Entertainment

How Two Memoirs Handle the Unspoken Tensions in Interracial Friendships

Recent memoirs 'Big Friendship' and 'Black, White, and The Grey' unpack the ways race and bias affect even the closest friendships.
Bettina Makalintal
Brooklyn, US
January 22, 2021, 6:15pm
collage featuring book covers of black, white, and the grey by mashama bailey and john o morisano and big friendship by ann friedman and aminatou sow in front of a textured orange background
Collage by Cathryn Virginia | Images from Getty, Penguin Random House, Simon and Schuster

After striking out with a cadre of "macho white guy" chefs, restaurateur John O. "Johno" Morisano had a lightbulb moment: "A Black woman," he recalled telling his design team. "An African American woman is who should run this place with me," he said, as they planned the conversion of a former Greyhound station in Savannah, Georgia, into a restaurant.

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At the time, Morisano didn't know which Black woman chef. He knew that she had to check a lot of boxes: cook "kick-ass" food, present a beautiful plate, run a kitchen, want to start a business with him in a new city—and if she knew Italian food, even better. This person had to exist, Morisano explained; after all, he'd seen "a really talented Black woman" on Chopped just the night before. This kind of conversation surely happens all the time behind closed doors in boardrooms and hiring meetings, but it's different to read this blatant tokenization immortalized on a page. 

This anecdote happens early in Black, White, and The Grey. Released earlier this month, the dual memoir is co-written by Morisano and Mashama Bailey, the chef who uprooted her New York life to start The Grey. 

Quickly comes a rebuttal from Bailey: "I can feel my frustration bubble up again whenever I hear conversations like this one," she writes in the next paragraph, marked by a change in typeface. Though Bailey wasn't privy to this conversation, it was ultimately about her: the restaurant's executive chef and partner. After a jump back to Morisano's perspective, she writes, "This conversation strikes me as ridiculous. Three white men talking about finding a Black woman chef as though she's a unicorn of some sort, a mystical creature with talents that could only be dreamed of."

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In 2017, Eater named The Grey its restaurant of the year; in 2019, the same year she was featured on Netflix's Chef's Table, Bailey won the James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast. But instead of rosy-eyed hagiography, Black, White, and The Grey makes clear the conflicts behind building The Grey. As a Black chef and a white, first-time restaurant owner from New York partnered to turn a Jim Crow-era bus depot in the South into one of the country's most acclaimed restaurants, race underlies much of that tension.

Black, White, and The Grey is an "unconventional" book, as Bailey describes in the prologue. After a few stops and starts (she initially had no interest in writing it, leaving Morisano to reflect on their history on his own), the story of their friendship is told in segments that alternate several times within each chapter. The result is a memoir that reads like a real-time conversation between Morisano and Bailey, with tension in the form of visible interjections and rebuttals. Right there on the page is each of them working through their recollections and responding to each other's perspective. 

Conflict is inevitable in even the best friendships and partnerships. Immutable differences like race can make our lives diverge, no matter the moments we experience together. A friendship isn't just the shared narrative people come to together, but also separate experiences of the same moments. Truly taking stock of a friendship means also understanding the fundamentally different experiences that can eat away at its bonds. The recent memoirs Black, White, and The Grey by Bailey and Morisano and Big Friendship by podcast hosts Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman present unconventional visions for unpacking how individual differences shape our shared lives. As Philadelphia Inquirer food editor Jamila Robinson writes in a blurb for Bailey and Morisano's memoir, its approach "fills the silences that readers are typically left to observe or interpret." In both books, we read the quiet things people might not actually say to each other out loud. 

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In their debut book Big Friendship, released in July 2020, "long-distance besties" and co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman take a slightly different approach: choosing to reflect on their decade-long friendship predominantly from a single, shared point of view. As they explain in the book's prologue, Sow and Friedman chose to do so in part to remind readers that they're still friends despite the rifts they mention, and also to identify how their experiences overlapped. 

Still, they write, "there are, of course, some clear differences between us, and places where our stories diverge. So in these places, we refer to ourselves 'Aminatou' and 'Ann' separately." The shifting point of view is effective, if also at times jarring. Each time the perspective shifts from "we" to what Sow or Friedman experiences individually, it makes clear the ways that constant use of the shared point of view would have oversimplified their stories. Instead, we learn each person's interior life: what motivates them and what frustrates them about a given moment.  

The way race influences these diverging experiences is clearest in the chapter "The Trapdoor," an excerpt of which was published in The Cut and is named after writer Wesley Morris's phrase "the trapdoor of racism." The idea refers to the "limited level of comfort that Black people can feel around white people who are part of their lives in a meaningful way," Sow and Friedman write, and the chapter centers on a party Friedman once hosted. Despite their years of friendship, Sow was surprised and saddened to find that she was the only Black person at the party. 

The moments of cohesion in the writing of this chapter highlight spoken values: "We had discussed plenty of times how disgraceful it was for people to plan or participate in all-white panels at professional conferences," for example. It's when the perspective changes that we see the break from one's spoken ideas about race and how those values are lived. From Sow's perspective: "Why was Aminatou the only Black person at this party? She was screaming inside: Where are your Black friends?" Friedman immediately went defensive in response, citing that she hadn't made the guest list in the first place. It was an example of the dividing line that can run through interracial friendships; stay away from it, and everything is fine.

Clearly, from these memoirs, butting up against that boundary and the uncomfortable conversations that follow has been inevitable—and necessary. Instead of neat single narratives, both books break down the rarely-tidy process of really understanding each other. "All friendships require both people to work hard to understand the differences between them," Sow and Friedman write. "But here’s a harsh reality of friendship that crosses big divides in privilege and identity: stretching to account for these differences usually doesn’t go both ways in equal measure." These dual memoirs show the biases held by each person in a friendship, but also the efforts happening on both sides. When it comes to confronting his fears, suspicions, and biases, "I must accept that I am a work of progress," Morisano writes.

These narrative formats also create space to reflect on the good things about friendship, and to respond to each other's past efforts. After Morisano encounters a guest who makes racist comments about Bailey during The Grey's early days, Bailey writes that the moment helped her realize his "true empathy" for her position; at another point, she admires his ability to push through frazzled situations. In Big Friendship, Sow and Friedman individually share the takeaways and aspects of self-improvement they've gained from their friendship. 

Despite their conflicts and fundamental differences, both memoirs are ultimately about the resilience of friendship. Towards the end of the book, Morisano describes his relationship with Bailey as going from strangers to acquaintances to business partners to family members as a result of what they've gone through together. For both pairs, the process of writing their stories in a collaborative, unconventional way strengthened their bonds as they gained insight into each other's experiences and found new perspectives on old events. 

Growth, on both an individual and shared level, can be born out of discomfort. As Bailey writes: "In the face of the global pandemic and one of the largest uprisings in decades on behalf of Black Americans, we present an example of how uncomfortable these conversations are going to need to get." 

Big Friendship and Black, White, and The Grey are available for purchase through Bookshop.org and other online book retailers, at your local bookstore, or as audiobooks at Audible, Apple, and more.