My First White Friend
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Taking a Chance on Love
The heart must be ready and brave. That's surely the only way anybody can get past the opening lines in my book: "God help me. I stopped hating white people on purpose a year ago."
I myself couldn't write the words until I'd stumbled around for months missing the point. I tiptoed around the keyboard, making believe that I was going to the heart, but missing it by a mile. That's because I was scared worried like many writers that readers wouldn't accept what I needed to tell them most. In the end, I wrote and rewrote the same 40 or so pages of safe, fearful words, terrified that I'd somehow say the wrong thing. Then my friend and agent Carla Glasser, who doesn't have any fear about getting right to the point, called me up and said this, "You are a writer. So write what you absolutely must say." So I sat down and wrote these words. God help me.
A dam broke.
The next sentence just sort of poured out of my fingers and the next sentence and the next. And instantly I could see where I had to start and where I was going with these pages that would become My First White Friend. I would start it with a confession talk flat out about race hate and what it had done to me, just pull out all the stops and finish with a resolution or a "closure" to all of my racial mess. I would pick apart the reality, as James Baldwin put it, where "all you are ever told about being black is that it is a terrible, terrible thing to be."
I would do this. But then I would make peace with it. God help me. And then the surprise happened. The writing changed my life.
So now I am somebody new. I started out writing about race. I ended up converting to forgiveness.
But first I had to learn about forgiveness learn from scratch, because candidly I knew nothing about forgiving. I thought it meant saying the words, I forgive you. It turns out that forgiveness first is about saying you're in pain.
That's the first step. Name your pain, as forgiveness scholar Barbara Flanagan puts it. Of course, that's where most folks in America get stopped, especially when it comes to race. We talk about the details, about what happened. But talking about what got hurt in the process scares us speechless. Certainly, I was terrified to look at my broken self and describe all the wounds resulting from race.
Harder still was step two, choosing to forgive them. But that is what forgiveness is a decision. It's choosing to release the person who hurt you from the burden of your resentment, no matter how justified your anger or rage.
Surely, indeed, it takes a change of heart for any of us broken and flawed as we are to then start the real work of forgiveness. That includes everything from trying to understand the injurer's brokenness asking what failure in the injurer's past and in the injurer's spirit allowed such a horrific offense to stirring up your own willingness to forgive the hurt.
To forgive so much that you can start to love.
This is hard, hard work. And when I look again at the first chapters of my book especially, the words fairly bleed up from the pages. One woman told me she was just crying and reading, and reading and crying. However, as the book evolves and the outcomes of forgiveness emerge, the tone of the book gives over to a lightness and a brightness that really pleases me. I'm speaking not about my talents or power as a writer, but about the power of forgiveness, a force that can transform hate to love. Surely forgiveness doesn't change the past. But it makes the memory and pain of the past bearable so a person can move on, then move up. That is true even when the injury is racial. That is the essence and the theme of my book and I am grateful to God that I was granted the privilege to write it.
Patricia Raybon, formerly a newspaper journalist, has written for The New York Times Magazine, Newsweek, USA Weekend/Today, The Rocky Mountain News, and The Denver Post. Her essays on family, race, and culture are aired regularly on National Public Radio's Weekend Edition. An award-winning feature writer, Raybon was awarded a Christopher Award for My First White Friend for "artistic excellence affirming the highest values of the human spirit." The book also won a 1996 Books for a Better Life Award. Raybon is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Colorado in Boulder. She lives near Denver with her husband and family.
1997 Christopher Award Winner
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Liberation and Redemption
In My First White Friend, you say that the "sheer idiocy of hating white people" left you reeling, that your "soul would die from it" but you also discovered that forgiveness was a personally dangerous option. Why?
Forgiveness seemed dangerous because it involves risk. Racial forgiveness seemed idiotic because it risked the loss of my only sure identity in our culture my racial self. If I started down the path of racial forgiveness determined to release "white America" for the past I feared I'd lose all justification for my "self." Instead, the opposite happened. Because I was willing to try to forgive others, I found a way to liberate myself choosing to focus less on my past and more on my future. Nelson Mandela perhaps said it best: "What has happened has happened." So you move on. In that way, forgiveness first and foremost is a redemptive process for the person forgiving. That's the amazing power of forgiveness it liberates the hurting person from the pain of the past so that person can move on. I am a living witness of that. And my book was my attempt to chronicle this miracle.
Your father is so central to your story, especially in shaping your early inability to express love and forgiveness. If he were alive and read your book, what would he think about it?
It's hard to second-guess what my father's response would be. I'm actually looking at a photograph of him, which sits on a bookshelf in my office at home, while I ponder this question. Over time, I think he would've understood my need to sort through these various matters. I'd like to believe, in fact, that the book would've helped him better understand the role of racialized stress on his own emotional life. Certainly I'm convinced that all of us in America are victims of racialized stress. My wonderful father was no less a victim of this pressure, even if, as a man, he would probably talk about it differently.
The hard part for him would be to accept the role he played in my racialized development. "White people" weren't the only conspirators. Even as a good parent, he played a part, too especially with his demands for perfection and personal excellence. But if the book taught me nothing else, it showed me that everything my father asked of me was out of love. The factor of "race" just complicated everything else.
What message do you hope white people will get out of the book? And black people?
I didn't set out to teach anybody else a message or lesson. In a selfish way, I was purely trying to "remake" myself, to find out who I was beyond being a black woman in a white world. Thus, I had to move white people out of the prominent position they held in my psyche. Forgiving the past was the tactic I was given to do that.
I suppose that's the message I try to share with others whites, blacks and anybody else regardless of their individual problems, racial or otherwise. Look ahead, not behind. That's the message. And it's a crucial message for America. At some point we have to step into our future. I say that time is now.
How did Kerry Monroe, your first white friend, react to your book? Do you still keep in touch?
Kerry Monroe was gracious. Powerfully gracious. It's not every day a person learns she is a central theme in a nonfiction commercial book. Still, while she was absolutely shocked now to find herself in a book, especially a book about race, she graciously accepted the spotlight and even enjoyed it. We were reunited on a national TV talk show after the book came out. On that show, she said I didn't realize that she needed my friendship as much as I needed hers. She had enough character to see that friendship mattered more than race, and that really set her apart in our school environment. I wanted to analyze that scenario, as well as thank her, both of which I tried to do in the book. And she graciously accepted the thank-you and the attention she has received as a result.
Are we "best girlfriends" now? No, that didn't happen because that wasn't the point of finding her. But we share a mutual respect and history. She still makes me laugh. And I have enduring love and gratitude for what she represents in my memory and in my life. We are both very satisfied with that.
How important was your struggle with race relations in deciding to become a writer?
I would've been a writing person, even if I wasn't an African American. Of course, race matters have provided a provocative writing agenda for me. Writers are like vessels. Vehicles for ideas.
You wrote that in response to your book, people will either hate you, praise you, censure you, or even ignore you. What have the responses been like?
Mostly, it's been positive, although some people have been scandalized that I proposed racial forgiveness. That is, until they read the book. On my book tour, a community activist in Chicago an African American man who co-hosts a radio show told me that he was prepared to hate my book. Then he read it, and he said he loved the way it challenged his thinking about forgiveness, which he hadn't considered, and his thinking about race, white people, and himself. He was really gushing about the book on the radio. Get this, buy this.
A lot of people get the book for friends. I really like that. It's also become sort of a second job for me. The book was released in June 1996 and speaking engagements are on my calendar up to the year 2000. I've been invited to a forgiveness conference in Jerusalem in the year 2000 to talk about the book and its various themes. Or, I should say, the book has been invited. I'm just the escort. I'm not a public speaker, per se. But the book carries me.
The book isn't perfect. There are lots of things I might've done differently with it. But it's pure. Its motives are pure and real. And readers seem to respond to that. A white TV reporter told me she called a brother she hadn't spoken to for five years after reading my book. Let's put the past behind us, she told him. That wasn't about race, that was about forgiveness and renewal. The book offers hope that such change can occur. I'm very pleased with that, and I think that's why people are still seeking it out and sharing it with others.
- "White people...had done unspeakable things. These are the things I was taught. I had heard them in childhood, at the knees of people I loved. In time I couldn't hate white people enough." Raybon makes an important point about how hate becomes "justifiable," even "noble" when we learn it from important people in our lives, perhaps even our parents. It took her forty years to realize she could overcome what she had learned from family and friends and forge a new outlook based on her own experiences. Discuss what may have appeared normal to you in your family as a child that in your adult years you realized was wrong. How did you come to that realization? Did your parents teach you to hate any one group? Why did it take Raybon half her life to get to a point where she could relinquish her past and replace hate with love?
- The difference between Raybon's mother and father is striking. Raybon's mother was a forgiving, nurturing person who took most everyday racial indignities in stride. Raybon's father, although sometimes unforgiving of white people, had faith. He was a pioneer, and he believed in himself. How do you think each parent influenced their daughter? Discuss the differences in the way these two people grew up: the father, poor and motherless in Mississippi; the mother from a working-class and secure black family. What are Raybon's views about the important role the family plays in love, self-esteem, and forgiveness? Would you say that both the mother and the father are survivors? How so?
- In 1958 at the pool, a lighter-skinned black girl turns to Raybon and remarks, "You're kind of dark, Patricia." Like a mantra, these words repeat in her head. The impact is powerful. She writes, "I don't know how to transform myself. And in 1958, the truth is that I am ugly. The world says it's so. And I can't change any of that." Why was this comment a turning point for Raybon? What did it say about the pressures she and her peers felt to conform to white images of beauty? Compare Raybon's feelings as an "ugly" black nine-year-old with her self-image in the chapter "The Affirmation."
- "Forgiveness, for all its moral gloss, starts in a church." Do you think Raybon could have come to the decision to forgive if religion had not been a part of her life? Discuss how the black church was a haven for her.
- Kerry Monroe is remembered as "the white avenging angel for doing what was right. For going. For reaching. For risking and trying." Looking back, the author is amazed at how pure Monroe's intentions were. "We are skeptical of kindness so unfailing, sympathy so instant," she writes, quoting Wallace Stegner. How important was Monroe to the author's process of forgiveness? Was the memory of this one episode a turning point for Raybon, or was the event meaningful only in retrospect?
- King and Gandhi both explore the duality of hate: If I hate myself, I can't love others; if I hate others, I can't love myself. Do you think this is true? Why is this concept at the heart of Raybon's transformation?
- By tracing three generations of a black family in America, Raybon outlines the racism that she, her parents, and her grandparents have faced. In the 1920s it was cotton fields, lynchings, and the KKK. In the 1950s it was Jim Crow laws, segregated housing, and separate public facilities. What are the racial hotpots today? How has the language changed, become more subtle?