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Eugene Robinson
Eugene Robinson
Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race
ISBN: 0684857227
Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race
Eugene Robinson didn't expect to have his world turned upside down when he accompanied a group of friends and acquaintances to the beach at Ipanema in Rio de Janeiro one sunny afternoon. He had recently moved to South America as the new correspondent for the Washington Post, a position he had sought not only as an exciting professional challenge but also as a means of escape from the poisonous racial atmosphere in America's cities, which he experienced firsthand as a reporter and editor covering city politics in Washington, D.C. Black and white wouldn't matter so much, he thought, if he gave himself a little distance from the problem.

At first Robinson saw Brazil as a racial paradise, where people of all hues and colors mingled together on the beaches, in the samba schools, and at carnaval. But that day on the beach, his most basic assumptions about race were shattered when he was told that he didn't have to be black in Brazil if he didn't want to be. The society looked at people through a broad spectrum of colors, ranging from "white" to "coffee with milk" to "after midnight," and not as members of two rigidly defined races. Like most African Americans, Robinson had always recognized the existence of color gradations the entire range from coal to cream—but he never looked at color the same way after that encounter at Ipanema.

Coal to Cream is the story of Robinson's personal exploration of race, color, identity, culture, and heritage, as seen through the America of his youth and the South America he discovered, forging a new consciousness about himself, his people, and his country. As he immersed himself in Brazilian culture, Robinson began to see that its focus on color and class—as opposed to race—presents problems of its own. Discrimination and inequality still exist, but without a sense of racial identity, the Brazilians lack the anger and vocabulary they need to attack or even describe such ills. Ultimately, Robinson came to realize that racial identity, what makes him not just an American but a black American, is a gift of great value—a shared language of history and experience—rather than the burden it had sometimes seemed.

A penetrating look at race relations in the United States and much of the rest of the hemisphere, Coal to Cream is both a personal memoir and a striking comment on the times in which we live. At a time when many are calling for the abandonment of racial identity, Robinson cautions that we should be careful what we wish for, lest we get it.
—from the publisher's website

Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color to an Affirmation of Race
Program Air Date: November 7, 1999

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Eugene Robinson, author of "Coal to Cream: A Black Man's Journey Beyond Color To Affirmation of Race," where did you get the title?
Mr. EUGENE ROBINSON (Author, "Coal to Cream"): "Coal to Cream" comes from a phrase that kept popping up in the--in the--in the text. I was--it--it refers to two portraits. They're--they're formal photographs that hang in the living room in my house. It's the house my great-grandfather built in Orangeburg, South Carolina. And there's a portrait of him, and he's very dark skinned and very kind of stern looking. And a portrait of my great-grandmother, who's--who's kind of cafe au lait skinned and--and--and kind of has this kind of winsome Victorian look. And--and so I--I kind of used those. I was writing a--about color in the book. I kind of used, you know, h--his picture said `coal' to me, hers said `cream,' and so I used that phrase coal to cream.

And about midway through my--one of the drafts, my editor called and said, `You know, that's the title. Just forget about anything else, that's the title, 'cause that's--that really encompasses what you're doing.' So that's how I got it.
LAMB: Why'd you write the book?
Mr. ROBINSON: I wrote the book--it started, really, with this fascination with color and race and Brazil that kind of--kind of came together. I was correspondent down there for The Post in South America. I was living in Buenos Aires, Argentina, but spent a lot of time in Brazil.

I just thought it was just really interesting and--wh--because this--there was a country that was so like the United States in so many ways, a history that was parallel to ours in a lot of ways, where an entirely different idea of race had--had evolved and--and--and, you know, one in which I sometimes felt very comfortable, but I had questions about it. So I was trying to kind of understand that. And I--I tried to write about it a couple of times when I was there, actually, and I think I was fairly unsuccessful. I didn't quite know enough. I did a couple little pieces and didn't quite get at it.

So after I left South America, I went to London for a couple of years and--and then came back here as the number two on The Post's foreign desk; the title was foreign editor. And it just kind of s--percolated a bit. I ended up writing a set--a piece for The Post's Outlook section, actually, that got a little further, that got a little closer to what I wanted to say about the differences and similarities and what I saw in the two countries and--and--and what it kind of meant to me. And--and--and so that was the departure point.
LAMB: At some point in your book, you--I--I can't ever find these quotes when I need them. You--you--you say that--that--that you talk about race a lot in The Washington Post's newsroom.
Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Who talks about race a lot? What...
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, we--we--you know, it--it comes in waves what we all do. And I actually think that's one of the good things about the paper. I mean, we--we--it's an environment in which we kind of struggle with what's there. And race is a part of the society, and I--it--it's a place where we--you know, we try to get these things on the table. So, you know, we have a--we have a commitment to diversity in hiring, for example. Does--you know, how does that look to a white male reporter who's, you know, 45 years old and, you know, may think his job is threatened somehow?

We--we want to--we want to have minorities not just in the paper, but in upper echelons at the paper. What does that mean in terms of promotions? Do people feel passed over? Do people, you know--are--do we sacrifice on standards at all? Well, the answer is no, but do you--you know, how do--how do you--how do you work through that? And--and I think we've found, by trial and error, the way you work through that is more--more or less frontally.

So we--you know, we've had--we've had staff meetings that have been almost like old-fashioned kind of, you know, encounter groups. We--we have a diversity committee in the newsroom that meets to talk about issues, to--we organize brown-bag lunches. We do--we do a lot of kind of wrestling with the issue.
LAMB: When did you first notice your race?
Mr. ROBINSON: That's a really good question. I--I guess I--I was a child. I--I--I grew up in a little town of South Carolina in the late '50s, early '60s.
LAMB: Orangeburg.
Mr. ROBINSON: Orangeburg. I must've been six, seven, eight years old because I knew that there were playgrounds in Orangeburg where I couldn't play, and they had the best swings and the best sliding boards. And one in particular--I have a wonderful mental image of it--that was the--kind of the nicest playground in town, and I wasn't allowed to go there. And so I--so it--it was pretty early, but it was in a--in a kind of a cosseted, almost cocooned context.

It's a--it's a black Orangeburg, at least the college town; two--two historically black colleges there: Claflin College and South Carolina State University. My mother was librarian at Claflin, and most of the people, you know, who--who kind of in our--our circle were connected with the colleges in some way. Most of my playmates were connected with it, so it was a--it was a kind of a, you know, high-achieving community, a--a--an intellectual community, pretty well-traveled and--and--and pretty comfortable. You know, no--I mean, nobody had any real money, but nobody was--nobody was really poor.
LAMB: When was the first time you lived in a really integrated society?
Mr. ROBINSON: The first time I lived, really--well, I--I did--I went to high school at what had, until a few years before I got there, been the white high school. There was the white high school and the black high school. They finally integrated in--in, like, the--then almost late '60s and--and I went to Orangeburg High. There were--there was a small group of black students there. But that wasn't really living in an integrated situation. That was kind of going to one, you know, for part of the day and then coming back to--to--to--to what I'd grown up with, which was pretty much an all-black community.

So I--I guess it wasn't until I went to the University of Michigan. I went to college and--you know, the--the--the floor of my dorm freshman year was like one those old World War II foxhole movies. I mean, my--my--my roommate was of Japanese descent from Hawaii and, you know, Jewish friends and lots of whites and blacks, and it--it was--it was--it was an interesting mix, very--very kind of liberating and eye-opening for me.
LAMB: You say in the book you married a black woman, but dated white women when you were at the University of Michigan. What--what's the difference?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, you know, I--it--it's--you never--you have to be really careful in--in putting any sort of schematic over who you fall in love with or not. I mean--I mean, it depends on so many things. I think it's probably accurate to say, though, that when I--when I went to Michigan, it was--was kind of leaving what had been basically an all-black environment. The--the kind of world was there, and--and--and I really felt like I was kind of moving into a wider world, a more diverse world.

It was a--you know, it was a majority white campus. I was working at the student newspaper, which didn't have that many black students that--that--working at the paper. The--the kind of social circles that I was traveling in in--in--in Michigan, I think, put me much more in contact with whites, certainly, than I had been and--and per--perhaps before. If you really wanted to kind of psychoanalyze, I think it was, you know--I mean, part of it was f--kind of freedom. And it was something you could do; you couldn't do in Orangeburg, for sure.
LAMB: When you dated a white woman, though, did you talk a lot about race?
Mr. ROBINSON: No. No. No. But this was--this was--What?--early '70s, and we had lots of things to talk about then, the years of some f--you know, turmoil, very interesting years. But, you know, we were all a bunch of students trying to figure out who we were, trying to save the world, trying to en--you know, it's a lot of activism. But we didn't spend a lot of time talking about race, no. It was kind of assumed, I think, that race wasn't supposed to matter, and so it kind of didn't.
LAMB: There was a--a line or two in your second chapter I wanted to ask you to expand on: `There was no shortage of people I'd have classified as white, but they seemed a distinct minority. The acid test for me was that most of the people I saw would've looked seriously out of place at an American country club.'
Mr. ROBINSON: Uh-huh. Yeah, certainly in--certainly in those years. I mean, you--it--and this is--we're talking about Brazil now. And first of all, there's a l--there's a lot more miscegenation in Brazil than there was in the United States, a lot more intermarriage, and the result is a much more, I think--over the whole society, it seems like a much more continuous kind of color spectrum. But when I looked at that society, when I looked at the people I saw around me, I saw a lot of people who, in--in the--in the US context, would not have been thought of as white, although they--you know, they often thought of themselves in the Brazilian context as white and were.
LAMB: You--you--what's Brazil like? How big is it?
Mr. ROBINSON: It--Brazil's the size of the continental United States.
LAMB: How many people are there?
Mr. ROBINSON: It's 160 million, something like that. Huge country.
LAMB: You--you say in your book that you loved it and your wife hated it.
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I--I loved where--I was just talking about Rio, Rio de Janeiro. She--she liked Brazil, in general, the country a lot. She didn't like Rio as much as I liked it. I just thought it was the most beautiful, fascinating city I had seen, just a--just a striking--striking views everywhere. I love the at--the--the kind of attitude, something very special about the city to me. I--she didn't really feel that about the city. She thought it was kind of too big and a little smelly. And there were other places in Brazil she really preferred.
LAMB: How many years were you in South America?
Mr. ROBINSON: Four years, mm-hmm, I lived in the area.
LAMB: And did you live the entire time in Argentina?
Mr. ROBINSON: Lived the entire time in Argentina, but sp--spent a--a--certainly a minority of my time in the continent was spent at home. I was on the road all the time because I was one correspondent covering all of South America, so that's a--that's a--that's a big patch to try to cover in some really interesting years. There was a lot going on. There was--there was especially a lot going on in Brazil because they had hyperinflation, they had a presidential election. And it was the biggest country on my--in my patch, so--so I tried to spend as much time there as I could. Plus, I liked it.
LAMB: What were the years?
Mr. ROBINSON: 1988 to 1992.
LAMB: And what are the total number of years now that you've been with The Washington Post?
Mr. ROBINSON: It'll be 20 in January. Twenty years.
LAMB: And your current job?
Mr. ROBINSON: I--I'm assistant managing editor in charge of the Style section--for the Style section.
LAMB: And for those who've never read the Style section, which you can't avoid here in Washington, what is it?
Mr. ROBINSON: The Style section is, I think, a unique feat--the newspaper feature section. It--it--it--it was kind of a Washington Post invention, an invention invented 30 years ago, actually, by Ben Bradlee, the then editor. It covers culture and arts, but also covers k--kind of the society in a way that the front page doesn't and the town in a way that the front page doesn't. We get the best writers we can find, and we tell them to `have at' with--to write stories with voice, to--to write at greater length than you might otherwise write and sometimes attempt humor. It's not always funny to everybody, but we do humor. We--we like to have a little bite and a little zest. This--this is what button-down--it's a section that button-down Washington reads to loosen up a bit.
LAMB: What are the different jobs you've had over the years at The Post?
Mr. ROBINSON: I--I was hired in 1980 to cover Marion Barry. I was a City Hall reporter. And I--I had come from the San Francisco Chronicle, where I was--where I was the--a City Hall reporter when I left there, and I came to cover Marion's first term, actually. I did that for a couple years. They asked me to sit in as an editor f--on the city desk for a few months; that turned into five years. I was--I was an assistant city editor and--through various--the kind of things that just kind of happened, I ended up being the day city editor and then city editor, so I ran the city staff for three years.

After that, applied for and got a Nieman f--a fellowship at Harvard. For those who might not know, it's a--it's--you--you get to--you get an academic year at Harvard to study whatever you want. You get the run of the campus. And we had a--actually had a great deal, because my wife, who works for the Environmental Protection Agency, also got EPA to send her to get a degree at Kennedy School that same year. So we--we kind of had Harvard to--to--to study.

I--I had always told myself that if I ever got a year off, I was going to learn Spanish because I thought to be a journalist in America, you--you--you really ought to know some Spanish. It--it seemed like were be--we were already starting to become kind of a bilingual nation. So I started studying Spanish. I was interested in Latin America. The--the--kind of grew out of that. I started studying Latin America. And--and lo and behold, that year the bureau in Buenos Aires came open, so we never moved back to Washington. We just moved right to Buenos Aires at the end of the Cambridge year.
LAMB: Why do you write for a living?
Mr. ROBINSON: 'Cause I gotta, I think. 'Cause I have to. I was--when I went to college, I was going to be an architect. I was convinced I was--that that was--that was what I wanted to do. I--I turned out to be a particularly lousy architecture student, but I had started working at the student newspaper and I enjoyed it. To--to--to--I enjoyed going around asking people questions, but even more than that, I enjoyed coming back and writing it--writing down what they said and kind of imposing order on it, making sense out of it, making a story out of it.

And--and at the same time that freshman year at Michigan, I--I had a--a teaching fellow in English who encouraged me. He th--he thought I could write. And--and I wrote an essay for him about an incident that had happened in Orangeburg in 1968 called the Orangeburg massacre. It was a demonstration, three black students were killed by highway patrolmen. And since it happened in 1968, very few people remember it, but it was--it was--it was certainly a big deal in my life.

And--and--and so I wrote an essay about it. And he encouraged me to--to submit it to a campus writing contest they have at Michigan called the Hopwoods, and so I submitted it and it won. And not only that, but there was, like, a couple hundred dollars of prize money that came with it. And I said, `I'm hooked,' you--you know? `I can--I can do this and--and somebody will actually give me some money for it.' So it was pretty much from there--then on that I said I was going to write.
LAMB: Anybody in your family a writer?
Mr. ROBINSON: Not really, although, you know, my mother was a librarian, so she's quite bookish. My father is, you know, with s--he's got--he's got a few degrees, but he's--he's very well read, but nobody--nobody who is, I think, a natural or a fluent writer or--or enjoys writing the way I do. That--that part of it, whether or not you enjoy it, I think that is--that is born. I think writers can be made, but I think that, you--you know, you're either born with that or you're not; that--that it's a--it's a pleasant thing to do. I find it pleasant.
LAMB: What book is this for you?
Mr. ROBINSON: This f--is number one. Number one.
LAMB: Did you wrestle with other topics that you thought you might like to write about?
Mr. ROBINSON: I did. I had--yeah, I don't know if you--if you'd really call it wrestling. When I was--when I was--I was in London as a correspondent for a couple years, and I actually found a--a--a topic that I might want to write about over there, but it required being in London and going to Manchester a lot. And before I could kind of settle on that, we ended up moving back here and then it--that just became undoable. I knew that eventually I did want to--want to try my hand at writing books, which is harder--which is harder. It's ve--it's really harder to kind of marshal something that large and keep it from spinning out of control, I--I found, but I knew I wanted to try to do that.

And so it wasn't--once I started thinking about this as a topic, it--you know, it--it--I didn't deviate too much. It evolved a bit. It became a more personal book than it'd set out to be. And it was kind of prodded by a very good editor named Paul Goliv at the Free Press, who--who--who se--you know, who'd see a little phrase, or a little something there, and say, `You know, this is really important. You know, I think there's more there. I'm not sure. Why don't you write some more about it and let's see what--see what you have?' And--and--and help me get to, kind of, places that it would've been--would've been very difficult for me to get to on my own.
LAMB: Let me just read a--from your Home chapter. This is after you'd been to Brazil...
Mr. ROBINSON: Right, mm-hmm.
LAMB: ...and Argentina. `I have concluded the blackest people in this society are the most discriminated against; that the darker you are in America, or at least in Orangeburg, the greater the odds that you are also ill fed, ill housed, ill clothed, ill educated, ill prepared to make your way in the world.' Why do you think that's the case?
Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I do. And I--I never would've--I mean, I never would've looked at it that way, I think, unless I had spent time in--in--in Brazil in--where--where to look at the color of someone's skin, the literal color--I mean, look at the--you know--you know, the amount of melanin and amount of pigmentation is something that they do all the time. It's the way they kind of think of themselves. Here we don't. We see white people and black people. We don't--but we don't really mean those colors. And--and, in fact, if we--if we put a--you know, a--a--a--an olive-skinned, Greek person up, you know, next to an olive-skinned, you know, person from Ethiopia or whatever, we--we see two different races, even though they could be the same--the--the--exactly the same hue.

But when I came back, you know, I kind of looked around through the--in--in the way that I had kind of learned to look in Brazil. And one way may not be right or better than the other, but I--I do think that's true, actually. I think if you go to very low-income areas in our society, you--you tend to see, you know, a--a greater pro--proportion of very darked-skinned people than you would see in--than you do see in--in kind of the upper socioeconomic ranks of black America. And I think, it--in part, it's--you know, it--it grows out of what, in years past, in decades past, was a--was a more overt kind of color discrimination or color line, you know, unspoken but there, in the--in the black community.
LAMB: Why d--do some whites work so hard at changing their white skin to--to color, you think?
Mr. ROBINSON: I have never quite understood that. I don't know. It's--it--it's--I mean, there's a--maybe there's a human impulse to--you know, to--to be different and to--to--you know, somehow to stand out. I mean, why--why--why are whites--why do whites do that, and why--why--why do black people buy, you know, bleaching creams and things like that? I mean, there's not as much of that as there used to be, but I remember the ads in Ebony and--and magazines like that when I was growing up for, you know, whitening creams. And--and there are--you know, they have--you know, they still exist.
LAMB: Do you see color when you see other people all the time?
Mr. ROBINSON: Not all the time, no. I mean, it--and--and I think that's sort sort of--that's really a good thing, actually. I don't thi--you know, I don't think we ought to--you know, obviously, we shouldn't go around looking at race and color--race or color all the time. I mean, we have--I mean, most of our transactions are--you know, should be based on the--just the value of a transaction and what we're--what we're--what we're dealing with. They should be human interactions.

I--I guess I see it a lot more when I--when I try to step back and look at the--look at a s--at a situation or look at the society from a--from a bit of a distance. And I think that's a kind of training. I mean, this is--it's one of the great things about being a foreign correspondent, of course, is that that's what you do. You go and you--and you look at the society, you know, in a way that, you know, people who live there might not because you--you have a kind of unique vantage point. And--and--and you get into that habit. And so you--you--you know, you come home and you tend--you--you--you're more able, I think, to take that step back, to get rid of preconceptions, just kind of unfocus your eyes and just kind of look and see what--what--you know, what it looks like in a broad-as-possible sense.
LAMB: I have to read this sentence. I--I--I guess because I want to ask you where you got these words.
LAMB: `A lot of intellectuals and the vast majority of newspaper columnists, including the courfuffling grandees of my newspaper and The New York Times and the rest of the elite press, seem not to have seen even an inch past the controversial man who brought us all together that day.' We're talking about Louis Farrakhan.
Mr. ROBINSON: Right. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: What is a courfuffling grandee?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I think--I--I don't think--it's--I think those are words. A courfuffling grandee, I think, is a--you--you know, is a--is a particularly puffed-up talking head, of--of which we have. You know, that's a fairly prominent subspecies in Washington. I think we have a few of them. And you know what a grandee is. We have a few of those.
LAMB: You say, `The truth is that all the speeches were anti-climactic, every single one.'
Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
LAMB: What did you mean by that?
Mr. ROBINSON: We're talking about the day of the Million Man March and--and--and--and Farrakhan. Because I th--because what I m--what I mean by that is that that was--the speechifying had nothing to do with that event from my vantage point. And--and--and I don't think it had anything to do with it--with the event for--for most people who were there. You know, I'm a cynical newsman. I mean, you--you know, the idea of, you know, `Oh, let's all have a Million Man March. Let's all kind of gather hands,' it--you know, well--right. Sure. You know? That all sans--sounds like a nice idea, but let's--you know, why--why are we doing this?

And I went down there that day and I was just really kind of profoundly moved by the experience. And--and it was--and--and what was moving about it and interesting about it was this--was the fact that it happened; the fact that so many hundreds of thousands--you know, whether there was a million or not, who cares? How this--this--this huge, huge crowd of--of African-American men had come together for the purpose of kind of being together and saying, `You know, we want a--a--a--a--the--for this kind of positive end,' that really didn't have to go beyond, you know, the gathering itself. It was just--it was just an amazing feeling.

You know, black men are--are so often painted as a--as a problem in this society and, indeed, you know, are involved in--in--you know, I mean, if you look at the statistics, you know, who's in prison, who's, you know, in selling drugs or whatever, I mean, and--you know, and--and it was--it--it was just a--it was just an extraordinary thing to--to--to go through. And I thought that was the point of it. What--who was saying what up on the stage didn't mean anything. They were little specks, you know, a mile away. What they said wasn't as important as the fact that we were all there.
LAMB: What's your Marion Barry story in this book?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, well, the one in the--the one in the book is just a--let's see, when Marion was--he was in the--in the district building and kind of dropped by the press room to horse around with the--with the press and--and to start s--with--with another reporter, who was then with the late lamented Washington Star, a guy named Mike Davis. They start pulling money out of their pockets. `Who's got the most 20-dollar bills?' And they're double counting bills and kind of horsing around. It was just kind of a--kind of a--just a moment with--with Barry. If we had another hour, I'd have other Marion Barry stories.
LAMB: Well, what was it that happened in--in--in Mr. Barry's relationship to you, though, that day? I mean, what--what was the...
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, well, the--the--it was that I kind of felt--I kind of felt out of it. It was--it was a--the game they were playing was kind of a--an urban street kind of game. I was this kid who had grown up in--you know, in--in the--in the South. Maryland's more in the South. But--but had gone to this white university, had worked at, you know, San Fr--this paper in San Francisco. It's a weird place. I didn't quite know how to interact in that way with him. I wasn't good at that, at--at jiving with the mayor and--and kind of coming back at him in a way that was--in a way that--that was kind of authentically urban African-American at the time, and I--I kind of felt that.

And--and it wasn't--I mean, he was--he's a politician. He was also that day, as he often did--I mean, he was--you know, kept pressuring me to--you know, for favorable coverage because that's what he did, 'cause that's what politicians do, but--but that wasn't--you know, I don't think he was pressing that as an advantage because I felt awkward there. That was just kind of an inner thing. I kind of--it was a--it was a--it was a time when I was--wondered, you know, whether--Washington was a very racially charged place in that time. And--and--and I was--I just wondered how I fit in there and--and--and--and felt kind of pressure from, y--you know, being an emissary to--to the Barry administration from the powerful Washington Post. It was--it was, at times, an uncomfortable position to be in.
LAMB: Did it work when he would attack The Post, in your presence, for being against him and against blacks?
Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I think if you went back and looked at the--the coverage of him and really looked at it through a long lens, I think it probably did work some. I think he got more slack--he was cut slack, you know, a bit longer. It wa--it's not that we weren't running critical stories. It's not that we weren't kind of all over top of that administration or--or didn't try to be. But I think, you know, that was a weapon that he used, I think, fairly effectively. He knew how to use it.
LAMB: Who's Amazon Mac?
Mr. ROBINSON: Amazon Mac is a friend of mine named Mac Margolis, who's an American journalist who lives and works in Rio, writes for Newsweek, used to write for The Post, does a lot of writing in Brazil, is author of--of a book about Brazil about the--about the Amazon Jungle. He knew more about the Amazon than any American journalist I knew in--in Brazil and, hence, the--hence, the name Amazon Mac, which is what we used to call him.
LAMB: What did you learn about race from him?
Mr. ROBINSON: He had--he had spent more time in Brazil than I had. He was still there. What--what--what he started teaching me or--or--or helping me see was that the initial view I had of race in Brazil, which was that here was some sort of racial paradise, this was--you know, people didn't have--they weren't--wasn't tension between blacks and whites when they kind of met. There wasn't what I had seen at the district building. There wasn't, you know--it--it--it seemed not to be an issue. This seemed to be great. He--he helped me start seeing that, well, it wasn't that simple. It wasn't that simple; that there were--there was a--there was a pattern that shaped to the society, you know, in which whites really were at the top, that some s--tended to be black in the rest of society. And th--these were things that--that you ought to take into account.
LAMB: Did you change your mind about race and Brazil when--during your four years?
Mr. ROBINSON: I did. I did. I--I mean, I--I--I went thinking for a while, and kind of feeling more important than thinking, that--that the Brazilian kind of model was--was one that we might think about. I mean, was--there was--was a--was a great one, that it was very comfortable and--and it--and kind of wonderful in a lot of ways.

I--I eventually came to think that our way of--of struggling with race--friction, confrontation, all the kind of problems we've had with it over the--over the years, which kind of stems from my sense of racial identity--has produced a lot more in terms of benefits and--and progress than the--than the Braz--Brazil system has.
LAMB: You went to Peru.
LAMB: And I wrote down notes that the whites had the best jobs, the Indians did the dirty work and blacks were the security people. Explain more of that. And what's Peru like?
Mr. ROBINSON: Peru's a fascinating place. It's a majority--well, it's a--you know, me--it's where the Incas lived, and the--the majority is kind of Indian or mixed population. It was the seed of the Spanish empire in South America. And Afro-Peruvians, Africans, were brought there. They were kind of--they were in pla--in places of Peru, it was kind of a plantation economy. Blacks were brought in not to kind of work the plantations, but to be overseers, generally, because it was the Europeans felt that--that the blacks kind of--especially blacks who were--who had been experienced working in the Caribbean, or whatever, had a--you know, were more--more culturated to that system than the Indians were.

So--so this society evolved, kind of, after, you know, over the--over the centuries as, you know, a--as--as having a kind of a small, increasingly less distinct population of Afro-Peruvians, who--who eventually kind of--mostly melded into the society. But there still are recognizable Afro-Peruvians there.

And I just thought it was very bizarre that you'd go to, like, a luxury hotel in--in--in Peru, the place where'd I'd stay when I was there, and all the hotels--well, not seemed to have, did have Afro-Peruvian doormen who would kind of stand there in this red uniform. They're often very well-educated people who--you know, who could make more money standing--you know, there was a real economic crisis in those years. They could make more money standing in front of a hotel than--than they could, you know, practicing law or whatever. The--the people who were doing the kind of dirty work, the man who would come in, clean the bathrooms, sweep the floors, were almost invariably of Indian descent. And the--and the--and the people behind the front desk who were, you know, running the place were--tended to look much more European.

But Afro-Peruvians fulfilled just a really odd place in the society. One of the strangest customs I ever ran across was whenever a prominent Peruvian would die, somebody who was really--you know, a judge or something like that, it--it seemed like one of the first things the family would do was go out and hire a bunch of Afro-Peruvian pallbearers, who would--who would come to carry the casket. Wouldn't have known the guy from Adam, but it was--but, you know, they look for black people to--to fulfill that role, for some reason, and I never quite figured out why. So there was some--there was a--there was a certain kind of cigar-store Indian quality to--to--to the role that blacks played in Peruvian society.
LAMB: Who was Terry Jones?
Mr. ROBINSON: Terry Jones was a basketball player--black American bla--basketball player from Compton, California, whom I met walking on the street in Valparaiso, Chile, one evening. I was there covering the transition from Pinochet to--to post-Pinochet years, so there was a big plebiscite on Pinochet's continued rule, and so I was going to Chile a lot. And this was--would have been in late 1988 or--yeah, late 1988, I'm sure.

And I was--Chile, you know, on the other side of the Andes, is kind of, in some ways, the most cut-off country in South America in--you know, it wasn't very cosmopolitan at all in those days, and so when I showed up, you know, this 6'4" black man, I was a novelty. I mean, people would sometimes follow me down the street and people would point and this and that. They had--you know, weren't used to seeing a lot of people like me.

So I--you know, one evening, I was in the--you know, walking down the street in Valparaiso, which is a port city, and saw someone who was as tall as I was and looked kind of dark. And he said `hi' and I said `hi,' and we kind of struck up a conversation. It turned out he was an American who had been a--a college basketball star of--of--at a small school. His claim to fame was he had once guarded Michael Jordan in a college game--hadn't done very well; had held him to, like, 30 or something like that, I think. And when he got out of school, he hadn't--hadn't been drafted by the NBA, hadn't been--he didn't have a chance to go to Europe to play, but had been approached by an agent who said, `Hey, I can get you on a team in Chile.' And he thought that was preferable to--to going home to Compton, so he--he had gone to Chile and--to--to play basketball.

He was a fascinating guy because--I met a few other basketball players in--in the southern... when I was down there, and most of them continued--you know, the whole time they were there felt really alienated from this society, where there were no black people and everybody spoke Spanish and it was just weird and--and came home as soon as they could. This guy, Terry Jones, had--had decided to stay or--or to make the most of it at least. He had met a Chilean woman. They had married. They had a--had a son. And he was--he had a bunch of entrepreneurial ventures going on. He had learned fluent Spanish. He really, really kind made quite an existence for himself in--in this--in this place. I found him really interesting.
LAMB: Who's Michael O'Kane?
Mr. ROBINSON: Mike O'Kane. Mike O'Kane was a good friend of mine--or, really, I think it's fair to say the only white friend that I really had in Orangeburg; you know, the friendship that went beyond acquaintanceship. He was a student at Orangeburg High School when I was there. He was the son of a prominent doctor in town, lived in a house that looked like Tara--big columns and everything. And--and--but he was--he was one of the few kind of fellow liberals at Orangeburg High School where the--the word liberal was a dirty word. And so we--we--you know, we'd get into discussions in our classes in history or English or whatever, and I kind of felt like a lonely voice, except Mike was there. And he would--he would pipe in, and--and so we--you know, we kind of struck up a friendship and have kept up with each other over the years.
LAMB: You say in your book that way back at Orangeburg High S--`I--I like some of my'--`I liked some of my teachers but hated others precisely because they so obviously hated me and the very idea of having black students sully their pres--pristine classrooms.'
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah. Yeah.
LAMB: How--how could you tell they hated you?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I don't think any one of them ever came out and said, `I hate you,' but I had a geometry teacher, for example, who, in ev--any sort of non-verbal way you can--you can think of, demonstrated her utter disdain for the idea that there were black students in her class and sometimes in verbal ways. And I remember she had a rule that she had to be called, you know, Mrs. This, Mrs. That, and--and she--there was another black student in the class I was in. I remember she--she--she enforced this rule very selectively, and once another black student had addressed her and hadn't called her, you know, Mrs. Raymond, she--you know, she--she called him on it in a real--what I thought was a really kind of vicious way, and it--that seemed designed to humiliate rather than instruct. I--I thought she was really hostile most of the time.

But I--you know, I dec--I decided--I was good at geometry, and so I decided I was not gonna get anything wrong in her class, and that was the--and it--and it worked out. I mean, I got an A+ in that class because I wasn't--I wasn't gonna give her the satisfaction of grading me down on anything, and it was something I happened to be good at. So...
LAMB: At the top of that page in the book, you say, `I had felt hot throbbing rage.' Anybody that's watched this program so far doesn't see a man in rage, and I want to ask you about the difference between talking this book and writing it, 'cause as you know, there's some pretty strong stuff in here...
LAMB: ...about--do you--do you--is it harder for you to talk the rage than it is to write it?
Mr. ROBINSON: I--well, I--you know, I guess--I guess it is. I mean--and--and it's harder--it's easier to--to remember, to recall your feelings at a certain time, to recall anger, to summon it back to write it. But it's difficult to keep it, I mean, to--you know, I mean, I don't have--there's not a lot in my life now that leads me to--to be enraged. You know, sometimes, I mean, I--you know, I get mad at things in the society. I get mad at, you know, things in daily life. But--but I'm not the kind of person, I think, who--who--who carries that around all the time. I try--I try not to at least. I think it would be a waste of energy.
LAMB: You said when you moved into Arlington, Virginia, right...
Mr. ROBINSON: Mm-hmm. Yeah.
LAMB: ...across the river over here, that there was no welcome wagon for you.
LAMB: Was that a tongue-in-cheek comment, or did you really mean that?
Mr. ROBINSON: N--well, I--it was--it was--I'm being tongue in--tongue in cheek. It was--I--I think it's--it's fair to say--we moved into a neighborhood that's in Arlington that had been, you know, a white neighborhood, conservative neighborhood. At the time we bought our house was mostly kind of older people, you know, who'd bought their houses in the 40s or so; a few who were, you know, a bit younger than that, but they didn't quite know what to make of us, I mean, and--and--and we bought a house that's kind of at the focal point of the neighborhood in a lot of ways. So it was--you know, you couldn't miss it. We were there. You couldn't--and--and--and so certainly at first, there seemed to be a lack of enthusiasm among our neighbors for our being there. In part, I think it was, you know, they were curious, and you're curious whenever somebody moves in--moves in the neighborhood. But wa--but, you know, it was--it was not a--it was not at that time the warmest neighborhood.

But it's changed a lot. You know, Arlington has changed and Virginia has changed. There's a--you know, there's an interracial couple that lives in our neighborhood. There's a gay couple that lives in our neighborhood. There's--you know, it's--it's--it's a different place. A lot of younger people there--become a much, much--we're--well, we love it there. We're very, very happy.
LAMB: So you still live in Arlington?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, we still live in Arlington. We still live in Arlington.
LAMB: You point out somewhere in the book that, like, 1:8 or 1:9 marriages in the United States interracial now.
Mr. ROBINSON: No, in--in--of--when one of the--involving African-Americans, I think, or something like that. I mean, if you take of all the--all the marriages that African-Americans have been involved in, I think it's like 1:8 or 1:9 is interracial.
LAMB: Is that a good thing?
Mr. ROBINSON: Sure. I mean, why--I mean, you know, why should it--I mean, again, you can't legislate or--or--or--or try to figure out who people should fall in love with. And--and, you know, you--you'd be awful busy if you want to try to figure that out. So--so, sure, I think it, you know--however, I do think that it's s--there are people who believe that the society is rather rapidly going to become kind of a mulatto, cafe au lait society. I mean, that it--that--that--that these kind of boundaries or--or categories or whatever you want to call them are gonna rapidly really blur into kind of a new America. I'm--I'm not actually convinced that change is going to be that rapid. I mean, 1:8 or 1:9 is a--is a lot, but it's not--it--it--it will--it will take time for that to work its way through the society.
LAMB: How would you rate the United States based on where you've lived? You've lived in London, you've lived in Argentina.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, mm-hmm.
LAMB: Any place else?
LAMB: But you've traveled to other places.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, traveled.
LAMB: How would you rate the race situation in the United States right now?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, I--you know, I--I honestly believe--Lord knows we've got a long way to go, but I think--I don't know of another place--I mean, let's--let's not talk for a second about, you know, kind of African nations or majority black nations, other--you know, other places in--in--in Europe or Asia or South America or whatever. I don't know of another society where a minority like black pl--people in the United States have made as many strides, concrete kinds of strides, in terms of closing in--income gap, closing em--employment gaps, as in the United States. I think we've come an enormous way. Got a lot more to do. I mean, there's still very important gaps in addition to, you know, the percentage--the--the--the part of the--of black America that's kind of mired in--in the--in the direst of circumstances in the inner cities.

There's also this--this very substantial gap in wealth between even, you know, middle-class white Americans and middle-class black--black Americans with, you know, same levels of income, but--but wealth is--is--is--is strikingly different.

But I'm--I'm not aware of a place that's come as far as we have, and--and I really think it's because, you know, we--I mean, we wrestle with it. We don't--you know, we--we don't just kind of say everything is OK if it's not. It's uncomfortable at times, and it would be nice, you--you know, just in terms of your daily life and, you know, going about your daily life and--without tension, without kind of racial friction or whatever. Brazil is a great place, but the society is more unequal, I think, than this one.
LAMB: Where'd you meet your wife?
Mr. ROBINSON: Met in San Francisco. She--she's from Silver Spring actually, but we met in San Francisco. Met through a mutual friend in 1976, I guess we met. I was working at San Francisco Chronicle. She was out there going to school. We had a mutual friend and met at a cafe called the Sacred Grounds near Golden Gate Park.
LAMB: And when did you marry?
Mr. ROBINSON: Two years later in '78.
LAMB: How many children do you have?
Mr. ROBINSON: Got two boys, one 16 and one 9.
LAMB: The one 9 is the one that was adopted, or the one 16?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yes, mm-hmm.
LAMB: And what were the circumstances that you...
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, we had--we'd been in--in South America, wanted to have another child. We didn't--just kind of wasn't happening. So we rather than--we--so we thought--we did think a bit. I mean, as you know, a lot of Americans who do, you know--kind of do South American adoptions or whatever. In the end, we felt that the--the--the need for African-American adoptive parents in the United States is--is so great, that--that if we were gonna do an adoption, it would make sense to do it here, and indeed, we--you know, we came back to the States to--to do it, and it took almost no time at all.
LAMB: And what's the--how's he doing in this country now?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, he's doing great. I mean, he's doing great. He's a great kid.
LAMB: Now where did you find him?
LAMB: Where did you find him? I mean, how--what kind of adoption...
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, through a--through a--through a private adoption agency.
LAMB: Is there a lot of that that goes on in South America?
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, a lot happens Sou--of course, this was an agency here in the--in the States, so, you know, but--but--but, yeah, there's a lot in--in South America. I mean, it--there are a lot of--you know, for white Americans who are seeking to adopt, as you know, it takes--oh, it can take a long time or not happen at all. And--and when I was in Peru especially, I would often see--I didn't quite understand what was happening at first. I'd see these couples strolling through the streets of Lima, and they were obviously Americans strolling these little babies. And it was--it was awhile before it dawned on me that, `Well, this is really quite a lot of adoption going on,' and it--and it was, it was, it was .......
LAMB: You--on a completely--another subject, you--you've gone some length in here what it was like to build Brasilia.
LAMB: And I ask you that 'cause we're living in a capital city here.
Mr. ROBINSON: Uh-huh.
LAMB: What's the story about Brasilia?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, Brasilia is one of the great stories of kind of architecture and urban planning, I think, of the century. It--it had--the capital of Brazil for a long time was Rio, on the coast. It had been a long-held dream to have a capital more in the interior. And, finally, in the 1950s, a president named Kubitschek decreed that they would go ahead and do it.

So out of a kind of a high plain in the interior, where there was kind of nothing but some fairly bad soil and some scrawny trees, they created a purpose-built capital that is architecturally amazing. It was designed by a famous city planner named--urban planner named Lucio Costa and an architect named Oscar Nie--Niemeyer, both quite famous. It's laid out in the shape of a--of a--of a jet, of a--and along the fuselage of the jet are the ministries. And kind of where the nose cone would be, there's the congress and there's all these very striking buildings. It's--and then the wings are kind of residential areas.

It's a very weird place because you--if you live there, you live in a neighborhood, you know, with a name like 301S, and you know instantly that 301S is just a very different place from 301N. Even though they look, you know, identical, they would be--they'd be, you know, at least to pre--people lived there, they'd be quite different.
LAMB: You say the bureaucrats are white and everyone else is black?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, the--that's a, you know, slight oversimplification, but not much of one. I--I go there to interview government people, and--and, you know, coming from--from this--this country, where obviously there are a lot of--a lot of people of color, you go into one of the ministries, you saw almost none. And certainly if you--you know, when you were actually talking to the minister or the minister's, you know, number two or whatever, you just didn't see black people.

More than that, you--you'd see people on the streets of Brasilia, but not--but when you got out into the neighborhoods--the neighborhoods consist of these apartment buildings that look identical, by the way. I can't--I mean, if you--if you--if you went out and had one too many in Brasilia, I don't know how you'd find your way home. I really don't. You can still be--you know, you'd spend days looking for the right one.

But--but the people lived in the apartment tended to be the bureaucrats or the higher-ranking bureaucrats, 'cause, you know, there weren't all that many of them, you know. There wasn't all that much housing available in the kind of central section, and so they tended to be white 'cause they tended to be the higher-ranking bureaucrats.

Then there was a--a--a kind of legislative green belt around Brasilia, where you couldn't build anything. And--and then on the other side of that were the places where the--all the kind of support workers lived: the clerks and the janitors and the cooks and the--and the people who worked in the stores and whatever. And then--that looked more like Brazil. I mean, there you saw--you saw dark people, and--and--and that just struck me as--as--it--it was--it was just quite striking to see that--that disparity. It was almost like, you know, in South Africa going out to townships or something like that. I mean, not--you know, that's something--something of an exaggeration, but it was close.
LAMB: You write that they didn't outlaw slavery in Brazil until 1888.
Mr. ROBINSON: That's right, yeah.. It was ….
LAMB: Now what about the rest of South America? Was there much slavery in other places?
Mr. ROBINSON: Not as much as in Brazil, no. Brazil was the place. I mean, in...
LAMB: What kind of slavery was it in Brazil?
Mr. ROBINSON: It was--it was--it was different in that it was, in some ways, more brutal.
LAMB: Was it African slavery?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah, it was African slavery. Yeah, there were--it was--for--for many years, for centuries really, during the whole kind of middle passage importation of--of slaves, number one, f--far more slaves were taken to Brazil than to--than to the United States. The numbers are--you know, kind of dwarf the number brought to the United States. One difference is that in the United States, for whatever reason, slaves--slaves were considered valuable property and so were taken care of. And families were split up, but--but, you know, the population grew. In Brazil, slaves tended to be worked very hard, and when they died, they kind of brought more over. So it was--it was very rough.

In other ways, it was different. I mean, there were some slave revolts in Brazil that--that--in which slaves kind of took chunks of territory and held them for long periods of time. And it--also arguably slaves--slaves--families were not separated in Brazil in the way they were separated here, and I think that contributed, at least in the places where there was the heaviest concentration of slaves, in actually preserving a little bit more, not only flavor but some actual culture of West Africa, kind of was translated to parts of Brazil.
LAMB: Now do I understand that Major John Hammond Fordham was your great-grandfather and--and a free man?
Mr. ROBINSON: He certainly was. Yes, he was. Yes, he was.
LAMB: He was a free man...
Mr. ROBINSON: He was born in 1856, I think, like that. I think it was 1856.
LAMB: How did he...
LAMB: How did he become a free man?
Mr. ROBINSON: I'm not quite sure. His--it--it seems to have been his father who became free at some point...
LAMB: Living where?
Mr. ROBINSON: In Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston was, at that time, one of the major ports on the East Coast, a--a very cosmopolitan place where it was not at all unusual to--for there to be free blacks. We know that Major Fordham's father owned some sort of tradesman's shop, blacksmith's shop or something in Charleston--know vaguely where it was--but we never have figured out the history--his history and how he became free. Was he the one who became free? How did--how did that happen? We don't quite know.
LAMB: So this experience of writing a book, what--what's it done for you?
Mr. ROBINSON: Made me want to write more books. It's--it's--it has--it's taught me a lot about--about writing, about the craft of writing. It's--it's taught me a lot about myself actually because having gone through the experience, which I think necessarily is an arduous one and takes--you know, it takes awhile. It takes a lot of effort. There's an enormous amount of satisfaction in--in--in seeing it through and coming to the close. And--and it's a very personal book, too. So it's--it's required me to think about things in ways that I hadn't before and to think them through. I mean, `Well, what do I really think about this, and what do I'--you know, and--and why? So I think I know myself a lot better than I did before.
LAMB: What's the most unusual reaction you've had from anybody that's read your book?
Mr. ROBINSON: The most unusual reaction.
LAMB: Or a surprise reaction or anybody mad at you after writing this book?
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, yeah, yeah, there are a few people mad.
LAMB: What kind of people?
Mr. ROBINSON: Well, there are--let's see, I got a letter from a guy who--who--who somehow read the book as a long argument for affirmative action, and that's all he saw in the book. I don't think I mentioned those words in the book. I didn't--you know, I--had nothing to--I mean, I--know what to think about affirmative action, but--but--but I--that--so that was kind of the oddest reaction. And I find--I do find it interesting that people project themselves, you know, and they put themselves into their reaction, so that was a kind of an extreme case of it.

I've heard from a lot of Brazilians actually, and I've gotten very passionate reactions from Brazilians kind of on both sides; some people saying, `This is absolutely right. Somebody should say this about our society. We really ha--you know, we really--there is racism in our society that we don't acknowledge, and we--we should--we should--we should talk about it.'

Been interviewed by a lot of Brazilian newspapers actually and--and--and--and others who have said, `Well, no, you don't understand. It really is--you know, it's what you thought at first. It's really--it really is a racial democracy in Brazil.'
LAMB: Is it translated into Portuguese?
Mr. ROBINSON: Not yet, but we're--you know, we're hoping that it will be. I think it would be interesting.
LAMB: Now tell us what this cover is. Who is that man on that cover?
Mr. ROBINSON: You know, I don't know. It's--it's something the art director came up with. And it--it's supposed to be, I guess, a--I guess the face is supposed to be more emblematic of something than anything else. It's not me.
LAMB: Why wouldn't they put your face on it?
Mr. ROBINSON: Good question. I think I have a perfectly good face.
LAMB: If you had to make a choice right now, what would your next book be?
Mr. ROBINSON: Boy, I don't know. I don't know. I mean, I--I--I have a--some ideas that I'm kicking around, you know. I--I spent so much time in foreign news, I'm interested in--in--I probably want to do something else overseas if I could. I'm--I'm very interested in West Africa as kind of the--you know, the birth--birthplace of our ancestors. I've never been there. I'd like to go there at some point. That's one thing I'm thinking about, but I don't really have--have it--have a firm enough idea to--to--to run with it yet.

I also--I write a decent amount about raising--raising young men, raising boys in this society, raising Afri--African-American boys in--in a society where black men are--you know, are--are talked about and--or occupy the space they occupy in the society. And--and that's another kind of issue I'm interested in. So I don't know.
LAMB: Our guest has been Eugene Robinson. He runs the Style section at The Washington Post, and he has this book, which the title is "Coal to Cream." Thank you very much.
Mr. ROBINSON: Thank you.

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