On Thursday evening, journalist and author Farai Chideya stops in Savannah to give a talk during the Jepson Center’s Juneteenth programming.
Chideya, who’s written four books and contributed to numerous national publications, has been a leading voice in discussions on the evolving concept of diversity in America as well as the intersection between journalism and the internet.
We caught up with her last week by phone to talk about her interest in the web, diversity in journalism and the challenges of writing fiction when you have a busy schedule.
You’ve been at the forefront of multimedia journalism. Did you see the web’s journalistic potential, or were you young enough to adapt to the technology?
Farai Chideya: The first time I used the internet was in the basement of the Harvard science center in the late ‘80s. Things evolved rapidly, and I got involved in the early ‘90s. My mother was always aware that wherever there was a way to communicate there was an opportunity — whether that was language, science or computing. She pushed me in that direction.
When I graduated and became a journalist, I found myself having to send reports in and receive reports using very primitive modems and datalinks. You’d have a modem that was the size of a paperback book and a laptop that was green text on a black screen. A smartphone has many more times the functionality than the things I was using, but I was using the connectivity of the internet. I really got to see things grow over time, and then I started popandpolitics.com in 1995.
Pop and Politics is set to re–launch pretty soon. Have you been part of that effort?
Farai Chideya: It’s very much my project, but it’s not at all what it was. When I started it, it was a news–oriented and personality–driven blog. It was “intrepid reporter Farai Chideya tells you about her adventures and what makes her laugh.” Later it evolved into more of an online magazine with multiple contributors.
When News and Notes was cancelled and I was moving back to Los Angeles, I wasn’t sure if I was going to use the domain... but then when I was deciding to start a radio show, and more than that to build a brand that included social media, social networking and radio. I said Pop and Politics still sums up what I want to talk about, and as long as I make it clear that this is a new enterprise, then we’re fine.
Were you worried at all about life after News and Notes? Or did you have plans all along?
Farai Chideya: I’m still filled with gigantic questions, but they’re different questions because I’ve proven to myself that I can survive financially. I found a real resilience and a comfort in that I don’t have to make all my money doing journalism. Having a diversity of revenue streams is really important at a time like this, not just for journalists, but for a lot of people.
It seems like there’s a portion of the African American community that is hesitant to criticize the Obama administration because they realize the implications of his presidency extend beyond policy.
As an African American journalist, have you had to confront that, where you’ve had to choose between news and community? Or are you able to separate them?
Farai Chideya: I don’t think it’s about separating it as much as it is about being honest about what your role is and what your goals are. On News and Notes, when you consider that it was supposed to be African American–oriented and there’s really only 10–20 percent of African Americans who are Republicans, when we did our political matchups it was usually one–to–one with a Republican and Democrat. That basically overstated the Republican position within the black community, but we felt we had to do that because we wanted to air a variety of opinions. Sometimes we went out of our way not to show favoritism to Obama.
This new show, the Pop and Politics show, is not going to be an African American interest show, but it is going to be one that focuses on diversity as a whole.
What does diversity mean for journalism?
Farai Chideya: One of my pet peeves is that I believe journalism has not done well by working people. Journalism has become a more highly educated, white collar profession and it’s lost touch with a lot of people.
I grew up in a working income family in Baltimore, and then I went to Harvard with very different socioeconomic statuses. I asked another Harvard grad, who was also African American, whether Ivy League people were over–represented in journalism, and he was completely offended. I thought that was interesting because even some of the people who would argue for diversity in other ways don’t realize that we need to have more people from community colleges doing journalism. We need to have more people who maybe didn’t even go to college doing journalism.
We need diversity across the spectrum — not just ideological and not just racial. We need diversity of class, diversity of national origin, and so on because it makes us better. It makes us better at what we do and it connects us more effectively to issues. It’s a matter of survival and I don’t know whether we’ve really gotten that message yet.
Changing gears a little bit, Kiss the Sky has been out for about a year, and although it’s your fourth book, it was your first attempt at fiction. What made you made you decide to go that route?
Farai Chideya: I actually always wanted to write fiction. My parents both, at different times, had been journalists. I was raised in a household where everyday when we got home from school we were expected to read the paper. We were taught to think critically about the news. Was it accurate? Was it representing issues in communities we knew in ways that made sense? We were taught to be little media critics and political junkies.
At the same time, I was reading Tolkien and all these fantasy novels. I’m someone who has a big imagination and a love of fiction. The idea of writing a novel was more my dream than being a journalist.
As someone who writes daily for journalistic reasons, was it a hard transition as a writer?
Farai Chideya: It was hard. I was always working either as a journalist, or for a time as an internet consultant, so it was very difficult to balance the demands of my paid employment with the demands of the novel. It was also difficult to get into the head of the novel when you’re thinking about things that are completely different. You have to completely shift gears and get into a zone where you can focus on these people that don’t even exist.
Your talk here is themed “Freedom, Roots and Culture.” What exactly are you going to be touching on during that?
Farai Chideya: One of the things I want to do is talk about the diasporic African experience. The population of people from African descent in America is becoming much more diverse. You have Afro–Latinos, Africans, Caribbean people, European Africans – all sorts of people – which sort of changed the dynamic of what was considered a mono–cultural community of black people. We had an illusion, partly supported by some reality, that we were all one black people, but now we’re finding out that that guy’s from the Gambia, and that guy is from Cuba, and we don’t cook the same; we don’t church the same.
I think there’s a lot of xenophobia operating in America right now. There’s definitely a new wave of questioning about what America, as an immigrant country, is. African Americans are no less questioning than other people.
I believe that for America to survive this downturn we have to radically up our knowledge about the world. We’ve been isolationist in ways that have done us no favors. Americans are not dumb, we just haven’t been exposed to certain things as much as some other people. There are geographic reasons for that.
We are a huge country, but we’ve got to pull up.
Farai Chideya’s Juneteenth Talk
When: Thursday, June 17 at 7 p.m.
Where: Second African Baptist Church, 123 Houston St.
Cost: Free and open to the public
For more on the Telfair Museums’ Juneteenth events, go to www.telfair.org