Harvard Educational Review
  1. All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep

    Hope—and Hard Pills to Swallow—About Fighting for Black Lives

    Andre Henry

    New York: Convergent Books, 2022. 269 pp. $26 (paper).

    In the summer of 2014, police officers approached Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, on suspicion of illegally selling single cigarettes. Minutes later, an officer placed Garner in a prohibited chokehold while arresting him. With multiple officers pinning him down, Garner uttered the phrase “I can’t breathe” multiple times before losing consciousness and eventually dying. The incident, recorded on a bystander’s cell phone and shared widely, sparked global outrage. It was this horrific tragedy that inspired musician, seminary student, and activist Andre Henry to share on social media the daily and destructive effects of racism that he faced as a Black man living in the United States.

    These online conversations about the fight for Black lives revealed unexplored tensions between Henry and his friends. Initially he posted on Facebook to create proof points for his white acquaintances to bear witness that the reasons why their “safe” Black friend had been stopped, frisked, and harassed on multiple occasions by the police were the same reasons why Eric Garner later became a hashtag. Ultimately, sharing his story set Henry on a deeply reflective journey that transcended his social media feed and led to this book. All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep: Hope—and Hard Pills to Swallow—About Fighting for Black Lives documents the difficult lessons and bold steps Henry took in response to a societal pattern of Black death, white resistance (“How do we know racism was a factor?” [30]), and collective uncertainty. “Dear Reader,” he warns, “this won’t be an easy read” (ix).

    All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep is a book about Black political awakening. Henry writes to a Black audience, specifically for “people with too much faith in the white world and too little knowledge of the power we have to liberate ourselves” (10). In his narrative, he shares his story of evolution and (mis)education around America’s myths and promises of equality for all. His awakening coincided with multiple high-profile murders of Black men and women by police during the “Black Lives Matter era” (ix). He recalls attending a church meeting and encountering foreign terms like systemic racism and privilege that named familiar experiences he did not yet have the language to describe. Henry’s interest in exploring racism’s roots led him to become a student of not only America’s racial reckoning but also the global nonviolent struggle for social progress. He ultimately crafted a personal syllabus featuring nonviolent revolutionaries and used his experiences mobilizing others as additional educational opportunities. His transformation happened across multiple years of intensive study, reflection, and action.

    The book’s three parts delineate this journey from awakening to action. “Part I: A Little Apocalypse” opens with a young Henry describing how he gripped his grandmother’s sheets in terror over his worst fear of experiencing the Apocalypse, the televangelists’ haunting description of an end-of-the-world event in the form of the Second Coming. Henry notes that despite his prayers and his grandmother’s assurances, he was destined to live through an apocalypse—one that was “more earthy and political...more about new beginnings than endings...more about transforming the world than escaping into the heavens” (5). The Greek origin of the word apocalypse means “to reveal,” and Henry introduces this theme in part I, inviting readers to embrace hard-to-swallow truths he learned from personal interactions and historical readings while advancing the movement for Black lives: notably, most white people are too entrenched in white superiority and anti-Blackness to meaningfully cheer on or fight for racial progress. Additionally, the work of racial justice cannot be about creating a bridge allowing those invested in white power and antiracists to coexist in unity. Movements aren’t built with immovable people. Henry argues that the antidote to these hard truths is quite clear: we need a revolution.

    In “Part II: The Art of Struggle,” Henry unveils intimate tensions of consciousness raising. His conversion from eager seminary school graduate to skeptical nonspiritual revolutionary provides readers with private examples of the painful dissonance that informed and emboldened his public activist persona. As he learned more about the colonizing history of Christians and witnessed his evangelical colleagues insist on avoiding divisive topics in the church, Henry questioned whether the religion of his youth would support his aspirations for a revolutionary future. His openness about this struggle provides powerful resonance for readers who are forced to navigate uncomfortable truths in their own lives as increased media attention and calls to action expose the depths of white supremacy in our most valued traditions. Educators in particular will recognize the tension of treating the personal as political, as directly addressing racial hierarchies remains a divisive subject in many school districts across the country. Raising uncomfortable questions about social issues—at work, in places of worship, and with friends—is essential to revolution. Henry also names a relevant within-group tension—that some of his most disheartening conversations about the role of racism and the need for liberation were with people of color entreating him to stop making white people upset. Multiple interactions taught him that the pervasiveness of anti-Blackness infects people of color and actively recruits them to be spokespeople for white supremacist ideals.

    The stress of questioning his faith and being questioned by some of his people is compounded by the police killings and acquittals that he is called to actively, physically show up for through organizing protests and holding vigils. Henry describes the toll on his body and psyche of keeping his pain bottled up due to his archetype for a racial justice advocate. He ends part II by noting this impossible standard and comparing the roles of anger and hope. A lesson he imparts to all aspiring activists is to acknowledge that the art of struggle is to balance outrage and grief with a vision for a world buoyed by sustained resistance. The chapter “How to be Hopeful” offers practical tips for developing a “hope regimen,” and Henry details how the lessons from his disappointments taught him to treat hope like a habit rather than a feeling to sustain himself and remain engaged in the revolution (173).

    “Part III: Singing the Future” opens with song lyrics Henry composed while reflecting on his role in the George Floyd protests:

    We are like gods and don’t even know it
    Whatever we do becomes history T
    hey may have the guns but we’ve got the poets
    The future will be whatever we sing (177)

    His last few chapters entreat readers to analyze the root of resistance to confidently move forward in pursuit of racial progress. In particular, he notes how naysayers would often quote Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s themes of civil disobedience and unity as evidence that his insistence on calling out racism was divisive. Henry’s study of global nonviolent movements and Dr. King’s influences revealed that some people doggedly pursue a false peace and misconstrue the word civil to mean polite. In fact, nonviolent struggle is, by definition, confrontation with intent to disturb the peace until justice is achieved. Henry argues that with Dr. King’s most famous speech highlighting “unity in struggle” (188), white America obsesses over the idea of unity yet quickly dismisses the importance of struggle. Henry states plainly that the truth about unity does not lie in convincing white people and Black people to peacefully come to the table together. Unity is about the struggle for freedom.

    The strength of All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep lies in its constant delivery of raw revelations that mirror its bold title. Henry very clearly advocates for Black people to step beyond the white gaze and engage in the creative work of imagining a future beyond racial injustice. For instance, he insists that Black people do not need (nor should they seek) white people for their own liberation from the status quo. Additionally, he finds no purpose in wasting breath on people who refuse to acknowledge the existence of racism. He believes in using the power of anger as a sacred, revolutionary alarm system which signals that everything is not alright. Finally, Henry insists on the role of joy for revolutionary sustenance. He makes it clear that fighting for racial justice is not an exercise in niceties and inclusion and provides an exacting account of the guts of the work of Black-led social transformation.

    There are a couple of areas where I wanted to learn more about Henry’s awareness of how his Blackness and activism intersected with his personal decisions. First, the arc of his spiritual journey from seminary scholar to ex-church member is a major narrative theme, yet Henry provides little analysis of his relationship (or lack thereof) to Black Christianity. I was curious why he gave so much credence to comments from white evangelicals without interrogating how his interpretation of white Jesus contrasted to an alternative (perhaps Black Jesus?) that encouraged Black faith-based practices. Religion is one area where Henry did not ostensibly seek out a Black space for himself, and I wondered why he does not include some reflection around pursuing or not pursuing this option. There seems to be more to this story, and perhaps the incompleteness reflects the ongoing nature of his spiritual journey.

    Also, Henry describes his pre-apocalyptic dating decisions as race-neutral and how, after a series of unfortunate incidents with partners of different backgrounds, he seeks out and finds true love with a Black woman. I wanted him to go beyond describing interpersonal challenges and interrogate systemic factors that could have influenced his dating decisions. The description of leaving all the white friends he can’t keep is not about scratching names off a Rolodex; it’s about recognizing vestiges of white supremacy in personal relationships. As such, I missed having him apply that same type of analysis in his discussion of his dating practices. The chapter would have benefited from fresh insight into the challenges and implications of interracial dating.

    All the White Friends I Couldn’t Keep provides a compelling argument for digesting hard truths and responding courageously to the very real consequences of racism. Aspiring antiracist educators will appreciate Henry’s incisive writing and no-nonsense approach to the necessary work required to unlearn formerly held beliefs. As educators interact with and influence many stakeholders in the pursuit of educational transformation, they should read this book to learn how to create meaningful change amidst national pain. Henry breaks down how daily interactions—with partners, at work, at church, or via posts on social media—provide prime opportunities to pursue racial progress. According to Henry, the path toward liberation is not paved with feel-good moments but instead hewn through unity in struggle. While his pills are bitter, he offers them with a roadmap to actively move toward a future that is fully within the power of the people to create.

    Mekka A. Smith
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