In This Episode
DERAY MCKESSON: Hey, this is DeRay. Welcome to Pod Save the People. In this episode, it’s me, Kaya, De’Ara, and Myles talking about all the newses you don’t know from the past week. And then I sit down and talk to Valerie Jarrett to discuss Civic Nation’s Made to Serve initiative for expanding vaccine access.
And you heard me say that Myles is joining us. Myles is Myles Johnson. He’s an incredible writer, cultural critic, and thinker helping us understand the way that popular culture impacts the way that we understand systems, structures, and societal change. He’ll be joining us for a set of episodes. We think you’ll love him. We learn so much every time we talk to Myles. And now you’ll get to hear him more. Here we go.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Family, welcome to another episode of Pod Save the People. I am De’Ara Balenger. You can find me on the Twitter and Instagram @DearaBalenger.
MYLES JOHNSON: I’m Myles E. Johnson. You can find me @rapture on Instagram and Twitter.
KAYA HENDERSON: I’m Kaya Henderson, @HendersonKaya on Twitter.
DERAY MCKESSON: And this is Deray, @Deray on Twitter.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So we spend a lot of time talking about Black excellence. But we’re going to spend a moment to talk about white failure today.
DERAY MCKESSON: [LAUGHS] De’Ara in the lead-in.
MYLES JOHNSON: Representation matters.
DE’ARA BALENGER: You know, we want to be equitable here on Pod Save the People. So we thought we would talk about some of the goings ons of white women in particular, namely Elizabeth Holmes, who– you know, there is a documentary on her. Now she’s in court. It’s literally The United States of America versus Elizabeth Holmes, where she is charged with frauds, conspiracies, wire fraud, all types of things. But namely she was able to get her company to be valued at $9 billion, and didn’t have not near one piece of technology that worked.
And her attorney said– and I love this– failure isn’t a crime. OK. All right, white people.
KAYA HENDERSON: But lying– lying is a crime. Lying is a crime. Let me just be very clear about it. And she lied. She lied like a whole entire rug. She lied about the technology, she lied about the value of her company, she lied about who she was. She lied about everything. That is a crime. And that’s why she’s on trial right now.
DE’ARA BALENGER: Well, there you have it. There you have it. I think the other– I didn’t recall her from four years of the Trump administration, but Farah something-or-other who’s going on The View.
DERAY MCKESSON: Alyssa Farah.
DE’ARA BALENGER: “Alyzza”– Alyssa Farah, who is–
DERAY MCKESSON: “Alyzza.”
DE’ARA BALENGER: [LAUGHS] A Liar Farah, who is going on The View tomorrow, she purports to be director of communications, during the administration, for the White House. I don’t recall that. But I also worked on a campaign with a lot of people who made up titles for themselves after the campaign was over as well, so.
But I’m going to kick it to Myles, because I know that Myles is a fan of The View. So I feel like you are the expert here.
DERAY MCKESSON: And Elizabeth Holmes.
MYLES JOHNSON: OK, words do mean things. I’m a fan of Beyoncé. I’m an observer of Elizabeth Holmes. [LAUGHS]
Yes, Myles. Correct the people. Correct.
MYLES JOHNSON: I am a fan of The View. I think it’s just been something that made my mother will always watch that and Oprah together. And I think growing up seeing women argue and discuss and debate around topics is just always good.
But what I understood was, oh, wow, like during the whole Trump administration, I remember Joy being so passionate about not forgetting this moment and not letting this happen and again and not letting this be swept under the rug, a la maybe like Bush in 9/11, his administration, sometimes we kind of can sugarcoat what he actually did and forget about it.
And they were really passionate about not letting it happen. And now, with this new host, they’re kind of being complicit in the normalization of that era. That feels a little bit dishonest. But maybe that’s just Hollywood. But it feels a little dishonest. And it disappoints me. I don’t have super high expectations for anybody who is on television. But even my low expectations were hurt with that choice.
DERAY MCKESSON: And what about Elizabeth Holmes?
MYLES JOHNSON: Elizabeth Holmes, so I’m a fan– see, you got me saying it. You got me lying on myself. The devil is busy. [LAUGHS] Got my tongue.
But no, I was really fascinated with Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey because they were these people– because during this time, I was very interested in how all of culture was really big into scamming. So Joanne Prada was big, who was this viral Instagram/Twitter sensation who really makes jokes about stealing money and about scamming people. And then you had Elizabeth Holmes and Anna Delvey actually doing it actively. And then Joanne Prada used to play a Black woman who was pretending to be a white woman in order to get wealth, in order to make these scams happen.
And then, just in case you thought Joanne Prada was actually being ridiculous and too absurdist, here are two white women actually utilizing just their whiteness in order to gain wealth and just be able to myth-build in the structure of their story that the base of their story of why they should get these things is whiteness. So no matter what the Steve Jobs T-shirts or turtlenecks did or what Anna Delvey’s designer things that she still does, the base of what made it believable was the whiteness. And I thought that was really interesting to be able to wake up and say, oh, I’m going to be a superstar. Very post-Warhol. That’s what he did. He was like, I’m just going to take the Brillo, I’m going to take the tomato soup cans, and we’re going to call it art, and I’m not going to actually do that much stuff. And we’re going to see how far I can take is.
But the thought that I was getting out was here we are again. Somebody scamming the system, finding fame and popularity through scamming the system, using the kind of absurdity of white culture and exclusivity in order to do it, and kind of playing into it in order to get real money from it. And I find that fascinating.
KAYA HENDERSON: Well, that’s good. Welcome, Myles. Welcome.
MYLES JOHNSON: Thank you.
KAYA HENDERSON: I love it. My news is about this badass black woman in Montgomery, Alabama. But we’ll get to her in a second. In Montgomery, there is a statue in tribute to J. Marion Sims, who is considered by lots of people to be the father of modern gynecology. Dr. Sims performed experimental surgeries on approximately 10 enslaved Black women in the 1840s without their consent and without anesthesia. Let me say that again. He performed experimental surgeries on 10 enslaved Black women without their consent and without anesthesia.
Jesus. He invited other surgeons to watch. He called his ramshackle place the Negro hospital. And he used these Black women as Guinea pigs. One woman, Anarcha, he performed over 30 surgeries on her alone. And there are statues of him in many places. In fact, there was one in Central Park that was removed in 2018 Thanks to protesters. But that won’t happen in Montgomery, Alabama, because the governor of Alabama, Governor Kay Ivey, who is a Republican, introduced legislation passed legislation barring monument removal if they’ve been on public property for more than 40 years.
And as you can imagine, Dr. Sims’s statue has been on the public property for more than 40 years. So he’s not going anywhere. And there is a 50-year-old black woman– go 50. 50 is the new fly. And her name is Michelle Browder. She is a native of– I guess she was born in Denver, but her family is from Montgomery. In fact, she comes from a pretty esteemed family in Montgomery.
And so she’s a native daughter of Alabama. And she was kind of grappling with this history and seeing this statue when she knew the truth of what Dr. J. Marion Sims had done. She runs a tour company that helps people face the truth of the stuff that has happened in Montgomery, from lynchings, to the public slave square, et cetera. And she decided to change the narrative by creating a countermonument– this is such a brilliant idea– called The Mothers of Gynecology. And this is a statue that celebrates three of the women that Dr. Sims experimented on, Anarcha, Lucy, and Betsy. And she says the way these women are portrayed is they’re proud and defiant. The size of Dr. Sims’ statue is 8 feet. The size of the women is double Dr. Sims. And she says, never again will anyone look down on these women.
I just want to read to you from the article that describes what these women look like. “‘Anarcha has a gaping hole through her midsection. Her womb stands alone nearby, made of gold mesh and containing objects that would make any woman shudder in this context– needles, medical instruments, scissors, cut glass, anything sharp, any object that looks like it could harm you,’ said Deborah Shedrick, a Montgomery artist recruited by a Browder to be the womb-maker. ‘I wanted you to experience the physical pain, the emotional pain, the spiritual pain.'”
And these women are adorned in jewelry that are one has a crown of speculum arms. And if you’re a woman, you are very familiar with the speculum. It is the tool that the gynecologist uses to examine you in your vaginal cavity. It’s not so cool. The artists decorated these women with many of the instruments that they were tortured with. And they’re creating a whole new narrative around this.
And Michelle Browder, in addition to her tour company, is actually using this piece of property to open into a two-block campus. And she has plans to do a bunch of other things. And so I brought this to the Pod because she’s a 50-year-old Black woman with red cat glasses who decided that she wasn’t going to take this thing the way it was, honoring J. Marion Sims, even if the governor decided that she wasn’t going to move the monument. She built her own monument to the people who matter in a way that matters to us. And so I thought when folks go to Montgomery to see lots of different things, including the lynching museum, you need to make a stop at The Mothers of Gynecology statue that celebrates these women who literally gave their lives so that women could have medical care in America. That’s my deal.
DERAY MCKESSON: So I didn’t realize how little I knew about J. Marion Sims. I’d heard this story before. Like I knew that the origin of gynecology was suspect at best. But I didn’t know the details. And then so thanks for bringing it, Kaya.
It was really wild. He wrote a book called The Story of My Life. And in the book he writes, quote, “there was never a time that I could not, at any day, have had a subject for operation.” He goes on to note that this was the most, quote, “memorable time of his life” when he was operating on enslaved women. He didn’t use anesthesia on Black women because he believed that Black women didn’t feel pain.
Once this process to fix the fistula was perfected, he did start doing the procedure on white women. And lo and behold, he started using anesthesia on white women.
It just sort of blew my mind. Because the way that white people have retold this story, the way that he even tells the story, is like he was doing this incredible service. People were clamoring to be operated on by him. But did they have agency? No. Could they choose? No.
And it took several operations for him, several people’s bodies he essentially played with and experimented with before he even got this to a place where it worked. And like Kaya said, it was 30 operations on one woman who was 17 years old– 17 years old– before he finally perfected it. She was a child, 17 years old. I mean, that is sort of wild.
And what you read about the history of him is that he actually only went to medical school– this is also fascinating– this is before medical school was like what it is today. So he took a three-month course and studied for a year at Jefferson Medical College before he opened his own practice. And he specialized in plantations. That was like his thing. So he wasn’t sort of doing work in communities, he was the person who was doing them on slave plantations. And if the patient’s owners provided clothing and paid taxes, he effectively took temporary ownership of the women until the treatment was completed. You cannot convince me in any capacity this was consent.
KAYA HENDERSON: Of course it wasn’t consent. I mean, and that continues. All of the things from current health care professionals not believing that Black women feel pain. Didn’t we do that and a while ago on the Pod? I mean, these are the legacies. Or them believing that they can do anything with Black women’s bodies. They took Henrietta Lacks’ cells and did all kinds of things with them.
To De’Ara’s point, this stuff continues straight through till today.
MYLES JOHNSON: Yeah, I was actually going to mention Henrietta Lacks, because that’s where my mind first went. Because I’m always interested in how these moments continue to inform our current-day moments. When we really sit down and, specifically as a Black community, have intracommunal conversation around either anti-vaccine or vaccine hesitancy and stuff, it’s really easy to kind of pick teams like in sports. But there really is some really good baked-in hesitancy around the medical industry. And I think that if this moment can do anything for us, it’s to show that, oh, the medical industry is just as much about culture and people and spirits as much as it is about getting somebody from sick to health or maintaining health.
And there has been some deep sins that have happened in the medical industry that there needs to be a concerted effort when there’s not a global crisis to mend those things with people. Because history is filled with these stories where Black people’s bodies were not safe and Black people’s bodies were just seen as just simply those bodies. And I think that we’re still seeing manifestations of that hesitancy, that it’s keeping our own community on the safe during the global crisis and keeping other people unsafe. And when there’s not a global crisis happening, there needs to be an effort to mend those sins. And I’m kind of using “sins” purposefully, because to me it feels like the ultimate evil to take somebody’s consent, to harm them, to torture them, and then to enact those modes of violence on somebody. That changes somebody’s whole trajectory of their life. When I think about Margaret Garner, when I think about anybody from Margaret Garner to Henrietta Lacks, I just think about the torturous places that specifically Black women have to have gone through. And I just can’t see how the medical industry can’t think that it does not need to do something about it, does not need to do something to make Black people, specifically Black women, trust them. That should be huge. That should be really important.
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DE’ARA BALENGER: My news is about the first two Black women to be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. First of all, when I saw this title, I was like, how can this be? Black women are inventing things every moment of the day. But we’ll leave that somewhere else.
So engineer Marian Croak and the late ophthalmologist Patricia Bath– so these are the incredible, brilliant sisters that are being inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. So just a little bit on the National Inventors Hall of Fame, I first came to know about this because I have a distant uncle whose name is Fred Jones, from Minneapolis, Minnesota, who invented the first portable air conditioner that then went on trucks. So us little Black kids always grew up knowing about Fred Jones. And we would get in trouble because we would take toasters apart and stuff and try to invent stuff.
All that to say this is incredibly important for Black children to know about these inventors. What we know is that, in terms of the numbers of Black folks that are getting inducted, so these are the first two Black women. There are 48 female inductees overall and 30 Black inductees total.
And in terms of who these women are and what they did– so Patricia Bath, who’s an ophthalmologist, so she’s the first Black female physician to receive a medical patent. She’s the first Black woman to complete a residency in ophthalmology at NYU, the first woman to chair an ophthalmology residency program in the United States. She invented– I’m going to mispronounce this– the Laserphaco, a minimally-invasive device and technique that performs steps of cataract removal.
This article, like, read it through. Because first of all, she just has so many accolades. I can just spend 30 minutes on that. But the other thing that she realized as an ophthalmologist is that there were just all kinds of inequities when it came to ophthalmology and Black communities.
So she worked in both Harlem Hospital and she worked at Columbia Hospital. She noticed at Harlem Hospital that Black folks were becoming blind more so than at Columbia where the white folks were. And so she also was an activist and did a ton of things in the community in terms of trying to get Black folks access to ophthalmology.
Now, Marian Croak, so she currently leads Google’s Research Center for Responsible AI and Human Centered Technology. Now, everyone else on this line is smarter than I am. But it seems to me that Marian Croak invented the Zoom. Her work focuses on converting voice data into digital signals that can be transmitted over the internet rather than through phone lines. Don’t that sound like talking on the internet?
KAYA HENDERSON: That’s the VOIP stuff, right? So that you can make calls using your internet signal. It ain’t Zoom, but it’s VOIP. She’s smart. Go ahead.
DE’ARA BALENGER: So also, she and her team at Google created a text-to-donate system. And it was for charitable donations. So they raised $130,000 during Hurricane Katrina, $43 million after Haiti’s devastating 2010 earthquake. I just wanted to share that. Because I think the common thread to both of these incredible Black women is that they were experts in their fields, they had accolade after accolade, and made time for community.
So it just dawned on me, I’m like, I’m wondering if we did a survey across all of the people that have been inducted into this National Inventors Hall of Fame, who are the folks that, with their brilliance, are actually tapping into communities and trying to make a difference there? I don’t know, I just feel like it’s so intrinsic for Black women to do the thing and then also to bring everyone along with them.
So I just wanted to bring these women to the Pod because I just thought this was fabulous. So I hope you all did too.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now, let me tell you, the thing that this made me think of is I was insulted, actually, at this being such a pioneering moment around Black people. Like we’ve been inventing– we made this whole country. (AGITATED) How we– how we– how? Tell me how, right?
So that made me go look. And it made me realize and, like, find the history of the patent, and how we weren’t even whole people when the patent system was made. So we were structurally barred from the Patent Act and all these other things.
But let me just read this off, because the American Bar actually has a whole part about the racism of the patent process in its history, and how, when the Patent Act was signed in April of 1790, we weren’t people then. What they highlight are a set of Black people that were excluded from the legal process but whose inventions changed this country and the world. And I’ll just read this.
“At the turn of the 19th century, a Kentucky slave invented the hemp break. In about 1800, a Massachusetts slave named Ebar invented a method of making brooms out of cornstalks. In about 1825, in Alabama, a slave named Hezekiah invented a machine for cleaning cotton. In 1831, a Charleston, South Carolina slave named Anthony Weston invented an improvement on a threshing machine invented by W. T. Catto, and in 1839, a North Carolina slave named Stephen Slade invented a method of curing tobacco that enabled the creation of the modern cigarette.”
And I just think about, like, we had a moment where if people want to talk about the National Inventors Hall of Fame, or patents, they should be granting historical patents to all these people and their families. We should be enrolling 100, 200 people at a time to make up for all the people that were historically excluded. I was both proud of these two women– and, like, shout-out because y’all did it– and a reminder that you exist in a legacy of people who invented far more, over time, than all these other people. And they have not been recognized.
KAYA HENDERSON: DeRay, I went down a similar path. And I was like, only two in 50 years? That’s all you could find? Well, what other Black women have invented things. And so I found people like Marie Van Brittan Brown, who was a nurse who invented the earliest version of a home security system because she didn’t feel safe in her neighborhood. And she hooked up your TV to see what was going on outside, a two-way microphone, literally just jury-rigged this, and was the first person to invent a home security system.
Or Alice Parker, who patented the use of natural gas to keep homes warm. There’s Dr. Shirley Jackson, who is a titan in the telecommunications industry. She did touchtone phones, she laid the foundation for the modern-day fax machine and the fiber optic cables that we use for long distance. Valerie Thomas, who is a physicist who invented the technology to make 3D movies. You know Black women have been all over this country, inventing all kinds of things. And the simple fact that they could only find two is abysmal. And so I figured I’d help them find a few more. My guess is there are loads more where that came from.
And so, I mean, my question is, can we start lobbying the National Inventors Hall of Fame to A, be more inclusive, to B, be retroactive, and to C, think more broadly about how recommendations get made in terms of who gets into the Hall of Fame.
MYLES JOHNSON: One of my favorite stories that my mother would tell about her and my late uncle was she was coming from school, my uncle was older than my mother so he was already home because high school got out a little bit sooner. And she was coming home from school in Brooklyn, New York, Bed-Stuy Bainbridge. And she comes in. And my uncle, who is a Sagittarius man who does not show a lot of emotion even in teenage years, was elated. Like it was Christmas day. And he was like, Enid, come look, come look, come look. Enid is my mother’s name. Enid, come look, come look, come look. And she goes to look. And once she goes closer to the television to go see what was the excitement about after coming home from school, she sees Black people on television, and then all she hears is my uncle’s voice say, there’s Black folks on television, there’s Black folks on television, and them watching Soul Train for the first time. It’s now the 50th anniversary of Soul Train.
And what’s interesting about that story to me is, when my mother told me that story, I was like, oh, well, that couldn’t have actually– and I wouldn’t say this to my mother because I love my mother not being mad at me more than I love being right– but I was like, that might not have been the first time you saw Black people on television. That might not actually be the actual truth. But what I understood in that moment was that Black people were kind of trying to reach past an existential moment, so not just looking at themselves and saying, are we real, do we exist, are we all these existential things, but, oh, we’re beautiful, we’re funky, we’re sultry, we’re experimental. Kind of getting past that, “I’m a human being.”
So Soul Train, for my mother and for my uncle, in that moment, was the opposite of the man with the “I am a man” sign on. It was, oh, we’ve already established that. Now I’m a soul man. I’m a funky man.
And what’s even more interesting what I read in the article that really got me– this is Cornelius talking to Sanders– on Soul Train, even the commercials were super Black because Johnson Products was sponsoring the show. There’s this one ad that really stands out for me. It’s for Afro Sheen, this black hair product. And in the ad, the ghost of Frederick Douglass is talking about the way hairstyles are a sign of respectability. It’s wild.
I think about the current moment. And I think, sometimes– I think about how everything is happening now, and how sometimes, like Toni Morrison says, we’re so concerned with the white gaze. And we’re creating things with white people in mind. You kind of can taste it. Even if it’s good– I like some Blackish episodes, I like some episodes of certain shows. But when I really sit down and think about Soul Train and I think about Johnson & Johnson, I’m like, oh, this was one of the times where Black people were making a Black thing for Black people, trying to get Black money.
And I think there’s something to that. Because oftentimes there might be Black people trying to make a Black thing but have to also compromise so they can also get white money and all the other types of money that are out there. But I think there was something so rich about it being able to be thoroughly Black. And I think the fact that it was the longest television show that was on air.
But you can watch everybody from Shemar Moore to Don Cornelius. And it’s interesting to just see this living, breathing, moving encyclopedia of Black culture. One of my favorite artists I discovered, Sylvia Robinson, she had a hit song called “Pillow Talk” in the ’70s, and a fantastic album by the same name.
And she was performing there in a vinyl purple outfit. And I was just so fascinated by this sultry woman who was covered from head to toe in purple, nothing showing, in a vinyl turban, talking about “Pillow Talk” and just being so sultry. And I went to go look her up. And it turns out that she founded Sugar Hill Records, which was the first hip hop label. This predates Def Jam. And she also was the composer of the first rap record, “Rapper’s Delight.” She had the idea, when she saw people on the street, rapping, she had the idea to take them, them, them, orchestrate it together, compose it, and make a song. And she thought it was going to be something.
And I think how amazing it is that there is a show that shows these people in their excellence, in their highest performance, and then performing for people who look like them. You know, I think so many times, when I think about Nina Simone and how Carnegie Hall was a wish for her, and all these other kind of white institutions were wishes for Black people, I think there’s something really special to see Barry White perform for other young Black people in love. And it fills me with pride that that’s a part of our legacy. And it makes me hope that there’s a challenge to Black creators and artists now to maybe create, at least in your imagination, like you’re creating for Black dollars and Black imaginations and for Black creativity.
Because I would love for– and I still think there’s a moment where, even in 2021, there could be a Black kid who comes home who gets excited that they see Black people on television, but because there’s a different type of Blackness maybe being represented and there’s a different type of Black story being represented. And I think every generation should hope to have that moment that my mom and my uncle shared. And I think that’s what we should hold deep, specifically now that we’re able to compromise our art and work so much.
KAYA HENDERSON: Thanks for bringing this to the Pod, Myles. This was very nostalgic for me. And one of the things that I loved about the article that you shared is there’s a line in the article that says, “There wasn’t a big message on top of Soul Train. There was no plot. The only point the show was trying to prove was that Black joy is good TV and that really anyone would love to watch really cool people dance to good songs.” And, like, that’s it, right? Like, that’s the whole thing. And I think, at a time where, if you think about the turmoil that was happening post-Civil Rights, in the early ’70s, Don Cornelius was actually a genius to think about how to capture Black joy, put it in a bottle, and make it acceptable to mainstream America on television. Yes, it was for us. But it was on a regular old television platform that everybody could watch. And so it invited people in at a time where everybody was listening to Motown and to lots of Black music. It invited people into Black culture in really interesting ways.
There was a Netflix documentary out, last year or so, called American Soul, which is the story of Don Cornelius and how he started Soul Train. And he really was a visionary. He wasn’t just the smooth host. Like he was an architect who had a vision for something amazing on TV. And nothing like it has existed since.
So this dude was a pioneer. Literally there is no Black celebrity performer, singer, whatever you call it– singer. There’s no Black singer who was not on Soul Train. That was the platform.
And American Bandstand was for white people, and Soul Train was for us. And in my house, we got up on Saturdays, and we cleaned the house, and Soul Train was on the TV while we were cleaning. And so you know.
I always wondered– I kept saying, where are their coats? Because I grew up in New York. And I was like, where’s their coats? [LAUGHS] That was my question. And I was like, I love the dancing, but where do they put their coats?
And my mother was like, it’s LA. And I was like, what does that have to do with anything? Because I didn’t understand climate differences at the time.
But Soul Train was, for us, the soundtrack to our cleaning every Saturday morning. It was a cultural institution for us. And every singer that I love showed up there at some time or another. So Myles, this was a great walk down memory lane and a reminder that Black joy is sellable. Black joy is– I mean, on TV, we sell Black pain like nobody’s business, right? And I think what Don Cornelius showed us is Black joy is equally as marketable
JOHNSON: Insubstantial. I think that’s the thing, too. I think if you don’t have a DL husband with the mother on crack, who also is the jail, and somebody is going to a protest, then it’s just not a substantial thing. And it’s still really substantial, because I really– when I think about Soul Train, it is a Black community heirloom. Because I think about my mother having that moment, and then my sister having a moment with Soul Train.
That has nothing to do– the music was totally different by the time. My sister is 10 years older than me. I’m 30. My sister’s– and my mother is in her early 60s. So these are all different generations, and I have my own memories with Soul Train growing up in the ’90s. I was born in 1991.
So it really is acting as a Black communal heirloom that we all have our own personal moments with. It reminds me of, like, a grandmother’s quilt, and I think that’s really beautiful, and that’s substantial, too. And that is powerful, and that is just as revolutionary as a tear. Our laughs are just as revolutionary as, if not more than, our tears and our screams. And I think Soul Train is a testament to that.
DERAY MCKESSON: Go ahead, our laughs are. I will say, I didn’t know that Don Cornelius paid for the pilot with $400 out of his own pocket, from a road show that he had created with local high schools, and that he owned the show, that it was his show. I think it was, like, some famous performer asked him who is behind this, and he was like, me. And they were like, no, no, no, but who’s backing it? And he was like, me.
And that is just so beautiful. Like, we hadn’t seen that. He was quoted as saying that Soul Train was developed as a radio show on television. It was a radio show. He says, in 1995 in The New York Times, he goes, it was the radio show that I always wanted and never had. I selected the music and still do by simply seeing what had chart success.
And this was funny for me. And this is so simple and so basic, but the Soul Train line– it feels like it’s been around forever, and it was like– that was like, they made that up! That is like– that is the show. And I don’t know why I was like, wow, that is, in your language, Myles, an heirloom.
You know, the beautiful thing about these rituals and traditions is that they feel timeless. And that is one that just feels– like, I can’t imagine that there were a group of Black people where they didn’t line up and dance like that. Like, that feels so present.
MYLES JOHNSON: Listen, and if you really sit and think about it– and mind you, I get heady about stuff like this, but I think it’s necessary. I’m like, so what would Tyler Perry do for 15 minutes in most of his movies if he couldn’t do 15 minutes of the Soul Train line? That is the bridge between so many scenes. [LAUGHS]
It’s important in these moments of joy, even in these dramas. You know things are going to be OK once you, for whatever reason, hear Marvin Gaye, “Got to Give It Up,” and everybody’s making a Soul Train line, and everybody’s coming down. You’re like, OK, even though big mama going, and pookie and them are still fighting, somehow, you know, so-and-so shop slash restaurant slash job is going to be safe. Because if they’re dancing in the Soul Train line, we know it’s all going to be all right.
And I think that’s beautiful, and I think it’s ancestral, and it does remind me of West African traditions of us getting together, and dancing together, and sweating together, and looking at the moon together. And I think that those ideas and energies do live on, and they manifest. And I think Soul Train– it’s called– Soul Train is a modernization of a soul that is very ancient, but train is the modernization of it.
And I think it’s just– I love it. I have the Questlove book that he made that just has the documentation of it, and I love that we can reflect on it, and it’s still really relevant in 50 years. And there’s nothing competing with it in this current moment, to me, at all.
DERAY MCKESSON: So my news is, obviously, I deal with criminal justice in my day-to-day and I’m rarely shocked. And then, I came across this, and I was actually shocked. I was like, who knew that this was still a thing?
So the headline is, “Judges Can’t Ignore Jury Verdicts in Deciding Sentencing New Jersey’s Top Court Rules.” And I’m like, what you mean? I thought the whole point of being found not guilty was that that wasn’t used against you. I was wrong.
Last Thursday, in a unanimous decision from the New Jersey Supreme Court, they ruled that judges cannot consider conduct that defendants were acquitted of in deciding how to sentence them. What? I didn’t even know that was the thing you– like, I literally– it was– I had to read it over and over, because I didn’t know that you could be found not guilty of something, and the judge could ignore, essentially, the not-guilty finding and use that as a way to penalize you.
So this comes up because there were two defendants who were in unrelated cases that– combined three people were left dead, and one was injured in 2012. And in both of the cases, they were acquitted of the most serious charges, but they were convicted of lesser charges. And they highlight that the Superior Court judge considered the more serious offenses in deciding to sentence one of the people to 20 years in prison, and another person to 60 years in prison.
What the Supreme Court wrote is that a judge cannot, quote, “act as a 13th juror” and make up what they want to do. And it makes total sense, but it was really– it was one of those things that made me appreciate even more how there are all these decisions that lead to people’s lives being changed fundamentally. They’re like, you could win the case, you could get acquitted of the worst crime, and still have that be used against you.
I mean, it just really– it truly blew my mind. And I wanted to bring it here, because I literally didn’t know this was a thing. I didn’t know that this is still an issue in states across the country, and that I think we might even organize on this at Campaign Zero’s side, just because it literally– I need to learn more about how it’s playing out in the other states. But it just blew my mind. I did not know this was a legal possibility at all.
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Valerie Jarrett is a former member of the Obama administration who is now a board member with Civic Nation. Civic Nation’s made-to-serve initiative is trying to help increase vaccination access and awareness in American communities that are being hit the hardest. Here is our conversation we haven’t talked about it in a long time. It was good to catch up and get to learn about the new initiative. Let’s go. Valerie, thanks so much for joining us today on Pod Save the People.
VALERIE JARRETT: You are welcome. It’s always my pleasure to come on.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now, we obviously met a long time ago when you were in the Obama administration, and I was in the street, in the protests. And so much has seemed to change since then, and in some ways, so much, sort of, feels like it is just the same. But one of the things that’s different for you is that you’re not on the board of Civic Nation, which is an organization that I did not know as much about, which is why I’m happy that you could come to talk to us about it. So what is one of your newest projects?
VALERIE JARRETT: Well, Civic Nation is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization designed to build a grassroots network of support to tackle the issues of today, from gender equity, to ending sexual assault on college campuses, to encouraging people to vote through when we all vote. And our latest initiative is called Made to Save, and Made to Save is a national grassroots effort to ensure communities that are hardest hit by this COVID 19 pandemic have the information that they need to get vaccinated and access to the vaccines in a timely way.
And we’ve been working very closely with the Biden administration since the vaccine was first made available. Because DeRay, as you know, many of the challenges of the COVID-19 simply laid bare disparities that have existed, particularly in poor and communities of color for a very long time. And we want to make sure that we reach those folks and encourage them to get the vaccine, because the health outcomes are worse, depending upon your economic status and your race, and we also want to make sure that communities that have had a hard time getting access to healthcare in general have access to this vaccine.
DERAY MCKESSON: What have you learned– you know, I feel like the vaccine conversation has come a long way. It was like, you know, is there going to be a vaccine? And then, it was like, there is a vaccine, then it was, there are three types of vaccines. And now, it’s like, there’s a vaccine for kids coming. What have you, sort of, learned about doing the vaccine access work over the course of the lifespan of the vaccine so far?
VALERIE JARRETT: It’s such a good question. I think one of the primary lessons that we’ve learned, which isn’t a surprise, because we found it around voting and around other issues as well– people are influenced by people they trust. And that person doesn’t have to be a notable public figure like the President of the United States. It can be the pastor of your church, it could be your cousin, it could be your coworker, or your boss.
And so part of what we’re trying to do is to find those influencers on a grassroots level on the ground, to persuade people, one person at a time. And it’s the exact same strategy we use to encourage people to turn out and register to vote, not just for the presidential election, but in every election. And so we’re taking advantage of this grassroots network we have around the country, and our relationship with the Biden administration that’s working hand-in-glove with us, to get the word out.
And obviously, more and more people are getting vaccinated every day, but we are still in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s a pandemic of the unvaccinated. And so how to reach them, persuade them, and make sure that we make it easy for them to get the vaccine. So for example, we’ve been encouraging employers to give paid time off, so people can leave work and go get vaccinated.
Large employers, we’ve been encouraging those who are administering the vaccines to make them available on site. Early, when the vaccine was first made available here in Chicago, I went with Roz Brewer, who’s the new CEO of Walgreens Boots Alliance– and I serve on their board. We went to a Black church on the West Side of Chicago, and the pastor opened up his dining hall in the church and encouraged everybody in the church to come get vaccinated on a Saturday.
And then, we brought the pharmacists who work for Walgreens, and live and work in the surrounding community, to volunteer and come in and vaccinate people in the church. Well, you can imagine how much more comfortable it was for people to get vaccinated among their fellow worshippers, with their pastor encouraging them right there on site to do it. So how do we do that all around the country and take it to scale, is one of the objectives of Made to Save.
DERAY MCKESSON: There we go. And is there still a racial disparity with regard to who is being vaccinated, or who maybe has access to the vaccine, or who’s choosing to get vaccinated?
VALERIE JARRETT: Sure, we didn’t overcome the disparities overnight. These are systemic disparities that have existed for a very long time. It’s not that there are not hurdles, but we are knocking down those hurdles one hurdle at a time, and trying to get the word out, which is part of why I wanted to come on your podcast– so that people appreciate the fact that this vaccine is safe, it is approved, the trial period is over, it’s not an emergency approval, and now has approval.
We now have the booster shots for Pfizer being approved. So the scientists believe they have done their job. And now, it’s up to each of us to do our job and recognize– you know, you hear people who are saying, you know, it’s their freedom to not get vaccinated. First of all, we require all kinds of vaccines for kids to go to school in this country, and it was never such an upheaval about that before.
So it’s not like vaccine requirements are new. But look, you don’t get to drive 100 miles down a freeway just because you feel like it. We have all kinds of laws that are designed to keep our society healthy, and this is not about individual choice. It’s about what is good and healthy for our country. And individual decisions, in this case, as we know, impact other people.
And look, we have children who are going to school who are too young to be vaccinated. Well, if their teachers aren’t vaccinated, they can catch it, and then take it home to their parents or their grandparents. All of this, we know from the science. And we also know that health outcomes, particularly for Black people who get the COVID-19, are far worse in terms of the severity of the illness and death.
So there is already a health disparity, sometimes because of other conditions that already exist. And so knowing that, I think we have a special responsibility to say, we can’t afford to get this. And if we’re vaccinated, even if we’re one of those rare breakthrough cases, we’re not going to die from it, in all likelihood.
And so let’s just take care of ourselves and our loved ones, and get this done, and stop looking at this through a political lens. And the other part of it, DeRay, is a big responsibility to educate people. There’s a reluctance on behalf of some Black people who say, well, Tuskegee, you know. They have heard that there’s something that happened at Tuskegee. Well, Tuskegee was about treatment being withheld, not treatment that was available.
And so in this case, the FDA has approved this drug as safe, this vaccine as safe. And so let’s all just decide to take it. And as more and more employers are mandating it, people are running the risk of losing their jobs if they don’t get vaccinated. We just saw United announced that they’re going to be firing the people who haven’t been vaccinated. Don’t be in that category. Get vaccinated.
DERAY MCKESSON: What do you say to the people who are like, you know what? Enough people are vaccinated now, that I’m fine, right? That herd immunity. They’re like, I’m good, I don’t need it, because everybody else has it. What do you say to those people?
VALERIE JARRETT: Don’t make stuff up. You don’t know what you’re talking about. The scientists have said we have not reached herd immunity yet. So no, you’re wrong.
I encourage those people who think we’ve reached herd immunity to look at the map that’s published every day about the number of people who are dying. A couple thousand people every day in our country are dying, not to mention the many more who are being hospitalized. And it isn’t just the people who are being hospitalized and the people that they have exposed, but there are many examples, particularly in parts of our country that are underserved by hospitals to begin with, where the hospitals are now inundated.
So you are in a car accident and you show up at an emergency room, and they can’t treat you, because their emergency room is full of COVID patients. Or you need an important cancer treatment or a surgery, and you can’t have that, because our system is swamped. And so herd immunity will be reached when our hospitals are not full up and at capacity, and when thousands of people are no longer dying from this virus.
And so I encourage people– you know, my answer started out a little flip about it, but it’s so serious. You can’t just go on the internet and hear a crazy conspiracy theory or a made-up medical theory and believe it. You have to do your homework and look at reliable sources from people who you know have the science at their fingertips, not people who are just making up stuff.
DERAY MCKESSON: Do you have any advice for people who are trying to, sort of, convince people in their lives or talk to people in their lives and address misinformation? Is there some advice that you can give?
VALERIE JARRETT: Yeah. I say, first, listen, and find out why they’re hesitant. And then, try to address their specific concern. Healthcare is a very personal issue, so you’ve got to meet people where they are, and recognize that you’re not trying to lecture them. You’re not trying to impose your will upon them. You’re trying to educate them with information, so that they can make an informed decision.
And when people have the information, and they are making an informed decision, they make the right decision. And so you’ve got to give people credit for being able to come to the conclusion on their own once you give them the information that they need. And don’t give up. I mean again. it again.
It’s just like voting. I know there are a lot of people who I tried to convince to go out and vote the first time, the second time, the third time, the fourth time. They said, OK, OK, I’m going to go register to vote. So this is a work in progress, where you have to give people reinforcement over time.
You can’t just say, because I ask you one time, that people are going to go out and do it, if they truly are hesitant. You’ve got to stay on them, and I have heard just countless cases of people who finally go, OK, I’m ready, I’m going to go do it now. So don’t underestimate the influence you can have on the lives of people who care about you, and care about how you view them, and who trust you. And so take that confidence that they have in you, and help them make the right decision.
DERAY MCKESSON: And I wanted to zoom out a little bit. You spent so much time in the White House. I mean, you were there the whole time and as a senior-ranking member of the administration. Is there a part of you that misses government work? Do you think that you’ll go back to government work?
Is there– I mean, you still know so many people, so I have to imagine that your ability to influence systems is still strong. But it seems like not to be the same as being in the building every day.
VALERIE JARRETT: Well, this is what I actually believe, having spent half my career in the private sector and half in the public sector. I do believe that the most important office– and President Obama said this in his last speech he gave when he was still in office– the most important office is the Office of Citizen. And I have seen, as I know you have, too, so many just ordinary people do extraordinary things.
And in this chapter of my life right now, I’m president of the Obama Foundation. We just broke ground yesterday in Chicago. The Obama Center–
DERAY MCKESSON: Whoo-whoo!
VALERIE JARRETT: –is going to– I know, exactly. It was a glorious day. That’s the only word I could use to describe sitting there and seeing both President and Mrs. Obama on the South side of Chicago. And I think his phrase that he used, DeRay was, this community is where nearly every important thing in my life started.
He arrived in Chicago, came off the Skyway, right by Jackson Park. His wife was born in the community, raised there. They married there, raised their children there, had their first kiss there, a stone’s throw away. It is so important for them to be giving back.
And the purpose is not to admire the past. It will show the shoulders upon whom the Obamas stood, the people who paved the way in order for his presidency to be possible. Of course, the museum will tell the story of his presidency, but the point is for people to leave not just inspired, but empowered to go back into their own communities and make a difference.
And the programs that they are launching, have launched, such as My Brother’s Keeper, obviously, that you are very familiar with, trying to improve the trajectory of the lives of boys and young men of color– the work we did last summer around policing and reducing the use of force in communities, our Girls Global Alliance, that is an opportunity alliance designed to help girls, not just the United States, but around the world stay in school.
The fellows programs we have in Asia and Europe and Africa– all of this, DeRay, is President Obama’s desire to help the next generation have the tools that they need to go out and be change agents. And so between chairing the board of Civic Nation that has the programs I just described to you earlier, and the Obama Foundation, I feel like I can be a partner from outside of government, working hand-in-glove with local, state, and federal government.
Just yesterday, we had both the mayor and the governor at the groundbreaking, because they are providing important resources to make the Obama Center possible as well. So a long way of answering your question is to say, I think you can be impactful both inside and outside of government. And right now, I’m enjoying what I’m doing on the outside.
DERAY MCKESSON: Now, one of the last questions is, what advice do you have for people– I asked you this years ago. What advice do you have for people who are like, you know what? I did all the things. I convinced my cousin, my mom, my sister to get vaccinated. I voted, you know, I showed up at the protest, and the world really feels the exact same. What do you say to those people?
VALERIE JARRETT: You have to take the long view. When the folks in Montgomery decided that they were not going to ride those buses, it was over a year of boycotts before change happened. When the women in the suffrage movement were petitioning for universal suffrage back in 1866, it wasn’t until 1919 that a resolution was entered into Congress in 1920 before Congress passed the Amendment giving white women the right to vote. And it wasn’t until ’65 that Black women got the right to vote.
But the point is that the people, those foot soldiers who are out there pushing for change, going against the stranglehold of status quo, that their work matters, and that it takes time, and that each person who has the baton has a responsibility to run with it as hard as they can. You may not live to see the change that you dreamed of, but that change won’t happen but for your hard work. And I think that’s hard, particularly for young people who are so idealistic and want to see change happen overnight, to realize, in our country, democracies are messy, and you take three steps forward and two steps back, and two steps forward and five steps sideways.
But where change really happens is where over a sustained period of time, we put pressure, and that we do not grow weary. And if you think about the folks who walked across that Edmund Pettus Bridge, they knew they were going to get hurt. They knew what was waiting for them, and they did it anyway.
And so we stand on their shoulders, which was part of the speech that President Obama gave at the 50th anniversary of Selma, the march, and will be embossed on the Obama Center building here in Chicago. It is a glorious responsibility we have to try to make the world better, and we do our part. And so I say to those who say, this is so incredibly frustrating and hard, and I feel like if anything, maybe we’re slipping backwards, well, you just can’t give up.
Because if we give up, then we will certainly slip backwards. That’s for sure. And I also think I take heart, DeRay, in this next generation of young people– and I put you and the generation coming after you front and center– is that you have strong legs, and you all have technology at your fingertips. You have organizational skills, you all are smarter, and brighter than my generation was.
And we have a lot riding on your shoulders. You stand on strong broad shoulders, but you also have incredible potential. And so I want people to take care of themselves and recognize thunderbolt doesn’t happen without a lot of hard work leading up to it. And if you’re lucky, you see the thunderbolt. But it won’t happen without you.
DERAY MCKESSON: Can you tell people what the website is, where they can go to get involved with Civic Nation or Made to Save?
VALERIE JARRETT: CivicNation.org or MadetoSave.org. And you can find out how to volunteer, how to get up to speed on where you can get vaccinated in your community, the organizations that are partnering with us on this work. This is something everyone can do. Everyone can help people register to vote, everyone can work on gender equity, everyone can work on trying to create a fairer system.
And I also encourage, of course, people to go to TheObamaFoundation.org as well if you’re interested in the initiatives that we have underway over there, too. But sitting by idly and letting life happen to you and admiring the problem– that’s not how change happens. Roll up your sleeves and get in it. Feel empowered to know that your voice matters. That’s what you’ve done, DeRay. That’s what you’re doing right now. And if you need a break, and go and get your mind right, great, do that. But then, get back in the game.
DERAY MCKESSON: Cool. Well, Valerie, always a pleasure to have you, will always consider you a friend of the pod, and can’t wait to have you back.
VALERIE JARRETT: All right, DeRay. You stay healthy, stay well, take care of yourself.
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 we’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 Lands, executive producers, Jessica Cordova Kramer and myself. Special thanks to our weekly contributors, Kaya Henderson and De’Ara Balenger.