Saladin Ambar, "Stars and Shadows: The Politics of Interracial Friendship from Jefferson to Obama" (Oxford UP, 2022)

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Slavery and its lingering remnants remain a plague on the United States, continuing to foster animosity between races that hinders the understanding and connection conducive to dismantling the remains of such systems. Personal relationships and connection can provide a path towards reconciling differences and overcoming the racial divisiveness that is America’s original sin.

In his fascinating new book, Stars and Shadows: The Politics of Interracial Friendship from Jefferson to Obama (Oxford UP, 2022), Saladin Ambar, professor of Political Science and Senior Scholar at the Center on the American Governor at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, constructs a comprehensive overview of interracial friendships throughout U.S. history, detailing how friendship can be an invaluable and often overlooked tool when advocating for equality. Because political leaders, celebrities, and other cultural figures have such an influence on the general public, they can play a particular role in shaping public opinion. Thus, analyzing significant interracial friendships between well-known individuals throughout different historical moments can serve as windows into the state of race relations as they developed through time, and what that can mean for our future.

Ambar meditates on the power of friendship in general, and interracial friendship in particular, through ten different, iconic cases, examining these relationships in both their personal and political capacity. The specific focus of each friendship duet is to explore the public consequences of relationships across race. Each duo has unique experiences that are particular to their historical moments and the political constraints of the time. Through these stories, Ambar develops a theory rejecting the notion that we must separate the personal from the political, detailing how, in an interracial democracy predicated on equality, the two must and do intertwine in order to overcome racial differences. Stars and Shadows examines, among others, Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson, Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln, Angela Davis and Gloria Steinem, Marlon Brando and James Baldwin, and ends with Barack Obama and Joe Biden’s iconic bond. The analysis wrestles with the American political structure, which is not based on connecting individuals to each other in any kind of personal way, and yet friendship is what connects us all as human beings. Ambar’s theory challenges citizens to look inward and outward when interacting with one another, to engage intentionally with our differences, and not to run away from our past but to critically analyze it and incorporate it going forward.

Emma R. Handschke assisted in the production of this podcast.

Lilly J. Goren is a professor of political science at Carroll University in Waukesha, WI. She is co-editor of the award winning book, Women and the White House: Gender, Popular Culture, and Presidential Politics (University Press of Kentucky, 2012), as well as co-editor of Mad Men and Politics: Nostalgia and the Remaking of Modern America (Bloomsbury Academic, 2015). Email her comments at lgoren@carrollu.edu or tweet to @gorenlj.

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