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New Book Examines Interracial Friendships

It's been said that talking with a friend is nothing but thinking aloud. But can friends who are not of the same race, ethnic background or religion talk openly about clashing viewpoints on family, culture and discrimination? Can individual friendships be the solution to society's problems of intolerance and racism? Some answers may be in a new book, in which writers talk about their best friends.

Maurice Berger had admired opera singer Shirley Verrett for years before finally meeting her in person. He says, 15 years later, she remains one of his best friends. "Shirley is African American," he says. "This is a woman who grew up in the South in the 1930s and 1940s and had to sneak into the backdoors of restaurants with her father just to order a sandwich. I come from a Jewish family; my mother was a Sephardic Jew [from the Middle East]. My father was an Ashkenazi Jew [from Europe]. I grew up in up in a low-income predominantly Black and Hispanic housing project in New York in the early 1960s."

As their friendship grew stronger, they would talk openly about race and racism. Mr. Berger told Ms. Verrett about what he considered a family secret -- his mother's racism -- recounting his memories of the night civil rights leader Martin Luther King was assassinated in 1968. "My mother said, 'He is a trouble maker,'" he recalls. "I walked into my father's room and he had just heard the announcement on the radio, and he was crying. He said, 'This is terrible, this is a nightmare, this is a great man.'"

Mr. Berger says he eventually started to understand why his mother had such a racist attitude. "I began to realize," he explains, " as I grew older, how much my mother's view of race was shaped by her own disappointment at being poor, at living in a housing project with people whose skin was as dark as hers and not wanting to be associated with, you know, poor people of color."

Shirley Verrett's response to Maurice Berger's confession became part of an essay on interracial friendship, in which he writes: "This story neither surprised nor upset my friend. I am relieved you told me this, was all Shirley would say. I, too, was relieved, for protecting the secret of my mother's racism always felt dishonest. It was a secret I always felt obligated to conceal from my friends, black and white, lest I offend them, or more to the point, lest they think less of me. But in keeping this secret, I was rendering invisible an important part of myself."

"I was very impressed by the honesty in Maurice Berger's essay, The Value of Things Not Said," says editor Emily Bernard. So impressed, that she

included it in her book, Some of my Best Friends. "People tell me they've gone back to this essay when they stumbled in an interracial friendship and wondered if they made 'faux-pas,'" she says. "They've gone to it for some comfort, for instruction, for a really good suggestion on how to proceed."

The title of the collection refers to a phrase some people use to show how open-minded they are: I'm not prejudiced… some of my best friends are black, or Jewish, or whatever minority is being discussed.

In her introduction to the book, Emily Bernard -- who is black -- recalls that she always had white friends from the time she was a little girl growing up in Nashville more than 30 years ago. It was unusual then, she says, but today, young Americans are more open to interracial friendship.

"I remember my own experience when I was in high school," she says. "It was pretty strictly segregated. People made friends according to their own groups, but I see something very different happening today, particularly in large urban centers. You see kids just congregating and clearly they have deep bonds with those who are not of the same race, or the same religion, or the same cultural background.

Some of My Best Friends includes essays about the pain of losing friends by Somini Sengupta, the meaning of intimacy among friends of different backgrounds by Susan Straight, and a poem by Palestinian American poet Suheir Hammad. Here is an excerpt:

when we do we

argue with each other the way

we do within our selves

fiercely with the security

of knowing love

is larger than our details

these are my people

and we are chosen

family eating darkness

hiccupping light little

by little by light

by little by light / together

"She is talking about, of course, the issues in the world that affect us right now, all the struggles going on in the Middle East," Ms. Bernard says. "You know, the big problems that we struggle with every day, we read about in the papers… how often does it come down to interactions between people. How often do our prejudice, our fears, our hatred really dismantle once we come to know people on an individual basis, because we understand then there is so little distinction between myself and this other person."

Editor Emily Bernard says, sometimes, historical and cultural differences can challenge our friendships with people of another race or religion. She hopes the experiences of the writers included in Some of My Best Friends will encourage people everywhere to rise above the challenges and make friends across racial and cultural lines. Such friendships, she says, enrich one's life, and make our world a better -- more tolerant -- place.