Ben Philippe pitched “Sure, I’ll Be Your Black Friend” to publishers as a modern instruction manual on race, with subjects like “Things You Should Probably Not Say to Your Black Friend” and “Can I Touch Your Hair?” The format has been quite successful, especially in the last year, but Philippe offered a distinctive approach and a soft, funny touch, including such white-people touchstones as “Gilmore Girls” and “Game of Thrones.”
That was the idea anyway. “Maybe I bamboozled the editors, but it was never a conscious thing,” Philippe says over a recent video chat. As it happened, his book morphed into something more serious and ambitious.
“When I sold the book it was very much that Q&A format, but when it comes to something as complicated and knotted as race and identity, that doesn’t really work for me,” he says. “It ends up feeling too confident — it’s built on the idea that you have all the answers, and I do not. In the answer to why you shouldn’t say the N-word, I shared times where it has come up and made me really upset. … And then it pretty quickly become a memoir.”
The book changed again due to an external shock — the murder of George Floyd. “At the two-thirds mark there is a shift in the tone because that’s what I was writing last summer,” Philippe says. “It was supposed to be fun essays about being a Black friend and I didn’t want to write about what was happening, but it was the only thing I could think about. Then everything was just super angry.” There is the part, for instance, where “I imagine killing all my white friends.”
Philippe, who at 32 might be called a gregarious introvert, takes a pause. “As you can tell I’m very, very rant-y,” he says with a grin. In the past, he has worked hard at making others feel comfortable. “I figured out in white spaces I would be the funny, lighthearted Black guy you can joke about anything with,” he says. “That was my default social speed.”
But in the book, he rethinks his code-switching. In the book, he isn’t trying to meet your expectations.
“I wanted to complicate that idea,” he says. “I want to put readers in the shoes of a very specific Black friend. The cover of the book has this shapeless outline of a Black friend, but I hope by the end you have that shape filled in. It’s me, born in Haiti, raised in Canada. I’m in academia and the arts and I’m still trying to figure everything out, and I can be very moody and very angry at times.”
While Philippe has two successful young-adult books to his credit, those tales always have a “clear and clean story” with a beginning, middle and end. For his adult debut, he wanted realism: “Stuff happens and then life continues.”
He also wanted to write in his own voice, rather than those of fictional teens. “In my first YA book I wrote a snarky, mouthy teenager with asocial bad attitudes,” he says, “and the second one was riddled with anxiety and insecurity. And people said, ‘Yep, that’s Ben.’ So I wanted to write something as Ben and compare it to the other two.”
In an interview, at least, Philippe is more funny and charming than snarky or insecure. He laughed heartily when I pointed out that I didn’t get all his references (there are 11 to “Gossip Girl” in one chapter) because his tastes are actually whiter than mine. For a double immigrant — who moved from Quebec to attend Columbia University — those references aren’t put on.
“I learned English watching those shows. I compared my ACT score to Rory Gilmore’s,” he says, adding that in a warped way he feels fortunate to have learned “the fiction of America before I learned the reality” — the one filled with cruelty and racism.
For the book’s darkest sections — when his father would “beat the crap out of me with a belt”; when he code-switched in reverse to avoid a mugging at knifepoint; when so much of America finally reckoned at least somewhat with institutional racism — Philippe fought his own impulses. “I was aware that if I put a joke in there it would be to make the reader comfortable and keep them smiling,” he recalls. “But this is not smiling content and that shouldn’t be my burden, so I had to hold back.”
Writing about the violence of his father, who later abandoned Philippe and his mother, was “shockingly painful. The emotions are there, but deeply buried, and when it’s me at 2 a.m. and my computer screen, they come to the surface,” he says.
Adding to the complexity was his eagerness to avoid the archetype of a deadbeat Black father. “My dad is different from that, so I wanted to conjure other aspects that I admire,” he says, adding that his father was “incredibly smart” and bestowed upon him a respect for learning. “And there’s an alternate version of my life that probably ended in the Haitian earthquake if he stayed back.”
Agonizing over the details, Philippe missed his book deadline. “I could tell my editors were getting sick of me,” he says. In one passage, he had compared a tie he was wearing to a rope. “I spent a whole night thinking about that word. ‘I’m not Emmett Till, how dare I use that word.’” In the morning I wrote a three-paragraph email to my editor asking to change that word.”
One reason the memoir’s later chapters sound more blunt is that there was simply less time for the nuances that come with hindsight. Philippe has no regrets about it.
“I don’t think you ever run out of anger,” he says, pointing to all that has happened since the book went to press. “Not when you see the storming of the Capitol or a senior police officer in Minnesota saying she did not know the difference between a gun and a Taser, or the Atlanta spa shooting.”
It adds up to a very dark strain of humor: “The world is garbage, but we can have fun along the way.” But dig a little deeper and you find the genuine optimism of someone who has consistently carved a new path where you would not expect one to exist — who arrived in America in the fall of 2009 and who wrote this book because he still believes in hope and change.
“I genuinely believe good wins out in the end, because good is more sustainable,” he says. “It’s just that on the way to becoming a better society there’s so much that makes me sad.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.