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November 7, 2022 12 mins

Title: Navigating Interracial Friendships with Some Of My Best Friends Are


Description: Here's a preview of another podcast we're enjoying, Some of My Best Friends Are, from Pushkin Industries. Harvard professor Khalil Gibran Muhammad and journalist Ben Austen are friends, one Black and one white, who grew up together on the South Side of Chicago. On Some of My Best Friends Are, Khalil and Ben, along with their guests, have critical conversations that are at once personal, political, and playful, about the absurdities and intricacies of race in America. In this preview, Khalil and Ben talk with author Saladin Ambar about his new book, Stars and Shadows: The Politics of Interracial Friendship from Jefferson to Obama. Through famous bonds ranging from Ella Fitzgerald and Marilyn Monroe, to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, they explore the dynamics, benefits, and difficulties of cultivating interracial friendships. Hear the full episode, and more from Some of My Best Friends Are, at

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Episode Transcript

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Speaker 1 (00:00):
Hey, Reopening America listeners. Khalil Gibran Mohammed and Ben Austin
here hosts of the podcast Some of my best friends are.
We know you're concerned about the latest happenings in America,
so we think you'll enjoy our podcast, which is all
about the intricacies of race in our deeply divided country. Today,
we're taking over your feeds to bring you a little

preview of it. Hey, Khalil, Yeah, Yeah. We grew up
together on the South Side of Chicago and as adults
were still best friends. But we still are. We know
that interracial friendships aren't going to solve the problems of
a deeply divided country, and some of my best friends are.
We have real talks together about the absurdities and intricacies
of race in America. Along the way, we're joined by

other friends like Attorney General Eric Holder, Restorative Justice leader
Danielle saraht and Sherman Dillah Thomas, but critical conversations that
are at once personal, political, and playful. From examining the
intricacies of famous interracial relationships to reimagining what justice looks like,
we try to make sense of the moment we're all

living in Okay. Here's a preview. We hope you enjoy it.
If you do, you can hear more from Some of
my best friends are wherever you get your podcasts. Well, y'all, y'all,
we actually read the book after man, we don't play,
We don't. Some of my best friends are goodness, Yeah,
y'are not faking. I'm Khalil Gibrad Mohammed and I'm Ben Austin.

We're two best friends, one black, one white. I'm a
historian and I'm a journalist. And this is some of
my best friends are. Some of my best friends are
dot dot dot. In this show, we wrestle with the
challenges and the absurdities of a deeply divided and unequal country.
And this week we're talking about the political history of

interracial friendships. Come on, man, are story? This is our
story representations political history. All right. So, a little while ago,

we each got a book in the mail. Yeah. This
book is by an author, a political scientist named Saladin
and bar. The books titled Stars and Shadows. The Politics
of Interracial Friendship from Jefferson to Obama, The Whole Gamut
of Black and White Friendship in the History of the
United States Alpha to the Omega, and you know, we

get this book in the mail, and the first thing
we think about is are we in it? That's right? Yeah,
because I mean, how could we not be. I mean,
who's had an interracial friendship for thirty six years that
you know, you at least weren't sleeping with the other person.
I was leafing through it. I was looking through it,
and so this book totally intrigued. So we start going

to the table of contests and looking what's in it
and these pairings of black and white friendships from the
last two hundred years. Yeah, it was. It was surprising.
I mean, first of all, I didn't even know about
some of these relationships, and then others which I knew about,
like Benjamin Bannaker, the famous black mathedematician, had a correspondence
with Thomas Jefferson. It was like holding Thomas Jefferson's feet

to the fire, like, dude, you know, you gotta show
up for black people. And then the most famous black
intellectual W. E. B. Dwo Boys is celebrating his relationship
with the most famous philosopher of the time, a guy
named William James, And I was like him. I was
a little surprised, and we were also dubious about this book.
I mean, got to admit, you know that that in
many of these cases, these people were not especially close friends.

And you know, so much of the premise of our show,
like here we have the show where we're interracial friends,
is that those kind of connections alone are not the
thing that are going to bring about structural change in
the country. That's right, That's right. So we had Ladeen
on the show. He goes by Dean because now he's
one of our friends as well, and you know, like

we had to talk to him about this, and one
of the things he points out that like, even when
there's not a lot of there there in the friendship,
what he's interested in is the politics of it, which
is in a way sort of like friendship as symbolism.
That's right. Yeah, And because that cuts against the grain
in many ways of our show, we're poking fun of that,
you know, like some of our best friends are. Um,

he's making kind of a stronger argument that actually, in
that symbolism suggests the possibility of something of structural change,
of what he calls democratic possibilities. So let's talk to him. Yeah,
So let's talk to Dean. Hey, hey, welcome, welcome. We

are so excited, Professor Salah Dean. I'm bar Is On.
Some of my best friends are and yes, yes, this
is a conversation we have been dying to have about
interracial friendships right up our alley. And yes, I appreciate
you guys building a podcast around this book, so thank
you very much. That was very very kind of you.

The heart of our podcast is that we built this
idea that friendships are important, but they're not going to
get us to the Promised Land. I wanted us to
start this conversation with you being sort of talking about
the inspiration for the book, because I have to say,
when I saw the title and I skimmed the cover
of the book before I read it, I thought, uh no,

I'm not convinced, Like what's this guy talking about like
interracial friendships and and like political projects and something about democracy?
So unpacked that a little bit, you know, what is
this book really about? I was a little bit concerned too,
to be honest with you. And you know the last
thing I wanted was to write a book where people thought, well,
we could just friend our way out of white supremacy.

And there we got we could just you know, just
be friends. Why can't we get a long That was
the last thing I was hoping for. If you really
look at the two books I wrote before this, I
wrote a book called Malcolm X at Oxford Union, Politics
of Global Race Relations. And that book, um really spoke
to sort of my upbringing, my conversion Islam during my

teen years, um and and how that influenced me politically.
And I was very much drawn like a lot of
people growing up in New York were who were black. Anyway,
to Malcolm's teachings, you dropped some nuggets there. So so
grew up in New York, came of age sometime assuming
in the late eighties as a teenager when Malcolm was

becoming a kind of avatar for black resistance to the
world drugs and all that. Yeah, this was the era
of public enemy. Uh you know, the power all of that. Man.
And did you have did you have white friends at
the time or people who were Latino or Asian? Was

was your integrated? Well? Yes and no. So it's you know,
I kind of lived a bit of a double life,
you know. I was about to say. The next book
I wrote was about Mario Cuomo for New York and
because he was because he was really a black dude.
Maybe maybe maybe, but you know, Mario and his Italian

heritage spoke to my own because my mom's family, you know,
comes from Sicily her side. Um. And so you know,
the point about Malcolm was, I think I needed to reaffirm,
you know, who Malcolm meant to me, what my blackness
meant to me. But also moving on to you know, Mario,

I had to focus on or I was drawn to
focusing on that side of my heritage as well. And
then I think this is a kind of this book
is in many ways a kind of synthesis, you know,
of me dealing with both ends of you know, that
sort of psychological backdrop to who I am as a
human being. And so I think I was rattling, frankly

with the some of my own questions about identity and
who I am in the world. In Stars and Shadows,
the book that we read, you look at ten different friendships.
They're spanning two hundred years of American history, starting with
Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Bannaker and going all the way
to Obama and Biden, and on the way you've got

James Baldwin and Marlon Brando. You've got Angela Davis and
Gloria Steinham. You've got a lot of different relationships in there. Uh,
And don't forget the ultimate Black and Jewish relationship. Dr
Martin Muth, the King Jr. And Rabbi Joshua Heschel. Boy,
how could I forget? Come on? Man? Yeah, man? You know,
and in a lot of ways, the book is also
a history of America and a history of race and

racism told through these these relationships. I thought we could
pause for a second though, and like actually try to
talk a little bit more about what friendship really means
in this context, and to talk about like the terms
we're using, Like what is an interracial friendship and how
are we talking about it here? Well, you know, I've
tried to go back to, you know, the French revolutionary

ideal of fraternity tay because I think unlike ordinary you know,
daily friendship um among ordinary citizens, fraternity tay had political implications.
You know, Benjamin Bannaker had a lot of white friends.
All his friends were white. He was a free black
man in rural Maryland. He was a farmer, and he
was surrounded by whites and they were his friends, and

he got along, but you know, he was not involved
in a political project with them. And I think what
happened with Jefferson and he is that he got involved
in a political project. So Dean, what you mean by
political project is that Jefferson had written a racist book
called Notes on the State of Virginia that essentially said
black people were fundamentally inferior to white people. And here

Bannaker is, who's helped build the nation's capital and is
now sending Jefferson and almanac, and he's like, dude, if
we're inferior, how can I be this incredible scientist and
mathema that's right. In other words, he wanted to use
an attempted friendship, in his case, a connection he was
trying to make, you know, signing his letter using the
language of my brethren and you know, your humble, obedient servant,

Jefferson responds back to him. He's using a kind of
breakthrough of social relations to make a political statement. And
I think these ten case studies are about taking with
what one has on a private level. And I think
maybe you guys can speak to this better than most.
You had your friendship, it was what it was. But

now when when it's a podcast, public becomes part of
a public form, you know, it involves something a little heavier.
It becomes it's not just you know, two guys getting
bagels or hanging out and listening to music or whatever
y'all do. Yeah, well, you definitely nailed us on the
bagels and the music. That is a hangout. Come on,
man then used to deliver bagels. But let's let's let's

talk about this because you know, in some ways, i'm
you know, it's interesting about why these relationships are so
difficult in America. And you know, you cite this study
during the Obama years that you said, three quarters of
white people don't have a black friend, and two thirds
of black people don't have a white friend, and that
is the state of America. And even even your books

title Stars and Shadows, it comes from Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn. Right,
Huck and Jim are on the raft and there it's
nighttime and they look up and all they have to
navigate by our stars and shadows. And so you think
about Huck and Jim on the raft, about their friendship

and their bond. You could call it if it's not
a friendship, but that it exists really only on the
raft and the raft of this idea of being, you know,
between two shores, of not being in America, of being
this liminal space, and that's really the only realm in
which they can have this connection. Man, I was eat
you see us the word liminal? Man, You know, I

haven't heard that since grad school. Man. So that's I'm
I'm here with two professors. I'm trying to like, punch
above my weight. So yeah, man, of course you're punching
outside your weight class. But we're gonna give you a
chance to catch up with us. Look, we've been in
this relationship for thirty five years, and I'm beginning to wonder,
are we even in an interracial relationship for friendship? What
the hell is going on?
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