Hill Harper is a modern day renaissance man. The CSI: NY star has been respected as an actor for years, but his recent string of hit books has catapulted him to a new realm of influence. Bestselling books such as Letters to a Young Brother: MANifest Your Destiny and The Wealth Cure: Putting Money in Its Place have recast Harper as a helpful sage for our generation. Soon the multi-faceted artist will be sharing his creative wisdom with writers seeking greater expression at the first annual Anguilla Literary Festival, which will take place from May 24-28 on this beautiful resort island. Harper spoke to theGrio about his participation in the event, his coming book on mass incarceration, Trayvon Martin — and the importance of the written word as a vehicle for universal experience.
theGrio: As both a successful actor and author — a rare combination of skills — what is the role of writing in your life? Does it inform your acting?
Hill Harper: I think that for the most part, we all have multiple talents. One of the sayings I hate is, “Don’t be a jack of all trades and a master of none.” I believe all of us have the capacity to be masters of many things. I think that of course, no matter what you do, or how you lead your life, it impacts other areas of your life. So I think definitely the writing impacts my acting and vice versa.
[After] my first book Letters to a Young Brother I had never had envisioned that I was going to go on to write four more books. [For my first book, a] call was made based off interactions I’ve had with young men, many of whom did not have positive male role models in their lives growing up being raised by single mothers. They were reaching out to me. I felt that I could fill a gap, much like gaps that were filled for me when I read books. So I really saw that first book as a one-off.
But the book touched a chord with so many people that young women were asking, “Well what about us?” That’s how the books started to evolve. I’m very proud of the books.
You’ve written books on a wide variety of subjects ranging from youth advice, to providing financial and relationship counsel. What inspired you to tackle so many subjects?
If you look at most of my books, I’m never the expert. I’m the person on the journey attempting to figure it out for myself. That’s part of the point. It seems like most non-fiction books out there are [by] people who want to act like they’re the experts. To be quite honest, nobody is truly an expert. We’re all on a journey. Most of us are on different places in that journey. Many of us have different wisdom and information than others. What I attempt to do is just write about things that I’m interested in. Things that are issues for me; and [then] you realize from talking to other people: whatever you have an issue with, I promise you, other people have also. So I wanted to take a look at those issues.
For instance, my relationship book [was inspired by] my own personal issues with relationships. As a single man, I wanted to explore those. And that book caught fire, The Conversation. That was a very successful book. And most recently, The Wealth Cure, a book about [the fact that] people have so much anxiety about money. I do as well. We all do. None of us are immune. So I wanted to take on that issue. So they’re kind of born out of personal issues and interests that I’m focusing on myself.
Speaking of The Wealth Cure, it’s been reported that you describe yourself as a fiscal conservative. Is that accurate? What exactly makes you fiscally conservative?
In many ways, I was using the term “fiscal conservative” to talk about how we all throw words around, but oftentimes we don’t know the underpinnings of what they really mean. If someone understands my politics, they don’t necessarily label me as a quote-unquote “conservative.” If you understand the way I look at money, and the way money works, I’m certainly a fiscal conservative, meaning I don’t believe in carrying any debt whatsoever.
The debt that I believe is allowable debt is investment debt. In that sense, it’s really not debt. What do I mean by investment debt? Real property and education. Investing in your own business. They’re allowable debts, because those are really investments that you hope to zero out as quickly as possible and build upon. You’re investing in yourself. The rest of the debts that are out there on anything — including a car — I don’t agree with. I’m fiscally conservative in that regard.
People misuse in many ways what conservatism is, or being fiscally conservative. Now, here’s the deal. I believe in investing. Meaning, I believe in a strong public education system. What does that mean? That means investing in our young people. So you still could be fiscally conservative, and still believe in strong government that has a wonderful public education system. These things aren’t mutually exclusive. I think that in today’s political rhetoric, people try to use words, and try to co-opt the words for their own personal use rather than saying, “What do these words really mean, and how can they be applied in different areas?” And so by that definition, I’m certainly a fiscal conservative.
A lot of your books seem to address specifically black issues. Is that your intention, or are you writing to a broader audience?
I am certainly trying to reach a larger audience. The vast majority of issues I talk about in my books are issues that affect everyone. Certainly I’ve used stories, analogies, and characters that are African-American because those stories, characters and analogies come very organically to me, because I’m African-American. But the idea that those stories and analogies and lessons aren’t applicable across the board is incorrect.
You know it’s interesting, when I’ve heard people talk about entertainment properties, and they see that it has an all-black cast, why is it then a quote-unquote “black” movie? Does that mean white audiences wouldn’t enjoy it? Yet, a movie with an all-white cast — they don’t say that’s a white movie, as if black people wouldn’t enjoy it.
My books are written kind of in the flip of that. They’re written for anybody and everybody. They aren’t just written for black audiences. But the main characters in my books tend to be African-American. So it’s just a matter of people embracing the fact that our stories are universal, and they apply to everyone.
I’ve had so many people come up to me about The Conversation for instance, the relationship book, and say, “This book deals with everything! This is the best relationship book, I’ve ever read! This applies for everybody.” Yet, some people think it’s just about black folks.
I was happy, for instance, that Steve Harvey’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man had an opportunity to cross over to diverse audiences… and obviously with the film… he’ll have even more of an opportunity to do that. [I want to] expand people’s vision of what they are interested in reading, and hopefully understand that I like using and having characters that are African-American in my books. Yet that doesn’t make them exclusively for African-Americans.
Speaking of Steve Harvey’s movie, it’s been reported that it did well with across all segments, including men and white people. Could you see that for any of your books? Which would make a good movie?
The book that would make the greatest film is definitely The Conversation. It goes, in a funny, but also a deep and poignant way, into relationships. My book The Conversation came out after Steve’s book Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man — actually I reference his book in my book — but my book is different.
His book is for women, telling women how to act. My book, The Conversation, is for men and women to have a conversation between both of us. So it’s not written exclusively for men, or exclusively for women. A [logical] outgrowth beyond a movie like Think Like a Man, would be a movie about The Converstion. Now that you’re thinking like a man, can we talk about it.
And speaking of conversations that need to be had, the Trayvon Martin case has caused a lot of racial tension in our society. Could you see yourself doing a book that creates a conversation on race in America?
Obviously issues around race are so complex, and have been historically in this country. I would like to believe that all of my books have an underpinning of speaking about tolerance, speaking about justice, hope, and all these positive attributes. And ultimately those very basic, fundamental attitudes and positive elements are to me what we need to focus on when we talk about race. All of us are all so much more similar than we are different, yet we want to try to cast [more light] on our differences. To get beyond that, I think that we need to be able to have an open and honest dialogue about it certainly. But me doing a book specifically on race? No. That’s not really what I think I want to do. I know what my next book is going to be, and I’m working on it now.
Would you care to share what it’s about?
Yes. I won’t share the title, but I’ll share with you what it’s about. It’s about the mass incarceration crisis, and attempting to deal with that. I think the incarceration crisis we’re experiencing in this country where we lock up more people than any other country in the world — we really have to take a look in the mirror. At the same time, individuals that are being incarcerated need to take a look in the mirror and ask why the recidivism rate is so high. So we want to deal with those things.
What are your opinions on the Trayvon Martin case?
I want to see justice done. Let’s bring it back to the Pledge of Allegiance, the last line: “With liberty and justice for all.” Okay? That’s what I want to see happen. What does that mean? If someone was accosted and shot, they didn’t experience liberty, nor did they experience justice.
I love to see people, all people — including Mr. Zimmerman — get a fair trial. And if he’s exonerated through the justice system, then he deserves to be exonerated. There is violence that happens between individuals all the time. And violence is a horrible thing. I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened.
But what upsets me the most is the police department in this case. Because it’s not clear to me that the evidence was gathered to be able to actually make an accurate assessment of what really happened. Ultimately, from being on CSI: NY for eight years and working with so many actual crime scene investigators, and going to so many crime [staged] scenes myself, and talking with the people who actually do it, the number one thing that they always say is there are “check the box” things that you do whenever you enter a crime scene, or a potential crime scene — but certainly a scene where someone dies — where you collect a great deal of evidence. You take a number of pictures. You collect evidence, you cordon it off, and you do all sorts of things that most of us who’ve ever watched one of my shows or any of the myriad of other shows, would know. It doesn’t seem that this type of work was done in this case.
To me, that’s perhaps the biggest crime of all. Because now, we’re all operating from conjecture, projection, opinion, yet, we don’t have the evidence. And the one line, as corny as it may sound, from my show is we say, “The evidence never lies.” Right? Because the evidence doesn’t lie. But if you didn’t collect any, then people can start lying.
So true. On a more positive note, the first annual Anguilla Literary Festival aims to inspire young writers in their craft, and you will be a headliner of the event. As you have written so many books of inspiration, can you share some encouragement specifically for writers?
The key is to keep writing, keep creating. We’re living in a world where is seems like people are being pushed to record things on video, or do something else [to express themselves]. No. Writing is what creates legacies. The written word will last well beyond any of us. If you really want to have impact and a true legacy, you must continue to write and be vigilant about that. Incorporate new and innovative things into your writing — but never stop writing. I want to have a discussion about that and encourage folks to keep writing.
The first annual Anguilla Literary Festival will take place from May 24-28 at the Paradise Cove resort.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb