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Not a Genuine Black Man: Or, How I Claimed My Piece of Ground in the Lily-White Suburbs

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Based on the longest-running one-man show in San Francisco history -- now coming to Off-Broadway -- a hilarious, poignant, and disarming memoir of growing up black in an all-white suburb In 1972, when Brian Copeland was eight, his family moved from Oakland to San Leandro, California, hoping for a better life. At the time, San Leandro was 99.4 percent white, known nationwide as a racist enclave. This reputation was confirmed almost Brian got his first look at the inside of a cop car, for being a black kid walking to the park with a baseball bat. Brian grew up to be a successful comedian and radio talk show host, but racism reemerged as an issue -- only in reverse -- when he received an anonymous "As an African American, I am disgusted every time I hear your voice because YOU are not a genuine Black man!" That letter inspired Copeland to revisit his difficult childhood, resulting in a hit one-man show that has been running for nearly two years -- which has now inspired a book. In this funny, surprising, and ultimately moving memoir, Copeland shows exactly how our surroundings make us who we are.

272 pages, Hardcover

First published January 1, 2006

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Brian Copeland

5 books7 followers

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5 stars
152 (33%)
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206 (45%)
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73 (16%)
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19 (4%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 90 reviews
Profile Image for Roderic Moore.
11 reviews
August 1, 2011
This book has special relevance to me since my wife and I live in San Lorenzo adjacent to San Leandro and less than a mile from where most of the events in this book took place. My wife grew up in San Leandro and she actually hired Brian at a retail shop which she was managing when he was about 18 years old. So, this book was read by myself with a lesser degree of seperation than perhaps many of its readers. Having said that, this made the book all that more powerful, and literally and figuratively closer to home. This book should be required reading by young adults within the school system. No book I've ever read exposes the insidious and destructive nature of racism so clearly, even racism between members of the same ethnicity and race which is directed at eachother. Brian overcame seemingly insurmountable challenges with an inner strength, perseverance, acute intelligence, and the grace, dignity and love of the women in his youth, namely his mother and grandmother. This is must read. It is a book that draws you in and is infectious in its truth, power and victory.
Profile Image for Margaret.
1,004 reviews6 followers
September 12, 2014
Reading this book was very engaging and a very quick read, it carries you along into Mr. Copeland's life and experiences. I loved the honestly, perspective and especially the humor. The initial outline of the back to back chapters alternates back to his childhood and then forward to his adult life was spot-on. I think it gave the entire book momentum and an unique perspective. Race, culture and prejudice has always been an interest of mine and this is one of my favorites, in short, an awesome read.
Profile Image for Dayspring.
117 reviews
August 30, 2011
Like most good comedians, Copeland knows how to weave together comedy and tragedy. This results in a memoir that is both hilariously entertaining and also a painful window into post-civil rights era racism in the U.S.

On a totally random note, I appreciated that Copeland only mentioned in passing his divorce and never disparaged his first wife. Too many memoirs (especially "celebrity" memoirs) seem to be used as an excuse to throw friends/family/colleagues under the bus. Copeland never does this, which I respect. My one critique is that Copeland did not spend more time at the end of the book looking at the continued institutionalized racism and systems of privilege within our society. He concludes the book with a fairly optimistic reflection on how much better things are now in the Bay Area suburb where he grew up and continues to live. Yes, we have come a long way, but I think there was a missed opportunity to point to how far we still have to go. Even so, I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it.
Profile Image for Sean.
1 review
March 11, 2009
Have you ever lived as the minority? Wheter its skin color, height or size? Brian Copeland faced this first hand when he and his family (african american) moved to San Leandro, a place that is 99.99% white.
Not a Genuine Black Man "My life as an outsider" takes us on trip throught th life of Brian Copeland and his kind of flip flopped family. Their struggles, hardships, and success stories while living in a town that rejeceted them.This book has constant themes of raciscm, retalliation, and identity.In this book you get a real personal feel. Copeland writes in many different points of views to tell his story.His style is bold and to the point.A passage from the book is: I like old Motown; that's black. But i also like the Beach Boys. That isn't. I don't believe blacks should be paid reparations for slavery, but if they sen me the check i'll cash it. I'm confused, I'm not crazy.

I would recommend this book to people who want to learn about living in a segregated area thirty years ago. Probably between the ages of 12 and up. There is some mild language and use of the N word. i'm on pg210
Profile Image for Linda.
4 reviews
February 12, 2009
Excellent depiction of life growing up as a black male in a white suburb in the 1980's. Brian Copeland adds humor and warmth to the frustrations (an understatement, yes) in growing up under covert and overt racial discrimination in various aspects of life--Catholic school, housing, walking down the street, boy scouts, interaction with law enforcement, and in making friends. The strength of this book is that it is real, not just a bunch of statistics and generalizations, so the reader can see the good and the bad in a community. There were some surprising friends and foes, which make the story all the more compelling. It was a hard life, but there were a minority of white citizens, who did help his family out, under no interest of their own, which helped pave the way for racial acceptance.
Profile Image for Adrienna.
Author 18 books231 followers
January 14, 2019
Brian Copeland wrote a memoir on his life experiences that highlight the racial slurs, bullied-fights, the touching of his hair (Brillo Pad, roughness emphasized) to changing it to a textured style for acceptance, and even facing social and emotional effects while living in Oakland and San Leandro. These two neighborhoods differed between the demographics, where Oakland has mainly Blacks and San Leandro was predominately Whites during the 60s and 70s (unsure how it is today). Once his family moved to an all-white neighborhood, he faced racial struggles to where his family taught and encouraged him to adapt to being assimilated to this white culture, including with their religion and politics, as well as their mannerisms, education, and speaking as such. However, he was never truly accepted, even marrying a woman of European descent.

I felt Part 2 of the memoir picked up for me, and the climatic section of the entire memoir. I could envision being there and put in his position as I read it. I really liked how he touched on no matter how successful you are in the public eye, you can still have a blade stuck in you (pain) which can lead to a fatal suicidal death like his friend Duane, over the SF Bridge. This can be a touchy subject, but is real, and think of Diana Ross song, “Reach out and Touch somebody’s hand…make this world a better place, if you can.”

My only complaint is the memoir is not in chronological ordering, but seems to jump around a bit to where I am wondering how he was a young male or child to 35 something, and then goes back to the incident that happened two or more chapters ago.

However, I did like how he spoke on the real estate, or gentrification where they do what they can to keep blacks out of the suburbs or predominantly whites. I briefly spoke about this with my significant other and sometimes it doesn’t matter how wealthy you are or famous, still may not be able to be in certain areas.

“…It doesn’t matter how hard I try, how hard I try to do good things. It doesn’t matter because people will think I’m a bad person (page 184).” This is sad that we still have people who view black people as bad; one bad person makes the whole race as such. He pointed out even in the dictionary, the term itself, black, has so many bad synonyms for the word alone in comparison to its acronym term, white. Furthermore, I did like how he shown how some view “genuine black person” as a thug, dealer, abuser, etc. versus someone who speaks eloquently, gets married and has child into wedlock as not being one. We, as a black race, face so many stereotypes, in movies are type-casted, and stigmas that seem to stick no matter what, which makes me want to read the book: “Black Rage” soon that’s written by two Black psychologists.

Even as a multicultural woman, I face certain stigmas too as whether I am going to be/act Black or more European.

Thanks for sharing your truths, your story, and sprinkled a little comedy. I hope to see if this can be a future book club read with the group I work/facilitate.

Disclaimer: I borrowed a copy from the local library and gave my honest review.
Profile Image for Bob Schmitz.
620 reviews10 followers
August 27, 2019
My friend Gordon Imrie whose new wife lives in Hayward, CA was explaining the diversity and richness of the town and mentioned this book about one of it's long time residents. Brian Copeland, now a successful comedian, tells a horrible, sad story of racism toward a good family and remarkably decent boy in a painful, funny manner.

Copeland moved to San Leandro with his mother and grandmother in 1972 when he was 8. San Leandro, bordering Oakland on the North and Hayward to the South was 99.99% white in 1970 while Oakland was 50% black. Policemen sat on the border with Oakland and followed every black driver or pedestrian until they left often encouraging them to do so. Oakland had previously been primarily white but after WWII blockbusting had lead to it's large black population. A white Realtor would buy a house from a white owner and then sell perhaps even at a loss to a black family. White flight would begin and the Realtor would reap many commissions with the ensuing sales. Though though unenforceable race covenants remained in deeds in San Leandro, a remnant of white racism toward Chinese immigrants that had been declared illegal by the Supreme Court in 1948, a Realtor in Hayward to the south devised a way through neighborhood associations to arbitrarily decide who would be a suitable homeowner. These included agreements by members of homeowners to not show or sell their homes to blacks.

In 1963 a black state assemblyman, Bryon Rumford got the state to pass a bill that disallowed discrimination in housing on the basis of race, creed or color. In '64 the act was repealed by by a 2-1 margin by Prop 14 which posed the issue as a property right issue allowing bigots to feel better about being bigots. In 1966 the State Supreme Court rule that Prop 14 was unconstitutional. That same year Ronald Reagan ran on a pledge to overturn Rumford saying in essence "vote for me and I will make it legal for you to discriminate."

And 8 yo Brian Copeland moved into this cauldron of racism. While walking with a baseball bat and glove to look for a ball park he was stopped by a policeman who accused him or carrying a weapon and returned to his home and told to stay out of parks. His mother who had come to San Leandro to give her children better opportunities remained loving toward Brian without submitting to the racism and without displaying hatred. All the kids at school wanted to touch his hair but no one wanted to cut it. He had to go to Oakland for a barber after multiple humiliating refusals in San Leandro. School was filled with loneliness, taunts and isolation. His dad who showed up only occasionally was an drunkard and abusive man and finally left for good when a teenage Brian threaten to kill hims with a knife if he did not stop choking his mother.

Brian got very confusing messages growing up. His mom would tell him to be proud of being black but when he misbehaved she'd say act your age not your color. As a successful black male who talks "white" and lives in nice house in a stable neighborhood his authenticity as a black is questioned whereas no one is questioning the authenticity of the guy on the street corner selling crack. His father, not a good man or father never had his blackness questioned.

The book chronicles his struggles though childhood and as a adult coping with depression, a suicide attempt, a daughter who wanted a white (good) barbie. He tells of his white geeky friend from grade school who remains his best friend today.

Brian stayed in San Leandro after his mother died. It had become a much more diverse community with the people (white) who wanted to live with people just like them moving on to Alamo, Danville, Orinda and Walnut Creek (where I grew up)

A beautiful, poignant story of the pain and harm of racism and a tough family's navigation through that storm.
Profile Image for William.
218 reviews106 followers
April 5, 2010
This is one hell of a book. It should always be read as a companion piece to James Loewens "Sundown Towns". It is the micro, Brian Copeland's story of growing up as the only Black in a white Sundown Town, to Loewens macro study. It is nothing at all like what I expected. I thought I was going to get a comedy routine, (the author makes his living as a comedian) but instead got a tale of heartbreak, brutality, inhumanity, and racial bigotry only slightly leavened by humor. The book is sometimes maddening. Copeland grew up in San Leandro, California and endured insults and physical attacks worse than any in the deepest South. I'm torn between calling his family heroic or stupid. Not that I suggest they run from there rightful choice to live wherever they wanted. But the alliances they built and the seeming pathological need to be accepted on the part of his mother by these racist of the worst variety boggles my mind. Of course the daily beatings at school and isolation end up taking a very personal toll on Copeland which he describes. His title comes from an accusation hurled at him by a radio call-in. Sometimes I would tend to agree. Afterall he grew up literally across the street from the headquarters of the Black Panther party yet was more afraid of them then the undercover KKK which tried their damnedest to drive the family out of town.
I just don't think you can read this book and not be affected by it. At times wanting to shake some sense into him, at time outraged at the violence directed towards him and sometimes crying in sympathy or rejoicing.
Profile Image for Dollie.
242 reviews7 followers
December 31, 2008
I am not a fast reader but I ended up powering through this book in a couple of days. Brian Copeland has an important story to tell and he does it pretty well! It is heart wrenching to read what he had to deal with at such a young age but it is ultimately a tale of triumph. One of the reasons I have enjoyed life in Northern CA is the diversity and tolerance I perceived. He serves us well by educating us that bigotry and racism can and does happen anywhere and everywhere. Tying his story to his adult life reminds us our history can take a toll if we don't deal with our issues. This book has a message for anyone dealing with depression too. This man understands hopelessness and the importance of finding help. This is a story well told and I feel better for having read it. To sum up the his ending, paraphrased and much less eloquently: "'Not a Genuine Black Man', huh? Bite me!"

"Not a Genuine Black Man" is the "Silicon Valley Read's" choice for 2009. Brian Copeland will be appearing in all kinds of venues in the Santa Clara Valley (public libraries, county offices, etc.) to discuss his book during January, February and March. I plan to attend at least one of his appearances.

Profile Image for Rochelle.
303 reviews10 followers
May 11, 2009
As I said in one of my status updates, everyone should read this book. He explores with humor, raw honesty, and genuine curiosity the racial prejudice he experienced growing up in San Leandro, and encounters today. It is a book that will really debunk some of the misconception about how liberal California is with respect to race, and will highlight how racism is as prevalent here as anywhere else in the country. Frankly, the history of deliberate racial segregation instituted and enforced by the real estate industry and homeowner associations was such an eyeopener, I don't think I will ever look at either in the same way again.
Fundamentally, though, this book is about personal triumph and the encouragement, understanding, help and inspiration that came from unlikely sources. Read it and go watch his show, you'll laugh and you'll learn something and come away feeling less racially or socially isolated, more human, more authentically a person.
Profile Image for Lena.
45 reviews3 followers
September 3, 2014
My sister, a UC Berkeley pre-law student, recommended this book to me after one of her courses led her to Copeland's play and a book signing where she met him and spoke with him of our father- his life, and the perspective we have as his daughters. A short conversation with Brian had her enthused and more deeply invested in her history, our fathers history, and the histories of other black families in her surroundings. She insisted I read the book, and once I picked it up I didn't put it down until I had read thru the afterward and the acknowledgements. Copeland's honesty is haunting yet cathartic, humorous yet painful, personal yet inclusive. It was a fantastic read that spoke to my background as a black woman, as an eldest sibling, as a Californian, and as one who has often felt out of place and out of options. To Brian- thanks for sharing your story with my family; we're sending the book to Dad with our notes in the margins =]
June 5, 2011
Both hilarious and poignant, as it is written by a comedian who has attempted suicide and addressed firsthand the tragic difficulties of being black in a white world.
Excellent book, highly recommended.

As a San Francisco bay area resident (but not for that long), it was also incredulous/interesting to read about this history of San Leandro of which I had no idea.
From Wikipedia,
San Leandro was an 86.4% white-non Hispanic community according to the 1970 census. And in 1960 census, San Leandro was just shy of 100% white with the non-hispanic white being 99.7% African-Americans were excluded by the use of "covenants" as well as the collusion of real estate agents, some of whom refused to sell houses to African-Americans. The police were purportedly to sometimes harass African-Americans who crossed the border into San Leandro from Hayward and Oakland.
77 reviews
June 4, 2009
Wow. This is quite a book. It had me laugh out loud and tear up as well. Brian Copeland's childhood and youth is unimaginable, and the way to adulthood is quite a rocky road. I was impressed by his relative neutral tone of voice, which allows for the reader to develop an own reaction to the content. The injustice endured, narrated matter-of-factually, just appears the more monstrous and arbitrary this way. The book got me thinking about fitting in and being an outsider and how this must be one of the more prevalent human attributes, that people form groups and either let you in or fight so hard against it.
The book ends with an optimistic message of hope, that people can overcome their prejudices and bigotry in the course of generations and while that might take a while, it is a worthwhile endeavor that enriches not only personal lives, but that of civilization as a whole.
Profile Image for Anne-Michelle.
79 reviews12 followers
January 19, 2010
I was very impressed by the depth of this book, especially considering it was written from a comedian and humor was present throughout, which kept it very entertaining and still got down deep inside of him. I've ready other first-person narratives about the suppression of blacks, and I've never identified with the author like I did with Brian Copeland. He gave personal, private examples of bigotry and racism in today's society -- a world that I actually grew up in and can relate to. His issues with an abusive, yet absent, father, a mother who wanted to assimilate into their 99% white community, being excluded and ridiculed in school, and not being a stereotypical "black" man truly made him into the man he is today. Very well written, and a quick read.
Profile Image for Veronica.
36 reviews2 followers
August 6, 2008
Very good book. Ever been called a coconut, twinkie, orep etc? This book is a really heartfelt and at many times totally gut wrenching exploration of what it really means to be a "genuine" black person, or mexican or chinese.... It made me sad at times because he really went through some tough stuff, but I totally recommend it. Cant wait till the book club meeting when I get to discuss it with all the white older women in the group ( I am the only non-white person in the group and the only one younger than 55.)
Profile Image for Crystal.
257 reviews4 followers
February 25, 2009
This is the book that all of Santa Clara County (Bay Area) is reading for 2009. There have been multiple events around this. Brian Copeland was my favorite on Channel 2 (KTVU) news back in the 90s. Who knew that he hated the job, was in pain, and even tried to commit suicide. This book is funny and at times heartbreaking. I had no idea that the Bay Area was so segregated in the 70s. It's an important read. It was particularly interesting to read right after I finished Barack Obama's Dreams From My Father--two quite different experiences of African-American men in America.
Profile Image for Nancy.
465 reviews
August 31, 2009
Brian pulls us into his life as the outside, hated punching-bag child and as a man who finally hits the wall via depression. I'm not quite sure how he is such a decent human being after such treatment--he certainly didn't learn it from his abusive, negligent father or the string of unbelievably cruel adults he encountered. What I did gain from Brian's book is that how individuals treat and interact with others is incredibly important. Thank goodness there were a few good and decent people in his life.
Profile Image for Pamela H.
30 reviews1 follower
September 6, 2007
This book is sad but very good. It is the real account of the life of Brian Copeland who grew up in a white suburb that was dedicated to keeping black folk living outside of its borders. He was put in the back of a police cruiser and taken home at the age of 8 as he was on the way to the park to play and it didn't get much better than that through his whole life.

He's a survivor, though and the book is both touching and insightful.
161 reviews
September 8, 2008
It shocks me to hear about the racism that stills exists in my area of the world. Somehow I always think the worst of it passed before I was born and occurred in other parts of the U.S. This is a funny/sad/sometimes shocking andvery personal account of this man's experiences growing up black in a white and often racist community in the Bay Area and the damage done to him and how he found some healing. I was surprised to find out he still lives there!
5 reviews1 follower
June 17, 2009
Awesome. Funny and shocking - a little piece of local shame and victory. Highly convicting without descending into lecturing, Copeland lays out his childhood experience and lets the reader decide how to feel about them. He's funny enough that I found myself laughing, even as my brain yelled "Hey! That's not funny; it's horrible.", and his humor made the shockingly serious moments even more effective.
Profile Image for Janaina.
1 review1 follower
May 1, 2012
It was just amazing how Copeland tells his own story as a black guy that suffered all the prejudices since he was a kid. The book is a good source of knowledge of how the life was for black people in the 60's to 70's in a small town, San Leandro - San Francisco Bay Area. I strongly recommend this book because the way it was written, because of the presence of Copeland's humor all trough this book and also because the emotional moments of a true story that really touched me.
Profile Image for Rosh.
52 reviews
June 15, 2010
Its a story on racism in United States... the author's true story, based in the East Bay, California. Its a well written book with a lot of humor, at the same time it reaches your heart.

There are some stories of discrimination that a lot of people can relate to. Like the time BC talks about service at a restaurant .... "Is it just bad service or is it me." ...
Profile Image for Mickey.
Author 1 book3 followers
March 16, 2020
Lots of feelings vying for uppermost spot in my brain after reading this book! For the first half of the book, I was going to give this a solid 3 stars, as I was pretty put off by all the profanity. (I was lucky enough to hear Copeland speak at my place of employment. I REALLY enjoyed his talk, and no profanity!) But as I continued, I was struck by how much pain is described in this book. There's a lot, and Copeland does a great job of describing what led up to his pain, how it affected his day-to-day life, how he tried to keep it in check, and how he eventually controlled it. Very powerful stuff in these pages!

Copeland is a comic, so there is plenty to laugh at. I particularly enjoyed his running comments on whether his feelings or behavior was "black" or "not black." (Example: he doesn't ski. That's black. He really likes Rick Springfield. Definitely not black.)

The lily-white suburb in the subtitle is San Leandro, which is not far from where I live. He describes moving to San Leandro in 1969. I had no idea that San Leandro was overwhelmingly white and very racist at that time. It sure isn't now. Although he describes a lot of the harassment in other aspects of his life (school, barber shops, interactions with policemen), Copeland really dives into the local real estate industry. The details he's researched are incredible, even substantiated by interviews with former realtors.

The book ends on a very strong, uplifting note. He describes the improvements in San Leandro since he moved there, and takes pleasure in having helped make some of these come to pass. He's proud to say he still lives there. His one-man show, which this book evolved from, was a huge success. All seemed good at the beginning of the last chapter, which he added to describe how he finally came to peace with his relationship with his deadbeat father. Copeland is quite a remarkable man. The ending moved my rating firmly to 4 stars. (And the profanity all but disappeared by the end of the book. :-) )
Profile Image for Bill.
219 reviews76 followers
November 6, 2021
A super-fast read, a very entertaining, and funny memoir about some very serious subjects, such as racism and depression. If you've been lucky enough to see Copeland on stage at The Marsh, you'll recognize many of the characters and jokes. I think the outright jokes fall a little flat on the page (in comparison to on stage), but the situational humor and characterization overall are really effective in print. As a bonus, there were some stories included that I don't believe were part of his one-man shows. I highly recommend you check out this book and go see him live if you can. Fun fact: my copy has a different subtitle: "My Life as an Outsider."
November 21, 2020
I’m rating this book 4 stars, but really I feel like it is very close to 5.
In the beginning I wasn’t feeling the book that much but I’m glad I finished it. I really appreciate how honest and vulnerable Brian is in sharing his experiences and for also including research on the history of structural racism in San Leandro. I think it is a very important read and opens up conversations around the history of racism/segregation in “liberal” California as well as the generational trauma and chronic stress that Black people endure as a result of these policies.
159 reviews
April 19, 2018
Definitely worth reading, especially if you live in the Bay Area, as the author grew up in the then lily white San Leandro. His description of the racism thriving in a neighborhood just across the street from Oakland is horrifying. His struggle to survive and his ode to his mother and grandmother are well done and compelling.
Profile Image for Leorah.
760 reviews4 followers
March 3, 2021
Brian Copeland's book had me weeping in despair, laughing out loud, and all the while bringing to life his incredible journey. He is admirable on every level. His tenacity in the face of so much adversity and hate is laudable.
Profile Image for Sean S.
440 reviews1 follower
November 9, 2021
An insightful perspective from a man who grew up on the boundary of two worlds. The first half of the book reads a bit more lightly, with numerous jokes interspersed, while the second half shifts gears into sincere, direct treatment of the abuses he endured as well as his suicide attempt.
Profile Image for James G..
308 reviews2 followers
July 17, 2018
I really enjoyed this book, and thought it was a winderful example of a thoughtful memoir about race, personhood written with humor and grace at a perfect pace.
Profile Image for Heather.
83 reviews2 followers
May 9, 2021
I lived in San Leandro for many years and it saddened me to hear what it used to be like. The author shared so many vulnerable moments which was very brave to do. I highly recommend this book!
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