You Can Choose Your Friends 

Nashville native Emily Bernard explores racial interaction in new essay collection

Nashville native Emily Bernard explores racial interaction in new essay collection

Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships

Edited by Emily Bernard (HarperCollins, 240 pp., $23.95)

In the introduction to Some of My Best Friends: Writings on Interracial Friendships, editor Emily Bernard writes about her experiences growing up in Nashville as a black bourgeois kid with mostly white friends. Born in 1967, she found herself maintaining a difficult balance between her integrated world and the life lessons of her parents, particularly those of her mother. Part of the civil-rights generation, Bernard's mother, who still lives in Nashville, had a self-preserving distrust of white people and was skeptical of her daughter's associations. "Our parents, their histories, we have to honor them," Bernard said during a phone interview from her office at the University of Vermont. "At the same time, we have to find our own ways to live in the world."

All 16 of the essays in this book reflect people—black, white, Hispanic, Asian—doing just that, finding their way through interracial friendships. Bernard has pondered this phenomenon for most of her life. "Which ingredients make interracial friendships possible?" she writes. "Which factors destroy them? At what point does unintentional racial ungainliness become willful racial insensitivity? What do other people do at those moments when racial difference rears its head uncomfortably?" The idea for a book exploring the topic came to the Yale-educated Bernard, now an assistant English professor, as she worked on a previous book, Remember Me to Harlem: The Letters of Langston Hughes and Carl Van Vechten, 1925-1964. She found herself thinking about the effort required by the two men to maintain their friendship in an era when blacks and whites couldn't socialize in public. "I wanted to know about present-day people," she says. "Do people still have the same determination now to make friends across lines?"

Choosing the contributors was easy for Bernard; in some cases it was a simple matter of looking to her own bookshelves. "[Fiction writer] Susan Straight is someone whose work I had known about for years and years.... She writes about people of color, she inhabits their bodies. I remember...reading that language and feeling it course through me and I'm looking at the back of the book and seeing this white woman with blond hair and thinking how can this be?" Other writers include Korean American activist Jee Kim, who writes about his kinship with his Puerto Rican and African American neighbors in "Bi-Bim-Bap." In the poignant "The Value of Things Not Said," art historian Maurice Berger writes about his friendship with opera legend Shirley Verret. His essay's title stems from his dilemma, having told Verret of his mother's appreciation of her talent, about whether to reveal that his mother otherwise could not stand black people. "We rarely acknowledge the underlying uncertainties that make interracial relationships uncomfortable and unlikely," he writes.

"As my friend Zachary says Kaddish for his father," begins Darryl Pinckney in his essay, the first line of which serves as its title, "I think back some 37 years to one Friday afternoon in June 1967...." In beautiful and at times humorous prose, Pinckney shares what in many ways is a classic friendship, one that survived geographic separation and the transitions of growing older. Pinckney also chronicles events in the larger world—developments in Israel, the dissolution of the black-Jewish coalition, changes in the black community—that might have challenged a weaker relationship. There were topics the pair did and didn't discuss ("I knew much more about why Zach and his brothers did not go in for the Volkswagen Day-Glo vans...why his family would not buy a German-made car, why my enthusiasm for German literature didn't seem to come up"), yet the friendship endured and grew to include their parents and siblings.

Not all the essays, however, are about successful interactions, and if Bernard had had her way, there would have been even more of these. "One group I was interested in hearing from was white male conservatives," she says. "I was really disappointed not to successfully convince any of the numbers of them I wrote to, to participate." Meanwhile, on the other end of the spectrum, Sandra Guzmán, a journalist, writes of her exclusively non-white circle of friends in "Gringo Reservations." It is a choice borne out of a lifetime of unpleasant experiences with the white girls across the street and with her freshman-year roommates. She writes: "One should not have to walk on eggshells among friends, I think. One should not have to translate one's essence, either."

"Sometimes we use race as a lens through which to talk about other kinds of pain and other kinds of fear and hopes and passions," says Bernard. "Race just becomes a handy, kind of obvious lens through which we imagine ourselves, like gender differences. And look how those things have changed over even the course of my lifetime."

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