KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Proximity, Power, and Radical Integration with CNN’s John Blake

Proximity, Power, and Radical Integration with CNN’s John Blake

Season 3, Episode 1

Welcome to season 3! We’re here with CNN reporter John Blake, discussing his book, More Than I Imagined: What a Black Man Discovered about the White Mother He Never Knew. It’s a memoir all about faith, race, mental health, family, and “radical integration.” We’re so excited to be back recording episodes, and this is a great one to start the new season!

Shake the Dust is a podcast of KTF Press. Follow us on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. Subscribe to get our newsletter and bonus episodes at KTFPress.com. Transcripts of every episode are available at KTFPress.com/s/transcripts.


Jonathan Walton – follow him on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.

Sy Hoekstra – follow him on Twitter.

Our theme song is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra – listen to the whole song on Spotify.

Our podcast art is by Jacqueline Tam – follow her and see her other work on Instagram.

Production and editing by Sy Hoekstra.

Transcript by Joyce Ambale and Sy Hoekstra.

Questions about anything you heard on the show? Write to shakethedust@ktfpress.com and we may answer your question on a future episode.


[An acoustic guitar softly plays six notes, the first three ascending and the last three descending — F#, B, F#, E, D#, B — with a keyboard pad playing the note B in the background. Both fade out as Jonathan Walton says “This is a KTF Press podcast.”]

John Blake: Just think about it. When my mom got together with my father in 1963, interracial marriage was illegal. The idea of interracial marriage and biracial children being open, that was like unheard of. They didn't wait for a politician to decide or a judge to decide. They said, “This is right. I'm willing to take a risk. People are people.” But because of people like her, they created that conditions where it became a norm. I think ordinary people have tremendous power, and we shouldn't forget that.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “I need to know there is justice/That it will roll in abundance/ And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to Shake The Dust: Leaving Colonized Faith for the Kingdom of God. I am Jonathan Walton.

Sy Hoekstra: And I'm Sy Hoekstra.

Jonathan Walton: Welcome to season three. We are so happy to have you here. We have an incredible guest today, CNN reporter John Blake. He's here to tell us all about his new memoir about his life, wrestling with faith, racism, mental health, and so much more.

Sy Hoekstra: But before we get to that, a couple of things. First of all, as we mentioned in our announcement of season three which is the last thing that's in this podcast feed before this episode, Suzie Lahoud will no longer be joining us sadly, as the co-host of this show. It will just be Jonathan and I for now, though we will likely look for another permanent co-host at some point in the future, but I just wanted to flag that for people who may not have listened to the announcement.

Second, if you want to support the work we do here at KTF Press, please go to KTFPress.com and consider becoming a paid subscriber. That gets you the bonus episodes of this show, it gets you our newsletter. That's where Jonathan and I curate media to help you in your discipleship and your political education. It supports this show and everything else we do at KTF Press, the books, the articles, all of it. And until June 19th, we're having a season three launch sale. Get a full year of that subscription for 50 percent off. That's just $35 for the whole year. Go to KTFPress.com/season3. That’s KTFPress.com/season and the number three.

Jonathan Walton: Our guest today is John Blake. He is an award-winning CNN journalist who has been honored by the Associated Press, the Society of Professional Journalists, the American Academy of Religion, the National Association of Black Journalists, and the Religion Communicators Council. A recipient of the GLAAD Media Award, he has spoken at high schools, colleges, and symposiums, and in documentaries on race, religion, and politics. Blake is a native of Baltimore, Maryland. He's here to talk with us today about his new book, More Than I Imagine: What a Black Man Discovered About the White Mother He Never Knew.

[The intro piano music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out.]

Jonathan Walton: So, John, thank you so, so much for being with us on Shake the Dust today. I am deeply appreciative of it. I know Sy is too, and we look forward to jumping in.

John Blake: Thank you.

Jonathan Walton: And so this book is largely, I think, a memoir about race and family and how they come in and out of each other and merge together, and particularly your relationship with your Black father's family, who you grew up with, and your white mom who vanished when you were very young. And then this explicit thing about nobody telling you why. And the story of how you reconcile those things, and just this beautiful picture of Baltimore and how, just all these different places. So can you orient us and the people listening to this podcast a little bit. Where did you grow up? What was that like, and what world are we stepping into when we grab your book?

John Blake: I grew up in a very infamous neighborhood in West Baltimore. Most people know it through a television show in a particular event. Most people know it through the HBO series, The Wire. That was my backyard. So when I look at The Wire, I'm looking at the place where I caught the bus to go to school, where I stood on the corner with my friends. So I grew up in that world, but also that place is also, people know it from the 2015 violent protests that erupted when Freddie Gray was arrested by police officers and died in police custody. It was one of the biggest racial protests in the country's history. So that's where I grew up. And so my neighborhood is this kind of symbol of how intractable racism is. A lot of conservatives point to it and say, racism persists; they talk about things like the culture of pathology. It's a very poor and violent place, and it's all Black.

And so I grew up there having a white mother, and not only just having a white mother, but having a white family and a white mother that I knew nothing about because they vanished from my life not long after I was born. All I was told when I grew up was that your mother's name is Shirley, she's white, and her family hates Black people. That's all I knew. I didn't know what my mother looked like, the color of her eyes or hair. It was like I said in the book, it was like half of my identity was amputated at birth. So I grew up in this all Black neighborhood where there was tremendous hostility to white people, a lot of poverty, a lot of violence. And knowing that I had this white mother and I had this white family that didn't want anything to do with me, that I thought hated me.

Sy Hoekstra: You eventually figured out, you had kind of a revelation that it wasn't exactly racism that separated your parents. It was sort of a combination of mental illness, your mother's schizophrenia, and I would say poverty and kind of the complete, at the time, complete lack of supports for disabled people that were in place. What was that realization like for you?

John Blake: How did I make that realization?

Sy Hoekstra: How did it happen and what was it like for you? Yeah.

John Blake: That's a good… It taught me that, let me just put it this way. The first place I met my mom was a mental institution. I was 17 years old on my way to college. I thought my mom was dead. And my father just came to me one day [laughs] and just said, “Do you want to meet your mom?” Like, “Do you want to go to the store?”  [laughter].

John Blake: And the next thing I know, I'm driven out with my brother to this notorious mental institution in rural Maryland called Crownsville that has since been closed down. And to give you an idea of how awful a place Crownsville was, they used to abuse patients, chain them to the bed, put them through electro shock therapy. And in fact, when it was closed down, it was used as a set for a horror movie. It was a horrible place.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh, wow.

John Blake: So I was just driven out there with my brother one day. No one said, “You're going to a mental institution. You're going to see your mom. She's sick.” They just drove us out there, we walked in this building, and she comes out and dad says, and that's our mom. And I pretty much figured out within 15, 20 minutes of meeting her that she had a severe mental illness. And to answer your question, what that realization did to me in that moment is kind of two things that I can think of at the top of my head. One is that just that sight suddenly widened my empathy. I had grown up in a world where white people were the enemy, where they could not relate to what it meant to be Black, I thought, to be poor, to be looked down upon, to be treated with contempt.

But when I saw my mother in that awful place come out, and I figured out that she had been in this place most of her life, I thought to myself, “God, I've never even seen a Black person suffer like that.” So it's kind of enlarged my world within like 15 minutes of meeting her that wow, other people suffer like us, and in some cases more than some of us. So it did that. And I think secondly, that it just started me on this journey where I had to, how can I say? I had to somehow jettison a lot of these assumptions and hostility I had toward all white people because of how I grew up. So I guess the main thing is it's just widened my empathy. That's one of the reasons I try to, well, that's one of the things I try to show in the book, is that there are a lot of different attitudes about how do people change their racial attitudes?

And I used to believe, as a journalist, if you give them great arguments, you write great articles. You talk about reparations, you talk about slavery, you cite your Kendi, you cite your DiAngelo [Sy laughs], you show them the George Floyd video, people will change. I don't believe that as much anymore. I think people change primarily through relationships and community. And one of the things I say in the book is, facts don't change people, relationships do. And I say that because it started with meeting my mom. I started to change through meeting my mom and other members of my family. That had more effect on me than all those brilliant people like Jonathan I interviewed [laughter]. Not to say those things aren't important, but it's those relationships that really changed me.

Jonathan Walton: So me and Sy, we're writers, you're a writer. How we do things is intentional. And you, the way you wrote this book, it seems like there are very conscious decisions never to indicate exactly where you were going and where you were going to land. Like we were immersed in every situation, what you were thinking at each moment. And I mean, I was just like, “John knows how to write, so what's he doing?” And like, being the… I'm immersed in southwest Baltimore, I'm immersed in your dad's house. I'm immersed in eating the mashed tomatoes.

John Blake: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: I'm in there. I mean stewed tomatoes. I'm in it. And it's like, “Oh, this is a book about racial justice and reconciliation.” Could you talk a little bit about what prompted you to tell your story, and then how you decided to tell it?

John Blake: I think the genesis for my story really began with the racial protests in 2015 with Freddie Gray. I was assigned by CNN to cover it. So I go back to my neighborhood and I see my childhood home, my school, my neighborhood, literally going up in flames and everything coming apart because of race. But at the same time in my private life, the white and Black members of my family are coming together despite race. And I was like, how did this happen? Why…? So it's like a mystery. Like what, what really changes people? As a journalist, I've been writing about race for like say 25 years. And I've always looked for these inspirational stories that give me hope. And when I went back to Baltimore, I realized, wow, I might be living that story in my own life. So that was the beginning of it. I wanted to figure out, how did I go from having this white family who wanted nothing to do with me, I had all this hostility, to us actually becoming a family? So that was the genesis of it.

And as far as how I wrote it—and I tell you the truth, Jonathan, I was so daggone tired when I wrote it. [laughter] It was like, I didn't… I don’t know, you might be giving me more credit than I deserve for it. But I wanted to tell a story. And one of the things I say is that in the beginning, the only thing that can replace one story is another. And I think people are driven primarily by stories. And I think there are people who are very threatened by diverse America in some ways, who are better storytellers than those who are not threatened by it.

To me, Make America Great Again is a story. Like, we used to be great, these people came in and they change… we have to tell a story. So I figured as I started writing it, I wanted to tell a story. And then when you tell a story, you're not so much making an argument. You're trying to evoke feelings. You're trying to put people there. And I wanted to show people how people changed, how I changed. How my mother changed me, how my mother's family changed me. And I figured the way you do that, that you don't come out with an argument. You just evoke feelings and you just put people in your shoes and you just take them on a journey. And that's why I decided to write it that way.

Jonathan Walton: In our emotionally healthy activist work, we just talk about moving from pity to incarnation.

John Blake: Oh, I like that.

Jonathan Walton: Right, so transitioning down, not just feeling bad for someone and their sympathy, but like, or even compassion, like the Greek to suffer with, but to really like you said, get into somebody's world. And I think there's a gift in that, but also, like you said, there's a tiredness that comes when you're entering into it over and over and over again. And so for you to go from Baltimore to South Central. Right?

John Blake: Yeah. Yeah. That really affected me.

Jonathan Walton: [laughs] Right. And I mean, you've been in the thick of a lot of this stuff in some really pivotal moments. So again, just thank you for staying in it to be able to create a world that we can genuinely step into.

John Blake: Well, thank you. And just to add really quickly to that, as I was writing this, I was still experiencing a lot of this, so I didn't know where the story was going. A lot of things were happening. I mean, really, and I'm a big fan of jazz music. And part of jazz is improvisation, and just follow… they talk about following the music. You don't know where it's going. And just like there are people who preach sermons where they improv. They don't know where it's going. And sometimes I think that's the best form of communication because it's authentic, it's real. It's not contrived, it's not planned. Like King’s I Have a Dream speech as a lot of us know. He ad-libbed that ending and that made it all the more powerful.

That wasn't part of the speech. So I try to keep that attitude as I was writing too, to just be comfortable with not knowing where it's going. Just be honest at every place where you are.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. Because you don't say it right up front, here's my thesis statement. Here's what I think is going to fix America's racial problem. You're not writing that way. And so there was a lot of the book where I was, you really are just along for the journey, but where you do land, and I think what does kind of set a lot of the book apart is this idea of radical integration. And you talk about, there's this these old reports on integration from Nikole Hannah Jones that I remembered very well, that you quoted, that are about how there's kind of this propaganda, there's this myth around the fact that integration, school integration failed. It was actually a remarkably successful experiment that was fought tooth and nail.

And you talk about how radical integration you think was what helped you to heal, to reconcile with your aunt who had a lot of racist views. And you think is kind of a way forward for a lot of our strife in the US right now. Can you talk to us about that idea and why you think it's so important?

John Blake: Yeah. I'm going to tell you how discredited the term integration has become. I felt more nervous about writing about integration and revealing that I believe that white, Black and brown people can live together. I felt more nervous revealing that about myself than talking about the ghost. I mean, that's just…

Sy Hoekstra: We'll get to the ghost, but yeah [laughter].

John Blake: I’m serious [laughs]. I mean to me, integration is the uncoolest word you could even say now. It's almost as worse as post-racial. It's been thoroughly discredited, but I don't see, and I base this on my personal experience. I don't see how we survive as a multiracial, multi-religious democracy when different groups are living apart and separate. And I base that on what changed me, as I said before, the reason to try to answer your question, I went back to it, is because when I looked at all the events that really changed me in my life, none of it had anything to do with the brilliant people and the brilliant books I read. It all came back to me being in situations around people who were different, who were different races, who saw the world differently. But that enlarged me and that took away these stereotypes that I had.

And I just don't think we can get forward as a country to do that. And so I didn't… as I was writing about it, I came across this term, Radical Integration. It was a paper written by Michelle Adams, and it just kind of illuminated a lot of things I believed. And one of the things she says, and also I think Nikole talks about that, is that people have a distorted vision of what integration was meant to be. They think it's just sharing spaces. It's not just sharing spaces, it's sharing power. And that in integration, you don't become less Black so white people are more comfortable. And so those are some of the things I experienced that really changed me, and in the way, the place that I really experienced radical integration was at church.

I was really fortunate to go to this tremendous integrated church in Atlanta. And I'm an integrated church veteran. I don't know about you, Jonathan.

Jonathan Walton: Yep.

John Blake: I've been in a lot of racially mixed churches, but they weren't integrated, meaning you had Black, white, and brown people together, but all the leaders were white. All theology was Eurocentric. All the music and everything. And I've been in those churches, but I went to this church, what I call radically integrated, because we just didn't share pews, we shared power. There were arguments, there were tremendous debates, but that was community. That's relationship. And that's where I experienced that. And so that's, as I look at what's happening, I don't see how we go forward. I'll give you a prime example, and it's the last thing I'll say.

Look at what happened with George Floyd. Three years ago, we had the largest social protest in this country's history. And now it's like it never happened. And this one guy, this professor who was writing about that experience said, it wasn't enough for people to go to those protests. If white people go to those protests, but they go back to their all white worlds and they send their children to their all white schools, you're not going to really have lasting change. So I just think that people really, you need to have that tool. You have to have interracial communities. You have to have interracial relationships along with policy changes and power. I think it's a real dangerous thing. I don't want to ever imply that if we just hug white people, racism will disappear. I'm a big believer in what Frederick Douglass says, power concedes nothing without demand, never has, never will.

But what I am saying is that I think integration in creating these communities is also an indispensable part of fighting racism. And I think we've forgotten that over the past couple years.

Sy Hoekstra: There’s a scene in your book from the church in 2016 where you describe a big church meeting where I don't remember if it was when Trump was elected or nominated or whatever. But one of the white people in the group gets up and says, “We just need, we need more understanding. We need to better understand the people who voted for Donald Trump.” And a lot of people reacted that way. And then a Black woman gets up and says, “Why do we always have to be the ones to understand?”

John Blake: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: “Why can't you ever reach out? Why can't you ever understand us?” And I just end up thinking they're both right [laughs]. It is so profoundly unfair, and it is also so difficult for me to imagine kind of like you're saying, any significant amount of change among white people that doesn't involve somebody moving toward us.

And I say that because that's how I've seen it happen. I've seen it happen when people, like you said, radical integration, they're in close proximity to each other. But that almost never involves, at least practically speaking, I don't think, it almost never involves white people voluntarily going, “I'm going to leave my comfort zone and just skip on over here to this unfamiliar neighborhood…

John Blake: Correct.

Sy Hoekstra: …and then learn a bunch of things that are difficult for me to learn that I don't really want to learn. I could leave at any time, but I won't.” I'm just… how does it actually happen, John, is what I'm saying? How does it actually happen in a way that isn't… because you write in the book after that conversation, you walked away having heard that Black woman get up and speak in your church.

You were tired and you agreed with her and you didn't want to talk to white people anymore. That to me is 100 percent understandable. And I just don't know any other way to do it. I just keep coming up against this seemingly intractable problem in my mind. Do you have any thoughts [laughs]?

John Blake: Yeah, and there is another way to do it. There's a very important person I mentioned in a book, a guy named Gordon Allport, one of the most important psychologists of the 20th century. He wrote a book called The Nature of Prejudice, which is a classic. And I just happened to stumble on it while I was writing the book. And he writes about, in one chapter, he writes about something he calls contact theory. And the whole chapter is about how do we change racial attitudes to get at what you're talking about? And he said, the way you change racial attitudes is that you get different groups together, and you get them together where they have a larger common purpose that goes beyond race. When you have those kind of situations, racial attitudes will change among white and Black people. Meaning a lot of times we think if we get different groups together to talk about race, that creates racial change.

What Allport is saying is that when you get different groups together to not talk about race, but to serve a larger common purpose, that's when you have tremendous racial change. For example, think about all the sports movies we've seen, like Remember the Titans, Denzel Washington, when you have all these different racial groups get together but they want to win a championship. And I think to try and answer your question, I have found, well, you have different groups, different people coming together for a purpose other than race. Whether it's a 12-step program, whether it's a military, whether it's a championship team, it could be a national service program where people are trying to beautify the country and they come together from different races.

When you have that going on, then you can avoid that little dynamic you're talking about where Black people are always reaching out, and white people don't want to, you have this dynamic where real serious change comes about. And I think that's part of what happened too when I went to church. When I went to Oakhurst, yes, we talked about race, but we had a larger mission. We were all Christians. We all had this common faith that went beyond race, and I think that created those conditions. So it's kind of a weird thing. You want to have people to get together in a group for racial change, have them get together, but don't have them talk about race all the time, have a larger purpose.

Sy Hoekstra: Having people who have similar missions allows people to see others for who they are beyond a stereotype.

John Blake: Yeah, you see the humanity of people. It has to be a larger common purpose. For example, in my family, I gave a TEDx Talk when I talked about my relationship with Aunt Mary, who was the aunt who resisted admitting that she was driven by racism. And I was trying to figure out, how did she change so dramatically, because I never lectured her, but I think part of the reason she changed is what Allport talked about. Is that we had a larger common purpose. We had to come together to work together as a team to take care of my mom. We couldn't talk about race all the time. We had this other stuff to talk about, other stuff we had to deal with. But in doing so, I saw her humanity, she saw my humanity in a way that I think was easier to do if we weren't always talking about race.

Sy Hoekstra: John, so there's a point in this book where you talk about, as you mentioned, a ghost. You talk about being haunted, not metaphorically, literally haunted by a ghost. And it is actually the ghost of your dead grandfather who was quite racist. And it becomes like a key kind of moment for you in the book, in terms of how you dealt with that, actually ends up being a key part of how you reconcile with your aunt and your white family. But you also say in the book that you were kind of afraid to tell your wife about being haunted like this because you thought she might think, “Oh, he's showing early signs of hallucination, of schizophrenia like his mother.”And so you go from that now to, you're writing a book about it. You're telling the whole world about this ghost.

And it was just interesting to me that you had that obviously very large change in how you thought about it. And also that you're a journalist, you trade in credibility, and there's a lot of people who are going to hear a ghost story and wonder what to think about it. And I just want to hear kind of how that transformation happened and how you got to where you are now in terms of telling a story like that.

John Blake: Well, thanks for asking those questions because I was very leery about putting that part in the book because I had these visions of me sending off the proposal and agents responding with, “You don't need an agent, you need a therapist.”


John Blake: So, and you mentioned my wife, and how would she react to it? But she had no choice but to react to it because she saw what I saw. She saw it twice. And if it was just me, I would've never told anyone this story. But the thing is, this involved my wife twice and involved my brother. So I felt like I had to do something he wanted. And to try to answer your question, I felt like I had to include it because it was a pivotal part of my story. And it was pivotal in this way, it taught me in a kind of a weird way not to define a white person by their worst act. Because I had defined my grandfather as this man who called my father the N-word, who assaulted him, had him arrested, who hated Black people. But when I saw him, these reappearances, whatever you want to call them, I saw that he was, I felt, tormented by guilt by what he did, and that he had other good sides to him.

And that for me to kind of in a sense, come to terms with him, I had to understand that about him. I had to see him as more than just this boogeyman, but as a complex human being who was raised a certain way. And that's how he acted. But he was more than that. So it taught me to have compassion for him. And like I said in the book, I said in some ways I haunted him. He didn't just haunt me. He didn't have any relationship with us. And I think he felt regretted about that. And to finally ask, to the other part of your question about credibility, I think for me, when I'm writing a memoir, the most important thing to write, to think about is the honesty, is the truth. And I can't think about how people will react or the credibility. I just got to tell the truth. And that was a real pivotal moment in my life to really understand him.

So I said, I can't worry about credibility. And finally, I will say this, I think there are a lot of people, more people than we believe, than we realize who've had experiences like this.

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely.

John Blake: I mean, you think about it, the Bible is full of apparitions, ghosts, and people have all sorts of experiences, synchronistic events, appearances. I think these things happen to a lot of people, but we are afraid to talk about it. So I kept that in mind as well. And I said, “Well, maybe I won't feel alone.” Maybe there are other people saying, “You know what, something like that happened to me, let me tell you.”

Sy Hoekstra: And you actually talked to a chaplain, a hospital chaplain at one point who said he has people who when they're about to pass away, have all kinds of apparitions of family members who are ushering them to the afterlife. And you found other people, my point is, who had had experiences helping people walk through stuff like this who are actually religious leaders, including your father-in-law who's a pastor.

John Blake: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: So, I don't know. I just thought that was a really fascinating part of the book, and I appreciate you telling it, I appreciate very much the commitment to honesty and truth and the kind of empathy you're saying. There are people who are going to relate to this and I'm going to, they're going to be kind of the thumb on the scale, and not the people who are going to roll their eyes at me or whatever.

John Blake: Well, let me ask y'all a question. How do y'all think people will react to coming apart those kinds of stories in a book about race? How do you think people react to that?

Sy Hoekstra: I think there are a lot of people, actually, I agree with you. I think there are a ton of people who have stories like that who are totally open to that kind of thing [laughs].  Who are, obviously tons of people who are just kind of in more charismatic or Pentecostal parts of the church are just going to be like, “Yeah, stuff like that happens. Whatever.”


Jonathan Walton: I mean, for me, it's one of those things where like, oh man, somebody named it [laughs]. That’s what I think will happen. They'll be like, “Man, he wrote it down.” Or they'll just skip over it because it's not part of their milieu. You know what I mean? But I do think more people will feel validated than people will be vindictive.

John Blake: I don't really worry as much about people believe me or not, because I'm telling you, I envy people who say, “That's not real, couldn't happen.” Because it is an incredibly terrifying experience. I've had guns pulled on me. I've been in situations I thought I was going to die, but I have never been as terrified as I was in that situation. I try my best to describe the fear, how my body reacted, but it's something that has no frame of reference. Something totally alien. You think you're safe in your bedroom and you wake up and this, you see this and you’re, I didn't know how to deal with it.

Jonathan Walton: So in that same vein, your description of being in church, reading. You're sitting in a congregation, everyone's praising God, something in you wants to join them, but you leave instead of getting caught up in that. And I'm wondering to myself, what caused you not to run away this time? What has caused you and kept you walking with God, seeking out faith, trying to follow Jesus? What has kept you on that path towards doing really, really, really hard things?

John Blake: Wow. That's a deep question. Thank you. As I think about it in the book, there’s clearly a pattern to me running away from things. Like when I went to Howard, the last thing I wanted to be was become a Christian. And all these people kept on coming up to me, but I felt like I had to make a choice. So, to answer your question, I felt like there were all these moments in my life when it became clear to me that God was presenting a choice. And if I didn't make a choice, I was already making a choice. And that I had to decide, that I couldn't run away. Even if it was uncomfortable, even if it was scary, that if I was going to grow, I just had to stay in there and ride it out. I mean, that's just the way I felt. I've always, like, God has not felt distant to me.

I just feel like God is moving in people's lives. I've seen Him moving in people's lives. He's steered in my life and I just felt like I had to make those choices. But it's funny you said, you mentioned that I was thinking maybe that's why I attend a Presbyterian church now, because everything is so…


John Blake: There’s still part of me where these strong emotions, feelings scare me and I'm very restrained and measured, and that's a lot to do with the way I grew up. When you spend your time in a foster home, you don't know where your mother is, you don't know where your father is, you can't express your emotions. You can't be sad, you just have to keep everything in. And that habit has unfortunately stayed with me.

Jonathan Walton: Thanks for diving into that, because I was just like, I do believe that stories transform people, and it is a false binary to put stories versus statistics and things like that. But to hear how and why people stay, I think is the song, like, “the power of our testimony.”

John Blake: Yeah.

Jonathan Walton: If we can articulate that as honestly as we can then I think something happens when people say, “Okay, maybe I can stay too,” or “Maybe it's not…” You know what I mean? Like it's not always this pretty cookie cutter kind of deal, but to be able to enter in and be in true relationship with other people, with God and with yourself. To be in relationship and seek out the shalom that he intended in the first place is just, yeah. I think it's a great… I hope there are more conversations like that because of this book.

John Blake: I appreciate it. You talk about entering in those difficult moments and staying. Like a pivotal moment came from me in the book when I talked about going to that bible study in suburban Chicago, and I looked in there.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah.

John Blake: Before I rang the doorbell and I hesitated and I was like, “Oh God, nothing but white people [laughter]. I don't want to go in here and be the only Black person.” But I was like, “No, go in there.” And I rang that doorbell and I joined that bible study. For the first time in my life I became close friends with white people. And there were two young men who were my age, Paul and Andy. We became really tight friends that summer and that really changed me. So I always knew that fear isn't a reason to hold you back. That often when you're afraid of something, you are on the verge of something really beautiful and just stick with it and some good things will happen. And that's what happened to me.

Sy Hoekstra: Yeah. In the book that we just put out, in Tamice's book, she makes a big point of that, that fear is kind of the first thing that has to go when you want to see transformation happen. The things that pen you in, the things that keep you where you are and in your comfort zone are often the things holding you back a lot. It's interesting because your story is one where you experienced a lot of transformation by running into kind of standard issue white evangelicals [laughter].

John Blake: Yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: And Tamice had completely the opposite story where she was, that's what screwed her up was being entirely immersed in that world. But you're saying basically the combination of losing that fear and that contact that you were talking about, having positive contacts with people who are kind of with you on that mission. Like you said, they're trying to accomplish something else with you.

You actually had some people in that group who said a couple of things to you that I thought were, not necessarily profound, but like a higher level of insightful than I often [laughs] now expect. Like looking back at myself when I was just in a suburban white evangelical environment. Having somebody say to you, you should definitely go be a journalist because you are going to have perspectives that so many people don't have…

John Blake: Oh yeah, yeah.

Sy Hoekstra: …just from having grown up in West Baltimore, like you're going to be able to write things and have insights that are actually an advantage to you in understanding the world. That's what we talk about now, Jonathan.

Jonathan Walton: Mmhmm.

Sy Hoekstra: That's centering and elevating marginalized voices, right? That's what that is.

And I think it's interesting you can… I think it’s another example of how you can find so many different kinds of truth in unexpected places that you might be afraid of.

John Blake: That's a great point. And I was thinking about something how with all the hostility that I grew up grew up with toward white people, that some of the people that played key roles in helping me were white people. And be more specific, that some of the white people who helped me the most were white Christians who struggled a lot with racism. Like my Aunt Mary, I mean, she struggled with racism. But there's a scene where I talk about when I finally read all these letters she wrote, and I saw that she had changed, and she gives me hope that people can change. Like we look at what's happening right now with white evangelicals in the church, it's clear they have a huge problem with racism, and the way they've lined up behind Trump. And that's really shocking to a lot of people.

And you wonder, some people write them off saying, “Well, they just, they can't change. Don't even try to have dialogue with them.” I can't say that because I've seen my family change in ways I never imagined. Imagine that my Aunt Mary, the one who voted for Trump, who denied racism had anything to do with her decision to have nothing to do with me, who's now calling me, talking about John Lewis, Black Lives Matter. I see this change, man. It just gives me tremendous hope. And even the pastor at the integrated church I went to in Atlanta, Nibs, this is a guy that grew up in Jim Crow South, thought that Black people were subhuman. What happened? He moved to New York, he joined this anti-poverty program where he worked with Black people on something larger than race, and that changed him. And I talked to him yesterday. So I still have a lot of hope.

I don't think particularly as Christians, we can write people off, when we see somebody like a Saul becomes a Paul. We shouldn't write people off.

Sy Hoekstra: Mmhmm.

John Blake: Hey, I want to compliment you both. You guys really read the book [laughter]. I'm so… I know how it's when I have to interview people and I got to read a book fast, but you can really tell people who read the book. And I'm so honored that it didn't bore you and that you read the whole thing and you ask such good questions. I really appreciate it.

Sy Hoekstra: Oh it did not even come close to boring me [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Not at all.

Sy Hoekstra:  Are you kidding me? Once a ghost shows up, I'm like, where is this going?


Jonathan Walton: Because it takes so much to write a book. And for me and Sy and the camp that we hang out with, we're not going to at least, we push each other. If we're going to write about something, we got to read the whole thing. We don't need retractions and all that. And if we're going to promote something we want to promote what we want to promote and send out. And so that's what I hope our subscribers and the folks downstream of our influence get.

John Blake: No, I appreciate it. Yeah. Because it was a difficult story to tell and I don't know… you know my mother died when I was writing this, and that was hard. It just like, how do I put this in the story and how do I grieve? And one of my favorite parts of the book is the end when I had to say, I don't know if we reveal this, but when I had to say goodbye to her. That was when the first time in my life I said like, I was ashamed of her when I was young because she was white. Then I was ashamed of her because she had schizophrenia. But at the very end of her life, when I really began to think about the courage it took for a 19, 20 year old white woman to do what she did, that was the first time I’m like, I am proud to be her son.

It just took me so long to see that in her and to say goodbye to her that way was really tough, but they have that little beautiful little fortuitous accident, whatever you want to call it. This frigid winter landscape we're saying goodbye and then you just look in the sky and see the sun breakthrough. It just really helped me a lot. Maybe it’s kind of corny and all, but I really began to see she was an incredible woman. I always thought my father was the real badass because he was just, he was a Merchant Marine, he was tough, he did what he wanted. But she was just as courageous, if not more than he was.

Sy Hoekstra: I thought that part was beautiful.

John Blake:  Thank you.

Sy Hoekstra: There are people close to me in my life that have mental illness too, and to get to that point where you just see people as you put it, for the hand they've been dealt, what do they do with the hand they were dealt? Not like, what are they on some other… how can they hold down a job or how can they be productive or whatever? And for you, I think to get to the point where you see your mom was dealt a really tough hand, not just with her own mental illness, with her mother's mental illness, with her father's alcoholism, with everything else, and to see what a vibrant person she was when she was young, and how she made incredibly risky attempts...

John Blake: Yes.

Sy Hoekstra: …to cross bounds of racism and could not have seemingly cared less about the risk that that was to her. And your dad was the same way. He was also extremely brave. But to be able to see her through that lens. Just what was the hand that she was dealt and what did she do with it. And from there you're able to say, I was proud to be her son and I am in fact proof that the world can change.

John Blake: Man, y'all read the book! Golly.

Sy Hoekstra: [laughs] But that was, I don't know, that touches me personally on just with relationships that I have, and that is potent stuff, man. If more people thought that way, that would be an incredible result of you writing this really beautiful thing.

John Blake: Thank you.

Sy Hoekstra: So other than going to buy the book, more than I imagined [laughs], is there anything else you want people to do? Do you want people to follow you anywhere or any other work you want to plug?

John Blake: No, no. I mean, I appreciate the opportunity. I think to pick up on what you said about my mom, if anybody could take something away from this is, I talk about at the end, as you mentioned, the kind of courage it took for her to do what she did. And I gave a little TED Talk recently where I said, I really don't know. I still don't understand why she took those risks. And I said, I don't think I ever will. But what I said is that, just think about it. When my mom got together with my father in 1963, interracial marriage was illegal. A Black man could easily get killed for walking with the white woman down the street. That was the world. The idea of interracial marriage and biracial children being open, that was like unheard of.

And look at today. Oh man, I see interracial couples, biracial children everywhere and no one thinks about it. And I'm like, how did that happen? And the message I wanted people to take away from the book, if anything, is I talk about that thing what I call good contagion. That when people like my mom and that generation, there were others like her, her and my mother and father. They didn't wait for a politician to decide or a judge to decide. They said, “This is right. I'm willing to take a risk. People are people.” And she went out and she took these risks, she paid the price for it. But because of people like her, they created that conditions where it became a norm, and nobody thinks twice about it. So I think ordinary people have tremendous power, and we shouldn't forget that because I see so many people who feel hopeless, things can't change, and I'm like, “Look at my mom.”

Look at what she did. She had no power in the world, but through the power of what she did with my father and others like her at that time, they created this new world where nobody thinks twice about interracial marriage or biracial children. Nobody's peddling that sick stuff that it’s bad for the children or it's sinful. You couldn't even say that stuff now and get away with it. So I just hope people remember the power of her example and how—what ordinary people can do.

Sy Hoekstra: That's a brilliant place to end [laughs].

Jonathan Walton: Absolutely.

Sy Hoekstra: John Blake, thank you so much for being on Shake the Dust with us. We really, really appreciate it.

[The intro piano music from “Citizens” by Jon Guerra plays briefly and then fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: Thank you so much for listening to this episode. Please remember to go to KTFPress.com and consider becoming a paid subscriber. And remember until June 19th, we have that sale going: 50 percent off an entire year's subscription. That's just $35 for the whole year. You can get that by going to KTFPress.com/season3. That’s KTFPress.com/season, and the number three.

Thanks again for listening. Our theme song as always is “Citizens” by Jon Guerra. Our podcast Art is by Jacqueline Tam, and we will see you all back here in two weeks.

[The song “Citizens” by Jon Guerra fades in. Lyrics: “And that you’re building a city/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home/ Where we arrive as immigrants/ And you call us citizens/ And you welcome us as children home.” The song fades out.]

Sy Hoekstra: You said the “Glad” Media Award, but it's G-L-A-A-D. Do they say glad? Is that how they pronounce it?

Jonathan Walton: Yeah, that's how they say it.

Sy Hoekstra: Because there's two a's my screen reader pronounces it glaad [with a long A sound and dramatic emphasis].


Jonathan Walton: That's funny.

KTF Press
Shake the Dust
Seeking Jesus, confronting injustice–Shake the Dust features candid interviews and informed discussions that guide us as we resist the idols of America.