Review of My People: Five Decades of Writing about Black Lives by Charlayne Hunter-Gault



“My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives Matter” by Charlayne Hunter-Gault is a response to the classic problem that scholar and activist WEB Du Bois identified over a century ago. How do you see through the color line? When she started her career in the 1960s, there was no one quite like Hunter-Gault. She had been one of two black students to endure the dangerous and violent experience of entering the University of Georgia to earn her journalism degree, and then became almost the only black journalist able to write regularly. for a national white audience. When urban rebellions broke out in the mid-1960s, she notes, “the riots came as a surprise because there was no one in the American newsrooms of those communities who could have written about the simmering rage.” who triggered them. She set out to write about “black people in a way they were rarely portrayed in the media — in their full humanity.” She wrote a 12-page memo that persuaded The New York Times to stop using the term “nigger” in favor of “black.” She also opened a Harlem bureau for the newspaper.

Among his most striking reports is a long chronicle of Resurrection City, the tent city built by thousands of people who came to Washington as part of the campaign for the poor after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and crime proliferate, Hunter-Gault spends weeks chronicling the experiences of residents. They were young organizers known only by names like Leon and JT, or black people from the North and South who brought different cultures to the encampment, or Mexican American and black protesters who had different but related agendas.

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“My people” brings together decades of reporting, typically about race and black life, ranging from Hunter-Gault’s time as a reporter for the Times to her career at the PBS “NewsHour,” which she joined in 1978 when she first started out. it was called “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report”, to its first-hand reporting on post-apartheid South Africa, its engagement with hot topics such as Donald Trump, the murder of George Floyd and the pandemic of coronavirus.

Hunter-Gault’s career took shape in the aftermath of the Civil Rights Movement, and her early reporting is a chronicle of the world the movement created and the lives of African Americans that few white people saw or understood. There are stories of debates about community diversion projects for criminal offenders and whether black police officers could make a difference, as well as an early critique of the lawyer’s stop and frisk civil rights activist Vernon Jordan. She travels to Brooklyn to chronicle a Black Panther Party liberation school for young people. A chance trip to Martha’s Vineyard inspires him to remember the story of a Georgian man who regularly traveled hundreds of miles to reach this Massachusetts island, passing beach after beach he could not use, to find one he could call home. Other pieces capture the sights and smells of Harlem, food trucks bringing that “local soul food” to the black nationalist bookstore of Lewis Michaux, who claimed 105,000 volumes.

Sometimes we see history begin to be made. A 1973 story features civil rights activist John Lewis as he patiently registers Southern blacks to vote in hopes of sending their own representatives to Congress. A story about the women’s movement and black America captures the seeds of black women’s criticisms of the feminist movement that would later come to prominence. A little-known MP by the name of Shirley Chisholm declares that “I am not a politician, I am a stateswoman”, shortly before she made her pioneering run for the presidency.

“My people” also collects extensive reporting on Hunter-Gault’s later career, including reporting on the TV show “Black-ish” and others that span Africa, chronicling corruption, LGBTQ life and terrorism. If there’s anything the modern reader will find a little alien, it’s the tendency of early stories to focus, but not exclusively, on the lives of middle-class African Americans. His career as a journalist took shape in a more optimistic era than ours, when the economic and social progress of the few seemed to presage that of the many.

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It is not for nothing that Hunter-Gault gives this collection the title “My People”. She began her writing with memoirs, as the early stories capture her harrowing experience at the University of Georgia and the texture of growing up in a rural black Southern community. “I never liked the term objective“, she says in a first public speech, “because we are all creatures of our environments and our origins. She chooses instead the terms “fair and balance” — words that were later used by Fox News for purposes that have little in common with its empathetic reporting. Speaking to fearful young black students who condemned white bias in the wake of Trump’s controversial 2016 presidential campaign, she reminds them to be precise with language and not to forget white people who have lost their way. life in the civil rights movement. A necessary response to hatred and ignorance, she argues, is to introduce more black history into the classrooms of American schools. “I want all of our people – even the enemies – to know why we needed this armor and how we can, while wearing it, remain open to each other.”

It’s a point of view and an approach to seeing through the eyes of others that, more than anything, captures her over half a century of journalism. It is also, she clearly hopes, a model for America’s future in our uncertain times.

Kenneth W. Mack, historian and professor of law at Harvard, is the author of “Representing Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer” and co-editor of “The New Black: What’s Changed – and What Hasn’t Changed – With Race in America.”

Five decades of writing about black lives

By Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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