Podcast #100: The Future of Black History
In February, we observe Black History Month. For this week's episode of the New York Public Library Podcast, we present our one hundredth episode, and there's no way we'd rather celebrate than by presenting the genius men and women making black history today, from music moguls to authors, chefs to television stars. Please join us in looking back at appearances of some of the most incredible guests LIVE from the NYPL, Books at Noon, and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture have had the privilege to host.
"When people learn my history, they always think that in my own family race was the most dynamic thing and I understand it, you know, my cousin was Korean and my auntie was Jewish. My parents were white, and we were two black kids and one mixed kid. So, from the outside, yes, but not within the family. Love was the most dynamic thing in our family."
"The way a black person has to integrate and create their journey when it's not around sports or, let's say, singing, that narrative is so complex and so different that you have to walk a line that is so thin and different and very often you have to not just see the door, but you have to build the door, open it, and walk. You get one shot at it. You don't get a second chance. So it's about building that narrative, opening, creating that door, building it so other people can open it later on... Most places that I went to, they'd never even seen a black cook. The notion of being a black chef didn't even exist."
"The most significant part of my background I think is that I was raised in absolutely colored neighborhoods until I was fourteen years old, so the neighbor, the dry cleaning man, the pharmacist, the dentist, the grocer, the school guard: everyone was colored. So it never occurred to me that we were illegitimate in some way because we were a whole world. And I think that that has given me a kind of strength that pulls me through the moments that I otherwise might not know how to get through... My parents were very interested in the arts and culture of the black people from all over the place. My father collected drums from Cuba and Haiti. My mother recited poems from the Harlem Renaissance. She read us Paul Laurence Dunbar. The first poem I knew was not 'O Captain! My Captain!' but was 'Speak up, Ike, an' 'spress yo'se'f!' That's a Paul Laurence Dunbar poem. So I was immersed in black culture without having to be told that I was having something done to me, and that's where the richesse of my work I think comes from."
Between the Lines: Charles Blow & Khalil Muhammad at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
"I had always looked up to Martin Luther King the way other kids looked up to basketball stars or rockstars or something. And so, that way he became a role model. He was erudite. He had ambition. He was noble. He was incredibly well-educated. He was well-spoken. And then around the same time, Prince Charles marries Diana! I didn't even know there was a Prince Charles. But all of a sudden, Prince Charles is all over the television and you can't get away from this 'Prince Charles marries this woman and now there's a princess.' I wasn't even sophisticated in my logic. It was just like, 'There's a Prince. His name is Charles. I could be a Prince!' So I just start to watch him every time he's on television. And watch the way he holds his body. Does his hand fall in front or behind? He actually would do this waistcoat thing, where he put one hand here. I didn't like that. But everything else... Everything he did; I did it."
“That trip, being exposed to Maya and all these other personalities that I mentioned earlier, sitting and listening and talking to her: I'm a twenty-something year-old kid, and for young black men this just doesn't happen. This just doesn't happen that young black men are told that their lives matter. It's a much larger conversation, given what we are witnessing every day in this country, in New York, and beyond. I won't get into that now. But to be told that you matter and to be told that your opinions matter, and to be asked what you think about this, that, and the other, and to be invited to interrogate this world class intellectual, to be invited to disagree with her (she wants to know why you feel this way; she wants this exchange): who does that? Who has this experience as a twenty-something year-old black man in this country? And who has this up against Maya Angelou? That just doesn't happen. So the journey of me figuring out that there was something in the world for me to do, that I had a voice, that I had a gift, and that I had to use that, that whole journey begins in this two week period when we're in Africa.”
"Smokey, when he wrote songs like 'My Girl,' 'It's Growing,' and all of that, it turned the whole industry around. Everybody had been writing bubble gum, you know, love songs. But he had lyrics and puns that you were like, 'How can anyone think of all of that?' And he would do it over and over... He was an artist artist."
"One of the things my parents told me was to follow your dreams. So you know as a youngster you have a lot of dreams. So when I was coming up, it was Fat Boys, Big Daddy Kane and LL Cool J, so I used to be sitting in the house and I’d see them and I’d be like, 'Man, I want to do that one day,' and I’d see Dr. J and you know Patrick Ewing and all those guys and I’d be like, 'Man, I want to do that one day.' Then I’d see Arnold Schwarzenegger and I’d say, 'Man, I want to do that one day.' So for me doing a rap album wasn’t about me being a rapper, it was about me continuing to follow my dreams. And get you know, getting a chance to rock out with my favorite artists, that’s what it was about. But Biggie was phenomenal. He was the only guy I seen who didn’t write his stuff down. Him and Jay Z."
"People need to pay attention to the kids around us. I feel like people get to thirty-five, thirty-six, they kind of get complacent, and I feel like our kids are the future. In school they need to come up with something more creative for our children instead of letting the outside create stuff for our children... That's my next calling: to do music and to teach at the same time."
"The basic argument of this book is we have a notion that, as far as I'm concerned, filters through all of our conversation about race, and I talk about this in the book. And it holds that there are a unique race of people called white who come from Europe, who are pure and are here. There is a unique race of people called black, who come from Africa and are here. There's a unique Asian race that comes from someplace called Asia and are here. There is a unique race of Native Americans and increasingly a unique race of Hispanics and Latinos who are here. And this is written in blood, somehow written in the DNA and inscribed by science. But in fact what you find is that these definitions, these allegedly biological hard and fast definitions, are not consistent across history and are certainly not consistent across geography. And when you try to understand why we call something white today and why we call something black today, you go back into the history and you cannot get away from the notion of plunder. Someone decided that they wanted to be able to strip as many people as possible of their labor, the fruits to their labor. They called the group of people black... We've had groups of people come to America at various points and not necessarily be called white, and slowly because of some sort of political interest, they get called white. If you think about the world that way, if you understand race as a done thing, not the work of God, not the work of Jesus, but an actual done thing, a decision that was made by a group of people, it charges you with some things. It charges you to fix some things. But if you can make it mystical, if you can make it the work of Jesus, if you can make it the work of God, you can say, 'This is just natural.' Then the inequality, the wealth gap, it becomes sanctified. You can think, 'Not my fault, man. I didn't choose this. It ain't got nothing to do with me.' Racecraft: a very good book."
“In this world we live in, and you know this in your soul, there are positive forces and negative forces—a battery: AC/DC—that's how things get propelled and how electricity works. To have both elements happening at once is when you're fully functioning on this planet. I didn't make this stuff up. That's what it is. So when you see a culture of men who are afraid of showing any type of femininity at all—and it's there; it's not like it doesn't exist there—it's very sad. And you know, you see guys with swagger walking down the street like, you know, doing this thing, you know, and you realize that they're so afraid. They're putting on this affectation that really just says how afraid they are. And I feel bad for them. I feel bad for anyone who doesn't allow their fully-functioned electrical charges work together.”
Toni Morrison and Angela Davis
"Homophobia—it’s so obviously—the violence connected with that, it’s so obviously a destruction of the self, I mean it’s just blatant, you know, to me, this others, or maybe people don’t realize it so much, but calling people names and beating them up and hanging people off of fences, I mean it’s just so self-destructive, you know. The more vicious it is toward the so-called homosexual person, the more violence there is toward oneself in that, and I think that that, you know, distributes itself in other kinds of scapegoats."
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Zadie Smith
Between the Lines: Chimamanda Adichie with Zadie Smith at the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
"In Nigeria, people will say 'sister,' but they don't mean it racially, so I think it's the understanding that it's racial that for me and for many immigrants from West Africa, it's just a little off-putting. It's a little disorienting because you don't quite get it. And I think it also has to be said that you very quickly realize that you're expected to play 'The Good Black' because you're not African-American; therefore, you're 'The Good Black.' White people will say, 'Oh, but you're different!' and you're not supposed to be, instead of being furious, because that's really an insult, you're supposed to be happy... There are many Nigerians who don't get it. There are also many Nigerian immigrants who are raising children here, children who are very affected by race because America is a society that's steeped in race whether we like it or not, but somehow the parents are oblivious. It's one of the things I wanted to explore in the novel. They're just completely oblivious, so the kid is the only black kid in an all-white school in Maine and the parent thinks it doesn't matter."
"I think the hustler and the freedom fighter are similar in, you know, it’s this anti-countercultural movement. One is about freedom and about having things and about improving your position, and then at some point it gets lost in that translation, and it becomes about greed, and it becomes about adrenaline and it becomes about the excitement—the excitement of getting away with something that you’re not supposed to—I mean, if we’re being honest about it, you know, at some point the excitement of getting away with it, the excitement of driving fancy cars and things. And you know, that level, so the difference to me between a hustler and a freedom fighter is a level of maturity."
"With my first novel, I was encountering so much tragedy in my real life that the last thing I wanted to do was wrestle with it in my fiction. But because I was loath to do that, it meant I was cheating and I wasn't telling the truth. And so I understood that that was the case when I began Salvage [the Bones], you know, I understood that I had failed in a way when I wrote my first novel. So when I wrote Salvage the Bones, it was very important to me to tell more of the truth. None of the stories I've written have been as searingly honest as the stories I tell in Men We Reaped."
"I tell my students; I tell everybody this. When I begin a creative writing class I say, 'I know you've heard all your life, 'Write what you know.' Well I am here to tell you, 'You don't know nothing. So do not write what you know. Think up something else. Write about a young Mexican woman working in a restaurant and can't speak English. Or write about a famous mistress in Paris who's down on her luck.'"
"Each novel I've written, any novel anyone writes, it's not that you sit down saying 'I believe this, and now I will write this," but by the nature of your sentences, just by the things that you emphasize or that you don't emphasize, you're constantly expressing a belief about the way you think the world is, about the things that you think are important, and those things change. They do change. And the form of the novel changes as well. A very simple example is in a lot of my fiction I've delved very deeply into people's heads, into their consciousness and tried to take out every detail, and the older I get and the more that I meet people and realize I don't know them. My own husband is a stranger to me, really, fundamentally at the end you don't know these people. That should be reflected in what you write, that total knowledge is impossible."