In This Episode
DeRay, Myles, De’Ara and Kaya cover the underreported news of the week— including the Uvalde police department cover up, Wells Fargo conducts fake interviews for women and PoC, new music from Beyonce, a new Black Hamlet play in theaters near you. DeRay interviews author David Dennis Jr. about his new book The Movement Made Us: A Father, A Son and the Legacy of the Freedom Ride.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay, and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode we are celebrating Juneteenth–shout out to Juneteenth. I had off on Friday. A lot of people had off on Monday. But it was a lot of beautiful things happened over the weekend. I went to a amazing party in the park–shout out to Juneteenth! And this week, it’s me, De’Ara, Kaya, and Myles, as usual, talking about all the news that you don’t know from the past week, the news that you should have heard of, about race, justice, and equity, but didn’t make national headlines, and we talk about that here. And then I sit down with an old friend and new author, David Dennis Jr., to talk about his new book, “The Movement Made Us: A Father, a Son, and the Legacy of a Freedom Ride.” We talk about the intergenerational struggle for Black liberation and the impact it’s had on him, his family. We learned about the Freedom Rides, all these things. And I’ve known David for a while, but this book is incredible, wonderfully well written. You’ll learn a lot, and I can’t wait to hear our conversation. Here we go. My advice for this week is to think about the difference between an audience and a community. That an audience, we’re often talking to. It’s easy to have an audience, but we build communities. And I’ve heard people lament this idea that, like, you know, everything’s individualistic these days, and people aren’t sort of being as thoughtful about being in community with each other as they normally are–and here’s the thing, is remember that community is built. Community doesn’t just emerge. Community is built. And we need to remember that as we do this work, that we build community, rituals through practices, through conversations, through proximity. But we build community. It doesn’t just emerge. Let’s go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family! Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. We are coming with laughter before we’ve even pushed record on this, because people have been in the streets, people have been enjoying life, and we are entitled and we are deserving. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @dearabalenger.
Myles Johnson: I am Myles E Johnson. You can find me @pharoahrapture on Instagram and Twitter.
Kaya Henderson: I’m Kaya Henderson, @Hendersonkaya onTwitter.
DeRay Mckesson: I’m DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: Amazing. Well, it’s just lovely to be with everyone this afternoon.
Kaya Henderson: It is!
De’Ara Balenger: Kaya and DeRay are struggling a little bit, but it’s okay. We’re all here. We all were doing a little pre-Juneteenth celebration. So it will continue.
Kaya Henderson: Yes. The turn-up.
Myles Johnson: It’s Juneteenth. It’s Pride. It’s Black Music History Month. That’s a lot, that’s a lot of liquor.
Kaya Henderson: It’s all the things. It’s the beginning of summer.
Myles Johnson: That’s a lot of two-steps and liquor, child.
De’Ara Balenger: Y’all better find some liver detox supplement, Okay?
Myles Johnson: Yes.
Kaya Henderson: Dandelion tea, dandelion tea helps to detox the liver. These are the things that you learn over the years.
Myles Johnson: Sounds like it tastes good with bourbon. [laughter] I’ll try that.
Kaya Henderson: Y’all. There’s so much happening this week. Like, so much happening this week. We had, shout out to the Golden State Warriors for their win in the NBA Finals. But also shout out to the Boston Celtics, who a year ago, nobody was even thinking about. Ime Udoka, Nia’s man, then took his team in his first year of coaching, straight to the finals. And they went to Game 6 and so that’s not slouchy at all. At all. And my favorite thing that happened this week is the elephant in India who first killed a lady–and let me be very clear, I don’t take joy in anybody’s death, but this situation made me pause and think–but the elephant trampled the woman and then apparently went off on her merry way. They were having a funeral for the woman and the elephant came back and picked this lady up and I guess has some more to do with her.
Myles Johnson: That is gangsta. That’s like wild. That’s wild. That’s like, Frank Lucas in American Gangster was softer.
Kaya Henderson: Not that [unclear] exactly. Exactly.
DeRay Mckesson: And the fact, the fact of the elephant came back and destroyed the house later that night is just so epic. You’re like, I don’t know what this woman did, but the elephant did not forget.
Myles Johnson: At all.
Kaya Henderson: So what I heard on some show on TV was that the woman would throw rocks at the elephant to distract the mother elephant so that poachers could go take her babies. And so I think when somebody steals your babies, then all bets are off. All bets are off. And I think that she, you know, I think she was yeah, she’s pissed off, clearly.
Myles Johnson: And the interesting thing about it, too, is that the woman passed away and the elephant said, Just because you are dead does not mean our fight is over. Like, I still have things to do and, like, yeah, ruthless.
Kaya Henderson: Mm. Well, and I mean, I think a lot about all of these people who are visiting these national parks over the summer and trying to take selfies with moose and bison and things, and then they get trampled. Listen, we need to obey the laws of nature, honey. We need to stop playing around with Mother Nature, and take our rightful place. We need to stop playing around with each other, because that elephant ain’t the only person, is not the only creature who will not forget. There’s a whole lot of people doing a whole lot of things out here, and I felt like this was a lovely metaphor for how we just need to be thinking about how we comport ourselves.
Myles Johnson: Definitely. Definitely.
De’Ara Balenger: Also known as: everybody mind their business.
Myles Johnson: Listen, listen. Stay, stay strapped.
Kaya Henderson: And we’re out here in these Times Square streets.
De’Ara Balenger: That’s right. That’s right. So your heads up for anyone listening who’s in New York, you might have already seen it. So Pod Save the People is on a Times Square billboard, and we’re happy to be featured in this Amazon music ad/ you know, it’s all, it’s about Juneteenth, so shout out. Thank you for that. And you know, you can catch new episodes of this podcast on Amazon music. So shout out. We’re excited to be on, in New York Times on the Billboard.
Kaya Henderson: Woot woot! We made it, mom.
Myles Johnson: Listen. Throw your’ Mary Tyler Moore hat up in the sky.
Kaya Henderson: Yes.
De’Ara Balenger: And if y’all see it, take a picture, tag us on Twitter. You know, we’ll get back at you. Appreciate y’all.
Myles Johnson: I think I’m going to jump in with the first news. Listen, I love how Beyoncé comes. I’m not even going to try to build up to the news. I just love how Beyoncé comes. It just shifts priorities in public conversation, and it’s fascinating. Because we were we cared about multiple different things the day before yesterday, and now Beyoncé is saying, listen, July 29th, I’m coming. So I don’t know what’s you got to do? I don’t know who you got, who you gotta [unclear], I don’t know what you got to say for, but I’m coming, and I’m dropping new music. Beyoncé released on her Instagram that she is releasing a new album by the name of Renaissance. It also says Act One, which makes you think there’s going to be Acts two, three, four and da, da, da, so this is just the first act in an era of acts–like shout out to Beyoncé and Shakespeare for obviously just giving us lots and lots and lots of content. She came up with a box with a whole bunch of, she has like this box where it’s like basically this like merchandise box that nobody knows what’s in it. You can assume that it’s at least going to be a T-shirt and a CD. I bought all four because I can’t take any risk. I’m so, so deeply excited. And then yesterday she released these beautiful photos with British Vogue that were just captivating and Afrofuturist but Disco Glam. And Edward, who’s the editor of British Vogue, starts talking about how he got to hear the album and how it’s soaring vocals, and people are thinking that it’s gonna have House and Vogue and dance elements to it and I’m just beyond excited. I’m beyond excited. How do you all feel? Are ya’ll obsessed with Beyoncé, or is that? Like where we at on the Beyoncé obsession meter collectively? And say it publicly and say it loudly and put your addresses out, if you don’t agree. Just go ahead and up your address.
De’Ara Balenger: Listen, I’m not fooling with the Beyhive in public. That’s not what I’m about to do.
Kaya Henderson: Say it girl.
De’Ara Balenger: Any negative comments, I will keep to my own self. Okay? I love my life out here. No, but I’m excited. I’m always excited for Beyoncé. I think the thing that Beyoncé has done that I was most proud and happy about, thrilled about, overjoyed about, was Homecoming. So I don’t, I mean, I just don’t know if anything could ever top that, ever. And so because of that, I think always excited to see what she and her team come up with because it’s always so beautiful, so intentional, so thoughtful. Myles, is there going to be like videos that accompany the, is it like a whole movie thing that she’s coming out with, or we just know it’s the album?
Myles Johnson: I absolutely love that you would assume that I know anything that’s going on with Beyoncé [laugh], and that I’d be able to give you any more information than what the public knows. I have no idea. Even when I try to pull cards–everybody, a lot of people know I have a spiritual practice where I use tarot and mediumships–the ghosts won’t tell me. The ancestors won’t tell me. He PR is strong on the other side, too, and I have no clue what it’s actually going to be going on. But I assume, because Beyoncé seems to be one of the one of our artists in the vein of a Michael Jackson, right, so an artist that really understands the intersection of music, performance, individuals, and how that can create experience, I would assume that in some way she would create something that is not just pressing play on music, but I don’t know how that’s going to look like because I think that she’s also somebody who wants to push the envelope. And I would think, just from what I’ve been seeing going on around, this is just me predicting, there’s been of a lot of people exploring immersive experiences and doing things that are interactive and that are really pushing technology and music, so I would think that she would employ that. And I think that if she is going to do something with house music and Vogue, why not do it with this and why not, you know, why not start like, why not start that that journey here? How about you Auntie Kaya, how is your feelings about Beyoncé? Auntie Kaya who lives on 234 . . . [laughs]
Kaya Henderson: On a scale of 1 to 10, let’s say, I would say I’m probably a strong nine, right? I’m not like totally sold out, but I’m mostly sold out. First of all, I just think that her, you know, her music is absolutely amazing. And every time I think, you know, just when I think, oh, well, she’s peaked, right, she takes us to a whole different dimension. And that to me is, you know, I put her in the ranks of Michael Jackson and Prince and like really iconic musicians. But even more than that–and you opened your thing with this, Myles, right–like she shifts conversation, she shifts perspective. She makes us focus on things that, you know, we have not been thinking about and create space for us to think about things in new ways. I appreciate her transparency, right? Lemonade was a whole situation for me, right? And that transparency allows other people to explore the fullness of who they are. And I think the thing that I like most about her, and the guy said it in the article, is like she does this stuff with a real clear sense of humility, right? Like the ego that you would expect doesn’t seem to be there. And DeRay you, I mean, you know a lot more about this than any of us, but I just really, I think, you know, when people have platforms how you show up really matters because it allows and enables other people, gives permission to other people to show up, and I think she shows up so responsibly as a Black woman, so liberatorily–which is probably not a word–but like, I mean, she is what we need at this moment, right? So I’m super excited about it.
DeRay Mckesson: I’ll say, you know, one of the things that I love about who she is as an artist is that she really does live in her own world in all the best ways. Like, who else could sell a box set with CD in it? Nobody knows what is in it. Haven’t seen a picture. And people are like, I’m buying it. My sister literally, she Facetimes me to be like DeRay, I found my CD player for whatever. Beyoncé’s sending to the house. And you’re like, I love it. And you know, if it’s a commentary on people need to slow down and listen to music and appreciate it again, and not just like play on–like, I love that you’re like, you know what? I could see her being like, I brought on my CDs and other people have their CDS too. And you’re like, I love it, you know? Like, who can do that? I also loved, and this sort of got lost in the mix of the amount, is that for the first time you can sign up for text alerts from Beyoncé. And I’m really interested to see–
Kaya Henderson: Yeah, wait. Where do that at? Tell me, tell me, where are we doing that?
DeRay Mckesson: Beyoncé dot com. I know, they need to like, it’s sort of hidden, but it’s there. They’ve never had that. On the website before it used to be you could just join the mailing list, but they actually have like a text thing now. And I want to believe that this is the beginning of Beyoncé having a more direct relationship between the hive and her, that’s not just like PR announcements. Like what would it look like if only the hive got a text before a press release went out? Or like a post went out? Like those sort of things. And I feel like, like Myles said that there will be, I’m hoping that there will be like a increased sort of like use of technology and exploring frontiers and that sort of stuff. Also, you know, Cardi said this best, people just want shake-your-booty music, right? Like people are like, like this has been such a crazy couple of years, and I’m excited hopefully for her to pop music that people can just like jam to. And you know, somebody–I don’t know who–but somebody was critiquing recently, but they were like, you know, do you hear that person’s music in the club? And it’s like, you know, you hear every night? You hear Beyoncé. And I’m excited to keep hearing her.
Myles Johnson: Yeah. Yeah. It’s going to be really interesting. And I do hope that, like, there’s, I’m just, I’m so interested in where she’s going to go, because of Lemonade, because of Homecoming, because of Black is King. I’m interested to see where she’s going to go. And I’m hoping that she’s able to keep kind of like that depth and avant-garde African thing that she was able to like kind of like capture and still have fun. Because I do think that we’re kind of like, you know, I saw somebody saying, Like we don’t need no more “We Shall Overcome” music. And I can agree with that. But I’m interested in like, oh, how do we, like how do you balance it and, not be, not ignore what’s going on in the world, but choosing to look at in transcendent and fantasy and in dance and in music. I think those are two different things.
Kaya Henderson: Hmm. Well, while Beyoncé is doing her thing, corporate America is continuing to be corporate America. The Manhattan U.S. Attorney’s Office has just opened an investigation into Wells Fargo’s hiring practices after allegations from insiders at Wells Fargo allege that the company held fake job interviews for women and people of color to make it look like they were, you know, diversifying their hiring. This is, I mean, first of all, it’s just it is horrible, but it is also not surprising. We could have anticipated this, right? So post George Floyd, we saw all of these companies and organizations setting goals around diversity in terms of hiring and making all kinds of commitments. We did a story months ago about how many of the financial commitments that were made hadn’t been executed on and the, I don’t know, billions of dollars that was supposed to be allocated to organizations and causes to support people of color had not actually, hadn’t been spent. We also talked in that article about how many ,the biggest committers were banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America and JP Morgan Chase, but that the way they set up their commitments actually were about benefiting their business, not just doing good and right to people of color. And here we have Wells Fargo, who has already had a ton of bad press for discriminations in lending, predatory lending during the housing crisis, and all of this other stuff–now, get this new bad news which says that, you know, they have essentially interviewed people just to be able to say, Yeah, we had a diverse slate of candidates. You know how this works, right? Employers start with good intent and they say, you know, you can’t just hire your friends or people who come through your networks. You’ve got to make sure that at least 50% of your hiring slate includes candidates who are people of color or women. And people have not done that, is the allegation. They in fact, they hired the people. They made commitments to people. And then, after the job was committed, went back and hired, and interviewed women and people of color who didn’t have a chance of getting the job because the job was already promised to somebody else. And so one of the senior leaders at Wells Fargo who blew the whistle on this practice actually suing the company around this. And Wells Fargo literally in August of 2020 paid out an $8 million settlement because of discrimination to over 30,000 Black loan seekers, and discrimination in how they do home loans. So, you know, you would think that they might not want to futz around with this kind of thing. They have said that they are diverse slate guidelines have been put on hold while the company conducts a review to make sure that hired hiring managers understand how to implement this policy. But at end of the day, we all know what it is, right? People hire who they want to hire. They hire their friends, they hire their cousins. They hire their, you know, whatever, their cousins’ friends, and they don’t seek out diverse candidates. And just because you put guidelines in place or metrics in place–because they will tell you that there are more, you know, diverse candidates that they’ve hired in the last two years or that they are the largest lender to Blacks, you know, seeking homeownership loans–all of that doesn’t matter if, you know, if your intent is not real. And so I think this is just a reminder that no matter what policy changes people put in place, there are ways to get around them. And we have to be vigilant on calling these companies out when we see stupid stuff like this happening.
Myles Johnson: My first thought was, does anybody have an elephant? [laughs] It was just horrendous. Like it’s really horrendous. And I think that the the thing that will always get me about these systemic, systemic travesties is that it’s just not new. We’re just learning about this one that’s in front of our face. This one is becoming the one. Wells Fargo is not special. This is happening all the time. But there’s somebody decided to take the patience to call it out and to litigate and to do exposé, and that’s how come we’re talking about this one. And it would just be short-sighted to make it, to make the situation special about Wells Fargo in that, Oh, look at this thing that Wells Fargo is doing that was under, that was so horrendous and was hurting Black people and keeping Black people from advancing their business. It’s like, Oh, this is., that’s business in America. This ,for whatever reason, this one is getting spotlighted, but this is a common practice throughout American corporations and business, and it’s helping keep Black people systemically–I don’t want to say impoverished–but I do want to say it’s keeping Black people gate-keeped out of a certain type of like, class realization. That’s my opinion until we get the elephant, child.
De’Ara Balenger: So part of my job for a long time was vetting and research, and so–in politics–so I vetted a lot of banks and Wells Fargo was always the worst bank. Like in addition to, first of all, you discriminate against 30,000 people, like to me that’s criminal and this needs to be, we need an elephant. Second of all, the other thing that Wells Fargo has been doing for decades is money laundering for cartels and other criminal activity. Like, millions and millions of dollars. So would you–yeah. Oh, yeah. Wells Fargo. And then when you start thinking about the predatory lending practices and Wells Fargo and what happened in 2008, the mortgage crisis–like Wells Fargo is always the worst of the worst of the worst. And all these banks, you know, you can find negative hits on all of these banks, but for some reason, Wells Fargo is like the cowboy of the banks and continuingly finding ways to like thwart regulation, systems, etc.. So I’m not surprised by this news at all. I mean, my little brother just did like–because he’s a cute Black golfer, he just did a video for Wells Fargo–Wells Fargo didn’t give him a cent. I said, Did I not see the paperwork before you did this video for this big ass bank and nobody–? Come on. So all that to say, I’m not surprised–you know, Myles, as usual, right–about this elephant. And, you know, we’ll see what announcement comes out after this, but I feel like Wells Fargo always messes up and then makes some announcement about how they’re going to fix it, but in this, you know, it seemed like that was the sequence of events here, except in fixing it, they were trying to cheat the fix. So we’ll see what they come up with. I looked at their board of directors. You can imagine what that looks like. Not surprised.
DeRay Mckesson: I’ll say the thing that’s so interesting about this is that Wells Fargo is big enough and there’s enough talent out there that there are a lot of jobs that they need to hire. To go out of your way to make fake interviews is really just like, next level racist, you know? Like you’re just like, that is, you guys are just going out of your way to not benefit here. This is not like there were three positions in the total company, and, you know, there were these two people, your cousins, and you’re trying to keep your cousins out. It’s like this is a huge enterprise. So I fascinated about that. But the second thing is I can see how this conversation goes. I can see somebody being like, I think they’re doing fake interviews. And people being like, That’s really dramatic. And then it’s like, No, I think they’re doing fake interviews. And people being like, that’s really, no, that didn’t happen. Like, you sound like a conspiracy theorist with the way, when we say everything goes back to race, we often sound like we’re like hyperbole and we are too sensitive and da da da, you know? And then you’re like, Noo, no. Huge global company is doing fake interviews to get around having to not be racist. And I’m always interested in, like, multiple things where somebody flagged it, somebody called it, but it was like, Well, that’s so crazy, it couldn’t possibly be true. And often, if not always, it is true.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
De’Ara Balenger: So y’all, my news this week is The New York Times Review, it’s actually a New York Times Critics Pick a Fat Ham. But Imma give you all my review and then you can go on and read The New York Times because I had the pleasure of seeing this play on Tuesday, and I’ve just been thinking and dreaming about it every day since then. It is a production. The playwright is James Ijames and the first production I saw of his was actually at National Black Theater. And I forget, of course, forget the name of it, but it was about, it was about all of these Black men that had been, you know, murdered by the police, but it was really about what happened once they died–and DeRay, I think you saw this one, too–once they died and kind of ascended into that space between death and heaven, like almost purgatory. And the reflections and the realizations that they all had collectively during this time. I mean, it was, it was so brilliantly done. And so here he comes again with Fat Ham, which is basically a Queer Black take on Hamlet. It was anything but tragic, so I wouldn’t call this, you know, a typical Shakespeare tragedy. It was joyful. It was dynamic. It was Blackety, Black, Black, Black. Sometimes I looked around the room and I was like, I don’t know if we got enough Black people in here for this Blackness, but that’s another, that’s the whole conversation around theater in general–but it just was it was incredible. And I think it’s definitely going to go to Broadway. And so the backstory of this production is it’s still National Black Theater–and shout out to Sade Lythcott and Jonathan McCrory because again, they are brilliant and have brought this play to the public while National Black Theater’s under construction. It’s due to open again, y’all, in 2024, I believe. But if you all don’t know, please get to know the National Black Theater. It was started by Dr. Barbara Teer. Years ago, this sister bought a block in Harlem, and that land is still owned today by her daughter Sade and her brother Michael. And they are now building, rebuilding National Black Theater, and it’s going to have some other cool additions as well. I say all that to say, one, we all should be supporting National Black Theater. Part of how you can do that is come to New York and go see Fat Ham at the Public. It’s just been extended a third time to July 17th, I think. But yeah, I was so excited to see it, so excited to share it with you all. And check it out.
DeRay Mckesson: So I saw it–and also shout out to National Theater in Harlem, shout out to Sade, shout out to Jonathan. Incredible people helping to lead the theater and to find incredible talent, to elevate it, [unclear] on the Pulitzer and it should have. And I remember getting invited to go. And, you know, Shakespeare is always tough because there are a lot of interpretations of Shakespeare that you’re like, uh, this isn’t very good, right? Or they’re like, We’re going to bring Shakespeare to the present. And you’re like, Mmm, Uh–it doesn’t land. Fat ham landed. They did. Like they had a big goal and they met it. Like they really did figure out how to make it Queen, and people of color, Black and brown, and Shakespeare and Hamlet. You’re like, you know what? You did this. It was one of the few things that I’ve seen recently where I just was very, very impressed. I also just saw a Strange Loop on Broadway, another play that deals with issues of identity and race and like a big, big, big goal, big task, and they actually land it. And you’re like, Ooh! I’ll tell you, I feel like I have gone to everything that artistically could be done about race and equity recently, especially since the protests started, and so few of them actually landed. A lot of them try, a lot of them touch it. These two land it. Fat Ham landed it.
Myles Johnson: The thing I was going to add too, and I was thinking about that, is something that [unclear] did right, and it was not necessarily inside of the actual writing, acting or, you know, story, but I think there was a concerted effort to get Black people into the theater. And there were, I remember there was a Blackout Nights. There were all these different initiatives to make sure that people who do not necessarily get to go see theater, get to see it. And I hope that between Strange Loop and Fat Ham that there is–and I’m not sure, maybe this does exist, maybe they are doing this–but I hope there are initiatives to make sure that the people who these stories are reflecting and talking about, and the community that it’s sourcing from is also there to be able to experience it, because I think that’s important too. And I think that changes how the culture views it, you know, and where those conversations, who ends up having conversations about it, and how people feel about, feel about those items of culture when you’re out actually able to participate in it and go see it.
Kaya Henderson: I am excited to go check this out because I am like totally obsessed with us reinterpreting classic things when, you know, first of all, I just fundamentally believe–and you can fight me on this–but like Black people create culture. Like, we create fashion music–like everything that people do around here–art, da, da, da, has significant influence, if not whole-cloth borrowing or something from us, and that’s one of the reasons why I love being Black. But when we remix other people’s stuff, it is a whole situation to behold. And so I’m excited about Fat Ham for that matter. I went to, I went this week to the Kennedy Center. They have a retrospective called Reframing the Narrative on Black Ballet. And they have, this is the Dance Theater of Harlem, is about five different ballet companies who have come together to reinterpret ballet. And like, you know, these ladies, first of all, women and men, for sure, some classical ballet pieces, but lots of other like stuff that is, its ballet to our music with our environments and our culture and whatnot. And it was riveting, absolutely riveting. In fact, even with the classical ballet, where women are in, you know, more traditional garb, tutus and stuff, they not, you know, bubblegum pink tutus because that don’t work with our skin tone. They are champagne blush and burgundy bodices and turbans that look like the Queen of Sheba, honey. They were doing the whole Black ballet thing in ways that made me absolutely giddy. So I love it when we take classics and do them our way on our own terms. In fact, I think for sure there are so many, like, I think Shakespeare is unapproachable for many people. In fact, at my company we partnered with the Folger Shakespeare Library, which is the preeminent Shakespearean institution in the United States, to create a course called Black Shakespeare, where we look at five Shakespearean plays through the lens of African or African-American themes, people, issues that are important to us, and we are turning young people on to Shakespeare in ways that they have never been engaged with Shakespeare before because they see themselves in the work. And so I’m excited about how Fat Ham and Black Ballet and these kinds of things make things more accessible to people in our community.
DeRay Mckesson: So my news is about Uvalde, the town in Texas where the most recent national story around a mass shooting happened. As you remember, a shooter walked into an elementary school and killed a classroom of fourth graders while the police watched. Almost all of the major newspapers in Texas have been filed FOIA requests demanding that a host of documents be made public. That the recordings from dispatch, that all of the police report, that the body camera footage, that all of it gets released. And what we learned in the past couple of days is that the police have actually hired private attorneys and law firms to represent them to prevent the release of any of these documents, mainly the body camera footage. And what they have said, sources have said, is that the footage would be embarrassing, that it would, you know, potentially cause ill repute of the police department. And I’m so interested in this because in moment, you know, we’ve been talking about the police and transparency and all this stuff for a while, and to think of such a public shooting, the public failure of the police, you know, we thought something was wrong when that happened, and every single day, you’re, like more and more like, Yep. Like either they, the police killed some of the kids, or I could see them joking on like the dispatch audio. Like, I really put nothing past what happened, given how intensely they are working to cover it up. I read another interview about Uvalde where a former groundskeeper, one of the custodians at the school, was like, you know, he’s like, The glass on the doors wasn’t that thick, right? So he’s like, you wouldn’t be able to punch it through with your hand, but a hammer would, or like you just need like an object. So this idea that the door was so, like so strong that the police could not get in without the key–you know, you heard the story, the story was that the reason why they didn’t go into the room earlier that they couldn’t unlock the door and that they had to wait for another custodian to come with the key, which is why it took them over 40 minutes to enter. But somebody who worked at the school was like, That’s just not true, that that the classrooms had glass that you could break, that somebody could have broken. And I do think that there are a host of agencies across the country that are also intent on them not releasing that footage, because there’s no better example of the idea that the police do not protect people then what happens on that police stand in the hallway and listen to a gunman kill a class of fourth graders. The last thing I’d say is that I feel confident that this will come out somehow. It’ll be a whistleblower. It’ll be a court case. And the good news in it coming out is that people will see for themselves, and because of all the protests and conversations of late, I think the reporters–and I know those reporters because they covered some of the other police shootings that happened way back in the day–I remember meeting them in 2014 and they were very pro-police, like they weren’t pro-truth. They were just like whatever the police said they believed. And to see those same reporters now finally get to like, something isn’t adding up, is actually really promising. So I believe we’ll get to the bottom of this, but it is fascinating to watch them fight.
Myles Johnson: I’m almost speechless. Like, I’m like, I, Wait, can one of you all go first, because I actually, I’m a little speechless.
De’Ara Balenger: I mean, I just was going to, you know, evoke the elephant again. And we need several this time. Many. What’s a herd of elephants? Is it called a herd? I don’t even know.
Kaya Henderson: We’re going to have to go buy an elephant farm, apparently, and just dispatch them when–we’re probably going to get in trouble for that. Okay. We’re not buying a herd of elephants. Not at all.
De’Ara Balenger: Yeah. I mean, I’m sort of speechless on this one, too. I think, you know, this tragedy is still so very recent, and so I think the fact that the Uvalde the police are spending so much time and resources to cover their tracks as opposed to really trying to get to the bottom of what happened and what could have been prevented and what these families and what the community needs now–I guess it shouldn’t be surprising. But I think this, this this sort of level of deception and evasion, when you’re talking about babies that have been murdered, I think that is kind of a next level conceptualization. Because, I also feel like how are these human beings, i.e. the police, how are they escaping the guilt and the embarrassment of what has happened and what they have been, they’ve been hired to protect and serve and they have 19 murdered human beings’ blood on their hands. So you can’t hire a private law firm or a private investigator to get rid of that.
Kaya Henderson: But, but what you, what you can do–you’re absolutely right, De’Ara-but we already know, right, that these people did not do their jobs. Right? And so what happens next are the lawsuits. These people are culpable, right? Not just lose your job, but as a family member, I am going to sue you. And that’s why they have a law firm. Because when it comes out, what these people did not do, when it comes out, what they were standing around talking about outside, as DeRay said, while the man was inside shooting up the place, while all of this, when all of this stuff comes out, there is going to be clear legal remedies that people can activate that are going to take those people, individual people down–I don’t care what kind of indemnification clauses you have in your contract–that will take the police, the whatever the police department in Uvalde down, that will take the city down. Honey, listen, they gonna pay out the nose. And I hope you got the best private law firm in the world, because there is no way that this cannot come out and there ain’t no way that somebody is not going to pay for this.
Myles Johnson: Child. I love when Miss Kaya goes clean off, I feel, I’m like–I hate that I’m employing that trope, but I definitely feel super safe once Miss Kaya says, Oh, I hope you got what you need because we coming! I’m like, Yes, yes! I think the only way that I can ever say something substantial about these type of situations is if I take a more, if I just like step back and look at the bigger picture. And for me–and I’ve said this before in the podcast–it should really scare us that we are socializing and creating groups of people who are supposed to protect us, defend us, who are supposed to be somehow a part of the justice system, who are sociopathic. Who are evil, who are who are doing things that are in total absence of love, total absence of wisdom, total absence of empathy–that that is now becoming a precursor in order to participate in any type of justice in America. That should scare us. I think, again, like sometimes when I get super intimate and the details of these stories can just be overwhelming, but I think the bigger thing as Americans and as like just even as like global citizens, the things that we should really care about is that, wow, there are people who are switching their brains and switching their consciousness to kind of reject what is human in you and empathetic in you, in order to do it, in order to do a job. And it’s not rare, you know? And we can look at things and not understand how, how did Hitler help Nazi Germany, or how Hitler convince all these people in Germany to be Nazis and stuff like that? This is how. It’s the same kind of relinquishing of humanity and soulfulness and love in order to participate in a system, and then the cost is, you know, your soul, you know? And the cost is a type of human empathy. And it’s scary. And it should anger people, and it should also make people want to hold those people responsible, because you’re one day going to want to be protected, defended by these people. And that’s not going to be their ethos. Their ethos is going to be to protect a white supremacist system behind them, not you. Where my DeRay? Boom.
DeRay Mckesson: You called it.
Myles Johnson: I’ll be DeRay’s boom.
Kaya Henderson: I love it.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t go anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: This week, we welcome author David Dennis Jr. to talk about the book, “The Movement Made US: A Father, A Son, and the Legacy of the Freedom Ride.” David coauthored this book with his father, who was a part of the original Freedom Riders and has continued his activism to this day. This book is truly a tell-all. They really painted the picture for us about the cost of this work for families, about what it means to be a son of the movement, literally, about the lessons learned, a host of things. It’s so incredible to read. I can’t wait for you to hear David talk about it. Here we go.
DeRay Mckesson: David Dennis, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
David Dennis Jr. Thanks for having me, brother! You know, good, good to see you on the computer screen, and all that good stuff.
DeRay Mckesson: I know. It’s so crazy. You know, the podcast has been going on since 2016, had a lot of authors on, a lot of people I know, and what I will say about your book is, you are just a great writer. You really are a good writer. Like I, I opened the beginning, and the story about Baldwin and I was hooked, I was like, I’m in! I’m like, I already like him, so I was like, I’ll read it anyway. But I was reminded of just how strong of a writer you are. So shout out to you.
David Dennis Jr. Thank you, man. Thank you so much.
DeRay Mckesson: You know, you sort of go into this in the book, but it seems like this story had always been a story you wanted to tell. Was there like a thing that made you like, Okay, I’m like, I’m not just going to talk about it, I’m actually going to write a book? Because for anybody who hasn’t written a book, it’s hard, it’s not fun, it’s not sexy. So was there like a thing that happened?
David Dennis Jr. There wasn’t really a thing. I mean, like I said, I’ve been wanting to do it forever and then it just sort of, you know, the momentum was sort of going towards I was writing more about those sort of topics, writing about social justice and civil rights and all that stuff, and we were in the middle of this Trump presidency and everybody felt lost. I felt lost. We were looking for answers. And then, you know, dad’s getting older, you know? Like, it was I had this this plan, I think, to, like, write a couple, like, essay books and then, like, figure out how to write books and then do this one–obviously, thinking that books were like this thing that you could just do whatever you felt like doing it in my head, and so, but, you know, once we got, you know, started really, really thinking about how to put this together, I was just like, let’s sit down and record some some of your stories and I’ll try to write them and we’ll see what happens.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. Can you, let’s zoom out and tell us, tell us what the book is? Like, give us like a brief synopsis of the book and then we’ll talk about you. And then I have a lot of questions about the book.
David Dennis Jr. Okay. Yeah. So The Movement Made Us is a book about my dad primarily, his time in the civil rights movement, mostly from 1961 to 1964. So when he joined in New Orleans all the way through Freedom Summer. But it’s written in the first person, you know, I’m writing it, but in first person from his perspective. But also I put in a few letters to my dad in the book just to show what it was like being a kid of the movement, being his son, and our relationship, and how his time in the movement impacted our relationship decades later. And that’s pretty much the book. I mean, I hope that it gives people a little bit of idea of what movement work entailed, and does entail. And also, you know, I think it can help–from what I’ve been hearing from folks especially, which has been wonderful, is that it encouraged a lot of conversations inter-generationally between, you know, kids and parents and grandparents, things like that.
DeRay Mckesson: So the letter that you wrote on 137, can we, let’s talk about this letter. This is one of the letters that I, so I loved, so there are a couple of things that caught me off guard. So the first was I started the opening of, I’m like [unclear] Baldwin thing. I’m like, Oh, that’s cool, da, da, and then I didn’t know its first person. So I’m like reading, I’m like, I’m like David wasn’t, David didn’t? The whole beginning stories with like, you know, the jail arrest in the old, it was like the woman who was like, “I’m fighting for Black people, if you’re not fighting for Black people I don’t want to date you!” And then I was like, Okay, this is this must be his dad because this cannot be David. But then we get to the letters. Can you walk us through the letter on page 137? I’ll tell you why I love it, but I’d love to know, like, what made you think of these letters? Were they real letters that you wrote or did you write them for the book? Why did you include them? Are there a million letters and you only could use these? Like, how did that happen?
David Dennis Jr. So I had been, so I originally just wanted to write my dad’s stories, right? And that was it. Like, for me, I didn’t think about how I would insert my voice to the book at all, because I didn’t think I would, because–and this is sort of a meta thing that happened in the book–is that I just did not feel as though I deserved to be on the same page as David Dennis Sr., right? Like, he did Freedom Rides it all the stuff. Like, like nobody wants to hear from me, like, talk about my issues in the ’90s. You know, like, whatever. Like, nobody cared about that. So, but my, you know, my agent, editor, everybody I talked to was like, we need your voice in this, you, you know, have a lot to say about social justice, about, you know, you and your dad’s relationship. We need your voice. And so, I couldn’t figure it out. I could not figure out how to put myself in this book because it was all, and it was all bad chapters. It Was probably like twenty, like a whole ‘nother book, sitting around somewhere of just bad chapters, of me trying to figure out how to write essays and contextualize everything and try to make it make sense. And so late, late in the process, manuscript was in, you know, we were late, we were closing in, and I was like, what if I just wrote in my letters, like, in a way that’s more intimate, that I don’t have to explain, fleel like I have to explain to strangers me and my dad’s relationship. You’ll just catch on as we as we write. And so I just wrote, and wrote these three letters and wrote a letter to the children at the end and, this letter in particular that you’re talking about was really the crux. This was the letter that needed to be written for this book to work, was about me and my dad’s relationship. About understanding how the PTSD, if you want to call it that, of the movement, impacted him as a dad, impacted me as a son. The things that I saw firsthand from him sort of going through those experiences again, because he was in Mississippi going, doing speeches and memorializing folks who had passed and watching him go through that. And understanding that he was an imperfect dad, and you know what it meant, like why he was that way, while also understanding that we can’t, you know, just make excuses, and talk about like he’s also a man. And trying to figure out where our relationship was. So this letter is really just, was probably the hardest one to write because it was the most personal, the most direct to my dad about our own personal experiences. And yeah, so that’s that letter and that sort of what, how that part of the book came together. But it was very late in the process and came with a lot of kicking and screaming on my part, because I did not, I did not see myself in my dad’s story.
DeRay Mckesson: These two paragraphs, I mean, I loved, you just are good writer. So like shout out to you. “I think you are apologizing for our relationship, not with excuses, but explanations. I can feel you stressing yourself to say everything. When I realized what was happening, I finally looked up at you, your tears holding on to the edges of your eyes. I just stared at them, waiting. I saw you. I saw one man, not the two men I’d kept separate in my head for so long.” Like this section is just so beautiful. And I’m interested to know what it has been like now that the book is out in the world and the story is no longer just yours and no longer just this thing you talk about your dad with, but so many people like me get to see this. And, you know, as that paragraph goes on, “I saw one man tangled in agony from one version of himself that knots itself up in the other. I saw the life of Dave Dennis bleeding into the way dad and husband failed so many people: Mattie, my mother, my sisters, me, yourself. The ripple on the pond and the rocks thrown at Black folks, baptized in the lake of American bloodshed.” And so I’m interested in how it’s been received, especially by your dad and his friends. And, but also one of the things that you write about in this letter in sort of a through-line is sort of the survivor’s guilt or the shame or the like, what it means that he was friends with so many people that didn’t make it, and they you know, it was like luck that essentially allowed him to be alive. I’m so curious about those things.
David Dennis Jr. So he’s been receiving it really well. He was nervous for a little bit. Like through the, he would sort of go in and out of nervousness, and I think for a while, early in the process, which I think kind of helped him finish it was that he was like, Oh, it’s my son’s like little project that he’s doing, you know? Like, it wasn’t until he realized, like, you know, we had a meeting with Harper, like, in February, like the PR, the publicity meeting, right. And I think that was the first time where he was like, Oh, no, this is like a thing. Like this is going to be a thing that comes out. But it’s been, I mean, it’s been great. There have been I mean, we’ve done a few tour stops. His peers have showed up. They’ve showed him love. And I think it’s been good for him to receive that love and to receive that from people who he was there in those sort of trenches with. And so every day my dad, you know, he still has old man technology, so he forwards me praise via text message that he get but he just copies of text so I don’t know who’s saying it or like, who like the words coming from. So it just be like a text message that says, Wow, what an amazing book! And I’m like, I don’t know who this is that said that, but I’m, I’m glad. So he’s enjoying that part of it. And I think it has helped with that survivor’s guilt for him to see, like I think for him to see this as continuation of movement work, you know? That he’s still doing this and that that families are healing, that his peers are, you know, remembering new things or remembering things for the first time, or things they had buried and seeing it on the page–and I had somebody call me the other day and remind me and tell me his memories of hanging out with David Baldwin in New York and the nickname they had for him and all that stuff. So there’s just like things that a lot of people are just remembering again through that story. So I think it’s helping him to see that this is part of, you know, give us some sort of a like this is why I’m still here type of, type of thing.
DeRay Mckesson: Can we go to page 243?
David Dennis Jr. Okay. All right. I’m still in like the, you know, like it’s still in this early stage of having the book in my hand, so I haven’t, I haven’t reread it again, so I’m like, I’ve been like, scared to open it up. So this is like very, very nerve-wracking in a weird way to like to like, look through it for the first time, probably and some months.
DeRay Mckesson: It’s great. You really are just a good writer. I mean, it’s like you could write your way out of anything. I’m like, Hmm, he’s just a good writer. Can we go over, could you could you read “I deliver a eulogy for James Chaney” at the bottom of 243?
David Dennis Jr. Oh, right. Okay. So it has, okay, so it has. I deliver a eulogy–so the eulogy chapter is, so my dad gives the eulogy for James Chaney. My dad was supposed to be in the car with Goodman, Chaney, Schwerner when they were killed, which are the the three civil rights workers were killed in 1964. And my dad has to deliver the eulogy for James Chaney, which is a dear friend of his, and so this chapter is a very sort of stream of consciousness chapter that goes in and out of his thoughts and then into what he actually said at the funeral during the eulogy. So what you’ll get is what Dad said at the eulogy. So, I Deliver a Eulogy for James Chaney. And this is what he said. “I’m not here to do the traditional thing most of us do at such a gathering, and that is to tell of what a great person an individual was and some of the great works the person was involved in. I think we all know because he walked these dusty streets in Meridian before I came here, with you and around you, played with you kids and talked to all of them. What I want to talk about is really what I really grieve about. I don’t grieve for Chaney because I feel that he lived a fuller life that many of us will ever live. I feel that he’s got his freedom and we’re all still fighting for hours.”
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. Dad was on it! Dad was like–
David Dennis Jr. And he was 23 at the time he said it, you know?
DeRay Mckesson: And it keeps going. And just, it’s interesting, you posted on Instagram one of the videos of him, right? It was Instagram he posted?
David Dennis Jr. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And it’s so, it was so interesting to have read the book and then see that because I could see what you write about in the book, like the rage and the fury and the like, anger, right? Just the like, almost can’t even talk because you’re so pissed, right?
David Dennis Jr. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: And then to see what that becomes later in life. How do you think he’s processed the guilt or the shame, or like how has that, how have you seen that grow over time? Or how did that impact you as a kid of him, or how has that changed you as a dad?
David Dennis Jr. Well, it, the grief and the survivor’s guilt, I mean, it haunted him through through most of my life, most of my childhood. I mean, you, you know, when Dad got on the Freedom Ride at the age of 20-years old, he thought he was going to die, and sort of lived the rest of his life with the assumption that he was going to die young. And then when you make it on the other side of that movement work, when you sort of have to go live a regular, quote unquote, “regular life”, what do you do? Like, how do you go about planning things when you spent the formative years of your life sure you were going to die, right? And every morning thinking this was going to be your last morning, and knowing that somebody like your dear friend Medgar Evers is killed outside of his home, like this is at your doorstep, right? And so he has to, you know, you go through the rest of your life not really planning for the future, not really thinking about, you know, generational things. You just sort of live for the moment, and it’s almost like an arrested development that happened. So I saw that firsthand. I saw him in these stages of his life where he sort of wasn’t planning for the future or thinking about consequences of things like that. And it, you know, for me, early in my life and before the book, I thought that, like, if you were going to be in the movement, like you can’t be a good parent. Like you, like there’s movement work and being a good parent were just like juxtaposed, like you cannot be both of those things. You had to be one or the other. But through the book and through just life, I’ve sort of learned that, you know, parenting and being good to your family is part of movement work, is an extension of movement, work. Like that was what, one of the central tenets of what they were doing, is strengthening families and making sure that parents can be good parents. So instead of seeing those as diametrically opposed to each other, I’m seeing them as sort of a collaborative one-and-the-same type of work which has impacted me, you know, which is I think made me a better parent and allowed me to sort of couch my work in family.
DeRay Mckesson: How does your mother weave into the story, even if she has not written throughout it? How is she, where is she in this narrative?
David Dennis Jr. So my mom is, I mean, she’s central to it. I mean, this book, this stuff does not happen without my mom sort of keeping me together through this time while me and my dad had this off and on sort of frayed relationship, you know? She was the one and, you know, similar to my sister’s mother, to Mattie, who’s written about in the book, like these are the people who kept dad alive as much as, you know, as long as he’s been alive, and the people that had to hold the family down while he was going through what he was going through and tried to try their best to do it. And so she’s, you know, a major part of all of this like this, we don’t get to the point of where we are to write this book of my mother is not, you know, making sure that that’s possible.
DeRay Mckesson: How how does your dad think about today? So it was so interesting, you know, this is one of those books that I wish I had read in 2014, ’15, frankly, because I feel like so much of the civil rights movement narrative is King and [unclear] and da, da, da and we don’t actually tell this story of what it’s like to have a community of activists and a community of organizers who all play a big role. Like we just haven’t told those stories. And that’s actually what I think this book does so well, is that it reminds us that none of the people that we’ve learned about for so long can do any of this work alone, that it’s a lot of people that do this work. And he has lived through so much. It’s like not only that time–but I’ve lived through two mass protests and I’m you know, I’m a child, I feel like. So how does he think about this moment and has that helped him think through his own past or his work?
David Dennis Jr. So Dad is an optimist. He’s very optimistic about where we are now. I mean, he’s watched, you know, one of the, I mean, obviously the George Floyd protests, largest protests in American history in terms of amount of people and things like that–so he’s finding a lot of hope in that. I think he’s also understanding, and has preached sort of this need of his generation to be a conduit and sort of be that guide and be that help to the current generation. I don’t think, like what we see in the book and through the movement stuff is that this work is generational, even as is going on. You have elders, you have kids, you have people working in tandem. And sometimes I think it feels like, for whatever reason, there is a gap generationally where, you know, a lot of the older folks say, Well, the kids need to figure that out, when that’s never been in movement tradition. So I think he he would like for that to happen. But I think he’s tremendously optimistic about the–I mean, how could you not be, thinking about what they went through in Mississippi and the folks who were, like sharecroppers and people who should have been nothing, right, the way that America treats folks. And change, like change legislation in this country created democracy in America in a way that nobody thought was possible, so how could you not be optimistic of the continuance of that movement?
DeRay Mckesson: You know, I went to–this is a plug, and I’m going to ask you about the New York Times essay about your dad and about the veteran status–but an article that I would love to see you write would be a like Ten Lessons from Dad. Just like a organizer’s playbook. You know? I think about I think about all the things he must have learned from a skill perspective to like send the Freedom Rider, like that is such a wild thing to think about, you know? Like all those just like skills. Like, forget the stories, but like the how did you decide who you thought was going to break down or who wasn’t. Like, how did you toughen up the people when they were nervous? Like, how did you debrief when it didn’t go well? Like all those things that, like, we actually just don’t have a lot of, like, usable stuff from that generation. We have a lot of speeches and like theory. We don’t have a lot of, like, conversations with the tacticians, you know I mean?
David Dennis Jr. Yeah, I think, you know, we wanted to, I was sort of hesitant to be, because the movements are obviously similar, but they’re not, you know, they’re not the same movements so I didn’t want to do like “civil rights veteran tells kids how to how to do it” you know? Like old man yells at whatever. And I was I felt like there might be some resistance to doing that. But what we do is is sort of show the practical things that they did. I mean, like my favorite, probably my favorite organizational story is the way that they disrupted the state fair in Shreveport, you know, which was just these ingenious ideas in these kids to, like weaponize white fear against itself. And I think like that type of stuff that’s in there, like those type of stories are, you know, can be some sort of a loose framework of stuff for folks to follow. I think, you know, the only time I felt like we really sort of hammered down, like “this is what you should do” is the idea of like when you go into a city, figure out who’s there and figure out what’s actually happening before trying to like, this is my, I’m here now ,like, I’m taking over. You know, like, I think that was probably as close as we got to like, this is what they did, and this cross, you know, this is like a timeless tactic to use. But I didn’t want to, you know, he didn’t really feel comfortable with that, I didn’t really feel comfortable with that to be like, you know, this is what we did, this-is-what-you-should-do-type of thing. But if you can glean what you can from it and then it should hopefully be helpful.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. No, there’s a lot to glean, a lot of great stories. From the beginning. I’m like, You really are just a good writer. Like that is true, outside of me thinking you’re a good person. I’m saying that I would love as a companion to the book.
David Dennis Jr. Okay.
DeRay Mckesson: Not as a replacement. like I could see him doing like a here’s what I learned. Less of like, “here’s what you should do” but like “here, like some–“, because I have to imagine there are a million random things you didn’t write about.
David Dennis Jr. Yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: I mean, you write a book, you write stories, right? There are all these things that, like, we’re not stories, that like, I don’t know. . So that’s my plug, my selfish plug.
David Dennis Jr. Okay.
DeRay Mckesson: So, like, I would love to hear, it’s so interesting because they, there is something about when you–and you know this because you wrote the story–there’s something about the way you make decisions when you think you’re going to die, that’s very different than when you’re like, you know, I’m going to buy a house and get rich, right? Like this is a whole different decision structure. And I think about, he just was in crazy–I read these stories and I’m like, Oh my God, I want to know, like, how you debrief that–like, that was crazy.
David Dennis Jr. Right, yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: What was the conversation you had after that? Like, how did you, you just saw all these people die? Like, what did you tell people as like one of the leaders to get them to go back outside? I am fascinated, do you know what I mean? And it’s those are the things that I’m like as the addendum, as one of the essays.
David Dennis Jr. All right. Gotcha.
DeRay Mckesson: I wanted to ask you about so, you wrote in The New York Times, “Civil rights activists fought for America’s democracy. They should be honored as veterans.” Again, another well-written essay. You really are just I mean, I know I’ve known you’re a good writer, but it’s so cool to, like, see, like have to prepare for it to talk to you about. I’m like man is a writer. He is a writer.
David Dennis Jr. And we got to tell folks, we got to let folks know that we went to summer camp together in high school. Like, I don’t know if people, people don’t know that.
DeRay Mckesson: We did go to summer camp together.
David Dennis Jr. Went to summer, I’ve known DeRay for like 20, what, 20 years or so, when we were babies.
DeRay Mckesson: When we were kids. But I didn’t know you’re a writer back then, but you’re like a writer’s writer. This man iss good. Can you tell, like, what made you, how did you get to this essay? Like this idea of civil rights activists being honored as veterans. Like, what led you to be like, you know, I believe this?
David Dennis Jr. Well, the book the book is a, it’s a war book. It’s written as to me thinking about the movement as a war, because of what, you know, well, first of all, just structurally, I’d originally wanted to do it like The Things they Carried, which is a book I read in high school, which I was like, this this can kind of be a way to write these short stories about my dad’s life and the movement. But what I did not, what I didn’t know at the time is that so much stuff happened like consecutively, that there was no need for a short story because it’d be like, Thursday this crazy thing happened and Friday something equally as wild happened, so there was no need to break the stories up. But so I was thinking about it as a war story in that way. And then when you really get into the logistics of what these folks went through with the bombings, assassinations, espionage, like when I think about what they did to Goodman, Chaney, and Schwerner, that to me is like a military operation to assassinate three people. Right? Like to burn down a church to like smoke them out of where they are, to have them there, to have spies to tell you where they are, to hide them, you know, kill them, to hide the bodies, and then to use like government misinformation to distract everybody from what actually happened–like that is textbook military strategy. And thinking about that, and thinking about the people who I wrote about in the story, thinking about how so many of them died without money and some of them suffer from PTSD and suffer from, you know, physical, still physical ailments from the beatings and things like that at the time–like this was a war, they fought a war to create democracy, which is what I had heard, that America fights wars for. Right? And they should be honored as veterans the same way that veterans of war get, namely, VA benefits. Like, I don’t necessarily care–I well, I do care, but I’m not necessarily, honor them, on Veterans Day, make a coin, do all that, whatever, BS. Like, give them the things that you give veterans of war in the VA. Give them the health care, make it easier for them to buy home, make it easier for them create generational wealth–like these are the things that they should have based on the fact that they saved the country. They fought a war to save the country. They weren’t even trying to fight a war. They were trying to vote. And America, you know, waged war against them, and they won, and there is a, there was a democracy in place because of this poem.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. I love it. I’m sold.
David Dennis Jr. Well, you’re the movement, you’re the movement. Actually, I write. I don’t do, I know how to do none of this, none of this stuff. Right? So I write it, put it in the air. It’s for you and your folks to work out the rest.
DeRay Mckesson: But the storytelling matters so much. It’s like, you know, I think about all the things we didn’t have in 2014, and a book like this is when things we just didn’t have. We didn’t, we had been told all these stories of like the person who swooped in and saved it. Like that was sort of the narrative. But Ferguson was this incredible thing where like people self-organized and da, da, da, like, you know, it was a story of a lot of people coming together to change things. And in reading this book, I was like this, this is the first–I get a lot of movement stuff, I see a lot of movement videos–but this is the first thing that I read and I was like, This is honest. Like, I was like, this is honest. There’s like a, there’s just like an honesty to this that I think is very real, independent of it being well-written. But there are two questions we ask everybody. The first is, what’s the piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
David Dennis Jr. I think, I mean, just telling the truth. Like that’s just, like tell the truth and let the pieces fall into place. I mean, that’s just sort of, you know, I heard somebody, my, both my parents taught me was that like, if you just tell the truth like that, everything else will work its way, you know, to where you need to be.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. And then another question that we ask everybody is, what do you say to people whose hope is challenged in moments like this? Right? People who have read your book, read my book, read our friends’ books, they voted, they testified, they emailed, they called, and the world has not changed the way they wanted it to. What do you say to those people?
David Dennis Jr. Well, I’ll say, you know, what one of the goals was in this book is that there is, I think so often people feel a barrier to entry into movement work, right? And what I would say is that if you’re doing something, you’re doing something, you know? Like if you do, like, I think so often we feel as though if we’re not, you know, going to jail or, you know, almost being killed or whatever, then we’re not doing anything. And the idea here is that, like, if you just do something, somebody else will do something. Maybe you do like a two things, and then maybe like you do like a third thing, right? Or like, and then the next thing you know, you’re embedded in this work. Or, you don’t. Or you just do like two things, you know? And that’s it, and you’re good, you know? Like, I think that, what, if everybody just tries one thing, then we’ll just sort of, my hope and my like optimistic belief is that will all just sort of end up where we’re supposed to be within the larger framework of movement work. But just, if you’re doing something, you’re doing something. And don’t be so hard on yourself to feel as though you’re not you know, you’re not Martin Luther King, or you haven’t changed the world by yourself, because that’s impossible. Just if you do something, we’ll all find our place.
DeRay Mckesson: Boo. I have another question, though. This about you as a writer.
David Dennis Jr. Okay.
DeRay Mckesson: How, I’m this is like I’m curious, is how did you, how did this book stretch, test, challenge–maybe none of those–refine? What did it do to you as a writer? I think about, you know, I, obviously have known you since we were kids, but as an adult, I knew that you like, I remember when you wrote in the blogs and now you write in places like The New York Times, but those are essays, right? Those are not, writing a book is feels like a much bigger thing to do. What was that like as a writer?
David Dennis Jr. So if I had known what kind of writing I be doing for this, I probably would have never done this book, because it was like–I wrote, my first early drafts were very journalistic, right? Were very like, I did this, then I did this, and then this is what they said. And, you know, like, and it told, and my dad’s stories or riveting stories, but my agent was really pushing me in the proposal stage to be like, No, you need to write this novelistic. You know, write it as if, put people there. Write it as if you’re writing fiction–obviously not making stuff up–but like writing it as if you’re you write fiction. Which the only problem was I hadn’t written fiction since I was like 15-years old, right? I had been, I hadn’t ever been, I had been had been reading fiction for style and form since I was 15-years old. Like, I’ve been reading all nonfiction and memoirs and journal and journalistic books thinking, because that’s what I’m going to do. And so I had to learn, I had to take myself through, like fiction literature, you know, literature 101, Black literature 101. I was like reading Toni Morrison over again, and like reading, I was like I was like, I should read, I should go back and read Invisible Man, because that’s like what you do when you’re starting to write. I was like reading Invisible Man. Like reading these books that like showed me how to write fiction. Like I had to learn essentially from scratch how to write fiction, to create the type of, you know, type of emotional imbedded story that you get here, that I try to do. So that was like the hardest thing for me to figure out was like, I how do I write this as if it is a genre that I have not written seriously ever in my life? And then on the other hand, these essay, these quote unquote “essays” and these things in my voice, I was like, It’s gonna be a piece of cake. I write essays all the time. Like, I can do that, I’ll do that, whatever. And I just could not get it. I couldn’t get it. Partly because I’m not, you know, unfortunately, because of the way that, you know, white supremacists react to your work, I’ve become extremely private in my writing in a way that I hadn’t been previously, so to be more open and to be more forthcoming and write about this challenging stuff meant that those were really more difficult than anything. So this book was like a whole new corner of my brain, a corner of my writing that I hadn’t even come close to doing ever before.
DeRay Mckesson: And is there–I know those two questions are normally what we ask at the end, but I have all these other questions–is there a part of the book that you’re particularly proud of? You’re like, You know what? I did that.
David Dennis Jr. And you know what? I really, I really like the eulogy chapter because that was the one that I couldn’t figure out how to write that. And Dad obviously doesn’t remember much of that. And it was like, there’s not a lot of action in there. It’s him standing and talking. I didn’t want to reprint the speech. So just getting into this like stream of consciousness, writing about the eulogy, writing about what’s going on his head like. I was extremely proud of that. And yeah, I was most of the most proud, I’m generally just proud that it’s done, you know? Like proud that it got done and that people like it and that we’ve gotten so much, so much praise for it so, you know, so far. So that part is good to me. And I’m happy my dad likes it. Like, to be honest, like that was obviously the most important thing, is that he feels well represented in the book. And so, yeah, those things I’m proud of.
DeRay Mckesson: Your so funny. You’ve always been so chill. You’ve always been so even. Tell people where they can stay in touch with what you’re doing.
David Dennis Jr. Twitter, DavidDTSS is where I’m at on Twitter and Instagram. So you can follow me there. Those are the things where you’ll see my writing and all that stuff posted on the Internet. So follow me there.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Remind us the title of the book. Give us another shout out to go buy it, and we’ll be on our way.
David Dennis Jr. The Movement Made Us: A Father, A Son, and the Legacy of the Freedom Ride. It’s out wherever books are sold, preferably Andy bookstores, black-owned bookstores. If you’re in the South, definitely go indie. We were an independent bestseller in the South, which meant a ton to me because like, that’s where this book is focused, and the grassroots aspect of it is extremely important to me. So yeah, that’s where you go, cause The Movement Made Us.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Well, we consider you a friend of the pod. Can’t wait to have you back. And always an honor to be in conversation.
David Dennis Jr. Same to you, brother.
DeRay Mckesson: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning into Pod Save the People this week. Tell your friends to check it out. Make sure to rate it wherever you get your podcasts, whether it’s Apple Podcasts or somewhere else. And we will see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by A.J. Moultrie, and mixed by Veronica Simonetti, and executive produced by me. Special thanks to our weekly contributors Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Myles Johnson.