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Family Matters, With Greyboy Author Cole Brown    

Family Matters, With Greyboy Author Cole Brown

Art by Fisk.

It took moving to Sydney, Australia, for Cole Brown to appreciate what a luxury it was to successfully hail a cab at any time he wanted one or to walk into a nice store and have a salesperson ask if they could help him without any undertone. 

The reason those seemingly simple gestures are luxuries isn’t because Brown doesn’t come from means—both of his parents were executives at Fortune 100 companies, and he attended prestigious schools, including Georgetown University. They are luxuries because Brown is Black and grew up in America. 

In Brown’s debut book Greyboy, he details his circuitous search for identity in a world where his family’s wealth can leave him in a purgatory-like space where he’s not Black enough for his Black peers and not white enough for his white ones. As he navigates his way through a myriad of different spaces—some privileged, some socioeconomically depressed; some Black, some white—and tries to synthesize them, Brown is, like all people, shaped by his family and their experiences and the lessons they want to impart.

We spoke with Brown about his broad view of family, what he’s learned from his mom and dad, and the reasons why Black kids are parented differently.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

In the process of writing this book, what new realizations did you come to about how your family impacted the way that you view the world?

There is a chapter authored by my mother in the book. My mother has lived a pretty remarkable life that’s atypical for most immigrant stories and most stories period. Many of the details of that story I was still not clear on [prior to the book]. I knew some bits and pieces, but I couldn't place it on a timeline. I think that added a lot to the book, but it also added a lot in terms of what I knew of her history. When I think about my father's side, I reflect a lot on my grandfather. I'm not sure how much new knowledge came in. But there was a lot of nostalgia for my grandfather, who I loved dearly. I tried to reflect quite a bit on the impact he had on my life and how I view my own manhood. 

In the book, you talk about your parents splitting up. How did that situation impact you? Do you think that your race and background influenced that impact?

When my parents split up, I was 14. It was just before I started my freshman year of high school. My father moved out and my sister, my mother, and me grew much closer. I felt as though I had to step up, and I grew up pretty quickly as a result of attempting to fill these shoes that had been left behind. There was some awkwardness in my attempts to do that, but I did feel an added responsibility pretty immediately. Also [there was] mourning, frankly, of a man that I had idolized for a long time who became less present. Do I feel like my race impacted it? I think there is a history of fatherlessness for young Black men. I certainly knew many young Black men and was very close to many young Black men who were fatherless. My story was different. I, of course, knew my father and had grown up with him, but it felt similar at times as well.

Did you have any expectations of the letter your mother was going to write for the book? How did you react to reading it for the first time?

It was kind of like a Jimmy Neutron brain blast moment. You are spending a childhood hearing about these uncles and aunts that you have in Germany, and she was born in New Mexico. Just trying to place all of this on the same plane is difficult. So to finally make this connection was incredibly useful for me. 

Growing up in white and Black spaces, being in spaces of both low and extremely high socioeconomic status, and being Ethiopian in the U.S., I had to learn how to navigate all those different spaces as one whole person. The intentionality behind that journey on my mother’s part became much clearer after reading her chapter. She had to do exactly the same thing in an environment that was orders of magnitude more difficult. She was swinging from Richmond, California, in a time when it was socioeconomically depressed, to Germany at an internationally highly-regarded all-girls school. She has very much reached the place where I feel I have.

How did having essentially two sets of maternal grandparents impact the way that you think about who is family and who is not family? 

I had maybe four different people that could reasonably be called "Grandma." But I never had any real point of reference to know that was strange, and by the time that I was old enough to know, it did not matter because these are four women that clearly meant a lot. Particularly my mother's biological mother, who I have been able to grow up with and is still living. She returned to Ethiopia and started this nonprofit, an orphanage, and has adopted nine children legally in addition to the five she already had, and the more than 50 that she raised in her house in Indiana. They all call her mom. You will be hard pressed to find someone that has more cousins than I do. There is only uncle and aunt and cousin. Those are the only designations we make in our family. And they are loose titles. We throw them around. But we share our love equally between them. I don't know the distinction between a "real cousin" and a "fake cousin." I do think that my understanding of family is probably a bit broader than many. 

How have you learned to understand the African side of your family with the African-American side of your family? What is it like to embody these different lineages?

I regard it as a privilege. My household was not deeply Ethiopian culturally growing up in my nuclear family. But I did go to Ethiopia quite often, and my mother's entire lineage above and adjacent to her is very Ethiopian. There is such a rich history in Ethiopia. Not just in terms of national history, but in the course of human history, Ethiopia has contributed a lot. I have been privileged to be so closely tied to that. When I was young, there were times when I was teased around the schoolhouse [about my Ethiopian background]. That was seen as exotic and therefore apart from a Black American identity. Fortunately, I am capable of holding both of those things inside me and being very proud of both. I spent a lot of time in West Virginia and Indiana and there are deep Black American roots there that I am equally proud of. 

You mention that as Black kids you were parented differently. As you came to understand that difference, did you assign a value to it? 

So much of how we are parented is a reaction to the world’s circumstances rather than shaping the circumstances of the world. I think the way that they choose to parent us is a reaction to a world that thinks less of us. So much of what I outline in the parenting chapter are actions that were clearly born of anxiety and fear of a world that can lay claim to our bodies. It does sadden me that that reaction is necessary. And the reaction to fear and anxiety is often to inspire fear and anxiety.

Your dad made you do book reports about important Black texts. At the time, were you able to recognize the value of doing so? How do you look back on that experience now?

I definitely didn't at the time. I was a third-grader that wanted to be climbing trees and riding my bike. But, if I track my understanding of Black history—I remember dressing up as a Black Panther for Halloween as a second-grader, dressing up as Bob Marley as a fourth-grader—I know that the knowledge that he tried to convey then, even if I did not understand its specificity, I did understand its broader power and value. Later in life, when I did have the tools to understand it in its specificity, I knew that was an undertaking that was worthwhile. So in that way, he accomplished the goal. I hated it then, but he showed me enough that I knew to return to it when I was able.

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