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Charlayne Hunter-Gault talks new book 'My People'


As a little girl, she wanted to write about history, or at least the first draft of it we called journalism. But along the way, she wound up making history herself, becoming one of the first Black students to integrate the University of Georgia, bhe first Black reporter for The New Yorker's Talk of the Town section, the first to open a Harlem bureau for The New York Times and on and on in a half-century-long career in print and broadcast that took her all over the country and to many parts of the world. Now, Charlayne Hunter-Gault has gathered many of those pieces in a new collection called "My People: Five Decades Of Writing About Black Lives." And she is with us now to tell us more about it. Well, hello there, Queen. Thank you so much for talking with us.

CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Well, I'm so glad to be back together with you. Long time.

MARTIN: Too long. But - and actually, I have to say, just in the spirit of full disclosure, it's very strange to think about interviewing you, because without you, there is no me. I mean, there have always been, you know, Black journalists. Frederick Douglass was a journalist in a way. But you were one of the first to write for and report for the kinds of prestige, you know, so-called white outlets that previously did not have a place for Black journalists. So I really don't know how I can start this conversation without saying thank you.

HUNTER-GAULT: Well, thank you for thinking about it and doing that kind of research. You're a real good journalist, as I've known all along.

MARTIN: Well, thanks. So you've written four previous books, including a beautiful memoir. What gave you the idea to put this collection together, which brings together, as it said, you know, five decades of pieces from your New Yorker days, The New York Times? What made you want to put this collection together and why now?

HUNTER-GAULT: You know, I don't think it was my idea, although at this age, 80, I've been trying to think who told me to do it. But, you know, I started looking at my pieces and bringing some of them and rereading some of them. And I thought, well, yeah, maybe. And so that's when I contacted a good friend and I said, you know, I need somebody to advise me if I should go forward with this. And sure enough, I got to a great editor and a great group of representatives, and they just took it on from there.

MARTIN: Well, what jumped out at you when you were looking back over these pieces and deciding what to include? I want to hear from you first and then I want to tell you what jumped out at me. So first, you, though.

HUNTER-GAULT: I think that we got a good representation of our people throughout the years that I've been alive and working. But some of this happened even before. So that there were people telling me about history. And although thankfully, one of the positives, if there were any positives about segregated schools, our segregated schools taught us our history. And what I say is that our history gave us our armor, not only to get through those times of segregation, but other times when we've been challenged as well. And I think that's the case with a lot of the people that I wrote about - John Lewis, Julian Bond, so many of the young people in the civil rights movement. Clearly, they survived because they were wearing the armor of our history.

MARTIN: So I'm going to tell you, one of the things that jumped out at me is all the things that have changed. Like, I actually got a chuckle out of one of your pieces about Black folks going on vacation. You know, the title, the headline was "More Negros Vacation As Barriers Fall." And I was like, that was hilarious. And it was hilarious, but it wasn't, I mean, in the sense that people were talking about the places that they could go, where they felt comfortable, where they felt like they wouldn't be treated poorly. So there was that sort of undertone of, OK, let me find a place that I can go where I'm going to be treated the way I want to be treated. So there was that. And then one of the pieces you wrote was about a program honoring Langston Hughes at Columbia University, and it featured an interview with a teacher who was fired for teaching a poem by Langston Hughes in his class.


MARTIN: Now, this teacher went on to become a very celebrated author and academic. He's a very, you know, very well-known name now. But here we are again, teachers being fired for teaching certain authors. And I don't know. I wonder if that jumped out at you, too, and how you felt about that.

HUNTER-GAULT: You know, I grew up in the Deep South, but when I got to New York and other places in the North, I realized that while there was law against Black people in the Deep South, there was discrimination and segregation in the North which came to be called in some quarters Up South. So, you know, what goes around comes around. And I think the hope that I find in these challenging times is in our history because we have overcome so many things going back to the 1600s and all the way up through the civil rights movement and even later than that. We have overcome. Moreover, there are many Black people today - well, quite a few, actually, I don't know how many equals many - who are prospering at the same time that every situation we're experiencing, Black people and people of color in particular, are at the bottom. And that tells us that while there has been progress, as we used to say back in the day, we got to keep on keeping on.

MARTIN: Do you have someone in mind that you hope will pick up this book, leaf through it? Like, how are you hoping people will read it and use this work?

HUNTER-GAULT: I'm hoping that everybody in the world will read my book (laughter). But I especially hope that young people will read it because, you know, there's one piece in there - I don't know if you got to it - where I visited some young people who were in an afterschool program, all Black, and they woke up in tears the day after the election of the former president. And this was very close to that election. And so I had to talk to them about our history and about how no matter who might be in charge, they still have a role to play, just as their parents and grandparents did or those who were the ages of their parents and grandparents.

And it was a wonderful time because it became clear to me the more I talked to these young people and the more we all started to smile because you know I love cracking jokes from time to time, but I realized that here was a situation where these young people were so depressed because they weren't happy and their parents weren't happy with who won the election. But I also told them there's going to be another time for you to make a difference, and this is how you make a difference. And if you look at articles in the book, you will see how people made a difference.

MARTIN: That was Charlayne Hunter-Gault, the Emmy-winning journalist. Her latest book is a collection of her writings. It's called "My People: Five Decades Of Writing About Black Lives." Charlayne Hunter-Gault, thank you so much for talking with us. And thank you for all of your work over the years. And thank you for your time today. It's been a delight to speak with you again.

HUNTER-GAULT: Thank you, Michel. And you keep on keeping on, too. We need people like you in our profession.

MARTIN: Oh, well, thank you for that. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.