John Blake had been away from his West Baltimore neighborhood for years by the time CNN sent him to cover the biggest story in America in April 2015: the unrest in the streets following Freddie Gray’s death in police custody.
Blake, who reports on religion and race for the Atlanta-based cable news channel, delivered a live report about the angry protesters, the buildings going up in flames, and the sense of desperation among the city’s Black residents. Then anchor Poppy Harlow asked a question he didn’t see coming: How did it feel to be back home amid such chaos?
Blake gave a quick answer, but soon felt he’d barely scratched the surface of a subject so profound, so personal and, to him, so embarrassing he’d never fully faced it himself: How had Baltimore’s legacy of racial hatred — and America’s — affected him and how had he processed the turmoil?
His memoir, “More Than I Imagined,” published by Penguin Random House in time for Mother’s Day, is his answer.
Subtitled “What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew,” the book tells the story of a man trying to come home, and not just geographically. Blake, 58, draws readers into a segregated, often hazardous, sometimes poignant West Baltimore of the 1960s and 1970s, a setting where he rarely felt at ease.
Largely abandoned by his father, a lovable, hard-partying sailor with the Merchant Marine, and knowing little of his mother except that he didn’t remember ever meeting her, Blake bounced between a succession of family members and horribly run foster homes.
Blake recalls holding fast to a dream that he might one day escape to a more stable environment. Even as a child, though, he sensed that getting away from his neighborhood near Mondawmin Mall would never be enough. A sense of displacement ran through him, body and soul.
His father, Clifton A. Blake Sr., a charming but reckless man who was usually away chasing adventures at sea, was Black. So was virtually every person John Blake knew, from his half-siblings and a cruel foster caregiver to the rock-throwing bullies who sometimes roamed the streets. One of the few things he was ever told about his mother, meanwhile, was that she was white. And when he tried to learn more, the adults around him would change the subject.
“It was a genuine mystery who my mother was,” Blake recalled during an interview. “I didn’t know what color her eyes were or what her voice sounded like. As I write in the book, I came into the world with half my identity amputated. I never imagined I’d ever meet her, let alone learn to accept and care about her, and I never dreamed I’d address any of these other complicated issues, either.”
If the racial difference between his parents was confusing, Blake says, his environment compounded the issue. It was so rare to see a white person in his neighborhood that “it was like seeing Bigfoot; people stopped and gawked.” Children with lighter skin were often taunted or bullied, and those known to be of mixed race suffered from the pity and embarrassment of others.
Blake pretended the white side of his identity didn’t exist. He kept secret the fact that his mother was white. He wrote on school forms that she was Black. He stopped including his Irish-sounding middle name, Kennedy, in his signature.
At the same time, he embraced what he saw as the hallmarks of 1970s Black power, from growing the dark hair he’d pomade into a thick Afro to harboring a dislike toward white people that bordered on hostility.
“I was so ashamed of my white identity that I became a closeted biracial person,” he said.
The problem was it was a lie. As time went by, according to his memoir, the events of Blake’s life put his framing to the test. His innate honesty forced him to develop a more complex lens through which to view white people, Black people, and his idea of who he wanted to become.
Blake was a young adult when his father, home from one of his journeys around the world, stunned him and his younger brother, Pat, with a question: “Do you want to meet your mother?”
The long, silent ride the two take with an aunt, bypassing the “liquor stores, storefront churches and rowhouses” of West Baltimore for the sprawling, hilly countryside of Anne Arundel County, is filled with suspense. And the person the brothers meet when they arrive at Crownsville Hospital Center is nothing like who they expected.
Shirley Dailey, a frail-looking white woman with sunken cheeks and a working-class “Bawlmer” accent, seems overjoyed to see her sons, but as the conversation unfolds, appears not to know who they are. She asks little about them, but requests Pepsi, St. Jude prayer books and money. “I’m as poor as a church mouse,” she says. She had lived at the psychiatric institution for years.
Blake soon had to face up to a second layer of prejudice he didn’t realize he had, one not uncommon at the time: a sense of shame around his mother’s severe mental illness.
Over time, as he pursues a relationship with the woman who was taken from her children when they were toddlers, Blake absorbs more detail and builds a greater understanding of an individual who is white.
“I honestly didn’t realize at the time that white people had to suffer the way Black people did,” he says, “but my mother seemed to be the unluckiest person I’d ever met.”
Blake’s journey toward understanding Dailey, and by extension his father and himself, is not an easy one. It moves in surprising fits and starts, each seemingly offset by moments of frustration. But his world expands bit by bit as he learns to extend compassion and forgiveness in all directions.
Along the way, Blake introduces a gallery of characters so vibrant they can be hard to forget. There’s his “first hero,” his father, a man who “looked like a Black Buddha, with his bald head, perpetual grin, and plump belly,” who loved to spin tales of his travels. There’s his foster caregiver, Aunt Fannie, a forbidding woman who rivals the worst of the Grimms’ evil stepmothers, and his Bible-quoting Aunt Sylvia, who shows up each and every Sunday to drag the boys to services at Union Temple Baptist Church on North Avenue.
Maybe most interesting, Blake describes an array of places and experiences that serve as platforms for healing. As a wide-eyed freshman at Howard University, he meets Black people who have no fear or special dislike of whites. One classmate shares with him a passage from the New Testament that examines prejudice against others through a Christian lens — “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” as the apostle Paul says in the Book of Galatians — and as the years pass, Blake joins a range of interracial churches, making lifelong friends from varied backgrounds.
The Morning Sun
Just as important, as some of Blake’s older relatives begin to open up about his parents’ history, he hears the story of a Black man in his 30s who was bold enough to court a smart, lively 19-year old white woman at a time when it was still illegal in 19 states — including Maryland — for people of different races to marry and interracial relationships were taboo.
His father and mother, he learned, possessed a rare gift: a knack for looking beyond skin color and into another’s personality. Blake’s anecdotes about the price they paid in a racially segregated Baltimore for their relationship can be difficult to read. So can his descriptions of the ways in which a hereditary disorder slowly overtook his mother’s life.
In the end, though, he says, his parents’ unusual willingness to connect across differences and in the face of opposition was a force that brought him into the world and presented him with the questions he has had to ask. He sees it also as one a tragically divided culture might one day follow.
“My very existence is a testimony to the power of ordinary people to remake America,” writes Blake.
Blake says he fears that the optimism of “More Than I Imagine” is one reason it might not find as broad an audience as he’d like. But if some of its earliest readers are to be believed, he needn’t worry. Robin diAngelo, author of The New York Times bestseller “White Fragility,” called the book “riveting and provocative.” Ibram X. Kendi, author of the influential “How to Be an Antiracist,” said in a review that it “reads like a thriller but is packed with pockets of compassion and wisdom.”
Blake only wishes he could have given a copy to Dailey. His mother’s mental health had improved little by the time she died in 2020 from COVID-related complications, but she had long since become one of his heroes.
“It would have made a wonderful Mother’s Day present,” he says.