Black Man Reflects on Being White for Five Weeks
Black White Interview with Kam Williams
41 year-old Brian Sparks was a
contractor before he and his wife, Renee, and their 17
year-old son, Nick, agreed to appear on FX’s
Black White. And now that the show is over, he and his
family have returned to Georgia, where he’s back at his
former profession, despite all the sudden attention
which comes from being on a hit TV program.
This landmark reality series, in which a black family
and white family swapped skin colors while living under
the same roof for five weeks, enjoyed the highest
ratings ever for the premiere of any unscripted cable
show. Over the course of the just-completed season,
Brian frequently locked horns with Bruno, the white
father, a man who got a lot of mileage out of his
stubborn refusal to acknowledge that racism exists.
Besides the tensions seen on the screen, the show had
its share of off-screen controversy, when it came out
that the members of the white family had three different
last names, and that two of them were actors.
Regardless, I found
Black White to be
fascinating, which is why I tracked Brian down to find
out how the experience had affected him.
* * * *
Kam: Hi Brian, I loved the
show and I’m not too proud to admit that I got a little
misty-eyed at the end of the last episode.
Brian: I appreciate it.
Kam: What has been the effect
of the show on you?
Brian: It’s been strange. I learned a lot
during the making of the show. And then going back and
actually watching it, I picked up some of the things I
didn’t know about, because I didn’t participate in all
of the events with others in the house. So, I had to sit
back and watch them unfold.
Kam: What made it strange?
Brian: That I had a newfound respect for some,
that I felt the same way about others, and that some
needed a great learning process to grow more.
Kam: Obviously, to distill five weeks worth of
taping down to six hours, a lot of footage had to hit
the cutting room floor. Did you feel that FX edited the
Brian: I think they captured me very
accurately. I was very impressed with the editing. Of
course, you always feel they could’ve put more in, but
given the time frame, and all the footage they went
through, I think they did a great job at capturing what
I wanted to project. I know I can’t speak for everyone,
but I think they were fair to everybody comparing what I
saw in the house and in the activities I did share with
others to what I saw on screen.
Kam: Do you think living under the same roof with
the Wurgels made a difference?
Brian: As you could see, a lot of the heated
arguments and blow-ups occurred inside the house while
we were discussing things. So, yeah, if we had stayed in
separate houses, I think there would have been a
slightly different outcome to the show.
Kam: How many hours a day did they have the
cameras running? And did they use cameramen or tiny
Brian: Cameramen. And the cameras ran from
the time we woke up, until the time we went to bed.
Kam: What was it like having cameras following
you all the time?
Brian: After the first week, you
kind of forget they’re there, and just go about your
Kam: Since doing the show, have you and your
wife, Renee, returned to Atlanta and gone back to your
Kam: What is it like to be working as a
contractor, and then suddenly have a hit TV show?
Brian: [Laughs] It’s great, but there’s an
asterisk by it, because everywhere you go, you always
run into people who say, “Hey, you’re the guy from
Black White,” or “I saw you on Oprah.” So,
every day, you have to stop, or pause to talk about the
experience. So, it’s back to business as usual, but with
a great feeling.
Kam: Are you still in touch with Bruno, Carmen,
Brian: No, though we did put in a call to
Rose last night after the final episode aired. At the
end of the message we left on her answering machine, we
told her to tell Bruno and Carmen that we said “Hello.”
Kam: Does that mean you came away feeling closer
to Rose than to her parents, Bruno or Carmen?
Brian: Much more close to Rose than the
Kam: Bruno seemed very closed to the notion that
racism still exists. Did you think of an experiment like
trying to rent a home in a white neighborhood with him?
Brian: That would have been a
great one, to do real estate. We had all sorts of
scenarios in mind before we arrived in L.A., but once we
got going, I had to focus on the things that I had to
do. He was such a small part of the equation that I
really didn’t have time to focus on him. During the
taping, I got to a point where when he couldn’t see the
obvious things that I did show him, I felt that he
wasn’t going to get it no matter what I did, because he
didn’t want to get it.
Kam: What did you think of Bruno, the white
Brian: Bruno was not only flat-out closed-minded,
but I don’t think he really wanted to experience
anything new, because if he acknowledges that there is a
difference between the way blacks and whites are
treated, then he has to make a change. But he didn’t
want to make a change, so that’s why he remained in a
state of denial.
Kam: During the last episode, you called Bruno a
racist. Do you still stand by that?
Brian: A lot of people asked me about that.
When my phone rang, that was the number one question. I
know how harsh an accusation that is, but yes I do have
to stand by it, because that was the demeanor that he
showed me over the course of the project. I couldn’t be
truthful and up front about everything else that went
on, but lie when someone asked me if I felt Bruno was
racist, when I knew in my heart that I did.
Kam: I agreed with you because of the way he
defended his wife’s referring to your wife as a “bitch”
because it’s supposedly slang that black folks use all
the time for their women.
Brian: I could live with her having said
it, and Renee could forgive her for saying it, but we
just didn’t like the fact that they couldn’t admit that
it was wrong.
Kam: How did you feel about Carmen overall?
Brian: I think Carmen came in
naïve. She’s learned, and she’s grown during the
project, even though Bruno stopped her progress on the
set, as far as getting back to us, the Sparks family,
and relaying what she’d learned. I had to go through the
whole project saying, “I don’t think Carmen’s getting
anything out of it either,” when I could later see that,
in fact, she was, in going back and viewing the tapes.
Kam: I liked that their daughter, Rose, didn’t
try to “act black” and that your son, Nick, didn’t try
to “act white,” the way that Carmen and Bruno were
adopting jive mannerisms, as if some specific language,
dress and set of behaviors would make it easier for them
Brian: Yeah, we’re all different. There are no
two black people alike and no two white people who are
the same. Yes, they have a white skin, and we have a
brown skin, and that’s a physical difference that
everyone can see, but we’re all unique in our own way
Kam: How is Nick doing? He was
facing some challenges having dropped out of school.
Brian: He’s in a military academy down in
Fort Stewart, Georgia called Youth Challenge Academy.
He’s doing very well there. He’ll be graduating June
16th, and that puts him back where he needs to be with
his peers, as opposed to where was when he left. He’s in
a much better situation than he was staying in the
Atlanta area and trying to finish out school.
Kam: And how is Renee doing back in everyday
Brian: She’s glad the
show is over, but she’s enjoying it. She’s getting
recognized on the street as well. And she works in a
predominantly white office. They loved the show and
everyone shared the same sentiments that Bruno pretty
much messed it up for the whole white race.
Kam: I have a question about the make-up, because
on TV, Rose is the only person who really looked like
she could pass. Of course, that was on TV. In real life,
was everybody’s makeup convincing?
Brian: From what I heard, to the naked eye,
mine was truly convincing, and, of course, the white
family’s was truly convincing, because it’s easier to go
darker than it is to go lighter. So, the only one whose
makeup was kind of suspect was Renee. They had a little
trouble with her makeup.
Kam: Did any of you have problems with the color
Brian: No, the makeup
guys did an excellent job. First, they would put the
makeup on, and then a sealer on top. We were smart
enough to whisper, “Hey, I think something’s coming
off,” into the mike if something was coming undone. We’d
then go into a bathroom, and someone would come to meet
us there for a touch-up.
Kam: When you were undercover as a white
bartender, how did you feel hearing locals making
racists comments, such as suggesting it was a good
neighborhood because it was white. Were you ever tempted
to break character?
interesting, but no, it never crossed my mind to break
character because of anything that I heard, although it
was shocking and appalling to hear it still being said
in this day and age. And it wasn’t like I’d never heard
it all before. So, while I did get tight-jawed, nothing
ever really got me to a point where I blurted out, “You
know what, you fool? I’m really black, blah, blah,
blah.” But it was tough from day one, when that young
guy said that his parents taught him to go wash after he
touched the hands of a black person.
Kam: How did you react to
Brian: I really had to put it all in
perspective. I felt that this project was way bigger
than the six of us. I thought, this is America, and that
whatever happens, I just have to take it on the chin,
and let the country see the outcome.
Kam: Are you interested in doing a second season
of Black White?
Brian: No, because this
already has America talking. That’s all I wanted. I
didn’t care about the situations, or whether people
liked or hated the show, just as long as everybody
talked about it.
Kam: How did you come to be on
Brian: We auditioned for it. I was surfing
the Internet through a website that a friend of ours
turned me on to, when I stumbled upon an ad that read,
“black family needed for a project.”
Kam: About how many families
auditioned and why do you think that yours was picked?
Brian: I don’t know the exact numbers, but R.J.
[Producer R.J. Cutler] says that it was in the hundreds.
We were picked based on our personalities, our liberal
background, and our willingness to go into the project
with an open mind about whatever might happen. They also
had to test our skin conditions for makeup. So, a lot of
factors went into our selection.
Kam: Was there any message that you were trying
to deliver on the show that didn’t come across?
Brian: A lot of messages
got lost because of all the bickering and separatism
that went on in the house. The main thing that I wanted
America to get out of it was that we’re all different,
and we’re all the same. We do have different colors, and
there are biases on both sides, but it all boils down to
the fact that we’re all God’s children. I like to say
we’re God’s human snowflakes, because every last one of
us is unique.
Kam: Rose had a crush on a black guy from her
poetry group in the next to last episode, but they never
addressed that on the final show.
Brian: Yeah, she was liking
herself some Devon. You’re right, they never informed
you of what the status of their relationship was.
Kam: Do you know whether
they’re still seeing each other?
Brian: Interesting you should ask, because
Devon called me last night to discuss some things, and
we were laughing about that after the last episode. He’s
at Howard University now, and said, “I have a girlfriend
down here, and I’ve been taking a lot of heat about
Kam: So, he’s not in touch with Rose.
Brian: He left a message on
Rose’s machine right before the first episode aired, but
he hasn’t heard from her. So, that’s another interesting
thing. She often told the poetry group on the show, “I
want to keep this going,” but I don’t think she’s had
any contact with any of those poetry kids since.
Kam: Although I think Rose was
very earnest at the time, it now sounds almost as if she
was slumming in blackface, a chance to see how the other
half lives before conveniently going back to a life of
Brian: You’re right,
because they know that once it’s all over, they can go
back to be the privileged ones. I don’t think that Rose,
Bruno or Carmen are keeping in contact with anyone
they’ve met on the set. Whereas, I still call the makeup
guys, and say, “Hey, how are things going?” I still keep
in contact with some of the golf buddies that I made.
Renee and Debra took a cruise together and are good
friends. We have maintained contact with the poetry
kids, the producers, with a lot of people. I don’t think
they’re in touch with anybody.
Kam: The credits say that
Bruno’s a school teacher, but in doing my own research
on him, I discovered that his last name isn’t Wurgel,
but Marcotulli, and that he’s an actor, and that Carmen
is a Hollywood casting scout.
Brian: That’s interesting, because whereas we
auditioned, they knew someone in casting, and that’s how
they got set up for their audition.
Kam: I have no idea, but you
have to wonder whether Carmen might have known the
casting director for the show.
Brian: She did know the
casting director, and that’s how they got introduced to
Kam: And Bruno has been on TV
shows like MacGyver, Murder She Wrote,
Baywatch, JAG and several movies including
Spy Hard, One Tough Bastard, Safety
Patrol and Moon in Scorpio.
Brian: Wow! I remember
Safety Patrol, but I didn’t know he was in all that.
And Rose was on a show the Disney Channel.
Kam: Wow! Now I didn’t know
that. She must have used a different last name, too. How
is she doing in college?
Brian: She’s not in
school anymore. She dropped out of college.
Kam: Do you know why?
Brian: I don’t know if it’s because she
just wasn’t ready, or if she wanted to pursue acting.
Kam: Are you thinking of
parlaying this into a show-biz career? I’ve interviewed
a lot of reality show veterans who feel a pressure to do
that because they’re suddenly famous.
Brian: As a matter of fact, it is something
that I’m entertaining and checking into right now. And
both families have already signed a contract to do some
speaking engagements at colleges starting in the Fall.
Kam: Looks like you and Bruno
are linked for life.
BS: Our two families are definitely linked for
life. Whenever you hear one name, the other will
definitely come out. That’s not a bad thing. I don’t
have any animosity towards Bruno whatsoever. I just wish
he would wake up and realize that there are differences
for blacks and whites.
Kam: Is there anything else I
should be asking you?
Brian: [Laughs] You’ve covered more than anybody
else has with me.
Kam: Thanks for the time and the interview,
Brian. Let’s do another one when you go on tour with the
Wurgels in September.
Brian: Sounds great. I
would definitely love to do that.
Kam:And give my best to Renee and Nick, and let
them know how much I loved the show.
Brian: I really
posted 17 April 2006
* * * *
* * * * *
Salvage the Bones
A Novel by Jesmyn Ward
On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—
* * * * *
The New Jim Crow
Mass Incarceration in the Age of
By Michele Alexander
Contrary to the
rosy picture of race embodied in Barack
Obama's political success and Oprah
Winfrey's financial success, legal
scholar Alexander argues vigorously and
persuasively that [w]e have not ended
racial caste in America; we have merely
redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial
segregation has been replaced by mass
incarceration as a system of social
control (More African Americans are
under correctional control today... than
were enslaved in 1850). Alexander
reviews American racial history from the
colonies to the Clinton administration,
delineating its transformation into the
war on drugs. She offers an acute
analysis of the effect of this mass
incarceration upon former inmates who
will be discriminated against, legally,
for the rest of their lives, denied
employment, housing, education, and
public benefits. Most provocatively, she
reveals how both the move toward
colorblindness and affirmative action
may blur our vision of injustice: most
Americans know and don't know the truth
about mass incarceration—but her
carefully researched, deeply engaging,
and thoroughly readable book should
* * * * *
The White Masters of the
The World and Africa, 1965
By W. E. B. Du Bois
W. E. B. Du Bois’
Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization
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Ancient African Nations
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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan
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