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How Race Is Lived in America

Gerald Boyd was the Jackie Robinson of the New York Times. He dreamed of going all the way to the top. He got close. Then he took a tragic fall.

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Boyd at the National Association of Black Journalists Convention, 2003.  

A year ago this month, nearly 400 people filled a hall at Harlem’s Schomburg Center to honor Gerald Boyd, the highest-ranking black man in the history of the New York Times, dead of lung cancer at 56. It was a factional throng; around the grief and fond anecdotes, the air crackled with contention. Three years earlier, the Times’ burly managing editor—Howell Raines’s handpicked No. 2—had been jettisoned in the wake of Jayson Blair, an addict who cast plausible fictions in the paper of record. Boyd’s career was wrecked, his reputation blighted. But his legacy, it turned out, would be made of more durable stuff.

The memorial reflected Boyd’s two worlds, conjoined: predominantly African-American, save for a large pocket of Times people. Among them were the publisher, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr., and all four living executive editors—the one who tapped Boyd to go where no minority journalist had gone before, the one who befriended him and broke his heart, the one who took him to the heights and then to disaster, the one who has the job Boyd thought could one day be his.

From the podium, the pallbearers drew a bead on those white titans of print journalism, seated captive for this frozen moment. Bernie Weinraub, Boyd’s partner at the White House in the eighties, assailed “the brutal weight” his friend had carried “to represent his race every single moment he walked into the paper.” George Curry, a big-shouldered comrade from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, denounced the Times obituary for “besmirching” Boyd by referencing Blair in its lead sentence. (In defense, Joe Lelyveld, a former executive editor, would observe a truism of his trade: The most recent news tends to float to the top.)

“I am here tonight to reclaim a friend,” Curry said. “I am here to restore his good name. I am here to set the record straight.” As his call found its cadence, the black chorus responded in collective grievance—over a man they’d seen used up and discarded by a smug, white institution. But in the Times section, there were winces and pursed lips. (“I was quite angry with the guy who decided to make a political stump speech,” said Max Frankel, Lelyveld’s predecessor—though the “honest feelings” Frankel added, were “good for white folks to hear.”) Here was the 500-pound irony in the room: that a man who’d aimed to bridge the great divide—to live and work color-blind—would now be mourned compartmentally.

He was one of us, the Times’ incumbent, Bill Keller, had intoned to his staff via e-mail, but that last pronoun seemed up for grabs. To whom did Boyd belong? To the paper whose cause he’d served and power he’d wielded for twenty years? To the community of black journalists, who’d claimed him as their paladin—or the waves of young reporters he’d terrorized and inspired? Or was he bound, at the end, to the few who remained by his side after he’d been banished from the place he loved too much?

Race, said Ginger Thompson, a Times reporter who worked with Boyd, “very much defined Gerald’s career. I think it defined a lot of how he felt about himself, how he felt about his rise at the Times, his potential future at the Times—race was very much a part of that.” But if Boyd’s blackness was the instrument for his rise, it was also the overwhelming factor in his plummet from grace. Despite his smarts and drive and unassailable integrity, race ran him to ground. His friends still feel the anger he’d rarely let himself express.

“Jayson Blair didn’t bring Gerald down,” said Don Terry, a former Times writer. “The New York Times brought Gerald down. Arthur Sulzberger punked out.” For Terry, and for many of those gathered last November, Boyd was scapegoated into ruin for Ascending While Black.

“I was not the black managing editor,” Boyd would say of the title he held for 21 triumphant, calamitous months. “I was the managing editor.” In the annals of good runs at the Times, he’d had one of the best. For a brief stretch, it seemed that he might be proved right—that he could beat the odds and flourish at the top.

Until he was proved wrong.

The formative theme of Gerald Boyd’s childhood, played out on the threadbare west side of St. Louis, was that he kept losing people. He was 3 years old when sickle-cell anemia stole his mother, eight months pregnant with a never-named fourth child; she’d be forever adored in the hazy space between memory and imagination. He was 11 when his father, a delivery-truck driver who drank too much, left their home for good. He was 13 when his baby sister was packed off to a relative in California, rarely to be seen again.


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