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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Looking out over the multiracial crowd of more than 600 assembled at the University of Akron’s E.J. Thomas Hall, journalist Michele Norris
paused in her remarks to make a quick observation.
“Within my lifetime, a theater with this composition would be unheard of, if not illegal,” she said, quickly adding, “And I’m not that old.”
The former host of NPR’s All Things Considered was brought to campus to discuss the growing acclaim of her latest venture, The Race Card Project
. Norris, 52, revealed that the project—six-word submissions on race and identity—grew out of increasingly difficult conversations she had with her family on race and being black in America.
Born and raised in Minnesota, Norris was unaware of the collective “code of silence” her older relatives took about their upbringing in the segregated South. It wasn’t until then-Senator Barack Obama’s election prospects began to find firm footing that Norris’ family began to suffer from what she dubbed “historical indigestion.” Long-kept family secrets were now bubbling to the surface.
An uncle revealed that her father had been shot by a white policeman in the 1940s, a secret he never shared with his wife and children. Later, she was able to piece together the full story: as a young man in Alabama, he was on his way to a Constitution study meeting. New laws dictated that black voters needed to know the document intimately to pass the state’s new literacy tests. Norris’ father, Belvin, got into a scuffle with the policeman who did not want him to enter the building where the meeting was held. The gun went off and struck Belvin in the thigh.
Norris reflected on her discovery and her gratitude that her father sought to protect her from harsh realities of the world: “I was raised by someone who had every right to be mad at the world, and he chose not to. I benefited from that.”
Her probe into her family history culminated in her 2010 work, The Grace of Silence
. On a whim, she headed to Kinko’s to print 200 postcards to hand out at speaking engagements, asking recipients to share their thoughts on race. “I wanted a window into the conversation you know is out here,” she said. “I wanted to learn about the history with a small ‘h’ — the kind available to you at the dinner table.”
Of that first batch of postcards, Norris received more than 60 responses. From there the project grew, with technology leading the way. Today people can send in their “race card” submissions through the website and Twitter account. To date, more than 38,000 six-word submissions have been archived with the help of college researchers. Thousands more remain to be cataloged.
Perhaps answering the question the audience most wanted to ask, Norris ended her remarks with her own “six words”: Still more work to be done.
African-American tech insiders will talk about their work stories in a new series on National Public Radio’s Tell Me More.
From Dec. 2 until Dec. 20, Twitter users can follow the #NPRBlacksInTech hashtag to follow a day-in-the-life of these “tech thinkers.” Michel Martin, host of Tell Me More, expects this feature will broaden the conversation about who staffs the tech revolution.
“‘A Day in the Life’ allows us to experience in real time the imprint that African-Americans are making on our country’s STEM engine,” Martin said. “The series throws open the door to the worlds of these highly important, but largely invisible, individuals.”
Anjuan Simmons, who this year published the book “Minority Tech,” said he jumped at the chance to give others a glimpse of his work as a software project manager. (He will be live-tweeting his day December 6.)
“We are at a potential inflection point in getting people of color into technology,” Simmons said. “After being left out of past revolutions, the technology revolution needs to be the most inclusive jump in human potential and productivity that we’ve seen in this country.”
“I defy gravity/I am stronger than any force/I am Brooklyn”
This isn’t a verse from one of Jay Z’s latest records, but rather the first lines from a high school student’s entry in the Science B.A.T.T.L.E.S. competition.
Students from nine New York City schools competed in June, part of a network of student rap contests that marry verbal dexterity with concepts from plate tectonics to Pluto. These aren’t lectures but true competitions—students in Oakland, California, rapped about whether Rosalind Franklin was ripped off by James Watson and Francis Crick in their discovery of the architecture of DNA.
Stage names were welcome—one student performed as “Double R Bars.” Teachers encouraged adolescents to be energetic and creative as they rhymed lyrics on stage in front of family and peers.
Christopher Emdin, associate professor at Columbia University and author of Urban Science Education for the Hip-Hop Generation, came up with the idea. His goal is simple: introduce scientific ideas in a way that’s fun and relevant.
“Not every student is going to be a straight-A student, and go on to college and declare a science major and be the next Einstein,” he says. “But through this project we definitely are going to have more scientifically literate young people.”
NPR captured behind-the-scenes footage in this seven-minute documentary of the rap battle. Watch it now:
When we first toured my daughter’s private school, I saw a little African-American girl toddling around. She was adorable with her short, curly Afro and cute pink bracelets that matched her pink sandals. I looked around for the girl’s mother and got a little nervous when I didn’t see any black women nearby.
But then a slim white woman with short blonde hair swooped her up. She had been standing next to the little girl the whole time. Why did I assume that a black child would have a black parent?
My assumption wasn’t too far from reality. Most recent data on private adoptions shows that most adoptive parents are white, and they tend to adopt white children.
Last month, NPR’s “Race Card Project” reported on an uncomfortable aspect of adoption: in many cases, black children cost less to adopt than biracial or white children. In one instance that the radio project examined, the fees to adopt an African-American baby were $12,000 less than those for a white child. Some representatives at the agencies say the cost differential is an incentive to coax potential parents to consider adopting children of a different race, as a simple marketplace response to supply and demand. There are more African-American children waiting on adoption lists.
I’m supportive of attempts to see more children adopted. All children should get a fair shot at finding a “forever family.” However, I’m not thrilled with African-American babies being on the clearance rack, so to speak. There are enough messages out there that black children are “less than.” Do we also need them to come to their families at a discount?
A mother to an African-American child asked on the NPR blog: “My son was cheaper than if he’d been white. How will he feel, if he ever finds out about that?”