In This Episode
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay, welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Sam, Kaya and De’Ara as usual, talking about the news that was underreported for the past week, news that you should know, news about equity, race, injustice that just didn’t make the headlines. And then I sit down with Jonathan McCrory, the Executive Artistic Director of the National Black Theater in Harlem, to discuss the work that they’re doing to elevate black creators, the history of such an incredible organization, and so much more. Here we go.
My advice for this week is to go to coffee, go to lunch, have the FaceTime. There’s so many people that I’ve met in passing, were I keep seeing them, I saw them at a thing, saw them at a party, saw them at an event. And we just didn’t have time to talk in the moment. And we’re like, oh, we’ll together and we never really get together. And in the past month, I’ve been much more thoughtful about getting together. About saying, hey, let’s go do coffee, let’s go do lunch, let’s do those things.
You should do those things with the people in your life. For some people, it’s like, hey, can we just FaceTime, let’s just hop on the phone. There’s so many people that I’ve seen in passing and the pandemic made me appreciate friendships and relationships so much more, especially because Lord we were all stuck. So let’s go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, friends, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I’m De’Ara Balenger, you can find me on Twitter and Instagram @De’AraBalenger.
SAM SINYANGWE: And I’m Sam Sinyangwe @samswey on Twitter.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DERAY MCKESSON: This is Deray @deray on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: All right, we are together, we’re here, we’re ready. We’re excited. I’m going to let my colleague and friends talk about the Olympics. I haven’t really been watching. When I saw Simone Biles was coming back, I did watch this on the balance beam. Other than that, I really don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know– I think, it’s like over now, isn’t it? That’s probably a good place to start. So can you all tell us what happened, what happened?
KAYA HENDERSON: The United States won more medals than any other country with 113 as the total count. But 39 gold, 41 silver, 33 bronze. The number two country was China, number three, Japan, four, Great Britain. I think, we won, [LAUGHING] if there is such a thing.
DERAY MCKESSON: The highlights that I have where, Allyson Felix winning her 11th medal, being the most decorated person ever in track and field. Nailed it, how incredible. The person with shot put, like that person was great.
SAM SINYANGWE: So I’m a soccer watcher. So in the Olympics for some reason, I don’t know why this is, soccer in the Olympics is different than soccer outside of the Olympics. All the players are younger. you’re only supposed to have, I think, three players who are over the age of 24, which means that for most of the international teams, the really good ones, a lot of their best players are not allowed to play.
So it’s a completely different and new younger squad. And the finals just happened, I’m not going to give away the winner. But it was Brazil-Spain. But it was cool to see. I have no idea why the rules are different, where they came up with this formula. But it’s a fascinating world of soccer that is different than anywhere else. So it’s cool to watch, I recommend people to watch, definitely the final.
DERAY MCKESSON: You should definitely watch Athing Mu, she is an American, she won the women’s 800 meters. And you just got to watch her run. The Americans won the relay too, and she is 19 from Trenton, New Jersey. Talk about a runner.
KAYA HENDERSON: I watched artistic swimming which was really interesting, I think, is probably what used to be synchronized swimming. And these ladies did this whole robotics routine in the pool that was absolutely amazing. I mean, there was a lot– I’m not a huge Olympics fan but there was a lot, there was a little something for everybody.
DERAY MCKESSON: And Sam, to your question, Olympic soccer has an age limit to ensure that the FIFA World Cup retains its number one position in world soccer and doesn’t have to compete for attention with the Olympics.
SAM SINYANGWE: I knew it. I knew it, I was thinking like you know this would be the only other event that would be on par with the World Cup, but they won’t allow that to happen. And they also shut down– there was that attempt at forming like a new league, that would compete with the Champions League, and they shut that down. So soccer is interesting, the politics of soccer as a whole thing.
KAYA HENDERSON: OK, my news this week is from the Washington Post magazine, and it is about a small community of Brown Grove, Virginia, which is a historically black community in Hanover County Virginia, about 17 miles North of Richmond. And this small African-American community is fighting against what I call the Disneyland of supermarkets, Wegmans. And it is, if you never been to a Wegmans, let me tell you, it’s an adventure. But Wegmans wants to build a 1.1 million square foot $175 million distribution center in the community of Brown Grove.
And of course Wegmans and the state of Virginia say that it will add jobs, and tax revenue, but in fact the community is fighting this because they actually feel like the environmental impact is huge that it will destroy their community, it will bring noise pollution, air pollution, truck traffic. And that it will sit on the unmarked graves of some of Brown’s Groves founders, and it will disturb the environmental wetlands that provide water, well water to this community. And the community, this little community, was founded in 1870 by an emancipated black woman named Caroline Dobson Morris.
And I did another piece about a black community in Maryland, a few weeks ago. And I’m really– I’ve gotten very interested in these small black communities that were founded by free Black people. Anyway, this lady and all of her descendants have lived in Brown Grove, and descendants are still there. And they have really done a number on this small community, they brought I-95 in some decades ago, and cut Browns Grove completely in half. When I-95 came in they built a truck stop.
And now, there’s gray ash and dirt from air pollution from all of the trucks that rests on people’s yards, and whatnot. They have airplanes all over the place. They haven’t improved roads in Browns Grove and so these trucks and stuff are running through the community, and continuing to damage roads, and flood things out. And so these people are like enough, right. And so they are fighting about it.
Community is angry because they feel like they’ve been neglected by the State and County officials. There are no sidewalks in Brown Grove. The only playground in Browns Grove is provided by the church, the local church. And most of the residents draw their water from the well system, because the County hasn’t added them to the water distribution system. And so these little folks are doing their best to stay alive in this big wide world and Wegmans, which is actually a private family owned company, has said, look, we’re going to build this distribution center.
In fact, it’s the single biggest investment that the company has ever made. And the community is saying, you haven’t done enough to consult with us directly. And Wegmans is not offering any specific contributions to Brown’s Grove, they’re not guaranteeing any jobs, they’re not going to put sidewalks in, they’re not going to do anything. And you’ve seen these kinds of deals before where communities get a whole bunch of improvements when they agree to have big development come in. And these people are saying, look, we’ve had big development come into our community, it’s only been bad, nothing has benefited us, and here we go again.
And what’s super interesting about it is, the rules to declare this site available for this use have not been followed. And so there are now a whole bunch of legal challenges. It’s illegal to disturb a cemetery, and the people are saying they haven’t found the cemetery. And of course, the people we’re like, well, you wouldn’t find a cemetery. These are unmarked graves of a poor black community and nobody ever wanted to document from the state perspective.
And Wegmans take is, look, literally this is a quote from an article, from our perspective we found land that was owned properly and said, this is in the perfect location, and we’re going to be good neighbors. And it’s all going to work out. And that is common frankly, when big development wants to assert itself in various places. And thankfully the NAACP has joined, they’ve mounted some lawsuits. And there was a recent breakthrough in January of 2020, when the US court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit ruled that Union Hill, a historically black community about 70 miles West of Brown Grove, had not been properly consulted on a proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline.
And in this decision, the court said that environmental justice is not merely a box to be checked. So I bring this to the pod because the fight continues. For every big fight that is happening, there are little fights that are happening for people to preserve history and culture. The latest win for the community is that they have gotten some recognition as a National Historic district, which if they are able to finalize that process, it will stop actually this process. But you know it’s a David and Goliath story that has a lot to do with our history and our culture, and community engagement.
And I think that there are ways for companies to deeply engage with community, and most of them do not. And this is just an example of that. So I’m going to keep my eye on the community of Brown Grove versus, what was one of my favorite supermarkets, Wegmans.
SAM SINYANGWE: The tone of this article and particularly Wegmans, and even some folks in political office, even within the Democratic party in this article is just like weight off. They are framing this as economic development, and jobs, and bringing resources into black communities. And literally, the community is like, we don’t want this grocery store that is going to come in and potentially build this massive center on essentially unmarked graves, it’s wild, from Governor Northam, who praised this development to Wegman’s. They are just completely oblivious or they don’t care, right? I mean, it’s wild to see this.
And also wild to hear about the way in which people are still living in 2021, like getting water from a well. Folks do need investment, they do need infrastructure, what they don’t need is a white owned grocery chain coming in and bulldozing graves to build a place where they didn’t even commit really to hiring any specified number of people from the community, even the jobs we don’t even know about. So it’s sad to see this.
This obviously, isn’t the first time this is happening. You mentioned I-95, and this is just generation after generation of the state encouraging this, and private developers doing this. I hope that they win, I hope that they successfully prevent this from happening. And that they get actual investment and money, and real stuff.
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SAM SINYANGWE: So my news is about the racial wealth gap. And in particular, it’s about data that was just published in the Wall Street Journal from the st. Louis Federal Reserve. Now, they did this survey of consumer finances, figuring out how much, your income, how many assets, how much debt, total wealth that families have all across the country. And this is new data, this is data through 2019. So it doesn’t include all of last year and this year, which is a lot.
But does include data through 2019. And the update is not a good one, because what they find is that the racial wealth gap is expanding. And in particular, they Zoom in and look at folks who are in their 30s. So like a lot of us. And they look at the racial wealth gap between Black and white households in their 30s, folks in their 30s.
And what they find is that that gap is growing particularly, among folks with college degrees whereby compared to the previous generation, white households with college degrees are increasing in wealth by about 17% compared to three decades ago. Now, they have $138,000 median net worth. For Black households with college degrees, wealth has plummeted compared to the previous generation. In today’s dollars, the previous generation three decades ago, had about $50,000 in net worth in their 30s. Today, us folks in our 30s, $8,200 median net worth with college degrees.
For folks without college degrees it’s even less, about $6,000. So the college degree matters for Black folks, it matters for us, but not really that much, it doesn’t really do a whole lot to close that gap. Meanwhile, white folks without college degrees, white folks without college degrees are still almost at $50,000 dollars net worth. Black folks with college degrees, $8,000, white folks without college degrees almost $50,000 median net worth. So that’s the racial wealth gap, and it is growing.
And what is important about this data, one, it reminds us of just the massive scale of investment that’s needed to correct for these inequities, which didn’t start last year or the year before, even three decades ago, but are getting worse. But also, it puts into stark relief some of the good news that I shared last week about a reduction in poverty rates because of the stimulus checks, the expansion of unemployment assistance, child tax credits, and other benefits that were expanded during the pandemic. Those temporarily infusions of income are like a drop in the bucket compared to this overall gap in wealth, and even those infusions are now proving to be relatively temporary as politicians try to back away from reauthorizing them. So that’s sort of where we’re at. I want to talk about this, we have to talk more about the racial wealth gap and just putting into context the scale of this issue, the scale of investment, targeted investment in Black communities that is needed in order to close some of these gaps.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Sometimes I feel like I’m living some of these stories, like this one for example. I think about my grandparents, right. My grandpa was an electrician, my grandma was a foreman in a factory called Honeywell– Honeywell still around in Minnesota– they bought a beautiful home on the North side of Minneapolis. I doubt at this point, maybe me or one of my cousins could get in that neighborhood to purchase a home. My parents live in Hillcrest, Washington D.C. in Southeast that, usually I wouldn’t even name Hillcrest, but y’all done found it. Y’all done found the gem.
KAYA HENDERSON: Not only have they found it. They found the way to keep black people out these days.
DE’ARA BALENGER: They sure did, and you know my mom found out about the white people only Facebook. So you better watch out for Leticia because she’s coming. But my house went for sale recently, and because I sent it to you Kaya in Hillcrest, and it started at $750,000. My parents have been in that neighborhood for what, probably 15 years. But that’s like a starting home in Hillcrest now, which means, can I get in my parents’ neighborhood? I don’t think so.
I have a good friend who grew up on the Gold Coast who had to move to Maryland because she was trying to get a bigger house on 16th Street, and she can’t afford it, it’s like $3 million. So when I think about all this education, all these degrees we all got, that has not seemed to be helpful in terms of wealth speaking in the context of this article really, we’re fine, we’re privileged–
KAYA HENDERSON: This is the biggest betrayal, right? We tell kids get a good education, go to college, and you’ll be able to access the American dream. You’ll be able to buy a house, you’ll be able to get a good job, you’ll be able to do better than your parents, and none of that is true for the millennials. And so they have gone to the best colleges and invested the most that they possibly could in terms of taking on debt to finance their education. And they can’t afford houses and they don’t have good jobs. And oh, by the way, Black folks, the article said our incomes are not rising as quickly as our other race colleagues, right.
And so what are these children going to do, who’ve taken out all of this– I literally was thanking my lucky stars that I went to college 30 years ago and paid off my little student loans, because I’d be up a creek right now. What are all these young people with these degrees and not good jobs going to do? And there’s no affordable housing anywhere, I live in Washington D.C. where it is a new high rise every 15 feet. And I don’t know who’s going to live in all of these places because these young people can’t afford these $2,500, and $3,000 rents, and this is a city that attracts recent college graduates.
And so when you look at what colleges and universities have done to raise their tuition, somebody is really going to have to explain to me why it is going to cost $80,000 for one year of education anywhere, I just don’t understand it. And I sit on the board of trustees of a University, I’m watching these college costs continue to skyrocket, I’m watching kids continue to take loans out. They can’t get jobs, they can’t live anywhere. Help me understand where we’re going as a country.
DERAY MCKESSON: It is interesting too, I think, I didn’t realize the impact of student debt as being just such a overwhelming factor. And you all can’t see the chat on here, but go click on the article and just look at the chat as well. Because Black people with college degrees are also screwed, black people without them are super screwed. But the most fascinating part of it to me was that in 2012, 64% of white families contributed an average of nearly $73,000 towards their college aged children’s education, according to this study published by the st. Louis Fed.
Just 34% of black families assisted at an average of $16,000. The white people who are going to school, yeah, they have some debt too, but their families on the whole are able to contribute a far greater like starting point to help them out. Black people, and this is certainly, I think, most of our experience, black families if they have to give, they can give– the families that can give can give something. But even the most that they give is just not as nowhere comparable and this is a reminder– all of this conversation is a reminder to me that like, one rich black person, two black billionaires, three black billionaires does not end the racial wealth gap.
That like, structurally it is broken and it actually has to be fixed at a structural level, and one of the things that the article does mention that’s helpful for a lot of people, and that we know is true is that this gap has persisted since, ding, ding, ding, the end of slavery. That like what happens when you steal people, steal their labor and don’t compensate people. The gap comes from somewhere, it is not because Black people are lazy, because our people don’t work hard, like the gap was designed.
KAYA HENDERSON: And the current tax code reinforces it by making sure that we pay a whole lot of taxes and millionaires, and billionaires don’t. We had that article on the Pod some months ago. And even with wealth taxes and increase in capital gains, the whole US tax code is all wacky, and is literally structured so that rich people get richer and stay rich, and poor people do not. So all of this is all structural.
DE’ARA BALENGER: I think, it’s also just– Kaya back to one of your points– so just around like philosophy, around what we’re told. Because I think, being an entrepreneur now, having been an entrepreneur now for four or five years, and really understanding that I had to learn how to run a business. I didn’t know anything about running a business even with a law degree. My earning potential was really exponential as an entrepreneur, as opposed to, if I went to a law firm and was on a partner track, that would be a certain amount of money, still very good money. But when I think about the community that I belong to, Kaya, you included in terms of folks who are starting their own thing.
And the power and autonomy in that, the power and one, being able to decide what your potential and value is. But then also the power to hire other folks. I wish that was a part of our communities philosophy as we raise and nurture our children. I think, it’s like, you can be a lawyer, you can be a doctor, you can be a teacher, you can be an engineer.
And I’ll speak for my family in particular, when it came to entrepreneurship, it was too risky. That was too risky to do, it was like being an artist. And so I just– I think we also as a community have some work to do when it comes to what our options are and what our potential is and what we tell our kids.
DERAY MCKESSON: And the only thing I say is, this is a conversation we have with Professor Dianne Stewart, who wrote that incredible work on Black Love and Black Women, the history of African-American marriage, is that what she talks about is the idea of wealth spread that even when you have a lot of income in black communities, you are often spreading that amongst so many people because of mass incarceration, and da da da, that the wealth that you could have is actually just minimized, right, because the spread is actually so great. And that we have to account for that too. That like that’s just another reminder that a couple of rich people does not change the game in the way that people think. I was talking to somebody who I know, who I didn’t realize that prison phone calls weren’t legal where they were, and she was like, oh, no, I’ve spent at least $16,000 talking to my husband. It blew my mind. Hey you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Don’t go anywhere, there’s more to come. This episode is supported by the facts original series reservation dogs
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DERAY MCKESSON: I love Dropbox. I’ve been using Dropbox, I feel like I’ve been using it since it came out, I feel like that probably is not true. But I love it because, when I need to figure out how to share things in my personal life or at work, it really is one of the best things. And it’s also great, because I used to just email everything to myself. I could be like, and then I had to search to find the email with the document. Now, I can install Dropbox on all the computers, the files show up, or just go on the cloud. It really is one of the best things.
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DE’ARA BALENGER: My news today, is about a new graphic novel that is written by a Black woman, Dr. Rebecca Hall, also Esquire, she has a PhD and a JD. Let me just say, Dr. Rebecca Hall. So she got her PhD, I think, is now teaching at the University of California Santa Cruz. She has been a researcher for quite some time and her particular area of research really has been slavery, both the voyage and then what has happened consequently once African bodies got to this land.
So what I found so interesting about this article is that, well, one, this book obviously, which is a graphic novel, but I’m not even going to get to how cool that is. Really, I want to talk about the substance of this book, which was, all of the research that Rebecca Hall uncovered, that basically found that Black women were responsible for a number, significant number of revolts, both on the continent in the capture, and trying to get enslaved people. And then also on the slave ships. And so I just found this miraculous because, there hasn’t been little research done on this. But there’s just an assumption about Black women, that because they’re women, and because they’re inconsequential, even when there was evidence that Black women were leading slave revolt, and because of how they position them on the slave ships. So usually because they were women they’re like, oh, they won’t do anything.
And they also put them on kind of the top of the ship near the weapons, because one, they didn’t think they’re a threat, but also for them to be closer to their abusers, in terms of sexual abuse. But because of their positioning on these slave ships, they were able to take advantage and lead a number of revolts. I just found so many layers of this interesting, because once Rebecca Hall got to the bottom of it, she really realized that because of the framing of history, and even because of the myopic thinking around Black women, and who they are, and what they’re capable of doing, that all of these stories were lost, or they were kind of miscategorized. So there are cases even, where this one black woman killed her owner and it was just kind of categorized as a murder. But in fact, it was this event that precipitated this revolt.
So I know, I just wanted to bring this to the Pod, because I thought this was so fascinating for so many reasons. One, because again, it’s just like this constant unearthing of stories of just the truth about the power and the resilience of Black people. I’m super curious about what this book even looks like, and the Illustrator of the book is Hugo Martinez. So this book came out in June. So I’m just– I’m a little late to the game here. But I’m really excited to share this with y’all and just to kind of dig deeper into how these historians thought it was counter-intuitive that these Black women could lead revolts.
And they said the more that they found, the more Black women that were on the ship meant, it was going down.
KAYA HENDERSON: The more likely.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So curious to hear what y’all have to think about this one.
SAM SINYANGWE: You mentioned the study at the end there, and reading the study was a textbook example of researcher bias, and like why it’s important for researchers to actually reflect the experience of the subject that they are researching. Because you had this huge database that I didn’t even know existed, I’ve been exploring this database, now. It’s a database of 27,000 slave ship voyages that took place over centuries like all over the world. And as you said De’Ara, they discovered they were revolts on at least one in 10 of the voyages. And that the more enslaved women who were on the ship the more likely revolt was to have occurred.
But then it goes on to say that the researchers questioned their own findings about the role women played in the revolts, calling them counter intuitive and noting that women are rarely mentioned as leading violent resistance in historical documents, written by who. They had so much data, data I didn’t even know existed. They conducted this whole complicated analysis, they found the finding, they found the finding that the more enslaved women that were on the ship, the more likely there was a revolt to have occurred. That should have led them onto the journey that Rebecca Hall is doing the actual work of finding the documentation that turns out is there, but was largely hidden, that actually does establish this pattern that was happening, that does establish these revolts took place.
The data was there, it was all pointing in that direction and the researchers just sort of walked away from it because they were so biased that they couldn’t even consider that as a possibility. So that is a lesson for research. You see this all the time in the criminal justice, how researchers interpret particular patterns in ways that just uphold existing oppressive structures and ideologies that the data doesn’t even support. And I think this is like a textbook example of why Rebecca Hall’s so important to be doing this research.
DERAY MCKESSON: Like you Kaya, I wasn’t surprised at all, and De’Ara, thanks for bringing this here. It’s like, of course, like who was raising the kids, who was making the food. Who is seen as so docile to be allowed to be in all of the most intimate spaces, I mean, it was the Black women. That makes total sense to me, that if you were trying to get close to somebody, that’s it, because they weren’t letting those men, they were letting the men anywhere near our whole set of people.
But the women– so it’s great that we’re actually telling this story. It’s also a reminder that when we think about rebellion, it is always an entire community that rebels no matter who, whatever story you hear in the end. If some story tells you that a couple of people did it, they are lying. It’s always a community and the idea that women were not a part in leading the community of rebellion, that it wasn’t, it was those queer people who were enslaved.
I mean, all of these stories that we never got because white people knew that if we were able to tell our own story, if we could read and write, they knew it would be game over at some point. Because the thing about white supremacy that I worry that we don’t say enough in public is that it is just rooted in evil. And, I think, that what we know today, what they probably did to our ancestors on a daily basis, if we had their account of it there would be no rendering that was not just evil. The rape, the abuse, the tear, if we had more first person accounts, evil, like people would be like, wow. And the fact that we don’t is how people can sort of wash over some of this stuff.
KAYA HENDERSON: I think people might be a little bit more than, wow. I think it’d be rowdy, rowdy, up in here.
DERAY MCKESSON: Yes, I agree, but happy that this is being reclaimed and retaught. Mine is about forensics. And in 2016 under President Obama, the President’s Council of Advisors on science and technology put out an incredible report that really, did not get picked up in the news because our reporters don’t feel smart enough to write about forensics. But the report is called Forensic Science and Criminal Courts, Ensuring Scientific Validity of Feature Comparison Methods. And what’s incredible is that the report does a number of things. It essentially says that, their set of things that are used in the criminal justice process as evidence that just are not science.
So you might call it something, you might believe that it’s something, you just can’t call it science. So there are some parts about the firearms examinations where it says PCAST finds a firearms analysis, currently falls short of the criteria for foundational validity. It goes on to say that, more importantly, the stated method is circular around firearms examiners determining that shell casings match a gun, it declares that an examiner may state that two tool marks have a quote common origin when their features are quote “insufficient agreement”. It then defines sufficient agreement as occurring when the examiner considers it a, quote, “practical impossibility that the tool marks have different origins”.
I mean, this report is unbelievable in the sense that it just picks apart these pieces of forensic science that people– because they saw CSI– they just believed that it must be true. Loretta Lynch when she was AG, they sort of distanced themselves from this report, they didn’t disavow it. But they were like, yeah, thank you, but no, thanks. Because again, if you take what the scientists say about the forensic space not being science, then there are a host of people’s cases that you got to reexamine, because some firearms examiner said this, or some bite mark analysis that’s not real, said this or whatever. But then in the final days of the Trump administration, in mid January, as Trump is about to get out of office, they issued a press release on January 13, 2021, where they have a statement that essentially completely disavows this study.
What they essentially say is that, it might not be science, but it’s good enough. That’s the gist of the Trump administration’s response to PCAST. Mind you, this is like leading scientists across the country who are assembled to be on this committee to write this report. The Trump people in an unsigned statement come out and are like, hey, this isn’t real. And they’re are not a lot of unsigned statements that come out with the DOJ that are this expansive. It’s like a 26 page document, it’s all this stuff. And the Biden administration has not rescinded the statement essentially disavowing and attacking PCAST recommendations.
I bring it for a couple of reasons. One, is that more organizers should understand the forensic space. Because I think that it is ripe for organizing for change at the local level. The D.C. Crime lab lost its accreditation, the Houston crime lab got taken over by the state of Texas because it was such a mess. I think there’s some incredible groups working on this and I’m personally, invested in this town. But the second is that, I’m actually surprised that the Biden team has not come in and just done away with some things really quickly. This is one of them, that the Biden team should just retract this press release from the Trump administration, should not stand by it.
Just like we talked about earlier in the podcast, in another podcast, that the Trump administration told people who they had previously let out of jail that they might have to return. The Biden team has not yet overturned that. So I want to bring it, because I’m fascinated by the forensic space. While that people could be put in prison, or in jail based on things that are not science, but appear to be science. And the last thing I’ll say is that, I’m spending a lot of time organizing around Keith Davis, who is incarcerated in Maryland. He’s going to be tried for murder for the fifth time.
And the firearms examiner his case, the lawyer says, did you take notes, he goes no. Did you take pictures? No, did you take measurements? He goes, no. She says, are you saying you eyeballed it? And he says, yes. Hey, you’re listening to Pod Save the People. Stay tuned, there’s more to come. Can it be, it is finally summer. It felt like winter was never going to end, last winter that is. The good thing is that we’ve had a real summer so far. And naturally we start to think about looking good after a year and some change, because we got places to go to. I’ve gone to some picnics outside, some movies outside. It’s actually been really dope.
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DERAY MCKESSON: Black creators have always turned to the National Black theatre in Harlem, for support. Use this space for development, production, financial scholarship, and residency opportunities. And today, I get to talk to Jonathan McCrory about his work helping to lead the charge as the Executive Artistic Director of the National Black Theater. Here we go. Jonathan, thanks so much for joining us here at Pod Save the People.
JONATHAN MCCRORY: Hey, so happy to be here. Thank you for giving us space.
DERAY MCKESSON: So Jonathan, we met a long time ago it feels like, now, because I was at the National Theater Harlem, a lot of people I know love it and love Sade the CEO. And then I met you, and I was like, oh, my goodness, he runs this day to day, he’s the best. And I wanted to learn more about your story. So can you tell us how you ended up in the National Theater and what is the National theater.
JONATHAN MCCRORY: I’ve been at NBT close to 10 years, now. National Black Theater was founded by Doctor Barbara Ann Teer. A woman born from East st. Louis, who wanted to create a destination for her people to be liberated. What does liberation look like? Not just freedom, but liberation. Now to create a space that allowed for us to have a Mecca, a home that allows for exhales as Sade will say, your home is where your exhale can feel the best.
And so what does it mean to create a physical build space, not a theoretical space, not a virtual space that is owned operated and run by Black people that would allow for us to have a place in the Americas, forged for our brilliance, forged for our liberation, and forged for our innovation in The vehicle of the creative arts. So we are a half century old organization, now, currently run by Sade Lythcott, who is on so many levels my co-pilot in almost everything that we do. National Black theatre’s home is on the corner of 125th street in Fifth Avenue.
Dr. Barbara Ann Teer wanted to by the intersection of what she thought was the most famous address and would be the most famous address in the world. You go anywhere in the world you say 125 street, people think of the Harlem Renaissance, black culture, that whole algorithm. And then when you think of 5th Avenue, you think of opulence, you think of Saks, you think of extravagance, you think of luxury. So what does it mean to have the intersection of the two. And that’s what we’re able to kind of animate an occupy to create that kind of oasis.
Now, fast forward to today and present, we take all of that legacy, that history, that Dr. Teer and the liberators forged and found, 50 odd years ago. And Sade and myself, we get to create a innovative platform that utilizes that mechanism to create a healing art elixir, that addresses some of the present day, present health issues that meet us and face black people on a daily basis. We also get opportunity to do something quite magical and beautiful of creating, and starting to innovate on top of Dr. Teer’s theology of creating a space where Black people can live, serve, and work, and venture into a capital redevelopment project with our board chair Michael Lythcott.
Together with our board, and with Sade, and with myself, and the rest of the amazing staff at NBT, we get to go on a daily journey of innovating, expanding the vision by creating what will happen, or what we will be premiering in the near future, a 21st century destination theater that takes our current site and turns it into a 20 story high rise that will have a residential component to it. Plus a state of the art new theater that will be able to truly root and center that kind of prompt that I talked about a little bit before.
How do you create a space for Black artists to live? A place literally, for them to live in. A place for them to serve. Creating a space for Black artists and Black people in general, to serve their community and to work. And what does it mean to create mechanisms, pipelines that allow for Black bodies to be paid to do creative work, but paid to do work that benefits the community at large.
DERAY MCKESSON: How do people get to you? Is there like a fellowship thing that the National Theater runs or do people write in? Do you only solicit? It has always been compelling to me that the National Black Theater exists, that’s a great space for Black people, but I know so little about this work. If I’m a young playwright listening, or if I’m a older playwright listening, or if I’m– I don’t know, an artist who wants to do work with you. How does that even happen?
JONATHAN MCCRORY: The way in which we try to create mechanisms for people to interact with those are multiple different tiers. One, is our residency program. So we have a three pronged residency program, right now. One, is for playwrights. So it gives a Black playwright a home for 18 months. Right now, it’s three Black playwrights, a home for 18 months to be able to do and create a brand new work that we will present and produce out into the world in a workshop production or in a radio play.
Another way for a Black artist to interact with us is through our director residency program where we give a Black director a home, again, for 18 months with the goal of really shifting the point of access for Black directors to be able to produce, and emerging black directors to be able to be produced professionally in New York City. And then lastly, through our producer residency program which gives a black producer a 10 month residency to really center themselves and get routed, and what does it mean to be a cultural producer. How many Black bodies do not see themselves as a space of being a producer because of the thing called finances and money.
However at NBT I always try to spin it, saying that the Black culture is a rich and vibrant culture that has shaped and built economic systems. And what does it mean to actually be able to center and root that as a part of your currency, and allow that to be how you guide and how to build community. So there are multiple different ways and outside of that, is we’re doing a main stage production, is usually through scripts that are solicited by NBT. Also we have different development arms.
If someone wants to rent the space, when we do have our space back on the line, there is a rental subsidy program that we have called the entrepreneur artist program which allows us to really do the place making work to allow for people to be able to use our facility for their own community events. So there are a few ways in which we are able to engage with artists and we’re hoping to deepen and expand that. All the residency programs, they fall under a series called The soul series program. And they’re all application based. So they are selected through a panel of peers and then they go through a process with me once they become finalists.
So I really try to step out of the way, to really allow the community to tell me, or help guide me and guide the institution overall, in a broader sense. Where should we be going? Who are we not giving space to? Who should we be listening to? And from there we try to create as many opportunities to allow all of the people that are uplifted as finalists and as semifinalist opportunities to be supported by NBT in various different ways.
DERAY MCKESSON: How has all of this changed given the pandemic?
JONATHAN MCCRORY: The pandemic allowed us to pause and really think about how are we deepening our investment, and how we are expanding our investment also, what does that look like. It looks like in a couple of different ways. One way in which has been changed is that we upped our commissioning fee. Our commissioning fee for our director residency program was $5,000, because of the pandemic and because we wanted to deepen that investment inside of that singular person. We upped to $10,000. Before the pandemic, we only had to playwright and residents because we wanted to be able to dip in and be able to give as many playwrights as possible an opportunity, we upped to two, three playwright and residents.
Before the pandemic became what it has ultimately become, you’ll remember, we were saying in two weeks, in three weeks we’ll be back to business as normal. Because of the durational impact of the pandemic, we decided to actually hold off on doing another round of applications for our playwright and our director residency program, because we haven’t been able to quote unquote, “graduate the last class” of beautiful artists that we are supporting. And because we wanted to deepen and be able to make sure we take care and Stewart the folks that have entrusted their creative life for us, their juju towards us.
We have extended their residency, deepened our investment inside of their individual careers, and also trying to figure out in the span of COVID, what does it mean to create the presentation or the public offering for each of these artists. So that they actually get the kind of exposure that the program has historically provided the artist that we have actually had. So the pandemic has really shifted and deepened what it can do. For the institution at large, the pandemic has radically accelerated a lot of ideas that we were once thinking.
We had this notion and this idea on the heels of discovery development projects of creating a digital home that would allow for our itinerant phase to be kind of looked at as a way in which to advance the digital aspects of NBT. So what does it mean to enhance our website? What does it mean to really look at our Instagram, or Twitter, or Facebook as an extension of a physical built space. And what does it mean to create the sense of what we had been really stewarding for 50 odd years. What does it mean to expand that and actually give that to the community in a large and meaningful and deeply intrinsic way.
This actually activated two new programs that we have been really investing in. One, is NBT beyond walls, which is literally the concept of going beyond NBT’s physical walls and sharing our programming locally, nationally, and internationally through co productions and co presentations, and co development opportunities. So that is looking at physical built partnerships and that has actualise itself. And the partnership that we did with the New York Philharmonic, where we did bandwagon and Marcus Garvey parts to this new partnership that we’re currently in with the Public Theater where we’re literally going to all five Boroughs, sharing elements, and reading elements of Adrianne Maree Brown emergent strategy.
In concert with the public theater’s mobile works show that they have curated. And then we also activated a digital aspect which is called NBT at home. And NBT at home is an apparatus that literally looks at what does it mean to take our conversations serious, our technology, and actually share it, our home to your home literally, on a one on one basis. When we were all turning on our Zooms, we were all turning on our various different computers and listening to conversations, or even i.e. this podcast, we were in probably our home doing it.
So what does it mean to take NBT, and awaken NBT inside of your home, and what does it also mean for NBT to share our home values, our pedagogy with you as well. And it’s really rooted in Dr. Teer’s saying, that she would always say before anything that she would do, she would say, welcome to your home away from home. And so we are hoping that as we are itinerant, we are still able to keep that essence alive and vital.
DERAY MCKESSON: I also know that there is a building, it was in the New York Times that the National Theater is moving. Are you moving? Or is this going to be an addition? It’s going to be not just a theater space it looks like there’s going to be residential too, is this like part of the 50 year plan always? Is this new? Tell me about that.
JONATHAN MCCRORY: So the Capital Redevelopment projects which have a significant announcement in the New York Times, really centered by Sade Lythcott’s quote and ethos around re-amplifying and animating her mother’s initial vision for the organization. It is going to be a new Capital Redevelopment project, it’s a major Capital redevelopment project on 125th Street and Fifth Avenue. The focus of the corporate redevelopment project is to reignite and reanimates Dr. Teer’s initial impetus for buying a property, which was to allow the land to subsidize the art.
What does it mean to make the two actually be in concert with each other. So we have embarked with our developing partners, Ray and L and M to reanimate and re-imagine what our site can look like. And what’s currently happening right now, is that we have gone through a design phase, and the renderings that have now been released is the culminating apparatus of that. What’s quite wacky and beautiful, and kind of like crazy about the whole thing is that, we did all of that designing during the pandemic with a marker of the kind of spiritual guiding forces of this project is that the redevelopment deal was signed on Dr. Teer’s birthday, which is June 18. And then it was co-singed by our development partners on Juneteenth.
It was kind of apropos that that would happen because everyone could understand what Juneteenth means and is. And also who Dr. Teer– who she is, and what that means. And have those two days coincide has centered our values inside of this project. A project that is really centering black liberation, creating space for Black artists and for community. What we are hoping to do with the new building and what we are really grounding inside the programming of the building is the element of artist housing. So how do we create space for artists housing to happen inside of this new tower, making sure that there are apartments that will allow for artists in our community to be able to, again– going back to that initial prompt that Dr. Teer phrased, how do you create a space for people to live inside of the community and not be gentrified out.
And then the next prompt is how do people– are people able to also be served. So there will be two new spaces inside of this new building. One will be 990 studio theater and the other one will be– if you’ve been to D.C. before, our temple space, we’re actually redoing that configuration inside of this new building. And then there will also be the adjacent support spaces, we will have opportunities for people to learn how to build and construct in our shop. We also have opportunities for people to potentially record inside a recording studio. And then we’ll also have rehearsal space.
So we’re trying to create an ecosystem that allows for creative imagination to truly happen. And that’s the capital redevelopment project. It’s really– hopefully will generate a healing center that is rooted inside of the ethos of shifting and augmenting the perception of what Black and Brown bodies can and will be able to do inside of America, inside of this community, instead of Harlem. When Sade and I first began this road, we were really searching to create. We looked at Ailey as a potential blueprint of what our opportunity was, knowing what Judith Jamison had been able to do with Alvin Ailey’s vision and mission.
And how she’s been able to animate that and build a North Star inside of the dance community for Black dance, and for American dance in general. And how can we do that with inside the context of this knowing that, Sade is taking up the mantle of her mother’s vision, and how we collectively can help to animate and illuminate that North Star with inside of theater, and in particularly, Black theater inside of a global and national consciousness.
DERAY MCKESSON: I’ve read that there is a production Called Hands Up, can you talk about that.
JONATHAN MCCRORY: So hands up is a show that is near and dear to my heart. After the murder of Mike Brown, there was a call and response that was needed from our community creatively. And the person who took up that mantle, the organization that took up that mantle and said, I will do something with this was teachers of action from the New blackface. What he did is that he brought– at that moment– six black male identified artists together, writers to write testimonies of what it meant to be surveilled, and also to be murdered by the cops.
What is that trauma, that triage, that consistent barrage. And what does that do to the human psyche. So at that moment the initial impetus of creating Hands Up, it was six testimonies by 6 black male identified bodies talking about what it meant to be accosted and to be surveilled, and to have the violence of police brutality hit their systems. Down the road knowing that the stories weren’t complete enough, he added a woman identified voice and by name Nnamdi Kelly to the fold, trying to broaden and deepen the context of telling the story.
However, in that initial six, I had the fortune of mounting the first full production of the show. That was roughly around 2016. It was a really healing production. It was arresting all of the things that you might imagine. Emotions were high, tensions were very high, everyone was trying to figure out, there was loss. And there was a little bit of a need for a North Star.
And this production became an opportunity for us as a community to grieve communally, but also for us to have conversation communally. And also to be able to hug and be able to understand that my pain is not in isolation, my grief is not in isolation, is a communal grief and we can communally also move forward together. In the midst of the civic unrest, in the midst of the COVID-19 there was this pull at my system to say there was a need to revisit. There was this real burgeoning concept of returning back to radio plays and generating audio landscape creative opportunities for artists to be able to still practice their work of creation, but doing it in a way in which it allows for the ears to go on an imaginative journey, versus the visuals, or having to go to a live performance.
Thinking about what would it mean to revisit this text, I was hoping that it would feel more so like a retrospective, it would feel more so like, oh, we’ve grown past a lot of these concepts. And unfortunately, revisiting that text was still just scratching the surface. Unfortunately, these texts still feel so resonant. And unfortunately, we also, thinking of Mike Brown as the beginning impetus for why this piece began, we wanted to do a little bit of research.
And doing that research and thank you, De’Ray, for pointing us into some locations that we could find names, we were able to compile close to 7,500 names of people, male identified, woman identified, non-binary and trans Black people who’ve been murdered by the cops. And that was very important for us to use that distinction. Because that was the impetus for the piece that was created. And it has actually helped us to think about how this is a modern day genocide, and what ways do we need to be talking about this more often, and in what way do we need to think about reform, and what ways we think about how do we advance this notion of protecting life, and protecting the sanctity of life, and how do we grow into that understanding.
So what we ended up doing is that we got a wonderful group of actors together to read and animate the text. We’re currently right now, in post-production, and we’re putting with a composer and sound designer, crafting out the landscape of the sonic landscape, I am the director of it. So I am directing this work, again, my desired retrospective piece. And it will be the North American radio play premiere of the work that will premiere in August, for the full week from the 16th to the 23rd.
So that is Hands Up and what we also did is that we had a submission artist by the name of Jamie Todd take the images of the seven actors who are reading the text, and take all the list of names that we’re able to compile. And create a piece that helps to memorialize and animate the fact that these seven are the representation of– and helping to potentially voice some of the unfortunate people who are not able to be present with us. And also helping to understand that they’re part of channeling a communal response, and that is not a singular one.
DERAY MCKESSON: Jonathan, we consider your friend of the Pod, can’t wait to have you back. And everybody, go check out the National Black Theatre in Harlem.
JONATHAN MCCRORY: Thank you, so much. I really appreciate it.
DERAY MCKESSON: Well, that’s it. Thanks so much for tuning in to 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 I’ll see you next week. Pod Save the People is a production of Crooked Media. It’s produced by Brock Wilbur and mixed by Bill Lancz. Our Executive Producer is Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks, to our weekly contributors. Kaya Henderson, De’Ara Balenger and Sam Sinyangwe.