MAXWELL:  We should celebrate our cross-racial friendships

1/22/1995- Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


American novelists Bebe Moore Campbell and Joyce Carol Oates met recently at the request of The New York Times Magazine to discuss gender and race. Campbell is black and Oates is white.

Campbell, whose latest novel, Brothers and Sisters, is a riveting account of the friendship between a white woman and a black woman, identified a simple way to greatly improve race relations in the United States:

“One of the things that really strikes me about America, and it’s kind of the under-reported story, is that in spite of all of the racial trauma we go through, there are black and white people who like each other very much, even love each other. And I’m not even talking about romantic love. I’m talking about males liking each other and respecting each other, and women. We don’t really talk about those friendships and how to make more of them.”

What a great notion _ talking about our cross-racial friendships and making more of them _ especially today, when race-consciousness is more widespread than ever, when racism seems to be growing deeper than ever and when the race card is being used more effectively than ever by politicians, attorneys and other groups that gain from such conflict.

But do we need to discuss our cross-racial friendships? Should we bring attention to them?

I believe that we should. We talk a lot about role models and their value in teaching children right from wrong, showing them the heights to which they can soar, demonstrating the rewards of leading decent, law-abiding lives. Why, then, should we not use our friendships in the same way? Think of the good that we, black and white adults, could do if we were honest about our friendships, if we discuss these relationships with our children and encourage them to emulate us.

I cherish the memory of my first white friend, whom I met in 1963, when we were both freshmen at a college in Texas. I believe that our friendship holds lessons for others.

She was the 20-year-old wife of my language professor and one of two white students attending this historically black school. Because I had been reared in the South and had had no intimate contact with whites, especially women, I was initially uncomfortable that she followed me everywhere. We became friends because we had a lot in common, particularly our love of books. Some of the happiest times in my life came when her husband drove us to bookstores in Dallas twice a month. We would spend the entire day there, exploring rows and rows of books, daydreaming about the brooding

bestsellers we would write. I would spend every cent I had.

She and her husband taught me to play bridge and chess, two games I had only heard of before college. But the lasting lessons they taught me emerged over time, as our relationship seasoned. He was at least 40 years older than his wife. His kindly face, with a thick moustache and bushy eyebrows, was framed by an Albert Einstein head of hair.

I loved to watch and listen to him lecture, his hands trembling slightly, the ill-fitting tweed jacket smothering his long, skinny arms, the thick Hungarian accent, full of caution, searching for just one pair of sympathetic ears among a sea of black faces. Recognizing his distress, I always made a point of raising my hand and reciting in class. “Please keep responding in class,” she would say. “It makes him feel like he’s doing his job.”

Slowly, the couple’s amazing past unfolded as I inquired about the many strangers who frequently came to their home in the evenings. The professor had been a leading member of the anti-Communist movement when the revolution broke out in Budapest in 1956. A bounty was placed on his head. When the Communists installed former Premier Imre Nagy to lead the new government, the professor fled to New York, bringing along the frightened teenage girl he had met one night in a field near the Austrian border.

Using connections in New York, he obtained a work visa and eventually came to the Texas college. During the three years that I knew the couple in Texas, their home was a clearinghouse for other Hungarian immigrants trying to start new lives in the United States. Their telephone rang constantly, hot food was always on the stove and cots were everywhere. Their guests were so deferential and would disappear as quietly as they came. They always left behind the most interesting books, magazines and newspapers.

The husband died in 1986. The wife, now in her 50s, is an English professor and a poet. She still writes to me and telephones regularly. I adore and admire her. Besides teaching me that a man and woman can have a genuine Platonic friendship, she taught me that I am defined by my skin color only if I choose to be so defined.

She taught me this lesson by treating me as a human, as another world traveler. She made me, a boy from a backward Southern town, feel good about myself. Our endless discussions of literature, philosophy and history made me believe in my own intelligence. I learned to like myself. I learned that we should not choose our friends according to race. Friends should happen. They should be the natural outgrowth of common interests. Friends are soulmates.

Because of her influence, I have many white friends today. I celebrate these friendships because they are special. Unfortunately, many blacks will condemn me for admitting that I have white friends. Some will applaud. I do not know what whites will say.

Do I care? Yes, I do. I care because by not celebrating our cross-racial friendships, we cheat our children of the opportunity to create a peaceful society. They should know that white and black people can be friends.

Bill Maxwell is an editorial writer and columnist for the Times.