Most of us are hoping that the partnership between Vice President-elect Kamala Harris and President-elect Joe Biden will be as harmonious and effective as was the first Black-and-white presidential team in our history, which also included Biden.
This is partly because most Americans, and most Minnesotans, voted for them, but also because a new urgency has taken hold around racial issues. Awareness of systemic racism is rising and support for Black Lives Matter has never been higher. And the fact that Harris and Biden have put a much higher priority on anti-racist policies than their opponents reflects the fact that many voters of many colors, in three of the last four presidential elections, have chosen a biracial team to lead our nation.
Progress toward full partnership and equity has been slow. But we think it might be helpful to draw inspiration from American history — from many other Black-and-white duos who have contributed mightily, not just in politics and racial justice, but in arts and culture, sports, science and technology.
We surely have left out outstanding examples. We also know that some of these partnerships were flawed, short-lived or troubled, as with most human relationships, especially in the presence of inequality. But here’s our quick list of 10 Black-and-white duos who have improved our nation and our lives.
Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison: Douglass (1818-1895), a giant in America’s struggle to end slavery, was an escaped slave himself and emerged as a persuasive champion of emancipation before the Civil War, and of full equality afterward. Garrison (1805-1879) was the fiery white champion for abolition and was co-editor with Douglass of the movement’s leading newspaper, “The Liberator.”
Harriet Tubman and Thomas Garrett: Tubman (died 1913), a famed conductor of the Underground Railroad and featured in the recent movie “Harriet,” was aided by many white allies but especially abolitionist and iron merchant Garrett (1789-1871). He wrote in a letter: “For in truth I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct on her soul.” A city park named for Tubman and Garrett lies just five miles from Biden’s home in Wilmington, Del.
George Washington Carver and Henry A. Wallace: Dubbed “the Black Leonardo” by Time magazine, Carver (1864?-1943) was a legendary agricultural scientist and environmentalist who developed hundreds of new ag products and conservation techniques. He formed a lifelong friendship and alliance with Wallace (1888-1965), a protégé who later became U.S. agriculture secretary and went on to become vice president of the United States under Franklin Roosevelt. Through Wallace and others, Carver was a key influence on U.S. farm policy and practices.
Matthew Henson and Robert Peary: Peary (1856-1920) got all the attention for being the first to the North Pole (or almost there, according to later revisionists) but Henson (1866-1955) and several Inuit partners actually were in the lead on that 1909 expedition. Peary described Henson as his “first man” in all endeavors and Henson in his own right was instrumental in researching and expanding knowledge about cold weather survival skills. He was the first African American admitted into the prestigious and previously all-white Explorers Club.
James Baldwin and Sol Stein: It was acclaimed writer Baldwin’s old high school friend, Sol Stein (1926-2019), a rising New York editor and writer himself, who suggested that Baldwin (1924-1987) write what became his seminal first collection of essays, “Notes of a Native Son.” Stein told Baldwin in one of the many letters they exchanged, “You are the only friend with whom I feel comfortable about all three: head, heart and writing.”
Jackie Robinson and Branch Rickey: Baseball Hall-of-Famers Robinson (1919-1972), an outstanding hitter and fielder, and Rickey (1881-1965), general manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, worked closely together to integrate baseball in 1947. Most of the sports world quickly followed. Thousands of strong interracial friendships and partnerships in sports have blossomed over the last 75 years.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bob Zellner: The son and grandson of KKK members, Zellner (1939-) was one of the most important and influential white southerners recruited to the civil rights movement by King (1929-1968) and Rosa Parks. Zellner became the first white Southern field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was arrested 25 times in at least five states in during the 1960s civil rights protests. His story is the subject of a new and critically acclaimed movie, “Son of the South” by executive producer Spike Lee.
Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis: These Hollywood giants were co-stars in the 1958 movie “The Defiant Ones,” a breakthrough affirmation of racial equality. The movie told a fictional story about two escaped convicts, one Black and the other white, forced by the chain that bound them together into cooperating and eventually understanding and embracing one another. Numerous screen and stage productions since then have featured Black-and-white duos, exemplified by Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones in the “Men in Black” series.
Katherine Johnson and John Glenn: The story of Black women whose laborious mathematical calculations guided America’s space program in its early days has been well-told in a book and motion picture, “Hidden Figures.” This partnership involved several Black female mathematicians and white men who were running NASA, but we chose these two because astronaut and later U.S. Sen. Glenn (1921-2016) actually demanded that Johnson (1918-2020) personally work the numbers before his epic three-orbit mission in 1963.
Prince and Madonna: Collaborators on the hit “Love Song” and in other ways, Prince and Madonna represent thousands of Black-and-white partnerships that have enriched every genre of American music over the last century. Memorable pairs include Stevie Wonder and Paul McCartney, Duke Ellington and Frank Sinatra, LL Cool J and Brad Paisley, and perhaps the most inclusive musical statement ever, “We Are the World,” a 1985 megahit for African famine relief.
The moral of our stories should be obvious: All of us need to create or expand on these genuine one-on-one interracial friendships and partnerships, personal and professional, moving beyond the superficial tokenism that too often passes for inclusion. Truly equal partnership builds trust and deepens understanding of what the other person really thinks and feels, and how their culture has shaped them. And the examples these alliances set for others creates ripple effects whose impact can’t be overestimated.
We know that interracial partnering will not be simple or inevitable. Research reported recently in the Washington Post estimates that 75% of white Americans have no Black friends while the average Black person has eight white friends. Doing the right thing here will require some actual training, hard work, persistence and patience, especially for whites.
But more than ever people seem to be willing to take some initial steps toward forming new partnerships and are engaging in “courageous conversations.” There’s reason to believe that many new bonds were created in the wave of multiracial calls for change after the killing of George Floyd.
Among the Minnesota optimists on this score is Vivian Jenkins Nelsen, chief executive of the Hypatia Group Inc., a senior fellow at Augsburg University, and co-founder of INTER-RACE, a think tank promoting interracial cooperation. Noting King’s reference to a favorable “zeitgeist,” Nelsen says, “these collaborations are the spirit of our time. … There has been a change and our young people are involved. It’s wonderful to see.”
Louis Porter II is clinical professor at the University of St. Thomas and a former executive director of the Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage. Dane Smith is a former Star Tribune political reporter and senior fellow for Growth & Justice, a nonprofit that advocates for a more equitable economy in Minnesota.