Two months ago, NPR announced the cancellation of “Tell Me More,”
the daily news show hosted by veteran journalist Michel Martin. It is the third show developed for an African-American audience to be axed by NPR in the past decade. (“News & Notes” went off the air in 2009 and the Tavis Smiley Show departed in 2004.) On Friday, Tell Me More will broadcast its last show. Martin will stay on with NPR as a producer, along with Tell Me More’s executive producer, Carline Watson.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Martin has worked for the Washington Post, ABC News and the Wall Street Journal as its White House correspondent. She won an Emmy for her Nightline reporting. In hosting “Tell Me More,” she focused on religion, race and spirituality. In an interview with NPR’s media reporter, David Folkenflik, Martin blamed top NPR leadership for failure to institutionalize support for the program, admitting she had “scar tissue” from the cancellation. But in a recent essay for the National Journal, “What I’ve Left Unsaid,” Martin expressed gratitude for her NPR platform, which had given her “a place for women from all backgrounds to tell their own stories, and discuss what it really takes not just to survive but thrive.”
She also recognized that she still has something to say.
When the National Journal asked for a reflection piece on what “leaning in” to your career looks like as a woman of color, Martin culled from her own experiences. She considers the societal and economic pressures facing Black, Asian and Latina women. “This is really my letter to my colleagues who might be sitting right next to me, or down the hall from me, and don’t really think about the challenges that their peers face, and could,” she explains.
Here, an excerpt, from what Martin calls her own “Letter from a Birmingham Jail
“I am not a women’s-studies scholar, but my reading of history suggests there has always been a divide between white women activists who have seen a connection to the concerns and struggles of women of color, and others who don’t think about it or couldn’t care less, such as the organizers of the historic 1913 suffragist march on Washington who insisted that black women march separately at the back (which Ida B. Wells, a journalist and antilynching activist, refused to do, by the way).
“This is amazing to me because we cannot fully understand, let alone solve, the important issues around women, work, and family in America without acknowledging the important role that women of color have played in that history. From America’s earliest days, the story of women of color has been the story of working women: enslaved Africans who picked tobacco and cotton, indentured Japanese and Chinese women who cut sugarcane, Latina farmworkers who have gathered the food the nation eats, women of every race who have done domestic work. ”
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by Marilyn Williams Pringle
I never wanted my three children to be sent into in an environment where they would be exposed to racism or be treated differently because of the color of their skin.
During the 1970s, when my sister-in-law went to Valparaiso University, a predominately white school in Northwest Indiana, she endured countless racial incidents that made me fearful as my own daughters approached college age. Once, a carload of young white students chased her and her friends, shouting at them and calling them the N-word until they reached the safety of their dorm.
So while my children attended high school in Cleveland, I would tell them, repeatedly, “I don’t care what college you go to, but I’m sending my checks to an HBCU.” There, I felt they would be at least somewhat protected from the ugliness that often permeates higher education. I didn’t want them accused of being “affirmative action” admissions and I didn’t want them to be feel like they had something extra to prove. At an HBCU, they could learn in an environment where people would see their abilities first, their race second.
That was my experience at Wilberforce University in southern Ohio, studying as a first-generation college student. I can’t even remember who introduced me to Wilberforce as an option for college—a guidance counselor, perhaps? But I do know my reasons for saying yes to a historically black school.
I graduated from Shaw High School in East Cleveland and thought a predominately white university would contain too much culture shock, after growing up in a place where most people looked like me. I also knew I didn’t want to go to a mega-university, like Ohio State, and be lost in the crowd. Plus, I wanted to remain close to my mom, who was living alone as a widow two years after my dad died. I found out that I liked the Ohio cornfields and riding the bus into town.
At Wilberforce, I felt like I mattered.
If a student didn’t have their act together, the professors and staff would talk to that individual like their son or daughter. They would treat the student like family. And they would remind us, “Just because you’re at an HBCU, don’t think you’re getting an inferior education.” People had a lot of pride in Wilberforce. We didn’t have a football team, but homecoming was always a big event.
I hope Wilberforce can overcome their current enrollment challenges and remain open, because they have played an important role in educating African-Americans. As the oldest private HBCU, they teach students how to succeed, how to have the confidence and self-esteem that will help them compete with anyone. The HBCU experience is about more than academics. It’s about service. It’s about contributing. It’s about discovering who you are in an environment that truly wants you to succeed.
Two of my three children are graduates of HBCUs—Howard University in Washington, D.C., and Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla. (The third earned her bachelor and master’s degrees at a state university.) I’ve seen the difference the HBCU experience made in my daughters’ lives. When my husband and I first visited Bethune-Cookman with my youngest daughter, Olivia, I noticed the school motto etched into each doorway in the academic buildings: “Enter to learn, depart to serve.” I was sold. So was my daughter.
Marilyn Williams Pringle is a registered nurse in Cleveland. She attended Wilberforce in the early 1980s.
“Poetry Is An Island,” the new film directed by Dutch filmmaker Ida Does, presents poet and playwright Derek Walcott in his element: his home island of St. Lucia in the Caribbean. Place has proved central to the Nobel Laureate in his writings about the island, colonialism and beauty. He won a Lifetime Achievement Anisfield-Wolf Book Award in 2004.
“I wanted to feel and smell St. Lucia in the same palpable way that I experience Walcott’s poetry,” Does said in a recent interview. “When I was there, it felt like I could literally touch Derek’s work, the heart of it.” After an early screening, Walcott, 84, praised Does for doing a “beautiful and gentle job” with the film.
Now Northeast Ohioans can see for themselves. We are pleased to sponsor the Midwestern premiere of “Poetry Is An Island” at 2 p.m. Sunday, August 17. The program is hosted by our partner, Karamu House, 2355 E 89th St, Cleveland. Guests will be greeted by St. Lucian steelpan music from islander Eustace Bobb and actors Cornell Calhoun III and Kenny Parker will stage an excerpt of Walcott’s play “Dream on Monkey Mountain.” Cleveland Scene named the Karamu production, directed by Terrence Spivey, its Best Drama in 2007.
Following the movie, audience members will be able to ask questions of the director in a Skype interview from her home in the Netherlands. “From an educational perspective, the Skype interview will add substance and interaction that will enrich the experience,” said Interim Director Patricia G. Egan. “Karamu is celebrating 99 years of nurturing artists. This is just one example.”
Tickets are $12 and can be purchased at the door. For more information on the screening, please call Karamu House at 216-795-7070.
“Life Itself” first appeared in 2011 as a rich memoir by Roger Ebert. Now, thanks to “Hoop Dreams” director Steve James, it is a documentary of the highest caliber.
One of its revelations is the late-life marriage between Ebert and Chicago attorney Chaz Hammelsmith. Interracial love stories may not be in vogue in Hollywood, but this documentary lets viewers witness an exemplary match. So does a 3,000-word essay, “Roger loves Chaz,” that Ebert published on his 20th anniversary.
In the documentary, the legendary film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times comes across as a consummate Midwesterner – unpretentious, but also funny, gifted and complex.
Five months before his death in April 2013, Roger and Chaz gave James permission to film Ebert’s “third act.” It was a marvelous, harrowing decision in which the three collaborators do not shrink from the unlovely parts. James also makes shrewd use of the frenemy chemistry between Ebert and Gene Siskel, a rival movie critic at the Chicago Tribune. Improbably, the pair became partners on the wildly successful and culturally powerful PBS show, “At the Movies with Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.” Their sparring mimicked that of siblings and their yoked fortunes – burnished over the years — created a complicated brotherhood.
The bond between Chaz and Ebert came later – the two met after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting in Chicago in 1989. Here is how Ebert begins “Roger loves Chaz”:
How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude . . . She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
In the documentary, Chaz admits to some hesitation in marrying a white man, and remembers that she called out her new husband on his ginger observation that some of his relatives might be hesitant about his marrying a non-Catholic. “Because I’m not Catholic or because I’m black?” she asked. Ebert agreed both elements were at play.
For his part, Ebert said he felt scads of acceptance and love from Chaz’ children and grandchildren and her large West Chicago family. Some of the most moving footage in the documentary shows family vacation videos in which Ebert, an only child, looks like a man awash in an experience he had craved all his life.
As a film critic, Ebert paid attention to race. Director Ava DuVernay tells James that she was nervous when Ebert reviewed her movie “I Will Follow” about a niece grieving her aunt. Still, DuVernay remembered a chance girlhood encounter at the Oscars when she met a gracious Ebert. And, she said, “Everybody knows he was married to a sister.” That intimacy gave DuVernay hope that Ebert would understand a film about two black women better than most white men. He gave it three and a half stars.
In 2012, Ebert famously responded to a white heckler at Sundance after a screening of Justin Lin’s “Better Luck Tomorrow” about Asian American teenagers. Ebert told the heckler that he wouldn’t be putting such race-based questions to a white director.
“For me, the movies are like a machine that generates empathy,” Ebert says as the documentary begins, before his voice is lost to cancer. “It lets you understand hopes, aspirations, dreams and fears. It helps us to identify with the people who are sharing this journey with us.”
The magisterial Wole Soyinka turned 80 this week, and—once again—the world is listening.
In London, the Royal African Society hosted “Wole Soyinka at 80,” a retrospective on the life of the Nobel laureate and Anisfield-Wolf winner, exploring his influence in politics and letters. As a young man, the Nigerian playwright and poet attempted to broker peace during the 1967 Biafran War, becoming a political prisoner and spending 22 months in solitary confinement. He wrote “The Man Died” out of that experience.
For the retrospective, Soyinka joined editor and critic Margaret Busby to reflect on his upbringing and the relationship between politics and culture. He has spent more than 50 fierce years campaigning against Nigerian despotism, often with a price on his head. Soyinka’s critique of Western smugness and corruption has been just as withering.
For those engaged by the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by the extremist Boko Haram, Soyinka also places the splinter group’s recent killings and kidnappings in historical context (34:20 mark).
In 2005, O, The Oprah Magazine assigned Rosemary Mahoney to profile Sabriye Tenberken, a German social worker who founded Braille Without Borders in Tibet. Mahoney immersed herself in the task, agreeing to an excursion with two students from the Tibetan school who led her around Lhasa blindfolded. Mahoney said she realized “how little notice I paid to sounds, to smells, indeed to the entire world that lay beyond my ability to see.”
After finishing the assignment, Mahoney volunteered to teach English at an off-shoot of Braille Without Borders in Kerala, India, where she began to understand blindness as an identity, not necessarily a disease that needed a cure.
Mahoney’s latest book, For the Benefit of Those Who See: Dispatches from the World of the Blind, collects and builds upon those experiences. Arthur Evenchik, who coordinates the Emerging Scholars Program at Case Western Reserve University, crafted a meditative review in which he praises Mahoney for her introspective look at what divides the blind and the sighted. It is not as much as we might think. Here, an excerpt:
Over time, her students’ blindness becomes to Mahoney what it is to them — a fact of life. “I became used to the sound of white canes scraping and tapping down the walkway outside my bedroom door, to the clacking sound the folded canes made as the students shook them back to their upright positions at the end of a class,” she writes. Later, she adds, “I got used to the shocking gunshot sounds of screen doors slamming and to shouting, ‘Quit letting those screen doors slam! I thought you blind people didn’t like loud noises.’ I got used to the laughter and the hoots I received in response to that comment.” She would not have been capable of such irreverence before she met Tenberken; back then, she had worried about violating some arcane etiquette for dealing with the blind.
She admires her students’ skill in navigating the physical world, their fearlessness, their patience and self-possession. At the same time, she notices the quirks and mishaps that make their patience a necessary virtue. The students leave “horizontal finger streaks” on the windows as they feel their way along an outdoor corridor. They have “scarred shins and bruised knees.” When they cross the dining hall bearing full cups of tea, Mahoney darts out of their path. But anyone expecting “constant accidents” among the blind — as the writer perhaps once did — would be mistaken: “Nobody fell off a balcony, got electrocuted, caused the school to go up in flames. Nobody drowned while swimming in the lake. Nobody got lost on expeditions into the city. And nobody ever used blindness as an excuse for anything.”
A quiet crisis in literacy has hold of Cleveland, Ohio. A staggering 80 percent of incoming kindergartners are unprepared for school. Twenty-five percent of residents over 25 lack a high school diploma. A full 40 percent of third graders are not reading at grade level.
“When we’re out and we’re talking about these numbers, people’s jaws drop,” said Robert Paponetti, executive director of the Literacy Cooperative, a small Cleveland nonprofit working to improve literacy. “We really needed to have an answer when people asked, ‘What can I do to help?'”
The Cooperative’s top 10 list is a start. Released last month, it is an accessible call to action for Northeast Ohioans to commit to improving literacy in their own backyard, whether as a volunteer tutor (#2) or by joining the Little Free Library movement (#8).
“People throw the ‘call to action’ around frivolously,” Paponetti said. “It’s heavy on the call but light on the action. Here, we tried to be very explicit about how people could get involved.”
Former Plain Dealer newspaper columnist Margaret Bernstein, who helped develop the top 10 list, is actively promoting the list – online and on the pavement. Take, for instance, option #3: the 20 minutes a day reading challenge. Using the hashtag #CLELiteracy, Bernstein is encouraging parents to tweet photos or Instagram themselves reading to their children.
The goal, she said, is to make good reading habits popular, “replacing some of the nonsense [on social media] with something of substance.”
The social media campaign is heating up, with the hashtag reaching more than 20,000 people in the past week. Other organizations are also using the #CLELiteracy hashtag to share videos, photos and tips, all promoting literacy.
Bernstein said the momentum makes her optimistic that the community is attacking its literacy crisis. “That is my hope – that young parents see so many of their peers reading to their kids and they think, ‘Oh, yeah, that’s something I need to be doing.’ It’s positive peer pressure.”
One word captures what motivates immigrants to venture to a new country: Better.
Indeed, “better” is the catch-all for the immigrant families at the center of Cristina Henriquez’ second novel, The Book of Unknown Americans. Gathered from various corners of Central America — Panama, Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Paraguay – her characters all make their home in a small, dank apartment building in a sleepy Delaware town.
In an interview with Bustle.com, the Chicago-based Henriquez said that she wasn’t writing a political statement, but hoping to fictionalize the contemporary immigration debate. “The highest praise I’ve gotten so far is that somebody living in Delaware told me, after they read my book, they were driving down Kirkwood, which is where the families all live,” she recalls. “She was looking at the families waiting at the bus stop, and she saw them differently. That’s my job. That’s my goal.”
The novel opens with the arrival of the Riveras, a family fresh off a 30-plus hour trip in the back of a pickup truck with a driver who chain smoked cigarettes in lieu of conversation. They arrive in the middle of the night, with little to their name beyond a mattress they found on the side of the road, dishes, and garbage bags full of clothes and towels.
Arturo and Alma come to the U.S. for “better” for their daughter Maribel, a teenager who sustained a traumatic brain injury and needed more specialized schooling than they could secure in Mexico. The couple finds a reputable school in Delaware and depart.
One by one, they meet the other tenants, who show them where to buy food, clean their laundry, and take English classes. Maribel instantly finds a friend in Mayor Toro, whose parents quickly bond with the Riveras. A brief love affair between the teenagers sets the story in motion.
In a brisk 300 pages, Henriquez deftly depicts the immigrant experience, fraught with anxiety and hopefulness. It makes urgent both the heart-wrenching decision to leave a home and the unrelenting grit required to stay in a strange place. “I felt the way I often felt in this country—simultaneously conspicuous and invisible, like an oddity whom everyone noticed but chose to ignore,” Alma says. (To celebrate their anniversary, she and her husband go out for ice water at a local pizza place.)
While the Riveras and the Toros anchor the novel, Henriquez weaves in the neighbors, as the secondary characters share how they ended up in Delaware. One, Micho Alvarez, is brusque:
“I came from Mexico, but there’s a lot of people here who, when they hear that, they think I crawled out of hell. They hear ‘Mexico,’ and they think: bad, devil, I don’t know. They got some crazy ideas. Any of them ever been to Mexico? … You went to a resort? Congratulations. But you didn’t go to Mexico. And that’s the problem, you know? These people are listening to the media, and the media, let me tell you, has some f*****-up ideas about us. About all the brown-skinned people, but especially about the Mexicans.”
Henriquez, whose father emigrated from Panama in the 1970s, has built a story that’s less about immigration as a buzzword, and more about how families cling to each other amidst uncertainty—buying groceries when the labels are in another languages; attempting to file a police report without knowing the English word for “assault”; trying to call a child’s school and not being able to reach anyone who can hold a conversation. Henriquez’ characters navigate the obstacles and become more nimble, picking paths of least resistance as the novel strengthens its grip on the reader.
I read The Book of Unknown Americans in a blistering four hours over the July 4 weekend, gasping numerous times in the last few pages, prompting my husband to ask me if I was okay. I nodded but did not answer. Something resembling heartbreak told hold of me. Henriquez moved me to (patriotic) tears, reminding me no matter how varied our paths, we all want better.