Joint Memoir Tells a Compelling Story of Friendship

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If you're of a certain age, you've probably heard the riddle "What's black and white and read all over?" (Answer: a newspaper.)

Martha McNeil Hamilton and Warren Brown, who have been journalists at the Washington Post for nearly 30 years, drew upon that old joke when they titled their memoir Black & White & Red All Over: The Story of a Friendship (PublicAffairs). However, while the book does detail their lives as newspaper journalists, the story is not circumscribed by the boundaries of their professional lives.

A central drama in the compelling book is Brown's bout with kidney disease and the subsequent effects on his and Hamilton's lives. When a kidney donated by Brown's wife failed, the journalist was close to death. However, when Hamilton learned she was a blood-type match for Brown, she donated one of her own kidneys to him, a decision that saved his life.

Black & White & Red All Over tells this medical story with precision and sensitivity. Yet it also deals, quite importantly, with race and gender issues (Brown is a black man and Hamilton is a white woman), the family history of both authors, their friendship and working relationship, and sociopolitical issues and events -- including the Civil Rights movement of the '60s.

Brown, the automotive columnist for the Post, and Hamilton, a financial news reporter and editor, wrote about the operation for the paper prior to the book's publication. But they didn't want to merely expand upon those articles and make the memoir a "medical book," White told BTW. In fact, the reactions that Brown and Hamilton received from people about their Post pieces and about their appearances on The Today Show and National Public Radio made the authors realize that their story was intriguing for many reasons. "People were more interested in the nature of friendship and the notion that barriers that traditionally keep people apart didn't keep us apart in this case," Hamilton said.

When Brown and Hamilton became reporters at the Post in the early '70s, the influential newspaper was making a conscious effort to hire more blacks and women. "I can assure you that we would not have been hired otherwise," said Brown, who writes the "On Wheels" column for the paper. "We came along at the right time and got a chance to prove ourselves."

"We owe a lot to the people who got here before us and who insisted that the Post keeping opening up their doors wider and wider," Hamilton added.

While Brown and Hamilton wrote for the Post's business section, their friendship blossomed. They soon discovered that they had many things in common. As a middle class black person growing up in New Orleans, Brown discovered early in life what racism and segregation were all about. And as a white person raised in blue-collar Houston, Hamilton also experienced the effects of racism, as well as discrimination against women.

Meanwhile, integration slowly but surely became a factor in each of their upbringings, and careers. And it's integration that becomes the key theme of the book, which consists of sections that are written either together or in the individual voice of each author. Two main challenges were how to weave all the factors that were part of the story into a single narrative, and choosing a consistent "voice," Hamilton said. "We ended up telling it in our separate voices, in parts, and together, in parts, but we had to keep tinkering with that because we didn't want to make the book too complicated."

That the authors have worked so closely in their day jobs also benefited the book. After certain sections were written, each would let the other take a look. "We went back and forth," Brown said. "She would say, 'What do you really mean by that?' That, in itself, wasn't all that difficult because over the past 20-something years of sitting next to one another, you edit one another's copy anyhow. She'll ask me to take a look at a story, and I'll tell her what I think, or vice versa. Sometimes I can tell from the expression on her face what she thinks -- sometimes it's like, Why am I reading this?" And when each tells their side of the story in Black & White & Red All Over, the flow of the narrative sometimes seems, as White humorously described it, "Rashomon-like."

Throughout the book, the differences between Brown and Hamilton are also revealed, and that makes the story all the more fascinating. "We share a lot of the same values," Hamilton said. "But, for example, Warren would be happy to tell you that I'm more of an environmentalist than him. Warren is probably more conservative than I am on some issues. But there's a lot of things we agree on." Both have been big supporters of the union at the Washington Post, for instance.

We also learn about Brown's great respect for women throughout this book. Not only were both of his kidney donors women, many of the physicians who helped the columnist regain his heath were also women. "That's Warren for you," Hamilton quipped. "But we have to give some credit to the men doctors, too."

Brown's and Hamilton's thoughts on the ridiculousness of bigotry are voiced loud and clear. "Attaching huge amounts of value to the accident of race can not only kill you individually but can cause so many other problems," Brown explained. "If people really know the truth about themselves, they might not be so inclined to piss off people who they think are different, because they are those people."

That Brown and Hamilton are seasoned journalists benefited not only the clarity and readability of Black & White & Red All Over, but the book's completion as well. They began writing it on April 1 and finished it at the end of August. "We had a real short turn-round time because we thought it would be a good idea for it to come out a year after the surgery. And we're used to deadlines. They don't phase us," Hamilton explained.

Black & White & Red's publisher, PublicAffairs (a division of the Perseus Books Group) is headed by Peter Osnos, who spent nearly 20 years at the Washington Post before he joined Random House. "He immediately understood what we were trying to do with the book," Hamilton added. "He wasn't made nervous by the fact that we wanted to do it quickly. It worked out well." -- Jeff Perlah