“Greyboy: Finding Blackness in a White World” isn’t exactly a memoir. As Cole Brown explains it, “What it is is a scrapbook, a collection of stories — some mine, some not.”
In his award winning debut book, Brown explores the complications of what he describes as “growing up black in predominantly white spaces.” He writes, “I was a decision to be made. A riddle to be undone.”
Brown grew up in an affluent predominantly white part of Philadelphia, spent his summers on the Vineyard, and graduated from Georgetown University in 2018.
During a recent interview with Brown, who is now 25, at Featherstone Center for the Arts, he described how what began as an assignment for a class during his junior year of college turned into a book.
“I was in an entrepreneurship class where the professor was kind of disenchanted with the subject he was teaching and he decided for his last semester he was going to make everybody write a book.” The assignment was to write about a business they might want to start. Brown negotiated with his professor, who agreed to let him write about an issue that he says he’s been mulling over since he was a bookish boy. “In a way I’ve been thinking about this my whole life. I’ve kept all of my writing since I was a child. If I go back to an essay I wrote in eighth grade, it’s about being black in white spaces and even further back than that,” explained Brown.
What Brown wrote was powerful and perceptive enough to land him a literary agent at the end of his junior year. However it took four additional years of work before the book was published. When asked why, Brown modestly admitted, “I wasn’t that good. I started as a finance major, I turned into a justice and peace studies major. I was in the humanities but not writing-focused.” He explained that he needed time to “Hone my skills and hone my message.”
That message, while part confessional and deeply personal, is also a sociological study about the intersection of race and class in America. Brown uses the term “token,” which he defines as “a member of a minority group included in an otherwise homogeneous set of people,” to describe his feelings of otherness. He writes that his white friends have described him as “not really black,” and that “We’re taught to fake the funk until it’s hard to remember which funk is our own. And then when we’re good and ready, we infiltrate Harvard’s halls, climbing ladders of prestige that were not erected for our purposes.”
Brown writes of his reaction and call to activism after the murders of Michael Brown, Trayvon Martin, and Sandra Bland, but it was the lesser-known Martese Johnson case that resonated in an intensely personal way. Johnson was a 20-year-old Black University of Virginia student who was arrested while at a bar for apparently being a Black man at this particular college bar. “All the tokens I know are disturbed by the broad canon of Black brutalization, but the Martese fiasco was a different order than the others,” writes Brown. “That was the moment when I was like, ‘I am not safe.’”
“Greyboy” was published in September 2020, a few months after the George Floyd murder and a racially explosive summer collided with a pandemic. Because of the timing, Brown, who sat out most of the pandemic in Australia, was often called by the Australian press to comment on race relations in America. “There weren’t any commentators on Australian television that could speak to the realities of being Black in America. I happened to be in a place and time when my perspective could add context for people trying to understand the protests in real time.”
In writing the book he said, “I learned a lot about myself. There’s some pretty heavy pieces of the book. You need to be able to understand something to be able to adequately write about it and that required a lot of self-work,” adding, “I’ve been astonished in the way in which the stories that I tell in the book seem to have captured the experience in which people who grew up not only far from me in space, but far from me in time.”
For a first book — for any book — “Greyboy” has made an impressive splash. The book received an NAACP Image Award nomination for Outstanding Literary Work and is currently being adapted for TV by Yara Shahidi’s 7th Sun production company and ABC. As for Brown, he is on the Island, and currently at work on a new book; this one is a collaborative project.
Cole Brown will be speaking on a panel about writing your truth at Islanders Write in September. For more information, visit islanderswrite.com.