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
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.
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
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
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
LAMB: When you dated a white woman, though, did you talk a lot about
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.
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
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
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.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.
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.
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...
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.
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
Mr. ROBINSON: No.
LAMB: Was that a tongue-in-cheek comment, or did you really mean
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
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?
Mr. ROBINSON: No.
LAMB: But you've traveled to other places.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah, traveled.
LAMB: How would you rate the race situation in the United States
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?
Mr. ROBINSON: Huh?
LAMB: Where did you find him? I mean, how--what kind of adoption...
Mr. ROBINSON: Oh, through a--through a--through a private adoption
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.
Mr. ROBINSON: Yeah.
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
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
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
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
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
LAMB: How did he...
Mr. ROBINSON: Hmm?
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
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
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
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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