In this Episode:
On this episode we are joined by John Blake, award winning journalist at CNN and author of the celebrated book, More Than I Imagined: What A Black Man Discovered About The White Mother He Never Knew.
We invited John to speak with us because – HIS STORY. OMG. And the way he tells it. OMG.
You must know about it and you must read it.We’d love to hear your thoughts. Thread or Insta Lisa @lisasharper or to Freedom Road @freedomroad.us. We’re also on Substack! So be sure to subscribe to freedomroad.substack.com. And, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think!
Mentioned in this Episode:
Martin Luther King Jr. Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?
Lisa Sharon Harper: [00:00:00] Coming to you from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the city of Brotherly love and sisterly affection. I’m Lisa Sharon Harper, president of Freedom Road, a consulting group dedicated to shrinking the narrative gap.
Welcome to the Freedom Road Podcast. Now, each episode we speak with authors and national faith leaders and advocates and activists to have the kinds of conversations that we normally have on the front lines.
It’s just that this time we have microphones in our faces and you are listening in and today we are joined by John Blake, award-winning journalist at CNN, and author of the celebrated book, More Than I imagined: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.
[00:01:00] And let me just tell y’all. Okay, so I like, I like opened this book and immediately am like, gripped and like sucked into John Blake’s world. I am not able to stop turning pages. It is so good. I mean, I literally was not able to stop and it was more than I imagined. Okay, so, so first of all, everybody’s gotta read this book.
Y’all gotta read this book. And I invited John to speak with us today because his story, okay, OMG. And the way that he tells it O to the M to the G, you must know about it and you must read it. So we’d love to hear your thoughts, um, thread or insta me at @LisaSHarper or reach out to Freedom Road on Threads or Insta @Freedomroad.us or catch us on Substack at Freedom Road.
Okay, so child. We are all over the place and hey, you know, keep sharing the podcast with your friends and networks and letting us know what you think. [00:02:00] So John, can we jump in? Let’s jump in.
John Blake: Yes. Thank you.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I am so excited to be in conversation with you today, especially after reading your book recently, because I was explaining before we jumped on here that I got the book a little late, and so I was powering through it, but it wasn’t hard.
I literally could not stop reading.
John Blake: Thank you.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So I, oh, absolutely. I mean, my, my first question is, you know, is more than I imagined your first book because I went back and I looked and I found, I found a book that was about the Beatles via John Blake, but I don’t think, no, you would’ve been like 17 years old.
John Blake: Uh, no. I actually wrote a book back in 2004 called Children of the Movement. Um, but that was a different type of book. It was about the children of. The leading civil rice figures from the sixties, like the children of Malcolm X, Dr. King, Stokley Carmichael, as well as the children of people like George Wallace.
But that was more of a journalist book. I [00:03:00] never wrote a memoir. This is my first memoir.
Lisa Sharon Harper: This is really, I mean, really, really beautiful. You are a beautiful writer. You really are.
John Blake: Thank you.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And memoir is rough, right? Because it requires
John Blake:Oh yes. Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That you, the writer returned to the scene. Correct. And we relive some of the most traumatic and also some of the most beautiful moments of your life.
And you took us there. You really did. And I felt every clinched muscle in your body and Aunt Fannie’s house.
John Blake: Oh yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my God. Wow. Um, I was right there with you. I was right there with you when you woke up halfway through the night around 3:00 AM and saw somebody trifling through your drawers. Some stranger?
Um, you know, um, it was, was this hard for you to write?
John Blake: Yeah. So people told me before I wrote the book that if you write a memoir, you are gonna remember things that you had repressed. And I’m like, no, that’s not gonna happen because I remember everything. [00:04:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh.
John Blake: But it was so true that when I began to write this story that all these memories that I had came flooding back.
So, you know, my story briefly is a story about, I guess you would call it a story about race and faith. Uh, should I summarize it briefly? Yeah, go ahead. That’s fine. Okay. So, um, I was born in the mid sixties in a very notorious neighborhood in West Baltimore. Well, it’s West Baltimore, Maryland. And, um, I was born at a time when interracial marriage was illegal in Maryland and in much of the country.
My father was black. And my mother was a young, white working class Irish woman. And so when I was born, my mom disappeared from my life not long after I was born. And no one told me why she disappeared. I had no memory of her, except, I couldn’t even remember what she looked like. There was no picture of her around the house.
I didn’t know the sound of her voice. The only thing they [00:05:00] told me was that your mom’s name is Shirley. She’s white and her family hates black people. So I grew up in this all black neighborhood. Knowing that there was this entire side of my white family, it was incredibly racist. Didn’t want anything to do with me, but yet I was also growing up in this neighborhood where it was all black inner city and everybody seemed to dislike white people.
So I grew up as what I call a closeted biracial person, trying to hide my identity from other people cuz I didn’t wanna know I was ashamed to have a white mom. So I just kind of grew up and that story’s about how I reconnected with my mom and her family.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. And so let me ask you this. When you, cuz first of all, one of the things that you make really clear in your introduction is the setting West Baltimore.
Mm-hmm. You kind of joke that people always ask you about the wire. Is it really like that?
John Blake: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I gotta tell you, I was absolutely addicted to the Wire last summer. I literally consumed the all five seasons in one [00:06:00] summer.
John Blake: Yeah.
And it’s probably about three weeks because it was amazing to see all the different layers of what’s going on in the city.
Lisa Sharon Harper: But I think it’s important people understand it’s that neighborhood that you grew up in.
John Blake: Yeah. The neighborhood. Uh, it is the least likely place that you would expect to hear a story about white and black people coming together despite racism. Because my neighborhood is a symbol of what goes wrong in America when we, when you can’t deal with racism, it’s very racially segregated.
It’s very poor. It’s very violent. It was not only the setting for the HBO Series, The Wire, but there was a huge, uh, racial upheaval in 2015. Some people call it a protest, some people call it uprising. Some people call it a riot. But a young black man named Black man named Freddie Gray died in police custody.
So the city was shut down for two weeks. And that happened literally where I grew up in the same neighborhood. And also, if you remember, former President Trump [00:07:00] picked on my neighborhood and said, it’s one of the worst places in the world. So this is this neighborhood that is the symbol of how intractable racism seems to be in this country.
And yet, in this very same place, I was able to somehow form a relationship with these white members of my family who wanted nothing to do with me, who thought that white and black people should be kept apart. Who called me a zebra child. I mean all these things. And yet I was able to find a way and reconnect with them and to become family.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So we are gonna totally get to that in a little bit. I really wanna dive into, I wanna, I wanna know more about your father first and a little bit about your context. Can you tell us about Clifton Blake?
John Blake: My father was a very kind of unusual man because he was born during a great depression: a black man who grew up in a very segregated America.
But yet at the same time, he lived with this sort of freedom that few black men of his era did. When I say freedom, [00:08:00] I meant he did kind of what he wanted to do. Um, you could literally get killed as a black man for trying to openly date a white woman in the mid sixties in Baltimore, yet that’s what he did.
Um, so he was very brave and he didn’t seem to live with this kind of fear or hatred of white people. And I think a key to that was his job. He was a merchant marine, meaning he was a sailor. So he spent most of his time sailing across the globe. So in post World War two America, when, you know, he would, he would, uh, he would go to places like South America, Australia, you know, Russia.
He wasn’t treated like a black man for the most part overseas, he was treated as an American man. So he’s afforded certain privileges and freedom. So he was accustomed to living with a certain kind of freedom and respect that a lot of black men didn’t have. And also just being on a ship, being on a ship with white men at sea, it [00:09:00] really didn’t matter what color you were, it mattered: Can I depend on you? If there’s a shipwreck, if we were attacked by German Uboats, for example, you know, he was in a convoys in World War ii. So I tell people that the most integrated space for a black man in the mid 20th century was the deck of a merchant marine ship. And my father lived that in that kind of life.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And it makes sense then why he was so absent from your life because yeah, he really was chasing freedom in a lot of ways it seems.
John Blake: Yes. That’s a very astute observation because there was a freedom he could experience overseas that he couldn’t, when you’re home and you know, in that era there are indignities that you have to endure.
Like for example, when he first tried to date my mom, he tried to catch a cab from his neighborhood to her neighborhood. He could barely get a cab driver to take him there because they thought it was so dangerous. And when he did finally get there and knocked on the door of my mom’s house, her [00:10:00] father answered the door, called him the N-word, physically assaulted him, and had called the police on him and had him arrested.
So that was the kind of experience he had to deal with when he was living in the States. But when you’re abroad, when you’re overseas, you’re an American citizen, you have those dollars in your pocket. And he was, he wasn’t treated the same way. So he preferred being overseas, then being home, dealing with kids, and dealing with the indignities that a lot of black people had to accept on those days.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And you make it clear in your story, um, that he would literally leave Yeah. And then leave you with family members and non-family members. So you and your brother Pat became foster children. Can you tell us a little bit about that and Oh my gosh. I mean that just Clifton, I mean, seriously, as I’m reading, I’m reading your story.
I’m just going this, first of all, it must be a movie. So somebody who’s listening who is a movie maker, you gotta make this a movie. And then [00:11:00] secondly, we don’t, we don’t tell these stories. So hearing this story from you, a celebrated CNN journalist, um, was honestly kind of like head turning. I, I, I felt like my head was exploding.
John Blake: Well, yeah. I spent most of my time in foster homes, uh, during my youth. And these were very cruel places. There were places where. We weren’t really… I had a younger, I have a younger brother who was with me, we’re not even a year apart, and they were just very difficult places because we were just treated, we weren’t even quite treated like human beings.
We were just there, and it was very lonely. So it was very difficult because my father was overseas and he would stay overseas about eight months out of the year. And then my mother, I, I didn’t know where she was. So there was a sense of being very alone all the time and very isolated, not feeling like I had a place in the world.
But there’s a psychologist I quoted in my [00:12:00] book, a guy named Gordon Allport, and he said something that really resonates with me. He said that love received and loved given is the best form of therapy. So even though I was in that foster home all that time, during the weekends, I would stay with an aunt, my mother’s sister, aunt Sylvia.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Mm.
John Blake: And she was that surrogate mom. That gave me that sense of stability and hope and believe that tomorrow will be better. So she, that love she gave to me and to my younger brother, uh, what I say in the book is that she was like this, uh, lighthouse and the sea of chaos. Mm-hmm. She was that person that helped me believe that things would get better.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. So tell us about the day you were abducted.
John Blake: Well, that’s, that’s a, that’s a memory. That’s a, and I still don’t quite know what happened. Um, one of the earliest memories I have is as a young kid, um, just being in my, you know, being in my father’s house [00:13:00] with my father’s family, you know, just the black people on my father’s side.
But then suddenly there’s this white couple who appear and take me to a field to fly a kite. And I’m, I remember feeling, just feeling of joy and happiness when I was with them. And just seeing them. And then it was over. I returned home and they disappeared from my life and I kept that white kite as a kind of a memorial to them.
And I always wonder who that was and what I think, who I think it was. I think it was my mom. I think, and this is something we can get into later, I would, I would discover later that my mom’s, uh, absence from my life was not voluntary. She didn’t choose that. She had to leave. And I feel like that was her way of saying goodbye.
And I can just only imagine the pain of a mom who had just given birth to two sons coming to look at them one last time [00:14:00] as she’s saying goodbye. And I think that’s what that moment was.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So can you tell us a little bit more about your mom? Like what did you discover about her that surprised you?
John Blake: So I, I grew up with my mom the first 17 years of my life, like knowing nothing about her, just her name and her family’s hatred of black people.
And for, by the time I became a teenager, young man, I pretty much resigned myself to not meeting her and not knowing her. And, uh, then finally one day my father calls me to his bedroom. I’m 17 years old. I’m on my way to college, and he just says, uh, do you want meet your mom?
And it was like a bombshell because there was no preparation that he didn’t kind of ease up into the conversation.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
John Blake: Three days later I find myself, along with my younger brother being driven to this menacing red brick building in the countryside of Maryland. And it looks [00:15:00] so, uh, intimidating. This building, it looked like the set for the Shawshank redemption, if you’ve ever seen that movie.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh.
John Blake: So I’m guided in this room, waiting room with my brother, and we’re waiting there and I could hear people. Moaning and pain in the background in these distance hallways. But I could also hear some people like breaking out hysterical laughter. And it’s still not, I’m still not figuring out where am I?
And then a hospital orderly escorts this thin white woman into the room, she’s wearing like these baggy clothes, looked like they’ve been donated by goodwill. And she looks at me and she looks at my brother Patrick and her eyes light up with joy and she says, Oh boy. Oh boy, John, oh boy, Pat, it’s so good to see you.
And she half walks and shuffles to it and she hugs me and I don’t know why to do cuz I had never even used the word mom before, so I didn’t know. I didn’t know what to call her. But that was my mom. Now what was so awkward about that is that it wasn’t just awkward [00:16:00] because that’s the first time I met her.
It was where I met her. I was in the waiting room of a mental institution, right? My mother had been confined to this mental institution for most of my life. So she suffered from this severe form of schizophrenia, and no one told us. We didn’t make that discovery until we were in the waiting room of that place.
And one of the reasons I believe that they didn’t tell us is because they didn’t know how people didn’t talk about mental illness. That, you know, during those times.
Lisa Sharon Harper: They sure enough didn’t. They really didn’t. Yeah.
John Blake: Yeah. But one final thing I would say about that meeting is, but one of the things it did to me is it began to shift my racial attitudes, because I had grown up in this world where everybody hated white people.
And I thought that no white person could kind of understand what it meant to be black, to suffer. But when I saw my mom there, I remember thinking, I’ve never seen a black person suffer like that. So she began to shift my racial attitude.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I’m sorry, real quick. You never saw a black person suffer like that.You never saw a white person suffer.
John Blake: [00:17:00] Like, I never saw a black person suffer like that. The place where she was staying, the used to subject the, the, the mental, the, the patients to unwanted medical, uh, experiments. They would chain them to the bed. You could feel the misery when you were there. And I had never seen this type of, I had never felt empathy for a white person until I saw her.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes, yes. Yeah.
John Blake: And so she began to really shift my attitudes and that was the beginning.
Lisa Sharon Harper: My god. Now, you know, it’s funny cuz we actually, we’ve, we’ve spoken with disabled, um, activists as well, right? Mm-hmm. So activists in the disabled community, and one of the things that, that, um, has become very clear to me, and that was kind of a big aha moment in my conversations with them, is that white supremacy at its root actually does not believe that disabled people are full human beings in the same way that they do not believe that black people are full human beings and women are full human beings.
So in order to be a full human being, you have to be an [00:18:00] able-bodied white man according to Aristotle. Right. So Aristotle was kind of the first person.
John Blake: Yeah. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Kinda put that on paper. Right. Or like to, to begin to talk about that in that way. And so that’s at the heart of white supremacy. So it strikes me that you saw your mom’s suffering from white supremacy. In a weird way. This white woman is suffering from white supremacy.
John Blake: I’ve never heard someone talk about it that way. And that’s very perceptive. And I have to add, I still don’t know if racism wasn’t a factor in her being confined to a mental institution.
What I read is that back in those days we, you know, when interracial marriage was illegal, if my mom was a Catholic, she was a devout Roman Catholic.
If a young white, Catholic woman had biracial children and went off to a white man, went off with a black man, that some of those women were confined to mental institutions and seen as wayward women. And the [00:19:00] place, the mental institution she went to was one that was originally designed for black people.
So I don’t know if her family sent her there as punishment for having two black sons. So even racism reached into there, into this mental institution. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: My gosh. John, do you know the history of those first race laws in Maryland? Because it blew my mind when I learned them.
John Blake: I know the ones around the, the early 20th century, the ones that the housing. But you, you’re talking about like a, a century or two before?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh, no, no, no. So actually, and we have, we have something in common there too. The Daschels, there was a Daschel that actually wrote that law in the city council in Baltimore. And one of my aunts, um, who was freed, she was, uh, she was free and owned property.
Um, in 17, by 1756, she lived next door to the Daschels.
John Blake: Wow.
Lisa Sharon Harper: I know. I was like, there’s a lot of history here, so, but no, I’m talking about 1664.
John Blake: Tell me more about that, if you don’t mind
Lisa Sharon Harper: I, I do [00:20:00] not mind. This is like literally one of the things as I was reading, I was like, there’s so much intersection here with Fortune.
Um, so, so 1662, we all know Virginia passed its first race laws, and the problem they were trying to solve on the ground was white men raping enslaved black women and having mixed race children and what’s gonna be their status. Everybody knows that, right?
John Blake: Mm-hmm.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So, but then you, two years later, Maryland says, oh, well, we kind of like what they’re doing over there to solve their race, their mixed race problem.
But the problem that they perceived on the ground was different. It was not white men raping, enslaved black women. No. That was something happening, but it was not their perceived issue. They were trying to solve the issue they were trying to solve in Maryland. Was white women marrying and having children with enslaved black men.
John Blake: Wow.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Hello? There were 600 mixed race children that were [00:21:00] born just, um, in the, in the colonial era alone, just in Maryland and Delaware alone. 600. All of them traced back to white women.
John Blake: That’s fascinating. Was there also concern that, uh, like poor whites would also find solidarity with black people? Was that part of the reason behind some of the race laws, or was that a another time later?
Lisa Sharon Harper: I, that’s another, that’s a little bit that’s forward. That’s actually as, as far as I understand, that is after the Civil War.
John Blake: Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Um, but this is what they were thinking. Women, women will find solidarity because women, their, this is their family. So guess what they did in this first race law. You will understand your family better. Your mom better, once you understand this, you know what they said?
They said, we hereby create a law that says if any white woman marries an enslaved black man and has their children, she too will be enslaved [00:22:00] by his master until his, until her husband’s death and her children will be enslaved in perpetuity.
That was the very first race law in Maryland. And of course, you know, within about 20 years it had morphed several times because, you know, they’re working it out, how it’s gonna work out. And also because Lord Baltimore brought, um, uh, they called her Irish Nell, um, one of his servants who fell in love with, um, a black man, um, Charles, Charles Butler, and said, can I please marry him? I wanna marry him.
And next thing you know, she’s like, can… So he changed the law for her. So by 1681, no longer would they be enslaved. And then it changed again just in time for my ancestor Fortune Game McGee to be indentured as penalty for her white mother’s affair with her black father. [00:23:00]
John Blake: That’s some fascinating history how they made white women pay for seeing black people as human beings.
isa Sharon Harper: Yes.
John Blake: And that relates so much to my mom because her family disowned her. And it’s, it’s weird, I heard these stories about how she would walk over to the black neighborhood in Baltimore, this young white woman, she was 19 years old, no 20 years old. And black people would be on the steps, like looking at her like, what is she doing here?
Like, why is she there? Yeah. And I remember people in my family said that she had this kind of ease with black people that they couldn’t understand. She wasn’t looking over her shoulder. She wasn’t afraid. But her family hated that. They couldn’t understand why she was like that, and, uh, they made her pay.
Lisa Sharon Harper: These are our stories. You’re listening to the Freedom Road Podcast, where we bring you stories from the front lines of the struggle for justice.
So John, one of the things that is so striking about your story is that usually memoirs are so focused on the individual that they lack curiosity actually about the policies that created the environment [00:25:00] that the individual, the individual lives in. And that is not so with more than I imagined. Right.
And that’s another reason why I really related to it, cuz that’s a lot of what I did in my own memoir, of my family’s story was making those connections. And you do that so, seamlessly. Um, so as we follow your story, we’re also learning a lot about the history and current outworkings of the racialized structures and systems at play in our nation.
And that’s a rare gift because it grounds our conversation about race in our stories, and it grounds our stories in the larger story of race in our world. So you did this, you, you know, you connected the dots and I wondered, I mean, what was it like for you to revisit the scenes of your childhood and then add the layer of understanding with all the racial politics that was happening in the era?
I mean, we don’t grow up understanding the larger forces that are creating our lives that are [00:26:00] helping to shape our lives. But in order to do this work, you had to go back and do that. What was that like to see those layers?
John Blake: Well, thank you for that compliment. You’re one of the few people who really noticed that.
That’s really important to me, and that’s my background as a journalist. Because we’re never just people acting in isolation, we’re always acting within a historical context. So, for example, I wanted Baltimore, my neighborhood, to be almost like a secondary character in the book. I hear so many people talk about how awful it is in West Baltimore, but I rarely see stories that really go into why it’s like that.
You know, the policy decisions that were made years ago that created that world. So that’s what I was trying to do as a journalist, to always give that kind of context. And to answer your question, it was illuminating because I learned things about my neighborhood. I learned things about, say, an issue like integration that I never knew before.
I’ll give you an example. I talk in a book about how shocking it was [00:27:00] for me to go to Howard University. So Howard University, for those who don’t know, was like an elite black university. Kamala Harris, for example, was one of my classmates when I went there.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my goodness.
John Blake: Yeah. So when I went there, coming from this, you know, this really impoverished neighborhood in West Baltimore, and to go there when I’m surrounded by all these elite black people who come from places where they have pools and maids, that was a big shock for me.
And one of the things I learned when I would look at their yearbooks of my classmates is that they all went to these really beautiful high schools that looked like college campuses. And most all those schools were integrated. They had all these white classmates, they grew up with white people. They were not intimidated or afraid of white people.
They came from more integrated settings. And
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
John Blake: These students invariably were just so much more smarter. They were more poised. They, they had this leg up on me. And so to get context to that, I did some research and I discovered [00:28:00] that when I went to Howard in the, the mid 1980s, that was the end. Of this golden era of integration from around from 1988 to probably like early seventies.
What I mean by that is that was that period in our country’s history where we were earnestly trying to create integrated schools. And we know about Boston and some of the resistance.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yeah, that’s right.
John Blake: But during that time, there were all these other success stories that never got the the, the publicity or the press.
And the test scores between black and white students converged in the way that they have never had or never since. They really converged. And white test scores didn’t go down. Black test scores almost became in parity, and so much of that was because of integration. And when I say integration, it wasn’t just about black students sitting next to white students in classrooms, like magically they would be better people.
It was the access to the resources of these white students.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right! [00:29:00]
John Blake: That was the thing that was key. And that really helped. So I put that there to explain. You know, just I, that’s when I realized how racially segregated Baltimore was, how awful those schools were I went to. So much of it was because they weren’t integrated.
They didn’t have the same resources that my classmates at Howard. And so it was a thrill to share that throughout the story, because I think it gives depth to a story.
Lisa Sharon Harper: It really does. And it gives texture, right? Like we, we begin to understand, honestly, we understand you better because of your context. And like you had to overcome things that we never would’ve, I never would’ve known, I never would’ve known, um, had I not understood the policies that have shaped, um, your experience. You know?
And that, that thing about integration, I mean, obviously there are arguments against it because in many cases when there was integration, white teachers did not actually
John Blake: Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Teach black students. And so, but I think what, what I love about what you’re emphasizing is the [00:30:00] access. Mm-hmm. It’s access to resources.
My mom went to a school here, like literally one block from where I live in South Philly. And it was not integrated. It was a black school and in the fifties and sixties, early sixties. And, um, and it was a black school, even though there was a white school two blocks away, like literally two blocks away.
There was a white school, but she couldn’t go to that, which had all the resources. And her black school got hand-me-down books from the white school that had already been used for two and three generations. So I, I, I really do resonate with you there. Can I ask you, this is another question actually. Um, it has to do with Aunt Fannie, her gulag, as you call it.
John Blake: She, yeah. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Cause she had a gulag and you were stuck in it and it was not funny at all. Um, but you tell us about, tell us about your discovery that you had agency. Agency you mean [00:31:00] that you walked out?
John Blake: That was actually Lisa. That was one of those memories that I had repressed because I was so terrified.
I was so, uh, I was so afraid when I did it that I had forgotten about it until both of my brothers, my younger brother, and then I have a older brother who’s a half brother, reminded me that I did that. So, um, for, I’m, I’m in this foster home and I’m, I’m suffering with my younger brother, and when I get around about 12 years old, I just realize that, um, I just can’t go on like this.
I mean, and so I have to do something about it. And so what I did is I gathered my younger brother and I said, we’re leaving, and I just ran away.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And wait.I just love how you literally told him we’re going home. And what did we do? He did not even bad enough, he just went to his drawer and started just packing his stuff.
John Blake: Well, cause I was his older brother. He did what I told him I was his protector. Yes. And so he, and he, we, it’s funny how [00:32:00] we both went through the same experience, but it, it meant different things. Like I was much angrier than he was. I had so many more questions, but he told me he didn’t really ask a lot of questions because as long as he saw me near him, he felt safe.
But being the oldest person, I felt like I had all these questions. I had to do something. And so it was just a way to survive that environment. I ran away because I knew that my older, I had a older brother that had moved into this house and that if I showed up in his door that perhaps he would take me in.
But it’s just one of those survival things you do as a kid when you’re trying to get through a tough situation. Like for example, the way I gravitated toward books. Books. I read books to help him just psychologically equip me to deal with what I was dealing with. So it’s, these are things that I think people do to survive.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Amazing. I think the thing is that, that’s so amazing about that is that you, you [00:33:00] were what, 10? You were 12. You were 12 years old.
John Blake: Yeah, about 12 or 11. Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And up to that point, you thought you were trapped. You thought there was no way out.
And then literally one day you just said, we’re done, we’re done here. And you got up and you walked out and you stayed out. I mean, that’s amazing. And I wonder what did that teach you about how you understood your agency before that moment and how you understood your capacity to make decisions that impact your world after that moment?
John Blake: Well, no one’s ever asked me that. Um, actually, what I think it taught me is that there would always be people who would be there to help me.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Mm.
John Blake: Um, cuz my brother was there waiting for me and he didn’t know. It’s funny, the book is out now, so people in my family are reading it and my older brother read it and he felt bad.
He said, I didn’t know you were having such a tough time in that foster home. [00:34:00]
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
John Blake: I, I didn’t, my, my older brother told me, I didn’t know you were suffering like that. And I said, you wouldn’t know because we were kids and we were afraid to say anything. But what I tried to tell him is that you, you rescued me, you helped me.
There were always people, no matter how bad the situation was that were there to help me. I talk about a guy named Mr. Bill early in there. Uh,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes.
John Blake: He was the guy who, guy who stayed in Aunt Fanny. And just to kind of kindness he would show me, would help me get through the day. So for me, My story. I don’t, I’m not, I’m not trying to be like falsely humble.
I don’t see myself as a particularly like strong person, but I, I, I see myself as somebody who was really helped by a lot of beautiful people, white and black.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So, can you [00:35:00] tell us, white and black, can you tell us about growing up mixed in West Baltimore?
John Blake: So, when I grew up in the, um, the sixties, seventies, and up to the early eighties, it was a different experience.
Uh, being biracial, uh, biracial people were considered like objects of pity. Like their children are gonna be mixed up, mixed nuts. They’re not gonna be accepted by any group. There was no Obama, Jordan Peel, Kamala Harris, you know, to feel proud of. So it was a, it was a bad thing. So in my, in my world, you wouldn’t, you didn’t want anybody to know that your mom was white.
You could literally get your butt kicked. And my younger brother, for example, who was very light skinned, would get attacked, uh, and, and come home bleeding because people suspected that his mom was white. So it was a weird thing where you could, I experienced racism from my mother’s side. The white side of the family didn’t want anything to do with black people.
But at the same time, I experienced a level of intolerance from black people who really hated [00:36:00] white people so much that anybody even reminded of being white would be attacked. So you, at a very young age, I began to see the absurdity of racism.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. You know, when I was reading that and also kind of the comp, what you’re doing is you’re complexifying our understanding of race in America through the lens of the mixed race child.
And it’s, it’s striking to me that as, as a mixed race child, as a black and white child, you literally, like your body, falls in the lineage of the very reason that race was constructed on the soil. Like while you did not have that, um, and I understand this, that that’s like, let me, lemme put it this way.
When I was a little girl, I always asked my grandmother, what are we, because we always looked a little bit mixed with stuff. [00:37:00] Mm-hmm. I didn’t know what it was. My grandmother always just said, we’re black. Like she’s, we are black and that’s it, that’s all we are. Right? Mm-hmm. Um, but the reality is she came from South Carolina and her people came, were enslaved in South Carolina and came up from Virginia, came were brought down from Virginia.
And in that Virginia space, it was very, very mixed. It was, it was white, black, Cherokee, everybody, right? All up in there. And so, but we were black because in order to survive,
John Blake: Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, she had to be black. Right? Right. And she was, and they were, they very much, they were just literally a part of the community.
There was no, we’re not part of the community with her.
John Blake: Right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And also my great-grandmother loved her some dark-skinned men, and so
John Blake: Right, right.
Lisa Sharon Harper: You know, um, and so there was, there was that. But I think that the reality for me then growing up and trying to figure out where are we, where do we fall in this racial caste system that we have in America?
And even within the black community, I just really resonated [00:38:00] with the, with the really colorism that you raised, which you didn’t really name as such, but it was there. Um, can you, can you talk to us a little bit about the unique struggle, unique, um, challenge, maybe it’s that, that’s the word. Unique challenge of growing up mixed race inside of the black community.
What does that look like?
John Blake: I think it depends on when you grew up and, and and who you are. So I think it’s so much easier today.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes.
John Blake: That in fact if you’re biracial, it’s almost seen as a cool thing. Mm-hmm. Because there’s so many more examples of biracial people in popular culture and the truth is what most black people are mixed race.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Hello!
John Blake: What is it like what, 75%? I mean, you could look at That’s right. The different, so, you know, you can see, but in the time I grew up in, [00:39:00] um, when, you know, I was born when it was illegal, it was just very tough. It was just like, I felt like I never really had a place that I quite belonged. But, and, but I still identify with black people.
I never had any illusions that white people would accept me cuz my mother’s family, pretty much let me know from the very beginning that they wanted nothing to do with me. This is, this is how I really view being biracial. And cause I’ve thought, thought about it a lot more. To me, the po… one of the powerful things about being right biracial is that to me, that we are living proof that ordinary people can remake this country.
People who don’t seem like they have any power. Let me explain. Yeah. When my, my mother met my father in the mid sixties, polls show that over 90% of Americans oppose interracial marriage. Today, Gallop took a poll about a year ago, 94% [00:40:00] of Americans now approve of interracial marriage. Okay.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
John Blake: And that comes across political racial lines.
Now, I asked myself, how did such a dramatic change take place in a lifetime? Cuz remember, you could get killed as a black man being with a white woman in public. So why, why change? And what I think part of it is, Because of ordinary people like my mom and dad, they said, you know what? We’re not gonna wait for politicians or judges to decide.
This whole notion that people can be classified by race is absurd. I’m gonna love who I’m gonna love. I don’t care what my family says. I don’t care what I have to go through. I’m gonna marry and have children with whom who I want to. When enough people did that, that created a ripple effect, and the politicians and the judges followed, but they, my parents were part of this vanguard of people in the sixties that we probably all know people like that who were one… among the first to have these interracial marriages.
They helped create this world that we live in now. So for me, that’s the power of what[00:41:00] my mother and father did. They didn’t wait for judges. They did it. They created this world we live in now. Nobody thinks really twice about biracial kids or interracial marriages.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Walking Freedom Road from coast to coast and around the globe.This is the Freedom Road podcast.
So John, I was struck that you identify with spirituality
John Blake: Oh yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: that helped you overcome. Yes. How can you explain that?
John Blake: So there’s this, it’s funny you asked that because I’ve been thinking and talking a lot about this recently.Because I’ve been in journalist for like over 25 years and I’ve written about race for much of that time.
So I’ve seen a change in the black community and I’ve seen a sense of hopelessness and despair come among us, and I kind of understand it. But the hopelessness is that you can’t do anything about racism. That this country will never change. And I always feel like part of our strength, [00:42:00] part of our gift is that we had always been able to have a sort of hope no matter what we were going through to me.
To me, you don’t survive the middle passage. Or the barbarity of slavery without having some sign of hope. To me, when you hear those spirituals from black church, it does something to you that’s hope. And so to me, my hope to answer your question comes a lot from the faith that I discovered as a kid.
So that faith was really indispensable for giving that hope, but also when I began to meet the, the, the white members of my family and I had to struggle with these things like, how do I forgive people? How do I accept people who didn’t accept me? I had a model for that because when I was in college, I just happened to join this interracial church, and for the first time I saw white and black and brown people interact, become friends.
So when I saw that, that gave me that [00:43:00] model that gave me those spiritual tools, that gave me that language of grace and forgiveness to really reconnect with them. So that’s the part that spirituality has helped play.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That is so helpful. So now you say in the book that you found this church, and that it showed you the difference between a racially mixed church.
John Blake: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That truly integrated church.
John Blake: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: So what, what’s the difference there?
John Blake: A huge difference, and a lot of people don’t know. In a racially mixed church, you see black, white, and brown people in the pews. Okay? In a racially integrated church, you see black, brown and black, you know, white people in the pews, but they also share power.
In one church, they share pews and the other, they also share power. I was a member of many racially mixed church where if you looked on the white pulpit, it was all white men, no women. Those people,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Hello? Yes. This is what I’m talking about.
John Blake: Yeah. And the worship style, the theology was all Anglocentric or Eurocentric, whatever word you want to use.
And then I joined a [00:44:00] church that was racially integrated. I looked on the pews. I saw a black woman, I saw a brown woman. I saw a mixture of people. Even the picture we had of Christ was brown and he had, we had a picture of Christ disciples. There were women among the men.
Lisa Sharon Harper: What?
John Blake: All that. Yeah. All that came up.
Lisa Sharon Harper: We all need to check it out. What really? Literally, what is this church?
John Blake: Oakhurst Presbyterian in Atlanta.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow.
John Blake: That’s the church I went to that showed me that you can have these kind of places, but those kind of places are difficult. There’s a lot of tension, there’s a lot of negotiation, but it’s, that’s, that’s the real thing.
That to me is a church. We saw in the book of Acts, you know?
Lisa Sharon Harper: Yes!
John Blake: All those different people. People who were considered slaves, people considered women, suddenly they’re leaders in the church. I mean, that’s what made Christianity grow because it was so different. So that’s what I saw and that was really helpful when I had to meet my, you know, the white members of my family and deal with all this anger I had.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Okay. So before we move on, cause we will, we will go there. But before we go there, I really wanna, I [00:45:00] wanna dive a little bit more into this truly integrated church and the question of power. Because one of the, first of all, that’s, you are literally like, we just, we just gotta like, get together and have coffee and talk a little more.
I’m sure we would have a lot more to talk about. A lot of what I did back in the nineties and early two thousands was actually leading in racial, what they called at the time, racial reconciliation, um, in, uh, in a, an evangelical, um, mission agency, right? And so the difference came, the shift for us came when we began to ask the question, whose house is this anyway?
John Blake: Yeah.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That it wasn’t just us wanting a more diverse space, right? Like having more black people, more Latino, more Asian people, more white people, or you know, not more, but keep the white people and get everybody else as well. It was, it was whose house is this? Who has the right to move the furniture, who has the right to, you know, pitch some of the [00:46:00] furniture and bring in new furniture and decide where it goes, whose name is on the deed?
Like, that’s when you are talking about power. And you’re right, it is difficult. It takes negotiation. But what I found, and I wanna hear from you, your experience of this, but what I found is that it’s in that space of negotiation, that space of compromise, that space of listening, having to listen in order to be church together, that that’s literally where the Holy Spirit shows up.
Like, that’s literally how we encounter actual God. Mm-hmm. Was that your experience too?
John Blake: Oh, definitely. I, I, um, my experience at this church I talked to you about, that was racially integrated. It helped… I joke with the pastor who’s white. I said, you restored my help, my hope in white people. And it helped me reconnect with my mother’s family because here was a guy [00:47:00] who was a leader.
He wasn’t actually, he would not describe himself as a leader of the church. He was a co-leader along with many the women in the congregation, other people from different perspectives. But here was a guy who grew up in the Jim Crow South, who believed when he was a young man, that black people were subhuman, who absorbed all the racism of that era.
But yet things happen in his life where he was forced to be in relationship with black people and that changed him. And to see somebody like that on the pulpit, who’s relinquishing power, who’s sharing power, who’s being criticized by black women and saying, you have some racism you gotta deal with, and he doesn’t leave the church, he wrestles with it.
That was a beautiful thing for me to see. And he’s one of my best friends to this day. So yeah, that’s what I experienced. Like you said, that’s when you really feel like this Holy Spirit is moving, and that church was so, so popular.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. Now, I, I since you do, and I want to talk about your white family members [00:48:00] and how this church kind of prepared you for the reconciliation process with them.
Um, your white… you say in the book that your white family members rejected you at birth.
John Blake: Correct.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And so what has, what has this experience in your church and then also the experiences with them taught you about reconciliation and forgiveness?
John Blake: Two things that come to mind immediately. One is that you don’t define a person by their worst act. One.
Two is that, this is gonna sound simple, but I, it’s important that people can change. The people can change for the better. I really believe, given my job, that a lot of people believe that people can’t change anymore. That if you have this one identity, if you’re a racist or you struggle with this, there’s nothing that can change you.
I used to believe it. You know, why even [00:49:00] bother to reach out to somebody who sees the world differently because they’re not gonna change. But what I’ve seen, to answer your question, I’ve seen people can change and that you can’t define them by their worst act. And I’ve seen that specifically with my mother’s sister and my mother’s father.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Wow. Your mother’s father. Yeah. The one who beat up your dad when he came to take you on a date.
John Blake: If you read the, you read the book, you’ll see what I’m talking about. I mean, I can tell you now if you want, but yeah, he and my mother’s sister, uh, particularly my mother’s sister, she was this person who, mid twenties, she asked to meet me and I didn’t wanna meet her.
Like, why would you, I want to meet you. You were the one. It was a stone cold, racist one, and nothing to do with me when I was a kid. Where were you when I needed you? But I met her and for a long time I was angry at her. I wouldn’t really want to deal with her. And then something happened when there was this dramatic incident and it totally changed the way I looked at her and the way I looked at [00:50:00] me and our relationship changed after that.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And you’re just gonna have to read the book to know what that was.
John Blake: I don’t mind sharing it. You know, I don’t mind sharing that story. If you want. It’s up to you. But, uh,
Lisa Sharon Harper: No, no, no, no, no. I want people to read the book. I want them to read the book, and I want them to look for that story. That’s really, that’s really, really good.
Wow. So what, you said there were two things. What were the, what was the second thing?
John Blake: Well, the first one, like, like I said, you don’t define someone by their worst act. And that people too, that people can change.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Ah. Yes.
John Blake: People like you never thought the most hardy racists, the person you never thought would change.
They can change.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can I, can I say I think that what, I’m sorry. I’m excited for this. Um, I think that you, as a journalist in particular are in a space where, what journalism has been doing really, I mean, I would say probably forever. Um, it, it, it tries to, um, [00:51:00] it simplifies narrative.
John Blake: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And so, especially in America, right? We get the good guys and the bad guys.
John Blake: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: And so you begin to see the world as a journalist in terms of who are the good guys in a situation, who are the bad guys. And I think especially in our world right now where you have this, I mean, a very real move toward fascism, um, among many white Americans. I have, I’ve, I’ve sensed and I am for my and myself, um, growing hopelessness
John Blake: Yes.
Lisa Sharon Harper: That these people can change. And, and I, and I think part of it also is, is because of this, um, phenomenon that Dr. King called in his very last book ever. Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? He actually has a whole chapter on something he called Whitelash. Right?
John Blake: Mm-hmm.
Lisa Sharon Harper: He says, in the aftermath of the racial reckoning of his era, the Civil Rights Movement, America suffered a major white [00:52:00] backlash.
So, you know, they had, they had all those gains. They had all those white people march with them from Selma to Montgomery, like they had all those white people, a thousand, a thousand white students get on buses and go down for Freedom Summer down into Mississippi and knock on doors and spend, spend the summer inside the homes of black people.
And then right after the Civil Rights Movement, literally like after the, the Voting Rights Act has passed, the next year, there’s all of this backlash. And they start the, um, the white power structures begin to whittle away at those gains and, and actually detract, like retract some of the gains, um, and, and water them down.
And so, you know, Dr. King in 1967 was writing about, you know, where do we go from here? And I feel in, in 2020, after America experienced another racial reckoning, um, by all measures, um, we are now in the midst of another major whitelash. I mean, we have people telling us, we can’t tell. They would, they [00:53:00] might, they might ban your book, right?
Because you’re talking about race and you’re talking about history, and you can’t have those two things together. Um, and so we, why do you think that we are caught in this never ending cycle that just keeps going? I mean, it doesn’t even begin you, I traced it back to, you know, after the civil, the civil rights movement, but you can go after the Civil War.
Same thing, right? So, so how do we, how do we get out of the cycle?
John Blake: I think part of the way we get out of the cycles is what you do. You talk about the power of narratives and stories, and I think one of the ways we get out, out of it, out of this cycle is, is being careful about the stories we tell. Um, are we telling stories of hope?
We, and when I say hope, I gotta be careful what I’m talking about. When I say hope, I’m not talking about the Hallmark card hope,
Lisa Sharon Harper: Right?
John Blake: I’m talking about something sturdier. Somebody. Somebody used the term [00:54:00] muscular type of hope, hope that acknowledges, as you say, that we are going through an awful time.
This is yet another whitelash. But yet I’m not giving up, I’m not giving up on this country. I’m not giving up on people and their ability to change, particularly if you’re a Christian. You know, we, we follow the person. I mean, one of the, our heroes people we look up to was a man named Saul who became Paul.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Mm.
John Blake: You know, we look at Peter, who was a man who betrayed, uh, you know, said, I don’t even know Jesus, but he became a rock. So how, how our heritage, our spiritual heritage is full of people changing. And so I think that God moves throughout histories and though we we’re going through this time of whitelash, to answer your question, we have to tell better stories of this muscular hope that shows that people can, can change because, and someone asked, miss asked me this on, uh, during an interview, they said, “Why care about this racial reconciliation story when the world is broken as all this systemic racism.” And I said that [00:55:00] if we only tell stories that say or imply that racism is permanent in America and that people can’t change, what incentive do white people have to try to change?
What incentives? We’re not giving them any incentive. You’re like, nothing matters. I almost feel like that there are some white Americans who are attracted to these stories, black people, hopelessness because it gives them an excuse not to try to do anything, not change.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Mm-hmm.
John Blake: So anyway, to answer your question, I do feel like we have to tell these stories of muscular hope, that show people changing.
And that’s part of what I try to do, I hope to do with my story.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Can you tell us, can you tell us the story of forgiveness? For yourself, with your family? Like how did you, how did you navigate that?
John Blake: Well, I, I, I, I’ll answer it with a story. So I talk about my Aunt Mary. This is my mother’s sister, and this is somebody who was like, [00:56:00] I heard stories about her coming up, aunt Mary, aunt Mary, your mother’s sister. She can’t stand blacks.
And I just hated her before I met her. And then when I met her, I thought she wanted to apologize for her racism, and she didn’t. All she wanted to do is show me pictures of my mother’s family. I’m like, I didn’t meet you for that. So that only deepened my anger. And I’m a journalist now, and I’m writing all about how white people deny racism.
I’ve seen it in her. So for a long time, I really wouldn’t talk to her, and she would write me all these letters and I stopped opening them because I didn’t want to hear ’em. I wanted to hear an apology. So one day I go to a Lowe’s home improvement store, and this is the most unexpected place for a racial, racial awakening, and I want to buy some paint from my deck.
I see a black man and a white man behind the counter. The white man is on the phone and the black man is free. I wait for about five or 10 minutes until the white man, the white [00:57:00] employee is free. Then I go up to him and I ask him, what’s the correct paint for my deck that I want to paint? And I take it home and I pour it into a tray and it’s the wrong color and then it hits me.
I just racially profiled that black man. I assumed that the white man was more competent and I’m like looking around on my study and I got all these books about Kendi and Robin DiAngelo. I’ve written all these stories about bias and racism and I’m like, and I’m a black man, but I did this to a black person.
I was like, this is how powerful insidious racism is. But what it did, it also humbled me and I said, you know what? Let me try to go easy in my aunt. Let me start reading some of these letters that she sent me. So I went to my office and I opened up all these letters one by one, and I began to read it from my Aunt Mary and what did I see?
Everything that I wanted from her was already in those letter. She was apologizing for her racism.
Lisa Sharon Harper: Oh my God!
John Blake: Confessing, saying that I just grew up in this all white world. I didn’t know any [00:58:00] better If you don’t want to have anything to do with me, you know, I, I, I understand, but she did more than apologize.
You know, she made me a beneficiary in her will, she, all these things. And I didn’t even see it because I was so angry. I didn’t think she could change. And so that humbled me. So I was like, you know what? It’s easier to forgive people when you start to see that some of that stuff is in you too. And I think that’s part of Christian faith, you know, for we of all sinned and fallen short of glory of God.
So that’s my attempt to try to answer your question. How do you forgive? You start to see that was in other people. It’s kind of in you. That if I grew up in the similar circumstances in the all white world, I didn’t know any black people in the segregated America. I would probably believe a lot of the same stuff she did.
Lisa Sharon Harper: The conversations leaders have on the Road to Justice, this is the Freedom Road Podcast. Thank you for joining us today, and the Freedom Road Podcast is recorded in Philadelphia and wherever our [00:59:00] guests are laying their heads at night. And this episode was engineered and edited and produced by Corey Nathan of Scan Media. Freedom Road Podcast is executive produced by Freedom Road LLC.
We consult, coach, train, and design experiences that bring common understanding, common commitments, and lead to common action. Now you can find out more about our work at our website, freedomroad.us. And stay in the know signing up for updates, which are on substack, somebody say substack. So look for Freedom Road on Substack and you will not be disappointed.
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