A Blessing and a Burden
Review of Gerald M. Boyd’s “My Times in Black and White"
The New York Times Book Review, February 21, 2010
Gerald M. Boyd’s memoir, “My Times in Black and White: Race and Power at The New York Times,” opens with the author waking from a dream. Heart racing, he reflects on a life — a remarkable Horatio Alger-like rise from “stifling poverty” to a senior post among the newspaper’s “succession of greats,” ending with a swift fall — whose meaning eludes him. This book, published posthumously, is an attempt to come to terms with that life, and particularly with the role race played in it.
Boyd, born in St. Louis in 1950, was 3 when his mother died. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when he was 11, and an extraordinary grandmother raised Boyd and his brother. Journalism was his salvation. At the age of 7, Boyd was hawking The St. Louis Post-Dispatch on Sundays. Years later, the paper awarded him a full scholarship to the University of Missouri, and hired him upon graduation. Boyd thrived at The Post-Dispatch, first as a local reporter and then as a Washington correspondent. Along the way, he helped found the Greater St. Louis Association of Black Journalists and was a Nieman fellow at Harvard.
Boyd was hired by The Times in 1983. “Second only to my family, The Times defined me; I was addicted to the paper and all it represented, cloaking myself in its power and prestige,” he writes.
From the beginning of the relationship, race was a factor. After accepting the job, Boyd was welcomed by a top editor: “I really enjoyed your clips — they’re so well written. Did you write them yourself, or did someone write them for you?” On his third day he was asked whether he was “ready” for an assignment. “I wondered how many new white reporters heard their first assignment preceded by that question,” he says.
Much of the book is devoted to the racial slights Boyd suffered during his 20 years at the paper. White subordinates bridled at taking orders from him; white superiors alternately patronized and betrayed him. “The Times was a place where blacks felt they had to convince their white peers that they were good enough to be there,” he writes. He felt he could speak openly about the subject with his white colleagues only rarely — for example, while editing a series on race in America that would win a Pulitzer Prize: “I wanted them to understand why blacks think about race so often. Whether they are discriminated against or ignored or feared, they know the reaction is probably triggered by race.”
Like many smart, ambitious African-Americans in the post-Brown v. Board of Education era, Boyd was often the “first” black person to hold various jobs and receive certain honors. At The Post-Dispatch, he was the first to be elected “journalist of the year.” At The Times, he was the first black White House correspondent and the first black managing editor, the paper’s second-highest editorial position. Well-meaning senior editors told Boyd he was the “Jackie Robinson” figure who would help break the color line in journalism. “What a dumb thing to tell him,” the former Times reporter Bernard Weinraub writes in one of the short passages that friends, relatives and colleagues contributed to the book. “It kind of unhinged Gerald.”
Boyd, sadly, seems to have derived little pleasure from his remarkable achievements. “One of my proudest moments as an editor echoed with the emptiness of my life as a man,” he writes about his section of the paper winning a Pulitzer. He confesses that true happiness didn’t come until he had a son with his third wife, Robin D. Stone, who shepherded this book into print. In 2006, Boyd was told he had cancer; he died later that year, at 56.
Unfortunately, Boyd’s reputation will forever be paired with that of Jayson Blair, the former Times reporter whose fabrications incited the events that led to the departure of Boyd and Howell Raines, the paper’s executive editor, in 2003. Boyd argues that the accusation that he gave Blair special treatment — something each man denied — rested on little more than the fact that both were black. “As soon as controversy arises concerning an African-American reporter,” he told a meeting of the National Association of Black Journalists two months after he left The Times, “the senior African-American is automatically viewed as suspect.”
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