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Conversations in Black
On Power, Politics, and Leadership
By Ed Gordon
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Hard-hitting, thought-provoking, and inspiring, Conversations in Black offers sage wisdom for navigating race in a radically divisive America, and, with help from his mighty team of black intelligentsia, veteran journalist Ed Gordon creates hope and a timeless new narrative on what the future of black leadership should look like and how we can get there.
In Conversations in Black, Gordon brings together some of the most prominent voices in black America today, including Stacey Abrams, Harry Belafonte, Charlamagne tha God, Michael Eric Dyson, Alicia Garza, Jemele Hill, Iyanla VanZant, Eric Holder, Killer Mike, Angela Rye, Al Sharpton, T.I., Maxine Waters, and so many more to answer questions about vital topics affecting our nation today, such as:
- Will the black vote control the 2020 election?
- Do black lives really matter?
- After the Obama presidency, are black people better off?
- Are stereotypical images of people of color changing in Hollywood?
- How is "Black Girl Magic" changing the face of black America?
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When I first started this project in 2012, seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin had just been senselessly killed by a neighborhood watchman nearly twice his age. Though Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and Sandra Bland were still alive, they, too, would soon become synonymous with injustice. Bill Cosby was stirring up controversy in the Black community for chastising African American parents and educators, but even so, he was still America’s beloved TV dad. Maya Angelou was alive and dispensing sage wisdom as only she could. Barack Obama was finishing up his first term in the White House. The only Black people Donald Trump was (publicly) antagonizing were the African American contestants on The Apprentice. We were still jammin’ to R. Kelly’s “Ignition (Remix)” despite whispers of involvement with underage girls. Maxine Waters was an outspoken congresswoman, but she hadn’t quite reached “Auntie” status yet.
Oh, how times have changed.
From local activism and social justice to national leadership and politics, conversations—good and bad—are bubbling up all across Black America, and with passionate pundits, vocal social media influencers, and empowered activists, no one is short on opinions. All in all, we—as a community—are expressing our sentiments more than ever before. As a career journalist, I have conducted award-winning and personally rewarding interviews with countless leaders and celebrities, iconic figures who are leading our culture, setting trends, raising visibility, and blazing new trails. Though many of these televised interviews have garnered significant attention, I’ve often been most intrigued by the conversations that transpired just after the camera’s red light was turned off. I’ve always wished that others might be privy to what is said behind closed doors. I started thinking about how powerful and transcendent it could be if a number of these voices were in the same room at the same time. So I decided to put together a series of virtual conversations between Black influencers, in the hope of moving our community forward.
With the glow of Barack Obama’s victory still shining over much of Black America, in some respects, the change was coming, just as Sam Cooke had promised. A man of color was in the White House with a first family that was the ideal American family. In the years between then and now, much has changed—and not all for the better. Through it all, our discussions, questions, and concerns have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous to the inspiring. We talked about the record number of candidates of color who entered political races on local, state, and federal levels; ABC’s new series Scandal, in which fictional Black superwoman Olivia Pope cleaned up colossal messes and saved the nation time and time again; the night Moonlight first didn’t win and then, seconds later, won the Oscar for Best Picture; Kanye’s ridiculous statement that slavery was a choice; and even how good Black Panther was!
We talked about all kinds of things. Yet, more frequently—and rightfully so—the discussions drifted toward areas where people of color saw little or no change. We expressed concern about backsliding (or, as I call it, “Black-sliding”) as many of the measures of civil rights progress and equality began to decline. We talked ad nauseam about the continued lack of higher education and job opportunities for Blacks, the growing wealth disparity between Blacks and Whites, the danger of simply being born Black that makes the mundane—from driving to shopping—dangerous, even deadly. Our conversations reveal that, in many cases, the playing field for most African Americans has not changed.
Today, amid a drastically changed political and social landscape, this book resurrects the best strategic moves, new narratives, and next steps the Black community needs to adopt to move the needle back toward progress. This book is intended to be a discussion starter, and I hope you will form your own groups to extend the conversation about the ideas and thoughts expressed here. Have these conversations in your home, dorm room, club meeting, barbershop, hair salon, church, workplace, and anywhere else you gather. Each chapter ends with questions to help you jump-start these discussions, and the goal is to prompt action. Conversations in Black should be used as a catalyst for furthering positive change in our communities, a tool to enable us to speak with a more collective voice and to find a way forward. With a united voice, we can develop new approaches to dismantle the systemic stumbling blocks to equality and, in some cases, outright racism that hinder our progress.
No monolithic thought can be—or should be—reached by all African Americans on any subject. Our beliefs on how best to achieve the goal of equality are shaped by, among other things, our experiences, backgrounds, education, and social status. However, we can and should work toward building consensus. More constructive debates within our community and individual introspection are equally necessary, especially by those of us who have attained some measure of success. We must ask ourselves if we’ve done enough for those who haven’t found more secure footing.
We owe it to one another to live as our brother’s keeper. It’s time we have a talk with folks who live with the misguided notion that somehow their superior nature alone brought them to the C-suite or a suburban house or delivered six- or seven-figure incomes.
I am grateful to those who took the time to be a part of this book, and I am excited to see where it may lead. Now, let’s get the conversation started!
WHAT’S GOING ON?
THE STATE OF BLACK AMERICA
STACEY ABRAMS: Politician & Author
HARRY BELAFONTE: Entertainer & Activist
TODD BOYD: Academic & Author
CHARLAMAGNE THA GOD: Radio Personality & Author
LAURA COATES: CNN Analyst & Radio Host
RICHELIEU DENNIS: Founder & Chair of Essence Ventures
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Academic & Author
ALICIA GARZA: Cofounder of Black Lives Matter
JEMELE HILL: Journalist & Broadcaster
ERICKA HUGGINS: Activist & Educator
D.L. HUGHLEY: Comedian & Author
DERRICK JOHNSON: President & CEO of the NAACP
KILLER MIKE: Rapper & Activist
DERAY MCKESSON: Author & Social Activist
MARC MORIAL: President & CEO of the National Urban League
BRITTANY PACKNETT: Vice President of Teach for America
AL SHARPTON: President of the National Action Network
SUSAN TAYLOR: Former Publisher of Essence & Founder of the National Cares Mentoring Movement
T.I.: Rapper & Activist
Often, you’ll find the music and rhythms of the iconic Marvin Gaye album What’s Going On playing throughout my house. It’s one of the greatest albums of all time. From the sounds of party banter and the sweet opening notes of Eli Fontaine’s wailing saxophone on that first track, I am transfixed; when Eddie Brown’s bongo backbeat drops in, it moves me. Every. Single. Time. Then, Marvin’s smooth voice declares:
There’s too many of you crying
Instantly, I’m transported back to 1971, and Marvin is talking about the state of the nation, pointing out the ills that have kept America from becoming the nation she claims to be. It’s the era of the Vietnam War, and the country is in a state of unease. Gaye’s own brother had returned from the war a different man. At the time, the nation was plagued by poverty, police brutality, and drug abuse. It’s not hard to switch back and forth from the past to the present day; many of the issues that Gaye sings about are still with us today.
The truth is, ever since Africans were first brought to America in chains, we’ve asked ourselves, “What’s going on?” We’re frequently marginalized or left out of the American narrative because the narrative that America so often weaves is not entirely ours. Take policing. White America’s story line about law enforcement is very different from that of people of color. America has portrayed policing over the years as a heroic, feel-good story line—for White America. But the reality is that the story about these supposed “heroes” in law enforcement looks a lot different for people of color. Rather than solely depending on mainstream media or Hollywood to tell us what’s going on, we must rely on each other. Barbershops and beauty shops, dinner tables, cookouts, town hall meetings, Black Twitter—these are just some of the places we go to learn what’s really going on. This is where we measure ourselves against White America. It is only among ourselves that we can learn about whether we’re getting our fair share and strategize about what we need to do on our quest for equality.
Since the 1950s, progress on the racial equality front in America has been remarkable and dissatisfying all at once, sometimes moving at warp speed and other times at a glacier-like pace. We’ve seen monumental achievements: the passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act, the landmark federal legislation that prohibits racial discrimination in voting; the launch of Black Entertainment Television in 1980 by businessman Bob Johnson; a peak of seven African Americans heading Fortune 500 companies in 2007 (today, there are three); the historic election of Barack Obama in 2008, arguably the biggest symbol of America’s advancement in the area of racial equality. However, victory was not, as some suggested, a signal of a post-racial America. The notion of a color-blind nation is a myth, at best, and likely a foolish and even dangerous impression to consider. If this country wants to be great, we must continue the ongoing quest for fairness and respect for all our citizens. A realistic look at certain indicators shows the striking disparity that African Americans and other minorities still face.
The tremendous wealth gap between Blacks and Whites, for example, has not diminished in decades. In 1962, the average wealth of White households was seven times greater than that of Black households. After decades of “declining discrimination,” that ratio remains essentially the same. Police brutality and law enforcement inequities continue to ravage people of color. Just being Black can still be seen as “criminal”—and can be as good as a death sentence. We cry out for America to say their names: Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sandra Bland, Michael Brown… and yet, tragically, there are many, many more.
The proof that race is still a polarizing force is seen in the growing number of hate crimes and the carelessly callous dog-whistling rhetoric of Donald Trump. In August 2017, this veil of collective ignorance was lifted when a viral video showed torch-carrying hate-mongers in Charlottesville, Virginia, spewing abhorrent rhetoric and creating chaos that would lead to the death of a counterprotester. Many ultraconservatives feigned surprise at this level of hate, and President Trump attempted to minimize the vitriol of August 12. Yet just three days later, Trump would say, “You also had very fine people on both sides.” However Americans spin the national narrative, race is still a polarizing force, and the state of Black America, at least in some quarters, is precarious.
Over the years, I have debated the direction of Black America with friends and foes. Are we making progress? Do we have a plan to bring equality to all? Are we able to work together as a community? As a journalist, I have moderated or have been a member of panels that have earnestly convened to map out ways to better allow people of color to fully participate in the promise of America. Unfortunately, too often these gatherings produce too few answers. The lingering unanswered question is, what is the state of Black America? That seemed to be a fitting place to start our conversation.
WHAT’S THE STATE OF BLACK AMERICA TODAY?
MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: It’s the best of times; it’s the worst of times. It’s the best of times because we’ve had an exponential increase in the Black middle class’s upward social mobility, in comparison to the Jim Crow, postsegregation culture in America. There’s been an extraordinary opening of educational opportunities to Black people. On the other hand, there are indications that [a large part of] Black America is suffering greatly. When you think about the deliberate attempts to control the housing of Black people, that reinforces persistent and troubling rates of Black poverty.
TODD BOYD: It’s hard to describe Black America as one thing. There are things going on with young Black people that may be different than for older Black people. There may be things going on with Black women that are exclusive to women. The Black community has never been one thing. It’s never been monolithic, even though a lot of people like to think of it that way. So it’s broad, and diverse, depending on what you’re talking about.
T.I.: I think we’ve been distracted. I think people are kind of submerging themselves in entertainment and other things that are going on around them. We aren’t necessarily speaking to the needs of the community. The things that need to be done to advance us, the things that deserve attention. The actions that need to be taken aren’t being addressed. The sacrifices that need to be made aren’t being made. I feel like Black America is distracted, and therefore we’re stagnant to a certain degree.
DERAY MCKESSON: In so many ways, we have changed the conversation about race and justice in this country in ways that are really powerful. People are talking about injustice, talking about disparity in ways we have never done in public. Unfortunately, the outcomes have not changed all that much. We’re in this interesting moment where the conversation has changed and people think because the conversation has changed the outcomes must have changed, and they haven’t. We’re in a pivotal moment to see if we can change both. Otherwise, we will reflect on this and say, “Wow, we changed the conversation, but the things we really cared about didn’t actually change that much.”
Police have actually killed more people since 2014, not less, but that is not what people believe. People think because you’ve seen a million videos, it’s better. The awareness is at an all-time high, but the outcomes are actually just sad. They are worse than they were when the protests began. This is actually true of education and incarceration; the conversation is really growing, but the outcome is not moving at that pace.
ALICIA GARZA: I would say it’s getting more and more complex and could certainly use an update in terms of Black America’s political orientation to make sure that all of the components of our communities are powerful. Black America is changing; unfortunately, our politics are not changing in tandem with our demographics. We’ve seen an increase in immigration from African countries over the last decade, but we still talk about Black communities as Black folks who are born in the US. We have seen an increased level of visibility of Black people who identify as lesbian or gay or bisexual or transgender.
TODD BOYD: When I was growing up, most Black people were descendants of slaves, and that was their experience. We’ve since had a lot of immigrants from Africa, from the Caribbean. Biracial people have grown in numbers and how they identify. The Black community now looks very different than how it was back in the ’70s. It’s necessary to think about what it means to be a Black person, now. You can’t just assume that what it meant thirty or forty or fifty years ago is the same as [what it means] today, because then we’re not accounting for all the change.
ERICKA HUGGINS: I agree. When we discuss Black America, we’re thinking in a monolithic way. We’re thinking that there’s one Black America, and there’s not. The state of people of color in the United States is in a similar place as it was in the ’60s, in a similar place as it was in the ’40s. It’s structural; it’s institutional. If these institutions and structures change, then the state of Black America would shift.
The diversity of the community adds another level of complication to the Black equation. Many of the subgroups that fall under the umbrella of “Black” don’t always share the same issues; at times, they even conflict. That makes forging a harmonious ideology more difficult. The growing LGBTQ community of color, for instance, is at times demonized by those who adhere to the traditional religious leanings of many African American families. Immigrant people of color are often still ostracized by Blacks born in America. Conversely, some immigrants identify themselves not as Black but by their place of origin; for example, Jamaican or African. This presents a growing complication and complexity in defining what it means to be “Black” in America.
However, no matter what the class or the country of origin of Black Americans, or the status of their entry into the country (as slaves or as free people), the inequities still apply to all of us. Now that we have greater access to education, some believe that things will shift if we’re able to also achieve financial success. But they haven’t. One of the largest differences we have seen since the civil rights advancements of the 1960s is the great economic bifurcation of Black America. While these advancements have enabled some Blacks to improve their financial status, there is still a large economic underclass that has never escaped poverty. Perhaps the biggest hurdle for our community—the greatest obstacle to reaching equality—is closing this wealth gap, a division that has caused classism to grow within our race.
ARE BLACKS GAINING GROUND ECONOMICALLY?
D. L. HUGHLEY: We [do] have Black women, who are the most educated segment of our society, the most entrepreneurial, the most forward-leaning, but that has to be coupled with the notion that in 2000, the median income for Black households was $41,000, and now it’s $39,000. It still tells a story of how we are looked at differently, because there’s no other way to explain how everybody else’s income rose except ours, even with the great strides that Black women are making. It’s a mixed bag, but at the bottom of it is the sh*t we’ve always dealt with.
JEMELE HILL: I think there are some things that we can certainly be proud [of], like our legacy of civil rights advancements. There are just other things that you look at and wonder, Will this ever change? Especially when you look at the fact that the income gap, for example, between Black Americans and everybody else, is continuing to widen. It’s almost as if we’re still in Jim Crow.
SUSAN TAYLOR: The Census Bureau calculates poverty as a [family income of $12,195 or lower] for a family of four with two related children. It’s insane.
KILLER MIKE: Since the late 1930s, land ownership has shrunk. If you look at cities that are predominantly Black, many of them, from an infrastructure perspective, are falling and are not where they could be. We’re in danger. Even though unemployment is lower, you gotta say to yourself, what kind of jobs are we getting if we can’t buy houses? The jobs we’re getting are not [paying] enough to create homeowners in America, which is the cornerstone of wealth. I fear for us now.
ED GORDON: Aside from the wealth gap, what other factors hold us back from achieving racial equality? What should we focus on next?
JEMELE HILL: Basic civil freedoms have been addressed, [like] the right to vote, [and] we’re not drinking out of separate water fountains anymore. There are signs of tremendous progress, but I also see areas where it seems nothing has changed. There are a lot of systemic issues that haven’t been addressed in this country. So all the advances are either through policy—forced policy that finally had to be reckoned with—or basically because people have overcome in such a phenomenal manner that the progress couldn’t help but tag along.
STACEY ABRAMS: We continue to suffer from judicial, electoral, and financial systems that were not only designed to disadvantage us but also isolated us from opportunity. We continue to have to work to fix what was broken, but we should not ignore the important progress that we have made.
MARC MORIAL: Our generation is tasked with trying to ensure that this post–civil rights progress that we sort of inherited, remains. There’s been too much three steps forward, two steps backward, four steps forward, two steps backward, since the 1950s and ’60s. We have to make sure not to turn into the second Reconstruction era.
AL SHARPTON: Throughout Black history, we’ve always had step-forward, push-back. From the abolitionist movement finally getting Lincoln to reluctantly bring the enslaved into the Union Army; [this] was the trade-off to get the Emancipation Proclamation. That was followed by Andrew Johnson, who took it all back, and then Plessy v. Ferguson. So that has been the pattern and the trend. I expected [that] what we’re seeing now would happen after eight years of Obama.
The state of Black America has changed since the political rise of Donald Trump. Black America’s status has become more tenuous, more dubious since June 16, 2015, when Trump officially announced he was a candidate for the presidency of the United States. Arguably, the single biggest tactic Trump used for his victory was divide and conquer. His greatest line of division is race. Trump’s wink and a nod at bigotry has given license to those who harbored intolerant racial feelings secretly to freely display them with little concern. Their attitude seems to be, “Why keep your views latent when they are shared by the president of the United States?” The dogmatism Trump spouts is allowing figurative and literal attacks on people of color.
There is a growing environment of hate and intolerance in this country. White privilege runs from the annoyance of “Becky” calling the police because a Black person she’s never seen is walking their dog on “her” block to White privilege run amok with the life-and-death mob mentality that rose in Charlottesville, Virginia. The election of Donald Trump and the ascending alt-right have emboldened much of the far right’s detest for minorities, yet, in a strange way, these developments have awakened Black America to what surrounds us.
IS IT FAIR TO SAY THAT PART OF THE STATE OF BLACK AMERICA IS UNDER ATTACK?
MARC MORIAL: Black America is under assault by Trumpism, which is the philosophy of White nationalism wrapped in twenty-first-century political clothing. It’s an assault on the gains of the last thirty years and an assault on the browning of America.
AL SHARPTON: I am disappointed that both White and Black America have not reacted. I saw more Blacks who called themselves activists raise questions in the streets under Obama than [under] Trump. It’s like they’re afraid to fight a guy [who’ll] fight back. When I say we’re in a precarious position, it’s not only what they’re doing to us, it’s our reaction I’m disappointed in.
Essence, "6 Books that Celebrate Being Black and Proud"Good Housekeeping, "20 Best Books About Antiracism"St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "15 Books to Read About Race"TIME, "Books about Race and Antiracism"
- "Ed Gordon is one the most important journalists in American history. In this powerful book, Gordon showcases his unparalleled ability to pull the freshest insights from the most unique and important voices in Black America. The conversations in this book offer the type of critical analysis, fresh insight, and unshakable hope necessary to move Black America into new levels of freedom and prosperity. Conversations in Black is urgent and pathbreaking text."—Marc Lamont Hill
- "[This book] gathers a dream team of Black leaders, influencers and celebs...Together they have a series of honest, compelling conversations about the State of Black America."—BET.com
- "Vibrant and empowering... refreshing, illuminating contributions sure to spark lively and constructive discussion and debate."—Kirkus
- "A comprehensive and unvarnished look at the state of Black America... [this book] will almost certainly serve as one of the most important works of his career."—Rolling Out
- On Sale
- Jan 14, 2020
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Legacy Lit