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What ‘Greyboy’ Can Teach Us About the Complexity of the Black Experience

Cole Brown's 'Greyboy'

Cole Brown’s recent book, “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World,” does not mince words about how messy the Black experience can be.

The title was inspired by an Amiri Baraka poem that says: “The ghost you see in the mirror, is it really you, can you swear you are not an imitation grayboy.”

Over the past few years, we’ve seen more nuanced Black experiences from hit shows like “Atlanta,” “Insecure,” and “I May Destroy You” (to name a few). The characters these shows present are beloved, quirky and at times, painfully complicated. They challenge the idea that Blackness has to look and feel a certain way.

Cole, along with his contemporaries, are telling stories that offer a fuller look at the Black experience. The author’s essay collection grapples with being an African-American and Ethiopian man navigating privilege. Like many people in his position, he knows what it’s like to not be Black enough for the Black table and white enough for the white table. Rather than deny these realities, he sheds light on it. “Greyboy” is a book that has no easy answers but offers important starting points for conversation.

After the release of his book, Cole took some time to reflect further on the complexity of Black identity in a candid interview with Culturs.

Photo Courtesy of Cole Brown

Why is ‘Greyboy’ important to the Black experience?

I felt that this was a story that I needed when I was young. I didn’t see my story in a lot of the media I consumed, and I felt that my particular story was  a legitimate part of the Black experience. It was just underexplored. It was cathartic to do so, and I thought it was important to stand for the high school me that needed this.

What are some adjectives to describe your experience navigating so many communities?

Privilege. I don’t distance myself from this. I’ve had a blessed life up till this point largely through no doing of my own. I’d say in-between. Grey. Negotiating multiple cultures, the culture in West Virginia (where my father’s from) is different from Ethiopia, which is different from the privileged enclave of Philadelphia.

Has it gotten easier navigating these different spaces? Why or why not?

It has. There’s an element of maturity here. You grow into yourself. You become more confident in who you are and in the value you bring to a variety of environments. And the spaces themselves have matured. The racism, bias and ignorance I saw when I was thirteen manifests very differently in the rooms that I enter now. Hopefully it’s not only you growing out of an environment, but it’s the environment also growing with you.  

Did you have conversations with the people in the book you wrote about?

There were several difficult conversations I had. Like the chapters with my mother … she learned a lot about her son reading those chapters. I had several conversations with my white peers. It’s been interesting seeing how these are people I lived alongside for my entire life and we were experiencing these situations differently. It’s almost an ignorance of folly, not a malicious one, they just had no idea.

There’s a lot being done around unlearning bias within communities: Between Black and white, BIPOC and white, but also between Black and Black. Where do you see yourself in this conversation?

We’re seeing creators like Issa Rae, Michaela Coel, and Donald Glover present characters who are totally outside the stereotype of what people think is associated with the Black experience. I would like to sit somewhere in that mold and have my own slate of alternative Black narratives to share. I’m one of many. It’s a diversity of Black narratives, and now that I’ve shared this one I’d like to continue sharing others as well. I don’t think we’ve seen the fullness of media shifting towards a more authentic view of Blackness yet. We’ll have to wait and see how impactful this is. But I think that this helps lead to greater empathy. It helps shape how we view our neighbor and that’s always important.  

What are the complexities you face with your Ethiopian heritage?

I cling to my Ethiopian heritage at times more strongly than it clings to me. I have a different kind of immigrant tale. All of my mother’s siblings were raised in Ethiopia, and my mother was adopted and raised in Germany, so we are substantially more Westernized than the rest of her family. My mother at sixty-five is a rarity. She’s both Americanized and she is fully Ethiopian. There are awkward moments when I try to claim my Ethiopian heritage in a place like [Washington,] DC, and I’m told that I’m not because I was not an immigrant, but I claim it nonetheless.

What is the most enduring lesson you’ve learned about being Black in America?

My parents made a point by forcing me to read certain books at a young age and spend time with my grandparents. What they were trying to do was teach me the history of Black people on this land, and as a result, I’d like to think I have a more appreciation of that history than America writ large does. I think that so many ills we see in this country can only be understood through a historic lens. So I think that this is often lost on America that believes itself to be exceptional. I think that being Black is defined by not having a luxury to forget our history.

In your writing process, was it difficult to tell the truth of your experience?

I was singular in my goal, almost delusional. You almost have to be in order to get there. All other concerns were put aside. What my mom would think, or whether this meant I wouldn’t get a job, or not be able to run for office, all these things you have to push out. Hopefully I achieved that. There are moments I look at what I wrote and say, “I know that’s the truth.” I basically treated it like a diary.  I remember the moment when I was leaving from a gym in Australia and almost had a panic attack at the thought that people will read this book. And this happened a week before this thing was going on bookshelves.

What would you say to high-school-aged Cole about navigating tough situations?

I would say that high school is temporary. Particularly at that age it’s easy to lose sight that this doesn’t last forever. Your environment changes. The other thing is to know that your story is legitimate. I talk to kids often about this. It was difficult to get this book published because it was believed that my experience did not reflect the Black experience. I want kids to know that there’s a place for them in this world and a narrative. 

Cole Brown is a political commentator, writer, and author of the book, “Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World.” Today, Cole splits his time between Sydney, Australia, and New York.

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