Online Edition: Winter 2004

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Some of my Best Friends

Writings on Interracial Friendships

edited by Emily Bernard

HarperCollins ($23.95)

by Shannon Gibney

In a world where the dominant narrative on interracial friendships looks like something out of Ally McBeal (high-powered, beautiful White girl, hangs with high-powered, beautiful, and sassy Black girl and thus obtains extra "cool" points), the prospect of an entire book on the topic is a bit terrifying. Far from being yet another vapid and familiar exploration of the power of friendship to "transcend all," however, Some of my Best Friends acknowledges the many racial and cultural differences that weigh upon and sometimes break interracial friendships—while arguing that such difficulties often make these friendships worthwhile in the first place.

Pam Houston locates the primary difficulty as internal in "On The Possibility-Filled Edge of the Continent," claiming "the reason I have never acted on my attraction to black men, why I am only just now beginning to develop friendships with black women, is a. . . kind of self-loathing." In a refreshing if somewhat unfocused essay, Houston reveals that she approached an interview with Nobel laureate Toni Morrison more fearfully than she did mountain expeditions in Tibet and Kenya. After her hourly interview turns into a day-long visit between just-met old friends, Houston realizes that it is her own feelings of inadequacy that have kept her from truly connecting with those outside her immediate circle.

In "Crossing the Line: An Introduction," editor Emily Bernard presents a mother-daughter conflict that few Black families want to discuss: Black daughters with White-girl best friends that their mothers dislike. Bernard writes that her mother "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." Bold words indeed for any Black woman to write in the post-Black Power era. But Bernard's honesty about the isolation she felt as the sole Black girl in advanced placement classes at her school, and the tyranny of having to embrace a certain kind of Blackness in order to claim authenticity, strikes a chord. She feels little or no connection to the other Black girls at school, and is more interested in exploring a different, and in some ways more dangerous kind of intimacy with White girls.

The essays that occur outside of a White, normative gaze are what make Some of My Best Friends such a good read. Jee Kim's "Bi-Bim-Bap" stands out for its depiction of the nexus of urban Korean American and African American cultures and for its gripping, scenic structure. And the closing essay, Somini Sengupta's "With Me Where I Go," sears itself into the brain, never to be forgotten. Told in expository form as a letter from an Indian American reporter to a lost African American lover, the beauty of Sengupta's piece is only surpassed by its execution:

      Our clans needed each other. Yours needed mine to remind themselves they belonged on this soil. Mine needed yours to know who was on top and who was at bottom. It's the immigrant's rite of passage
      And then, under the epidermis of our public identities, there was you and me. Somewhere in the foul brown muck of our antagonism was a more primal longing. Did you hear me trying to tell you, "Tell me about, show me, who am I?"

Sengupta's uncompromising embrace of the demands and rewards that true intimacy yields is breathtaking. One hopes that her essay, as well as others in this fine anthology, will inspire a more honest and inspiring discussion about race, culture and love in this country—both on the page and off of it. As James Baldwin pointed out 40 years ago in The Fire Next Time, we are long overdue.

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Winter 2004 Table of Contents