The Prologue shows Brian receiving the letter which declares that he is “not a genuine black man.” He quotes extensively from the extremely successful and hilarious standup comedy routine he wrote about this letter and his various attempts to find an answer to the question, “what is a genuine black man?” Even though his comedy routine was very well received everywhere he performed, Brian soon realizes that the comedy is not enough. He must look back into his childhood for the answer, beginning with his mother and their move to San Leandro.
Part One – Chapters 1-13
Chapter 1 - Young Brian moves to San Leandro
Chapter 1 – “Double Negatives” Page 3
The opening chapter shows us the day that changed Brian’s life. Beginning with a game of Rummy or “five hundred” as his family called it, Brian’s grandma & his mother argue over where she was born – the classier, whiter, Providence, Rhode Island, or the less classy, blacker, Birmingham. His sister is corrected in her use of a double negative, and Sylvester, Brian’s mostly absent father, turns up unexpectedly. As usual, Sylvester is argumentative and abusive, getting mad at Brian for “cutting his eyes” at him. Brian shows us that he is not very good at sports unlike the stereotype that “most black people are great athletes.” Later when he tries to sneak past the room where Sylvester is staying, Sylvester gets very angry and tries to strangle Brian. The chapter culminates with his mom rescuing him from Sylvester, and vowing to move her family to a “nicer place” in San Leandro that she has found.
Chapter 2 – San Leandro - Background Information
Chapter 2 – “The Friendly City” Page 11
Beginning with a quote from Newsweek (1969) where two white men from San Leandro discuss how they’d love to get guns and rid the city of the “black troublemakers,” chapter two describes for us the background of the city of San Leandro. It shows how African-Americans were vividly aware of the borders of San Leandro as though that city were “enemy territory,” how white policemen would “pace” any black child, pedestrian, motorist or cyclist who happened to enter the city, and how the city became a “racist bastion of White Supremacy.” A brief history of the community includes a discussion of the famous civil rights case involving Fred Korematsu who was convicted of violating the order to go to a Japanese Internment Camp during WWII. (Four decades later the U.S. Supreme court overturned his conviction.)
The Copelands move into this community where real estate agents were beginning to practice “blockbusting,” turning the white home owners’ fear of black neighbors and falling real estate values into a fortune for themselves. The chapter culminates with an explanation of the Rumford Act which made it illegal to discriminate in housing because of race, creed, or color, and it shows how realtors, landlords, and cities found other methods to continue their illegal discrimination.
Chapter 3 – Young Brian, the New Kid
Chapter 3 – “In The Beginning” Page 19
Once again Brian is the “new kid” and is unhappy about moving five times in the last three years. He ventures outside on a sunny Saturday and is confronted by six teenagers in a convertible who tell him “they don’t allow no niggers in that park.” When Brian tries to correct their use of the double negative, the angry teenagers chase him with their car as Brian flees, running across the lawns. Seeing a policeman, Brian thinks he’s safe. Unfortunately, the white policeman clearly demonstrates the common racist attitude of white people and suspects that Brian, the black boy, has stolen the ball and bat he’s carrying. He frisks Brian, then handcuffs him and throws him in the jail-like back seat of the patrol car. He returns Brian to his home and is surprised to find that they live in San Leandro. Lying to Brian’s mother, the policeman says Brian was “causing trouble. “ Hearing an adult lie (let alone a policeman) shocks Brian, but he realizes that the policeman is also very afraid – afraid of Brian. At eight years of age, Brian begins to suffer from depression, not feeling hungry or wanting to be with the rest of the family.
Chapter 4 Adult Brian
Chapter 4 – “Thirty-five Candles” Page 27
The story shifts now, to the recent past -- Brian’s 35th birthday celebration in a bar, and he notes how he’s still living in San Leandro. Using humor, he discusses getting older, and describes how once he tried to use a fake ID at Harvey’s in Tahoe to play the one armed bandits and got caught. Now he’s no longer carded, and people call him “sir.” Brian, in his typical comedic way, shows us that he has a germ phobia, describing how he avoids germs when he uses a public restroom. While he’s in the bar’s bathroom, he overhears a former class mate talk about how “Brian Copeland may be successful, but he’s still a nigger.” Later in the bar, that same man buys Brian a drink, which Brian accepts ruefully.
Chapter 5 – Young Brian
Chapter 5 – “Just a Trim” Page 33
Brian’s Grandmother believes that a haircut and new shoes are the key to success, so when it’s almost time for school, he is going to get his haircut. His Mother doesn’t want him to go to his old barber in Oakland, because she wants to support their new community. An angry Grandma drives Brian from shop to shop, searching for one that “knows how to cut that kind of hair.” Finally, after much frustration and racist remarks against them, Grandma drives to the old barbershop in Oakland where they used to go. Lester, a man with a gold tooth, criticizes Brian for reading a comic book about Superboy, a white boy, and continues criticizing whites whose pictures are on US currency with true, but sometimes vulgar remarks. Mr. Johnson, the barber, makes feeble attempts to control Lester’s remarks, and gives Brian a haircut his mother likes. She is sad when she’s told that a place for the haircut could not be found in San Leandro.
Chapter 6 – Adult Brian
Chapter 6 – “The Hobby Shop” Page 45
As a father, Brian is the “anti-Sylvester,” letting it go when his 4 year old son, Adam, “cuts his eyes” at Brian while driving to the store to get finger paints. Brian, now 29 years old, and Adam excitedly shop for the finger paints at their favorite hobby shop in San Leandro, as Brian explains through the use of humorous examples just how he has always tried to be a good father, always doing the opposite of what Sylvester did. Reciting to himself “I am a tolerant Bay Area parent,” Brian’s negative feeling about war toys is disturbed when his son is “mesmerized” by a beautiful colonial dollhouse display. However, he soon learns that he needn’t worry about his son’s sexuality. Instead, Brian must confront the fact that his own son is growing up in a world filled with prejudice, only slightly changed from the San Leandro Brian faced as a child. Adam asks his father to be sure to buy the “white family” instead of the “brown family” if they decide to buy the dollhouse for his sister, Carolyn. Answering Brian’s question about why, Adam responds that his best friend, Tommy, has told him that “brown people are bad,” and that he doesn’t “want to be brown; he doesn’t want to be bad.” The chapter ends with Brian managing to make it home before he becomes physically ill, saying to his son, “daddy feels sad…. I mean sick. Daddy feels sick.” And the old depression returns once again.
Chapter 7 – Young Brian
Chapter 7 – “Pressure” Page 49
And so it begins-- the racist pressure to get the Copeland family to move. This time Brian’s mom fields a call from Mr. Wentworth, the apartment manager. He informs her that her family must move out because six people are too many for the 3 bedroom apartment. She counters with the fact that on the application she put down how large her family was, but Mr. Wentworth says the application is “missing.” After questioning Brian on the size of other families who live in the same complex, she calls Mr. Wentworth back, saying she hopes the other larger families will also get the same call and slams the phone down.
Chapter 8 – Young Brian at School
Chapter 8 – “School Days” Page 53
Chapter eight is packed with scenes of Brian’s school days in both public and Catholic schools in San Leandro. It shows us his first day in third grade at Lewelling School and continues through many examples of how poorly he was treated by classmates and his father. It shows the teasing, the fighting, and the loneliness during his days in public school. For example, the other students wouldn’t sit next to him until there were no more chairs. After he allowed the girl who sat next to him to touch his hair, she said it felt like a Brillo pad. That’s when the teasing began. “Brillo head” is what they called him, laughing and snickering as they said it.
Brian’s train of thought then moves into a discussion of black hair and how he disliked having his hair touched. Most importantly though, he always wanted hair that he could flip like the white boys. He discusses the many methods he (and so many others) tried in order to have flowing hair -- from Dixie Peach grease and the Geri Curl (like Smokey Robinson) to the scalp burning texturizer method of straightening hair. Some Black people chastise Brian for being “ashamed” of being black, and he tries to come to terms with the fact that he wants to flip his hair. Once again he addresses the question of racial identity. He likes reading instead of sports. Black people are supposed to like and be good at sports, not reading.
Returning to the earlier classroom, someone calls him “Brillo Head” again. Brian almost cries, but he remembers his mother’s comment, “If I lose control, they win.” Brian manages not to cry until he runs home, sits on his bed, buries his head in a pillow, and sinks again into the lonely depression that is always just below the surface.
The chapter continues with descriptions of Brian’s athletic abilities – nil, and it includes more of Sylvester’s negative influence. “You ain’t worth a shit,” Sylvester shouts at Brian when Brian cannot catch the football his father hurls at him.
Because Brian’s mother had converted the family to Catholicism when Brian was four years old, she decides it would help solve Brian’s school troubles if they moved him from the public school next to the apartment building to St. Felicitas, the Catholic school a mile away where the kids would be more “Christ centered." However, because of the extremely close knit Catholic community at the school, Brian was even more isolated here than he had been at Lewelling.
It is at St. Felicitas where Brian meets one of the first white people to ever be kind to him, his teacher, Lisa Carrion who treats him like a person, not like a “black boy.” Brian says of her that “her kindness made life bearable. Almost.”
Still the fighting continues and so does the name calling. “Brillo Head” is upgraded to “Burr Head.” A group of boys beat him severely after dragging him into a bathroom. Brian runs toward the Principal when she comes to investigate the disturbance. However, she does not help him. Instead, the Principal, a nun, slaps Brian and tells him to “Get to class.” She says the same to the bullies, not hitting them or even verbally chastising them for beating Brian.
Grandma and Mom know something is wrong when Brian gets home from school, and finally he tells his mom everything that happened. She immediately calls and questions the Principal who lies, saying she did not slap Brian. Once again, young Brian is watching as an adult authority figure lies and demonstrates her bigotry. And he wonders -- Nuns, Policemen -- “Was I that bad a person?”
After Miss Carrion verifies Brian’s story, Grandma wants to “slap the principal’s ass.” In the end, they decide to do nothing, except have Brian steer clear of the principal and the bullies, an impossible task. Brian is now more alone than ever before, and he and his sisters are the only black kids in the school.
Thirty years later, he finds out that the church and school was named after St. Felicitas, a black slave who, along with her white mistress, was martyred for the faith. Brian wonders if he must be canonized in order to be treated equally in San Leandro.
Chapter 9 – Adult Brian
Chapter 9 - “Breaking Down” Page 71
Working as a host of a local Bay Area Today type show, Brian is driving his new, British racing green, Mazda Miata to an interview in Marin County with one his heroes, James Doohan -- Scotty -- of Star Trek fame. Brian recalls for us the many silly “shtick” type activities he would do for the TV program – for example, bungee jumping or having his legs waxed. Even though the program was highly rated with the viewers, Brian was unhappy with management and himself – he felt caged. He tells us how he first got the TV position after being on radio for a number of years, how he became a weatherman even though he knew nothing about the weather, and how he was moved up to the co-host job. As his popularity grew, even former tormenters would introduce their wives and kids to him, bragging that they had “grown up together,” never mentioning the childhood beatings or the epithets. Brian felt accepted for the first time in his life.
As he is driving to the interview, recalling that James Doohan had lost the middle finger of his left hand during D-Day, Brian begins to cry uncontrollably. In the midst of experiencing so much success, Brian realizes subconsciously that he, too, is not whole. The chapter ends as Brian, sobbing in his sports car at the side of the road, asks himself the rhetorical question, “What the hell’s wrong with me?”
Chapter 10 – Young Brian
Chapter 10 - “Just Like a Normal Boy” Page 78
This chapter begins with Brian becoming a “normal, red-blooded, all-American boy” and joining the Boy Scouts. Brian enjoyed the goal setting and acquisition of many merit badges under the supervision of Boy Scout adult counselors until he decided he wanted a merit badge in fishing. When Brian called the “fishing counselor,” who also happened to be the owner of one of the oldest real estate firms in San Leandro, Brian was excited to hear the man talk about taking Brian up to Lake Chabot and teaching him to fish. Saying how “well mannered and bright” Brian sounded, Mr. Richards, the “fishing counselor,” made an appointment with Brian to come to the real estate office for their first meeting.
However, when Brian arrives at the office, Mr. Richards, not realizing from the phone conversation that Brian is Black, simply signs Brian’s merit badge card without ever teaching him anything about fishing. Back in the car with an angry Grandma and mama, Grandma tells Brian that “he didn’t know you was black.” In other words, when Mr. Richards saw that Brian was black, Mr. Richards didn’t want to spend time with him and simply signed the merit badge card.
Then Brian remembers how his mom had also sounded white on the phone. He recalls that whenever she was trying to find a place for her family to live, the first response from the prospective landlord was to make an appointment to see the place. Then Carolyn would always get the same negative response when she would say that her family is black., With tears in her eyes, Carolyn tells her son that she will take him fishing.
Chapter 11 – Adult Brian
Chapter 11 – “The Other Foot” Page 83
Brian, getting 2 to 3 hours sleep a night is overworked – between the TV, radio, and standup comedy jobs, he’s hardly home to see his family. He even flies to Philadelphia and drives to Atlantic City on weekends to open for Aretha Franklin. Returning at 3:30 AM on Monday mornings, Brian barely has enough time to get ready for his 6:45 AM morning show location. After 5 years of this routine, Brian’s doctor recommends exercise to help relieve some of the stress, extra pounds, and dizziness Brian is experiencing. So Brian returns to running at least a few miles a day. Running was always something he loved to do.
While running one day, Brian becomes suspicious of two black guys who are sitting in an old, slightly banged up car that he’d never seen in the neighborhood before. One guy was in the front seat, the other in the back, which seemed weird to Brian. An alarm goes off in his head – a “Jiminy Cricket” type voice in his head is saying, “what are these two BLACK guys doing here?” Brian worries that he, himself, is now prejudiced and his own worst enemy.
When he returns from his 45 minute run, the men are still sitting in the sedan. Struggling with the Jiminy Cricket voice, Brian remembers that he was once an eight-year-old black boy carrying a bat on the way to the park. But this car has no license plate, and Brian continues to argue with himself that now he is racially profiling. When he finally calls the police admitting that the men in the car are African American, Brian feels that he, who was oppressed, has now become the oppressor.
That evening two San Leandro policemen come to Brian’s door, telling him that the men were burglarizing the neighborhood – one man to drive and lookout, one man inside the house grabbing the valuables, and a third man in the back seat in case the one inside the house needed help lifting the loot. Brian’s call had been too late, for by the time the police arrived, the men and the car were gone. Unable to give a good description of the men, Brian feels both vindicated and angry. Black criminals make his life more difficult. Once again, Brian is not a “real” black man, and he is now very sad and wishes that he hadn’t called the police at all. The Jiminy voice in his head wonders why Brian doesn’t realize that no matter what he does, he can’t win. No matter what black people do, Brian (and every other black person) is stuck with the ramifications of other black people’s negative actions.
Chapter 12 – Young Brian
Chapter 12 – “Leakfest” Page 95
Brian’s mom works very hard to assimilate into the white man’s culture, reading best sellers, switching to the Republican Party, and converting to Catholicism. Brian is now an alter boy, and the family is doing what they have to do in order to succeed, to be accepted. But Grandma, always paranoid when it comes to white people, is especially concerned about Halloween and trick-or-treating. She knew that the white folks would blame them if there were any problems with candy or Halloween pranks, so Brian and his siblings can’t trick-or-treat or give out candy. Instead, their Mom says she’ll have a party for them and they can give each other candy. This is Carolyn’s way of straddling the fence, trying so hard to let her kids have a “normal” life.
After Brian’s first mass as an alter boy, Carolyn takes the family to an IHOP for brunch. The young, white waitress is cold and impolite, giving the family as little attention as possible. Tracie wonders why they call it “brunch” and not “leakfast,” and Carolyn and Seur argue over saying Grace. Most importantly, however, Brian’s Mom leaves $24 as a tip for the waitress, saying that maybe the waitress will treat the next black family better than she treated them.
In this very regal move, Carolyn shows that she has much more class than the waitress, but the incident also demonstrates how black people must earn respect – whereas whites give respect to each other based only upon their color. Brian then goes on to discuss tipping – whites vs blacks, and the common belief that people of color do not tip well. Restaurants would literally over salt food for black customers so that they would not return. This becomes a vicious cycle that demonstrates just how much Race issues wear upon our society.
After Brunch, the family goes shopping at the mall, and when they finally return home, the white neighbors accuse Brian of throwing their cat into the pool. When the kids say “the black boy threw the cat in the pool a couple of hours ago,” Brian’s mom remains calm, saying Brian has been with her all day, but the argument continues. When Carolyn orders the people off her porch, they refuse. Suddenly, there is a splash of hot water onto the teenage boy’s head, and we see Grandma standing on the other side of the fence holding a steaming pan that once held water to cook some greens. Grandma has come to the aid of her daughter, just as Carolyn came to the aid of her son, Brian. The accusers leave, shouting epithets, and for the first time Brian comforts his Mom who is crying and saying, we “shouldn’t have moved here.”
Young Brian is beginning to learn the difference between paranoia and legitimate concern. When the doorbell rings again, Brian, “the man of the house,” opens the door to find Mr. Wentworth the “nice racist” apartment manager standing there. Mr. Wentworth gives Brian a white envelope to give to his mom. When Carolyn opens the letter, she takes out a white legal paper – an eviction notice.
Chapter 13 – Adult Brian
Chapter 13 – “Daddy Knows the Great Unknown” Page 112
In this chapter, we learn the sad news that when Brian was almost 15, his mama died of Sarchoidosis, a lung disease that affects black women. He remembers the question the guys asked him on his 35th birthday -- when did he first feel like a grown up. He knows the exact moment his childhood ended – it was the moment his mom died, and he saw his Grandma cry for the first time. She left it to Brian to decide if there would be an autopsy on his mother. Fourteen-year-old Brian decided that there would be no autopsy.
Pushing down the pain and suffering, at 35 Brian has achieved much success in his life – a loving family, his TV, Radio, and stand up comedy successes, even meeting with the President of the United States. He spent the first 15 years of his life trying to please his mom, then he spent the next 15 years trying to BE his mom. The wounds from the past that never healed are very deep. Even the trip to the hobby shop with his son scraped off the scabs of those old wounds.
Alone in the house, four hurtful words from that birthday party night ring in his head – “He’s still a nigger.” Brian makes a martini, gets in his Miata in the garage, puts the top down, and starts the engine. Looking at family photos and listening to Rick Springfield on the stereo singing about the loss of his own father, Brian ponders the “great unknown” that he would soon know as his mom now knows it. Brian drinks the martini, throws the empty glass on the passenger seat, takes a drag from a cigar and places it in the ashtray. Then he leans back, closes his eyes, listens to the motor idle, and quietly waits for death. It’s a Tuesday; Brian was born on a Tuesday.