Our Body Politic

Black Americans Call for Political Substance over Symbolism, the Biden-Harris Administration on Systemic Racism, and the Power of Telling Our Stories

Episode Notes

Farai Chideya talks with special guest Jenni Monet, an Indigenous affairs reporter and media critic at Indigenously, and Errin Haines of The 19th, on Sippin’ the Political Tea. U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Marcia L. Fudge explains why it’s so important to her that the federal government call out systemic racism. Harvard University historian Annette Gordon-Reed reflects on Juneteenth through the lens of memoir. And author Nobuko Miyamoto shares her new book, “Not Yo’ Butterfly,” about her decades as an artist and activist in the U.S.


1:02 Sippin’ the Political Tea discusses the week’s news with Indigenous affairs reporter Jenni Monet and contributor Errin Haines

18:45 Secretary Marcia L. Fudge of Housing and Urban Development on acknowledging systemic racism in the federal government

30:03 Annette Gordon-Reed of Harvard on celebrating Juneteenth growing up in Texas

38:00 Nobuko Miyamoto on her new memoir and the power of artistic expression

Episode Transcription

Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As we grow and evolve our show, we need lots of input from listeners like you. So I want to ask you a small favor. After you listen today, please head over to Apple podcasts on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. Thanks to you, Our Body Politic broke the top 100 podcast on apple for news commentary this week. We could not do any of this without you. So again, thank you. 

This is Our Body Politic. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. This week we're talking about what it takes to expose structural racism, with a historian and artist and a member of the Biden-Harris administration. I want to get us started with our weekly roundtable Sippin' the Political Tea. Joining me this week is Jenni Monet. She's a journalist and media critic reporting on Indigenous affairs and founder of the amazing weekly newsletter, “Indigenously: Decolonizing Your Newsfeed.” Welcome to the roundtable, Jenni.

Jenni Monet: Oh, those are kind words Farai. Great to be back on your show.

Chideya: And Our Body Politic contributor, Erin Haines, Editor-at-Large at the 19th. Hey Errin.

Errin Haines: Hey Farai. We love a good newsletter. Subscribed!

Chideya: That's right. So what have we got percolating on the political teapot this week, Errin?

Haines: Oh, Farai. What haven't we got? I mean, since we've got an Indigenous affairs reporter with us today, I think we should probably start with the Keystone XL and the company's decision to abandon the pipeline project. And a lot of our listeners probably know what this is, the decade long battle fought by Indigenous leaders and environmentalists in Canada and the US. So Jenni, I want to start with you, please explain to us the impact of this win in the community and what kind of precedent it sets for other pipeline projects.

Monet: Well, on one hand, it's a huge victory, right? I mean, this is the precursor to Standing Rock. Basically all of the Indigenous activists that you saw taking on the front lines against the Dakota Access Pipeline. They were banding together with farmers and ranchers protecting the aquifer years earlier. And so it's a great victory for Indian country. But on the other hand, many are seeing it as symbolic, because the Dakota access pipeline, if you've been paying attention to that pipeline battle which is still an action, it's a big let down and largely on behalf of actions that the Biden administration has not taken.

Haines: Jenni, you make such a good point that this has to be not an, either/or choice, but it is a both/and choice, for these activists who've been doing this work and certainly do not intend to stop with Keystone. But this precedent will definitely have a significance for the oil and gas industry. And I want to come to you, Farai. What do we know about the Biden administration agenda in terms of next steps around this issue?

Chideya: There was actually just a major ruling where a federal judge in Louisiana blocked the Biden-Harris administration's goal of suspending new oil and gas leases on federal lands. And this definitely gets us to Secretary Holland and the Department of the Interior. And there are a lot of different agendas. You have a lot of people with natural gas rich parts of the United States who have really not been on board with restricting licensing, even in places that are ecologically fragile and deeply related to climate change. So that's the first thing that the Biden-Harris administration is, once again, dealing with different factions of the party that want very different things. From the Green New Deal to drill, drill, drill. And then Canada definitely is looking to the United States to provide these pipeline accesses, and it could strain the relationship. But it's again, a question of competing goals.

Haines: Well, Farai, speaking of Canada, the remains of 215 Indigenous children, including some as young as three, were found on the grounds of a former residential school in British Columbia. The school at Kamloops was part of a national network of 130 residential schools. The goal was to assimilate them. From 1833 to 1996, nearly 150,000 indigenous children were taken from their families, often by force. Canada's Truth and Reconciliation Commission concluded in 2015 in a report that would happen at those schools, constituted cultural genocide. So Jenni, again, in your amazing newsletter, you've written about this issue, how important is this unearthing and how do you compare the way that Canada handles national trauma and reconciliation for communities, to how the US does this?

Monet: I think that's a great question, Errin. And it was something that I really sat with as we watched the news media around the world seize this legacy that is not new for people like myself or any other Indigenous person. It's widely known in Indian country, both in Canada and the US, that there's not a person who's left untouched by this horrible legacy of stolen Native children. And to see that we finally have been believed, because for so long, there has been a denial of this truth, I think speaks to just the kind of reckoning that we're all experiencing in this moment in America. And there's hope, there's hope, that finally in the United States, there can be some kind of traction where we play catch up to the kind of truth and reconciliation that has played out in Canada.

Haines: So, Farai, you brought up Secretary Deb Haaland, and this history is really close to home for her. She actually wrote a Washington Post editorial about this, talking about her maternal grandparents who were stolen from their families when they were only eight years old and forced to live away from their parents, their culture, and their communities until they were 13. And she said that it's important to reclaim what those schools tried to take from her people. Jenni, what should justice look like for the Indigenous community?

Monet: Well, I found it interesting that editorial that Haaland stopped short of even mentioning the truth and healing commission that both she and Elizabeth Warren proposed less than a year ago, in September of last year. She did mention that Native people have a right to be heard and to air these grievances in a formal capacity. But when you look at the traction of where that like that proposed legislation stands, I mean, it barely just got introduced and hasn't had any real leverage. And when I read that editorial there was mild disappointment and not seeing that there hasn't been a stronger call for the same kind of commission that we've seen play out in Canada to legitimize this horrible, horrible history.

Haines: Yeah well it’s early days yet, Jenni, in the administration, and we definitely will keep an eye on whether or not that does materialize under Secretary Haaland’s leadership at Interior.

Chideya: Let me just jump in and say that someone I know who is Ojibwe and who's from the upper peninsula of Michigan years ago, explained to me how she was fluent in her language, because she was the youngest child, and wasn't taken away to a boarding school, but all of her older siblings were, and the trauma that induced in her family, loss of language not being the only one. And I just want to point out that this is a campaign to use colonial methods of eroding culture to consolidate land ownership and control. I mean, we just have to be very clear about what was happening. This is not just about kids or even dead kids. It's about things like land ownership. And it took me a long time to even wrap my brain around that history, and the present damage.

Haines: Yeah really good point and actually speaks to the need for a fuller public airing so that all of us can understand what was lost and the toll of this very shameful period in our history. So there's new evidence that former President Trump appears to have actively attempted a coup to keep himself in power. I want to come to you on this Farai, because I want to know first, what's your reaction to this? And then also, what reaction do you expect from average Americans and what does this mean for Republicans?

Chideya: The reality is it's probably not going to change much except the historical record. The former President was not impeached by the Senate. He can run for president again. I read deeply into a bunch of different newsletters and news outlets from the far right. And they're now like picking running mates for Trump 2024, because we know that Mike Pence is persona non grata and almost got a beat down in the insurrection. So the whole rhetoric is Trump is still in the power position to run the party. And until seated Republicans who are office holders today decide that that's not the case, it's the case.

Haines: We've talked about how the Biden administration's official nominees of color are having a difficult time with their confirmations on this show, including Secretary Haaland. So with that, I want to talk about Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson, the first Black woman set to replace now Attorney General Merrick Garland on the DC Circuit Court of Appeals. Here's a clip of Senator Chuck Schumer talking about why Brown Jackson's domination matters

Sen. Chuck Schumer: After the Supreme Court, the DC Circuit Court of Appeals is the most important federal court in the country, with jurisdiction over cases involving Congress and the executive branch agencies. She has all the qualities of a model jurist. She is brilliant, thoughtful, collaborative, and dedicated to applying the law impartially. For these qualities, she has earned the respect of both sides.

Haines: So that's Senator Schumer laying out the case for Brown Jackson. And so this is somebody who will be tapped for the Supreme Court, which was a Biden-Harris campaign promise, right? To get a black woman nominee. Jenni, what to you is the importance of this representation?

Monet: A couple newsletters ago, I think, where I focused on how racist the legal profession is in the view of Indigenous, federal Indian law. When you look at who are filling these federal judges, it's largely white and male and has been that way... I think it was last month, we currently filled only the third Native American judge since 1789. So when I read this story, I always see things through the Indigenous lens and I did not find it surprising, but it is uplifting to know that the courts are getting a little less whiter. And that why these appointments matter: when you're looking at critical cases. That even if it's say, for instance, involving something like abortion, that goes to the Supreme Court. When you talk about those kinds of pieces of legislation, they are not divorced at all from this kind of systemic inequality when it comes to people of color.

Haines: So we spoke a few weeks ago about how Nikole Hannah-Jones was denied tenure at her alma mater, the University of North Carolina, after concerns were raised regarding her Pulitzer Prize-winning 1619 project. And there now seems to be this broader war over critical race theory in the US. So Jenni, how do you think about how important it is to understand our history of racism?

Monet: Well, I don't know if any of you were paying attention, but Rick Santorum was recently fired from his position with the network over these outlandish statements that he made about the foundation of the United States.

Chideya: I was paying attention.

Monet: Thank you so much for that Farai. He's refused to apologize about his statements, which basically said that the birth of the nation did not involve Native American people at all, and that we have no culture. And I find that interesting as we have this dialogue about the history wars, right? I mean, we're in a point in this reckoning where you have, as Farai, you've said, everything is politicized these days. And that boils down to the actual notion of which narrative is accepted. And I just think that out of all of the conversation, all too often Indigenous peoples are just completely absent from this. All the time. And then when we're not absent, it's coming in the realm of a Santorum comment, denying or completely erasing the value that Native people have had in the foundation of this country. It's akin to coming late into a movie theater and trying to understand the timeline of the plot. And right now I think that Americans haven't really caught up to the beginning of the foundation of this country. And that includes looking at critical race theory in higher levels of education, basic levels of public education curriculum. I mean, we still are a nation where if you look at all the 35 states where our Native nations are placed today, only one state, North Dakota, just recently legislated curriculum to start teaching Native American history past the year 1900.

Haines: Yeah, absolutely. And look, to stick with your movie metaphor, there are some people who don't even want to watch the movie or people who just want to skip to the good parts and skip past the parts of the movie that they don't like, which is not really how you're supposed to watch the movie. So Farai is there anything you would add here on this?

Chideya: Well I, only now, am reading this. Occasionally I will use my phone to look things up. The Washington Post produced an article, which says, and I quote "One major donor to the university weighed in last year with concerns about hiring Hannah-Jones. I worry about the controversy of tying the UNC journalism school to the 1619 Project. Walter E Hussman Jr, an Arkansas newspaper publisher wrote in an email to the dean of the school that bears his name." So when the person who's putting the money into the journalism school is also not down with you that's a good sign that it's probably an ideological fight. And interestingly, in the same article which came out on June 8th, they interviewed Trevy McDonald who became the first Black woman to earn tenure on the journalism faculty at UNC at the Hussman School. And she got tenure in 2018, she is still the only Black woman tenured. So the signs there say equity is a challenge.

Haines: Yeah, absolutely. And we just have to kind of continue to point out these discrepancies and ask what is going on here. This is something that is playing out in our institutions across this country. So let's just shift a little bit to talk a little bit about the role that corporations are playing in this discussion about critical race theory. We're in June, it's pride month, Juneteenth is around the corner and you've also got corporations donating to Trump's efforts at the same time to undermine the 2020 elections. Farai, how do corporations influence this debate on how we understand history either positively or negatively?

Chideya: Yeah, I mean, I think one thing that's important to look at is essentially the concept of advertising. There are many types of advertising style communications and the sort of corporate responsibility messaging around trans rights, LGBTQ rights, women's rights, Black folks. There's a lot of joy in doing this type of pro social advertising. But essentially what we're seeing is that the dollars that are given to members of Congress do not actually align with the pro-social messaging. And so people should not just follow the ads, they should follow the research if they are trying to vote with their dollars. Which a lot of people say is one of the biggest powers that Americans have outside of our electoral votes is like, who do you choose to patronize? And then I do think that we should put a little extra shine on how much trans rights are being debated in state legislatures, among members of Congress. And this Pride season, I'm someone who is queer and I want to put some shine on my trans brothers, sisters, non-binary folks, because this is a rough time for trans folks. And it is an important time to pay attention to where anti-trans money is flowing in states and at the national level.

Haines: Yeah. Look, I just tweeted out that symbolism without substance only works to uphold systems. Celebrating a holiday at a time where you have a lot of Black Americans, trans folks, other marginalized Americans, feeling like their freedom is being threatened. This broader culture fight can feel like a hollow victory for a lot of the folks that I'm hearing from and talking to. And we know that so much of last summer so-called commitments on racial justice from some of these companies have not come to fruition. Jenni, I want to come to you. Where pride is concerned you've got 25 rainbow flag waving corporations donating more than $10 million to anti-gay politicians to Farai's point in the last two years. How can folks hold corporations accountable for playing both sides?

Monet: Well, I think it starts with our jobs as journalists, right? I always come back to what I know best and that's the Indigenous narrative. And every new era, every 25 years or so you see Indigenous popularity surge. We saw that in the 70s, we're seeing that again, this resurgence and this reclaiming, and there's a commodification that happens behind it and it's gross. The kind of dealings that happen behind that commodification, certainly when it happens in darkness it becomes harder and harder to explain a way when you don't see it, when it's not before you, when it's not understood. And I think that conversations like this is exactly the kind of narrative framing that's needed for right now. Certainly when we're looking at things like Juneteenth becoming an official holiday, but in states like Virginia, where they're not even repealing the state's anti-union rights to work law. I mean, I think what you said, Errin, best is symbolism with that substance. And that's exactly what I think is before us and around us right now.

Haines: Yeah. Well that sounds like a good note to leave it on for now as usual, the political tea was hot and it just goes too fast, but it was really nice talking with you this week Jenni.

Monet: Nice to talk to you, Errin. Thank you.

Haines: And always good to be with you Farai.

Chideya: It was great to chop it up with you, Errin. Thank you again for bringing us hot fresh political tea.

Chideya: That was Errin Haines editor at large at the 19th. You can read her work at 19thnews.org. And Jenni Monet, journalist and media critic reporting on Indigenous affairs and founder of the weekly newsletter “Indigenously.”

Marcia L. Fudge is the Secretary of the US Department of Housing and Urban Development or HUD. She and her team are working on how to support families as the federal eviction moratorium expires at the end of this month. Secretary Fudge is the chair of the US Interagency Council on Homelessness. She's also a key voice backing the Biden Harris administration's infrastructure package or the American Jobs Plan. Welcome Secretary Fudge.

Sec. Marcia L. Fudge:

Thank you very much for having me.

Chideya: So as a little bit of my background, when I was a young kid my parents moved and were shopping for a house in Baltimore in the 1970s and no real estate agent would show them properties in white neighborhoods. And then a decade before my mother had interned at the Washington Post and she couldn't live in any white buildings. And so there is housing law, and then there is the enforcement of housing law. What's the difference? And where do we stand today?

Fudge: Well, unfortunately there is a lot of the same thing happening. When your mother was looking for housing, it was really pretty much legal to discriminate and to make matters worse, things like FHA, things that are part of this very agency, have made it more difficult for people of color to purchase homes. We find ourselves today in a position where the racial gap, that gap between white ownership and black ownership is as wide today as it was in 1968. And I was just so very pleased that one of the very first things the President of the United States did was say that every agency of the federal government must look at things through a lens of equity. And so we are uncovering some things that have continued to be relatively past, but they are certainly present today. But also how we assess and address and change the things that are making it more difficult for home ownership in this country.

Chideya: What are your top priorities? If you had to name just two things that you would say are top priorities as HUD Secretary, what are they?

Fudge: Home ownership, clearly. Equally as important to me is what we do with public housing. I think that there has to be a point when this nation has committed itself for people to live decent. And just as we're looking at this whole COVID situation, as you look at the coming out of it, we're still looking at people who are black and brown and poor who are woefully underrepresented in those that have been vaccinated and have the access to the vaccination we should have. And so I need for, if nothing else in this agency ever has my mark on it, is that I care about the people that we serve and I want them to know it. Not because I say it, but because of our actions to let them see how much we really do care.

Chideya: In a nation where we just recently learned via ProPublica, that many of the wealthiest people pay a fraction of the effective tax rate of working income people. What are the tools that you can use to encourage home ownership among working income and middle income people, especially, but not only people of color?

Fudge: Our portfolio is one of the largest in the country. I mean, it's trillions of dollars. So some of the things that we know that we can do to make it easier is we can assist with first time home buyer down payment assistance. We can assist with how we look at credit. When you go to apply for a loan, one of the things that works against you the most is student debt. Who has student debt? Black people, brown people, and poor people. And we have significantly more. The average black person comes out of school with about $50,000 worth of debt. The average white person comes out with less than 30,000. And so when you start to talk about the things that we do as a race of people to better ourselves, it's held against us. What we have found is that minorities and poor communities generally can pay the mortgage, they pay their rents all the time. It's the down payment that prevents them from really getting into a house. And so we're going to assist with that because we all know that that is the best way to start to create generational wealth.

Chideya: When you think about the tools that you have at hand to do your work, how do they fit into this broader idea of infrastructure within the Biden Harris administration?

Fudge: The Jobs Plan does a number of things. If you can explain to me that housing is not infrastructure, I have a real, real issue with whatever your definition is. Think about it this way, 15 months ago, when COVID was starting to just ravish our communities, what did they tell us to do? Stay at home. Then they said to us, we're going to close schools and so we want you to educate your children virtually. What happens if in that home, you don't have broadband? How can a home not be basic infrastructure? If we continue to think the same way we did 20 years ago, we are going to be behind every other major nation in the world. We have to look forward. We have to have vision and stop looking in the past. The Jobs Plan provides resources for affordable housing, more than $200 billion. It provides resources for homeless people, of which more than 40% are people of color, and most importantly jobs. So we have an opportunity unlike we have ever had to make sure that we can move people forward into work, then help them find a place to live and educate their children.

Chideya: I've spent years covering America. This show is about politics and policy through the lens of women of color. But I've spent more time in white communities as a reporter, including Yuma Arizona during the height of the great recession, when it had 25% of people were unemployed and parts of the majority white rust belt. It strikes me that housing in America is so much about perceptions of who is worthy and who is not worthy of having certain protections and certain opportunities. How do we deal with these fundamentally racially polarized questions that keep coming up generation after generation in new forms that kind of factionalized American society?

Fudge: I think the only way to deal with it as the way that the Biden/Harris administration is dealing with it. We have to face it. We have to admit it and accept it. People still will say, "Oh, America's not racist." And I'm not saying that people are necessarily racist, what I'm saying is that our systems are permeated by racism. And so the systems have to change. Let's just think about something like daycare, something simple. When you make daycare cost $30,000 a year to go to a good one, you have excluded most of the population of this country. It's all about money and it's all about me. How do I elevate me and mine and let the rest of the people fight for themselves? You look at the programs that we have just in this agency, things like moving to work. I'm sure it's a great program. But what it says is that there are people who don't want to work. When we start to talk about doing things like requiring able-bodied people to work so many hours or whatever to be fed with SNAP, we assume they don't want to work. So I think we have to start to look beyond just the talking points and address systemic racism where it is. And it is everywhere.

Chideya: Now to talk about another one of your interests, you had been part of the conversation about being nominated for Secretary of Agriculture, and also said, in frankness that people like you were often put in Labor or HUD. So how do you feel about having landed where you landed in such a powerful position and what are your thoughts on agriculture? I know that you're not the agriculture secretary, but you can still have thoughts.

Fudge: I do. And let me say the purpose of the statement I made was to finally say to this country, "Let's think outside the box a bit." It wasn't necessarily to say, "I don't want to do HUD, or I don't want to do labor." But I'm saying, "Let's think outside the box." What I would say to you, and I can only say it in the way that my mother would say it. This is where God wants me to be. This is the place that I can do so much for people in need that this is the place I need to be. And I promise you, HUD is going to do great things, I know we are. Because people are counting on us. This is the first time in the last, probably 20 years under our president that we have hope. The president comes in, gives people $1,400 checks. He raises the amount of money that they're getting for their unemployment insurance. He says, "For every child in a six years of age, I'm going to send you a $350 check." We will change child poverty in a year. We will reduce it almost by half. And if we can continue to do the things that the president is talking about, the Jobs Plan and the Families Plan, we can make this nation much, much better than we found it.

Chideya: So the last question for you comes out of something that our contributor, Erin Haynes of The 19th wrote about, which was that black women in the Biden/Harris administration are carrying the world on their shoulders. So many different tasks that so many people are being asked to do, including you. And what do you do when you feel overburdened? What do you do when you feel the load?

Fudge: I think about all the people that are depending on me. Yes, sometimes it is a little heavy. But you know what? We have broad shoulders. If we don't fight for our people, no one else will. This is my mission. This is my calling. There is no one that can do it as good as we can do it. And as long as I have breath, I will do it.

Chideya: Well, Secretary Fudge, I have thoroughly enjoyed speaking with you. Thank you so much for joining us.

Fudge: Thank you.

Chideya: That was the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, Marcia L Fudge. Congress just passed legislation and President Biden signed it into law, making Juneteenth a federal holiday. Juneteenth commemorates the day on June 19th, 1865 when US Army Major General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, and announced the end of slavery there. Though the emancipation proclamation had been issued two and a half earlier and the Union Army had won the civil war in April, 1865, it took until June for that victory and the end of slavery to reach Texas. Historian Annette Gordon-Reed's latest book “On Juneteenth” weaves together history and personal memoir to eliminate the holiday's importance. She's the Carl M Loeb University Professor at Harvard University. Welcome professor Gordon-Reed.

Annette Gordon-Reed:

Glad to be here.

Chideya: So I grew up in Baltimore in the seventies and eighties, and I didn't grow up celebrating Juneteenth. And you write early in the book about learning that non Texans were starting to celebrate the holiday and that you were initially annoyed and felt possessive of the legacy of Black Texans. And so start off by telling us how you remember Juneteenth as a child. What was it like?

Gordon-Reed: It was a day of celebration. There are certain foods associated with Juneteenth. One of them is anything red. So we had red soda water as we called it. It was soda pop, for people who don't know what that is. We had red soda water, we barbecued, we played with firecrackers even, as a little kid, if you can imagine. And at some point later on making tamales with my grandmother and my mother. Because we're in Texas, and tamales are sometimes a holiday food. When I think about it, I think about a day for the family to be together and people in the community to wander by and men playing dominoes and so forth. So it was a relaxed kind of day, but a fun day.

Chideya: Yeah. And so now, you are looking at Juneteenth through the lens of memoir with a lot of cultural analysis of what people think Texas is and isn't. And you write about how Texas has a race and a gender in the popular imagination, and that is one of a white man. So what do you mean by that?

Gordon-Reed: I write the Texas as a white man because the Hollywood version of Texas involves the presentation of the oil man or the cowboy. Even though as you know, many cowboys were Black, but that's not the way they were presented in Hollywood. For the most part, cowboys are seen as white, the oil man is white. Most people think of the South: they think of Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama. They don't think about Texas as a slave society. And so much that happens there grows out of that history that a lot of people don't know.

Chideya: You write about a historical figure I'd never heard of, a man of African descent who came to Texas in the 1500s: Estevanico. So who is he and why did his story catch your imagination?

Gordon-Reed: I was thinking about the origin stories of Blacks in the Americas. And most people would probably assume if you ask them that the first Blacks came to the Americas in 1619 to Virginia. And in fact, a number of people of African descent came to the Americas with the Spanish, including Estevanico. And I think you limit the sort of imagination about Blackness when you create these very narrow roles for people and very narrow categories. And it was important for me to tell that story. 1619 is important. Jamestown is important. But I don't think that Black people, I don't think that we should limit ourselves to connections to people who speak English.

Chideya: Pull this forward into how you were taught about race as a child. What did your family, aside from the red soda water and the barbecue and the tamales, what did your family tell you? It's sometimes heavy transmitting these things to kids.

Gordon-Reed: I learned things in an age appropriate fashion, but my parents were great readers. And this was a time when things seemed to be on the move. This is the mid sixties, late sixties, early seventies. We had the Civil Rights Act of '64, or the Voting Rights Act. This stuff was in the air and we talked about it a lot. And then when I ended up integrating my town's schools, that brought home to me even more, because I became the focus of a lot of attention. And I sort of understood that this was because I was doing something that was part of this movement that I had a vague sense, even as a six-year-old, I understood something is happening here, that society is changing and I am a part of that.

Chideya: As someone who has been such a powerful voice in history and uncovering different aspects of American history, like Sally Hemings and her family. How do you process this moment in time around teaching history? So the idea of critical race theory has become a big buzzword, but one of my friends who writes quite a lot about race and history is like, "Look, you're not teaching a six year old critical race theory, you're teaching them what the truth is." And so when issues and history like Juneteenth are kept out of books, to me, that seems kind of like an issue of truth, not an issue even of critical race theory. It's just, are you teaching the truth?

Gordon-Reed: Yeah, well, certainly, I know what critical race theory is. And I am pretty, pretty sure that people are not teaching middle school students and high school students critical race theory. They don't know what it is. The idea of talking about race is not necessarily critical race theory. I think the thing that I think is so funny about this or so weird is that people act as if we just sort of made up race as a topic and that beforehand, nobody ever talked about race. But if you look at the laws from the 18th century and the 19th century, essays, books, legislation, whatever you want to look at, they talked about race all the time. They legislated about it. The Texas constitution supports slavery. It says that black people can't be citizens of the Republic of Texas. So if you're going to teach history, the history of the Texas Republic, how can you do that reading The Constitution? If you use primary documents and you're teaching the truth, you're going to be talking about race. You just are.

Chideya: Among other things that Texas is a powerhouse in is shaping the textbooks that many parts of America get. Have you thought about the role of Texas in textbook production and what gets in and what gets out?

Gordon-Reed: A lot. I actually have because this has been a real controversy. I was called upon to talk about this some years ago when they wanted to take Jefferson out of textbooks because he didn't believe in the divinity of Jesus. So, yes. I have thought about this quite a bit and we really do have to push back against this effort to hide history. I think it's so wrong-headed to imagine that talking about the truth of what happened in the past means that you hate the country. You hate Texas. You hate these places. That's not true at all but you have a realistic view of them. And that's what people seemingly don't want kids to have.

Chideya: Professor Annette Gordon-Reed, thanks so much for joining us.

Gordon-Reed: Thank you for having me.

Chideya: That was Annette Gordon-Reed, Professor of History at Harvard University's Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Her book is “On Juneteenth” and it's out now.

Some artists span genres. My next guest is a musician, dancer, actor, activist and now author of a memoir. Nobuko Miyamoto just released her book, “Not Yo' Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution.” She's the co-creator of what's widely recognized as the first album of Asian American music in 1973. She's also Founder and Artistic Director of Great Leap. An organization rooted in the Asian-American community that promotes cross-cultural exchange.

Chideya: Nobuko, welcome to Our Body Politic.

Nobuko Miyamoto: Thank you. Good to be here.

Chideya: So, your book, “Not Yo' Butterfly,” begins with the words, "I was born where I didn't belong." So, that is a very intense launch to the book and to your life because you're talking about your childhood. Take us to that scene.

Miyamoto: Well, I was born in America, in Los Angeles and I'm a third generation Japanese American. But when I was less than two years old, we were put into a concentration camp because Japan was at war with America. So, even though we were citizens and had lived here and I was a baby, I was considered a threat to US Internal Security. And we moved many, many times. Montana then Idaho and finally landed in Ogden, Utah, where my father got a job. But he happened to love classical music. And he took us to a concert. As a four year old at that time, when I heard this music, it just filled my body and I went home and I was dancing to my father's records and my mother saw it and she realized that I needed to dance. And she started me in a little dance school. And what dance did for me was it gave me a sense of place. It became the place where I had an expression where I could be seen. Where I can feel that I had some kind of over my own self and over my own life.

Chideya: You have this book, Not Yo' Butterfly, but you also have a song of the same title. And one of the lines really struck me.

Miyamoto (singing): "I am born every day. My spirit can't be gauged. I'm living to create."

Chideya: "I'm living to create." That is a really joyful framing of your mission in life. So, what does that mean to you?

Miyamoto: Well, I feel like I'm here for a purpose. I'm here to create something for my communities so that they have a sense of expression. They have a sense of culture and belonging and to spread that idea to other people, because we're all here to create.

Chideya: You've produced some really seminal work and your 1973 album, “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle of Asians in America,” just feels really present to me when I listen to it. You've got the lyrics of the song, “We Are The Children.” Tell us about that seminal album and how it came together.

Miyamoto: We were standing on the shoulders of the Black movement. The Chicano movement was happening. From the very beginning of our movement in the late sixties, we were together with other people of color and that gave us the courage to step up as well. So, I was lucky to fall into meeting a group of Asian Americans who were activists and who were looking at telling our stories and who we were as Asian-Americans and realizing that being in camp was a turning point for us to really learn. This is the hard lesson of what America can do to you. And so, the words of this song, "We are the children of the migrant worker. We are the offspring of the concentration camp. Sons and daughters of the railroad builder, who leave their stamp on America." These words gave, not only us but our community, a sense that we had a voice. Not just a speaking voice but a voice filled with emotion, filled with story and filled with music that expressed who they are.

Chideya: Your book is so historical, sociological. You talk about the influence of Black music. You talk about Asian American organizing. It is an incredible intersectional with journey. And you also touch on things including the 1992, Rodney King beating and the aftermath in Los Angeles. What are some lessons that we can apply to struggles today?

Miyamoto: A couple of days after the riots happened, I drove down there and I actually saw a fire in the eyes of a young man who looked at me and I looked at him and he looked actually like my son. My son is half Black and half Japanese. But that Black boy looked at me with hate in his eyes. And when I saw that, I said, "I have to do something because he needs to know my story." And so, I used art and started working with Black, Latino and Asian artists to get them to tell their stories on stage. And we started a performance called, A Slice of Rice, Frijoles and Greens. And we toured this all over the country for many, many, many, many years at colleges, schools, et cetera, so that people can see Asians, Black and Latinos on a stage together. So, this is what we have to do today, I believe. I believe that the arts have a special role to play in this world. You can't just legislate for people not to hate. That's not going to happen. I mean, yes, it has to be a crime that people to do violence against one another. But to really change the internal human being, it takes something more than that. And that's what I've been trying to do for the last 50 years or so.

Chideya: At this time of hatred and xenophobia and violence against Asian-Americans, what would you say to people in order to get us to embrace our shared humanity?

Miyamoto: I don't want to be a broken record to say we have to tell our stories but this is the opportunity that we have in this country. We have such a rich array of cultures and kinds of people here. This is an opportunity for each of us to stretch. Maybe it takes a little bit of bravery to open ourselves up and let something down, a little bit of our own fears. But when you take that first step across somebody's boundary and you open up yours, it really feels good and it's fun. And so, I hardly advise people to not sit back and watch. To get involved. Yeah. To say, "What can I do to help," and let down your fear. This is not a terrible moment. This can be a wonderful moment to really stretch who we are as human beings.

Chideya: I enjoyed every minute of this. Thank you for talking with me, Nobuko.

Miyamoto: Thank you so much for what you're doing because people need to know that we're out here learning how to communicate in a better way.

Chideya: That was Nobuko Miyamoto. Her memoir is, “Not Yo' Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution,” out now.

Chideya: Thank you so much for joining us on Our Body Politic. We're on the air each week and everywhere you listen to podcasts. Our Body Politic is produced by Lantigua Williams and Co. I'm the creator and host, Farai Chideya. Juleyka Lantigua-Williams is executive producer. Paulina Velasco is senior producer. Jen Chien is executive editor. Cedric Wilson is lead producer and mixed this episode. Our producer is Priscilla Alabi. Julie Zann is our talent consultant. Emily Daly is assistant producer. Original music by associate sound designer Kojin Tashiro. Production assistance from Sarah McClure, Veda Chand, and Mark Betancourt.

This program is produced with support from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Charles and Lynn Schusterman Family Philanthropies, the Harnisch Foundation, Compton Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.


Chideya, Farai, host. “Black Americans Call for Political Substance over Symbolism, the Biden-Harris Administration on Systemic Racism, and the Power of Telling Our Stories.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. June 18, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/