“I had always liked writing, but I had never experienced the high that came from having my words in a newspaper,” he recalls. “I could be angry or didactic or whimsical and light-hearted. And I could hide behind my byline, engaging and enraging readers as I saw fit. . . . I knew what I wanted to do with my life.”

Boyd next attended the University of Missouri, where he studied journalism on a St. Louis Post-Dispatch scholarship and met his first wife, Sheila Rule, who would precede him in building a distinguished career at the Times. At this point, the coming-of-age tale, so redolent of the late civil-rights era, morphs into a very different but no less effective narrative: that of the ambitious reporter breaking into the industry, learning tough lessons, paying dues, and enduring a series of broken relationships.

Thanks to our peculiar American malady (and to the book’s subtitle), the responses of many readers to this portion of the narrative will be conditioned by their interest in race. That is unfortunate. Boyd’s account of life as a young reporter is one of the best I can recall, and though he is unmistakably black, his tale is utterly universal.

At Missouri, Boyd studied journalism and political science, believing that a second degree would make him more marketable. There he discovered the basic creed common to strong reporters: “A good journalist needs only a keen interest in a particular subject. Curiosity plus legwork becomes expertise.”

In June 1972, following two summers as a copyboy at the Post-Dispatch, Boyd was upgraded to student reporter. On his first day, he asked the city editor where he should sit. “I don’t give a fuck,” came the brusque reply. Retreating to the back of the newsroom, he found an empty desk, and was eventually given an assignment. “My hands were shaking as I began to hunt and peck the keys to type my first story,” he writes. “Don’t let me screw up, I offered a silent prayer to God. Don’t let me screw up.”

After graduation, Boyd was hired. Strolling into the newsroom, he was still nervous, but already harbored ambitions “to win a Pulitzer Prize, to make a million dollars, and to grace the cover of Time magazine—all in my first year.” His editors had other plans, assigning him to a succession of fires and homicides. A mentor told the discouraged novice that talent matters, “but it is never the sole factor in success,” preparing him for a prolonged immersion in office politics.

As it happened, professional breakthroughs would come quickly for Boyd. After a mere two years at the paper, he became the first black reporter to cover city hall for a mainstream St. Louis publication. Soon after, he was named journalist of the year by the Post-Dispatch and the Globe-Democrat—another first for an African-American. By 1978, he was working at the paper’s Washington bureau. In quick succession, Boyd would cover the Reagan White House, win a Nieman Fellowship (youngest ever), and be recruited by The New York Times.

His job interview with the legendary Times editor A. M. Rosenthal went off without a hitch. But when Boyd was ushered into the office of Rosenthal’s deputy, Jimmy Greenfield, to discuss salary and other details, he was served up with an instant indignity: “I really enjoyed your clips—they’re so well written. Did you write them yourself, or did someone write them for you?” On the heels of this exposure to what he calls “the ugly underside of life at the Times,” Boyd (like other black reporters of this era, myself included) was assigned to the euphemistically named “urban affairs” beat.

There would soon be other slights, including those that came in the form of compliments. “You’re our Jackie Robinson,” Boyd was repeatedly told by his superiors. When he was promoted to the Washington bureau, an editor asked him if he were “ready” to begin reporting. Later, when offered the post of Atlanta correspondent, Boyd was told he was perfect for the job, since he could “cover the South as a black man.”

Howard W. French is an associate professor at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. From 2003 to 2008, he was the Shanghai bureau chief of The New York Times. At present, he is a fellow of the Open Society Foundation and is researching a book on China and Africa. French's most recent book is "Disappearing Shanghai: Photographs and Poems of an Intimate Way of Life," with Qiu Xiaolong.