It’s only 4.1 miles.
That’s the scant physical distance between the West Baltimore home where John Blake’s Black father lived, and the Wilkens Avenue house where his white Irish Catholic mother grew up. But the actual space between those worlds is yawning, a gulf defined by race. It became the foundation for a central missing piece of Blake’s identity, and the plot of his gorgeously heartbreaking recent memoir.
“I was sure it would be something like 12 or 15 miles, but it’s not. It shows how incredibly racially segregated Baltimore is,” said Blake, an award-winning senior writer for CNN and the author of “More Than I Imagined: What A Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.” The book is about how reconnecting with his maternal family, who rejected him at birth, helped fill a hole in all their lives.
Blake has written about race for more than 25 years but his memoir, released earlier this year by Penguin Random House, examines it through the prism of his own life.
“You might not understand other problems in West Baltimore, like violence or the Freddie Gray protests, without understanding that so much of our city’s history is about white people who did not want to live near Black people, and did not want to send them to school with Black students,” said the author, who has also worked for the Los Angeles Times and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “It’s so much a part of everyday life that it became normal. I didn’t realize how close my white family lived to me. We just didn’t go there and they wouldn’t come to my neighborhood.”
I don’t want to give away too much, but “More Than I Imagined” is a powerful, frank read. It follows Blake’s journey as a child who was half white but had no white people in his life — even his family. He finally meets his mother at 17, and eventually her sister, his Aunt Mary. He’d only known of Mary from stories his Black family had told him that cast her as a racist who’d never cared to get to know Blake or his brother. Some of the revelations are painful, but the book manages to be hopeful about racial reconciliation — mostly because Blake actually witnessed it.
Racial segregation was once the law of the United States, but Baltimore, both mine and Blake’s native city, is a pioneer in that sad legacy. I write this column from the home I own in a neighborhood that I would have been chased out of in my youth. While we have been led to believe that racism is a heart issue, it’s always been an institutional one as well. Blake writes about how tearful reconciliatory hugs would not have allowed his family to buy a home in Roland Park, which had a covenant barring Black and Jewish people. (My late Jewish in-laws, who looked for houses there in the late 1960s, were asked if they would be more comfortable in Mount Washington or Pikesville.)
“I think it’s incredibly important to realize that systemic racism is not that long ago, and that it still exists on so many profound levels. I had to persuade my white relatives to see that. That’s what’s so important about my story,” Blake said.
Things like racist neighborhood rules are why I roll my eyes when some complain that people of color make everything about race. The truth is that so much is about race — where you live, what school you went to, what church you go to, and whether people who don’t look like you live, learn and worship in those places, too. They probably don’t.
“There is no shortage of stories that give people information about racism, whether in the past or present, all these great books. We have all this information online that shows the impact of racism,” Blake said. “Why doesn’t all that information change the thought of white Americans? Why hasn’t there been a critical mass of white Americans saying ‘racism is everywhere and we have to deal with it’? Facts don’t change people. Relationships do.”
And relationships are what changed his family. Blake’s white relatives began to love Blake and his brother because they got to know him, and Blake began to love them, too. “There is so much information out there about race, on the internet and in books, like [the work of Baltimore native] Ta-Nehisi Coates. But this type of story, I wanted to reach people who don’t care about Ta-Nehisi,” Blake said. “I had to write about people like my white relatives, who had all these assumptions, who not only learned but grew.”
The crucial piece was his previously dismissive Aunt Mary, who Blake writes initially refused to admit that her family’s nonacceptance was racial. “She’s a stand-in for all of white America, who can look at the George Floyd video and then just forget, who can’t admit their own racism. I see a lot of stories about white people that show racism, but not too many believable ones that show them capable of change. My Aunt Mary represents that,” he said.
I’ll be honest: There is so much happening in this country now that makes me doubtful that we will ever realize that hope. Blake said that while “More Than I Imagined” has been well-received, some criticism has stemmed from positing that there is anything to be optimistic about. But he still believes there is.
“Writing a story about race that is hopeful, for some people, feels unrealistic. They believe that we should only talk about the problems. What I’m starting to see after 20 years writing about race is that if you only write about the problems, you become part of the problem,” Blake said. “So many Americans believe that we can’t get past racial divisions, and we can’t if we only talk about the failures and not the victories. This is not some racial Kumbaya. We need to see those stories if we’re ever going to have a chance to be a genuine multiracial society.”
The author has hope because he has seen it in his own family and in himself, but he’s right that the book isn’t some pie-in-the-sky fantasy. There’s anger in it, too, because “I find it almost impossible to not be angry and write about race. I have written about the biggest racial upheavals this country has experienced in the last 25 years,” said Blake, who covered the aftermath of Freddie Gray’s death for CNN.
“It’s the same pattern. There’s an outrage in white America and then it passes. The whole George Floyd racial reckoning feels like it happened in the horse and buggy era. That was compounded because I had this white family who wanted nothing to do with me. It wasn’t abstract. It was personal. There is a time when anger is right. I didn’t want that anger to consume me,” he said.
What Blake would rather be led by, he said, is the resolution that carried his mother frequently across impossible-seeming chasms, both the physical 4.1-mile one and the societal one that formed between her and her boys. Years later, somehow, they were all able to traverse it.
“There was so much tragedy she had to deal with,” he said. “I think about our relationship and how it changed. I realize how proud I was to be with her. She had done something really remarkable. I see her in a new way.”