim-Bap” tells the story of a group of friends: one Korean, one Latino, and another black, who are anything but diverse. Despite their racial differences, they are the products of the same socio-economic backgrounds and have experienced the same material, symbolic, and social deprivations suffered by many, if not all, marginalized, non-majority segments of culture in America . As T, the black member of the group, demonstrates his aversion to the use of the term nigga by those outside of the black race, Six, the Puerto Rican, asserts:
We all niggas here T. That's what I been trying to tell you son. Fuck all the
history shit son. Today, right now, we all niggas. All niggas, son!
But I'm the only nigger here.
But to the white motherfuckers that run this country, we all niggas. Peep
this son. It's like I told Jee the other day. Peep this shit: Niggas, Indigenous, Gooks, Arabs, and Spics. N, I, G, A, S. (21-2)
Although this contentious debate between friends ends with a decision to agree to disagree, Jee Kim's short story vividly illustrates the striking similarities inherent in these outwardly dissimilar individuals.
John Gennari, like Kim, writes a quasi autobiographical narrative that offers insight into his lifelong friendship with someone of a different race. Recalling his youthful days at Harvard University , Gennari writes of his working-class, Italian-American roots juxtaposing his background with his friend William's “Afrostocracy” (32). Despite his natural acceptance into whiteness, Gennari paints a picture wherein he—not William—is configured as “other” and as someone who is passing amongst those deemed superior to himself:
William looked more like the face of “diversity,” but I was the true beneficiary of Harvard's affirmative action policy. He had been groomed for this experience since he left his mother's womb; I was an experiment in the liberal scheme to loosen up the class order. We were both outsiders to the WASP establishment, but we were both experienced in demystifying that establishment from the vantage of our class positions. My experience was that of a servant… As a member of the servant class, I had spent plenty of time in the company of rich white kids my age, but very little time with those kids… William often told me how astonished he was at how nicely rich white people…treated him. I couldn't say the same. (46-7)
As a self-proclaimed “white person without money” among black and white bourgeois groups, Gennari's story complicates widely-accepted definitions of multiculturalism and diversity. The relationship between John and William, although rocky at times and complete with male bonding, bouts of one-upmanship, and racial discussion, depicts an amalgamation of races inciting an understanding and appreciation of their differences and the discursive freedom to explore those differences. Like other works in Some of My Best Friends , such as those by Trey Ellis, Susan Straight, Pam Houston, and Somini Sengupta, “Nearer, My God, to Thee” sketches out what one must bring to an interracial friendship and subsequently what one can receive.
What makes the selections in Bernard's book so intriguing and thought-provoking is the honesty of the contributing authors, despite their fears of how they will be perceived by their “imagined readers” (186). In “Gringo Reservations,” Sandra Guzmán discusses her trepidation toward making white friends. She recalls the “racial dynamics” of her New Jersey neighborhood and how white Americans were always “off limits” to her and other Latino kids on her block. Guzmán speaks of an “invisible border” that had been passed down generation after generation which had perpetuated racial difference, misunderstandings, stereotypes, and hatred which she and others respected and accepted without question, analysis, or sospecha —suspicion. In her own admission of her racial biases, Guzmán discusses her distrust of gringos, disclosing her fear of having to translate herself to potential white friends. Although she is aware that her essay may lead her readers to categorize her as a racist, she confesses that she is not a racist but proffers her ideal interracial friends:
I am willing to acknowledge my biases and help destroy them. My potential gringo or gringa friends must be willing to recognize theirs, as well. They will have to drop their superiority complex, recognize me as an equal… This Americana or Americano will have to be willing to challenge myths, tear down walls, and then, side by side with me, build sturdy, honest bonds. (177)
Guzmán's candor turns an otherwise cynical outlook on embracing interracial friendships into one of hope and promise. This is what the contributing authors of Bernard's anthology have to offer: the positive and the negative aspects of crossing the color line.
Albeit some selections in Some of My Best Friends tend to stray from the initial topic, these selections reveal how Emily Bernard could easily have chosen to put together a text displaying the importance of crossing not only the color line but also how establishing friendships with those of disparate religions, classes, and sexual preferences also promotes locating a solution to lingering prejudices of the world. On the book jacket, poet Major Jackson asserts that Bernard's book “is for the reader who is ready to move beyond ‘tolerance,'” and his statement could not be more accurate, for tolerance alone could never solve anything.
Amistad, 2004 ISBN: 0-06-008276-3
224 pages, $23.95 (Hardcover)