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  Alex Kotlowitz: The Story Behind the Story

While race was very much the underpinning for my first book, There Are No Children Here, I did not write about it openly, in part because I found it difficult to broach the subject with Lafayette and Pharoah and their parents. And so I knew I wanted to write a book about contemporary race relations which, through the power of story, would challenge me -- and readers -- to examine our preconceptions.

Two incidents inspired the writing of The Other Side of the River. Seven years ago on Christmas day I was walking through the projects with Lafeyette and Pharoah, the protagonists of my first book. Each boy walked by my side as we talked. A white female police officer approached us. She looked directly at me. "Is everything okay," she asked. I paused for a moment. What could possibly be wrong? Here I was on Christmas day with two dear friends, neither of whom even reached my shoulder. I had just shared a wonderful meal with their family. We were on our way to deliver a present to a friend. The officer saw something very different. She saw a white man bookended by two black youth. The assumption was that I was in some trouble.

A few weeks later, I was walking in downtown Chicago with Pharoah, the younger of the two boys. A black man approached. He looked directly at Pharoah. "Is everything okay?" he asked. What could possibly be wrong? Here he was with a close friend, me. We had just shared a pizza. We were on our way to purchase a new pair of basketball high-tops. The gentleman saw something very different. He saw a black youth being led down the street by a white man. The assumption was that Pharoah was in some trouble.

Such is the state of race relations today. We view the world through such distinct prisms, having everything to do with our personal and collective experiences. We face competing realities. And so I searched for a compelling yarn that would challenge readers to think about their perspective, about their own assumptions. I found it in the story of Eric McGinnis's death, more specifically in how these two towns, Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, came to the death of this 16-year-old black boy. As would any journalist, I wanted to uncover the truth, but it wasn't to be that simple. When race is involved truth becomes myth, myth becomes truth, and your perspective -- myth or truth, truth or myth -- all depends on which side of the river you live on. In the end all that matters is what you believe. Or so it seems.

In the end, The Other Side of the River is about the making of myth: its power, on the one hand, to help us make sense of the world -- and its power, on the other, to confine and confuse us. Truth, after all, is not always scientifically discernible -- and even when it is, the prism, depending on which side of the river you reside, may create a very different allusion.

As I began my research, I remembered what an African-American colleague had said to me, "Why don't you write about your own people?" It was as much a question as it was a barb.

Fair enough, I thought to myself. And so I decided that I would write equally about both towns, about both sides of the river. I wanted to understand each community on its own terms. I wanted to challenge my own assumptions. I, for one, expected to find real villains. I didn't. Instead, I found for the most part a people who were well-intentioned, who wanted to do the right thing, but as has been said of the South's politicians during Jim Crow, race diminishes us. As I write in the book: It incites us to act in ways we wouldn't act in other arenas: clumsily, cowardly and sometimes just plain cruelly. We so quickly and easily fall back on one side or the other; we circle the wagons, watching out for our own. For there's comfort of course among the familiar.

Over the course of five years, I visited Benton Harbor and St. Joseph, spending time with the people of the two towns -- and pursuing my obsession: trying to solve Eric McGinnis's death. I thought that given these were small communities, they would be easy to penetrate. They weren't. St. Joseph is extraordinarily cloistered and protective. When I first arrived there, Jim Reeves, the lieutenant who I later befriended, checked into my background, including finding out where I was renting a summer cottage. (Everyone always wanted to know which side of the river I was staying on, wanting to gauge my allegiances.) Years later, I visited the St. Joseph High School to meet with an English teacher there. A few hours later, Reeves got a call from the school's principal. "That reporter's back here again," he told Reeves. I couldn't go anywhere in that community without everyone knowing. Moreover, whenever I mentioned the subject of the book -- race relations -- eyes would roll, tongues would wag. Why would I want to write such a negative book? Some, like the prosecutor, refused to talk with me. Others simply refused to talk about relations between the two towns.

Benton Harbor's residents were equally reticent, but for different reasons. They don't trust outsiders. It's understandable given their history and their relations with their neighbors across the river. I was, in the eyes of some, just by the color of my skin an agent of St. Joseph. My Wall Street Journal story, though, won a lot of trust. People thanked me for listening. That's all. Just for listening.

I learned that discussing race is not always easy. I was invited to address a St. Joseph Lions Club luncheon, a group of mostly middle-aged white businessmen. They were a jovial bunch. They addressed each other as Lion Fisher or Lion Stu or Lion Vern. One older gentleman mischievously sprinkled sugar in the hair of a younger Lion. Should I talk about the book I'm working on? What should I say about it? How honest and candid should I be? I chickened out -- and instead spoke mostly about my reporting on the inner-city. The first question, though, was about my current work. What was I writing about? I told them it was a collage of stories from the two towns, but I didn't mention any of the stories, not even Eric's death. I didn't want to alienate them. I didn't want to point an accusing finger. They pressed me, ever so gently. How do you decide who to talk to? Do you just interview people or do other research? I was evasive. I didn't tell them the nature of the stories. It was a lesson. And a reminder. Even the best intentioned can become so clumsy and cowardly when talking about race.

The contrast between the two towns is so stark, so unsettling that I made it a point to line up interviews for each day in one town or the other. I rarely visited both towns on the same day. It became too dizzying to pass over into these vastly different worlds.

I chose everyday people in the hope that the reader, black or white, could identify with the characters -- and in doing so challenge their own preconceptions. I purposefully avoided writing about the extremes, especially the handful of hate-filled, bigoted whites I encountered. It would be too easy, especially for the reader. To read about an ex-cop, for example, who repeatedly refers to blacks as "niggers" would only let white readers off the hook. They could then say, "That's horrible -- but that's not me." I wanted people to identify with the protagonists, not dismiss them.

And while the book's narrative thread is the mystery behind Eric's death, it is in reality a collage of tales from these two towns. Each peels back yet one more layer further revealing the power of myth in our dealings with race.

Finally, I wanted to write a book about race relations without using the word "racist." Not because I didn't think some of the people I met were, in fact, bigoted. Nor because I didn't think that people's stereotypes didn't get in the way. Rather, it's because it's a word that has lost its power. It is used too freely, too loosely. We've lost the language needed to talk openly and freely about race. My hope was that in telling stories we could rediscover that openness and freedom. We could find the language in the fierce power of narrative.

If these three years left me with one thing it's this: a stronger conviction that integration, true integration, is still the prize. Not because it's the right thing to do. It is. Nor because it would help level the playing field. It would. But rather because without blacks and whites living and working amongst each other, without sharing those mundane yet essential parts of everyday life we will never find common ground. Not until then will we be able to acknowledge each other's perspectives and histories. And not until then will we be able to acknowledge and understand each other's prism.
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Copyright © 1998 Alex Kotlowitz.

Photo of Alex Kotlowitz copyright © Frederic Stein.