In This Episode
DeRay, Kaya, and De’Ara cover the underreported news of the week — including Florida’s rejection of 54 math books, descendants of the enslaved fight for space, and the life & legacy of Hazel Scott. DeRay interviews Emmy-nominated producer & surfer Selema Masekela about his book Afro Surf, the new wave of activism centering Black surfers, and more.
DeRay Mckesson: Hey, this is DeRay and welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Da’Ara and Kaya, talking about the news that you didn’t know from the past week, the underreported news that you should have heard about but didn’t break the headlines. And then I sat down with Selema Masekela, Emmy-nominated producer and surfer, to chat about his relationship with the water. Now, the ocean can be a scary place, especially for Black people. Selma reminds us about Black people’s relationship with the water historically, about our relationship with surfing and so many other water traditions. We talk through the ancient African practice of surfing and how it’s evolved to now. Here we go. My advice for this week is to go to lunch, go to dinner, meet the friends, go hang out. Like, you know, I am going to go, I’m going to go get some ice cream this week with the new ice cream space. But I but I had lunch recently with, like, new friends and it was, like, great to just get out and, like, make time for new people also into your life. Doesn’t have to mean that you are taking away from the people already in your life, but like go to lunch, go to dinner, do the things just like, you know, not necessarily needing to hit on people but be like, Hey, we should like hang out and just meet. Do that. Go to lunch, go to dinner, go get coffee, go get drinks, like do the thing. Meet new people. Let’s go.
De’Ara Balenger: Family! Here we are. Welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on Twitter and Instagram @ De’Ara Balenger.
Kaya Henderson: I’m aunty Kaya Henderson. You can find me on Twitter @Hendersonkaya.
DeRay Mckesson: This is DeRay, @deray on Twitter.
De’Ara Balenger: So we wanted to jump off today’s conversation with this whole feud that’s going down between Disney and Governor DeSantis, down in Florida. Seems like what he’s doing is—not seems like, this is what happened—so Disney was in disagreement with some of DeSantis’s policies. I mean, I don’t know what’s taking them so long to be in disagreement about so many things he’s been doing, but here we are. But the last straw for them was, you know, Governor DeSantis’s, you know, banning discussion on sexual orientation or gender identity in kindergarten to third grade classrooms, all this legislation that he’s been pushing, Disney has been speaking out against it. And so as a way to punish them, he is taking away their tax perks. So it looks like $578 million in credits Disney can use to reduce its state income taxes through 2040, DeSantis is pulling through this legislation. Now, is this a big deal from my perspective? I don’t know. Because my small Black business don’t get no tax breaks! So you know, it’s very hard for me to be sympathetic to a multi-billion dollar company when I’m just over here, you know, trying to survive, me and my Black co-founder employing Black folks, but, you know, we don’t get tax credits. So, you know.
Kaya Henderson: Don’t you have nieces and nephews that need to go to the Magic Kingdom? Come on.
De’Ara Balenger: But just, and it’s about $1,000 a pop to take them knuckleheads down to Disney World.
Kaya Henderson: You think, you think it’s $1,000 now, wait until you see what it’s going to go be like after this goes down.
DeRay Mckesson: Right, right.
De’Ara Balenger: I’m going to, listen I need to invest, you know, Universal Circus, because that’s where we all need to be going. Okay? Let’s leave Disney alone all together.
Kaya Henderson: What’s interesting about this to me, I mean, there’s a bunch of different things that are interesting. One, is like it is just rampant political pettiness, right? And I think that that has incredible implications on corporate America, because it means—I mean, this is an attempt to chill corporate America’s voice in terms of standing up to political policies that they disagree with. Right? It means that every CEO is going to stop to think about whether they stand up for things that they say are values about their company or that are really important to their employees. The reason why, I mean, Disney was, let’s be clear, Disney was keeping it cool and not saying anything until their LGBTQ employees were like, Yo what!?
De’Ara Balenger: Yeah.
Kaya Henderson: And they were like, Oh, yeah, okay, let us get on this and and oppose this. And now in retribution, they stand to lose not just tax breaks, but tons of money. They aren’t the only ones who stand to lose. Orange County, right now, Disney pays for their fire people, their police people, they’re—all of these public services. And it means that the homeowners in Orange County are about to get hit with at least a 25% increase in their property taxes, somewhere to the tune of $100 million. And if the govern, if the legislators in Florida do not understand that no one community is going to be able to shoulder the economic burden that this decision is going to make, is going to land right back on their doorsteps, and other Floridians are going to have to pay to subsidize this political pettiness that this man is undertaking. Y’all don’t even get me started.
DeRay Mckesson: The thing about the state of Florida repealing Disney’s sovereignty over the town that they’re in, they had legal sovereignty, they sort of ran the town and the state penalized. And Kaya, I hadn’t even thought of the chilling effect that this will have on other businesses. Like if you do this to Disney, you’ll definitely do it to my company, right, because Disney is Disney, right? Like not only a big company, but a big brand, international, has changed people’s lives for one way or the other. Everybody knows that Disney character. But what I thought was really interesting is that the analysis that I read was like, it might not even really hurt Disney. Disney might have to move slower to get permits in stuff like that, but that all of the all of the maintenance and all the stuff that they had just done because they were, quote, “their own town” will now be pushed off to local communities, who will even if the price of Disney doesn’t go up, those local communities will have to incur the cost of the Disney thing. So you’ll be penalized for just being in proximity. And it’s one of those things where it’s like, you know, you see the government use the full weight of its power to implement just bad and homophobic policies, and even when people try and stand up, they get smacked down. So I’m interested to see what Disney does. Disney has so much money and so much leverage. They could do PR campaign, like they could actually go full-blown against all of this that they want to. And I’m interested to see how hard they fight back.
De’Ara Balenger: And, the last thing I’ll say is it looks like other states are inviting Disney to come there. And I mean, what would the state of Florida be without Walt Disney World? So many of us would never have to go there again.
Kaya Henderson: [laughs]
De’Ara Balenger: That’s all.
Kaya Henderson: So this DeSantis mess is not just about Disney, it’s not just about the Don’t Say Gay law. This is about a whole lot of things, including textbooks, textbooks, which are usually not controversial. They usually don’t make national news. I’m just talking regular old K through 12 textbooks, in this case, math textbooks, which Mr. DeSantis is also dabbling in as part of his political petty protest, political petty, something. I don’t know what it is. But each year or so, every couple of years in some places, textbooks have to go for state approval to make sure that they are aligned with the state’s curriculum and to make sure that they meet the state standards. And in some cases, that’s a very stringent review. In most places, it is not. We have a local education system which allows localities to pick the things that, the textbooks that they are going to, that they’re going to use. But in the case of Florida, you have to submit your textbook possibilities to the state, the Florida State Department of Education. And last week, the department, there were 132 math textbooks that were submitted for review to the Florida Department of Education. And 41%, or 54, math textbooks were rejected, some of them for not meeting the Florida benchmark standards, but many of them, including 70% of the kindergarten through fifth grade math textbooks were rejected because they had prohibited topics in them. What prohibitive topics do you ask? Things like critical race theory, which everybody seems to agree is not taught in kindergarten through 12th grade, and social and emotional learning. And social and emotional learning is a very interesting thing because it really is, it previously was something that conservatives really got behind, things like teaching character and perseverance and resilience. And now it turns out that according to Chris Rufo, in practice, social and emotional learning serves as a delivery mechanism for radical pedagogy, such as critical race theory and gender deconstruction-ism. Who is Christopher Rufo, do you ask? Christopher Rufo is this random academic dude who is the one who set this whole critical race theory thing on fire. We talked about this a while ago on the pod, but he literally, like, sent an email or a tweet or something to Donald Trump and was like, hey, critical race theory, and set off the whole conservative movement against critical race theory. And it comes into play in this Florida stuff because now you have a very activist Florida governor who is not just in your kids entertainment experience at Disney, who’s not just in your what teachers can say in the classroom, but is actually in textbooks. The New York Times reviewed 21 of the textbooks that the Florida State Department of Education rejected to find out why, and what they found is textbooks were rejected for saying things like “To learn together, we have to disagree respectfully.” That’s some of the social and emotional learning stuff that is in there. Or there’s a piece called Math Musicals, which lays out the skills that kids should learn in addition to math—self-awareness, self-management, responsible decision making, social awareness, and relationship skills. Or they are examples of students being exposed to history. So one math textbook talks about, it’s an eighth grade pre-algebra textbook, and it has a biography of Dorothy Johnson Vaughan African-American mathematician who led a computing unit for what is now known as NASA. And they have taken down books that have ethnically diverse names and foods or mini biographies of mathematicians throughout history, almost all of whom were women or people of. Color. And so here you have a full on attack, frankly, in one state, but as you’ve seen what happens with the conservative playbooks, other states will follow where you’re attacking, not just what teachers are saying, but literally what kids are learning in their textbooks. And I think what is most scary to me about this—you know, if it was just Florida, that’d be one thing. We could all decide we weren’t going to Florida anymore. But in fact, as I mentioned, we will see other states that start to replicate these policies. And my Republican friends tell me that Ron DeSantis is literally one of the frontrunners for the Republican nomination for president in the next election, and so we need to pay very, very careful attention to what is going on in Florida. We need to understand that parental rights are not just white parental rights, that African-American parents and Asian parents and Latino parents also have rights around what their kids should be taught. That straight families, gay families, and all other, every kind of family actually has a say in what their children are taught. And this is why we got to get active, not just at the gubernatorial level, not just at the state level, but at our local school board level, because those are the people who really control what our kids are learning.
DeRay Mckesson: It’s also a reminder that people don’t normally pay attention to these processes. Like, this is like procurement and, you know, the curriculum part. Thankfully, people are paying attention to this in Florida, but I can only imagine how in some other states where like people just aren’t even paying attention to the textbook publishing process. That like, this has gone underexplored. But what was most fascinating for me, Kaya, in reading about this, is that for regular math textbooks, K to five in Florida, there’s only one company, Accelerate Learning that is approved. And that company is owned by the private equity firm that the Virginia Governor, Glenn Younskin—
Kaya Henderson: Youngkin.
DeRay Mckesson: Youngkin, that held by the, Youngkin, that—
Kaya Henderson: The Carlyle Group.
DeRay Mckesson: Accelerate Learning is owned by the Carlyle Group which was that group that Governor Glenn Youngkin was a CEO of, co-CEO of. And you just see how they are just run, like money has allowed them to just run these games over and over. So not only do you ban teaching anything about race and justice, but you make sure that the only company producing the math textbook for a set of people is owned by your friend’s former company to keep them in business. And, you know, once people stop paying attention to that—this is a news story today, will it be a news story in two months, three months? That’ll be, you know, everybody, you always need a textbook. Accelerate Learning will always be in business because that’ll be the sole provider for a set of years of math textbooks in Florida. And it’s like, you see how this stuff happens. And I also see, for better or for worse, how these independent agencies get made to be completely independent of the elected officials—clearly not the case in Florida because the governor is influencing those things—but I think about in Maryland how, you know, because of corruption, we built 5,000 layers, so the mayor can only appoint but if chosen by these people—like you build all these layers to circumvent really bad people, and the downside of that is that when really good people get in, sometimes they have to move really slow because we built all these crazy layers, but there is no recompense for people. And if I’ve ever believed in recall elections in some places, if I haven’t before, I definitely believe in it now because you get stuck with people. Like you think about Eric Adams in New York, you’re like, This is just a bad train, this is bad, and people have years more to go before you can do something about it. And same thing in Florida. You know, I want to learn more about what organizing, or what can be done to push the immigrant communities and people who we know have been, who have not realized that he is hurting them, too, in some ways, to go against him. Because this is wild.
De’Ara Balenger: I think the other thing that I’ll just add to this DeSantis conversation is, this came out this week, too, but DeSantis, of course, has been pushing a congressional map that he wants the legislature in Florida to adopt. And if it is adopted, basically Black folks, like Black folks would lose two seats. Oh wait! So the Republican-controlled Florida legislature this week approved a voting map drawn by DeSantis that eliminates districts now represented by Val Demings and Al Lawson, and both Black Democrats. The Senate approved the map earlier this week and the state House adopted in it its party line vote on Thursday, this past Thursday, after these Black lawmakers temporarily halted the proceedings with the sit-in protest. Why isn’t this on the news? Like this, I’m on like Facing South dot or. I don’t even know what this is. “Defend democracy in the south.” We appreciate y’all. Because it’s not news.
Kaya Henderson: Y’all. Let me tell you, this man is so dangerous and he’s not going away. He’s 43 years old, right? He and you you’ve heard me rail about how, what kind of country are we when all our presidential candidates are old people? He’s 43-years old. He went to Yale undergrad. He went to Harvard Law School. He is smart, he is young, and he is in control. Y’all, we got to like, where’s your people, De’Ara? Where’s your, where’s yo Democrats?
De’Ara Balenger: Hello? Are y’all out there? Hello? Hello? I don’t know. I don’t know where they are. We need help.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Don’t do anywhere. More Pod Save the People is coming.
De’Ara Balenger: Okay. My news. My news. So this news really stood out to me because I never knew about Hazel Scott. Have you all heard about Hazel Scott?
Kaya Henderson: Did not know til you brought it to the pod? Thanks sis.
DeRay Mckesson: I didn’t either.
De’Ara Balenger: I mean . . . okay, so we all know Adam Clayton Powell, obviously. You know, he’s got a street named after him in Harlem. He’s one of the longest serving Black members of Congress. But what I had no idea of is his wife, Hazel Scott, who was basically like a music prodigy. She went to Juilliard when she was eight-years old. And usually the earliest they would accept somebody was at 16-years old. So Hazel Scott, just reading, so this article is from The Washington Post. It’s very short but sweet. So check it out. But Hazel Scott debuted at Carnegie Hall at the age of 20, and at that point she had been playing the piano for 17 years, and that, the night she debuted at Carnegie Hall, it was 1941. Wow. So she was basically like a shining star, again, a music prodigy. On this particular evening at Carnegie Hall, she was playing Franz Liszt’s Second Hungarian Rhapsody. She also played Bach’s two part Inventions, Frederic Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and then sis took a little turn and put a little Jazz on it.
Kaya Henderson: Remix.
De’Ara Balenger: Go with it. In 1941, the first remix, OK? So she would be, she’d also go on to become the first Black American, man or woman, to host her own nationally syndicated television show. It was called The Hazel Scott Show. And so, you know, somehow, and I think it really speaks to her talent and her transcendence that she was able to have a peak in her career, actually, during Jim Crow. So she had performances, she was on Broadway, she worked with symphony orchestras, and she earned $75,000 annually, which in today’s time would be about $1,000,000 a year. So in 1924, Hazel Scott was just four-years old when she and her mother moved from Trinidad to New York City, and they moved in the peak of the Harlem Renaissance. And her mother was actually a saxophonist and a pianist, and so young Hazel grew up very much around music and was, and started playing very, very early on. What ended up happening, though, and probably why we don’t know that much about her, is that she got caught up in kind of this McCarthyism era, you know, calling people out for communism, and it kind of then, you know, didn’t really matter who you were, what your background was or how successful you are, it kind of ruined you, right? So she ended up leaving the States and going to Paris, where she found refuge there and started to perform there. I just find this so fascinating and maybe it’s because she ended up spending so much time in Europe, but I just feel like we know so much about Adam Clayton Powell and so little about Hazel Scott. And given how talented she was, I just, it just blows my mind. So something that her son, who was interviewed in this piece said is that, you know, his mom’s prominence is kind of, and visibility is coming back. There are evidently videos of her on YouTube, so I’m going to go check those out. But, yes, she was she just seemed pretty fantastic. She also was committed to civil rights. She marched to the U.S. embassy in 1963 in support of the March on Washington. Anyway, I thought this was cool and fabulous and she just seems out of this world. And so I wanted to bring it to the pod and share with you all because you know, as a scholar in the Black Studies, I’m just very surprised I had not heard of Ms. Hazel Scott, so I just wanted to share it with y’all.
Kaya Henderson: I think what was so, one of the things I mean, first of all, just remarkable story, and literally like, I mean, what I loved about this piece is they didn’t even mention Adam Clayton Powell Jr. till like, you know, paragraph whatever, 99.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s so funny you say that, Kaya, because I was telling Pablo about this and Pablo was like, Well, what happened to Adam Clayton Powell? And it was like, Who cares?
Kaya Henderson: It doesn’t matter.
De’Ara Balenger: I mean we care, but it doesn’t matter in this context.
Kaya Henderson: Well, this is the thing, this lady was her own thing, like independent of who her husband was, right? and we love Adam Clayton Powell and all that jazz, but this lady was, the article says she was Colin Kaepernick before Kaepernick was Kaepernick in that she took radical stands around blackness. She refused, she got to Hollywood and refused four roles in a row that required her to play a maid. And she was like, I’m a classically trained and educated Black musician and I’m not doing that. She demanded equal pay to her white counterparts. She says, I’d rather keep my dignity and my pride and my self-awareness and my blackness than to sell out. And so she was very particular about how she appeared in Hollywood, only appearing as herself, an elegant stage performer. And she made them list her in the credits as: Miss Hazel Scott as herself. She was like, I’m not wearing y’all’s gowns and y’all’s jewelries because I don’t know who had these on before me, my own gowns and jewelry, which may be the blackest thing ever.
De’Ara Balenger: Go on Hazel!
Kaya Henderson: She sued a restaurant that wouldn’t serve her because of the color of her skin, and she refused to play in segregated concerts because she was like, How could you come to see me, a Negro, but you don’t want to sit next to a Negro. So, you know, this is at a time where, I hear celebrities who are often caught between standing up for what they believe in and making their coins, and this lady was like, there is no compromise for me, like I, and she found a way to make her coins and be who she was. And when it wasn’t working no more in America, she found herself a whole ‘nother place—let me repeat that for y’all who are not paying attention to what’s going on in these United States of America, if it ain’t working for us, you better find you another place—and went to Paris.
De’Ara Balenger: And remember when we just covered that whole article about Black women in record numbers leaving this place.
Kaya Henderson: Leaving the place. Anyway, I love this. We’re going to figure out how to do some more. I was thinking, I was really thinking – if you all are not paying attention, sorry to shout out another organization or whatever – but Girl Trek, which is a Black women’s walk in group, has an amazing Black History Month boot camp thing that they do every so often. Right now, the series that they’re in that I’m absolutely loving is about crews, like groups of Black people who did amazing things. But they’ve had series on pioneering Black women, and I feel like I want to send this to them because I want these ladies to do a walking meditation on Hazel Scott. Thank you, dear. This was hot.
DeRay Mckesson: I echo with what everybody else said. But what I saw too is that there’s no footage of her TV show. Doesn’t exist. Like they have no recordings of it. Like there is is not there. There are videos, though, of her playing two pianos at one time. And it’s like you were a baddie. You had it. She had it. And, you know, her standing up for people really did cost her. And they talk about this, classic FM, has a really good write up on her and they talk about how in the movie that she was in, The Heat’s on in 1943, there was a scene in which the wives were sending their husbands off to war, and all the Black actresses have been dressed in aprons and everybody else was are gorgeous. And she was like, No. So she left that film and wouldn’t come back into the costumes were changed. And after three days they gave him, she returned and the aprons were replaced with floral dresses. But the challenge was is that was almost the end of her career as an actress. So it cost the studio and by 1945 they pulled the plug on pretty much any new offers. And even her concert dates were dramatically limited. And Adam Clayton Powell told her that when she became a mom, that was their first kid, that he didn’t want her performing anymore. And she was like, Okay, cool. And when he was on the road, she still performed. And it’s like, I know that’s right. Like, don’t let her, don’t him. You are a virtuoso.
Kaya Henderson: Don’t dim my light, brah.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah. And their marriage was already a scandal because he was married when they got together. It was like a whole thing, but shout out to her for like keeping her gift alive, and so sad that McCarthyism forced her to flee the country. But her son, there’s Adam Clayton Powell, the third, who’s a professor. And then there’s an Adam Clayton Powell, the fourth who is not her son, that was his son with somebody else. They’re both still alive. So, you know, the legacy continues.
De’Ara Balenger: Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait. DeRay. Adam Clayton Powell, the third with one mama. And then Adam Clayton Powell, the fourth, with another mama? Like Adam Clayton Powell sons, and these – now, I’m not one to talk since my brothers are both named Leonard but they got the same mamma.
Kaya Henderson: You know how we are. You know how we are.
DeRay Mckesson: So my news, I honestly had to read this three or four times to just, like, make sure I, I was like, is this, did I pull some news from a 1900s? This is 2022! So Montpelier is the home of the fourth U.S. president, James Madison, and the birthplace of the Constitution. And there’s a board that runs the foundation. So, you know, it’s a big property. They do tours. It’s a whole legacy thing they got going on down there. And the question is, who should be on the board? That’s like the short version, who should be on the board. The board, as you can imagine, is mostly white people. But there’s a group called the Montpelier Descendants Committee that they represent some 300 descendants of enslaved people – they had sought to change the board’s makeup. And last year, they struck an agreement that would see half of the board seats selected by the descendants of the enslaved. And this makes total sense because it was the enslaved that kept that place going, that built it, that tilled the land – like there is no Montpelier without slave labor making it happen. So half is, you know, they should be the whole board, but half is something at least like, you know, if you, if that is what we want to deal with then half is fine. And as you can imagine, the white people who run the board have done everything in their power to have, to throw a whole fit to make sure that this can’t happen. They fired three senior members of the staff who supported the Black descendants, and then a fourth one has recently just been fired. And because what they essentially did is that they agreed to having half the board representatives be from the enslaved descendants, but they were going to stagger when those board members essentially had voting power. So they would be able to be on the board early and then they would be not voting until a couple of months later, four or five months later. And the reason why that matters is because, you know, being on the board with no power, I mean, like, that’s not representation. That’s nothing. But the other thing is that it looks like the white people in power want to make sure that when the descendants of the enslaved get there, that they can’t hire the people who were fired, that they can’t oust the board chair, that they can’t essentially change anything so that this would be a cosmetic inclusion. And rightly so, the descendants of the enslaved community is like, No. Like either they’re, like a director is a director is a director, we’re not going to have two classes of directors here, and we’re not going to let the current board to maintain a majority for five months while we’re on the board with no ability to actually do anything. And I read this and it was just really fascinating to see the white people try and like, the white people who run the board now try and come up with all these rationales about why they should be in charge and like do all this sort of mumbo jumbo legally. And I love that the descendants of the enslaved are like holding their ground and just being very firm and clear. And some of the some of the employees who left, like the curator, the chief curator of Montpelier, she is like, yeah, the white people don’t want there to be anything about race, they don’t want there to be a conversation about justice, they don’t want the enslaved people to have any power. And she’s really upfront and clear about that. So I wanted to bring you here. This should be more national news. It is good that NPR covered it. I want other people to cover this and follow this story because it really blew my mind. It is a basic demand that Montpelier, a place built by enslaved people, is also managed by them, by their descendants.
Kaya Henderson: What’s really interesting to me and we have been talking a little bit about this off line is the sort of witness’s last stand, right, at a time where as a country we are trying to tell a fuller story, trying to live out the ideals of our country that actually include all of us, you see people in power who are doing everything that they can to hold on to that power. What is interesting to me about this is, you know, there’s a whole lot of this stuff happening all over the place, right, from Monticello and what they are trying to do to tell the enslaved stories, or Washington’s plantation, Mount Vernon. All of these historical sites are wrestling with what to do about how we tell this history and the complicated stories of who these white men were, who we think they are as our founding fathers versus who they really were. And the National Trust for Historic Preservation is actually the organization that owns Montpelier, and the foundation just manages it. Right? So when this whole power sharing agreement came out – in fact, over the last little while, Montpelier has been hailed as one of the places doing the most groundbreaking work to partner with the descendants, to tell the appropriate stories, to craft a different narrative, and so they were the belles of the historic preservation-sort of movement to diversify and whatnot. And in fact, the outgoing head of, or executive director of Montpelier really did deep, deep work. She and her senior team did deep, deep work with the Montpelier Descendants Committee, and they have been heralded for the work that they’ve done. These senior leaders have been there for 20 years, right? And they’ve worked really hard to understand the duality of this place. And so when this groundbreaking power sharing thing happened, everybody was like, Yes, this is it, this is a model for others to follow. And when they reneged – which is a lovely, you know, Black cultural word, reneged, it’s what happens in Spades when you go back on your books.
DeRay Mckesson: Let ’em know!
Kaya Henderson: When they reneged on the power sharing agreement, the National Trust, which owns the property, said this is some frag-a-rag-a nonsense. The senior leadership team said this is some frag-a-rag-a nonsense. Most of the employees at Montpelier said this is some nonsense. And since, a petition with over 6,500 people have been like, this is some frag-a-rag-a nonsense, but the two white dudes in charge, right, the head of the foundation and who? I don’t know, you all tell me who the other man is – they’re like, Oh, well, too bad, so sad. We going to do what we going to do because we have the power. And you know, when you look at these senior-level people who have literally been working on and with this property for 20 years or 30 years, who have worked to craft a different narrative and to be in real partnership with the descendants, and to watch these two white men who are, you know, just make this sort of random decision, it’s astounding. It is whiteness’s last. And it is, you know, I think it was Frederick Douglass, Malcolm X, Frederick Douglass, that power concedes nothing without a demand. These people are demanding. And you know what we, what I’ve learned in my leadership is, you know, deep transformational change happens when people work together. Co-creation, right? Partnership with community. And Montpellier is trying to do that and these two dudes are scuttling the whole thing. Wild.
De’Ara Balenger: Even some of the conversations I’ve had around Frederick Douglass and his first wife, who he, who he, who helped him escape from freedom, and who at many summers he had his white mistress living in the same house as his Black wife. And then as soon as she died, he married that white woman. But anyway, that’s a whole different story. All that to say, all of these American historical places have all of these undertones, all of these untruths, all of this, all of these things that are taboo. Right? And so as a visitor of these places, it’s like you almost have to kind of have your knowledge and your version of what the truth is. And so it’s just fascinating to see, like how we’re still grappling as a nation with things that are just actually correct history. So whether that’s, you know, conversations around critical race theory, what we’re teaching in schools – the fact that we’re still trying to evade that slavery happened, that slavery wasn’t a crucial piece of this country’s history, that the contributions of Black folks are not something that should be celebrated and told about is just, it blows my mind. And so I think Kaya, even with like Montpelier being like a frontrunner in terms of like being more honest about these stories – even on the website, it’s just kind of gives museum vibes. It doesn’t give, this is a plantation, everybody. Because that’s what it is. Why are we -?
Kaya Henderson: It’s not a plantation anymore. And now it is a museum.
De’Ara Balenger: But come on now.
Kaya Henderson: I’m with you.
De’Ara Balenger: A museum about being a plantation!
Kaya Henderson: Ok. Fair enough.
De’Ara Balenger: It’s like, so I think partly it’s all you know, even the website is kind of like this, you know, “James Madison, this is the home of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and da da da da da da.” And then when you scroll, scroll down, you see The Enslaved Community. “The Madison family enslaved over 300 individuals. These enslaved men, women and children were made the Montpelier plantation function and tended to it its most intimate needs of the Madison fam.-” What are we talking about? What are we talking about? And why is this in, like, italics? Like it’s a wedding invitation and about love? This is ridiculous. “For the enslaved, Madison’s notions of liberty were a dream denied. Montpelier honors the lives of the enslaved through ongoing slavery interpretation and a new groundbreaking exhibition.” the whole place is an exhibition. The whole entire place is an exhibition.
Kaya Henderson: Can I, can I shout out.
De’Ara Balenger: I can’t. I can’t.
Kaya Henderson: I think one the things that I’ve read most recently that really grapples with this, how do we reckon with all of this is Clint Smith’s book, How the Word Is Passed. For those of you who don’t know, Clint used to be one of the co-hosts of this podcast. He’s an incredible researcher and author and all kinds of other things. But in How the Word is Passed, he has a, Clint goes and visits eight or nine different historical sites around the country and out of the country as well, I think he goes to Senegal. And the first chapter is on Monticello. And it is all about how, how the tours are being conducted, what stories are being told, how white people are reacting to these new stories that are being told and grappling for the first time with the complexity of who they thought Thomas Jefferson was versus who he actually was. And so if you, if this stuff interests you, I would absolutely recommend Clint Smith’s book, How the Word is Passed. And you’ll read the first chapter and you’ll get sucked in. It’s a great book. Shout out to Clint. And we got a lot of historical record to do, y’all.
De’Ara Balenger: Listen. And as you’re doing your summer planning, go to some of these places.
Kaya Henderson: Yes.
De’Ara Balenger: In the most fun thing to do is to write down some questions on some index cards. And as the tour is happening, just pop your hand up and ask your little question, because it is fun to see people’s reaction to those questions. And it’s not I mean, it’s even at Frederick Douglass House. Like, I just went there a couple of years ago and was still asking about his wife and it’s like, Oh, oh oh. You know, or when you go to Eleanor Roosevelt House and you say, Oh, she was living with a woman for 20 years, what was that about? Oh, it was her secretary. Okay. All right. Sure. So. Summer planning for everybody.
DeRay Mckesson: I went to the White House of the Confederacy in Montgomery, and let me tell you, Cotton was the centerpieces on all the tables. They had a, there was like a children’s book about how they adopted a Black kid back then and how it was so progressive because, you know, they ran the Confederacy.
Kaya Henderson: Oh, this is The Jefferson Davis thing. This just came out, there was just an article about this, about this little adopted Negro that they had. But he was the, he was like the pet. And people don’t know what happened to Little Jim or whatever his name was.
DeRay Mckesson: Yes. So you read the book and you’re like, was he adopted? Is it like I don’t know if adopted is the language that I’d use. But when I tell you that book is prominently displayed. It is like you go in the house and they’re like, We did not hate Black people, he adopted a Black child! You’re like, the whole house was wild, so. . .
De’Ara Balenger: DeRay, I’ve never, what even made you go in there? The number of times I’ve been to Montgomery, I’ve always, I’ve just, like, sped past that place.
DeRay Mckesson: Because it was it was, I don’t know, I was down there obviously for protest stuff, but it was like one of those things where like nobody was there, you know, it was like we were alone because nobody goes to it.
De’Ara Balenger: Ghost house, yeah.
DeRay Mckesson: Yeah, it’s like, and the woman was so excited and we were like, Oh, my God, we have a lot of questions. And then it was like, whoa, this is. And she was really trying to carry it too, like, she really was like, try to be celebratory. And you’re like, Yeah, I don’t know. I don’t know.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere. There’s more to come.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: Now you know that a common stereotype about Black folks is that we can’t swim. And it was so cool to read the Afro Surf Book, to learn about Afro Surf the movement and to talk to Selema because I learned so much about black people’s relationship with water that I didn’t know before. And I’m hoping that you learn, too. Here we go with Selema.
DeRay Mckesson: Selema, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
Selema Masekela: Thank you very much for having me. When I found out that you wanted to hang out for a little bit, I was quite, quite pleased and excited, as I’ve been a fan of your work and everything that you did and the timelessness of it and the joy with which you do it for a very long time.
DeRay Mckesson: So I’m excited to talk to you because I knew who you are. We’ve connected on Twitter and then we met in real life once, but I had no clue that you did surf stuff. So when I got the book Afro Surf, when, when people reached out being like, hey, DeRay, you should have him on the pod, I like, oh my God, we should, because I know nothing, literally zero, nothing about surfing besides what I’ve seen on TV. But before we start with the book, can you talk about how you even got into this work? Like, what’s your story?
Selema Masekela: So I got into surfing because my mother and stepfather moved to Southern California from the East Coast when I was 16. I grew up in New York City, Staten Island and Manhattan. Mom is an immigrant from Haiti. Father was a political exile from South Africa. And I had a Puerto Rican stepdad growing up during that during the birth of hip hop in the late ’70 and early ’80s. And then we lived in New England for a little while. And long story short, I came home from school one day, and my stepfather told me that we were moving to a place called Carlsbad in the northern county of San Diego because my mother didn’t want to be cold any more. She was over the winters. I had no idea, you know, what that place was or what it meant, but, you know, we drove cross-country in a U-Haul, got into town at night, and then woke up in the morning to walk outside and see palm trees, and slow pan right, we were on top of the hill and about two miles away was the ocean glistening in the April sun. So that’s, I think, where the curiosity started because I was like, What are we even doing here? I don’t want to be here. You just ripped me away from my friends and my girlfriend. And it turned out that the town that I lived in, the whole culture revolved around the ocean and surfing. And there weren’t any kids that, there was two kids that looked like me in my school, in a school of about right around 2,000 students at my high school, but the majority of them were in the skateboarding and surfing. And, you know, a kid said, I told the kid that I wanted to learn, that it looked cool. And he was like, Really?! Y’all don’t even know how to swim, what do you mean you’re going to learn how to surf? And I was like, What? And I remember him telling me sort of like it was a public service announcement, but that kind of lit a fire underneath me even further to be like, Oh no, I’m going to get this. And the first time that I stood up on a wave for just a few seconds, it was a spiritual experience. It was, it was, it didn’t feel like playing a sport. It felt like a deep soul connection with nature and this opening up to yourself that I was not ready for and not expecting as a 16-year old. And then my whole sort of life direction sort of shifted as I started to build a relationship with the ocean.
DeRay Mckesson: We covered on the podcast a while ago this idea of one of the things that white supremacy did is that it disconnected Black people from their relationship with the water, that these narratives of like, you know, Black people don’t know how to swim and da da dam are so wild, given that so many people, especially from the continent, are like, water people. Like, water is so key to the culture. And only recently have people started to reclaim that in the narrative storytelling. And you do it so well in Afro Surf. How do you think of this project as an issue of justice? Like, why do you, you know, how do you think about the sort of zoomed out significance of a text like Afro Surf? And what did you, what was the goal of this?
Selema Masekela: You know, it’s funny. A friend of mine sent me a picture this morning, there’s an Instagram website called Black Archives that showcases, you know, very interesting lifestyle photos of Black people just living and being, going back into the ’20s and ’30s and sometimes 1800s. And in this photo was portraits of Chicago 1940s with, you know, a culture of Black people in and around the Great Lakes – black lifeguards and swimming pageants, etc.. And I was looking at these photos this morning, and all I could see was like the immense joy and how much it looked like, you know, just, yeah, that’s us. We are of water. And then you juxtapose that with the images of in Chicago of police with dogs getting Black people out of white beaches and other places in and around the Gulf and Florida and the Inkwell in Southern California. And I think that like, just when it comes to the outdoors in general and especially the ocean, you know, white supremacy did a very great job of making Black people especially feel like that’s not for us. I mean, we also know that, like, it was the idea of like one of the last vestiges of safe space was the outdoors in the wake of segregation. Creating these safe spaces looked like access to the mountains or to the lakes and to the ocean as well. And so, you know, when I, also when you think about like who were on those slave ships that came to America, it was fishermen, it was watermen, they were people who knew how to navigate the ocean and the seas very, very well. And the manner in which the punishment, the idea of, well – obviously we know the trauma of the trips – but also the manner in which the water was used as a threat, you know, if you escaped from swimming, etc., you know, the consequences were going to be very, very, very high. So I think that like when it comes to this book, for me it was twofold. One, my family being from South Africa, the first time that I went to South Africa to go surfing was in the wake of apartheid ending and my father moving home after exile for 30 years. And ironically, on that trip, even though the laws had just ended separating Blacks and whites, there were no longer segregated beaches, I didn’t, unbeknownst to me as a 19-year old kid, I found myself challenging the principle of that in Durban, South Africa, where after a few days the cops tried to arrest me and they threw me off of a pier because they had been watching me go surfing. And the irony of that, like I was there for the first time with my dad who hadn’t gone home for 30 years, I tried to go surfing and they’re like, No, you don’t get to do that. And in high school, just being told constantly, and the more that I fell in love with surfing, the more people told me, Hey, it’s really cool that you’re doing what we’re doing, our thing. You’re a different type of Black guy, you’re more like us. So all those things together, I think when we had the opportunity to do this book, it was, I wanted it to be loud and I wanted it to be very much in people’s faces, to wake them up to something that they didn’t know, which is this larger conversation of, as you mentioned, our natural and historic relationship to the ocean. And also like this, the deep, deep, deep healing power of water. You know, for me, going surfing, going to the ocean has always been a place where I’m able to leave everything on land behind and simply just be, you know, marinate in that 90 something percent of water that’s in my body and feel this union with the ocean, and opening people up to hopefully, a larger possibility of like the idea of what ocean culture and surf culture looks like is not and cannot be limited to, you know, blond hair and blue eyes and being from Southern California.
DeRay Mckesson: I love it. Can we zoom out and talk about like what is surfing? So when I think about surfing, I think that it means to like get a board and ride a wave. That is what, I don’t even know that, I can see it in my mind. But that’s, like if somebody asked me like, What does it mean to surf? That’s what I’d say. Is that right?
Selema Masekela: Yes. But it’s also not limited to the board. You know, there, you can get fins, short, short fins that you put on your feet and learn how to catch waves just by swimming and ride them with your body. It’s called body surfing.
DeRay Mckesson: Really? With no, with no board?
Selema Masekela: Yeah, with no board. Yeah. Just YouTube body surfing. You will have your mind blown at what, what exists in the possibilities of that look like. There’s also bodyboarding. Where you layer on sort of a board that’s like half the size of you that you lay on, that you don’t stand up on. So yeah, there’s various sort of, at the end of the day, it’s all wave riding. You know, the Hawaiians do so in boats, in catamarans. It’s the idea of basically harnessing this energy. And when you stop and think about what a wave is, a wave is just energy that moves through the water from thousands of miles away from giant storms that are generated in the middle of the ocean – that energy has to go somewhere. And its final resting place where it dissipates, that is, at the shore. And before it dies, that energy dies on the shore. There’s this wave that is formed as the water gets shallower. And that’s what you’re riding. You just riding energy that is moving through the water that finally doesn’t have any room to go anywhere because the water is shallow. And it’s a very, very magical experience to sort of, you know, you’re the engine. You have to put yourself in position and read, learn to read the ocean and what it’s doing in order to catch the wave in the right place, and then ride it. And then that very short wave, you know, that sometimes ten, maybe tops 30 seconds if it’s a long point break, those moments can feel like, the few seconds can feel like forever, sometimes in the way that sort of time slows down as you’re navigating, riding this energy.
DeRay Mckesson: Now, why the book? Why Afros Surf? Tell us about the book. Tell us what your vision was for the book. And then also – well, let’s start there ,and then I have a couple of questions.
Selema Masekela: No, the book was based out of a brand that I cofounded that’s based out of Cape Town called Mami Wata. Mami Wata being this West African water deity, goddess of the ocean. And it was like, you know, this idea of being able to, you know, showcase and expand the idea of what surf culture looked like. And as we were having these discussions about like, what that could be, and being a brand from the continent, from Africa, it was just like Afro Surf. And everyone was like, Oh! Yes! That could be it. That’s a vibe. And then what if we did a book where we were able to showcase what surfing looks like in and around the African continent? And that it is not that this idea of surfing, which we see in the media, is constantly being, you know, either like a Southern Australian or Southern Californian coastal, very, very, very white thing is so much more than that as far as what the culture can be and look like. Not taking anything away from the indigenous sort of Polynesian narratives of surfing’s origins, but also being like, yes, guess what? African peoples have been riding waves for thousands of years, in fact, going all the way back to the late 1600s in Ghana, it’s documented. Let’s unpack what that looks like and also showcase that this thing is thriving in Africa and also that it’s interwoven with the diversity of modern African culture. You know, I think there’s this Western perception of Africa, first of all, being a country, not a continent. And this idea that, like, Africa is a place where I’d like to go to one day and see the animals and go on a safari and then get on a plane and go home or maybe, you know, climb Kilimanjaro or go and help those people that need so much help and build a well and feel good about myself when I come home, but like completely immune to the richness and the diversity and the joyful energy of modern day African culture as it spans across the continent and its contribution to pop culture and the zeitgeist. I mean, what better way to sort of make people, force people to be curious about African peoples and culture then through this very unlikely lens that they had no idea existed, through surfing and thus Afro Surf?
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. That’s what a different, I saw, you know people have talked about people of color, Black people surfing, and I was like, oh, I get it. And then when I saw the book, I’m like, wow, this is like much more of a big deal than I thought. Like, I knew it was a big deal because I’m like, Black people had to be in the water, but the book really contextualized for me all the different stories and all the different, it was like, cool to see. What do you think the misconceptions are about surfing? Like, besides mine where I was like I didn’t know you could surf without a surfboard. That is really new to me. What else do people get wrong or what have you heard as you talked about the book, or you have a whole surfer brand as people sort of start to get aware of Black people in the surf space?
Selema Masekela: I think the main misconception is that it’s just, is that it’s a quote unquote “white sport” – as if that was even such a thing. But it’s, I think that’s one of the main misconceptions is that it is a white sport or something that white people came up with. I think there’s obviously the old stereotypes of Spicoli and strictly stoner mentality associated with surfing. Everybody that I talked to who’s not a surfer, the first question is like sharks!? And that like if you’re out there, obviously you’re going to be attacked by a shark.
DeRay Mckesson: Is sharks not a thing?
Selema Masekela: Sharks are a thing, in the same way that like when you get on an airplane, there is a chance that at some things might go wrong. I think you have a greater chance of being struck by lightning than you do of being attacked by a shark. But they are a thing. And there are some places that I would never surf. You know, there’s a couple of islands off the coast of Africa, like the Seychelles, that are just, it’s a problem there. It’s like, it’s actually a problem. But I’ve never, I’ve seen sharks in the water and had to get out, but I’ve also surfed in places like the Maldives and Tahiti in and amongst reef sharks that don’t have any interest in you. And one thing from spending a lot of time in the ocean, you just, you start to learn how the ocean works and that sharks, for the most part, are not interested in you. But of course, you know, every once in a while there will be an incident which is usually mistaken identity. But the press around the shark attacks, obviously with our cultural relationship with Jaws, etc., it makes people think like, yeah, that’s enough for me, that must be happening all the time. But, but it really isn’t. And I think one of the other misconceptions is – or not even a misconception but something that people aren’t aware of is that it is something you build relationship with and it becomes a lifestyle, and that it’s the type of thing that you, I endeavor to do it until I’m physically unable. Like, I can’t picture my life without access to the ocean in that way, just for what it gives me in my ability to function and have peace in a very, very wild world.
DeRay Mckesson: How can people get involved? So people who are interested in the surf community but might not live near water or don’t think they live near – I don’t know, like how can people get involved in this work, besides buying the book? People should buy the book.
Selema Masekela: Well, yeah, the book is a great place to start. There are some really, some really great groups that are showcasing what surfing looks like for Black people and storytelling it and doing surf lessons. You know if you’re coming out to California and you wanted to learn and you are like I would like to learn it and be in and amongst Black people, there’s that. And that’s a thing. You know, there’s an Instagram account called Black surfers, literally. Just Black surfers. And when you see like the diversity of the different types of Black people that are standing up and learning how to surf, you’re blown away, men and women. There’s a group called Textured Waves that is a collective of Black women that decided a few years ago, we’re going to showcase what this lifestyle and culture looks like strictly through the lens of Black women, all the way down to, like, you know, the specifically Black issues of like, how do I navigate the ocean with Black hair and what is my hair care look like, etc.? And so they really make it, they take away a lot of the myths and they really talk about surfing specifically in a language that helps Black people to be like, Oh, okay, maybe I can get down with this. And it’s been, there’s another organization called Color the Water that’s based here in Manhattan Beach. There’s a group called Ebony Beach Club that everyone should follow. And a great music producer, producer and deejay named Brick. He and another brother named Gage Crismond founded this group and started a small brand called Ebony Beach Club. And they do these great beach parties where people, specifically for Black people, or I should say, centered around Black people, anybody can come, but, you know, with lessons and deejays and this mix of like what a Black cookout looks like, but at the beach with surfing and surf lessons. So yeah, those are just, those right off the bat. If you went on IG and saw the storytelling that was going down, you’d be like, okay, I have to put this on my list of a thing I need to experience or be a part of.
DeRay Mckesson: And how do people stay in touch with your work?
Selema Masekela: I’m easy. On Instagram, Twitter, etc., it’s just @Selema. Follow me through the brand, through Mami Wata, which on Instagram is M A M I W A T A Mami Wata surf.
DeRay Mckesson: There are two questions to ask everybody. The first is what do you say to people who feel like they have done everything they were supposed to do? They emailed, they called, they testified, they read your book, they read my book, and the world still looks the same to them. The world hasn’t changed in the way they thought it would. What do you say to those people?
Selema Masekela: Who’s those people, I’d say the world is changing. It’s not changing anywhere near as fast as you and I want it to. And for actual change, I believe, permanent change to stick, it requires much more process, I think, than we desire, especially when it comes to the dismantling and the breaking down in order to build back up. So I would say keep your head up and keep doing the right things and keep pushing for the change that you can effect in and around your circle. And try to find ways to live with as much joy as possible, despite the fact that we are in an immense, an immensely dark time, not to lose hope. Yeah. I just think for me personally, there was so much that I thought, yeah, we would have, I thought we were going to be past this ages ago. And as I settle into my middle age, I’m realizing that, Oh, this is what the grind is like. And I think about what that work looked like throughout the various generations, especially when it comes to Black struggle. Yeah, it’s, sadly, it’s just the process for actual change is . . . slow.
DeRay Mckesson: That makes sense. And then the last question is, what’s the piece of advice that you’ve gotten over the years that stuck with you?
Selema Masekela: The greatest piece of advice that I’ve gotten over the years that has stuck with me? My father gave me a great piece of advice. He said, Hey, man, I need you to understand that you’re never going to have it all figured out, and if you’re waiting to get to this time when you wake up and you understand everything and you have it all sorted, I have bad news for you. That day is not coming, so get on with your existence. And I take it to heart. I’ve taken it to heart. You know, the idea of just knowing it all and having it all figured out doesn’t exist. So staying curious, you know, having the ability to continue to learn and understand that like learning and adjusting and course shifting is what we do for the existence of our time here. Takes a lot of the pressure off.
DeRay Mckesson: Boom. Well, we consider you a friend of the pod and can’t wait to have you back.
Selema Masekela: Thank you so much, DeRay. It’s like I said, and it’s, it is a pleasure and an honor. Keep doing, keep doing the damn thing.
DeRay Mckesson, narrating: 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 podcast, 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 AJ Moultrie and mixed by Charlotte Landes, executive produced by me. And in special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger, and Myles Henderson.