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Nation & World

Joseph C. Phillips: 'He Talk Like a White Boy'

ED GORDON, host:

Joseph C. Phillips began his adult life as an actor, playing the husband of Denise Huxtable on The Cosby Show. He gradually transitioned to another role: that of conservative commentator and columnist. In fact, he can be heard regularly on this program. Now Phillips can add author to that list. We recently talked about his new book, He Talk Like a White Boy: Reflections on Faith, Family, Politics and Authenticity.

I asked Joseph about the title of the book.

Mr. JOSEPH C. PHILLIPS (Actor, Commentator & Columnist; Author, He Talk Like a White Boy): It actually came from something that actually happened to me when I was in the eighth grade. And I answered a question in class and a black girl from across the room raised her hand and she said, he talk like a white boy. And this announcement that she made to the class, or this observation or accusation, was really the beginning of my life. I'd never heard it before, but after that moment, I began to hear it all the time.

And, of course, as I began to write a weekly column and do commentary, the accusation changed from not speaking like a white boy, but thinking like a white boy. So this goes to this notion of authenticity. What is authentic? And who is it that decides? It's really moving past what I consider to be very narrow and constricting definitions of racial authenticity and race, and moving to some higher ground where we can begin talking about the things that we have in common, things that I find, really, to be much more important.

How do we raise our children? Let's talk about marriage, men being in the home honoring their women. Let's talk about how faith, the role that faith plays in our lives. Let's talk about our patriotism, our love of this country. Let's talk about these things, because these things are far more important than this list of what is authentically black or anything else.

GORDON: How much do you believe that those who will view you as inauthentic will miss the message? The same sense that people will say, maybe what Cosby is delivering is the right thing, but he's not the messenger.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, as the saying goes, you can't please all the people. And there will, of course, be people who miss the point. As I - as many wonderful e-mails as I receive, I do get e-mails, quite frequently, with people who - the label, the conservative label has prevented them from really hearing or seeing what it is that I'm actually saying.

GORDON: Why do you believe, Joe, that black America hasn't been able to broaden its scope? I mean, there was a song some years ago by Billy Paul called, Am I Black Enough for You? And that question continues to be raised. You used the word, neat, just a few minutes ago. You know, there are a lot of black folks who will laugh at that and say, that's what I'm talking about. Why do you believe we've been unable to really broaden and accept all shapes and sizes of authentic black America?

Mr. PHILLIPS: I don't know that I know the answer to that question, but I will tell you this: that the authenticity card is dealt from the same deck as the racism card. John Edgar Wideman talks about the game of race. It's a game that you can't win. It's a sucker's game. And the authenticity game is the same thing. It's played with the same purpose: to intimidate and manipulate.

GORDON: When you go out and talk about core values, do you get a feeling from some that you're being “paternal” or do they appreciate that you're at least bringing this to light?

Mr. PHILLIPS: My experience has been that people appreciate it, that they feel that they have not, for whatever reason, felt free or been able to articulate exactly how they feel about a lot of these issues. Amazingly enough, what I hear from a lot of people, they appreciate seeing a black man stand up and talk about the importance of marriage, the importance of being a father in the home.

People appreciate the ability to be in an environment where they can discuss these things, even though I stand in front and I'm very honest about my political party affiliation, and that I worked on the Bush campaign. But once we begin talking, people stand up and they say, you know, I agree with that. And so then we have dialogue. And that is the point. It's not about what the label is, because once we begin talking, we find that the label doesn't really mean that much because a lot of us agree on a lot of things, though we may wear different labels.

GORDON: There are those who will look at the left punditry, and the right, and suggest that this has become a cottage industry for a lot of people, to go around and talk about these moral values, what we need to be doing, come on, pull yourself up by your bootstraps, and then you leave town.

It's kind of the carpetbagger's approach and there are no real solutions to come of all of this. What do you say to people who might question that and do you use this only as a beacon, if you will, to say, okay, take a look at this and now, locally, internally, within your own household, you're going to have to make these decisions and changes.

Mr. PHILIPS: I talk about the things that I experience in my life, the struggles that I have. And I make it quite clear, I haven't the faintest idea what I'm doing when it comes to raising kids or being married. I'm struggling to make sense of it like everyone else. But the thing that I do try to make clear is that the change, whatever change, it has to begin on the personal level. No mentoring program, none of that is going to replace the choice that you make to live responsibly in your life.

Everything else that comes after that is to help you facilitate, and it's important. But, initially, the change has to happen with you. And I say, and quite clearly and I believe this, and I'll say it ‘til the day I die, that I believe it has to begin with men. There is this iconic image that I have of the man standing in front of his homestead with a loaded shotgun, as his family stands behind him. And I'm not suggesting that we literally adopt that position, but figuratively, men have to be out front, protecting their families, protecting their communities. And it happens one man at a time.

GORDON: Well, the book can be a roadmap to that. It's titled, He Talk Like a White Boy: Reflections on Faith, Family, Politics, and Authenticity. The author is Joseph C. Phillips, also a regular here as a commentator on this program. Thanks so much, Joe.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.