Author Rebecca Carroll on Identity and the ‘Monolith of Blackness’ (Audio and Transcript)
Listen to the full conversation in the player above and read the full transcript below. Find past editions of “Scheer Intelligence” here.
Robert Scheer: Hi, this is Robert Scheer with another edition of Scheer Intelligence, where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, Rebecca Carroll. I have followed her work in The Guardian newspaper, on WNYC where she’s broadcasting from right now; she was a producer on the Charlie Rose show, she’s been active in the Internet in many ways. And one of the things that brought Rebecca Carroll to some prominence was our interest in the question of “biracial.” Because we had a president who had a black, actually African father, and a white mother; that was Rebecca Carroll’s circumstance. And then she was put up for adoption and adopted by a white family, living in New Hampshire growing up. And that has informed her work. So why don’t we just begin with that? Tell us how you got to be a writer and what your basic message is, and so forth.
Rebecca Carroll: Well, thank you for having me, first. It’s lovely to be with you. How I became a writer, that’s an interesting question. I have recently been looking through some of my work; I’m looking at, thinking about, writing another book. And so what I came across is the first, you could maybe call, essay that I wrote. I was probably, I don’t know, seven or eight, and I kept it on, you know the yellowed paper. And it starts with “My name is Rebecca Ann Carroll. I am a black child.” [Laughter] So that was the first sentence of the first essay I ever wrote. I think that writing has just been a very sort of organic skill or creative way to express myself. It’s also, you know, I kept a journal for over 25 years; I have stacks and stacks of them. It’s always been a place for me to go and figure out how to live. And that’s essentially why I write, is to figure out how to live.
RS: So let me, you know, you mentioned “a black child.” There’s a great picture of you on your mother’s back, and I’m trying to remember whether it’s your birth mother or your adopted mother.
RC: It wouldn’t be my birth mother.
RS: Oh, so it’s your–’cause you didn’t meet your birth mother until you were 13 or something, right?
RS: Eleven. So this is a picture of you on the back of a white woman, and you’re clearly a person of color, and you seem quite happy there. And you describe it as a fairly complicated life growing up in New Hampshire, where you were the only–well, you said there were two black children in the school, one was a kid from New York who had somehow landed there. The reason that’s so relevant, I think, is not only have we had a president who was in this circumstance, but of course many people are of mixed origin. Unfortunately, one of the consequences of rape and force and everything in slave society, but then again, also a certain amount of melting pot experience. And I think your writing is clearly informed by this, and had particular relevance during this election. So, do you want to just mention that? I mean, how do you get from New Hampshire to now living in Manhattan, ah, and this journey–
RC: [Laughs] I don’t live in Manhattan, I’m a Brooklyn girl, and raising my son in Brooklyn. It wasn’t, you mentioned earlier that it was a kind of complicated life. Racially, it didn’t get complicated until I started to really interact with kids in adolescence. You know, I had a very, very excellent, beautiful, ideal childhood. You know, my folks are both artists and very connected to the natural world; my father is a MacArthur Genius naturalist writer, my mom’s a painter. And you know, they really were very hopeful kind of hippies, kind of on the right side of progress and believed that the world was changing, which was one of the reasons that they felt like it would be fine, all right, to adopt a black child, and also the circumstances were in their favor, which is another long kind of story. So when we were all very small–my parents had two biological children before they adopted me–you know, we were in the gardens, we were making Kool-Aid out of stream water, we were on swing[sets], you know, we were picking blueberries and strawberries, we were creating–
RS: In a very old house.
RC: Yes. I mean, the house, the second house that we moved to was a 17th-century Dutch Colonial farmhouse. The one that I started my life in, also a farmhouse, I’m not entirely sure when it was built, but somewhere–you know, lots of old houses in this rural town in New Hampshire. So you know, early, early on, it was a very blissful childhood. It became complicated abruptly when I realized that I didn’t have the tools to be a black child in an all-white environment. And I don’t think that my parents really thought that that would be an issue, and that’s their naivete, and they own up to that today, and we have all sorts of conversations about that. And you know, my mom is still really trying to come to terms with that, and wrestling with what that meant for me. And then it became difficult; it was a particularly wealthy part of New England, New Hampshire; I went to public school, but it was a regional school and a lot of the, two of the central towns that came to the school were really wealthy, sort of preppy rich kids. And you know, I was a very ambitious and precocious girl, and couldn’t quite reconcile with why–[Laughs] you know, sort of like Zora Neale Hurston was like, why would anybody deny themselves my company? Like, I couldn’t quite figure out why I was never chosen to be a girlfriend, why there were sort of whispers among kids in terms of what their parents thought or might feel about them having a black friend. So that’s when it really became complicated, and I had to kind of figure out what it meant to me to be black, and how I was going to navigate that identity in an all-white environment.
RS: You know, it’s interesting, because you’ve written quite a bit about President Obama and the whole phenomenon. And the British press refers to him as “mixed race.” I don’t know what that’s all about. You’ve discussed that a lot in your columns in The Guardian and elsewhere. I went back to, in Honolulu, and I looked into Barack Obama’s background; it’s not that different. Hawaii–well, it’s fundamentally different in that Hawaii is such a, you know, mixture of different races, and that’s the norm. But he had a very pleasant background, in a way. And you know, as opposed to when he went to Chicago and confronted a lot of urban reality. And so there is a parallel in his trajectory and yours.
RC: There is. There is, for sure. But first I would say that regardless of what the British press, or anybody for that matter, calls him in terms of his racial identity, it really only matters what he refers to himself as. And he refers to himself as a black man. You know, and when you’re talking about mixed race, particularly biracial, and you appear black, it doesn’t really matter or hold any water to refer to yourself as biracial. First of all, biracial, you know, sort of gives equal merit and value–not really actually equal, but this whiteness and this blackness–it’s almost as if to say, I’m calling myself biracial just so you know there is some whiteness in me. When in fact, when you look like I do or you look like Barack Obama looks, the only thing that people see is black. And so there’s no real need to include the whiteness. For me, and what I’m trying to teach my son as well, who’s much lighter than me because his father is white, is to center the blackness and to decenter the whiteness.
RS: Well, let’s talk about that. You’ve done two, at least two books that I know of, that are very important on what does it mean to be black in America. One is a book about seeing it through the eyes of young, sort of a young adult type book, seeing it through the eyes of–Sugar in the Raw– of young black women. And then you’ve done an equally important book on the, maybe the most important black intellectual, certainly in our early history, W.E.B. Du Bois, who spanned centuries in his life. And you went back to his classic book, The Souls of Black Folk, to ask people in a more contemporary setting what it all meant. These are two books I would highly recommend that people read. And so you’ve devoted some very–and you are, I believe, a W.E.B. Du Bois Fellow at Harvard.
RC: That’s right, yeah.
RS: And you’ve done a lot of serious work on what does it mean to be black in the history of America. Could you discuss those two books a bit?
RC: Sure. I mean, the Sugar in the Raw was directly from a place of my feeling like, OK, I can’t be the only black girl in America who is struggling with how to navigate this identity. And certainly there have to be an array of experiences and ways of being; you know, that we are constantly pushing against this monolith of blackness. And certainly back then–I mean, this book is turning 20 this year–you know, it was, all we saw in the news, in the media, was that teenage black girls were pregnant and on welfare. And there was never any positive depictions. Now, of course, we have #BlackGirlMagic, we’ve got Serena [Williams], we’ve got Beyoncé, we’ve got all of these incredible models for young black women to look at. But back then, there really wasn’t anything. And I just felt like, for my own self but also for these young women, I wanted to give them a platform to talk about what it felt like to be a black girl in the nineties in America. And so that was a really, an extraordinary experience for me, because it felt like sort of finding younger sisters; it felt like figuring out how to be a role model for black girls, which they helped me figure out how to do, because I didn’t have one. So it was really like, we both, both the young girls and I came to it and found this really valuable exchange. And several of them I’m in touch with still, and have gone on to mentor many, many young black women since. Saving the Race was sort of–I had wanted to write a memoir, and I didn’t feel ready to do that. But I did know that The Souls of Black Folk was, as for–you know, it’s the seminal work, and it is so richly created and so relevant still–you know, I mean, it’s music, it’s poetry, it’s literature, it’s–you know, it’s so richly crafted. And I just thought–and also, my tendency is to figure things out. Like, I always think about my life and my career as figuring things out, and the way to do that is through a line of inquiry, and the way to do that is to curate conversation, and the way to do that is to value language. And so I just, I went through the book and I chose a series of excerpts, and paired them with, you know, a sort of reflection and anecdote, a personal anecdote of my own, and then brought it to a sort of prominent contemporary black voice. Which made for this kind of trifecta, in a way, trying to replicate The Souls of Black Folk in terms of it not being, you know, linear in its format. And I am very, very proud of that book; you know, it was not a commercial success, but I am very proud of that book.
RS: I enjoyed the book immensely. And I think–first of all, let’s reintroduce W.E.B. Du Bois. Because–and as you mentioned, you didn’t know about the book until a college professor, I believe, if I recall correctly, introduced you to it.
RC: That’s right, yeah. Yeah. I mean, there were so many writers, black writers, that I didn’t, I didn’t know anything about until I got into college. You know, because it–
RS: I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that he certainly–well, first of all, one of the most significant writers in American history of any race. But in terms of awareness of the circumstance of black people, he’s one of the cofounders of the NAACP; this goes back two centuries; major figure in the consciousness of black people. Just the very use of the word “black” in a book. And so maybe talk a little bit about your discovery of W.E.B. Du Bois and what you think his significance is.
RC: Well, he was a profound intellectual. He was somebody who cared deeply about black folks. And so, you know, I mean, he gets oftentimes painted as this kind of uppity kind of Negro, and he was that too. But he was also so committed and so devoted to finding different ways of sort of mining the culture of blackness, and also kind of the character and integrity of black folks. And that, I think, is what really resonated for me, was that–it was his writing, and certainly The Souls of Black Folk; and that’s not the only book that he, that is amazing and should be read; The Philadelphia Negro, among others. But it just was the depth and the commitment to finding character, to finding nuance, to–but with so much love and care and creativity. You know, creativity of thinking, creativity of emotion. And that, I just thought, was–is something that we, that I cherish, and that we should continue to cherish. And I revisit it, the book, from time to time. And actually now I’m sort of working on a podcast that’s vaguely based on that, both my book and his book, just in terms of where we are with social media, where we are with Black Twitter. I mean, I think of Black Twitter as entirely Du Boisian. You know, it’s–it is us baring our souls [Laughs] to and with each other, in ways that really heighten and highlight how different we all are. And it’s, you know, we lay ourselves bare.
RS: [omission] OK. We’re back with Rebecca Carroll, a major writer, not just–I shouldn’t say “not just”; [Laughs] obviously, race is critically important in America. But you’ve been a really exciting, independent thinker about a whole range of subjects. And for people who don’t know your work, they can Google you and read your columns on The Guardian; there are two different websites that you worked for, Contentville and I forget the second one, African voices or–?
RC: So, Contentville was quite a while ago, and then I worked with Henry Louis Gates on Africana.com, and have worked with The Huffington Post and other online publications throughout my career.
RS: Yeah, Contentville was Steven Brill’s invention–?
RC: That’s right, yeah.
RS: Yeah, and no, but as I say, one good thing about the Internet, you can look up writers and become familiar with their work. And your columns for The Guardian, I think, have been particularly interesting. And you wrote one that maybe we should talk about for a few minutes, your evaluation of Hillary Clinton. Because you mentioned Donald Trump, and obviously there’s a lot to be critical of Donald Trump. But you also had reservations about Hillary, and you address the question of why particularly older black women were attracted, you understood why they were attracted to Hillary Clinton. But you pointed out that there were aspects of Clintonism, particularly her husband in terms of the imprisonment of black people, a harsh crime bill; you didn’t mention the welfare reform and other sorts of things, the banking and what have you. But Hillary Clinton was a figure that you approached with some questioning, right?
RC: Oh, for sure. I mean, I was never, you know, I was never really on board with the whole “I’m With Her.” I felt like she clearly was the stronger candidate, and I voted for her. But I have, certainly, trepidation, particularly around her and her husband’s history with black people and black culture. And although Hillary has worked for a long time sort of in, both with Marian Wright Edelman and the Children’s Defense Fund, there are these things that keep coming up that are really, they’re unsettling. And they’re not–you know, it’s not sort of like, oh, well, she apologized for that. It’s not just the, you know, the calling them predators, young black men predators. It’s the relationship with Lani Guinier, it’s the–you know, where Bill Clinton, he appointed her and then disappointed her. You know, did not appoint her. There are these–you know, and the recent findings that have been revealed of Hillary talking about using the prisoners who–this program through the prison system where they worked in the–I’m not sure, I can’t remember at this moment, where she was when–I think it was the White House, actually, when she was First Lady. That they used the prisoners and–just the way that she talks about these black men, and the language is so problematic and so indicative of kind of a deeper distancing and privilege and othering that happens. I just don’t, I don’t trust her, and I don’t trust her with black people. That’s really how I feel.
RS: What I find so interesting about your columns, and I want to get people to read them–it’s not that, I happen to, you know, there are some that I disagree with somewhat, and agree with. But what I love about your whole take is, you’ve gone–well, with Arianna Huffington [Laughs]–you worked for Huffington Post. Well, she used to say when we did Left, Right & Center together for KCRW, she would say: I’m rising above the categories; I’m taking a broader view. And I think your columns reflect that. And anyway, the one you wrote on housing and the circumstance of people trying to live in cities and survive, I thought was particularly insightful. I know my own son teaches at a high school in Oakland, California, and he can’t afford a house in the community that he’s teaching in now, because of the whole gentrification and what have you.
RC: Right, right.
RS: And so I do want to get your take as a columnist, as a public intellectual, I want you to take us to a different level.
RC: Right. And I also worked on a podcast here at the station with WNYC called There Goes the Neighborhood, which was a deep dive into the gentrification of Central Brooklyn. Interestingly, and I don’t know if I mentioned this in the piece, but while I was producing this podcast my husband and my son and I were asked, you know, were told that we needed to live the apartment that we were living in in Brooklyn, because they were going to take the building down and build up and charge more and get more rent, et cetera. So we, you know, I went through gentrification while I was working on this project about gentrification. And then just, you know, the whole idea of when a neighborhood becomes valuable is just so, so resonates for me. And it also feels like what I’ve always seen in both my personal, very deeply personal life and family, and throughout my career, is that things don’t become valuable until white people decide that it’s valuable. And that is what, essentially, gentrification comes down to; which is to say, OK, there’s nowhere else for us to live in Manhattan, so–oh! Brooklyn. You know, that looks really pretty. There’s brownstones and tree-lined sidewalks. And I think I’m just going to buy that stuff up and displace all of these black and brown folks. It’s, you know, I mean, it’s under the umbrella of the entire structure of our nation, of our country; it’s all rooted in structural racism and white supremacy. And so I tend not to talk about class and race as different; you know, they are deeply intertwined. But I do think that race and structural racism is sort of what gave us class and a class system.
RS: Well, good, we have a topic that we can disagree on. [Laughs] So let me offer my two cents. I, first of all, one cannot deny the primacy of race as a determinant of class and oppression and everything in American history. We had slavery for much of our history, and our constitutional system and everything was given to us by slave owners or those who condoned slavery, and it’s written into the Constitution. So, obviously, the story of class oppression and exploitation in America cannot be divorced in any serious way from race. But the fact of the matter is, the Constitution itself also discriminated against non-property-owning whites, and it discriminated against women of any race. And I think what we’re seeing now, and it’s so confusing, about the current political situation, is we have a populism of the right, which Trump–you know, and as a demagogue, not a legitimate populist, but as a demagogue–was able to capitalize on. And the fact is, you know, the Bronx–which I grew up in, and lived there until I was 24 or something, my mother lived there quite a bit longer–went down the tubes without The New York Times noticing it, without much attention, the place started burning, I went and wrote about it for the LA Times. And there was a lot of Puerto Rican people, black people, but there were plenty of white people left–one of them was my mother–who were not doing well. And class, again, surfaced. And when you say white people discovering Brooklyn; no, it’s developers, it’s rich people; same thing that has driven out, there were plenty of minorities living in San Francisco, and they’ve been driven out. And I just wonder–and that’s why I thought your housing thing was so interesting–whether we’re seeing class politics becoming critical. Not to replace race, but right there, you know, as one of the big problems in American society.
RC: Right, but then I’d just return back to, who are the people who have the money, rich people? You said people are being displaced, but that the people who are displacing them are not all white, they’re people who are rich and who are making these decisions. But by and large, the people who have the money to make these kinds of decisions are white.
RS: But what I’m asking is, there are plenty of white people being screwed. I mean, this is why you have such resentment. I mean, I don’t want to make this the whole topic, but clearly the Trump phenomenon, this right-wing populism, is appealing to people who are hurting, who happen to be white. And you know, there was a slogan when I was growing up, “free, white, and twenty-one,” you know, you could just, you didn’t even have to graduate from high school, you got a good job and so forth. And that’s a whole group of people that have been displaced. And this is what Bernie Sanders was able to appeal to, and then Trump came and stole the show from a right-wing, demagogic, racist perspective, no?
RC: Right, but I don’t know what you mean when you say this is what I resent, that white people are getting screwed too. It’s two entirely different conversations, which is to say that a white person being screwed in 1864 and 2017 is just entirely different circumstances than a black person being screwed. So in the 1800s you got lynched; in 2017 you get displaced, and sometimes shot. But it’s just a different, it’s apples and oranges, really. And when you talk about what it means for a white person to be screwed, just based on the sheer optics of that person’s existence, they are far less–you know, they’re far more better-positioned to live their lives.
RS: Well, there’s no question about that. But we’re talking about whether in fact there isn’t something else going on in the American economy in terms of a very large number of people who are not able to get decent jobs, and that there’s a sharply lowered expectation, and that Trump is able to appeal to these people.
RC: Right, absolutely. And I think what’s really frightening is that he told them that he cared. [Laughs] That he was going to bring jobs, and all the rest.
RS: Well, he’s Mussolini, we can, yeah–he’s Mussolini, he’s deceiving them.
RC: But so that–they, now, are pissed off to the point of real hate crimes. You know, like we’re the ones who suffer and pay, because he said “I see you, I see your pain, I’m going to lift you all up,” and he’s not. And so they’re like, OK, well, what we do still have is white privilege and white–whatever, however small it is, but we do still have that. And we have seen, we have seen statistically, a rise in hate crimes since he was voted into office.
RS: What I like so much about your columns and your writing is that I’m provoked, I’m surprised, and there’s a lot to mull over. What have I left out? You used to do the Charlie Rose show and others; you have more experience at radio podcasting, probably, than I do. Where would you have taken this that I have left out?
RC: I would say, you know, I also–and I think that you maybe know this, or not–I’m a Critic-at-Large for the LA Times, and I mostly write book reviews. And I would say that there, in the last year or so there has been a crop of really critically important books. You know, we’re talking about how the issues have broadened. Or–it’s a combination of things, right? It’s Trump, it’s the reaction, the backlash, it’s the, it’s what he’s been doing and Tweeting, and everybody’s in sort of a state of shock, whether they voted for him or not. But it’s a very, very rich time for this conversation about, certainly about race; I mean, from my perspective, I’m deeply grateful that I’m not a dentist right now, that I actually have a platform to try to figure out what’s going on, and that suddenly people are open to hearing the term “white supremacy” without clutching the pearls and thinking that it’s just the KKK. This is a time when we have a window of people paying attention to the conversation about race, to the conversation about gender, reproductive rights, all of those things. But for me specifically, I’ve seen some extraordinary books come out: The Blood of Emmett Till, the Wesley Lowery book They Can’t Kill Us All; Roxane Gay has a book that just came out, a memoir called Hunger; there has been, you know, movies, television–it’s a very, very rich time for black women and artists across mediums. And I just, I guess I would say that we should really keep an eye towards culture at large, and the contributions that are being made by black and brown people, and also what’s being said in that art, whether it’s books or films or television or visual art, and that we have to keep supporting all of that, especially now that there, that Trump is looking at pulling funding from art programs and the NEA. Just the value of art as a tool of communication, and of protest and resistance and joy, and ways to keep life alive and to keep each other alive.
RS: I’ve been talking to Rebecca Carroll, who is one of the most interesting journalists out there, and author of books. I certainly recommend that you check out her work. And want to thank you for being here. Our producers today have been Rebecca Mooney and Joshua Scheer at KCRW. Mario Diaz and Kat Yore are the terrific engineers there. And we broadcast with the great help of WNYC in New York, and I have been broadcasting from Sports Byline in San Francisco, where Darren Peck runs a great shop. See you next week.
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