Is racism baked into our nation’s DNA? Is there any hope for change? John Blake, a CNN journalist and author of More Than I Imagined, explores the personal and social aspects of race as he shares:
- his own experience as a biracial kid growing up in West Baltimore
- his time at Howard University and working for CNN
- his understanding of race and faith in America
- his experience of learning about his own white family as a young adult
- his reasons for hope
John Blake is an award-winning journalist at CNN.com and an author. He has been honored by the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Academy of Religion, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Religion Communicators Council and with the GLAAD Media Award…He has spoken at high schools, colleges, symposiums and in documentaries about topics such as race, religion and politics. Blake is a native of Baltimore, Maryland and a graduate of Howard University.
On the Podcast:
- More Than I Imagined by John Blake
Season 6 of the Love Is Stronger Than Fear podcast connects to themes in my latest book, To Be Made Well, which you can order here! Learn more about my writing and speaking at amyjuliabecker.com.
*A transcript of this episode will be available within one business day on my website, and a video with closed captions will be available on my YouTube Channel.
Note: This transcript is autogenerated using speech recognition software and does contain errors. Please check the corresponding audio before quoting in print, and note that the times displayed were generated before the introduction was added.
Amy Julia Becker (00:01.427)
Well, I am sitting here today with John Blake and his official bio is that he’s an award-winning CNN journalist and author of a new book, a new memoir called More Than I Imagined, What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew. And I’ve also been sitting here with John off the record for a few minutes and I can say, not only is he exactly what I just described, a CNN journalist who’s won awards and written this beautiful memoir,
But I also can just tell from just a few minutes together that he is a warm and personable man Who’s really good at asking other people questions, but I’ve got him here now to ask him some questions and John I just wanted to start by saying thank you for being here with us Absolutely, um, so I really loved your book it was I when I’m working on a podcast I usually have the book that I’m thinking about
John Blake (00:42.69)
Thank you, A.G. Thank you for inviting me. Thank you.
Amy Julia Becker (00:55.299)
as my breakfast and lunchtime reading. So usually it sits with me while I’m reading, I mean, while I’m eating breakfast or lunch, but every so often that book makes its way to my bedside table because that’s where I read the books for pleasure before I go to bed. And your book made it onto my bedside table. So that’s like a mark of high praise in terms of just it’s-
Real readability. I mean, there’s just a story you’re telling that’s so compelling that as a reader I wanted to find out and yet you’re also doing this work of talking about race in America religion in America Blackness whiteness forgiveness faith all of these different questions and topics come up Through the course of reading your personal story and you did a really masterful job of weaving that all together of course
listeners may not have read your book. So I thought we should start by at least asking you to give just kind of the 20,000 foot version of your story. And then I will ask you more questions about that.
John Blake (01:59.262)
OK, well, thank you for those kind words. My story is kind of like a detective story, and that’s the way I tried to write it. There were these mysteries about my family and about my own identity that I wanted to untangle. So to sum it up, I would say that it’s a story about how I grew up in this infamous black inner city neighborhood in Baltimore. And people know it because it’s served as a setting for the HBO series, The Wire.
Amy Julia Becker (02:04.104)
John Blake (02:28.222)
And it was also the location for this big race riot slash uprising in 2015, when a black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody. So this is an all black world I grew up in where nobody liked white people. And we hardly ever saw white people. The challenge for me is that I had a white mother in this world. And so my parents met in the mid sixties.
Amy Julia Becker (02:40.261)
John Blake (02:52.81)
when interracial marriage was illegal. There was no Obama or Kamala Harris. There were no biracial role models. And my mother disappeared from my life not long after I was born. And no one in my family told me why she disappeared. All they told me is, your mother’s name is Shirley, she’s white, and her family hates black people. So my story is me trying to grow up, trying to figure out why my mother disappeared, trying to reconnect with her family.
and trying to overcome this tremendous hostility I had toward white people. And I had to in a sense, how do you accept people who don’t accept you? And that was one of the struggles that kind of followed me throughout my story.
Amy Julia Becker (03:33.955)
Yes, thank you for that. And there are a lot of elements of mystery, you know, that you as a child were exploring and then that we as a reader kind of encounter as well. I want to talk to you about your dad for a minute just because he comes in earlier in the book than your mom and we’ll get to her as well. And it was interesting for me because I felt myself, well, I found myself feeling a lot of anger towards your dad.
John Blake (04:00.927)
Amy Julia Becker (04:01.063)
because as a kid he was not around a lot and I wanted him to be there for you. At the same time, I think you do a really wonderful job of putting the choices he made into the context of the reality of being a black man in America at that time. So I wondered if you could just talk about your understanding of your father and what was hard for you as a kid, but also your
John Blake (04:07.244)
Amy Julia Becker (04:27.459)
I think real compassion for him in terms of making the choices that he made. So I think that’s a helpful, again, it’s your personal story, but I think it’s helpful for any of us who start to pass judgment on people who seem to be making what in my mind, again, initially reading the book was a selfish choice to be away from his kids. And you were able to complicate that for me in an important way. So could you talk about that?
John Blake (04:53.354)
Yeah, my father was my first hero and he was a merchant Marine. So he would spend about eight months out of the year overseas and describe him. He was quite a character. He was the type of guy that spent three extended periods in war zones. He was in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, and he was the type of person that missed it.
Amy Julia Becker (05:21.023)
John Blake (05:21.386)
He loved the adrenaline action of being in dangerous situations, being in shipwrecks at sea, you know, being in Saigon during Vietnam when the Viet Cong is, you know, coming after him. He loved that travel. What he did not like though is family life and being around his kids. That was dull compared to what he experienced overseas. So I didn’t see him as much as I wanted as a kid. But as I think about it, because I didn’t know my mother,
I took what I could get. So anytime I could spend with him was precious to me. And I was too young to really hold that against him. That came out later. And he was, you know, one of the things I look back, I really appreciate about him. He was a black man that was born during the Great Depression. He experienced tremendous racism. He once told me, I’ve been called N-I-G-G-E-R so many times.
that I thought it was my middle name and he didn’t spell out N-I-G-G-E-R. But all the time I knew him, I never heard him use a racial slur to talk about white people. And I never heard him say all white people are like that. Really free of a lot of the hatred and bitterness that consumed so many black people who grew up in that Jim Crow era, who saw all that racism. And that’s something I really appreciated about him. He was just a real, I thought he was quite a character. He was, you know, as a journalist.
Amy Julia Becker (06:18.631)
John Blake (06:46.27)
I’ve met people like Nelson Mandela, all these tremendous people. Charlton has, I mean, just celebrities and big, but my father is, to paraphrase that commercial, was the most interesting man in the world to me. He was just fascinating, all these different sides he had to him that would only reveal themselves later.
Amy Julia Becker (06:54.067)
And I’m curious too, because it seems like, well, do you think that his lack of kind of blanket antipathy towards white people emerged from that experience in the Army and the Merchant Marine? And also, I think you make reference to one of the reasons he felt compelled to stay in the Merchant Marine was not just adrenaline, but also…
John Blake (07:23.939)
Amy Julia Becker (07:34.483)
that he experienced a degree of freedom there that he was not afforded living on American soil.
John Blake (07:40.17)
Right, that’s an excellent question. That was key to my father’s character. So he joined a merchant Marine during World War II in 1944. The United States Armed Services did not integrate until 1948. But already in 1944, he was sailing to seas with white men. And one of the things I’d said in the book is I talk a lot about.
Amy Julia Becker (07:55.199)
John Blake (08:06.242)
the importance of interracial relationships. And so my father was on these ships with these men and then he was bunking next to white men. He was sharing dangers at sea with them. So he had this kind of egalitarian relationship with white men that didn’t really exist anywhere else in the United States at the time. I tell people that the most integrated space for a black man in the 1940s was a deck of a merchant Marine ship. And that’s what happened to my father. So he was accustomed
Amy Julia Becker (08:25.375)
John Blake (08:36.61)
to living with a certain amount of freedom and with a certain amount of confidence because he wasn’t intimidated by white men. He wasn’t consumed with hatred for them. He saw them as individuals. And he brought that back when he came home to United States, he brought that attitude back. And that kind of scared people in my family because they saw him taking chances and treating white people and frankly, going out with white women in ways they thought was gonna get him killed.
but that’s how he had been accustomed to living.
Amy Julia Becker (09:08.411)
Yeah, and he never let it really slow him down, right? I mean, that did.
John Blake (09:11.506)
Another slow down. He was, he was, he was.
Amy Julia Becker (09:15.467)
Which kind of brings us to your mom, right? That he pursued your mom after he asked her to lunch one day and that was not something that her family was a big fan of. And I’m curious about how, well, I know from reading your book, but how did you, for the sake of listeners, come to understand more about who your mom was? And
John Blake (09:17.867)
Amy Julia Becker (09:43.439)
And I’m curious about how meeting your mother and eventually her family changed your own understanding of white people. So I guess really that’s a question about your mom, as well as your own, even though you grew up with your dad having this posture, you also have, as you mentioned, grew up in a predominantly black neighborhood that did have a lot of hatred towards white people. So how did all those things come together, I guess, towards your late teens?
John Blake (10:10.654)
It came together in one dramatic shocking incident at 17 years old. So again, I grew up in this all black world where nobody liked white people and we hardly ever saw them. During my entire time in public school, from headstart to high school graduation, I only saw one white student in any of my schools and we stared at her like she was big foot. We couldn’t believe it. What are you doing here? And even though I had a white mother,
Amy Julia Becker (10:14.955)
Amy Julia Becker (10:34.59)
John Blake (10:37.39)
I absorbed some of this hostility toward white people. I didn’t like them because I think on some level, of course, because I knew my mother’s family rejected me, but it was also because of the world I grew up in. So I grew up, like, as I call myself, a closeted, biracial person. I wouldn’t tell people that my mother was white. I would mark her race as black on school forms. So by the time I was 17, I had resigned myself. I will never know my mother. I will never know her family. I didn’t even know what she looked like.
Amy Julia Becker (10:53.055)
John Blake (11:06.998)
And then one day my father comes to me and he says, hey, you want to meet your mother? And that’s how he operated. It was just like a bomb show. There was no preparation. And suddenly I found myself three days later being driven to this really menacing looking big red brick building and on the outskirts of Maryland. It looked like the set for the Shawshank Redemption. And I, along with my younger brother, Patrick, we were guided into this waiting room.
And as we waited for a mom to appear, we could hear people moaning in pain in the background while others were just kind of laughing, like hysterical laughter. And then this thin white woman came out into the room and she looked at us and her eyes lit up, her face lit up and she said, “‘Oh boy, boy, so good to see you.'” And she kind of shuffled and half ran toward us when we hugged her. And that was my mom. And that’s the first time I saw my mom. So that was awkward, but was even more strange as
The setting, I was standing in the waiting area of a mental institution. My mother had been institutionalized for she had schizophrenia of severe form of mental illness. I didn’t make that discovery until that very day. No one told us we had to make that discovery in the waiting room. And to answer your question, it would take me years to digest the impact of such a meeting, but there was one thing that was immediately clear to me.
Before I met my mom, I had a certain image of white people. I thought that no white person could understand what it meant to be black, to be discriminated against, to be looked down upon, to be treated with contempt because of the way you were born. When I saw my mom there and began to talk to her and realized that she had been staying in this hellish place for all these years, she shattered all those assumptions within like the first 15 minutes of the meeting. Now I remember thinking, I’ve never seen a black person suffer like that. So that…
impact of that meeting was it was the first time I had felt empathy for a white person.
Amy Julia Becker (13:07.743)
Yeah, I’ve marked in the book when you wrote, I thought that we, meaning Black people, had a monopoly on suffering. And I think one of the things I struggle with a little bit, as I mentioned to you before we started this interview officially, I have a daughter with Down syndrome, and having the experience of disability in our family, and intellectual disability in particular, because I think there is a…
John Blake (13:17.539)
Amy Julia Becker (13:35.567)
a lot of bias against people with intellectual disabilities, both in personal and social and kind of legal structures in our country. And so I do feel like that gives me similarly kind of like a window into the world of people who are marginalized simply because of some factor that is true about the way they were born that I wouldn’t have had otherwise as a white person.
On the flip side of that, I don’t want to create like false equivalences to pretend that, for my daughter growing up in a, again, kind of economically stable and with married parents, whiteness, all the different advantages she has is the same as, growing up black in America. And it’s not the same history, it’s not the same social milieu at the same time, I do think it does provide.
and has provided a place for connection, for empathy, for relationships, and even for action on my part. But I guess I wonder for you, in having empathy for your mom, did that extend out to white America in general? Was it just a window into the possibility of that? What was it? Was it a starting point for something that went beyond your mom? Or was it more? OK, can you talk about that a little bit?
John Blake (14:53.814)
Yeah, definitely. It was the start of the shift in my racial attitudes. And it kind of extended when I began to meet other white members of my family. But what was also key is that when I went to college, like a year or two, really a year after I met my mom, I happened to join a church that was interracial. I didn’t know it was interracial. If I knew before the, if I knew it was interracial before I joined it, I probably wouldn’t have joined.
Amy Julia Becker (15:19.667)
John Blake (15:27.126)
Because I felt really uncomfortable around white people, even though I had just met my mom, but attitudes take a time to shift. But when I joined that interracial church, that was also key because whatever the first time I saw white and black people and brown people as genuine friends, I remember going to the church and seeing them hug one another and call each other sister and brother, going to each other’s homes, and this is key, after Sunday.
having Bible studies in living rooms, opening up to vulnerabilities in their lives, you know, sharing secrets and struggles. I had never seen that before. And then when I joined the church, I experienced that. I befriended young white men my age who were so different from me on the surface, but as I got to know them, they weren’t so different. So that kind of cemented that. And I think when that happened, that was the first time in my life I felt vulnerable around white people. And I felt like I could express that.
Amy Julia Becker (16:08.039)
John Blake (16:25.982)
So joining that interracial community after meeting my mom was very key to kind of cementing those shifts of racial attitudes I first felt when I met her.
Amy Julia Becker (16:37.767)
Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And throughout the book, you’ve kind of woven your experiences of church, beginning with the Black church, later with some interracial churches. And towards the end, this is a different, I believe, interracial church where you describe a conversation about church leaders who were talking really honestly about racism. And this is page 154. I’m just going to read a little bit of it
I think it’s such a great exchange where someone named Inez is talking to someone named Nibs. When Inez told Nibs, she thought she knew why he said she was angry. So there’s a lot going on, right? Angry black woman and Nibs is a white man. Okay. So she’s saying, look, do you want to understand why you’re talking about me as angry? Are you willing to receive it? She said.
John Blake (17:14.583)
An angry black woman. Yeah, an angry black woman. Yeah.
Amy Julia Becker (17:36.483)
Nibs pondered for a minute and then said, OK, let’s hear it. I’m guessing that you as a white man in power are not accustomed to having a black person treat you as a peer and you are not accustomed to having a black woman stand up to you. My treating you as an equal is something that makes you angry. And instead of owning up to that, you project your anger onto me. Is that right? Nibs was quiet before finally saying, yes, I think you may be right. I am in unchartered territory here. When Inez sat next said next.
What I’m sorry, what Inez said next stunned him again. Now we can work with this, she said. As long as I know that you know, and that you will occasionally acknowledge your racism, we can work together. You may be surprised at your racism, but I am not. And none of the black people at Oakhurst are surprised either. I mean, boom, I love that exchange because that sense of Inez is not saying to nibs.
John Blake (18:22.869)
Amy Julia Becker (18:34.263)
I need you to be a perfect white person who never says anything wrong and who always behaves exactly as you’re supposed to. She says, I need you to be honest. I need you to be humble. And yeah, we are all going to bring our broken selves to this table. But if we can’t be honest about that, we can’t get anywhere. And I just, I thought that was such this little gem of honest acknowledgement as like a way
John Blake (18:37.355)
John Blake (18:51.692)
Amy Julia Becker (19:02.159)
a way really towards healing of just being, you know, humans together, which again doesn’t excuse racist attitudes by any means, but it does allow for those relationships and ultimately, I think, systems and structures to be built differently.
John Blake (19:17.502)
Yeah, you say it better than I can. So I can’t even. Let’s move on to the next question. You said it so well. But no, no, it’s true. I love that exchange too. And I just I saw Inez and Nibs about a week ago. And Inez is just as fiery as ever. But I think what I liked about that is that that exchange is something I also experience as I begin to meet other white members of my family.
Amy Julia Becker (19:19.923)
John Blake (19:45.538)
they will deny their racism and that would only make me angrier. But if you admit it, you know, for Black people or Brown people, that’s not surprising. It’s, you know, racism is a sin. We all have sin. If you can admit it, we can move on. And I think what was really important about that also is I went to a lot of different interracial churches, but that church was different. And it led me to believe that there’s a difference between a racially mixed church.
in a racially integrated church. Racially mixed church, black and brown people, they share the pews, but they don’t necessarily share power. In a racially integrated church, the church that I belong to with Inez and Nibs, they shared power. I would look on the pulpit, I just wouldn’t just see white men. I would see women, I would see black and brown people, I would see black and brown culture reflected in the songs we sang and the theology. And this is really important.
Amy Julia Becker (20:16.34)
John Blake (20:42.71)
I get the sense that some multiracial churches believe that you shouldn’t have these conflict over races and arguments like Nims and Ones had, that that’s a sign of conflict, that things aren’t working. No, that’s a sign of health. When we can get stuff out in the open, we can argue and we can have our differences, but we stick together.
Amy Julia Becker (20:53.416)
I agree and I’m really grateful for you pointing out that difference between, you know, kind of sitting in the pews together versus sharing power together. And I’m curious also because another, this is almost a side point, but I picked up on it that in your time at Howard University, one of the things you realized was that you’d actually had not only kind of a
segregated social experience living in West Baltimore when you were growing up, but also a segregated educational experience that was not shared By many of your peers so you wrote about it as a golden period of racial progress That has essentially been lost to us right that are we back in america When it comes to our public education are back in a resegregated place. So I just wanted to ask you to um
John Blake (21:38.295)
Amy Julia Becker (21:51.323)
speak on that a little bit. And I’m thinking about it in relation to, churches are obviously voluntary communities, schools are places that are, we have a little more control over who ends up in the classrooms than we do over who ends up in the pews, I suppose. But I’m just wondering if you see any hope or like prospect for progress within our public education system to move towards more integrated spaces
And in that truly integrated, not just the students, but actually in terms of shared power as well.
John Blake (22:27.058)
Okay, yeah, first, yeah, and to answer that, I will briefly pick up on what you said about what I experienced at Howard. So Howard University is like the elite historically Black college. When I went there, I was classmates with people like Kamala Harris was my classmate, you know. That gives you an indication of the type of people that came through Howard. But it was ironic that when I went there, that I realized the importance of an integrated education because I start meeting all these Black classmates like Kamala. They were so
Amy Julia Becker (22:37.266)
John Blake (22:56.674)
brilliant. And when I look at their yearbooks, they all virtually, actually all of them that I knew came from these integrated schools where they went to schools with white people and they had these access to these educational resources. And it occurred to me, I did a little research, is that there’s this popular conception that school segregation was a failure. But if you look at the numbers from 1968 to about 1988, when we really attempted to
to integrate these schools throughout places like North Carolina where you grew up. Charlotte, a great example, that the test scores between white and black students narrowed in a way that they have never since in this country’s history. And white academic performance didn’t suffer as a result. But forget the numbers. There are plenty of white black people who I think of a certain age group who can talk about what it meant to them to go to schools with different people of different races during this golden period.
Amy Julia Becker (23:29.087)
John Blake (23:53.45)
and how it expanded their life, how they learned things that they would never have learned before. And I think that’s really important because the world I grew up in and I talk about in the book, it was so racially segregated in the school. And it wasn’t just that I lost access to good schools and resources, I developed this inferiority complex to white people. I thought I was just dumb that I, you know, I didn’t have any contact with them. But to go back to your question and what are the prospects today, it’s difficult.
because we have a conservative judiciary now that looks down upon any kind of school integration efforts. And then we also frankly have a lot of black parents who are kind of fatigued about integration. They said, I’m tired of chasing white parents to their schools. I send my students to my children to their schools and then they flee. But I feel like we can’t give up on this because there are things you can only learn when you’re in contact with different races that you can’t learn in a book.
And that’s what I learned at, of all places, a Black university. It’s weird.
Amy Julia Becker (24:55.712)
Well, and you had again, obviously these different factors because it was in the context of being at the university that you begin to meet your mother’s white family, that you begin to be a participant in the, you know, that first interracial church. So it seems like those were all layering together to give you a more complicated and expansive understanding of yourself as a biracial person, of what it meant to be black, what it meant to be white. And, and also what it meant to actually be.
John Blake (25:04.79)
Amy Julia Becker (25:23.199)
kind of Americans together, right? To be in some measure of community and of society side by side.
John Blake (25:29.538)
Yeah, I do. I think my father was a patriot. He was proud of his military service and the other flag. And I never considered myself a patriot until recently, when I began to think about what this country represents. And I just, I think it’s a beautiful idea that you can have a country where it’s not dominated by one race group or one religion, that it doesn’t matter where you come from and who you are, what you believe.
Amy Julia Becker (25:35.942)
John Blake (25:59.478)
that we all have an equal chance to thrive. And that’s multiracial democracy, multi-religious democracy. I think it’s a beautiful idea. But the thing that’s kind of disturbed me recently is, in my job, when I cover race, I’m beginning to see that people don’t really believe, a lot of people don’t believe this future is plausible. I have come across a lot of people who say that racism is too embedded in our DNA that it’s a permanent part of being an American and we can’t get past it.
And I think one of the ways we get past it is those who believe in that type of America, we have to become better storytellers. Stories reach people in a way that a study or protest or a law can’t. And we have to tell these stories that show that people can change, that racism is not embedded in our DNA, that people can change. And I know that because I’ve seen it in the white members of my family. So that was kind of part of the reason why I wrote this book. And in doing so, it made me kind of…
Amy Julia Becker (26:34.34)
John Blake (26:56.158)
Strange to say, but it made me proud to be an American citizen.
Amy Julia Becker (27:01.343)
I love that. And I think what’s so hopeful about your book, which is I think even picked up in the title itself more than I imagined, right? This is not a book that is trying to scold or even just name all of the injustices and yet you’re also not flinching from a very deep reality and an embedded reality within so much of our culture that does actually segregate people and perpetuate injustice.
John Blake (27:09.004)
Amy Julia Becker (27:31.563)
This shows up, you know, again, in terms of your educational experience and in various times in church experiences and family and all of these things. And then again, when you begin your work as a journalist, I was really struck by when I think this is when you were out in California and this is, you write, I thought racism was driven by hatred. South Central, so reporting in South Central LA, is that right? Am I remembering that correctly?
John Blake (27:50.126)
John Blake (27:58.474)
Yeah, you’re right. You’re correct.
Amy Julia Becker (28:00.319)
taught me that wasn’t always true. Racism was also driven by indifference. Which seems to me really a really important point, especially for kind of quote unquote nice white people. And I can be in that category myself. So I think indifference is a much, much more insidious form of racism for someone like me than hatred is. And I would really love to hear you talk about that.
John Blake (28:05.943)
Amy Julia Becker (28:27.459)
racism as indifference and how that plays itself out in our culture.
John Blake (28:31.666)
Yeah, I really believe that and I’ve experienced that. And I experienced it first with some of my white family members. When I met my mother’s sister, Aunt Mary, this is a woman who had no contact with me for about the first 25 years of my life. And suddenly one day she said she wanted to meet me. And I remember I met her, I thought she wanted to apologize for her absence.
And, but she didn’t apologize. And she said, when our family asked her one day, I said, well, why didn’t you reach out to me when I was a kid? I could have really used you. Was it because I’m black? And she said, no, it wasn’t because you were black. It was because you weren’t Catholic. So she denied that racism. And what I think she didn’t understand, and I was so angry at her, is because all those years she was indifferent. She didn’t think to call me to reach out.
Amy Julia Becker (29:17.148)
John Blake (29:28.454)
And I experienced the same, I experienced that same emotion when I went to South Central. I remember I was not that much, I was much closer in age to those young men who were being killed. So for people who don’t know, I worked in South Central Los Angeles as a journalist in the early 1990s. And in one year in South Central Los Angeles alone, there were about like 500 murders. And I remember almost every day I was going out to cover a shooting and I was seeing young black people.
Amy Julia Becker (29:46.633)
John Blake (29:58.682)
often many of them children being killed. And I remember just going out there day after day, seeing all that death of people who look just like me. And I said to myself, white America would never accept it if white people, white kids were dying at this rate. And that’s when it began to hit me that racism, that the indifference part is the most sinister part. Because if somebody hates me, at least they see me. I’ve heard, you know.
But when you don’t even recognize me, when you just drive past and you don’t even notice the level of death in these places, that is the thing that hurt me. It hurted me, it hurt me when my white family was indifferent to me and it hurt me when I saw it in places like South Central.
Amy Julia Becker (30:38.191)
Yeah, and I do think that, I don’t know, the way social media and kind of on the ground reporting of some of the injustices when it comes to police brutality and some of the realities of living in cities across the American landscape right now, do you think that that has changed any of that in terms of indifference?
John Blake (31:07.626)
No, and I’ve really been thinking a lot about this. So when social media started to rise with the introduction of Facebook and Twitter and all these viral videos of Black men being shot down, Black people being brutalized, I thought initially as a journalist that that would change racial attitudes. A critical mass of white people will wake up and say, wait a minute, Black people have not been lying about police brutality. We see it. I thought, for example,
Amy Julia Becker (31:18.771)
John Blake (31:37.058)
with all the kind of raw racism that greeted Obama’s election, that that would shift attitudes. I thought with George Floyd protests, that would shift attitudes. But one thing I began to realize when I looked at my own life is that I said, you know what, facts don’t change people, relationships do. You know, people, you can present people with facts, with videos, with protests, but that’s not enough to shift racial attitudes. It has to be through these interracial relationships in these communities.
Amy Julia Becker (31:42.261)
John Blake (32:06.69)
that also has to be part of the toolkit. I’m not saying these protests aren’t important. I’m not saying changing laws is important. They’re vital. But I think what we’ve forgotten in the past couple of years because I think we’ve been seduced by the power of these videos is that nothing replaces being in relationships so that a person like Inez and Nibs could encounter one another and change one another. And so that I, somebody who had to reconnect with white family members who use the N word.
who thought that white and black people should live apart, that I had to somehow connect with them and build a relationship. That is also important, and I think we’ve forgotten that.
Amy Julia Becker (32:43.679)
And what do you think that looks like for the, you know, average American, white or black, it might be different for, depending on who you are, but to actually pursue relationships when you don’t already have them, right? Like, what does that look like?
John Blake (33:03.374)
That’s an excellent question. It’s a tough question because our lives are very segregated. But I would say one is that it’s important to join groups where not everyone looks and thinks alike. It can be a community of worship, it can be a bowling league, it can be any kind of group where you’re around people who are different. I think that’s really important. I think…
Amy Julia Becker (33:07.92)
Amy Julia Becker (33:19.326)
John Blake (33:29.586)
I think you got to be also honest. If you’re, I thought about this, if you’re a white person who lives in Idaho, you know, there are no black and brown people. You can’t, you can’t like put an advertisement online and say, looking for a black friend. But I think it’s something that NIBS taught me. NIBS is the pastor you refer to. NIBS was a guy who grew up in a Jim Crow South, who thought that black people were sub subhuman. He absorbed all that racism. And I asked him, what changed you? What began to change you? And he said,
Amy Julia Becker (33:36.86)
Amy Julia Becker (33:53.535)
John Blake (33:59.746)
He read this book called Cry of the Beloved Country in southern South Africa, and it was about a black minister. And he said, when he read that book, along with the killer mockingbird, he began to see black people as human beings for the first time. He said, gosh, they might be human just like us. So if you live in an all white world, expose yourself to stories from black and brown people, from things from a different perspective and step into that world because empathy.
Amy Julia Becker (34:02.239)
John Blake (34:27.634)
is really important and stories can build empathy in a way that no other device can.
Amy Julia Becker (34:33.115)
I love those answers and that’s such a practical reality for so many of us. For me, I was an African-American studies minor in college because I had read Beloved in High School by Toni Morrison, and it was a really transformative experience for me. We did not read in high school very much African-American literature at all, but reading that book was transformative. And so I took an African-American literature class in college and said, give me more of this. Like it just…
there was a truth and a depth to it, I think for a variety of reasons, partially because I was still trying to figure out what I thought about having grown up in a segregated functionally town in North Carolina, and because I thought the writing was really beautiful. And also I think there was a, for most of the African-American literature I was reading, there was a faith dimension that also really spoke to me. But as a result of that, that-
What it also meant was in college, I had black professors because those classes, and so I was in a position where I had a number of brilliant black scholars who had authority in my life. And that for me as a white kid who had grown up in really white spaces, I didn’t think about it at the time as meaning anything. But I remember later on someone saying, well, have you ever had a black person in authority over you? And I thought, well,
John Blake (35:35.234)
Amy Julia Becker (35:58.651)
yes, I actually have. And that, you’re right, that probably shaped me in ways I didn’t even know at the time. And there are lots of white people who don’t grow up with that experience. And those things seemed like these kind of minor choices that I made as a 19 year old. And yet those little one decision to read a book or to take a class or whatever it is can lead down a path that.
John Blake (36:01.457)
Amy Julia Becker (36:24.319)
ends up in a very different place than I might have been otherwise. And so I think it can seem almost like a small thing to say relationships, but it’s really a big thing.
John Blake (36:34.986)
I’m gonna pick up on what you just said, because I think it’s so important. I read this quote by Plato, and it’s something like that, empathy is the highest form of wisdom, because it requires one to suspend one’s ego and step into another person’s world. And that’s what, reading a book by beloved, if you’re a young white woman from North Carolina, that takes wisdom to step into another world to learn empathy. But I also wanna say this,
Amy Julia Becker (36:37.371)
John Blake (37:05.698)
What are the two most integrated institutions in this country? The military and the educational, university system. What are certain conservatives going after? The military and the educational system. They’re talking about the woke military and they’re trying to attack it for all these experiences that they’re exposing all these different people to in the military. And what are they trying to do in schools? They’re trying to make sure that a young white woman won’t read a book like Beloved. They’re trying to segregate the-
Amy Julia Becker (37:13.843)
Amy Julia Becker (37:34.38)
John Blake (37:35.542)
because they know the power of human contact, how it can develop empathy between races. And that’s why we have segregation in the first place. I used to think that Jim Crow arose just because white people hated black people. It’s a deliberate political strategy. They did not want poor white and poor black people to come in contact because poor white people realize I have the same economic interests. I have the same problems. So you see all these things that in this country, there’s so many people who don’t want that contact.
who don’t want that kind of empathy to develop.
Amy Julia Becker (38:07.559)
And yet I do think, I mean, as you’ve said, there’s reason to despair when it comes to some of these things and there’s reason to hope because we do, to your point about like, we have a country that as flawed as we are has been founded upon ideals of actually building these types of relationships and being stronger for it. This is kind of a rabbit trail that I won’t make us go down for too long because I know we’re coming to the end of our time, but.
you also write about your grandfather, your white grandfather throughout this book. Yes, and I don’t know, maybe we should leave the listener with a little bit of a, and it’s interesting because I was thinking if this book had been a novel, if you had written your life as a novel, I would have interpreted the scenes with your grandfather as totally metaphorical ones, right? But they’re really these paranormal experiences of
John Blake (38:39.042)
You gotta get there!
No, no, we can go there. We can go there.
Amy Julia Becker (39:03.267)
your dead grandfather being present in your life throughout your life until you came to a point of recognizing that yes, it seemed as though he was haunting you, but that must be only because the unreconciled business he had with his grandchildren was haunting him. I mean, is that a fair way to say it?
John Blake (39:26.446)
I think it’s an accurate way because I said that you read the book so well. I said, I realized that I not only haunted him. I mean, that he not only haunted me, but that I haunted him. And pick up on my grandfather. I didn’t I didn’t just want to put that in there as a ghost story to kind of titillate people. And I have several friends that said, don’t put that. Don’t put that in the book. And I had these visions of sending the proposal off to agents and people responding, saying, well, you don’t need an agent. You need a therapist.
Amy Julia Becker (39:36.561)
Amy Julia Becker (39:54.92)
John Blake (39:56.982)
It is such a bizarre story, but I had to put it in there because it was so integral to me connecting with my white family. And for people to understand, my mother’s father was a racist. I don’t like saying was a racist because people more than just their worst act, but he had a problem with racism. When my father tried to see my mom, he assaulted my father, called him the N-word, had him arrested. He never wanted anything to do with me or my brother when he was alive. I never met him. Sorry.
Amy Julia Becker (40:12.335)
John Blake (40:25.602)
However, as a kid, I saw this young white man in my bedroom with my brother. And to speed up the story, I put that story, that experience behind me, because I didn’t know what to do with it. But when I got married, this same white man appeared with my wife in the bedroom and terrified us. So I figured like, I showed her a picture of this, I don’t know what you want to call it, apparition. I said, did he look like this? She said, yeah. I said, that’s my grandfather.
I had to figure out what did he want from me. And what I’ve learned from that is this, you hear when people talk about racism, that racism hurts white people. And I understood that on a political level. Yeah, you vote against your economic interests. What my grandfather taught me is that racism hurts white people on a deeper level. It poisons their soul and they know it because there’s only one race, human race. And when we look down on somebody because of their skin color, I think a lot of us know it violates something inside of us.
And I think my grandfather was a man of conscience and it haunted him. He felt guilty the way he treated me, the way he treated my father, that he had no relationship. And that guilt was such that even the grave couldn’t contain it. He had to reach out to me from beyond the grave to show me that he was more than his worst act. And I had to be able to recognize that in him. And that was crucial to me. So I had to put it in there.
Amy Julia Becker (41:46.363)
I really do think the resolution of that story is so important because it is, I agree with you, it is pretty easy on paper to say economically it works better when we all decide to get a lot, right? But there is this, even for the, I actually feel this way even for the people, you know, the kind of elites of our country for whom you might say it’s in their economic best interest to oppress others.
John Blake (41:58.21)
Amy Julia Becker (42:14.507)
I still think that it is not in their human self-interest to oppress anyone. I mean, I do think that is an act of self-destruction, especially for anyone who believes in the idea that we are created in the image of God. When we deface that image in another human being, we are defacing that image within ourselves and we are missing out on the abundant goodness and love of God that we are invited into. So…
John Blake (42:18.39)
Amy Julia Becker (42:40.503)
I thought that was a really important story to have as a through line through the book in order to start essentially reckoning with that common humanity that honestly is all the more theoretically at least beautiful when we can recognize our diversity, right? There’s something that holds us in common and we can celebrate that we’re not all the same.
Well, we are coming to the end of our time. And I thought I would just finish by asking you if there’s anything more you want to say. This podcast, I often introduce it by saying that it’s a podcast about pursuing hope and healing in the midst of personal pain and social division. And I think, again, your book really fits under all of those categories, hope, healing, personal pain, and social division. And so.
I wondered if you had anything more you’d like to say about how you’ve been able to pursue that hope and healing in the midst of personal pain and social division.
John Blake (43:43.554)
Well, thank you. My mom has helped me a lot. Her example, she has taught me a lot about hope. So…
John Blake (43:54.914)
So it’s kind of weird because I’m writing about stuff that, a lot of this stuff happened to me while I was writing a book. So I still haven’t quite digested it. But I remember when I met my mom and I got to know her, I once told somebody she’s the unluckiest person that I ever met. You can’t help being born with that type of illness. She couldn’t help what happened. She tried to live a normal.
Amy Julia Becker (44:06.611)
John Blake (44:23.19)
She tried, she lived with such care, she defied her family, she defied the social convention of her time to be with a black man, to give birth to two black sons. And she couldn’t quite do it. And I felt for such a long time, I felt this pity for, but then near the end, I said, golly, my mom is inspirational. And I thought about it, like I was reading this writer I like named Eric Lew.
And he says norms change before policy changes. He said that the way change comes in this country is not when a politician or a Supreme Court justice decides something’s gonna happen. It’s when ordinary people act on themselves. They don’t wait for the politicians or judges. They act, they create a ripple effect as more people join in and they create a new norm. That sounds abstract, but that’s what happened with gay marriage.
Long before the Supreme Court validated in 2015, all these ganglastic people came out to their family, friends, workplace, they said, this is who I am, love is love, regardless of sexual orientation. My mom was part of this vanguard in the mid-60s of white, black, and brown people who were so courageous, who said love is love, regardless of skin color. She helped create this new world that I live in now when nobody thinks twice about interracial marriages or biracial children. So what I say,
What I learned from her is you don’t have to be educated. You don’t have to be rich. You don’t have to have all these things that you can, but you still have tremendous power to change things. She helped create this new world. And I take tremendous hope and optimism in the fact that we live in this new world. So people can change, a country can change. So my mom showed me that. She was pretty extraordinary.
Amy Julia Becker (46:00.765)
That’s a beautiful place to end this conversation, but also to really give a taste of the story that you’ve been able to share in the pages of your book. So thank you for your book, and also thank you for taking the time to talk with us today.
John Blake (46:26.734)
Thank you, AJ.
Learn more with Amy Julia:
- To Be Made Well: An Invitation to Wholeness, Healing, and Hope
- S6 E19 | Deconstruction and Rebuilding with Yolanda Pierce
- S6 E12 | How to Cultivate Racial Healing with David M. Bailey
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