Kai Wright: This is The United States of Anxiety, a show about the unfinished business of our history and its grip on our future.
Trevor Noah: I've listened to Black Americans and it's the most amazing use of the English language I've ever come across in my life.
Drew Barrymore: I want more of your street no filter. I'm already liking the body language of it.
Nina Simone: To me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, Black people
Valerie Boyd: Zora, she was always unapologetically Southern, unabashedly Black.
[Black Panthers singing ‘Black is Beautiful’]
Tupac: They want me to be like this and dah dah dah just because they're scared of me, but I don't feel like that's my job to humble myself to show you that I'm not a threat.
Alice Walker: We've been under siege and it has forced us into some quite distorted self-conceptions.
Winnie Harlow: Being brave to me about going outside and being confident in my skin implies that there's a problem with my skin.
Kai Wright: Welcome to the show. I'm Kai Wright. As we've been poking at the idea of Black History Month all this February, I've been thinking about Zora Neale Hurston, and particularly about her use of language. How she used it on the page but also how she used it herself. The way she danced with words. There's this great radio interview in the WNYC archives, it's a 1943 conversation between her and the famous radio personality Mary Margaret McBride from a collection of Library of Congress and there's one part where she tells the story of how she learned to walk.
She described herself as a fat little baby who was too lazy to get up on her feet which frustrated her mom and then one day, here's what happened.
Zora Neale Hurston: We live in a country and, we eat a lot of collard greens and turn them things like that and so she's going to have greens that day and she went down to the well which was some distance from the house and left me sitting on the floor with a piece of cornbread in my hand to keep me quiet. While she was down there she said she heard me screaming, and she came running to see what's the matter. When she got she could hear this sow grunting in the house outside coming to the house.
She smelt me eating this cornbread and so she came in with a whole flock of pigs behind her to get the cornbread, but of course, at that tender age, I couldn't understand what that's all coming for. When mama got there, I had to pull up around that chair was getting ready to ride smart, and I just started walking from then and just kept right on that.
Mary Margaret McBride: That shows how we learned a lot of things there I bet you.
Zora Neale Hurston: Yes. The South didn't exactly teach me how to walk but she persuaded me I ought to try.
Kai Wright: The South persuaded me I ought to try. For me, the joy of this, the linguistic art of it is in the phrasing. The way she mixes her diction and her proper vocabulary with just totally unapologetically country ideas and syntax. Anyway, to think about Black History Month, what makes it sometimes complicated is it's not only about learning our history. It's also one of these moments when we as Black people are often prompted to represent something more than our individual unique versions of humanity.
When we have to think about our Blackness in relationship to everybody else's ideas of it very much including other Black people's ideas. That's why I've got Zora Neale Hurston on my mind. Her and her language. She's now considered one of the greatest writers of the 20th century, but in her time she was largely dismissed because she refused to adapt her voice to meet everyone else's expectations. To talk about that we have invited author Bernice L McFadden to join the show. Hey, Bernice thanks for coming on.
Bernice L. McFadden: Thank you for having me.
Kai Wright: Bernice McFadden is the author of several award-winning novels and most recently Praise Song for the Butterflies in 2018, and The Book of Harlan in 2016, which won both the American Book Award and the NAACP Image Award. She and I are both contributors to a new collection called Four Hundred Souls, a community history of African America, and Bernice you wrote, just this lovely piece about Zora Neale Hurston in that collection so first off, thank you for that.
Bernice L. McFadden: Oh, thank you so much.
Kai Wright: Can we just start by walking through Hurston's rapid rise and fall among critics in the 1930s which you chronicle in that essay. Her first novel comes out in 1934, it's called Jonah's Gourd Vine. It was well-received by white critics, The New York Times praised her use of what was then called Negro dialect which of course was just the way Black people talk to the deep south, but you point out that the white critics fundamentally misunderstood something about her relationship to that language. Can you explain that?
Bernice L. McFadden: Yes. One of the reviewer’s comments said that she handled the Negro dialect so well and she seemed to be a bit surprised by that because Zora had been educated in a white, I believe Ivy League University. I found that really very interesting that this white critic just completely dismissed the fact that Zora had been born in Alabama, raised in Florida both in Black communities and so she was writing about how this language was not foreign to her, it was absolutely a huge part of her.
Kai Wright: It's almost like the critic wanted to make Zora part of her own outside observance of Southern Black people as opposed to letting Zora just be Zora?
Bernice L. McFadden: I agree. Absolutely.
Kai Wright: Well, okay, so two years later, Hurston publishes the book for which she's now most famous, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Again, she really embraces the so-called Negro dialect but by this point, her language is being rejected by some Black figures most notably Richard Wright. What did he say about her work?
Bernice L. McFadden: Well basically, he felt that she was playing into the stereotypes created by the dominant group white folk, and he was working to move away from those so-called stereotypes because he didn't think that it serviced the Black community, completely dismissing, of course, that language is a tool. It's a tool that we use to maintain our identity and that's exactly what Zora was doing.
Kai Wright: He didn't think it served the Black community in what way?
Bernice L. McFadden: Well, I think that he felt that if Zora was writing in that dialect, that dialect had been labeled as the language of people who were uneducated, quite frankly stupid, and inferior and he certainly wanted to distance himself away from that.
Kai Wright: Here she was somebody who went to Barnard College as you point out, quite educated in fact, and yet unapologetically bracing this language.
Bernice L. McFadden: Right.
Kai Wright: The book goes out of print about a year later I think and falls into obscurity which I think is something maybe a lot of people now don't know about Zora Neale Hurston’s work and it wasn't really widely read and celebrated again until the 1970s when Alice Walker and other Black women draw attention to it. Why do you think that is? Why did this book get dismissed by her own people?
Bernice L. McFadden: Again, because we had been indoctrinated to believe that language like that was for the lower class and we certainly didn't want to be a part of the lower class, although we were automatically considered a part of the lower class simply by the color of our skin. When Alice Walker came along and brought with her Zora Neale Hurston and Janie, I think it resonated because Alice Walker had also written The Color Purple using the same dialect. She was saying, "Hey, this is who we are, we need to celebrate this."
Kai Wright: Do you think something has shifted in Black culture that made it more acceptable when Alice Walker started using it or did she in fact make the shift?
Bernice L. McFadden: That’s such a complex question. I don't know. It could have been a little bit of both, this is following the Black Power Movement, and people are starting to search for their roots and they're very concerned with their ancestors and wanting, and needing to celebrate them. I'd like to think that was the reason.
Kai Wright: Well, in your essay in Four Hundred Souls you say that when you discovered Their Eyes Were Watching God now in 1987, that a door in your mind loudly cracked ajar which is a beautiful turn of phrase as well I think.
Bernice L. McFadden: Thank you.
Kai Wright: Let's talk about that door. First off, why? What was it about this book that hit you so?
Bernice L. McFadden: I was born and raised in Brooklyn, I’ve read a lot as a child, but I had never read a book written by a Black person, written about Black people. I went to high school, mostly white high school boarding school in rural Pennsylvania. I certainly wasn't introduced to any Black writers there, and I knew I wanted to be a writer because again, I was a huge reader, but I was like, "Well, how am I going to do this? I don't have any role models, and who am I going to write about?" When I picked up The Color Purple and I finished it in one sitting, I was like, "Oh my goodness, I know these people. This is my family," but I didn't think that I could write about my family who wanted to read about my family and that book gave me permission to do so.
Kai Wright: Well, on language, in particular, it sounds like you grew up in two different worlds because of your education, which I can relate to and I imagine a lot of listeners can as well. Like you said, you were educated at these fancy private schools and spent your summers in Brooklyn and Barbados, I gather. That created this tension in language for you. Can you describe that tension between how adults wanted you to speak and how you and them frankly actually spoke?
Bernice L. McFadden: [laughs] A lot of the adults in my life, again, like on my mother's side, my family came up from Georgia in the '40s. On my Caribbean side, my family came up from Barbados in the '20s. They had their own very particular ways of speaking, but they also understood that there was the right way to speak. It was all about don't do what I do, do what I say. I know I'm speaking this way, but this is not the right way because if you go out into the white world, speaking like this, you will have doors shut in your face. You're not going to get a job.
You're not going to be able to get into the right schools. You're not going to be able to exist with the right people who can help you advance here in America. I loved the music and the language and I absorbed it. I was playing this code-switching before I even understood what code-switching meant, I was already doing it.
Kai Wright: You called it your dialect Yankee Bajan I think.
Bernice L. McFadden: Yankee Bajan.
Kai Wright: Describe what that means.
Bernice L. McFadden: Yankee Bajan it's really what Barbadian say about Bajan descendants. My great-grandparents came here and they had my grandmother here and so she would have been considered a Yankee Bajan. My grandmother was really apt at switching between like full-on Bajan, even though she was born and raised in Brooklyn and then her Brooklynees.
Kai Wright: Which is its own dialect.
Bernice L. McFadden: Yes it is.
Kai Wright: My mother will probably be annoyed when she hears me say this, but I have always teased her about her own country roots being from Alabama. She has two very different ways of talking depending on whether she's trying to be formal or if she's just comfortable and I think I picked that up from her as well. All the Black people who raised me, they were hyperliterate. They were well-educated, could speak proper English better than most honestly, but that is just not how they talk to each other.
It took me a long time, I have to say before I realized even how often I also just shifted between those two without thought. It just seems to me that reading your essay about Zora Neale, that you were at least a little more thoughtful or deliberate about it than me. You write that you consider yourself bilingual in this way. When did that click for you? When and how did it click that this your way of thinking about it?
Bernice L. McFadden: I think it probably clicked for me in my early 30s. I'm sure it's because a school friend one of the women I went to school with in Danville, Pennsylvania, who was not Black and I think she was visiting and she heard me in conversation with my mother and then when I returned to her, I was speaking a bit differently and she pointed that out to me like, "Oh, that's different." I said, "Yes, but in your household--" I think what we don't realize is that everyone does it. Everyone does it and I explain that to my students too.
I said, "The way you speak to me it's not the way you speak to your friends." We all do it for various reasons.
Kai Wright: It's just when you add race to it, then it becomes complicated.
Bernice L. McFadden: Yes.
Kai Wright: How does all this show up in your own writing? How does this bilingualness and thought about how you choose speech, how does that show up in your books?
Bernice L. McFadden: A friend of mine pointed out to me, there's something that happens quite holistically. This is a woman who was born here in Brooklyn, but she has roots in Barbados. She wasn't raised down there. She went down and spent a few years and she got ahold of my book Sugar. This was before we knew each other. She said, she knew immediately that I had Bajan roots, because even though I was writing about Southern people in a Southern town, when I was talking about the food, I didn't say, "Oh, so-and-so baked the pan of macaroni and cheese."
I said, "Oh, they made macaroni pie." She's like, that's a Bajan thing. I like to do that, whatever word I feel fits in with the scene, whether it's from my Southern roots or my Bajan roots, I just put it in. I like to play with language like that. There are other dialects that I enjoy hearing. I live in New Orleans now, which so they have beautiful, beautiful dialect. Yes, I've been dropping a few of those words in my most recent work.
Kai Wright: At the beginning of the show, I said we're having this conversation because in the middle of Black History Month I think a lot about the way in which our individual forms and expressions of Blackness have to carry all this weight from outside. From beyond ourselves as individuals, both from America at large, but also from other black people. I guess I just want to throw that at you. What do you think about that, and particularly thinking about language? It doesn't sound like you do carry anything with it that you're able to just be centered on you and how you speak, but how do you think about that and what would you say to others about how to get where you are?
Bernice L. McFadden: I just feel like we have to be our authentic selves, whatever that is, and ignore the gaze, whether it be white, male or, whatever, and just do what we're comfortable doing. I also feel that once we let go of all of that stuff that weighs us down, like Toni Morrison said, we can absolutely fly. We can fly in our literature. We can fly in our creativity and I think it would make it all the more layered and certainly richer and beautiful.
Kai Wright: Thank you. Bernice L. McFadden is the author of several award-winning books, most recently, the 2018 novel Praise Song For The Butterflies. She wrote about Zora Neale Hurston in the new collection, Four Hundred Souls, a community history of African America. I hope you'll check it out. I've got an essay in there as well. Bernice, thanks for coming on the show.
Bernice L. McFadden: Thank you for having me. Have a good day.
Kai Wright: You too. before we take a break, I want to leave you with a little gem of an anecdote that Zora Neale Hurston shared in that 1943 interview with Mary Margaret McBride. I'll say it's apropos of absolutely nothing other than the fact that it makes me smile. In it, she's describing a realization she has as a child about her place in the cosmos.
Zora Neale Hurston: Well, if you go outdoors tonight and the moon is up, I forget just what state the moon is in right now, but then half the moon is shining. You go out and you run and it'll follow you. Of course, I thought it made a special effort to just keep up with me and I was so shocked when I found out it followed other people because I felt just that I was something very special. It was a race, so the moon would follow me. I was a race, whichever way I'd run the moon would follow me just like a puppy dog. It disillusioned me when I found out other people making the same claim on the moon.
Kai Wright: Zora Neale Hurston in the cosmos. Thanks to the estate of Mary Margaret McBride for letting us use those recordings. Hurston's life story is a reminder of the ways in which language can be a source of tension for blackness, between how we think about our own individual selves and the things everybody else wants to project onto us. Coming up another story where we talk about the source of that kind of tension in our bodies. I'm Kai Wright, this is The United States of Anxiety. We'll be right back.
Welcome back. This is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright. We're noodling around with Black History Month again this week, and with the complex relationship a lot of us have to it. One of the weird things about it, particularly when you're younger it's this moment when as a black person, we're often prodded to represent something more than our own individual selves and which we're confronted with that, what everybody else projects onto our blackness, including other black people. There is maybe no sharper point of projection than our skin tones.
Our senior producer, Veralyn Williams has a family story about what it feels like to unexpectedly find yourself on the receiving end of other people's ideas about your brown skin. Take a listen.
Veralyn Williams: Kai, as I've been working on this Black History Month series, I've thought a lot about this difficult conversation I had with my sister.
Lovis Williams: Hi, I'm Lovis Williams and I am Veralyn Williams's sister.
Kai Wright: You too sound exactly alike, right?
Veralyn Williams: Yes. We get that a lot. Growing up, everyone also said, we looked alike, we both are round short girls with the complexion I am now, think Hershey's milk chocolate bar. That was true until she turned 13 and Lovis remembers that exact moment.
Lovis Williams: We were in a supermarket and you're like, "Oh, what are those spots on your hands?" I was like, "I don't know," because it was just really little and I didn't really think much of it. I think that after the little spots on my hand is when I started to see my lips beaconing and so that's when I first noticed it.
Veralyn Williams: It took a while for anyone in the family to take in exactly what was happening to her. I think I remember going with dad to the dermatologist for the first time and just figuring out, what is this all about? This is what we found out, assessment that it is vitiligo. Vitiligo is an autoimmune disorder and having any autoimmune issue means your body for whatever reason, attacks your healthy tissues. In my sister's case, this is her skin pigmentation.
Kai Wright: Wait, what does that even mean? Her skin is losing its color or what does that mean?
Veralyn Williams: Well, there is a wide spectrum but essentially yes, my sister's skin started to lay in and this is what the doctor told her.
Lovis Williams: Oh, it could be that you get a little of the spots and it just doesn't progress or it could progress to the rest of your body. For me, I was just like, hopefully, it's not the va--
Kai Wright: Well, that's a lot, to see your skin start to change. To me, that would be scary.
Veralyn Williams: We had no clue what would even happen, what the extent of it could look like. For me, Michael Jackson was my only reference to someone whose complexion completely changed and it never dawned on me. It never occurred to me that my sister would go from being Michelle Obama's complexion to that of a Meghan Markle.
Kai Wright: There's so much here too. This is complicated stuff as soon as we start getting into skin tones amongst Black people and even those two examples.
Veralyn Williams: Yes, and on top of that, my sister was only 13.
Lovis Williams: I remember being in eighth grade, going back into eighth grade, and having it because I met my friends before, in sixth grade, my friends that now, Melissa. My Black girls in action, as we called ourselves back then.
Veralyn Williams: I forgot that you guys had named yourselves Black girls in action. You had a book or something.
Lovis Williams: We had like a book. We had a mission statement. We did events. We celebrated each other's birthdays in big ways. We were serious.
Veralyn Williams: You identified as a Black girl, that was a big part of your identity. When your appearance started to change, did it impact how you felt?
Lovis Williams: At that time, at the end of eighth grade, it wasn't too bad. It was just on my nose but then I started using makeup and stuff to help with anything on my face. As long as I wore my makeup, I was still Black. I would still consider myself Black even into high school. It didn't challenge that because I was still mostly Black, I guess you could say because I had spots. I was transitioning so it was more of a period of transition. There was no question and no one questioned that.
Veralyn Williams: When Lovis says, "I was still Black," I know what she means, but I'm not going to lie, I flinched every single time she said it. I want to clarify that I am interpreting what you're saying in the way that I think you are, which is like you're saying I was mostly brown skin.
Lovis Williams: Yes, my skin color hadn't transitioned out of brown skin. I'm saying Black because, mostly Black, but still a brown skin woman who identified as a Black woman.
Veralyn Williams: Could you still identify it?
Lovis Williams: Of course, and even with someone who is as fair as I am, no one looks at me and thinks that I am, at least not a person of color because of my features.
Veralyn Williams: By the time she graduated from college, all of her brown skin was gone, but she still wore brown makeup. To the world, her complexion still look like mine.
Lovis Williams: I've never questioned my identity and who I am while others have. There's a question of, am I Black? That's just not something I've ever questioned internally, but I do question what other people think I am, which is very different.
Veralyn Williams: I hear you on the double, triple, quadruple consciousness that happens when you walk into any space, but has maybe a version of your worst-case scenario ever happened?
Lovis Williams: I can remember one time, I was at work.
Veralyn Williams: My sister works at the Bronx Courthouse.
Lovis Williams: At work, I'm a part of the Black History Month committee in the courts and we do Black events every February and so I'm the person who's conscious enough to just be like, "Oh, we're going to be doing this event. We're having Black Jeopardy at three o'clock so come." I remember being in a meeting with my director and the few other people and we were talking about-- it was something that was race-related and I made a comment. It was an uncomfortable conversation because we have a deputy director who is white and our director who is Dominican.
I think the deputy director said something that just was not culturally sensitive, but I remember saying something like, as a Black person, I do get like, no one's going to call me on it because as a Black person that whole racial comments that we make are not given the scrutiny that white people. We can say that and my director was like, "Well, you're the fairest woman in here." This is my director saying that to me. She attributed my fairness to my Blackness. I was like, "What does that have to do with anything, anyway." I remember that sticks out to me a lot because I remember her saying it as if it's a challenge to me.
I'm like, "What does that have to do with my Blackness or me being Black?"
Veralyn Williams: What about in Black spaces?
Lovis Williams: Black spaces, I don't know if you would call the courthouse a Black-- there are lots of Black bodies in there and that's where I work. You could call it that and I remember I was filling in the front desk. I don't know if I had told some woman who had come in-- a Black woman, she came in, she was sitting down and I think I was just like, "We only let people who are entering in the program have a seat in here. If you're a family member, whatever, you have to wait outside. Our policy is that because we don't have enough chairs for everyone."
I guess she was upset that I was telling her to sit outside and she was just like, "Don't let the red bone get to your head." I was like, okay. I guess she was saying she was a brown skin woman and I'm telling her that she has to step out and I don't know if it was the-- even maybe it was the way I said it to her or maybe she felt like I was talking down to her or I don't know but then she made that comment as if to say that I thought I was better than her or I was acting as if to say, "Well, you're Black, so I don't know why you're acting like that."
I don't know but I'm just telling people, people have a lot of ideas about just skin. I know that there are levels of privilege. We know that this is a conversation we can have all-day but there's levels of privilege in America and a lot of it is attributed to how light or dark you're. I'm very cognizant of that, but I also feel like people, it can happen in the verse where we're constantly just like, well you're light-skinned so you're just not as close to the cause or you have an outbox.
Veralyn Williams: Kai, there have been plenty of moments I had to text someone talking sideways in my hearing because they didn't know the woman they were talking about is my sister, saying things like, "Who is this want-to-be white woman?" Something to that effect. I've never brought it up to her because it's always felt too painful.
Lovis Williams: I remember mom driving me deep into Westchester because it was another treatment, a light treatment. I remember exactly the logistics of what happened, but it ended up being like, either I wasn't a good candidate because of the amount that it had spread or something of that nature. I remember feeling disappointed of not being able to do it because I feel like I maybe had hopes of it being something that could be helpful for me and in just helping with the pigmentation, like we pigmentation. I just remember that feeling of just like, "Ugh," just like hopeless, this isn't going to work.
Veralyn Williams: Once you realized that this was the way that things were going to be, how did that change the way that you moved through the world maybe?
Lovis Williams: It didn't have an impact possibly on possibly an impact on me just socially. I don't know if I really developed any strong relationships after junior high so possibly.
Veralyn Williams: When she was in grad school I remember I told Lovis that she should have stopped wearing the brown makeup altogether and turns out her boyfriend at the time did too.
Lovis Williams: Even though you told me, he told me, it wasn't-- The reason why I stopped wearing makeup was because his brother told me. You're my family. He was family. When your family tells you something, you'd be like, "Okay, whatever," it's just your family, they love you and they don't care. They all love you no matter what, but then when you hear for someone who's outside, it just takes on a different, I guess, a life of its own that's very different. You're like, "Okay, maybe that's something I should think about." Actually, that's when I stopped.
Veralyn Williams: That's like over a decade of wearing makeup. What was it like stopping?
Lovis Williams: It was challenging, maybe a couple weeks after, not even right away. I was wearing in the street, no makeup. A couple weeks after stopping is when I went to Macy's and they started-- The makeup people, they were trying to figure out which one. Right now I wear ivory, which is close to zero, I think it's maybe one as opposed to the seven that I was using before.
We attribute our community to color. We just do, and I think that that for me was difficult to let go because that is a part of who I am. Being brown skin with all of the bad that comes with that for people developing ideas about Black people and less than, there's also a community incircle that you're just a part of something that now I'm learning as an older person that skin color is about a cultural experience, not so much about skin color. Before as a young person, being Black is being Black. All of the people that we listen to, Brandy, Foxy Brown, even Little Kim.
These were all Black women. Whitney Houston, brown-skinned women, this is something that I have in common with the women that I love to listen to. I feel like for me, it was definitely difficult. I think I did the makeup thing for a very long time when I felt like I didn't have to because I attributed my skin color was being a part of the community. Like that, as a young woman, I think that we have a very simplistic view about what it means to be Black because now I know that that's not true, but being young, you don't really think about is your Black.
You're Black because you're brown. That's why you're Black.
Veralyn Williams: In so many ways, my sister's experience as a Black woman who has experienced the world in both brown and ivory skin, reinforces what I felt in my skin, which is loving my Black self. That's the easy part, but doing so in a society based on a racial caste system, that part, that's the struggle. Then I think that that evaluation is very much-- I feel like it comes stronger from the Black population, the evaluation of who you are as a Black person based on skin tone, at least from my perspective. I do a lot Black history, I push a lot of things like, we need to do things that are racially relevant just in my places and spaces of work and I'm very much pushing that. I don't know, I feel like sometimes that question is just like, "Why do you feel like-- What you're trying to prove?" Am I trying to prove nothing? No.
Kai Wright: For me, love is a story and Zora Neale Hurston's story and Bernice McFadden story for that matter, they're all examples of how people have managed to hold on to their own, to hold on to their individual expressions of Blackness despite what other people, Black, white and everybody else, wanted to project on to them. What about all of you? I want to hear from some of our Black listeners about how you pull that off. When do you feel most true and authentic in your own blackness? How do you express it? I'm Kai Wright. This is The United States of Anxiety and we'll be right back to talk with you.
Hey, this is Kai. Just a quick program note here. When we started making this show back in 2016, we were just trying to bring context to that wild campaign season and particularly, the history that we all carried into it. Initially, we figured we'd stop after that election, but obviously, there was a lot more to chew on, which is just to say if you're new to the show, there are tons of episodes here that I have hope you'll check out. We've taken snapshots of the political culture.
Speaker 13: It's not right. I'm sorry, I feel bad for people that are oppressed and I mean, oppressed, but we got to take care of our own too.
Kai Wright: We've asked how power is really built in a democracy.
Speaker 13: I don't believe that demography is destiny. I think demography is a pathway, but it takes work and we are the first campaign in the deep south to put in the work.
Kai Wright: We've just mined all kinds of history in an effort to put America on the couch, to understand how we got here as a country and where we're going. I urge you to dig around in the archives, it is all still relevant. If you hear something that raises new questions for you and you want us to follow up on that, hit me up, e-mail me at email@example.com and maybe we'll take you up on it. Thanks so much.
Welcome back, this is The United States of Anxiety. I'm Kai Wright and I am with our senior producer, Veralyn Williams. Hey, Veralyn?
Veralyn Williams: Hi, Kai. How're you doing?
Kai Wright: We've spent the month poking around at Black History Month. If you've missed previous shows, you can go to our website, WNYC.org/anxiety. There's a tab there that's called Collections or labeled 'Collections' and under that heading, you'll find all the shows in this series, go check them out. I said at the start of the month that I've always been offish about Black History Month.
Now as the month heads toward an end, maybe we are getting at the heart of the matter for me because for whatever the reason, growing up, February was one of those times, again, for me, in which I was confronted by other people's ideas about what my Blackness was supposed to be. Whether those were limiting ideas coming from within my community or frankly, bizarre ideas coming from those outside of the community. I had to find my way to my own authentic self-expression of Blackness and for the rest of the show, we want to hear from our Black listeners about your own singular self-expressions of Blackness.
Call us at 646-435-7280. Again, that's 646-435-7280. Veralyn, before we get to these calls, you said that our work on Black History Month and these episodes made you think about the conversation that you had with your sister and it's that that it brought it up for you. Why? What triggered that for you?
Veralyn Williams: It's funny and it's also listening to it, knowing that the world potentially is listening and my sister's listening, it fell harder even though I've played this over and over again because it's one of those things that just felt really complex and hard and taboo. We don't talk about it out loud, this feeling of how is this going to impact her, my protective feeling around my sister? As we've been talking about how we celebrate our history and our culture, especially during this month, which I've unapologetically done, I guess it struck me hearing you and you and hearing the cuts being like, "Does you and your sister even celebrate Black history the same?"
It never occurred to me. I guess I've also just been unpacking how maybe I've also internalized the difference within my sister, witnessing how people relate to her because of her skin and she calls it her transition, how that maybe shaded how I experienced the celebration of Blackness that she's always had.
Kai Wright: Oh wow, wow. From her own sister because it's hard, right? We're human beings.
Veralyn Williams: Yes.
Kai Wright: Let's start bringing in some calls. Lisa Marie in West Orange, New Jersey. Lisa Marie, welcome to the show.
Lisa Marie: Thank you. Hi, Kai.
Kai Wright: Hello.
Lisa Marie: I'm so excited to be talking to you about this. I could not believe that you didn't start off this discussion with the Glenn Ligon painting, I feel most Black Against a Blank White Background.
Kai Wright: Ooh, say more.
Lisa Marie: Over and over and over again.
Kai Wright: Say more about that for yourself.
Lisa Marie: Where I feel most affirmed in my Blackness is in the context of my immediate family that I was born into, but the way that I feel affirmed in that is the way that a fish feels affirmed by water. You swim in it, you don't think about it, you take it for granted, you enjoy it until you're taken out of the water. When I left, Cincinnati, Ohio, to come to the northeast to go to college and all of a sudden, I was in an environment where there wasn't really any water. You had to walk fair number of blocks off of campus to find any water in terms of Black culture, a Black community, I became very aware that, "Oh, wait a second."
Here's this beautiful context that I had around me. I had gone to high school in a primarily white environment. You test into these environments and as they get more exclusive, they get wider and wider but I did not realize how much I was going to miss my water until the well ran dry.
Kai Wright: Wow.
Lisa Marie: That's the context being at home with my family in Cincinnati where even just talking about them, now I can hear that Cincinnati twang, that actually sounds like the Kentucky, that many Cincinnatians migrated from.
Kai Wright: My grandmother is from Kentucky. Give me just one beat of it real quick before I let you go, give me one beat of that Cincinnati Twain, if you're willing.
Lisa Marie: [laughs] When I get going like that, people can't understand what I'm saying. I don't know if these Yankees up here, that's what they call us Yankees, are even going to understand what I have to say.
Kai Wright: Thank you so much, Lisa Marie, for that. Let's hear from Mike in the Bronx, Mike, welcome to the show.
Mike: Hi, how are you?
Kai Wright: Very good. Thank you. What about you?
Mike: I think that I am most proud when I see successful Black people in spaces where maybe there hasn't been a lot of them before, that's a real to me, a point of pride. There was a college football player a few years ago. He played for Florida State. You have to obviously have to be pretty good to play for them, but he went on, he's a brain surgeon now, Myron Rolle, you're proud to see that. I look at the guy, I don't know who I'm going to vote for mayor, but Ray McGuire, look, he went to Wall Street and he made a lot of money, go for it.
Despite all the adversity you're very proud of everything that Black people have managed in this country, despite the obstacles obviously. I would just make one other point is that we're all three-dimensional humans. I've noticed in our popular culture, that the only people who are anti-heroes are white men. Tony Soprano, the Breaking Bad character, whoever Bryan Cranston was playing. I think the Trump candidacy for some people with a weird anti-hero vigilante thing. I'm dating myself, but if you may remember Stone Cold Steve Austin from the WWE was quite an anti-hero but-
Kai Wright: I sure do. Me too I actually do.
Mike: Minorities and women I think are unfortunately pigeonholed into a small handful of roles in American popular culture, victims of violence. There's only a few roles that they let us play, so I get a real kick out of it when you see Black people succeeding, where there just haven't been very many before.
Kai Wright: Thank you very much for that. Either of those things you want to respond to either what Lisa Marie or what Mike had to say?
Veralyn Williams: It was interesting having them be back-to-back because as Mike was talking, I was thinking about Donald Glover in Atlanta and I think that's an example of an antihero. It's interesting how we think about our Blackness in relationship to whiteness. I think to me that's my be my point is like Black history doesn't have to have anything to do with white people. I think about when I'm most affirmed and I thought about this when Lisa Marie was talking. It's like being in Sierra Leone or being in Cape town or just being in an African market haggling with who I call my aunties and knowing that I probably going to pay whatever they said.
There's that practice of haggling and it's like, no one's out here and telling me I'm being too aggressive, that's what you need to do in order to get the thing that you're asking for. I think it's just like whenever I'm able to be in a space where I don't have to question how I'm being perceived in relationship to whiteness. I guess also just thinking about the lances of the world, what is the work of Black people that we can lift up and talk about as opposed to talking about-- and I'm not saying this is what Mike is saying, but as opposed to talking about what the deficit, what does exist?
Kai Wright: Well, like Mike said, he loves the idea of watching Black people succeed. I'm thinking about, oh yes, the origins of Black History Month, that's part of where we started here and that's sometimes put me off that focus on exceptionalism, but it is also something that is just to celebrate, we do well. Let's hear from Rob in Brooklyn, Rob, welcome to the show.
Rob: Hey, good evening.
Kai Wright: Good evening. What about you, how are you?
Rob: It's interesting because I feel most affirmed-- I have several incarnations in lives, but the thing that I called about was doing something that traditionally may not be associated with Blackness. I am a social salsa dancer and I've been doing it for quite a while and when I go dancing and yes, I'm pretty fair, people normally assume that I'm not from Brooklyn.
"Oh, are you from Cuba? Are you from this country or that country?" "No, I'm from Brooklyn." I got roots in all of those places and that's a show you should really do, Kai, on all of us, Caribbean folks who washed up here.
Kai: Yes, I agree.
Rob: The thing is that this particular dance and its expression has very definite African roots and that expression in the way I dance and many of my associates, is something that comes through and it helps affirm our expression of this particular act of art.
Kai Wright: Thank you for that, Rob. Let's go to Renee in New Jersey. I'm not sure where in New Jersey.
Renee: Hi, can you hear me?
Kai Wright: Yes.
Renee: Hi. I was just wanting to come from a different take. I feel like I'm most comfortable, really just being me. I'm an African-American female and darker-skinned. Ironically, I grew up in Cincinnati, Ohio, like the other color but I just have a different take and I'm sometimes afraid to speak up about it because I don't want people to think like, "Oh, she has a blind eye or she's ignorant or naive." Not at all. I see everything that's going on, but I haven't personally experienced a lot of racism. I feel like I've been able to go to school to do the things I need to do to achieve my goals and I've never had anything that I would say racism toward me.
I have white family members and I have white friends and now I feel uncomfortable because I think like they feel uncomfortable. They're walking on eggshells. They want to make sure they're politically correct, but always, I don't feel like I've been discriminated against all the time. I don't feel like I'm being held back, but I know we are as a people, so please don't get me wrong on that but does anyone have any take one that? I know I can't be the only one that feels like this, but we're quiet about it because we don't want to get banished from the Black community.
We don't want to be a Raven-Symoné, or we don't want to get banished like Don Lemon or something like that but I'm just saying. I don't always [crosstalk]
Veralyn Williams: Hey, Don Lemon is back on the good graces.
Renee: Right, I know he is. Well, thank you there. I was [unintelligible 00:48:07]
Kai Wright: Veralyn, quickly one of the things that we haven't talked about is just the way Black people put things on each other and I want to ask you about that because I know you're going to be having a conversation about this coming up.
Veralyn Williams: Yes on Tuesday, we're going to be talking to Rebecca Carroll, who was our former colleague here at WNYC and she just wrote a book and even in the caller we just had, I was thinking about just, I grew up in Black schools. I went to predominantly Black schools my whole life. It wasn't until I entered a professional setting that I was in relationship to white people in a more ongoing circumstance. I think about just the still the same struggles or same conflicts that we have based on hair or based on even-- I was telling you is a-- just based on the perceptions of sexuality and Black girls and [unintelligible 00:49:11].
Just the little things that people say because you are Black. I know we're running out of time, so I'm going to stop talking, but--
Kai Wright: You can continue it on Tuesday, 7:00 PM on WNYC's Instagram page. Veralyn will be in conversation with Rebecca Carroll about her new book and they will hash all of this out. Thanks to those who called and tweeted. Apologies if I didn't get to you, you can always e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We particularly love to get a voice memo. If you had something you wanted to say, record it, send it over email@example.com. Thanks so much for spending this time with us, I'm Kai Wright. Happy Black History Month and I'll talk to you next week.
The United States of Anxiety is a production of WNYC Studios. A special thanks to the estate of Mary Margaret McBride for the use of her 1943 radio interview with Zora Neale Hurston. Joe Plourde makes the podcast version this week, Kevin Bristow and Matthew Marando were at the boards for the live show. A congrats by the way, to our usual engineered Jared Paul on his brand new baby girl. Welcome to the world, Sylvia.
Our team also includes Carolyn Adams, Emily Botein, Jenny Casas, Marianne McCune, Christopher Werth, and Veralyn Williams. Our theme music was written by Hannis Brown and performed by the Outer Borough Brass Band. Karen Frillmann is our executive producer and I am Kai Wright. You can keep in touch with me on Twitter at Kai_Wright. Of course, I hope you'll join us for the live version of the show next Sunday, 6:00 PM, Eastern. You can stream it at wnyc.org or tell your smart speaker, play WNYC. Until then, thanks for listening. Take care of yourselves.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.