Farai Chideya talks with author Roxane Gay about the skill and craft required to write about trauma. Writer Deesha Philyaw of “The Secret Lives of Church Ladies” explores womanhood, relationships, and “what we owe our mothers.” Journalist Soledad O’Brien on navigating racism and sexism in the media industry, and striking out on her own. On Sippin’ the Political Tea, Errin Haines of The 19th examines the importance of taking the insurrection of January 6th seriously, with political scientist Christina Greer and public policy expert Carol Anderson.
00:42 Roxane Gay on the skill it takes to write about trauma
12:44 Deesha Philyaw on writing and womanhood
22:37 Soledad O’Brien on taking her own path in journalism
31:45 Sippin’ the Political Tea: Errin Haines and special guests Carol Anderson and Christina Greer talk about the week’s news
Farai Chideya: Thanks for listening and sharing Our Body Politic. As you know, we're still growing and evolving our show and we're shaping it with 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 Podcast on your phone, tablet, laptop, or anywhere you listen and leave us a review. We read those because your ideas matter to us. Thanks so much.
This is Our Body Politic, I'm the creator and host Farai Chideya. This summer, as we take our books to the beach or finally gather with our loved ones if we're vaccinated and safe, I'd like to take some time to reflect on the people I admire for their creativity and voice. I was the kind of kid who read books under the bedsheets with a flashlight after I was supposed to be asleep. And for this episode, I had the pleasure of talking with authors and journalists who produced some of my favorite work of the last few years. Roxane Gay is author of the best-selling books, Bad Feminist, Difficult Women and Hunger. She's recently been writing work advice columns for the New York Times, she's a contributing opinion writer for that paper. Roxane, welcome to Our Body Politic.
Roxane Gay: Thank you for having me Farai. It's great to be here.
Chideya: So, I'm going to hop in with something that I don't usually talk about with people who aren't my closest friends, but I had an experience as a child of childhood sexual abuse. And my body changed profoundly because of that. I began compulsively eating. I remember wandering around the house in the middle of the night raiding everything in the refrigerator. And of course, it reminds me of what you said in your book, Hunger, in your words, "My father believes hunger is in the mind. I know differently. I know that hunger is in the mind and the body and the heart and the soul." And it's something that you have been so breathtakingly honest about. How do you make sense of how your journey might be impacting other people?
Gay: I think a lot of times people have experiences and we tend to think I'm the only person who's dealing with this. Especially in the age I grew up in, it wasn't like the 1950s or anything, but still sexual assault was not something that was widely discussed. And I think that there are a lot of us who are sexually assaulted and don't know who to tell, don't know if we can tell anyone, and we turn to one coping mechanism or another. And so, by writing about fatness and trauma. At least for me, there was a connection between the two. I think is really useful to people who have similar experiences and think that they're alone in those experiences. And that is incredibly isolating and it can be incredibly lonely and it can induce all kinds of self-loathing. So, I think that we all want to know that we're not alone and certainly that's why I've always read. And I'm glad that my writing can reach people in that way.
Chideya: What motivates you to write?
Gay: Well, I mean, I write because I love it. I've always loved it. I always write from a place of joy. And I'd never intended to write about myself to the extent that I have. I think of myself, first and foremost, as a fiction writer and, unfortunately, the world does not. I wrote a few personal essays in my late teens, early 20s, maybe four or five, all about the same thing, "where do I belong?" And when I started writing non-fiction more seriously in my early 40s and late 30s, I realized that sometimes I'm going to need to talk about my own personal experiences to reinforce whatever it is that I'm writing about. And it's not something that I really relished because you have to make yourself vulnerable when you write from the personal and you then open yourself up to all kinds of scrutiny, all kinds of judgment. But I did it anyway. And I still don't really know why. It just felt like that's what the work needed. And so, that's what I gave the work.
Chideya: At a certain point, some writers become icons. And you're now an icon who is able to... You are, I'm just saying. I'm calling it like I see it. What are the pros and cons for your practice, specifically, your writing practice of being someone who is an icon, a public figure, as opposed to someone who's less known?
Gay: Well, I never intended to be anything but a writer. The big dream was to have a book published. So everything that has happened has been really overwhelming and unexpected because I'm a black feminist, I'm a fat black feminist who's also queer. Like this is not anyone's target demographic, except for like people who might look like me or care about my existence, which unfortunately, in this world, is not that many people. That my work has found an audience is incredibly surprising to me. And that I have attained the visibility I have is also incredibly surprising because, in general, even well-known writers live in relative obscurity, nobody can recognize them walking down the street. And I think because I am tall, I'm 6'3", and I'm fat and I have tattoos, I have a few distinctive markers that let people know who I amount, it has been just this sort of really wild ride. It's been a lot of fun and it's been terrifying. I also just wish, sometimes, that... I didn't ask for any of it. And so, I wish people would recognize that I just got lucky, for lack of a better word. But I also worked incredibly hard to get lucky, it was not accidental. And I wish more people would recognize the amount of work that I have had to put in to get a fraction of the recognition that my white peers who have produced far less have gotten.
Chideya: You've also talked about the ways that people sort of assume that work that is informed by trauma is just sort of like, "Oh, I just blurted this out and not deeply crafted." Tell us more about that.
Gay: I Think when people read writing that they connect with emotionally, they assume that it was written emotionally. And that may well be the case, but I have a PhD in rhetoric and technical communication. So in general, when you're feeling something when you're reading my work, it's because that's where I wanted you to be as a reader. I think a lot of writers of color, a lot of women, a lot of queer writers, I guess, a lot of marginalized writers struggle with this, where people don't recognize the craft that we put into our work.
Chideya: I think, right now, about the massive amounts of national and international societal trauma in the world, all of the killings, all of the trials, the climate crisis, the pandemic. Could you just give us a little hint of how you make sense of that thing that's specific enough to talk about in an article? Because I often find myself just writing reams and reams of stuff. And the hardest part for me as I write is often the self editing.
Gay: I always have to remind myself that I have as much of a right as anyone to articulate how I see the world and how I experience it. And I try to also always make sure that I'm acknowledging other points of view, even when I disagree with them. So, I do my best to just stand my ground and trust that I have the right to do so. And of course, I might be racked with indecision internally but I still, somehow, make it work.
Chideya: And so, what's nourishing you during this period of just pain?
Gay: Not much. There is a lot of pain in the world right now, and I think it's important to pay attention to that pain. But I don't think that we have to be obsessive about it. I do think that we have to remember that there is a lot of joy and light in the world. And so, I've been doing a lot of reading, a lot of reading, for fun, in addition to reading for work, which I also, generally, find fun. I have been spending a lot of time enjoying visual art. I recently became familiar with a young artist in California named Kezia Harrell who does these gorgeous fat black women. And she often works in large-scale and I'm obsessed with large-scale work and I collect art. And so, I've been really digging, just following her on Instagram and seeing how she revels in visual abundance, which is just thrilling. And there's this really interesting generation of artists right now out there, black women who are just out there doing it. And Kellie Romany who's out of Chicago is an abstract artist. And it's great to see black artists doing abstraction when we see so much representation in contemporary art. And I'm all for it. I love representation like Jordan Casteel, who's phenomenal. I love just seeing what artists are coming up with in a different genre than mine. It's just great.
Chideya: You also are married and what is it like as someone who has stood alone so much of your life, stood in your own strength, but stood alone to now be a partner?
Gay: It's intense in the best possible way. I never really thought that this kind of relationship was going to be possible for me. I've basically been a serial monogamist, but I had always been in relationships where I had to compromise something, compromise what I wanted most often, compromise myself to try and be something that I wasn't. And Deborah, Debbie, as people know her, she sees me as I am and loves me as I amount. For someone to just so openly want me and not want me to change and want me at any size, whether it was 200 pounds ago or smaller than I am now, that means a lot. And it's really affirming. And also she's super hot and she's super intelligent. And we also have fun every day. She makes me laugh every single day. So the biggest joy I should say is not anything that I do, but it's who I spend my time with.
Chideya: That's really beautiful. I could talk to you all day, but I'm not going to because you've got books to write, films to script and I want to see and read all of them. And so, talk to your younger self, let's say, 15 years old, who's like, "I would love to be a writer, but I'm not sure if I can make it in a world that may or may not appreciate me." What would you say to her?
Gay: I would tell her that making it looks a lot of different ways and so long as you are writing the kinds of things you want to write on your own terms, you're already making it. And so, you just have to continue to be relentless and you have to continue to take yourself seriously until someone else does, with the understanding that they might not. And it still doesn't make you any less of a writer.
Chideya: I love that. And Roxane, thank you so much for joining us. Really appreciate it.
Gay: Thank you Farai. I'm really grateful for the conversation and I'm a big admirer of yours, so I'm really glad to be able to do this.
Chideya: That was Roxane Gay, she's the author of Bad Feminist and Hunger. You can find her newsletter, The Audacity, on Substack. There's nothing like a good summer read. My next guest debut story collection has been called cheeky, insightful and irresistible, and it won the 2021 PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Deesha Philyaw is the author of The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, which explores four generations of black women and their relationships with religion, family and with womanhood itself. Welcome, Deesha.
Deesha Philyaw: Thank you.
Chideya: How did you decide to write this? What was the inspiration?
Philyaw: I was really writing from a place of nostalgia and memory. I was here in Pittsburgh, feeling really isolated and so, I was nostalgic and lonely for my hometown in Jacksonville, Florida. And my upbringing, being raised by two women, my mother and my grandmother who didn't go to church, but who sent me to church, it was those women of my youth, the women in the church and outside of the church that really stayed with me and really captured my imagination. And that really stuck with me even into my adulthood.
Chideya: To me, your book is about intimacy, it's about physical intimacy, emotional intimacy, family intimacy, otherhood. How did you feel empowered to approach a huge topic like intimacy which is so clearly a space of passion and a space of trauma in the lives of human beings?
Philyaw: I don't think I was thinking in terms of just how intimate they were or in terms of mothers and daughters, which you picked up on. It was after I turned in my manuscript that I thought, "Huh, there's a lot of mother-daughter stuff in this book." And clearly, I had some things to work out. I lost my mother to cancer in 2005 and I thought I got what we call closure and all of those very nice, neat words, but clearly there were still some things that I wanted to explore and they showed up with these characters. But as far as intimacy in other ways, I think that perhaps I was writing and going into the interior of these women's lives for a kind of intimacy that I longed for. My mother and I both wished that we had been closer, but we had a very difficult relationship. I'm also someone who has been married and divorced twice, and there were issues with intimacy in both of those relationships. And so, I think that I was taking sort of what I longed for and giving some of my longings to these characters.
Chideya: So it seems like you are very much a observer of the human condition. What does it mean to be someone who observes human beings at this level of intensity?
Philyaw: It's a lot. I'm super sensitive, hopefully, less sensitive than I was as a child. I was that kid that cried about everything. And part of that was the relationship that I didn't have with my father. My father was local to me, but still very much absent. And so, trying to understand why he was the way he was, and I still don't have answers to this day, that was a lot of my struggles in my late teens into my 30s, just why, why, why, why, why of his absence and his negligence, that speaks to that kind of longing. But in terms of observing, again, watching the church women, but also watching my mother and grandmother and their friends and listening. The women that were family friends and colleagues of my mother and grandmother, I learned very early that if I was just quiet and kind of invisible, I could hear things, I could hear stories, I could hear what they were going through. But I could also hear their joy and their multifacetedness that would surprise me often because, as kids, we see the world as very black and white and we see people, especially adults, as very black and white. And I'm also an only child who was lonely a lot. I really was kind of fixated on other people and their lives. And if I didn't have access, I would fashion it. I think that was definitely the roots of it for me is just really wanting connection and not always getting the connection that I wanted and needed.
Chideya: In one of your stories there is a character named Daughter, effectively, because the social role that she plays and her relationship to her mother is really the crux of the story in many ways. Of course, the center of the story is her relationship to herself. What do you think it means for women to be gendered as women? And how did you approach being a woman and also being a daughter in the context of your work?
Philyaw: I wrote an essay about this once, and there's a part where I was trying to come up with the word to describe what it felt like when I saw myself for the first time as a child, as a person with a gender, and the word was "prone," prone and vulnerable and at the mercy of others, at the service of others. Unfortunately, that's what it means for so many of us, unless we push back, unless we unlearn, unless we literally fight to get free out of it, that that's the default of what it means to be gendered as a woman. And then for Daughter in particular, we see that played out that she just sort of exists in relationship to other people and she has an experience that I never really had, which is, what if you have to take care of someone who wasn't good to you when they were supposed to be taking care of you? I think every person has to decide for herself what we owe our mothers. And that was a question that I asked Kiese Laymon once. And as you know, he wrote a book. His memoir is a letter to his mother who was abusive. And he said that we owe our mothers to see them as something other than just our mothers, which many of us don't ever get there. And I don't know if I would have gotten to that point or when, if it would have been as soon, if my mother had not passed away. Because I think when you are able to see them as something else, you do realize that the same way we are trying to unearth our selves, our full selves from beneath the constraints that being gendered puts on us in this culture, our mothers have the same burden. They may not know it, they may not see it as a burden, they may not have done this work, and we thrive or suffer as a result of it, but that we're all in the same machine, that they are subjected to what their mothers did and didn't do. And you start to see each other as part of a system. And hopefully, with that comes a bit more grace.
Chideya: When you think about your past, which you've been so generous in talking about, how do you bring that into your fictional work on a level of like creation mechanics? Because it seems to me that you have used your selfhood in order to inform your work but not let it be your work.
Philyaw: I think you have to do it poorly first. And so, that's what I started doing 20 years ago is writing and giving those women from my memory and from my past, giving them my discontent that I felt, because I wasn't brave enough to write my own story. I was still feeling like you can't say anything ill about your mother ever. I was hesitant to write about my father because it was so painful. I would physically feel pain when I would revisit certain things with him. And then when I finally did write about him, it was just emotional diarrhea in a way. But I had to do that as part of my process and journey of learning to kind of getting over the need to feel vindicated by about what happened and, instead, bring my own curiosity and my own search for meaning about what happened. That becomes the story. It becomes my own interior journey, but it doesn't need to be me. It can be a character who is grappling with some of these similar questions and similar experiences. And then, because it's fiction, which I actually prefer to nonfiction, you get to ratchet it up, you get to raise the stakes and have a lot more fun with it.
Chideya: I have to say, I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this book. Thank you so much, Deesha.
Philyaw: Thank you so much for having me.
Chideya: That was Deesha Philyaw. Her short story collection is The Secret Lives of Church Ladies, it's being adapted for television by HBO Max with Tessa Thompson and Deesha Philyaw executive producing. There's always new news about discrimination in the media industry based on race, gender, or other protected categories. I talk about it with colleagues and friends often because I want to shed light on the issue and see some lasting change. A year ago now, one of my longtime sisters in journalism wrote an op-ed for the New York Times calling our national racial reckoning "a me too moment for journalists of color." Soledad O'Brien is an award-winning documentarian, journalist and author with decades of experience across platforms, CNN, NBC, Fox, Nat Geo, PBS NewsHour and more. She's now the host of Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien and chief executive of her own media production company. Soledad, it is so great to have you with us on Our Body Politic. Welcome.
Soledad O'Brien: My pleasure. Nice to chat with you.
Chideya: It meant a lot when you wrote last July, July 4th, in the New York Times about race in the media. Why did you feel the need to put something on the record in the paper of record?
O'Brien: I think, often, journalists of color, as much as we get to report on certain stories, very rarely do we have sort of the camera turned on our own personal experiences. And not just, "Oh my goodness, what was it like to go cover that?" But what was it like as a person of color? What was it like as a woman? What was it like as a woman of color to go and do something, especially when the story heavily involves something that kind of intersects with your life? And so, to me, we were at this time in this country of a conversation about what is objectivity? Who's best to tell a story? Shouldn't black reporters who, maybe, they have a dog in the fight of no racism, shouldn't we be kept out of all those stories about racism? I mean, how could we possibly see both sides of it? So I did, I wrote an op-ed called "A MeToo Moment for Journalists of Color." Because it did feel like journalists of color were like, "No, we're going to talk about our experiences as well." And I think we're at a time when lots of journalists and journalistic organizations like to analyze and assess others, but very, very rarely want to turn that cold, hard eye on themselves to say, "What are we doing wrong?"
Chideya: I want to back up to something that you embedded already in this conversation, which is kind of the way that different journalists are viewed as objective or not objective based on race. What does accountability or accurate coverage look like in discussing how white journalists perceive the world?
O'Brien: I think often that white journalists, when they're talking about their personal take on a story, they're kind of lauded for it like, "Wow, oh my God, that deep thinking about their experience and how it was brought to bear in the story." I think that's a plus for white journalists in a way that it's very much a minus for black journalists, especially in things like, "Yeah, police might be lying." We certainly, I think, have different takes on when people talk about being harassed by the police. I've had many stories that I've done where people will tell you the cops come through here and they do like wheelies and circle and trying to send a message. Well, I've seen that certainly in lots of communities, even when, weirdly, as I was shooting that documentary, it happened on camera. I was like, "Well, thank you for putting that on camera. Appreciate it." So you see these things that I think somebody else might want to edit out. One doc I did once about the Catholic church, one of the editors of the legal team actually said that we couldn't put it in because it was a priest who was basically railing about this gay couple who'd come to their church. And they grew up in the church, they knew the pastor, and they say to him, "But you know us, we were children in this church, you know us." It was a documentary about how they were becoming parents, adoptive parents. And it was a lot, like there was a big legal meeting about, could we make the church feel uncomfortable about what they were doing? Right. Wasn't there another version, another side of the story that kind of made it all a little bit better? Didn't we deserve to give the church the benefit of the doubt? As a person who's a relatively devout Catholic, I can tell you, no, that's exactly what happened. And we were rolling on it, but it was an argument. So often, within our own newsrooms, you're fighting against this sense of, "Yeah, but aren't you biased because you're going to believe what this person says? Aren't you biased just by virtue of being a reporter of color?" And I think no one says that to white reporters.
Chideya: I want to switch to your series, "To Be An American." Tell us about it and tell us, what have you been getting out of doing the series?
O'Brien: Yep. We decided to do a listening tour before the pandemic. So we would go around and, for example, we went to Stockton to talk about universal basic income and did a whole show, 30-minute show from Stockton, went to Puerto Rico to talk about solar energy. And then, of course, the pandemic hit and we're like, "How do you do a listening tour when no one really wants to travel?" And so, we started doing these virtual listening tours that ended up becoming really, really successful.
Chideya: You are someone who also managed to have a very full family life. This is not an easy business for parents. How did you carve out the time and the space to really be fully engaged with your family? And your kids are now grown or close to grown all of them, right?
O'Brien: Yeah. The boys are freshmen and high school, so that's when they're getting me on Zoom versus me getting them on Zoom. I wouldn't necessarily say I was fully engaged all the time. I'm like, "Oh, I missed some stuff." But I think I went in knowing that I wanted to have a lot of kids. And I would sign a contract and get pregnant. And as stupid as that sounds, it meant that you felt very powerful negotiating because negotiating when you're pregnant was a miserable thing. First of all, I always felt terrible. A lot of it is your boss is looking over, seeing like, "Where do we see your future?" And often, for pregnant women, it's not a thing that they think about. So I was really lucky because I was able to knock out a baby, lose the weight, get back in and be like, "Now I'm ready to renegotiate." And then I go and have another, literally, around every contract, I'd have a kid.
Chideya: If you do make it to this point in your career, you can speak freely about certain things. But I think it's also hard because we end up sort of talking about issues, whether it's race, gender, pregnancy, et cetera, by nature, well after they happen. But I do think, at least, people are talking now. I don't remember anyone ever saying this kind of stuff to me when I was a young reporter.
O'Brien: Yeah. A good part of it is I'm never sure my advice is good because my advice was like, I wanted to keep my job.
Chideya: Yeah. Same for me. It's been a real pain at times to stay in this field. It has been painful to do the work in our troubled newsrooms.
O'Brien: There's a whole bunch of mediocre white dudes in this business, a whole bunch. And sometimes you think, "Gosh, this person, if they were gone, somebody else more talented could take their slot." But it's also people, as we know, hire people who make them feel comfortable.
Chideya: Oh yes, they do.
O'Brien: And I think, especially in an environment where you're telling stories, right? So they want to be like, "Yes, I love this guy. I love the way he thinks. He thinks like me. This person over here..." And I always felt like often I was this [inaudible 00:29:48]. "She's pain, she's difficult. Oh, she asks all these questions and she's so challenging. And uh, it's just a lot."
Chideya: Yeah. It's fascinating because our field is meant to be a place where things are questioned. But then, sometimes the hierarchies don't actually lead us to question what we need to question. Well, let me go to a place of joy. You spent years at huge companies, CNN and NBC. So you've done all of these different things and now, you are doing you. What makes you keep doing this?
O'Brien: When I started running a company, it was really fun to learn like, "Oh, I'm good at negotiating. I'm good at deal making." I'm probably good because I would screw it up and learn pretty fast. When it's your own money, you're like, "Ooh, I've learned that lesson." But I've really enjoyed that. And I've enjoyed working on the projects that I like and advocating for the things that I really want to do. And early on, I worked with a guy who was so not nice. And I remember thinking like, "I'm the CEO. I get to set the environment for my company." There's just no reason to work in a miserable experience. Like it's nice to be old and feel like, "You know what? I don't actually have to work in a miserable experience. Don't have to do it."
Chideya: Well, there's so much more we could discuss, but I hope that you'll just come back. It's always great to talk, Soledad. Thanks so much.
Chideya: Soledad O'Brien is the host of Matter of Fact with Soledad O'Brien and CEO of Soledad O'Brien Productions.
Each week on the show, we bring you a roundtable called Sippin' The Political Tea. This week, we have a very familiar guest host. That would be our regular contributor, Errin Haines, editor at large at The 19th. So, take it away, Errin.
Errin Haines: Thank you for that introduction, Farai. This week on the roundtable, I'm joined by Christina Greer, political scientist and associate professor at Fordham University, also author of Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and The Pursuit of The American Dream. Oh, and one more. She's co-host of the podcasts FAQ NYC and What's In It For Us. Welcome to Our Body Politic, Chrissie.
Christina Greer: Thank you so much for having me.
Haines: And, Carol Anderson. She is a historian and the Charles Howard Candler professor of African American studies at Emory, author of many books, all of which are on my shelf, including One Person, No Vote and The Second. Carol, I hope you are ready to sip some political tea.
Carol Anderson: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I am so ready.
Haines: Well, look, we got a historian here. We got our political scientist here. Let's talk about our democracy. We're going to start with, what else? Wednesday, January Sixth, 2021, the insurrection. We're not going to forget it. Carol, you and I have talked about the January Sixth insurrection, especially as it relates to your most recent book, The Second. And, for listeners at home, I mean, what's the most important thing that we have to understand about how the events of the day fit into the larger story of our democracy?
Anderson: What we see is the de-legitimization of black voters. That's what that insurrection was about. It was about the anger that black people came out and voted in Milwaukee, in Atlanta, in Philadelphia, in Detroit. And, that they did not vote for a white supremacist. And, that anger, the how dare you, the temerity of black folks to believe that they have citizenship rights is what sent that mob storming up into the Capitol to overturn the election. When they are carrying the Confederate flag, saying, "Who's house is it? This is our house," that is sending the signal about where we are as a democracy.
Haines: Yeah. I mean, I remember our conversation and you talked about how the nation is just steeped in this anti-blackness and how the role of the militia, the history of the role of the militia, was really just to control black people and to stop black people from having the right to freedom, and obviously the right to vote is a huge, huge part of that. Chrissie, we're more than halfway through the year at this point. I mean, are there other ways to even have a thorough accounting for what happened on January Sixth?
Greer: Well, I mean, Errin, this is why I so appreciate you all having this podcast, because we have to keep it in our political imagination and we have to dissect not just the roots of why it is those people stormed the Capitol and those insurrectionists tried to overthrow the government. We have to excavate the former President's role and what members of Congress assisted them. Did members of, you know, the FBI or any other government agency assist them in any way? And, we are at a point right now where there's a significant number of folks in this country who have a real vision of where they want this country to go and it is not inclusive. It is not safe for immigrants, for people of color, for black people specifically and explicitly. And, until we get to the root cause of January Sixth, I don't think that we can really move forward as a nation.
Anderson: Absolutely. Absolutely.
Haines: Yeah. I mean, look, I think you're exactly right, Chrissie. The Big Lie is something that I think a lot of the country is going to focus on, but I think the big lies of omission are also just as important. There are consequences to that. You know, I'm wondering, Carol, what you think the consequences of not looking into what happened on that day are, consequences that we're already seeing or that we might see later.
Anderson: We have a history in this nation of ignoring the kind of violence that whites do to democracy. So, we have, like, Shays' Rebellion, where you had white men attacking the Massachusetts government because they didn't like a taxation policy, and the response eventually was that those who were charged and convicted, they were pardoned. We had the same thing happening with the Whiskey Rebellion. Frankly, we had the same thing happening with the Civil War and... And, you know, where you have white men who did not like the results of the 1860 election and so they decided that they were going to destroy the United States of America so that they could own human beings. And, after that horrific war, we had Andrew Johnson basically providing amnesty to the Confederate leaders and Jefferson Davis is able to just kind of live his life when he had attacked the United States of America. We had The Colfax Massacre in Colfax, Louisiana in 1873, where white men did not like the results of an election because black folks voted in a Republican government, and so, you had whites storm the citadel of democracy there in Colfax, which was a courthouse, and they slaughtered over 100 black men in that process of trying to overturn the results of an election. And, the U.S. Supreme Court basically said that the law, the third Enforcement Act, did not apply to private actors. It only applied to state actions, so those who had committed mass murder got to walk. We had the same thing happening in 1898 in Wilmington, North Carolina, where whites did not like the results of an election because black folks voted in a government that they didn't like, and so, they slaughtered black folks, overthrew that government, the Wilmington Coup, and installed their own white supremacist leaders.
Anderson: The Republicans are using an old playbook. The thing is, we're saying, "Not today. Not today." So, this rewriting of the narrative and trying to make the unjustifiable and the unconscionable acceptable is part of the normalization and the destabilization in American democracy, and we have to fight against it.
Haines: Okay, ladies. The tea is getting hot here. My cup is running over. But let's move on to voting rights because 18 states now across the country have enacted 30 laws that restrict the access to vote, and that's according to the Brennan Center for Justice. But here's Stacy Abrams talking on The ReidOut on MSNBC earlier this month.
Stacy Abrams: A fundamental challenge is that we have to have a U.S. Senate that recognizes that nothing else passed will hold and nothing new will happen if we lose the right to participate in our elections in 22 and 24. And, this is not hyperbolic. This is an actual crisis.
Haines: Okay, Chrissie. You've been hired to give Senators on the Democratic side advice on what to do. What lever should they be using right now?
Greer: A lot of white people don't understand the capacity of white people. Carol writes about, you know, sort of the institutional structures that limit so many of our freedoms. But I don't think white people understand the depths to which other white people will go to deny others their basic freedoms. And so, you have many good faith Democrats who are trying to look at their Republican colleagues and say, "Well, you know, they really wouldn't take away the right to vote. They really wouldn't, you know, destroy our democracy." And, I think that they need to understand. If you look at the history of this nation, because part of the... Part and parcel of the problem is that we don't have a realistic and truthful accounting of our past. So, a lot of these Senators don't really think that their colleagues would do this. Like, you had John McCain, who saves the ACA, barely. Barely. One vote. So, we can't be so confident that this will happen again. I think that Democratic Senators need to get a lot more realistic about who their colleagues are and they really need to get a lot more serious about what Stacy Abrams has said, the real danger that we're already in. We've seen an election stolen in 2018 in Georgia. Realistically, if we want to be honest, we saw an election stolen in 2000. We just didn't want to say anything. Republicans come to a knife fight fully armed. Democrats come to a knife fight with some emails and a whole bunch of thank you notes. Right? And so, it's like, get your head in the game because Republicans know how to play offense and defense. Democrats barely know how to play defense. I don't think Democrats fully understand the severity of the problem. I don't think they understand the urgency of the problem. And, I don't think they understand the capacity of their own colleagues to deny American citizens the full franchise, and especially Americans of color.
Haines: Yeah. Well, first of all, Chrissie, let me just say that I spilled my tea when you said email to a knife fight. I'm still... I'm trying to recover from that. But frankly, the bottom line is there are too many Americans who do not literally have enough skin in the game. I don't know if you all saw that Pew Research poll that said 77% of black Americans think that voting is a right for every U.S. citizen, while white Americans are divided on this issue. Only 51% of white Americans say that voting is a right. 48% of white Americans see voting as a privilege. And so, if this is not an issue that enough people care about because it doesn't affect them, you know, I don't know what that means for the future of our democracy and for people's understanding of the alarm that Stacy Abrams has been sounding for more than a minute now. So, we had a New York Times columnist, Charles Blow, on the show back in February, about his book The Devil You Know, where he makes a case for reverse migration in terms of voting power. So, here he is explaining what happened in Georgia in 2020. Let's listen to this clip.
Charles Blow: The black population of Georgia doubles between 1990 and 2020, from 1.7 million people to over 3.4 million people. With this election, black people made up 33% of the population of Georgia, and that was part of the tipping of Georgia.
Haines: So, Blow proposed that black folks should just move to states in the South to create these powerful voting blocs for themselves, similar to how he says young white progressives went to Vermont, for example, to consolidate voting and legislative power locally there, and that black people, frankly, are just spread too thin across the country. Carol, I want to get your thoughts on this idea because as legislators are proposing laws to hamper access to voting rights, I wonder what you think about this proposal and if it might be a viable option.
Anderson: So, that's why the issue of the reverse migration is so fascinating, because during the Great Migration, you had black folks moving up to what became electorally rich college states like Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, Illinois, Ohio. And, that made the issue of civil rights no longer just a Southern issue, but a national issue as these politicians in these electorally rich college states and as presidents had to deal with the black voting blocs in those states. One of the things that we have not discussed here is that what Georgia did in Georgia's SB 202, the new voter suppression bill that was passed by the Republicans, is that it not only deals with how to diminish black voter turnout but it also says if black folks show the resolve that they showed in 2020 in voting in the midst of a pandemic at those kinds of rates, the other component of SB 202 is to put control over certification of the election and how that election is run in the hands of the Republicans so that they can remove members of county election boards, particularly in Fulton County, in DeKalb County, in the counties of Atlanta. We know that that's the target. And so, if you have massive black voter turnout with this reverse migration, the person who is the one doing the certification is the one who determines what that vote actually was. That certification will carry the aura of legitimacy.
Anderson: And, be able to just ride on through. So, that is why we have to fight like crazy in order to get S One through, in order to get the John Lewis For The People Act through, and we need all of that.
Haines: Yeah. I mean, Carol, I think what you're saying is so important in terms of the attack on the validation process, right? It's not anymore just about whether people have access to the ballot, but even if they do manage to get access, if they do make it through that long line, if they do jump through all the hoops that they're supposed to jump through, now, you know, you have legislation, you have suppression efforts that are targeting their vote on the back end, right? Saying, "Well, okay. Well, maybe you were able to vote but we're just not going to legitimize that vote through a certification process that is absolutely flawed." Chrissie, I want to come to you because I'm wondering... I mean, Carol just laid out kind of the case for reverse migration as a potential ballot box strategy. Are there potential drawbacks to this idea? I mean, other than you maybe losing some of your neighbors.
Greer: Right. I'm not sold on Charles' argument, largely because we know that Republicans control most of the state houses, largely because they've disenfranchised so many voters. So, they're able to redraw districts. So, fine. We all move down South. Okay. And then, what happens? You pack us in districts the way you have in the past, or you crack up powerful black districts. So, Republicans are so strategic compared to Democrats. I think that they're already thinking about this strategy. I think they've been thinking about a reverse migration strategy when they saw so many black folks returning to, say, a city like Atlanta in the eighties. So, I'm not fully sold. I think also, though, so much of the argument places the onus on black folks. Let's place the onus on white people. I mean, I think if anything's going to change in this country... First of all, black people are not the majority. We are the third largest group in the country. We are only 12 to 13%. So, if anything is substantively going to change, it has to be with how white people think, act and behave. And so, if you believe that voting rights should be universal, what needs to happen is you need to go talk to your mammy and your pappy and your cousins who refuse to consider any sort of equitable solution in this nation. That's the heavy work. They're not going to listen to Stacy Abrams. It has to be the hard work of white people in their own families to do it. We have great allies who pop up and do the right thing here and there, but it's not a sustained effort, and that's why we're still having this conversation day in, day out, year in, year out.
Haines: Yeah. Obviously, what was so remarkable about the national reckoning last summer was how diverse it was, especially in terms of race. And yet, we have not necessarily seen that same multiracial coalition coalescing around the issue of voting rights, and I think that that is the missing component here. So, I want to shift gears here and I want to talk about Vice President Kamala Harris. The administration recently hit the six month mark. Chrissie, you recently wrote a Times op-ed. There was a lot of tea in that op-ed. Basically calling the Vice Presidency a trap for Vice President Harris. I mean, walk me through your thought process on this. Let me know if you see a possible escape route for Vice President Harris.
Greer: Yeah. So, I wrote the op-ed largely because I was looking at her portfolio and, you know, when I published it, an older colleague of mine wrote back and said, "The only thing that's not on her portfolio is world peace." And, you look at... There's... There's... There are no wins on that portfolio. There are no hits, right? You've got the immigration and the border crisis, something that no Democrat or Republican could solve. You've got voting rights, still. We're just in the mire, right? You've got vaccine hesitancy. Her portfolio is such that she doesn't have an opportunity to have any wins, right? Let's just say she was in charge of infrastructure. You could build a few bridges and lay some track on Amtrak and, boom, you can say, "Hey, listen. Hey, state of Georgia. This is what I did. Hey, state of New York. This is what I did." There's no opportunity for her to get some points on the board, and especially when it comes to immigration. Let's just say she figures out some solution where we take children out of cages or we allow certain individuals to come into the country. Well, we know half the country is going to think that that's a horrible idea. Most Democrats will say, "Well, that's not enough. What about the other people who you didn't let in?" Right? If and when she runs for the presidency, which I think we can pretty much make some good wagers on that, she is going to have challengers where they will have a full arsenal to say, "She failed on the border crisis. She failed on voting rights. She failed on, you know, vaccine hesitancy. She failed on, you know, immigration writ large." The list will go on and on of these massive ticket items that no one has succeeded on, but they'll be placed at her feet. You're giving folks an arsenal against her. I just think it's a trap.
Haines: Yeah. The tea was strong this week, ladies. I think this was one of my favorite cups of tea that I've had so far. But we are going to have to leave it there for now. It has been great talking with you, Carol and Chrissie.
Anderson: Oh, it was wonderful. I enjoyed this so much. Thank you.
Greer: Thanks so much.
Haines: Well, that was political scientist, author and podcast host Christina Greer and author and historian Carol Anderson. I'm Errin Haines, editor at large at The 19th.
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 & 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 assistants from Mark Betancourt, Elizabeth Nakano and Veda Chand. 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 Katie McGrath & JJ Abrams Family Foundation, the BMe Community, and from generous contributions from listeners like you.
Chideya, Farai, host. “Black Women on Writing with Purpose, and What History Says about Overlooking the Insurrection.” Our Body Politic, Diaspora Farms LLC. July 30, 2021. https://our-body-politic.simplecast.com/