Greyboy Author Cole Brown on Identity and Finding Blackness in a White World

Louie Douvis
Louie Douvis

"Exploring Blackness through the lens of some measure of in-betweenness is nuanced and underexplored, in our public discourse, at least." That's Elaine Welteroth, former editor in chief of Teen Vogue and New York Times bestselling author of More Than Enough. "It's something that Black folks have talked about in the community, at least: what it's like to be Black in spaces where you are the only, or you don't fit into certain binary stereotypes. Both of us have grappled with the issue of belonging or acceptance within our community in different ways."

"Us" is Welteroth and the author Cole Brown, whose debut book, Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World, is the toast of today's happy hour, via Zoom. In-call are journalists from across the US, sipping on Rosé — a decidedly "in-between" genre of wine — provided by our hosts, via FedEx. After all, a modern book deserves a modern book tour.

In Greyboy, Brown writes to his experience of being Black in the mostly white social strata he was born into, as the son of a Fortune 100 executive and the grandson of the first woman senator of Ethiopia. Gripping and smart, his essays speak to a dark truth that reverberates from private school run-ins with the cops to slurs on soccer fields to the streets of Ferguson, MO, after the death of Michael Brown: that even with wealth and privilege on your side, racism in the US is virtually inescapable.

And yet, there is hope abound in this book: Blackness found, and with it, belonging. And with the endorsements of Queen Latifah, Misty Copeland ("I absolutely felt Cole Brown's words in my gut"), Black-ish's Anthony Anderson, and P Diddy — not to mention Welteroth, who wrote the foreword — Greyboy is a necessary read that tackles everything from tokenism and liberal racism to depression and police brutality during the ongoing Trump era, and does it with wit and sincerity.

Weeks after our initial roundtable (and days before the election), Brown sat down one-on-one with POPSUGAR to discuss all things Greyboy and, now, finding Blackness abroad.

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POPSUGAR: What a privilege it was to join you, and Elaine, and Rakia [Reynolds] in conversation over this book. What was it like to have Elaine write the foreword?

Cole Brown: Having Elaine write the foreword was a blessing. I mean, what else can you call it? Elaine and I didn't really have an independent relationship [before], but she is so close with my sister and decided to take an interest in the book, and gave me advice throughout the process. And then as I was moving on through the process and she had just released her book, I came to her with the question of the foreword, and she was incredibly generous and got me a piece of writing that I think really just elevated the entire project.

PS: I'm wondering if having read her book informed writing your own, or how you think these books might be in conversation, perhaps.

"But once I did read her book, there's so many points at which we are in dialogue, and I'm really glad I hadn't read it beforehand."

CB: I didn't read her book while I was doing much writing of my own. I think I was pretty close to the end at that point, and that was an intentional choice. I had a feeling that our stories might intersect in some ways, and I didn't want any of that to bleed into mine.

But once I did read her book, there's so many points at which we are in dialogue, and I'm really glad I hadn't read it beforehand. The feeling of being between — I use the word grey, she doesn't — but I think that references the experience of being outside of what is a commonly understood archetype, perhaps, for Black people. And I think that those limited notions of identity are ones that both of us struggled with — her, perhaps, by virtue of being biracial, and my experience was different, but I think similar in many ways.

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PS: That calls to mind something I want to talk about, which is "The Reveal," because I think disillusionment is central to this book. You describe it as "the moment in which everything [has] to be reexamined, the tidal wave of understanding" around racism.

In this moment, do you have any words of wisdom for those going through their own "Summer of Truth" right now in the wake of George [Floyd], Breonna [Taylor], and now, Walter [Wallace Jr.]?

CB: You know, I'm a big Ta-Nehisi Coates fan, and I read Between the World and Me when I went through my version of that — I believe with Michael Brown. And he talks about what he said to his son when his son was dealing with that in the wake of Trayvon Martin. And he said something along the lines of, he couldn't comfort him, because, "This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it."

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CB: I think that he got at something true: that attempting to console one with things that are just not true would be wrong. I think that we live in a world that looks at us as lesser.

PS: Absolutely.

CB: And to say anything other than that is untruthful, and ultimately does a disservice. What I will say is that I think that the way I understand that truth and then continue on living without sort of delving into madness is having a support system of people that are similar to me: people that get it. I think that's incredibly important, and I think when you're going through "The Reveal," whatever that looks like for an individual, you need to be able to be in dialogue with people who have gone through that themselves.

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PS: And speaking to support systems, I think in a lot of ways this book reads like a love letter to Black women: your sister and especially your mother, who wrote a beautiful letter in conversation with what I think was your first manuscript. How did you come to the decision to include her letter in the book?

CB: So, that letter actually wasn't in response to my first manuscript: it was actually in response to almost a final version of the book. It's in response to the book, but it's really in response to the chapter that precedes it, which is on depression, and some of the more difficult moments of my life.

I was really hesitant about, one, including that chapter at all, and then two, obviously showing my mother it. But once I decided that it needed to be included, I felt like I knew how she would wrestle with it. I knew how she would struggle with that, to the extent that I can know that, and some of the guilt she would likely feel in the wake of it. And I thought it was really important to include that reflection, because I know that people like me in terms of age would be reading it, but I knew that older people would as well, and I wanted anyone who might have children to understand what that relationship can look like — some of those realer moments.

I think that it was also important for me to include her story because my mother and I have had drastically different upbringings and childhoods. And yet, many of those emotions that I felt in terms of being mixed up and feeling in between were clearly emotions she felt as well. They're universal across, in some ways, space and time.

Louie Douvis

PS: My understanding is that you started writing Greyboy at 19. In effect, you've grown up writing this book, being 25 now. Did the process of writing this book help you find catharsis or parse new meaning over events of your past?

CB: Yeah, there's no question. I think that that happens in a couple ways. One, you're right: there's parts of the book that really are like real-time reflection on that journey, and where I am in that trajectory, and where I hope to go. There's a section of the dating chapter that's like this, the Trump chapter is like this, the first chapter, "My Kind of People," is like this, where I wrote in the eye of the storm. So, in a very immediate way. And a few chapters helped me parse through emotions. And I tried to in those instances leave it pretty untouched, 'cause I wanted those emotions to be kind of laid bare for the reader.

But also if you zoom out and you look at the narrative arc of the book, there are things that I wrestled with for years, and then took me the full four years of writing to sort of come to terms with. My relationship with my father I don't wrestle with as much on the page, but certainly wrestled with in the writing process, and I think I ended in a different place than where I started. Similarly, I mentioned the chapter on depression, and those were emotions I hadn't really unpacked since they happened several years prior, and that took essentially the full four years to come to some landing place on.

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PS: There's a passage I want to unpack, on page 37. You write about how your white classmates describe your friend Bradford in self-aggrandizing ways: "words intended to speak volumes more about the subject than the object or the relationship between the two," which I thought was such a succinct way of putting it.

Out of context, that quote reminds me of talk of performativity and the case of Breonna Taylor: how her death became the stuff of memes without amounting to any real justice. The last time we spoke was before the Kentucky grand jury declined to charge the officers who killed her. Is there hope that this book will help white readers grasp the real dangers of liberal racism they may perpetuate, that they might not have read about in these terms before?

CB: You know, that was not the intention. This is not a How to Be an Antiracist, not that I think poorly of that book. But this is not written as a manual in that sense, or like a political document in that sense.

And yet, I think it has had that effect, and I'm really pleased to see that. Because in my mind, I was only describing racism as I experience it — as it exists in my own reality. And you're right that that's sort of a particular kind of racism: that's not the racism that you see in black-and-white images of the '60s.

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PS: No, it's not.

CB: And to the extent that I was effective in capturing it, what I have been pleased to see is messages that I've gotten since the book has released of people saying, "Wow Cole, I didn't think about how when I was making fun of that Black girl in class, what I was really saying about how I view Black women." Or, "I didn't even think about how when I was calling you 'not really Black,' what I was really saying about how I view Black people and Black identity." And again, it was not the intention, but I could not be happier with that result: causing people of all stripes — but particularly white people, frankly — to reflect seriously on the way we move in these same spaces.

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PS: Absolutely. And in that vein, I don't know if white Americans have ever been so attuned to the structural framework of racism as they are right now, at least in our lifetime. What are you dreaming of in terms of healing and reconciliation, the way forward? I know that's a big question, but what inspires hope in you?

"My hope is that we find a way to engage with our history more honestly, and engage with our history in a way that doesn't turn a blind eye to the many moments that don't confirm our exceptionalism."

CB: That is a big question. So, I'll try to work through that question in real time. You know, I felt sort of the glimmer of hope this past summer, for America, I think for the first time — certainly since Trump was elected — in looking at the coalition of people that took to the streets.

You talk about performative activism, and the Instagram posting and stuff, I got some of that: people that were purely seeking an assuaging of their guilt. But I also saw people that were really reflecting on our nation's history, and our history of bigotry, frankly, and our history of violence. And that was encouraging to me: to see the diversity of identities that were attempting to confront our history on its terms.

My hope is exactly that: a continuation of that. I mean, in the immediate future, my hope is that we vote this guy out.

But in the slightly more distant future — because I don't think it can all be attributed to him — my hope is that we find a way to engage with our history more honestly, and engage with our history in a way that doesn't turn a blind eye to the many moments that don't confirm our exceptionalism.

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CB: Right before moving — I'm getting on a bit of a tangent here and I'm sure you have another question.

"I think that seeing the seedlings of that confrontation and seeing us beginning to wrestle with what it really means that our nation was built on the back of forced labor and enslavement — that gives me hope."

PS: No, go for it.

CB: Right before moving to Sydney, Australia, I went on this trip to Montgomery, AL, and I went to the state memorial there and the EJI Museum. Took a long road trip through the South, but was really going for that reason. And even I, a Black person — like I write in the book, someone who by definition should be cynical of the American dream — even I when confronted with the reality of our brutal history, was shocked at some of it. You know, I as someone who believes himself to be educated on that reality.

I think there are so many that don't try to confront it whatsoever. And to get back to the question, I think that seeing the seedlings of that confrontation and seeing us beginning to wrestle with what it really means that our nation was built on the back of forced labor and enslavement — that gives me hope. Seeing that we're starting to do that work.

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PS: I have one more question. You live in Sydney now. I'm wondering, how has your understanding of being Black in America changed after taking space and now living in Australia, a new white world to find Blackness in?

CB: You know, that's a funny question, because it really is interesting coming there as a Black person, because this is a white world in a very different way. It's truly a white world: there's not many Black people here. Very small Black population, very small Indigenous population at this point. And the understanding of race is different here. I remember, you know I came here for a job, and on the first day, we were in some diversity training. And to make a point, they said to list the races of your 10 closest friends. And I listed Black, white, Black, white, Black, white, and I was the only person in a room full of, like, 50 people to do that. Everyone else listed nationalities: Italian, Vietnamese. And when the announcer grabbed my card, they said, no, we don't even talk about race in that way in this place; you need to understand that it's just different here.

"There is absolutely nothing universal about our American understanding of Black and white."

This is all to say, what it did is underscore how this stuff is just constructed! [laughs] I mean, how this stuff is just a totally imaginary, made-up way to divide people. There is absolutely nothing universal about our American understanding of Black and white. For instance, if you're walking down the street and you're referring to a Black person in Australia, you're referring to an Indigenous person, not an African American. That terminology only bears meaning in a particular context, which is now clear to me.

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PS: I read your op-ed in The Herald, and I guess I was amused but also sort of dismayed at people asking for political commentary on Indigenous folks from you.

CB: [sighs] Yeah, the response to that op-ed was interesting — they actually just called me yesterday, I owe them another one this weekend. But I was fresh off the boat at that point, and I had people from the left telling me that I wasn't critical enough of Australia at large because of all they've done to Indigenous people. And on the other side, on the right telling me, "Thank you for writing this. See? It's not that bad here for the Black population." And me in the middle saying, guys, there's an entire history here that I could not possibly be expected to negotiate in the three weeks since I got here. And that's not really the statement I was trying to make, but it was interesting that people across the spectrum were able to reflect their own views into it.

PS: I think that actually speaks to a central theme of the book, which is heightened expectations to toe the line perfectly in that liminal space — especially of tokens.

CB: Mmm.

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PS: Well, that's about all I have. Is there anything I missed?

CB: If you're going to reference the answer about [the book being a] love letter to Black women, what I didn't mention are the other two that hopefully shine through a bit in the book: my grandmother and my younger sister. I really was formed in a crucible of Black women! [laughs] I mean, I had them three, but then also all of my mom's many friends that became aunties to me, and I'm just glad to hear you say that, because I was very intentional about that. And those three in particular, but also Black women at large, are incredibly meaningful to me.