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



Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s “My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives” is a response to the classic problem that the scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois identified more than a century ago. How does one see across the color line? When she started her career in the 1960s, there was no one like Hunter-Gault. She had been one of two Black students who endured the dangerous and violent experience of integrating the University of Georgia in order to get her journalism degree, and then she became nearly 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 newsrooms of America from those communities who could have written about the simmering rage” that sparked them. She made it her project to write about “Black people in ways they were rarely portrayed anywhere in the media — in their full humanity.” She wrote a 12-page memo that persuaded the New York Times to stop using the term “Negro” in favor of “black.” She also opened a Harlem bureau at the paper.

Among her more striking pieces of reporting is a long-form chronicle of Resurrection City, the tent city built by the thousands who came to Washington as part of the Poor People’s Campaign following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. While news reports of mud, squalor and crime proliferated, Hunter-Gault spent weeks chronicling the experiences of residents. They were young organizers known only by names such as Leon and JT, or Northern and Southern Blacks who brought differing cultures to the encampment, or Mexican American and Black protesters who had different but related agendas.

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“My People” gathers decades of reporting, generally about race and Black life, stretching from Hunter-Gault’s time as a reporter for the Times to her career at the PBS “NewsHour,” which she joined in 1978 in its early days when it was called “The MacNeil/Lehrer Report,” to her firsthand reporting on post-apartheid South Africa, to her engagement with present-day topics such as Donald Trump, George Floyd’s murder and the coronavirus pandemic.

Hunter-Gault’s career took shape in the aftermath of the civil rights movement, and her early reporting is a chronicle of the world that the movement made, and the lives of African Americans whom few Whites saw or understood. There are stories of debates over community diversion projects for criminal offenders and over whether Black police officers might make a difference, as well as an early critique of stop-and-frisk by civil rights lawyer Vernon Jordan. She goes to Brooklyn to chronicle a Black Panther Party Liberation School for the young. A chance trip to Martha’s Vineyard prompts her to remember the story of one Georgia man who regularly drove hundreds of miles to reach that Massachusetts island, past beach after beach that he could not use, to find one he could call home. Other pieces capture the sights and smells of Harlem, from the food trucks bringing up that “down-home soul food” to Lewis Michaux’s Black nationalist bookstore, which claimed 105,000 volumes.

Sometimes one sees history beginning to be made. A 1973 story profiles civil rights activist John Lewis as he patiently registers Southern Blacks to vote in the hopes of sending their own representatives to Congress. A story on the women’s movement and Black America captures the seeds of Black women’s critiques of the feminist movement that would later grow in prominence. A little-known congresswoman named Shirley Chisholm declares that “I am not a politician, I’m a stateswoman,” not long before she would make her pioneering run for the presidency.

“My People” also gathers extensive reporting from Hunter-Gault’s later career, including stories on the television program “Black-ish” and others that traverse Africa, chronicling corruption, LGBTQ life and terrorism. If there is something that the modern reader will find a bit alien, it is the tendency in the early stories to focus, albeit not exclusively, on the lives of middle-class African Americans. Her journalistic career took shape in a period more optimistic than our own, when the economic and social advances of the few seemed to presage those of the many.

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It isn’t for nothing that Hunter-Gault gives this compendium the title “My People.” She started her writings with memoir, as early stories capture her harrowing experience at the University of Georgia and the texture of growing up in a Black rural Southern community. “I have never liked the term objective,” she says in one early public speech, “for we are all creatures of our environments and backgrounds.” Rather she chooses the terms “fair and balanced” — words that were later used by Fox News for purposes that have little in common with her empathetic reporting. Speaking to fearful young Black students who condemned the prejudices of Whites in the aftermath of Trump’s divisive 2016 presidential campaign, she reminds them to be precise with language and not to forget the Whites who lost their lives in the civil rights movement. One necessary response to hatred and ignorance, she argues, is to get more Black history into American school classrooms. “I want all of our people — even the haters — to know why we have needed that armor and how we can, while wearing it, remain open to one another.”

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

Kenneth W. Mack, a historian and a professor of law at Harvard, is the author of “Representing the Race: The Creation of the Civil Rights Lawyer” and a co-editor of “The New Black: What Has Changed — and What Has Not — With Race in America.”

Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives

By Charlayne Hunter-Gault

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