Lessons From a Half-Century of Reporting on Race in America
Charlayne Hunter–Gault (80) has made history and documented it in real-time. Following her 1961 enrollment at Georgia as the first Black woman, Hunter-Gault was among the first Black women to submit a piece to the New York Post in the 1970s. Times—establishing the paper’s Harlem bureau—before becoming NPR’s chief Africa correspondent. She was the first Black writer on staff at NPR, among many other achievements. It New YorkerHer efforts to tell the American story captured by her have won her two Emmys as well as a Peabody.
She also tells me about history while we discuss her book. My People: Five Decades worth of Writing on Black LivesIt’s a habit of history to repeat itself. She says that this is what she learned from her first journalism class at Georgia. A professor said that history can teach us a lot because it fails so many times. History should be a guide past avoidable social and political calamities, she says, and it should offer hope in the face of deeply distressing current events—reminders that at even in our darkest hours, there have always been “heroes and she-roes,” as Hunter-Gault puts it, who pulled the rest of us toward something better. We often see the present disconnected from the past, even though this is a common problem. My PeopleThis instinct is countered by essential insights that are gleaned through observation of the messy world.
Hunter-Gault spoke to TIME by phone from her home in Martha’s Vineyard. This transcript has been edited to improve clarity and length.
TIME: Why did you decide to compile a compilation of all your work?
HUNTER GAULT: This is an extremely difficult time. However, there are stories from our past that can help people feel less depressed about where they are at the moment. While we have faced many difficulties in the past since when people of colour arrived in the United States, the result is amazing. It is important to tell some of this history now, for everyone, and not just for people of color. Although my book is focused on Black women, I also include white men and women who died in service to us. And so I’m hoping that looking at our history, we can see the heroes and she-roes—many of whom are ordinary people who would probably reject being called a hero, and yet they were.
The book includes a story about a community-dispute center in Harlem, one about parents looking for a way to teach their children a more accurate version of history, one about the late Congressman John Lewis when he was a young voting-rights activist, another about policing during periods of increased crime—do you feel those stories include themes on the issues of the moment requiring more thought?
Well, why don’t you quote yourself on that? Yeah.
Again, I’m trying to put our history in context. A perspective I hold is one that’s rooted in my own past. [involved]Although it was challenging, the experience was also full of perseverance. And so I look at that history, and I say how important it is—for this younger generation in particular, but for some of the older ones, too, who are getting a bit frustrated with where we are in the country—for them to know the history, [to]They should know where their shoulders are.
Learn more: ‘Critical Race Theory Is Simply the Latest Bogeyman.’ Inside the Fight Over What Kids Learn About America’s History
As I read through the stories, another thing struck me was the number of profiles you have on people who did not, at that time, hold great national stature. One story was about John Lewis, the future Congressman and how the 1964 Voting Right Act impacted him. He also described the results he anticipated from the work that he did to register Black voters for Georgia. What is it that you identify as the common thread among all those who eventually shape American lives?
Keep in mind what Barack Obama stated when he visited Selma. [Ala.]. He stated, “We stand on the shoulders giants.” Yep. People don’t always realize that these giants were little boys, like John Lewis was when he used to go and preach to the pigs in the backyard.
It is something I can recall in my brain. [in 1961]When I was at UGA, John [Lewis]For the challenge of interstate segregation, he and other young Black-white people boarded the bus from Washington. And here’s what got me. They were not only entering into a potentially hazardous or dangerous situation but were going to do it anyway. In case of a problem, they were so determined to sign their wills before leaving Washington. And of course, that, again, led to the person who received the first blows for freedom—[one of whom]John Lewis was the one who got him off the bus, and the white agitators beat the crap out of him. Did it stop him from doing so? He was inspired by it.
Charlayne Hunt, 18 years old at University of Georgia in 1960
Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
I’ve listened to the commentators on various channels, about how democracy, in effect, is going to hell. Someone mentioned how democracy in the rest of the world is failing. We have the history to prove that we can succeed in our attempts at perfecting unions. This is not just in America but also in places such as South Africa, where we have lots of history. There’s just so much pessimism about democracy.
Learn more: Why John Lewis Continued to Tell the Story about Civil Rights, Even though It Hurt
People would claim that there were warnings before 2016 that people should be wary of electing someone who has not been convicted. Openly stated he will not accept the election results if he doesn’t win, you are playing a very dangerous political game. Many of those people happen to be people of color—journalists and historians of color, aware of what portions of our history pointed that way. These people were often dismissed.
I’ll tell you a story, briefly, that I’m still trying to figure out. [In 2020]I went to an area that was predominantly Black. Finally, I was able to speak with these men [in a park]They had both voted. When I asked him if he would tell me which candidate he voted for, he said: He said, Well, let’s put it this way. I didn’t vote for Trump. Then I agreed to go to the sidewalk café owned by a man who I liked. [said] something to the effect of, ‘Why are they always on him about his taxes?’ [The man thought Trump was] a good businessman who’s a good example for him as a businessman. The New YorkerIt was run that Monday [before Election Day]. They analyzed the data and found that the voting results showed that Blacks had voted for Donald Trump.
Do you feel there is anything that’s not covered enough or doesn’t get enough attention today?
It’s one thing to report on demonstrations and the work of organizations like Black Lives Matter and so forth. But it’s another thing to report on the underlying issues that cause those organizations to exist, that cause those protests. It’s great to see news agencies making improvements and including people of color. And it’s one thing to add people of color, which I applaud. It’s another thing to make sure to add people of color who understand the dimensions of the race problem and who have contacts within the community.
Edward R. Murrow said these words years ago. [television] can teach, it can illuminate, it can inspire—but it can only do so to the extent that we are willing to use it to those ends. “Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.” And I quote that all the time.
I’m going to put that up next to my computer. It’s an excellent prescription. I’m curious, though, when you looked at your own body of work, were there issues or areas where you felt you still had work left to do?
We need to improve our communication skills with those we disagree with. This is especially true when it comes history, how it’s taught and the content. The question I have about that is how do we, as a nation and the people of the nation, communicate—because I don’t see a lot of communication between people who have one set ideas and people who have a different set. I think that’s one of our biggest challenges.
However, I believe that the lessons learned from my personal history can be applied to today. And I think that rather than be intimidated into not reporting on people of color and their issues, people in our profession in particular should be encouraged by our history—the good, the bad, the ugly—to report on those issues. When I was in New York, I vividly remember having a conversation with my editor. Times. I had to attend an interview before I was hired. I asked him if I could tell truths about Black people if sent to Harlem. He eventually agreed and we set up an office at 125th. [Street]It was a small space, but big enough to accommodate me.
It is because I am still a believer in my profession and the potential it has, that I work. I did just do a piece for the Wampanoag.. I am able to see the bigger picture and still give attention to things that are important. And while I’ve slowed down on all of that I don’t plan to not do it anytime soon. I found another story where a young Black woman is working on helping to educate young students about how best to communicate with people who don’t agree with you, and one of the people who spoke along with her was a white teacher who is implementing those things in her curriculum.
We’ve just got to continue to emphasize the notion of what it takes to create a more perfect union. And, to be sure, information—good information—is what’s going to take us there.
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