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Let's have a talk about race.

High-school portraits of Neil Caudle and Tim Beamer

My new book, Beamer, is a true story about a Black man, written by a White man. That’s a problem. Even worse, Beamer deals with race. For a white-bread writer like me, it’s taboo. Several years ago, when I shared my idea for this book among enlightened friends, they squirmed and worried aloud about the risks. Wouldn’t people accuse me of exploiting my hero, Tim Beamer? Or appropriating his culture? Wouldn’t I sabotage myself as a credible writer, wandering half blind through the minefield of race? Yes, yes, yes.

But the story of Timothy Carl Beamer simply had to be told, and no one else was signing up to tell it. I did the research, interviewed Tim and his family and friends, wrote the book, and gave it to Tim for review. He liked it and encouraged me to publish it. He thought it was honest, he said.

For more than a year, I pitched the book to agents. Only one of them leveled with me: No one, he said, will publish a book about race and the life of a Black man, if the author is White. No other agent even bothered to reply, except for the boilerplate, “This is not for us.”

And there are practical reasons aplenty for me to abandon this book. Tim Beamer is neither famous nor infamous, so a market for his story simply does not exist ready-made. In an era when it seems there are more writers than readers, most aspiring authors invest huge amounts of time and energy posting on social media, building their brands. I haven’t done that. The story will have to create its own buzz, and the odds of that are infinitesimally small.

Then again, what were the odds that in the mid 1960s a Black kid from Galax, Virginia—a kid who had never even worn a football helmet until he was a junior in high school—would somehow overcome virulent racism, scandal, and personal tragedy to earn the title of CIAA All-American and then a job in the National Football League? Infinitesimally small. If anyone is qualified to advise me on how to overcome long odds, it is Tim Beamer.

The story won’t wait, so I have published the book on my own, using Amazon. Having published a novel with Putnam, a prestigious, mainstream imprint, I know very well that self-publishing, or “vanity publishing” to the gatekeepers in New York, will be seen as a failure, a defection, and a literary suicide—a career killer. Today, that way of thinking is becoming obsolete, thanks to the rapidly growing, energetic, and hugely disruptive phenomenon of self-publishing. For millions of readers today, a good read is a good read, regardless of imprint.

But I do acknowledge the problem of my point of view. I am prepared to stipulate, on the record, that I am fallible, insufficiently woke, and likely naïve on the topic of race. By writing and publishing this book, I risk exposing my ignorance. I risk stumbling into condescension, self-delusion, and self-serving bouts of white guilt. In the arena of public discourse about race, I will take flak. But the story is worth that risk.

I do concede, though, that some readers may not trust me to tell a Black man’s story. Those readers may, with good reason, be suspicious of my motives. I have thought about this problem long and hard. What are my motives? Why this man, Tim Beamer, and why his story? The answer is simple: Tim is important to me. He was my childhood hero. He was also the guy my father treated like a son. I have always known that Tim Beamer was and is the kind of man my father wanted me to be.

So I have put myself into the story to expose, as honestly I can, my background, my limitations, and my motives. Readers can judge for themselves. My father was a character in Tim’s life, and so was my mother. Tim and I shared a school, a hometown, and the gravitational pull of the Blue Ridge Mountains. To me, it makes sense to tell Tim’s story alongside my own, to compare step-by-step how race, family, and heritage affected the course of our lives. As I talked with him, traveled back to Galax with him, met his friends and teammates, and visited his college campus with him, we took a long, emotional, and sometime arduous journey into his past and mine. For decades I admired the man and envied him too. Now that I’ve gotten to know him as more than an athlete and hero, I love him.

People often say, “In this country, we need to have a conversation about race.” But no one explains what a White man like me might contribute to that conversation, other than admissions of guilt, bias, insensitivity, and privilege. I will not deny those faults; they are incontestable. But I will also dare to say that this book contains a genuine, two-way conversation about race. Beamer, I believe, illustrates that two human beings, one White and one Black, can find their way to common ground, mutual respect, trust, understanding, and love. Tim is the hero of this story. I am his student and scribe. It’s my job to share what we’ve learned.


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