As we honor MLK Day, Maiysha chats with civil rights legend and renowned journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault. She shares with Maiysha gut-wrenching stories of being the first Black student to attend the University of Georgia; from dorm life to life-threatening attacks, her stories cement her place in the history book and anthology of extraordinary, brave Black women
In her new book “My People,” Hunter-Gault tells her own heroic story as well as the iconic and history-making people she has reported on worldwide throughout her decades-long journalism career.
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Maiysha Kai [00:00:07] Hello and welcome to another episode of Writing Black. I am, as always, your host, Maiysha Kai. And, you know, we have been blessed in the brief time that we have had this podcast up and running, we’ve been blessed to have some incredible guests. But today, I’m hosting someone who is a personal hero to me and I think to a lot of journalists. And also, you know, for for better or worse, whether or not she would consider herself, one, a civil rights icon in the eyes of many as well. I’m talking about Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The Emmy and Peabody Award winning journalist who you may be familiar with through, I don’t know, PBS, CNN, The New Yorker, The New York Times. The list goes on. And she, in her 50 year, well more than 50 year career, really, you know, has done such incredible, tremendous work. And I think has also been both a vocal champion for and just her presence has has made it possible for so many of us to do what we do.
“My People” Excerpt [00:01:11] The civil rights movement in Atlanta, Georgia, put me on a path of reporting stories that focused on the promise of liberty and justice for all, a promise that had been so long denied to my people. The lie of separate but equal was still the law of the South, and while not on the books, it was alive and well, even up north, commonly referred to as Up South at the time.
Maiysha Kai [00:01:39] And she has chronicled 50 years of this career in her new book, My People. Five Decades of Writing about Black Lives, which is exactly what this podcast is about, is about writing while Black, writing about being Black. So there really couldn’t be a better guest to have today. Welcome. Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:01:58] Well, I would like you to keep on talking, because, your Honor, to hear all of your wonderful words. It’s just the just makes my day and my week. Thank you.
Maiysha Kai [00:02:10] Well, listen, you’ve made. So much possible for so many of us, and I say that as a journalist. I also just say this like, you know, a Black woman in the world becoming aware of what was possible, you know? You know, some of us get that through our families. Some of us get that elsewhere. So let’s get it all over. And I think that you are one of those people who, you know, when we talk about if you see it, you can believe you know, you believe you can do it. You know, seeing it as believing it. And again and again, you have shown what’s possible, not just in the world of media, but, you know, for those who are not familiar with one of your origin stories, you were one of two students to integrate the University of Georgia, the first female student to do so. And we’re talking about a campus, you know, and they held out on you for years, you know, even though you were highly qualified to be there, you and Hamilton Holmes. And today, that campus has a building that bears both of your names. So, you know, when you when you talk about a lifetime of of activism and what and what activism looks like and what it can look like in all the various forms it can take, you are somebody who instantly comes to mind for me. So I hope I would love for our listeners to also get that perspective on you. And I know it’s just one of many stories that appear in my people, but what is it like reflecting on on that legacy now?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:03:40] You mean the UGA legacy?
Maiysha Kai [00:03:42] Yeah. Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:03:44] Well, you know, I’ll be there on a few days to talk about the book and to meet with the president and to meet with some of the other people that I relate to in the journalism college and in the library. And things have changed for, I think, the better.
Maiysha Kai [00:04:03] Mm hmm.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:04:04] Because it’s begin. It’s a huge institution.
Maiysha Kai [00:04:08] Mm hmm.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:04:09] So I don’t know how many exactly. Now, over 30,000 students. And yet there were quite a few when we went, and they didn’t want us there. But, you know, the thing is that we survived, I think, because we were wearing both of us were wearing the armor of our history.
“My People” Excerpt [00:04:29] 60 years ago, I walked onto the campus of the University of Georgia, along with my high school classmate, Hamilton Holmes. Ordinarily, this would have been a routine exercise, as it had been for students since the institution was established in 1785. Except in all that time, not one Black person had ever been allowed to attend the University of Georgia.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:04:58] And so when you walk into a campus and people yelling ugly words, some the N-word and stuff. You are protected by that armor because you know that’s not you. There was a time when my little segregated school had the parent, the teachers and principal used to have to raise money to make up for the deficits that were created by the white rulers who didn’t want us to have what they had. So we used to get the hand-me-down textbooks with pages torn and, you know, they just didn’t treat us equally. We had for months, all we had were things like pig ear sandwiches and potato chips. But we had teachers who understood the importance of creating armor for these young people. And so did my mother and my grandmother. So they used to raise money every year to help. They would have a fundraiser to help make up for these deficits. And whoever whichever family had the most money, their child would be crowned king or queen. And there came a time when my mother and grandmother raised the most money. I got to be crowned queen, and they gave me this diamond tiara and a bull of a watch. Well, you know, I like the bull of a watch, but I love the tiara. But my classmates didn’t love me in the tiara because I wore it every day. They use to get on my case so bad that I finally took off. Took it off. But the notion that I was the queen.
Maiysha Kai [00:06:39] Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:06:40] Took up residence in my head so that when I walked onto that campus and we, you know, was Hamilton, my mom, and Vernon Jordan, who was a young law clerk at the time. We walked onto that campus and they were yelling N-word, go home. And I was looking around for the N-word because I knew it couldn’t be me, because I was a queen. Actually, that along with the education, I guess I could call it education that I got from not only my family, but my grandmother in Florida was married to my grandfather, obviously, who was a pastor. He was what they call in the A.M.E. Church, the presiding elder. That means he was a teaching preacher. So he traveled around the state of Florida teaching preachers how to preach. He could, preach, could and sometimes never stopped. On any given day.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:07:38] But the thing is that he was preaching. But my grandmother insisted that I learn a Bible verse every day. So I said my grandfather was the preacher, but my grandmother was the saint. And one of those, I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to play, you know, I was a Tommy girl. I wanted to get up in the mango trees and eat the mangoes, whether they were ripe or not. Anyway, that lesson, those Bible verses stayed with me in ways that I never could have imagined. Because on the second or third night, when the students rioted as well, students and some other people too, rioted outside of my dormitory and they threw rocks through my window because they had put me on the first floor where there were no other students. They created a room, especially for me, because they were only going to desegregate to the extent that they had to.
“My People” Excerpt [00:08:31] Despite the court order and the dorm, I was still segregated as I was put in a room on the first floor while all the other white girls lived on the second floor. But to honor my father and his relationship with his fellow Black soldiers, I agreed to write an article for the Urbanite.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:08:51] So all the other girls were on the second floor, beating, beating, beating on the roof top, on the ceiling. I don’t know where they got the energy because they must have rotated, but I never paid any attention because when they did the documentary Summer of Soul and Nina Simone was singing and they asked me about, you know, being at UGA with all that hostility and I said “I didn’t hear any of it because I was in my room listening to Nina Simone,” which I really was. But but not long after we got there and they had the riot outside my dorm, they came, they finally dispersed the rioters. They took their time doing that, but they dispersed them with tear gas. And then theoretically, I guess they had all left and they came to get me and they said I had to go back to Atlanta, 70 miles away. And so the next morning, the reporters were asking me in Atlanta, how frightening was it? I said, frightening. It wasn’t frightening. They said, Yeah, but there’d been a riot outside and they were throwing rocks. And you didn’t know what was outside. And you know, things can go in your mind. Deep in the psyche of your soul that you don’t even think about. But they just work. And they said when they asked me, How did I get through it? Being afraid or not, I said I wasn’t afraid. I said, Why not? I said, Well, my grandmother taught me this verse, “ye though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death. I will fear no evil. The Rod and I staff, they comfort me all the days of my life.”.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:10:26] Now, having grown up like that, I’m known now in a I’m a journalist, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a writer. Sometimes I cook dinner, but I have multiple identities. And one of mine is as a P.K., a preacher’s kid, because while my grandmother, the saint, taught me those verses, one of my one of the things that that family, the Hunter family, my Uncle Ted told me was that my father’s brother was that they his father, my grandfather, the preacher, insisted that they get an education. And he quoted his father saying, “get an education, boys, because that’s going to be the key to your salvation.” And sure enough, my father, my uncle and my grandmother, the saint, was in the same third grade class as they were. And I said to my uncle, well, weren’t you’re a little embarrassed to have your mother in your third grade class, he said, Embarrassed? He said, We were so proud, you know. So that’s that’s my armor. That’s how I deal with every challenge. Including being married 51 years.
Maiysha Kai [00:11:50] Congratulations on that. Yes.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:11:53] I’m very supportive. You know, my husband because he plays golf. But, you know, that’s life. We got tee shirts for our wedding that said our 50th and said 50 years married and nothing scares me. So supportive as so has my my family enable me to do things like I told them, you’re going to have to turn off the television this morning because I’m getting ready to do a recording and I want it quiet in here and my daughter is an artist and she’s down there. She made that beautiful piece back there that says Hope. And that’s that’s one of my themes, Hope. I mean, we can’t get depressed. We can be concerned. Mm hmm. Because these are challenging times. I don’t have to tell you.
Maiysha Kai [00:12:41] No, absolutely not. And you know what? I want to talk about that because there was so much I got from your book about that related to these times. But I’m going to take a quick break and we’re going to come right back with more Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
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Maiysha Kai [00:13:24] All right. We are back with more Writing Black and one of my journalistic heroes, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, and her book, My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives. And this is such an interesting book to me. You know, I when I initially heard you’d written a book, I thought, oh, she wrote another memoir. You know, I was like, oh, that’s that’s great. And while there are obviously, you know, you were just telling us about integrating the University of Georgia and that experience, which also appears in the book and is recounted in vivid and really moving detail, what this is, and it’s interesting to me format wise, because I think at this point, you know, we’ve all gotten used to like, you know, collections of essays, collection of poetry. I don’t know that we’re always as used to seeing a collection of reportage as it is that you that you’ve compiled here. This really is a 50 year span of your reporting from all over the world, you know, so we’ve got stuff from, you know, from time spent in Africa. We have time spent in Harlem. You know, you know, the time span of being an observer, not just a participant, obviously, but I’m an observer of the civil rights movement.
Maiysha Kai [00:14:43] Watching the language change is so interesting. You know, how we refer to ourselves, you know, going from, you know, Negro to Black that, you know, colored and everything in between. Right. And I just think, well, first of all, just thank you for this book, because I think as a writer, as a reporter, there’s so much to be gleaned here. And I would say to our listeners, most of whom are also avid readers. What’s so cool about my people is that this is a book because it’s not told in a linear fashion that you can come to again and again, you know. So you might have an article from 1967 and then, you know, a letter to the editor from 2019, you know. So but what was really striking to me and what I really wanted to get into with you is how you viewed this this compilation, because I had several takeaways from it. You know, as a journalist, I saw it as like a kind of a master class. So there was that, but also and also a really very cool arc to watch on how some of these writing and perspective develops over decades, which I think any writer you have that experience of how you how your own perspective changes and how you write. But also there to me, it felt in some ways like a tactical guide, the topics that were chosen to be included, so many of them paralleled issues that we obviously have not finished dealing with, issues that have resurfaced in recent years or come back in in more dramatic and dangerous ways than we’ve seen in maybe 50 years. Talk to us about putting together this book, the concept and the curation, I guess, of these particular pieces at this particular time.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:16:42] Well, that was a little challenging because I’ve written twice as many pieces over the years. You know, you got to work to earn your place wherever you are. And I, I don’t remember exactly how I decided to start putting them together, but I was sitting in my room overlooking the water in Florida and thinking about Valerie Boyd, you know, who wrote Wrapped in Rainbows. She’s now one of our dear ancestors. And she had the Charlayne Hunter-Gault chair at the University of Georgia. And we did a lot together. And so sitting there looking out over the water in Sarasota, in a way, I was inspired by Valerie because that’s where she came to write Wrapped in Rainbows. And I went to her memorial service in Atlanta a few months ago, and her brother was there. And I asked him, I said, where exactly did she do Wrapped in rainbows in Sarasota, because I want to go there. And he wasn’t exactly sure, but he said he was going to find out. And I think it was sort of almost a spiritual inspiration, because when I started it, there was Valerie and I said, What should I what should I do? Well, what what should I include? She said, just include whatever it is that was in your mind when you start writing in that way. And in a way, it’s so Zora Neale Hurston, that’s who Wrapped In Rainbows is about. But Zora and I’m not by any means comparing myself to Zora Neale Hurston.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:18:25] But she traveled the world. Well, the world, but mostly America. Doing what I hope that I’ve done in this book. Which is. Looking at people of color. Unlike the ways that they were being looked at. And while today, as you’ve seen in the past, some, I guess, year or so are the I guess it’s the various demonstrations have caused editors to and people who run these newer news organizations to bring in more people of color, more women of color, more Black men of color. And that, I think, is helping in terms of perspective, because when they participate in the Sunday shows, which I look at from the time they come on to, you know, the next thing, next adventure story I want to watch, but that’s my Sunday going on. And I’m, I don’t know, it’s sort of hard, but, I think that I’m happy about that because clearly they’re going to be heard. What I think has to happen next, however, is those who are making the decisions also look like those who have been brought on to bring more color into the news media.
“My People” Excerpt [00:19:53] For while their consciousness kept them focused on how far they had come in many instances, it also helped them (and me) keep their eyes on what continued and continues to be an elusive prize: equality and justice for all.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:20:12] And this is particularly important now because in so many places, I think the majority of places in this country, we’re losing our local journalism.
Maiysha Kai [00:20:23] Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:20:23] We’re losing it and that’s people get informed. And I keep saying to younger people, I’ve often said, I want to have a coalition of the generations so I can share my own history with them that may help them keep on keeping on even when they run up against some obstacles. But at the same time, I just think that we need people who are also in those decision making positions. I just remember going back to the time that I was at the New York Times, I was interviewed, there was several Black journalists there Nancy Hicks, Tom Johnson, Gerald Fraser, historic names. And they said, oh, when you come to New York, you got to come and work at The New York Times. So they made an appointment with me for the editor article. So I’m sitting there listening to him and he said, okay, I want to ask you a question. He said, I know you’ve done a lot of reporting because I had come from NBC News and other stuff. And he said, but what if I sent you to Harlem because one of your friends had gotten in trouble? Would you be able to tell the truth?
Maiysha Kai [00:21:37] Hmm.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:21:38] And I said, Well, it would depend. I said, because, you know, Black people get accused of a lot of things that they’re not guilty of. I said so I would go and I would investigate it. But if he was guilty, yes, I could write about it. But there might be a context in which he was guilty. But if there was no context and he was just being a bad, pardon my French.
Maiysha Kai [00:22:02] You’re fine.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:22:04] You know, I wouldn’t write that story. I would just say this is not correct. Now, if you want me to do a profile of him, I’ll do that. But if he is not guilty, by all accounts of what he’s being accused of, I’m not I’m not going to write it because I’m not going to write like we sometimes see today somebody being accused of something, but then you don’t get the details right and then you don’t know how to make a decision. So then after about a year, I have spent so much time in Harlem, and he, my editor, was very open to my suggestions, he allowed me to spend two extra days on the Vineyard while I did the piece on Oak Bluffs and the Inkwell. But I was able to convince him to let me open a bureau in Harlem. There were only bureaus all over the world, but none in a Black neighborhood. And he finally agreed because I explained that if I’m there, I see the good, the bad, the ugly. And I’m not going to be prissy and say we are 100% pure people because we do do things that aren’t necessarily good.
Maiysha Kai [00:23:23] We’re human. Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:23:24] But there’s so much more to us, which is what I tried to show in this book. Yeah. And that’s why I’m hoping that it will have some relevance and resonance. With the younger people today who are out there like yourself doing the work of journalism. I mean, years ago, Edward R Murrow said of television, this instrument can teach. It can illuminate. It can inspire. But it can only do so to the extent that human beings are willing to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s merely lights and wires in a box.
Maiysha Kai [00:24:05] Well, I want to talk a little more about that influence that you have. We’re going to jump to a quick break and then we’ll be back with more Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
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Maiysha Kai [00:24:42] All right. We are back yet again with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. You know, My People reminds me, this is such a wonderful time, I think, for this book to come out. You know, you were just talking about having an influence on younger generations. I hope anyone who is aspiring to to be a journalist in particular or engage with journalism, I think, you know, you do such an excellent job here of not just demonstrating how you can tell a story. Right. But also, you know, I had a conversation not too long ago here on this very podcast with the authors of His Name is George Floyd, Robert Samuels and Toluse, excuse me, Olorunnipa and one of the questions I asked them was that classic question that we get asked or that, you know, that that old school thinking, I’ll say old school only because I think it still stands. But I do think that we’re having to confront it in new and different ways.
Maiysha Kai [00:25:42] You know, about you’re never supposed to be part of the story, right? As a journalist, you’re never supposed to be part of the story. And yet, as we know and I definitely, you know, those of us who have been actively engaged in the daily work of journalism, particularly in the last decade and especially since 2020, you know, it is a very interesting thing trying to separate yourself from the trauma that you’re witnessing, which is why I think someone like you who was doing the same thing in the sixties, right, is a perfect mentor on this topic to a younger generation. Because as you demonstrate through this book, there is nothing A, there’s nothing new under the sun. So there’s that. But also, you know, what I love is I mean, the title itself, you are part of the story. You know, this is not oh, hey, I wrote about Black people from this distance. These are my people and I have to write about my people from within that context that you were just talking about. So what advice do you give to us, you know, writing about our people now? You know, I think, you know, how do we confront that that idea that we’re supposed to be, you know, ever objective?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:27:00] Well, I’ve never liked the term objective. My computer is objective. Well, sometimes I had a hard time logging in.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:07] Mine is on autocorrect. It like it knows what I’m going to say.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:27:12] But I’m like, I like the term fair and balanced.
Maiysha Kai [00:27:16] Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:27:17] Because that also helps people appreciate who you are. I mean, your writing and if they know who you are, they may know what your color is. But if you’re fair and balanced, I think that leads to one hopes, leads to respect.
“My People” Excerpt [00:27:39] So along with my clothes, I packed my racial consciousness. And while some of my clothes wore out from time, my people and their stories kept my consciousness fresh and responsive to their ongoing challenges.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:27:56] And you know, there have been times in the book where I had to write about the ancestors, people who left us. And there are times when I’ve had to write about what I call my sisters, but I’ve explained why I did that. And again, going back to the original idea of the book, it’s to inform people of all colors, not just my people, but especially people who don’t really know us. Because there are media and there are other sources of information. Even maybe school mum has not given us a good perspective on who we are. And so what I’m hoping is that even as we have issues like, oh my goodness, the recent incident with Nancy Pelosi’s husband, it just almost brings me to tears because he’s a human being. He’s not my people in that sense. Right. But when we have when we have a country where we produce people who can do something like that. I think it’s imperative that those of us who have a voice like yours and hopefully up to a point like mine, can reach out to people who may not have known much about us. And and I’m asking all people, my people, your people, but all people, regardless of race, creed, color, sexual orientation. Regardless.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:29:45] I am hoping and being a PK, I’m praying that people who might not otherwise have. Looked at our people. Might take up the book and also I did an audiobook. If they don’t feel like reading it, I’ll read it to them and I’ll discuss it with them. And, you know, I did a piece not long ago on the Wampanoags, the Native American tribe here in Martha’s Vineyard. And what I learned things from them that I didn’t know. I’ve always respected the Native Americans, but the history that they gave me, the Vanderhoops and their project called Sassafras Education. The history that they gave me about how this vineyard used to be inhabited by native, by them, Wampanoags. And then, you know, someone came along and purchased it. Not not their color, not their national origin, any of that. And then began to divide, the divide the place into a small part for them and it wasn’t even called that, they call this Norpe. And so I started calling that Norpe. But, you know, it’s history out there that is just not being uncovered. And again, to go back to my original point, we need our local newspapers, our Black newspapers, we need our community newspapers and we need the younger generation who are out there marching also to get out their pens and papers. Oh, now they do it now on their phones. Take, listen, talk to the people, get some good quotes and write about it and talk about it. And I just. Well, I’m not going into that, but yeah.
Maiysha Kai [00:31:49] I don’t know. We could go into it. Let’s take a quick break and we’ll be right back with more. Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
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Maiysha Kai [00:32:28] All right. And we are back with more Writing Black and our guest today, Charlayne Hunter-Gault, who is delighting me with these stories. And I got to tell you, you’ve now sold me out. So I have the hardcover book, which will be any proud place of myself. But I’m going to be listening to the audio book just because I love the way you tell stories so far for me. But, you know, you were just talking about local news. And so this is which is very personal to me as well. I’m sitting here talking to you from Chicago, which is where I spent much of my childhood. My mother was a local on air, journalist, writer, producer for our local ABC station here. So I grew up in a newsroom and you know, I say that to say that it hit me a little bit where it hurts because you were so right when you said that you feel like local news, you know, is taking a hit. And I you know, I look, for instance, even at the way, you know, the city that I live in and then I grew up in Chicago has been framed in a national narrative, right. That those of us locally have a totally different perspective on. Right. We have a different context for it. Even if we’re like, yes, this is happening and that is bad. We’re also like, but there’s a whole context, a whole historical arc to why this is happening. You know, same thing with Minneapolis, which is another place I spent a lot of my childhood and I was born there, you know, seeing what’s happened in the aftermath of George Floyd and around that and the conversation around policing. Also very interesting to me. Like, do you see any remedy for us on this local level of preserving, kind of preserving our stories, I guess, and helping to get the stories of our cities out there when so much of the world is addicted to kind of, you know, engaging with the news on this national streaming kind of, you know, huge network level?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:34:18] Right. Well, again, I think it’s very important for local journalists to to be supported. And I think that this is where the point I made earlier about people making decisions also need to help. There needs to be more diversity because there’ll be a greater appreciation. They go home to their communities and they see things that others, because, you know, we have so many still segregated communities or communities where the only people of color living. And the other thing that there’s a positive side to that and a negative side. The positive side is that I think that if we give who was a Jim Lehrer or my former colleague who’s also now an ancestor, but he said if you give people good information, they’ll do the right thing. And so that is not something that stops when you’re 25 as a journalist or 80 as a journalist, as some of us are.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:27] We should all be so lucky.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:35:30] Right. But and by the way, I know a lot of, my husband’s mother was a Democratic. What did they call her? She was active in the party, and she used to register register people to vote and and all of that. So it comes out I know that history and I know that city. I continue to follow it with all of its challenges.
Maiysha Kai [00:35:52] Right. I forgot your husband is a native Chicagoan as well. That’s right.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:35:57] I listen Otis Moss III every Sunday at the Trinity United Church of Christ. I visited there. And so I know a lot about Chicago, but I also know that it’s having a lot of the same problems that other people have. And so that’s again, where I think that our generation, my generation and your generation need to come together because Twitter ain’t gonna do it for us.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:21] No, definitely not now.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:36:24] So we got to get into these elementary schools.
Maiysha Kai [00:36:27] Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:36:28] High schools where it’s predominantly Black, but it doesn’t matter what the makeup of the school is, you know, but get there and help these young people appreciate the fact that they are not being informed by Twitter. Now, I consider myself an 80 woke and I do Twitter, but that’s not how I totally informed myself. And so that’s what I think part of it is educating our young people, how they can inform themselves and how important it is to do that.
Maiysha Kai [00:37:10] Yeah, I want to talk about education, too, because it’s it’s writ large in this book. We’re going to take a quick break. We’re going to come back with more Writing Black and more Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
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Maiysha Kai [00:37:50] All right. Let’s get back into it. Welcome back to Writing Black. I’m still having a hard time calling you by your first name because I’m so, like, in I’m like star struck. But you are woke. So as you were saying, Charlotte, and it’s like, oh, my gosh, I’m on a first name basis with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. Anyway, as you were just talking about, you know, and this is something that comes up in a few of the articles included in my people. And I love that it does. So, you know, in addition to being a journalist, I’m a former schoolteacher. My mother’s a former schoolteacher. So I come from a line of Black women. My stepmother is a former school teacher. I come from a line of Black women who are not just intellectuals, but they’re also educators. It’s just something that’s big in my family. And, you know, so the attacks that we’ve seen recently on, you know, or even the labeling of accurate American history as CRT has been obviously really difficult to watch. And I think, you know, you make such an incredible case in this book, not even what’s stunning about it, you’re not even doing it in such an overt way. It’s just by the inclusion of some of these articles, some of which date back to the sixties, where you’re talking about exactly what we’re talking about today, what are kids learning in school? What are they allowed to learn, whose narratives that they being taught? Who whose narratives do they have access to? And how do we change that? And when I said that, you know, it felt a bit like a tactical guide at points or a bit of a road map. I felt like you were kind of subtly saying to us, or maybe not so subtly, that this issue has been approached, that, you know, we have always cared about our communities, we’ve always cared about our kids. We’ve always wanted to make sure that our kids are getting the right information, not just our kids, obviously all kids. But when choosing to put those particular articles in the book, what was it that you wanted to really impart there? Because there were some really cool kind of things going on and I was like, Oh, I had thought about that. I could do that. Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:39:53] Which one?
Maiysha Kai [00:39:54] Well, there was one towards the beginning of the book where you were talking about the Patersons. I’m going to say they were in Harlem. I thought that was excellent. And, you know, like a few others where you were talking about this, you know, talking about community activism, which is huge, you know, and whose responsibility is it, you know, in there? And there were articles in which, you know, I wanted to say that the overarching theme was very much like, you know, taking control of our destiny, that when we hear that, not not pull yourself up by your bootstraps way, but in that way, that’s like, you know, we have to make sure, like, we can fight all we want about making sure that the right history is taught in schools and we should. But also, you know, it was kind of the end, I guess, is what I was hearing. Is that what you were trying to get across? Is that is that is that something that you believe or do you think that there’s another way that we should be combating this whole inaccuracy, this whole not inaccuracy, I would say this editing down and watering down of history. Is there a way that you think that we who care about accurate retellings of history should be addressing this? Or do you think this is like a a multi-pronged approach that we have to take?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:41:12] Well, it is multipronged because it needs to happen in the classrooms, you know. Several years ago, I wrote a piece I’m not sure this was in the book now, but it could be, it was the Southern Regional Council. And this wasn’t that many years ago, maybe in 2017, something like that. And they issued a report that the majority of schools in this country do not teach Black history. That was that was done with considerable scholarship and and real work that looked at all of these places. And. I think that’s part of the problem, really. I mean, you know, you mentioned the Patterson School. Now, I wrote a piece for the Martha’s Vineyard Gazette a few years ago, and it was talked about what goes around, comes around.
Maiysha Kai [00:42:09] Yeah. Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:42:09] And that is history. I mean, what goes around comes around because when the Patterson started their school and again, I was living in Harlem right around the corner from the school, and I got my son involved in it at the school in to the school. And what they say, which is in the piece, is the importance of teaching our young people Black history from an early age so that they grow up. Again, I you get sick of me here in this term, but I love the notion armor.
Maiysha Kai [00:42:46] Mm hmm.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:42:47] Because that’s what we need to withstand some of the things that we’re dealing with today.
Maiysha Kai [00:42:53] Yeah.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:42:54] Now, there are a lot of people who are in not in the position that you’re in or that I’m in or my husband or my family. But if you look at the data these days of who is suffering the most from this pandemic, there is absolutely nothing that that that contradicts the notion that the facts that the Black people who are suffering the most now, they are poor whites and in rural areas who are also suffering. Let’s not let’s not dismiss that and nor the fact that there were whites who have always helped us, no matter what the situation was. There are whites who have died for us Goodman, Chaney, Viola Liuzzo, Schwerner. Not Chaney, Schwerner.
Maiysha Kai [00:43:42] And there are whites who have made it possible for, you know, you and I, to have the careers that we have. So there’s that, too.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:43:48] You know and that too.
Maiysha Kai [00:43:51] Even say the things that we say.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:43:53] William Sean was the first editor I had, and he was just amazing. I was the first Black reporter at the at The New Yorker. And he was just wonderful. I mean, he he also helped me on this path because when I started there, I was hired as a as a, you know, editorial assistant typing. We had typewriters in those days, typing, rejection slips and doing secretarial work. But one day I decided to try and write something and like everybody else was doing, actually. And when I submitted it, he called me. Oh, I asked a colleague of mine if he would take a look at it. And it was a piece about Harlem. I think it’s in the book 115th between Lynx and 5th. And he I showed it to my friend. I said, I turn this in. Have I embarrassed myself? He said, Well, I think if you were writing about Harlem, you should be writing about some of the problems that people are having up there. But, you know, the thing is that that’s what everybody was writing about.
Maiysha Kai [00:44:55] Right.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:44:56] Nobody was writing about Harlem that I saw when I was a little kid, five or six years old, coming to Harlem with my grandmother. And that’s when I wrote 115th Between Lynx and 5th, which is what the Street was called. I mean, I came from a place where you call it Brown Street, West Street, Short Street. I was fascinated that something was called 115th between Lynx and 5th.
Maiysha Kai [00:45:20] I love the way you talked about the naming of the streets.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:45:23] Yeah, exactly, exactly. And so, you know, that helped me appreciate my perspective because, again, my friends, they used to be writing about what’s terrible’s going on. And that’s true. I mean, there are terrible things going on, but that’s always been what’s been reported, right? Terrible things going on. Now, to be sure, if we reported today about the impact that I just mentioned of the coronavirus and the economy and everything else, you’ve got to point out some terrible things that are happening among people of color, and that’s not good. But it’s important for people to see that so that they understand what’s going on in our world.
“My People” Excerpt [00:46:13] The protests sparked by police killings of Black people over the last few years have caused another period of soul searching, a moment to dig deeper as clearly the racist demons of our past still haunt us.
Maiysha Kai [00:46:30] And how but how also do you value lives if you don’t also talk about how well rounded those lives are, right. You know it’s like we can’t just talk about the the devastation that happens to lives and expect people to continue to value them.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:46:45] Right.
Maiysha Kai [00:46:46] You know.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:46:47] Right.
Maiysha Kai [00:46:47] In my opinion.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:46:49] I accept your opinion, write about it and send me the article.
Maiysha Kai [00:46:54] You know, I do write about it. I am theGrio’s lifestyle editor. And that is exactly what I write about. So I you know, because I do think that we have that responsibility. I’m going to take one more break and I’m going to be back with more Charlayne Hunter-Gault.
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Maiysha Kai [00:47:38] And we’re back. You know, this is you know, this is a dream conversation for me because, you know, obviously, your incredible guidance, your talent, your wisdom in 50 years, especially being a still working journalist, 50 years is a legacy. It also, of course, places you at this really interesting crossroads in American history. And one. Yes, that we are still recreating. We are still living. You know, in the book, you you very you know, you casually just like the names that come out in this book, you know, like, oh, and, you know, I was talking to I was interviewing John Lewis and or, you know, or I was listening to Kenyada on the corner or, you know, Julian Bond was in the basement. You know, it’s I mean, it’s stunning. It’s stunning. It’s such a stunning perspective, you know, told from this observer’s view. But, you know, we always ask this question of everybody that we interview here. Who do you read? Who inspires you? Who do you take along with you on this journey that you’re calling life? And as other writers like other other people that you read or look to?
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:48:52] Well, I’m often asked to blurb books and I just I well, I blurbed a book that just came out. It was.
Maiysha Kai [00:49:00] We should note that Nikole Hannah-Jones blurbed yours. She did the foreword for yours.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:49:05] So beautifully.
Maiysha Kai [00:49:07] And you’re one of her heroes, too. So there you go.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:49:10] I was blown away, but Peniel Joseph has a good book.
Maiysha Kai [00:49:15] Yes, we’ve had. We’ve had we’ve talked to Peniel. Yes.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:49:19] Yeah.
Maiysha Kai [00:49:20] Absolutely.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:49:22] Great. Because the Times Book Review wasn’t 100%, but it got it got a lot of words. So I like that.
Maiysha Kai [00:49:30] Third Reconstruction is the name of that book for people who are wondering. Yes.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:49:35] And you know, right now, I don’t have time to do a lot of reading. And it’s most of it is it’s historic right in through here, because I think that, you know, there are times when I say something like Charles Sherrod, who recently passed away and was a great civil rights leader in his day. But when I read the long obituary in the Times, there were things I didn’t know or didn’t remember. And so I read things today that help me go back in history a lot. I’ll tell you a little another little story about our segregated school. You know, I got inspired initially to become Brenda, to become a reporter from Brenda Starr.
Maiysha Kai [00:50:27] I had read that. Yes.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:50:29] I got that from my grandmother. She read three newspapers a day. And she when she finished, she’d hand me the comics.
Maiysha Kai [00:50:35] Yes. I had grandparents like that, too. Yep.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:50:37] And so I told my mom and I told her I wanted to be like Brenda Starr. She didn’t say, oh, no, no, no. That’s not what little Black girls can do. She said very casually, which is how she always was. She was brilliant. She read a book a day. But anyway, she said, If that’s what you want to do. So that was my initial inspiration. But then, as I said, going to an all Black segregated school, one of the things one of the people I learned about there as a part of our history was Ida B. Wells.
Maiysha Kai [00:51:16] Mm hmm.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:51:17] And Ida B. Wells is somebody I have read about and read. She was a journalist, but she was also an activist. Yep. And she cared about people. Her people. She could have written this book. Maybe she did. But, you know, it’s it’s that’s the kind of inspiration I’m looking for these days. Things that help us. Help me in my quests, continuing quests to tell the, quote unquote truth. There are things that either I have forgotten or never knew or need to be reminded of again. Forgotten, reminded of because our history again is very important. And that’s why I think that. If I ever get invited, I was invited to a Black school and I won’t say where. It was in the South. And I started, you know, telling the story of how I had spoken at the University of Georgia. And they invited me a lot, by the way.
Maiysha Kai [00:52:26] As they should, yes.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:52:29] And I had talked about I had talked about the 54 decision. I said, now you all know about the 54 decision. Not a single one in the room now. They were mixed, mixed race. So I told a story at this particular predominantly Black school. And the young teacher, I guess she must have been and I would say she’s in her mid-thirties or something like that. And so she was walking me after the after I said, you all don’t know. And I told the story and I told what it was, what the what the 54 decision was. And at the end of my presentation and the event was over, she was walking me to the car. This is a young Black teacher who said, Can I say something? Can I give you a confession? I said what? She said I didn’t know what the 54 decision was either. She grew up in Mississipp and didn’t. And she’s 34 years old now, of course, 34 going back to when the 54 decision was made. Was before her time. But all of our history, much of our history is before our time. And we got to go and look at it, because that’s where my daughters peace hope. That’s where the hope comes from. When you see the things that our people my people have had to deal with and overcome. Hopefully overcome. You realize that we are in a challenging time, but when we go to our history, we see we’ve had challenges before and they’ll they should come back.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:54:20] Now, you ask who I read. I read poetry. In fact, when I first interviewed Nelson Mandela, when he had just gotten out of prison and I had gotten the half hour, whereas only one other reporter, Ted Koppel, got a half hour. But again, it’s because you stick with your sources. So while the African National Congress wasn’t in the news that much. I met some of them in 85 when I first went to South Africa during the darkest days of apartheid. But I kept up with my sources and I would text them and whatever however you were doing back in those days. And so they gave me a half hour as opposed to the 10 minutes that everybody else. So, you know, I’m just being me, you know? So I say, okay, they say it’s time for you. And I said, well, look, you know, I’ve watched all afternoon while Mr. Mandela was being interviewed, I said and he never had a break. And this is the first time he’s been exposed to television because he was in prison 27 years. There was no television when they went in. Wow. And I said, how about giving him a few minutes to have a cup of tea? They were shocked, but they agreed. Here’s a man is in his, you know, 70, 80s, I guess, at that point. So anyway, he comes out, sits down, he’s ready for my interview. And I say, well, Mr. Mandela. And everybody was looking for a scoop. Right. And so am I. So I wasn’t thinking about it at that moment, but I did say to introduce myself, so he would maybe open up in a different way. I said, you know, I come out of the American civil rights revolution and before I could get it out of my mouth, he said, Oh, do you know Miss Maya Angelou? Now, perfectly honest. I didn’t know her, but I knew of her and I knew her work. So I thought it was okay for me to say, “Oh, yes, sir, I do know her.”
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:56:38] And he said, Well, now again, here’s the thing. Get ready for this. Everybody was waiting for a scoop. And I don’t think anybody got a scoop that day. But when I said I knew Miss Maya Angelou, he said, “Oh, well, we read all of her books while we were in prison.” I said, Scoop. I had a scoop. The here’s some because people want to know what was inside this man’s head and heart and how he survived all of those years. I mean, his eyes were totally messed up having to dig in the in the clay at Robben Island and so many other things. But here he’s telling me that part of how he got through was reading the work of a Black woman from America. And that was me. Oh, man. Did I play that one up. Not I was glad that I got the scoop. But I also was glad that there was this consciousness on his part. And then back just before he was about to take office as the first Black president of South Africa, I had an interview with him. But I had just learned that my son Chuma was graduating the same day from Emory University, and I didn’t have a choice. And so I said to him just prior to the interview, I said, Mr. Mandela, it’s wonderful to be with you again. I said, But before we begin the interview, I need to tell you something that is breaking my heart in a way. He said, What is that? And I said, Well. And I told him, What was it? And he looked at me. He said. “Of course you have to be there.” He said, “You can interview me any time.” And he meant it. So I missed the inauguration. I made the graduation, and I’ve got this picture somewhere I wish I could show you. Walking down the street in New York City when Madiba came to America for the first time after he had gotten out and we organized a Q&A at the Council on Foreign Relations, and I walked him out to to go to his car. And we were holding hands. I mean, that.
Maiysha Kai [00:59:05] I don’t know if this is the picture, but right here in the corner of this cover.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:59:11] Yeah.
Maiysha Kai [00:59:11] See you and Madiba smiling. So, you know. Like, believe her, ya’ll.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [00:59:18] That was one that we took that day at the interview in Soweto. And, you know, the thing about him, which I think a lot of our leaders could learn from. I was working for NBC as a special correspondent and they had set up the day that he. It was. What was it? It was. It was the funeral. And we had a set up across the street from his house in Soweto, and it was owned by a Black woman. And so I would take a break and I go down and chat with her because I’m always trying to learn things from people, you know. And here was a woman who survived apartheid, did pretty well and had her own house and all that. And so I would I went in and want at one break and I said, so what’s it been like having Mandela? She said, Let me tell you something about this man. She said, I didn’t know him before he went to prison. She said, but once he got out, he comes home to Soweto. This little tiny, you know, house is she said he went up and down the street, introducing himself to every neighbor and asking how they were doing. And, well, if there’s ever anything I can do, let me know. I mean, you you don’t get that just running in somewhere and saying, I’m here. What is the matter? And leaving. Because this took me a few hours, but. But, you know, breaks and stuff and stuff. And she got used to seeing us. And so she open up in that way. And I have another picture which I couldn’t get on the front of the book because it was just too much out there. Because I designed it. I didn’t. Well, I designed it, let’s put it that way.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [01:01:21] Okay.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [01:01:25] But I have this great picture of the two of us on her sofa, head to head, like little sister, big sisters, actually. And it just it’s just one of my most wonderful moments, to know somebody in a way that you wouldn’t ordinarily had you not had time and given the time to get to know her. And that was what was so good about the Harlem Bureau. I didn’t have any deadlines. I mean, I would have a deadline if I was writing. And I’m saying I’ve done a story on.
Maiysha Kai [01:02:02] They didn’t even know what to do with you. So of course, they didn’t give you a deadline.
Charlayne Hunter-Gault [01:02:09] But you just spend time getting to know people in a different way. And I think that’s really important.
Maiysha Kai [01:02:15] That connection that I felt to you through my people. And also I feel that you in this conversation. I think that that’s the thing that we do forget about writing and about journalism, that ultimately there is that what you were just saying, you know, what you were saying earlier that with the Murrow quote about, you know, where there is respect, where there is mutual respect and connection and reverence, I think for somebody else’s experience, you know, even if it’s not one you can relate to, just having a respect for, for their experience is a game changer of sorts when it comes to being a journalist. And, you know, I just, you know, again, I just appreciate you so much like being here and discussing this. I appreciate this book so much. Y’all who care about history, if you care about history, if you care about writing, if you care about journalism, if you care about truth telling. This is a great book. You’re going to love it. My people with Charlayne Hunter-Gault. We will be back in a minute with more Writing Black.
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Maiysha Kai [01:03:51] All right. Let’s get back into it. Welcome back to Writing Black. Now we are finally at that part in the episode where I make some recommendations based on the episode. And, you know, one of the coolest things about Charlayne Hunter-Gault is just the span of history that she has not only covered as a journalist, but actually been witness to firsthand. You know, in some of the early chapters of the book, she is discussing, you know, encountering Julian Bond. And, you know, she’ll just casually talk about a conversation she had with John Lewis or, you know, just any number of people that we now know, as, you know, icons of the ongoing civil rights movement. And in that spirit. I wanted to recommend this book, which is by Julian Bond. It’s called Race Man, and this is selected works from 1960 to 2015. So not too far off from my people in terms of the span that it covers by one of Charlayne’s contemporaries, so to speak, the late, great Julian Bond. I highly recommend and much like her book, you know, this is told from an entirely expository stance. So this is not something that was written in novel form or memoir form. This is really, you know, collected works that really tell the story of an incredible human being. And so I think it’s a great companion piece to my people and you should check it out. Race Man. Thanks so much for joining us for this week’s episode of Writing Black. As always, you can find us on theGrio app or wherever you find your podcasts.