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|Prepared Remarks of
Leonard Pitts, Columnist, Miami Herald
for the Ruhl Symposium on Ethics in Journalism
University of Oregon
School of Journalism
May 10, 2007
“A Legacy of Drums”
by Leonard Pitts
presented as the thirty-first Ruhl Lecture at the
School of Journalism and Communication, University of Oregon
May 10, 2007
Let me begin by telling you a little bit about myself.
I was five years when I told the people around me that I wanted to be a writer. Which naturally assured that there were soon a lot fewer people around me. They all went to hang around with normal kids.
Me, I was the kind of kid who preferred reading the newspaper to playing tetherball. The kind who begged Santa Claus to bring him a typewriter when everybody else was dying for GI Joe with the King Fu grip. I remember in second grade how the teacher used to call me up to the front of the class to read stories I had written. She would praise me to high heaven -- such initiative, such creativity -- and then utter those fatal words:
"Why can't the rest of you be more like Leonard."
I know this will elicit gasps of shock as you gaze upon the godlike hunk of manhood who stands before you, but as a kid, I wasn’t exactly the coolest cube in the ice tray. You know the pimply kid with the pocket protector, the acne and the thick glasses? Well, he used to beat me up and take my lunch money.
Didn’t have much of a social life. One, because I wasn’t particularly social and two, because I could dance. And when I say, “couldn’t dance,” I mean, “moved like he had cinder blocks for shoes.” This is a fatal social handicap for anyone raised, as I was, in the golden age of the boogie. All around me, kids were doing the jerk, the swim, the fish, the fly, the L.A. Stomp, the watusi, the hustle, the Roger Rabbit. Me, I danced like Frankenstein’s monster after hip-replacement surgery.
You know that stereotype about black folks having “natural” rhythm? Man, I wish that was true. I’m telling you, my dancing was so pitiful that middle-aged white guys in checkered golf pants used to get out of wood-paneled Volvo station wagons just to laugh at me.
When I was 12, I discovered The Writer, which is a magazine that lists other magazines that are looking for freelance writers. It seemed gloriously easy to me -- you sent these people stories and they sent you money. I liked this, so I chose one of the magazines that offered the most money and wrote on a subject I knew very well. Which was ants.
Carpenter ants, fire ants, soldier ants. I loved ants, so I put everything I knew on the subject into four very well-written pages and sent them off to this high paying magazine.
Then I camped out by the mailbox and waited for a reply. It came a few weeks later. I ripped the envelope open eagerly, unfolded the letter and...well, this is probably going to leave you shocked and surprised, but it turns out that Playboy magazine has absolutely no interest in articles about ants.
People always thought I was just a strange and nerdy kid. But one day at school, they gave me this test and discovered the awful truth. I was not a strange and nerdy kid. I was a strange and nerdy gifted kid. This discovery did not immediately change my life, but it did wonders for my mother’s.
Suddenly, the woman’s chest went before her like the hood ornament on a Cadillac, like the prow of a battleship. Which is to say, majestically, nobly, even a touch arrogantly. No woman ever took more pride in any little boy.
Me, I didn’t notice anything different until a little later, when the school system started skipping me. Fact is, they skipped me like a checker. Skipped me like a pebble on a pond. Skipped me so often that on the day I started college, I was all of 15 years old. Three years later, I became that professional writer I had dreamt of being when I was hired as a music critic for a black entertainment tabloid called SOUL. I figured I’d work as a music critic for about two years while I was writing the great American novel and then I’d spend the rest of my life cashing million dollar royalty checks. Fifteen years later, I joined The Miami Herald as its music critic. Three years later, I began a column of social commentary that I’m still writing today.
And if you’re wondering why I’ve just spent these last minutes giving you my life story, the answer is simple: it is to illustrate something that should be obvious. You cannot know my story unless I tell it to you. You cannot look at me and from looking alone, know who I am.
As I said, it’s an obvious truth, but it’s one that tends to get lost when we turn our attention to race.
I tell you this from personal experience. I have literally lost count of how many times people have spoken to me and I could tell they weren’t speaking to me at all. They were speaking to someone they thought was me, they were speaking based on what they thought they know about me. They look at me and they “know” that I worship the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. They look at me and they “know” that I am not quite as morally upright as they. They look at me and they “know” that I am the product of an affirmative action program. They look at me and they “know” my story before I’ve ever said a word.
Not a day goes by when they don’t tell me how much they “know” about who I am. You cannot understand unless you’ve experienced it just how frustrating that is. One of the things that makes it at least a little more bearable is that I am the business of telling stories and stories have a way of challenging expectation, challenging what people think they know. As a newspaper columnist, I have the ability to say, for myself and for other people, No. This is my story. This is who I am.
Years ago, I interviewed a drummer named Kofi Leo. He was born in Jamaica but spent years touring West Africa and learning his craft. I caught up with him one rainy night in Liberty City in Miami when he was playing for this troupe of dancers. It was, in many ways a spiritual experience. The dancers were dancing, their faces shining with honest sweat, and his hands were alive, now blurring against the taut skin of the instrument, then caressing it softly like a lover, coaxing rhythm from his family of drums – the resonant junjun, the deep and mighty djembe, the sharp and demanding congo.
It’s hard to explain what I felt as I listened to him that night, the rain falling, the dancers dancing. It was like standing naked before the very first dawn on a day when the only drum in existence was the heart keeping time in your chest. It was like wading in the water of a river that human eyes had seen. Like catching whispers form a time when Earth was new and Africa was still home to us all.
Suddenly I understood, better than I ever had before, why it was that when West Africans came to these shores as slaves, one of the first things owners did was take away the drum. The drum was the thing that connected us to one another. It was the way we spoke to one another. The way we thwarted and exhorted and wept and prayed and praised and raised ourselves from the pit of our own despair. The drum was the way we told the stories that reminded us of who we were.
Not that black people are the only ones with a legacy of drums. All the children of the African continent, when they left, took drums with them. Kofi Leo told me quote, “The Irish people have their drums, the Scottish people have their drums, the Indians of America, the aborigines of Australia, the rastas in Jamaica, the Hindustani people from India…”
We all have our stories.
We all have our drums.
In the United States of America in 2007, the sound of those drums is brought to us via the media. That’s where our stories are told. And journalists are privileged to be the gatekeepers, the women and men who determine whose drums are heard and how. So whose stories shall we tell?
For most of the years of media’s existence, the answer has always been the same. We told the stories of white males from the middle class. Other stories would be as invisible as if they didn’t even exist, or would matter only to the degree that they impacted upon the lives of those white men. But the change Sam Cooke once prophesied has, in some small measure at least, come, as evidenced by the very existence of people like me, people who have come into places from which they were historically barred and now find themselves expected, obligated, encouraged, to tell stories that have, historically, never been told before, the stories of black people and brown people, of Asian people and Native people. We are asked to bring the drums.
It is not as simple as it sounds. The things that make us different are the things we find most difficult to talk about.
Race is the great conundrum of American existence. We are fascinated by race. And at the same time, we are repelled. We cannot talk about race enough. And at the same time, we beg to never talk about it again. A white lady told me once that talking about race is not polite. Another once snapped at me that since I write about race so much, I must be a racist.
By which logic, I guess I should start writing about billionaires.
You understand what’s happening here, don’t you? Race is one of the most important stories of our lives. It was as the root of the greatest war in American history and the most storied social movement in American history. It is an important component of virtually every issue that concerns us today: crime, education, poverty, health care, the environment. But we have yet to evolve the language that allows us to discuss it.
I’m not talking about the kind of discussion you have when Don Imus shoots his mouth off or Michael Richards loses his mind.
I’m talking about the discussions that should take place, should be ongoing, between those flashpoints, discussions about who we are, where we’ve been, here we are and where want to go. There are a number of reasons we don’t have those discussions, but they all boil down to this: it hurts. If you’re white, it hurts to feel that you will be indicted, even by association, with the crimes of the past and to fear that no matter what you say or how you say it, someone black is going to brand you a racist. If you’re black, it hurts to look at what forebears went through, at what this generation still goes through, and to see people largely indifferent, largely ambivalent and some of them, too many of them, flat out hateful to a degree that sickens your soul.
I wrote a column last year about a 9-year-old girl in the inner city of Miami who was shot in the neck and killed in the crossfire between two thugs. This violence, I said, this sacrifice of children, was symptomatic of an American problem. People answered me, No it’s not our problem. It’s your problem. It’s a black problem. So I guess it’s only an American problem when white schools and colleges get shot to pieces.
I wrote a column last year about a 14 year old black boy who was beaten, choked and ultimately suffocated by nine guards at a boot camp in Florida. I said this was a terrible thing. A guy wrote me and said the guards “did us all a favor.”
The man and virtually everyone else who wrote me signed their names. You wonder how people can be so hateful and so unashamed. You wonder what is happening to us.
These are questions we should ask. These are stories we should tell. These are drums we should be beating.
And if you wonder why the need is urgent, let me tell you a story about the bad old days.
In August of 1965, a white police officer pulled over a black motorist in the Watts area of Los Angeles. It was hot in Watts that August. Hot because the temperature had spiked. But hot, too, because of police who administered back room justice and bosses who wouldn't pay a living wage and houses infested with roaches and with rats. Hot, in other words, because of the festering anger of the downtrodden and disenfranchised.
Watts had lain for years like a stick of dynamite waiting only for the match. That night in August, the dynamite exploded. Automobiles overturned. Store windows shattered. Fire scorching the night. Helicopters circling. Alarm bells ringing unheeded. And suddenly it became a distinctly dangerous thing to be white in Watts.
The Los Angeles Times was in a quandary. Because it did not cover the black community, the newspaper had had no notion conditions were so critical there. Now the newspaper needed the news, but it was too dangerous to send white reporters into Watts. Unfortunately, white reporters were pretty much all the paper had.
Then somebody seized upon Robert Richardson, who was black and worked as a messenger for the classified advertising department. This 24-year-old man received an instant and informal promotion to reporter. He drove into the riot area, found a phone booth, and began calling in graphic eyewitness reports on the carnage in Watts. To protect himself from the rioters, who might not have been too friendly to a reporter in their midst, he periodically leaned out of the phone booth and joined them in yelling their slogan: "Burn, baby, burn!" Later, Richardson also wrote several pieces on the riot.
The Times won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of the Watts Riot, due in no small part to the work of Robert Richardson. Today, that experience is regarded by many as a seminal event in moving newspapers - albeit slowly and imperfectly - toward a more diverse work force. Editors came to understand a lesson that seems, in hindsight, elemental. Namely, that employing different kinds of people gives a newspaper the ability to go different kinds of places.
And if you think to yourself, well, that’s a worthy goal, who can argue with that?...let me tell you another story. It's shorter, not at all legendary and has a much less happy ending.
I've got this friend; he's a white guy who works for a major corporation. For years now, he's had his eye on this position he wants. And for years, he's watched it go to other people.
Now to be fair, my friend has never been particularly popular with his boss. Still, he thinks – and I tend to agree – that’s only part of the reason he's never gotten a shot. The other part has to do with his boss's desire to foster a more diverse working environment. And they are determined to use that particular job slot to fulfill that goal. So in the years my friend has been waiting, the job he covets has gone to a handful of women and Hispanics, but he's never gotten a shot. I tend to think he never will.
I'm never quite sure how I'm supposed to feel about that.
I understand that, contrary to the complaints some people raise, white men have not been materially diminished by diversity. Just the opposite in fact: a disproportionate amount of power and influence still resides in that group.
My problem is, this isn't "white men" we're talking about. Not some abstract group. Instead, it's a friend of mine. Yet at the same time, I understand and support the goal his employers are struggling to achieve. A workplace that didn't exist when Robert Richardson was 24. A workplace that draws strength from the fact that it is peopled by many different kinds of Americans, who bring many different kinds of life experiences and personal philosophies to bear on the work at hand.
The point of the stories is this: diversity is like broccoli. Not to defame broccoli, but it has this reputation as icky stuff that you eat not by choice, but only because it's good for you.
Nowadays diversity seems to have much the same reputation. It has become a faintly distasteful catch phrase, a thing to which we are to aspire if we wish to consider ourselves enlightened, but not necessarily something that you embrace by choice. At least, that's the way some molders of public thought seem to feel. Indeed, it is an article of faith among some social and political conservatives that diversity is division, that it is the source of ills large and small in the body politic.
George F. Will, for instance, has spoken of it as a doctrine that "a common culture is ``oppressive'' and that Americans should be disaggregated into groups, each cultivating its own culture, resisting assimilation in the name of ``diversity.''
And the always amusing Cal Thomas seems to have very similar concerns. He once wrote, "America's strength is not in its diversity. Its strength is in its unity, its oneness."
Some of us are wondering - and doubting - whether this social broccoli is really all it's cracked up to be. Is it really good for us, or are we swallowing this stuff for nothing?
My response: It's good. Not simply because it's moral and right but also because it is practical and sound.
Let's talk about morality and rightness first.
Slaves in the American South were once told that if they lived Christian lives, if they were virtuous and humble, patient and God-fearing, they would get their reward in the afterlife. They would become white.
Years later, a similar reward was held out to the immigrants who rushed to these shores through Ellis Island. In his book, The World Our Fathers Made, Irving Howe writes of how Jewish newcomers from Eastern Europe were encouraged to shave their beards and remove the "dirty" yarmulke in order to blend in. Some converted to Christianity. But they weren't the only ones. Nearly every immigrant group soon came to understand that acceptance in the American mainstream required the surrender of cultural prerogatives and national distinctions. Schmidts from Germany became Smiths from Chicago as a way of proving how "American" they were.
And invariably, "American" translated as white. But not simply as white but rather, as white, Anglo-Saxon.
We don't draw a distinction today, but it's important to remember that once upon a time, back in the days when they had signs that said, "No Dogs Or Irish Allowed," Irish people - to use just one example - were not regarded as white. Indeed, there's a book - "How the Irish Became White" - that details all the contortions and convolutions immigrants from the Emerald Isle had to undergo before that award was bestowed.
We called this the melting pot and it was said to be the ideal - everyone blending into one blob of white, English heterogeneity, giving up all that they had been in the process.
What happened to the Irish happened also to the Italians and the Poles, the European Jews and the Germans. Happened to everybody, in fact, except the blacks who found that, no matter how hard they tried - and they tried mightily - they could not disappear into the melting pot.
Their history and their very physicality - meaning the darkness of their skin and the tight curls of their hair - have always made that an impossible task.
Still, how fascinating is it, what sort of historical con job does it represent, that all of us - African, Irish, German, Jew - bought without question into the notion that the closer we get to the White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant standard, the closer we get to being "real" Americans. It's a notion some of us buy into still, even today.
The ironic thing about all this blending, is that the American standard was never about that, never should have required that sacrifice from its adherents. The United States of America is distinct among nations in that it was founded, not upon shared ancestry, shared history or shared mores, but rather, upon a shared ideal.
"We hold these truths be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights. That among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
That’s it. In its purest form, embracing that creed is what being an American means.
I've heard it said that a person who looks like me - or indeed, like most of us in this room - can be born in Japan, can come of age steeped in Japanese history and culture, yet never be fully accepted as Japanese. America, then, is an experiment among nations. Because one becomes an American - in spirit and in truth -- not because one is born of a certain ancestry or embraces a certain set of mores, but because one is born here or comes here and embraces a certain set of beliefs.
I am persuaded that we are truer to our core beliefs when we understand that America is a song sung in many different languages, a hope spoken with many different accents. And that the peoples who have come here to sing that song and speak that hope have enriched us, each in their own way. Our movie industry is largely a Jewish invention, our railroad tracks were laid by Chinese immigrants, our music is a song first heard in Africa.
We are many peoples come from many houses traveling by many roads to reach this one place. And I think it would be a good thing if, having come to this place, no new immigrant feels it necessary to deny his heritage upon the hope of being accepted as American. I think it would be a good thing if he were instead pressured to add his heritage to our understanding of American. I’d hope we would allow Malik to remain Malik because we were mature enough to understand that Malik, like Bob, or George, or Steve, is an American name.
As I said, that is only moral and right. But let’s talk also for a moment about that which is practical and sound.
This won’t come as a news bulletin to anyone here, but the country is changing. Has changed. Just look at California, often considered the bellwether state, the one that predicts the future of the rest of the nation. A few years ago, the Social Security Administration reported that the most popular name for babies born there and in Texas is no longer John or James, Michael or David. Rather, the most popular name is Jose. More recently, the Census Bureau reported that the Golden State has become the first in which there is no such thing as a racial majority. No racial group holds more than 50 percent of the population, no one wields ultimate veto power. And suddenly, different kinds of Americans find themselves struggling to learn to work together in new ways, perhaps even to build coalitions and power bases less from shared ethnicity than from shared values and goals.
California is a demographic bomb that resonates nationwide. The country has become more diverse than ever it was before, has become home to larger numbers and more different kinds of people than it has ever seen. An increasing number of us define ourselves as bi- or even multi-racial.
Yet while the future is rushing toward us, we are still trying to make our peace with the past. As the conversation about race becomes more complicated and more multifaceted, we are still grappling with the same two facets that have stymied us since before we were a country: black and white. What shall we do about black and white? How shall we handle the baggage that exists between black and white? What shall we do to fix what is broken between black and white?
The questions require more complicated answers than I have time to give, but I can tell you in broad strokes: we need to understand that just because you don’t talk about it doesn’t mean it goes away. We need to understand that change will not come about naturally but because of efforts that are purposeful and intentional. We need to understand that African Americans cannot afford to define themselves solely as victims but need to be energetic and proactive in the business of their own salvation. We need to understand that if white Americans are unwilling to face honestly and squarely the covert and overt hatred that still exists in this country, they can have no credibility on the subject of race. We need to understand that if we don’t fix it, it won’t get fixed. It will only get handed down.
And here, I suppose I’m obligated to say a word or two about affirmative action. So here are the two words: Necessary evil. Let me explain to you what I mean by each of those words.
Necessary. Because without affirmative action, what tools shall we use to ensure that doors which have been closed to African-American are forced open? The courts are slow and the price of access is such as to put that remedy beyond the means of the vast majority of people who will ever suffer employment or educational discrimination.
Worse, those who would do away with affirmative action seem to operate under a misguided assumption. Namely, that the proverbial playing field has been leveled and that because it has, African-Americans ought to trust in the enlightened goodwill of white employers or educators when they promise to discriminate no more. The problem with that assumption is two-fold. First, it ignores the reams of government statistics that strongly suggest the playing field remains tilted like a drunken sailor. Second, it ignores the fact that trust must be earned, and there is little in the sorry history of race in this country which provides any basis for trust. So from where I sit, affirmative action remains necessary.
And evil. Or at the very least, deeply corrosive.
And when I say that, I’m not talking about the white kid who doesn’t get into the college of his choice. I’m talking about the black kid who does.
Because my fear is that this tells him he was not good enough to get there by any other means. Not good enough to compete in this game and win. Not good enough – missing some fundamental thing in his soul or psyche by dint of what color his skin happens to be. It is a message African-American people have heard covertly and overtly every day of their sojourn on these shores. Heard it from the master and the overseer. Heard it from the sharecrop landlord and the overseer. Heard it from the military recruiter and the voting registrar. Heard it at the workplace and the school, on radio, on television, on the Internet. Always, we hear this soul-damaging thing. So to think that a young woman or man might be hearing it now in an official government policy – even if only as an inference – well, that’s enough to give me pause. Enough to make me wish that someday the conditions that make the evil necessary will finally be over and done.
By that, I do not mean that we will have become a “color-blind society.” Contrary to what some well-meaning people seem to think, the goal is not, cannot be, that we become “color blind.” Because if it is, we are only kidding ourselves. If it is, we are doomed to failure.
I mean, if some day you look at me and do not register a 6’1” black man, I would suggest that what you need is a good optometrist. But if you look at me and see a black man – and see also a father and a husband and a writer and a chocoholic and a Lakers fan and understand that all those things are integral parts of who I am but no one of them defines me, then I might believe that we were finally coming close to the goal of enlightenment.
Those of us who are journalists, when we do our jobs with courage and imagination, when we find the untold stories and tell them, have the ability to help bring people to that goal. We have the power to find the common humanity in the faceless other, to move people beyond stereotype and into thought.
Let me give you an example of what I regard as one of the most courageous and imaginative efforts to use the power of media to talk about race. It’s a Web site called Yforum -- www.yforum.com that was started by a guy I know, Phil Milano of the Florida Times-Union. Phil, who is white, designed the site so that people of different races, religions, age groups, sexual orientations could ask questions of one another. His idea was to create a place where people could learn about one another, ask intimate and maybe even offensive questions in a non-threatening environment. And other people, just everyday folks, would answer.
A very simple idea. Yet there was a hunger for it.
Phil was inundated with questions and answers, so many hundreds of thousands that he can’t even keep up with it. He has spun off Yforum books and even a column for the Times-Union. The YForum has been featured in, among others, The Cleveland Plain Dealer, CBS This Morning, the Detroit News, the Denver Post, the Boston Globe, the Atlantic Monthly, Associated Press, AsianWeek magazine, the West Australian, the Colorado Springs Gazette, the Philadelphia Inquirer, LeMonde, Paris, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, the DesMoines Register, the Richmond Times-Dispatch, the Akron Beacon Journal, the Orange County Register, the San Antonio Express News, the Houston Chronicle and the Miami Herald where, I am exceedingly proud to say, my column was the first in the country to spotlight Phil’s forum.
What kinds of questions do you find on the site? Questions like these:
Is it true that black people have an extra muscle in their calves?
Why does it seem that most male hairdressers, florists, entertainers,
decorators and clothing designers are gay?
Is there a way to tell the difference in Asian nationalities? Is it true that the direction the eyes slant is an indicator?
Why do Jewish people eat Matzoh?
Why is it that Caucasians seem to spend so much time on lawn care?
My absolute favorite, though, was a man who, in the first week of the
Web site’s existence asked, “What would take place during a typical week
night in a black family?
Hearing that, part of me wants to make bad jokes about roasting white babies on a bonfire of Clay Aiken CDs while eating chicken and drinking 40s.
And part of me just wants to cry because the question, like so many others to be found on the site, is heartbreaking in the very mundaneness of it. It tells me that we are still mysteries to one another. So much so that even the most minor details are cause for wonder.
I had a white colleague spend the night in my house one time. He was so excited by it, must have mentioned two or three times that this would be his very first time staying overnight in a black person’s home. And I’m saying to myself...does he figure he’ll be sleeping on a red, black and green pillow case? Does he think the cornflakes are going to taste any different in the morning? I mean, what is it he’s looking for or expecting?
But by the same token, I understood what it was he was trying to say. These are lines we do not cross. And as a result, we live by myth and supposition. As a result, we live in ignorance.
Worse, that we don’t know one another well enough -- trust one another fully enough -- to have the sort of dialogue that might end the ignorance. And worse than that, the overwhelming success of YForum tells us that people want to have that discussion, want to end their own ignorance, want to hear the stories...want to know.
I’m reminded of the white guy I knew in college back in the ‘70s who
was dying to touch my hair because he wanted to know what an Afro felt
like. I’m also reminded of how, in 1905, a white man named Alvin Borgquest wrote to the great black scholar W.E.B. DuBois, explaining that he, Borgquest, was doing research on the subject of crying as a release of emotion. Specifically, Mr. Borgquest wanted to know, “whether the Negro sheds tears.”
And the thing that saddens me is that it’s not so hard to imagine that question showing up on Yforum. Not difficult at all to believe some guy might write in to ask what a black person’s hair feels like.
What’s that tell you about the job we haven’t done? What’s it say to you about the stories we haven’t told?
In the face of our failure, ignorance flourishes. And gaps widen.
It’s telling that, objectively speaking, I might have more in common with the white guy who lives next door to me in the suburbs than I might with a black man who lives in the heat and hardness of the city. But that doesn’t matter – not to them, not to me, not to the police officer who might be tailing one or the other of us some dark night. Race becomes the difference that obscures all others.
So people tend to say black, Native American or Hispanic when they mean other things. When they mean poor, or ill-educated, or criminal. As if we held the patent on this stuff. As if doing bad were genetic predisposition, something in the blood. It’s like Chris Rock once said: A black man is born a suspect. The same is true for a Native American man or a Hispanic.
An Asian man, of course, is born making straight A’s. And if the stereotype is intended as a compliment, guess what? It’s still a stereotype, still a noose around the neck of individuality, still a constriction of character, still a denial of uniqueness and personhood, still a way of not hearing his individual story.
These words – African-American, Hispanic, Asian, Native American – have so much power. They confer identity, a sense of place, a pride of purpose, a grounding in historical trial, a connection to something larger. They confer roots.
But for all that, the power of those words carries an important limitation that uninformed minds and small hearts sometimes forget. If you tell me that you’re Native American or Hispanic or whatever, I might be able to infer some general things about you, about your beliefs, maybe about your experiences. I can make some educated guesses. But I cannot know who you are. That’s the mistake people keep making – looking at a people while trying to fathom a person.
I can’t know who you are, what you think and feel, until I look into your eyes and learn your name and hear your story. Your individual story.
That’s our job as journalists. We are the story tellers. We are the ones who put skin on stereotypes and faces on fears. We are the ones who carve individual lives from the anonymity of monolith.
When we learn to do this, we create a product that is accessible to more people. This makes good business sense.
In opening ourselves to more people we create an understanding that “America” comes in many colors and is spoken in many accents. This makes good social sense.
Finally, in helping to foster this understanding, we accept the responsibility that comes with the power. This makes good moral sense.
But we cannot do any of these things effectively until we get our own house in order, cannot get the nation to pay attention to drums we ourselves are unable to hear.
Our job is to introduce America to itself. To remind us that we are many people from many houses come by many paths to this one place. And we all have our drums.