A Conversation with Joseph C. Phillips, author of HE TALK LIKE A WHITE BOY

Question: He Talk Like a White Boy! Where does the title come from?

Answer: I took the title from an experience I had in Junior High School. I was in an accelerated English Class and in the beginning of the year I answered a question. A black girl from across the room raised her hand and said, “He talk like a white boy!” That was one of those signpost moments in life when everything from that moment forward is different. The way I spoke—my diction, lack of regionalism etc. would shadow me in everything I did. As I grew older “talking like a white boy” would influence every aspect of my life, from dating to roles as an actor. Ultimately, the title points to this crazy notion that there is an authentic way to speak and by extension an authentic way to think. Now of course I am not so much accused as speaking like a white boy as I am of thinking like a white boy.

Question: What did you hope to accomplish by writing this book?

Answer: I really hope my book can inspire dialogue and get people talking and thinking about moving beyond labels, beyond race. I would like to get people talking again about how to raise our children, honor our wives and husbands, how we love god, love our country and how we define ourselves as individuals and as Americans.Honestly I didn’t start out to write a book. I love talking to people and sharing ideas and wanted to do more of that…speaking in front of groups and that sort of thing. I have always believed that when you see successful people you ask them what they did to find success, so one day after cutting some commentary for Tavis Smiley I sat down with him and asked what he did to reach his level of success.

The first thing he told me to do was write a book. He laid down the gauntlet. He didn’t believe I could or would do it. To make a long story short I completed my manuscript, a publisher picked it up and once that happened I began the process of writing a real book.

Question: What is the book about?

Answer: The short answer is: the book is a collection of essays that seeks to explore how the Old School values of family, faith and freedom have shaped my identity and how they have shaped black identity and our American identity. The longer answer is that the book is about me. In the book I tell my story. I talk about my marriage, my career, raising kids, my faith, the love I have for my country and the love I have for black people. Some of the book is funny, some of it poignant, some political, but all of it is a good read.over…

Question: What was the most difficult part of the book to write?

Answer: Without a doubt my faith was the most difficult. Faith is I think the shortest chapter in the book. I struggle with my faith and I struggled with writing about it. I am a Christian. I believe in Jesus Christ but like most people I have fears, jealousies, insecurities…I get depressed, angry, disappointed. It is very difficult for me to reconcile that with my belief in the almighty and in scripture, and to make sense of it.Still I would say it is also the most important chapter of the book because faith is the anchor for everything else I do in my life. How I raise my children, how I conduct my marriage, my patriotism and my identity are all anchored by my belief in a God that loves families and loves freedom.

Question: How did the guy from “The Cosby Show” get to be such a conservative?

Answer: I will admit to being a conservative so long as I get to define what that means. If by conservative you mean one who wants to conserve the founding principles of this nation—god given rights to life, liberty and private property, the equality of all men and a limited government that receives its just powers by the consent of the governed then I am a conservative. If you mean a man that believes in the sanctity of marriage, the importance of men raising their sons and honoring their wives; if you mean someone that believes freedom and virtue are inextricably tied then yes I am a conservative. If you mean something you scrape from the bottom of your shoe I respectfully decline. What I am talking about are values. The values I talk about in the book—the conservative values—are values taught me by my parents, both life long democrats and liberals. I do not advocate now anything that I did not learn from them. This suggests to me that values are bridges. Most Americans agree with the founding principles. Most Americans agree with the values of marriage and family, of faith and freedom. We spend a lot of time talking about the things that divide and not about what binds us together.

Question: What links blacks together—race or class?

Answer: If I had to choose one I would say class. But again I think the real answer—the more liberating answer—is values. It is values that bind us together as communities and as a nation. One of the things I love about America is that people become Americans not through ethnicity or religion, but by virtue of adopting a set of values and principles. We may focus on race and class, but it is values that make our families strong, our communities strong and our nation strong. What I find fascinating is that when you put values aside and begin to focus on race you most always quickly move to class. When one says I want to befriend or know black folks (or white) just any black folks won’t do. One wants to know authentic black people and that almost always leads to discrimination based on class.

Question: Is being black skin color or a state of mind?

Answer: Obviously it is a bit of both. Clearly the darker your skin pigmentation the more you are identified as black. However, skin color often has little to do with culture. So, just as the colors of American cultural blackness cover the spectrum from white to blue black so too does the “Black state of mind.” What I am rejecting is a dogma that says black is only this list of things—this list of sounds, of wants, desires and experiences. I am rejecting a notion that there is a limit on what blackness can be and more importantly that there are some who are anointed to decide what those limits should be. Free men are able to define themselves as they wish. You can be whatever you want to be—create yourself and recreate yourself as often as your time, energy, creativity and resources allow. In other words I am a black man. This is how I speak. This is how I think. As the kids say, “This is how I roll!” Therefore, this must be within the spectrum of black thought and speech. It is authentic because I am a free man in a free society at liberty to create myself. It is authentic because it is of my creation.

Question: You write about black authenticity. Why should a white person buy a book by a middle class black guy?

Answer: I think mine is a story that we don’t hear very often because it is not seen as an authentic black experience. We need to disabuse ourselves of that thinking. More significantly, the arc of the book is about the universal values of family, faith and freedom. White people with families will recognize themselves in the struggle with faith, the joys of fatherhood and the enigma of marriage. White folks love their country and believe it or not also struggle with notions of identity. This is not a black book. As I have traveled the country speaking to groups and sharing my story and my ideas, people of all different races have responded not just intellectually, but emotionally. Here I am speaking, sometimes very personally about my life as a black man, a husband and father, conservative etc. and white folks were saying to me: “you were telling my story.” It is through the specific that stories become universal. And I can’t stress it enough that values transcend race.

Question: Aren’t there differences between conservatives and liberals?

Answer: Sure. There are some very fundamental philosophical differences. All of us do not share the same vision of the world. Political differences have been a part of American life from the very beginning. Thomas Jefferson and John Adams didn’t speak to each other for years. But their disagreement was on the role of government not on our basic values. Like everyone else, when I hear folks on television talking about things I disagree with I would like to toss something at the set. What I am suggesting is that we begin from a values framework. That is to say a framework that doesn’t assume, for instance, that conservatives want to see little children die in the streets. It is a notion that says we are all concerned about the poor, the elderly and national security. Absolutely we will have debates about the best way to address these issues. Democracy demands debate and sometimes heated debate. Let’s look first to where we agree and begin to build bridges to those places where we disagree. Otherwise you have a lot of broken television sets and not much progress.

Question: Has being a conservative hurt you in liberal Hollywood?

Answer: To my knowledge I have not lost a job because of anything I have published. In fact I am always surprised when people make a point to tell me that they are reading me or hearing me on the radio. Of course often they make a point to tell me that they don’t agree with me, but what is significant to me is that they go out of their way to let me know that they are following what I am doing. Part of that is simply that show people love to see other show people doing something. It’s one of the things I love about show people. The other thing it tells me is that there is something I am saying that is resonating across party lines. It tells me that family, faith and freedom mean something to people. I anticipate a similar reception to the book.Last summer I was at the national black theatre festival and the number of people who commented that they were reading my column and listening to my commentary on NPR was amazing. I knew that many of them didn’t share my political ideology, but my peers went out of their way to say, “Hey, I read you every week.” Later, at the inaugural fund raising ball for the African American Museum more people pulled me to the side to talk about my column then they did to talk about “The Cosby Show.”

Question: Do you foresee politics in your future?

Answer: I have considered it. In fact at one time I was looking at a race for the California state assembly. Ultimately it proved not to be the right race at the right time. Honestly, I enjoy writing and speaking much more than I enjoy learning the intricacies of state or federal tax policy. That stuff will make your eyes roll into the back of your head. I also appreciate that as a politician you have to compromise and you are constantly raising money. I haven’t ruled out politics, but what I am doing now is a lot of fun.

To schedule an interview, please contact:

Seta Bedrossian, Publicist
Running Press
215-567-5080, ext. 234

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