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August 24, 2013

Transgender woman dies after beating in Harlem, New York

Transgender woman dies after beating in Harlem, New York

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Saturday, August 24, 2013

A transgender woman attacked in Harlem, New York last week died on Thursday after being declared brain dead and taken off life support. Police are treating the death of Islan Nettles, 21, as a hate crime.

Cquote1.svg They were called faggots, they were called he-shes, she-males, things of that nature Cquote2.svg

—Victim’s mother

Nettles was walking with transgender friends early on August 17 when they met a group of men opposite a local police building. Police say a fight ensued after the men discovered the group was transgender and local man Paris Wilson, 20, was arrested at the scene.

Wilson was charged by prosecutors in Manhattan with assault and harassment. Prosecutors say more serious charges could be brought after police received allegations homophobic language was used, with a hate crimes team now investigating. The death has been ruled a homicide and a spokeswoman for the New York City medical examiner’s office said Nettles was killed by “blunt impact head injuries”.

Islan Nettles in a self-portrait posted to her LinkedIn profile.
Image: Islan Nettles/LinkedIn.

The criminal complaint Wilson presently faces says a police officer found Nettles “unconscious on the ground with a swollen shut eye and blood on her face”. Wilson is accused of punching Nettles to the ground and then repeatedly hitting her while she lay there.

Cquote1.svg Fashion became a definite decision for my life after my first show with my hand designed garments in high school Cquote2.svg

—Islan Nettles

Nettles was interested in a fashion career, working as an intern for local fashion firm Ay’Medici. “Fashion became a definite decision for my life after my first show with my hand designed garments in highschool”, she wrote on LinkedIn, where she described herself as “anti-violence”. She has previously instructed fashion at Harlem Children’s Zone, undertaking studies at New York College of Technology and the Bread and Roses Integrated Arts High School.

Her mother, Dolores Nettles, told press Nettles and her friends were subject to transphobic insults. “They were called faggots, they were called he-shes, she-males, things of that nature,” she said.

Daniel L. Squadron of the New York State Senate said yesterday in a statement “Islan was 21 years old — 21 years old. And her life and future were stolen from her. Let’s be clear: intolerance, discrimination and hate have no place in New York or anywhere.” He called for the passage of a related bill he supports, the Gender Expression Non-Discrimination Act.

Wilson is presently free on bail, with a court hearing scheduled for October 4.



This text comes from Wikinews. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 licence. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikinews.

August 12, 2010

Early puberty for US girls raises health risk

Early puberty for US girls raises health risk

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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Hormones that control puberty. According to a new study, US girls are reaching puberty earlier than in the past 10-30 years.
Image: Wikimedia Commons.

According to a new study, US girls are reaching puberty earlier than ever, a trend that raises some health concerns. The study, which was conducted in New York’s East Harlem, the Cincinnati metropolitan area, and the San Francisco Bay area, showed that by age eight, 27% of girls had begun puberty and showed breast development. By age seven, 15% of girls were developing breasts.

There were differences among races. By age 7, 10.4% of white girls had reached puberty, up from 5% in a 1997 study. In contrast, 23.4% of African-Americans and 14.9% of Hispanics had reached puberty. Also, at age 8, 18.3% of whites, 42.9% of blacks and 30.9% of Hispanics had reached puberty.

Girls who reach puberty earlier have a higher chance of engaging in early sexual activity. The study examined 1,239 girls aged between six and eight.

Though the study did not address why US girls were reaching breast development earlier, it found that heavier girls reached puberty earlier. Marcia Herman-Giddens of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill has said that the earlier puberty could be related to the rising obesity rate among US citizens. Currently, a third of US children are overweight or obese. Scientists and researchers are also worried about chemicals like bisphenol A (BPA) and atrazine that could disrupt growth hormones. The chemical industry says that these chemicals are safe and are harmless to humans.

Herman-Giddens also said that it can be confusing to hit puberty at a young age. Girls reaching puberty at a younger age are more likely to attempt suicide. Also, earlier puberty can cause low self-esteem and depression and at adulthood, girls who reached puberty earlier are more likely to have breast cancer and endometrial cancer.



This text comes from Wikinews. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 licence. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikinews.

May 6, 2009

Congressional computers continue to be used to vandalize Wikipedia

Congressional computers continue to be used to vandalize Wikipedia

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Wednesday, May 6, 2009

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Wikinews contributors have discovered that members of the United States Congress or members of their staff have recently been making questionable edits to Wikipedia, the free online encyclopedia anyone can edit. This continues the trend identified by four exclusive Wikinews reports over a four-year period exposing questionable and fraudulent edits made beginning in 2005 by Congress members or staff.

Beginning in 2006, Wikinews reported that members of Congress or their staff were vandalizing Wikipedia by removing critical information in various articles, or adding false or offensive information. These edits were and continue to be done using computers owned or operated by the United States government.

Cquote1.svg Sorry–House of Reps IPs should not be editing Wikipedia, even other office’s pages on lunch break. Cquote2.svg

—Congressional IP address, January 14, 2009

In this new investigation, Wikinews has found that at least two of the three major Internet Protocol Addresses (IP) attached to computers used by members of the U.S. House of Representatives and their staff have been the source of Wikipedia edits for several years. As recently as April 2009 they have been adding or removing false and/or offensive information from articles related to political figures or members of Congress.

Although the IP addresses belong exclusively to the U.S Congress as a whole, they are linked to many different computers throughout the U.S. which are used by many different House representatives or their staff members. In response to an edit, another Wikipedia contributor posts a message on the user discussion page for the IP address, advising anyone that may view the page that the address belongs to Congress.

In January, one individual using a Congressional computer removed a source in an article. Five minutes later, using the same congressional IP address, someone replaced the source with an apology saying, “sorry–House of Reps IPs should not be editing [Wikipedia], even other office’s pages on lunch break.” Despite the advisories, Wikinews has found that the individuals continued to make vandal-like edits to the encyclopedia.

In one instance, Wikinews found that someone with one of the IP addresses,, began to edit the Wikipedia article for Steve Austria, the Republican representative for Ohio’s 7th congressional district. The individual began to edit on March 18, 2009 at 23:32 UTC. He or she used the official House of Representatives gateway to remove a section of information relating to inaccurate comments Austria made about The Great Depression. Austria stated in an interview with The Columbus Dispatch in February that Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s New Deal in 1933 caused the U.S. to go into a depression.

“When Roosevelt did this, he put our country into a Great Depression. … He tried to borrow and spend, he tried to use the Keynesian approach, and our country ended up in a Great Depression. That’s just history,” said Austria during the February 11 interview. He later admitted that his statement was wrong, saying Roosevelt’s spending “did not have the desired effect,” which caused the depression. Exactly two minutes later on March 18, the same IP address removed information relating to bloggers accusing Austria of plagiarism in 2008. They accused him of taking credit for a column that was published in his name in the Xenia Gazette on September 2, 2008. Bloggers had discovered that the column was a direct copy of a report on the history of Labor Day originally published by the U.S. Department of Labor. The edits were reverted, the last being over four hours after the information was removed. Despite some constructive edits, such as correcting the spelling of Wisconsin congressman Steve Kagen‘s name and correcting grammatical errors, the same IP removed the information in both sections a total of six times from March 18 to April 24, 2009.

Steve Austria.
Image: U.S. Congress.

After seeing the suspicious edits, Wikinews examined the edit history for Austria’s article to see if any other suspicious edits were made. After a brief search, Wikinews discovered that the IP address removed the same information just 15 days earlier on March 3, being the first address to remove the information. Only one edit has been made to Wikipedia from that IP address so far. After tracing the address, Wikinews discovered the person who made the edits lives in or near Fairborn, which is located 8.5 miles from Beavercreek, where Austria currently resides. Austria also grew up in Xenia which is located just 12 miles from Fairborn and only 8 miles from Beavercreek.

Another individual, with the IP address, also removed the allegations of plagiarism from Austria’s article in February. The individual removed what they called “Politically Motivated BS [bullshit]” from the article of Deborah Pryce, former congresswoman for Ohio’s 15th congressional district. The information was related to fundraisers between 2001 and 2004 that were held at restaurants belonging to convicted felon and former lobbyist Jack Abramoff. After tracing the IP address, Wikinews found that the edit was made from a computer located in Columbus, Ohio, the location of Pryce’s offices and one of the cities in Pryce’s district. Wikinews contacted Austria by e-mail for a statement, but so far there has been no response.

Following those discoveries, Wikinews investigated another IP address used by the U.S. House of Representatives. On April 30, 2009, the address made an edit that listed Devin Nunes, the representative for California’s 21st congressional district, as being a member of the Nazi Party. The address also made less questionable edits, but after investigating further, it was discovered that the IP address removed critical information on April 29 from the article of Gregory Meeks, the representative for New York’s 6th congressional district. The information removed was related to a column by the the New York Times which stated that Meeks initially supported former 2008 presidential candidate Hillary Clinton over Barack Obama in the race for the White House. According to the Times, Meeks changed his support to Obama because he was part of “a young black political class [which was] seeking to assert the neighborhood’s power against what it sees as an older establishment, based in Harlem, that has long exercised disproportionate influence in New York City.”

The address was also responsible for adding highly biased statements to articles related to abortion. On March 16, 2009 it altered the Wikipedia article Crisis pregnancy center, adding that the centers were “abortion mills, which exist only to kill people, also present themselves as medical facilities.” On March 20, the IP changed the Project Rachel article to include, “millions of women have deep regrets and, often, suffer psychological problems after undergoing an abortion–a fact the abortion industry and mass media will not admit.” also added racial slurs and references to gay pedophilia into William A. Donohue‘s article in February, saying he has “participated in the controversial act of ‘tabeling’, in which he takes a small child, places him upon a table, and ‘puts the lord inside him.'”

In an attempt to find out where the edits were being made and by whom, Wikinews contacted the Electronic Frontier Foundation to receive advice on how to file an information request with the U.S. government under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The request would have been made to release the names of the individuals and offices responsible for the edits. However, according to Marcia Hofmann, a staff attorney for the EFF, who specializes in FOIA related matters, the U.S. government is not required to provide the information.

“None of the U.S. open government laws extends to records in the possession of members of Congress or their employees. Put differently, it’s not so much a question of what the information is (identities of congressional staff) as where the information is (in congressional offices, which aren’t covered by open government laws),” said Hoffmann in an exclusive interview with Wikinews. She also added that “FOIA [requests] cover records in executive branch agencies and departments” only.

Suspicious and/or fraudulent edits to Wikipedia made by Congress and other government entities were first reported by Wikinews in February 2006, after the U.S. government engaged in Wikipedia vandalism and other forms of perceived biased editing of articles. The House of Representatives IP addresses were briefly banned from editing Wikipedia articles in the wake of the initial controversy. A few days later, Wikinews reported that staff members of the offices of United States Senators, using Senate-linked IP addresses, also edited Wikipedia, in some cases, removing facts and sourced material from articles. In 2008, Wikinews also reported that staff members for then 2008 candidates for U.S. president Barack Obama and John McCain made questionable edits to Wikipedia.

Related news

  • “Staffs for US presidential candidates John McCain and Barack Obama caught making questionable edits to Wikipedia” — Wikinews, August 26, 2008
  • “U.S. House Ethics Committee to examine congressional press secretary vandalizing Wikipedia articles with government computer” — Wikinews, August 19, 2007
  • “Wikinews investigates Wikipedia usage by U.S. Senate staff members” — Wikinews, February 7, 2006
  • “United States Department of Justice workers among government Wikipedia vandals” — Wikinews, February 2, 2006
  • “Congressional staff actions prompt Wikipedia investigation” — Wikinews, January 30, 2006


This exclusive report features first-hand journalism by one or more Wikinews members. See the collaboration page for more details.

This text comes from Wikinews. Permission is granted to copy, distribute and/or modify this document under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 licence. For a complete list of contributors for this article, visit the corresponding history entry on Wikinews.

December 3, 2007

Al Sharpton speaks out on race, rights and what bothers him about his critics

Al Sharpton speaks out on race, rights and what bothers him about his critics

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Monday, December 3, 2007

People call me because they know I will come. If nothing else you write, I have never fought a case where they didn’t ask me to come. People have this picture like I’m sitting up in bed at night with a walkie-talkie. ‘You hear anything? Oh, let’s run! It’s Virginia today!’
Image: David Shankbone.

At Thanksgiving dinner David Shankbone told his white middle class family that he was to interview Reverend Al Sharpton that Saturday. The announcement caused an impassioned discussion about the civil rights leader’s work, the problems facing the black community and whether Sharpton helps or hurts his cause. Opinion was divided. “He’s an opportunist.” “He only stirs things up.” “Why do I always see his face when there’s a problem?”

Shankbone went to the National Action Network‘s headquarters in Harlem with this Thanksgiving discussion to inform the conversation. Below is his interview with Al Sharpton on everything from Tawana Brawley, his purported feud with Barack Obama, criticism by influential African Americans such as Clarence Page, his experience running for President, to how he never expected he would see fifty (he is now 53). “People would say to me, ‘Now that I hear you, even if I disagree with you I don’t think you’re as bad as I thought,'” said Sharpton. “I would say, ‘Let me ask you a question: what was “bad as you thought”?’ And they couldn’t say. They don’t know why they think you’re bad, they just know you’re supposed to be bad because the right wing tells them you’re bad.”

Sharpton’s beginnings in the movement

This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.

David Shankbone: You grew up around so many great American musicians and singers like Mahalia Jackson and James Brown.

Al Sharpton: I grew up in the black church. I started preaching at four as a wonderboy preacher. The church that I grew up in, Washington Temple Church of God in Christ in Brooklyn, was a hot spot for gospel singers. It was probably a mega-church before there were mega-churches. Bishop F.D. Washington, who was the bishop of the church, had about 5,000 members in the late fifties and early sixties. All the gospel greats would come to the church. Because I was the wonderboy preacher, and I had my own little church celebrity, I got to know all the gospel singers. It began my early dealing with the entertainment world, through the gospel singing. In 1964 when the World’s Fair came to New York, Mahalia Jackson had me preach and she sang there that night. Then I did a few other cities with her.

All the gospel greats would come to the church. Because I was the wonderboy preacher, and I had my own little church celebrity, I got to know all the gospel singers.
Mahalia Jackson in 1962.

DS: What was that like touring with Mahalia Jackson?

AS: It was fascinating to me. Here I am a little kid, I’m not even ten years old, and Mahalia Jackson was arguably the preeminent gospel artist of that time. It was quite a charge to me. A lot of times now I land into LaGuardia Airport and you see the circular, which was the New York pavilion of the World’s Fair, and that’s where I preached when I was nine years old. I think about that a lot flying in, that night with Mahalia Jackson. Now that’s wow, 47-years ago.

DS: Did you keep in touch with her throughout her life? Did she have a presence in yours?

AS: Not as closely as James Brown. We would run into each other. She died when I was still very much in my teens. Madame Ernestine Washington, who was the first lady of the church I grew up in, she was a gospel singer. I knew a lot of the gospel greats. James Brown and I got close in my teen years. What happened was when I was around 12 or 13, Martin Luther King had come to the church and I got totally mesmerized by Adam Clayton Powell, who was the Congressman in Harlem and a preacher, so I wanted to get involved politically. The church that I was in was Pentecostal; I’m now Baptist. But it was Pentecostal, and it wasn’t that involved in social justice, although Bishop Washington was. Bishop Washington said he didn’t want me to get involved with the more militant groups, because at that time you had the Black Panthers and a lot of others. So he brought me to Reverend William Jones, who was head of Operation Breadbasket, SCLC, in New York, who later became my pastor after Bishop Washington died. Reverend Jones converted me Baptist from Pentecostal. They knew who I was because of my preaching as a little boy. I became the youth director in New York of SCLC Operation Breadbasket. King had just gotten killed; this is 1969 and he had gotten killed the year before. I met King, but I didn’t know him. I was 12, 13 years old. But I got to know Dr. Abernathy, who succeeded him—

DS: Ralph Abernathy?

AS: Ralph Abernathy. The Director nationally of Operation Breadbasket was Jesse Jackson, who was in his late twenties, early thirties. It was interesting, because Jesse Jackson’s age and my age gap was the same as his and King’s. Jackson at that time had a big afro and a medallion. He became a hero to me. Adam Clayton Powell, who had been my hero, had retired and moved so I became a protégé of Reverend Jackson. We became close.

James Brown: a father to Sharpton

What I do functionally is what Dr. King, Reverend Jackson and the movement are all about; but I learned manhood from James Brown. I always say that James Brown taught me how to be a man.
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Are you still close to Reverend Jackson?

AS: Yeah, we talk. In 1971, when Jackson left SCLC over whatever their problems were with each other—that’s when he left to form Operation Push—I also left the SCLC in protest because I was close to Reverend Jackson. I took my youth division with me and formed National Youth Movement, which was my organization. Jesse didn’t have an organization here in New York. When I formed it, maybe about a year, six months later, a young guy joined the organization from Georgia — he would come up here thinking about going to college — named Teddy. Teddy’s father was James Brown. Teddy got killed in a car accident in upstate New York. He and I were the same age, sixteen. James Brown came to New York and the disc jockeys here told him about this young preacher his son liked. He decided he’d do a memorial concert for his son for my youth group. He talked to me, he liked me, and of course this was, like, The Icon. He became like the father I didn’t have after my parents separated, and I became like Teddy, his ambitious young son. He had other kids, but they were not as old as Teddy and they didn’t have the ambition, so we started a father-son relationship.

DS: How did James Brown’s death affect you?

AS: Oh, I don’t think anything has affected me more.

DS: He was such an icon, but then to also have had this deeply personal relationship must have had an extraordinary impact on you.

AS: James Brown was the father I never had. I traveled with him; he financed my youth group. I met my wife — we’re no longer together — when she was his background singer. He put my kids in private school. I styled my hair after him; he actually styled my hair after his. What I do functionally is what Dr. King, Reverend Jackson and the movement are all about; but I learned manhood from James Brown. I always say that James Brown taught me how to be a man.

DS: What was one lesson that he taught you?

AS: Determination. Don’t be afraid to listen to your inner ear. James Brown changed music; he changed the beat of music. I learned from him to trust your inner ear, go by your own beat. I remember in the 1970’s when disco became popular he refused to water down his music, and it ended up his music became the basis of funk and rap and all that. I watched him deal with adversity and go to jail. When he was in jail I went and saw him every month, and I went and preached for him. He never gave up, he was very determined. He taught me how to take adversity and use it to your advantage.

James Brown.

DS: There is so much anger at injustice, and that anger can fell a person’s ability to right wrongs, or can steer them down a bad path. You have been able to take your anger and use it productively. When you come across a young person who is angry at the world around them, what kind of advice do you give them?

AS: The challenge is to learn that your anger can fuel you in achieving things that can eradicate what you’re angry about; or your anger can consume and defeat you. I’m known for fighting racial bias, police misconduct, and things against poor people. I can either be strategic to say this is Plan A, B and C to get racial profiling off, or hate crime laws passed, or close the Navy base in Vieques, and I’m going to use my anger, my real, heartfelt anger to fuel me to get up at five o’clock in the morning to do Plan A, B and C; or I can be someone so angry that I never get to a strategy, I never get to Plan A, B and C. But then the police are not challenged, and the hate crime laws are not written, and Vieques is still open. So the question one has to ask one’s self—I tell young people all the time, and most of the National Action Network leadership in our chapters are younger than me—you have to make a choice at some point in your life: are you going to do something about what angers you, or do you want to just be angry? Because I learned a long time ago that those in power don’t care that you’re angry, they care if you use that anger to do something about it. You have a choice. I used to like boxing. My father was a boxer and I used to watching boxing matches all the time. If you go into the ring just mad you’ll get knocked out. Or you can go into the ring and have training, and have a fight plan, and use your natural anger to fuel your fight plan; it’s according to what you want to be. But the one with the fight plan that uses his anger to drive the fight plan is the one who ends up champion. The one without one just ends up angry and laying knocked out. It’s your choice. I’m not saying I came to that out of brilliance; I came to that out of trial and error. I used to be angry with no plan. Just recklessly angry.

DS: What would you do?

AS: Just mad, just react. And achieve nothing. You’ve got to say that life is about stated goals, benchmarks, and what you want to achieve at the end of life. Because everybody comes to an end. What was the purpose of your life and what did you achieve? So if my goal was to build a social justice network, and to change things, at the end of life in the social justice arena, did I do that? It won’t matter if I was angry or happy, it will matter if I have achieved that. That’s what I learned from James Brown. You got to decide what your purpose is, not others. Much of the media criticism of me assumes their goals and the impose them on me. Well, those might not be my goals. So they will say, “Well, Sharpton has not won a political office.” But that might not be my goal! Maybe I ran for political office to change the debate, or to raise the social justice question.

DS: Which you see today. Dennis Kucinich or Tom Tancredo, they’re not there because they think they are going to win; they are trying to frame the issues.

AS: Right. And if they are there to frame the issue, then they are successful. One of the things I learned from James Brown is don’t let others determine your success. Your success is based upon your goals, not the goals they impose upon you.

Criticism: Sharpton is always there

DS: A lot of the criticism that is lodged at you is that you always seem to pop up around hot button issues, or where there is some race issue. My interview with you came up during my Thanksgiving dinner with my family, and I’d like that dinner to inform our discussion because it illustrated many of the typical perspectives about you. My brother-in-law made that point, that there you always are around the controversial race issue. I responded with, “Well, what was he saying? Was he wrong about what he said? Why do we focus on Sharpton and not the issue he is talking about?”

AS: Your answer is right, but let me give you something even deeper than that. If you asked the average critic, “Where is he?” Jena, Imus, whatever. You know what they won’t recognize? Not only was I there, but I created it into being an issue. There was no Jena until we went into Jena. There was nobody else fighting Imus. The misconception is these these issues got hot and then I came in; no, I came in and I made them hot. There was nobody in Jena; nobody heard of Jena until we went down there. Nobody ever questioned Imus but us, which is why Imus came to our show. The reason why this becomes important is because not only are you right, ‘Do you disagree with him,’ but do you begrudge him being in front of an issue that he helped create? So who is supposed to be in front of it? I create an issue and then somebody else is supposed to lead it? Last Friday we had a huge 50,000 person march in Washington against the Justice Department . We went out there organizing with our chapters, got 150 buses from around the country paid for. Who is supposed to lead the march? You got people saying, “There he is leading the march.” Well, he organized it. Who is supposed to lead the march? And the thing that gets me is, you get blamed for stuff you did not do. A lot of people think I led the Duke case. I never went to Duke; I never went to North Carolina. Never ever. They asked me to come, but I said unless I talk to the victim I’m not going. So you get criticized for what you do organize and lead, and you get criticized for stuff you had nothing to do with, just because people assume you were there. And it’s crazy!

Nadine Strossen
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Nadine Strossen, the President of the ACLU, brought up in our interview that their critics intentionally distort their work to serve their own purposes. For instance, many people believe the ACLU works to keep religion out of the school, yet they have consistently fought for the right for religion to be in schools. She debated Falwell and Robertson on these issues, and they will still say that the ACLU is fighting to remove God from the public sphere.

AS: She’s right! That’s not their position!

DS: When you come across people who intentionally misinform the debate in order to scuttle your goals, what do you do?

AS: The only thing you can do is straighten the record out, but you come to expect it. The advantage I have is that I grew up in the movement and watched people from Reverend Jackson to James Brown. James Brown as the dominant father in my life; Jackson as the dominant teacher, who had to deal with the same misconceptions and controversies. When it came my time, I almost expected it because that is what they are going to do, which is to try and change the debate. What you learn is you don’t let them change the premise. Because if you start with the wrong premise, you arrive at the wrong conclusion. I’ll give you an example. A guy says to me the other day in an airport, “I admire you, but I’d like to see you on more than civil rights issues.” I said, “Let me ask you a question: what do I do?” He said, “Well, you lead a civil rights organization.” So what am I supposed to do? That’s like getting on a plane and telling the pilot I’d like to see you do more than fly the plane. That’s what I do—I’m a civil rights leader! What is a civil rights leader supposed to do?

DS: That’s the same response Ingrid Newkirk gave in an interview when I told her people say she cares more about fighting for animals than for humans. She responded that’s what PETA does: give a voice to those who do not have one. She said that criticism is like telling a homeless shelter they care more about the homeless than people who live in mansions.

AS: That’s exactly right! I tell staff here and all the other cities where we have offices, don’t complain when people come in here with problems because that’s what you do. That’s like a nurse saying, “Why do sick people come here?” Because you work in a doctor’s office! Why do people who are in trouble go to a lawyer’s office? Because that’s what lawyers do. That’s what I do: civil rights. So in many ways, what they consider criticism is complimenting my job. An activist’s job is to make public civil rights issues until there can be a climate for change. So when people get angry at me for raising these issues and making them public, well, that’s my job! That’s what I’m supposed to do. If I could not get the public’s attention on an issue, then I’m not a good activist.

Tawana Brawley to Megan Williams

DS: Are you tired of hearing Tawana Brawley always paired with your name?

AS: No. You know what happens? It has been so long—twenty years—that when a lot of people back up on that, others realize how ludicrous it is. They say, “Wait a minute, you have to go back twenty years to criticize him? And He believed in a girl that you don’t believe in?” So, twenty years later now and the same thing happened to Megan Williams in West Virginia. Was that a hoax? When you look at the span of my career, from Howard Beach before Brawley to Sean Bell now, if all you can do is go to one case twenty years ago, then most people would say that is a little shaky. I mean, come on. Because if I was a hoaxster, then why haven’t we seen other hoaxes in twenty years? And why didn’t the jury say they thought it was a hoax? The jury said they didn’t believe Pagones should have been labeled, the same jury that hit us with defamation. That jury said there was no conspiracy to lie, which is why they only awarded him $65,000 from me. If they thought it was a hoax, I would have been indicted for conspiracy and I would have been charged with a whole lot more money. In many ways, I learn to just sit back and laugh, because if you have to go back to 1987 in 2007, that means I have a pretty good record.
Cquote1.svg I disagreed with the grand jury on Brawley. I believed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Grand jury said there wasn’t. Okay, fine. Do I have a right to disagree with the grand jury? Many Americans believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. A jury said he wasn’t. So I have as much right to question a jury as they do. Cquote2.svg

—Al Sharpton on Tawana Brawley.

DS: How would 2007 Al Sharpton have handled the Tawana Brawley case differently than 1987 Al Sharpton?

AS: I probably wouldn’t have made it as personal in terms of personal attacks on the Attorney General, but I would still have fought the case. I would have done the same case, I would have stood up the same way, and I do it the same way now. When we are approached—phone rings every day here with cases—we are not the investigator. We are there to make sure there is a fair investigation. And I would have done the same thing then I do now. Not long ago a writer said to me, “How can you believe a girl is apprehended by four white men with the N-word written on her and all of that?” I told him, “Let me tell you a story I heard that sounds even worse. I heard of a guy who was grabbed and brought to a police station and they stuck a pole up his behind, and no cop would stop them and turn them in.” He said, “That’s ludicrous!” And I said, “That’s Abner Louima, and it happened!” I fought that case, and those cops went to jail. So in my world, who decides what the most bizarre story in the world is? We hear these every day! He says, “I never thought about it like that.” Megan Williams right now is Tawana Brawley. What are we talking about? I’ll give you another example. Five young black kids were arrested and charged for raping a white female in Central Park. I defended them. Thirteen years later we find out that they did not do it. The DNA cleared them. One of them works for us now. So how do you know? Only by continuing to fight for what you believe in.

DS: You are saying that when you become involved you are fighting to ensure that there is a fair investigation into whatever has happened, and that sometimes you are paired with the fact that not everything turns out in favor of the person being investigated?

AS: That’s exactly right. You get the downside, like the Brawley jury didn’t believe her. I’ll give you one worse. Amadou Diallou was killed, forty-one bullets. The jury said they weren’t guilty. He’s still dead. So on paper was I wrong about Amadou Diallo? He’s dead, forty-one bullets killed him, but the jury said that those cops were right, so when do we decide? My comeback always is: I disagreed with the grand jury on Brawley. I believed there was enough evidence to go to trial. Grand jury said there wasn’t. Okay, fine. Do I have a right to disagree with the grand jury? Many Americans believe O.J. Simpson was guilty. A jury said he wasn’t. So I have as much right to question a jury as they do. Does it make somebody a racist? No! They just disagreed with the jury. So did I. I happened to not believe a fifteen year old girl could have made all that up and guess the names of the people who admitted they were together. I just don’t believe that. Now, what happened? I don’t know. But I don’t believe that. So, we’ll just disagree.

Sharpton and the African-American media

DS: Earl Ofari Hutchinson recently wrote a relatively laudatory column about you in The Huffington Post. In it he said, “When Sharpton toppled Jesse Jackson from the top spot as black America’s main man, the notoriety, and the hostility, that that title carries with it, insured that he’d take the heat for whatever went right or wrong when blacks took to the streets in protest.” What do you think happened to Jesse Jackson’s place in the black community? Hutchison is a prominent black man saying you toppled Jackson.

AS: Well, that’s a hard thing for me to comment on. When I was growing up Reverend Jackson was a hero to me and a mentor. I’d rather not get into that. I’ll let Earl and others give their opinions. I’ll stay out of that. That’s difficult for me to answer.
Cquote1.svg The main thing [black columnists] write about is criticism of black leaders. If you read their columns you understand what their job is. ‘White leadership is never at fault. Government is never at fault. It’s black leaders.'” Cquote2.svg

—Al Sharpton

DS: Clarence Page again in reference to this wrote, “‘gangsta‘ culture punishes those who don’t ‘Stop Snitching,’ to quote a popular inner-city T-shirt slogan, even when the victims are innocent neighbors. A lot of us black Americans would like to take back our streets. We could use a little more help from our leaders.”

AS: We could use a little more help from Clarence Page, again. When I had the campaign against these lyrics—I had the “It’s Not Snitching, It’s Saving” campaign—Clarence was totally silent. We’ve taken that head on, and had rappers attack us. David Banner said “Al Sharpton can suck my so-and-so.” Jay-Z has a record out, and he’s a friend of mine! He says, “Don’t tell me Al Sharpton not to say ‘bitch‘!” They don’t attack Clarence Page they attack me because I’m attacking them. Just look at the rappers attacking me. So somebody should ask Clarence Page why they are attacking me if I’m not out there fighting them.

DS: You are saying that black columnists, whether it be Clarence Page or Juan Williams, who seem to have made their names by attacking a lot of the work done at the grass roots. How can you change that?

AS: I don’t think you can. That’s their role. If you go back to the sixties it was Carl Rowan who used to attack Martin Luther King. You have blacks who understand that one of the ways to get a job in the mainstream media is to attack black leaders.

DS: Such as Juan Williams?

AS: Oh, Juan Williams who works at Fox? Juan Williams works for Rupert Murdoch and wants to ask me about accountability? I mean, really. He works for Rupert Murdoch and wants to ask me about accountability. I think he was mad because a Republican donated some money to the National Action Network. And you work for Rupert Murdoch. Because we are on The Word Network we should have gone to a rally for The Word Network. It’s ridiculous. Again, what do they do? The main thing they write about is criticism of black leaders. If you read their columns you understand what their job is. “White leadership is never at fault. Government is never at fault. It’s black leaders.” What’s ironic is the ones they do praise—Bill Cosby does my radio show maybe once a month. Real close with me. They praise Cosby, but never talk about the fact that Cosby and I work together on these very issues. And Cosby supports what I do. How do they reconcile that? Because they understand that part of their compact with the right wing is that they’ll beat up on Al Sharpton, or Jackson, or whoever, because they are black.

Why the need for an Al Sharpton?

DS: At Thanksgiving we were talking about the different voices for different communities, and I said that there is no Latino “Al Sharpton”—the Cubans used to have Jorge Mas Canosa, but nobody has taken his place—nor is there an Asian “Al Sharpton”. With the black community it seems like Americans are always looking for the voice. Do you think that your visibility has been externally imposed?

AS: No, I disagree with that. I’m glad you had that discussion. Do you know why I disagree with you? In the Latino community you don’t have an Al Sharpton, you have La Raza. Every community does have an organization or institution. So number one, that’s not true. Second, in the black community—

DS: But there’s no one voice. It seems like the others never have a singular voice.

AS: Yeah, but that one voice is always the head of some group. Believe me, if I could not prove that we could deliver the bodies to these protests, the press wouldn’t cover me. The only reason the press covers me is we create the issue. The press ignored Jena until we put 40,000 people down there. So if we have the organizational muscle, they aren’t doing me a favor. The white media didn’t create me, they covered me. When I went to Howard Beach, there were hundreds out there and they threw bananas at us and all. The press didn’t contact me and say, “We’ll tell you what, Sharpton, you go out there and we’ll cover you.” No! I created the drama like King did in Selma, Alabama. So what they are really saying is, “Let’s be selective because if we don’t like Sharpton let’s not cover Sharpton because we want somebody else.” Usually even the black critics that criticize charismatic leadership are blacks without charisma who can’t do it themselves. We’ve always had charismatic leadership, whether it was Mandela in South Africa or King in the south. The question is what you use the charismatic leadership for; what’s wrong with that?

DS: Shane Johnson is an African-American blogger who was protesting your Washington, D.C. Department of Justice march. Clarence Page, who is one of your critics within the African-American community, wrote a column about it. He wrote, “Why do we black folks get so much more agitated about occasional white-on-black insults than about the black-on-black assaults that constantly terrorize certain neighborhoods?”

AS: My answer is why doesn’t Clarence Page do something about it when we everyday deal with that. That is dealt with every day and every way. Not only have we dealt with black on black assaults, not only do we do crime rallies, not only do we denounce it, we’ve even been the ones to go as far as to march on black rappers about the N-word, misogyny and violence to women that a lot of them glorify. Clarence Page and them don’t do that, we do. My critics were totally silent when we were marching on the rappers, the records companies and all of that this summer. But when I do a Justice march, they criticize. Well, where were they when we were marching on some of these rappers who glorify violence? That’s why they have no credibility in our community. Because we are marching on the record companies that glorify violence; we are marching on black on black violence. They are not. They wait for us to do an issue that is race-based, and act like that’s all we did. We spent half this year fighting lyrics in records, the glorification of violence, drugs in our community. I’m the one who painted the crackhouses, saying get them out of our community. Where was Clarence and them then?

DS: Is getting your message out that you do more than just race-based issues a challenge you have difficulty overcoming? That’s all that people hear and see you do.

AS: Well, that’s one of the challenges, but part of the problem is guys who are critics won’t tell the truth. If you were to ask them, they know we’ve marched against record companies. They won’t cover them, because they know—particularly a lot of black columnists—because that’s the way they can be heard: to be against whoever is out there. They did it to Jesse before me, and they did it to King before him. You know, one of the ways you can get covered if you are black in the mainstream media is to attack the guy that is up front. Make him the boogeyman. I accepted that going in.

Al Sharpton and Presidential Politics

DS: Recently a poll came out that showed sixty-one percent of the black Americans surveyed said values between poor and middle-class blacks are moving too far apart to be viewed as a common black experience. Only 41 percent expressed that view in a similar 1986 poll. Do you think the black experience is no longer defined by race, but by socio-economic status?

But do you know what nobody ever talks about? I’m the only black who ran for President who had to run against another black: Carol Mosley Braun [above]. Jesse never had to face a black; Shirley [Chisholm] never had to face a black. Obama hasn’t had to face a black. The real question is: why did Sharpton get so many more votes than Carol Mosley-Braun, who on paper was a much better candidate?

AS: No, I think it was always divided on socio-economic status. I think that there is a growing socio-economic difference that brings the contrast more to light, but that all comes together around the question of civil rights. There’s no difference. There’s any number of polls that show that most blacks, no matter what their class, say that there is still bias in America. Whether you are a kid in Jena from a poor family, or a college professor at Columbia with nooses hanging on your door, you still have a race problem. You may have a difference in views about values, but both of you still feel there is bias at whatever class level you are at. That is why they were shocked when I ran for President and the black elite—the Bob Johnsons who own BET and Earl Grey—were some of the biggest contributors to my campaign. Because they said we still have to have somebody out there fighting race. Let me give you the schizophrenia of the political animal. When I ran for President, I won every black district in Washington D.C. I then won the black vote in South Carolina, when I never was from the south. But do you know what nobody ever talks about? I’m the only black who ran for President who had to run against another black: Carol Mosley Braun. Jesse never had to face a black; Shirley [Chisholm] never had to face a black. Obama hasn’t had to face a black. The real question is: why did Sharpton get so many more votes than Carol Mosley Braun, who on paper was a much better candidate? Former U.S. Senator, former ambassador, and she never got anywhere near my vote. It shows that blacks vote based on who they think supports their interests. Now you are talking about Obama has to fight Hillary for the black vote; I had to fight Carol Mosley Braun for the black vote, and beat her everywhere. I think that is the analysis they don’t want to give. They’ll say Sharpton didn’t get the votes that Jesse got, but they never mention there was a black woman—the only black woman who ever served in the U.S. Senate—running against Sharpton! They forget that now.

DS: What did you learn about national politics from your Presidential run?

AS: I’ll tell you, I will be completely candid with you. I learned these guys are not that smart. I expected them to be a lot smarter, a lot more difficult to debate, and I learned a lot of them only have the value system of win, win, win. They don’t believe in anything. Obviously I ran to put forth a political position and to make visible a constituency. And obviously many of them didn’t; but I thought they had some core beliefs. Most of them didn’t have core beliefs.

DS: Is there one moment that sticks out in your mind?

AS: Probably, but let me get back to that. I also learned that once most Americans and I talked, that we didn’t disagree that much. When I was campaigning in Iowa and New Hampshire—totally white communities—that the more we talked not only did they get more comfortable with me, I got more comfortable with them. Because people really don’t disagree on fundamentals as much as the disagree on the stuff we’ve been programmed to disagree on with each other.

DS: The way it’s presented in the media.

AS: Correct. People would say to me, “Now that I hear you, even if I disagree with you I don’t think you’re as bad as I thought.” I would say, “Let me ask you a question: what was ‘bad as you thought’?” And they couldn’t say. They don’t know why they think you’re bad, they just know you’re supposed to be bad because the right wing tells them you’re bad.

DS: It seems the media—both liberal and conservative—has to follow a narrative.

AS: Exactly. So even my worse criticism—Brawley—tell me what is wrong with a civil rights leader believing a 15 year old girl who came to him. I didn’t tell her the story, she told me. What was wrong about that? “I guess nothing. Did you know she was lying?” A jury didn’t know. She said that I didn’t know what her story was. So in your worse scenario, the lack of discourse is what separates most Americans. I learned that more than anything in the campaign. When I would meet with a lot of the handlers and DNC officials about the campaign, and everything was geared toward polling and focus groups, and not core beliefs, that’s when I got this thing that took me, as one who is a true believer—I mean, I’ve been prosecuted, stabbed, 9 days in jail in Vieques for what I believe, jail twenty other times—at the end of the day people have to say I believe in what I do. I don’t know if there are a lot of people in national politics that have core beliefs that they would go to jail for, or even be willing to die for. I just don’t feel that way about those people. Ultimately, I only respect people who are willing to put it all on the line.

DS: Was there a moment that sticks out in your mind during the campaign with anyone in particular?

AS: Not really.

DS: What about during the debates?

AS: You could see people change. Remember when I ran in 2004, and when the debates started in 2003, most of the people on the stage, including Kerry and Edwards, were pro-war. I was the first one—even before Dean—who came out against it. Then Dean came out and joined the race later. I saw them go from, “We got to fight terrorism, we got to go to Iraq,” almost to my position in a matter of four or five months, which I considered questionable. It also validated why you need public pressure. I remember I went to the first huge anti-war march in Washington, the A.N.S.W.E.R. march. I was the first Presidential candidate that would go.

On Barack Obama

DS: Who are you supporting for President?

AS: No one yet. The question is, who is going to support a strong social justice agenda? When I sit and look at the Democratic debates, with all these hangmen nooses, and all these hate crimes, and they don’t even bring it up, how can I support them when they’re not supporting us? If I was on that stage it would be on the agenda.

DS: The Post reported back in April that you have a conflict with Obama. What do you think is behind that story?

AS: I think it’s trying to get a double shot. Hurt him with people that like me; hurt me with people that like him. Say that Sharpton has a problem with him so the Obama people say, “Oh, why is Al messing with Obama?” The people that are in the debates, where he has to contest with Hillary, “Oh, you have a problem with Al Sharpton.” I don’t have a problem with Obama. I talk to Obama, I talk to Hillary, I talk to John Edwards. I have a problem that none of them are forcefully raising the social justice agenda. Why? That’s what I do. I’m a social justice leader. That’s what I do. And I think if you went to a union leader, he’d say, “I like their issues on this, but what about labor?” and I think if you went to a woman leader, “What about gender divided?” Why do people expect me not to be concerned about civil rights? That’s what I do.

DS: Why do you think Obama is not dominating the black vote?

AS: I don’t know. I think one, they don’t know him as well. They are just learning him. I think he’ll do alright, but I think the strategic mistake his handlers made—I don’t think it was him—is they sold him as beyond race. The antithesis to the civil rights guys. The problem with that is the blacks say, “Okay, you aren’t standing up for us, then fine.” So you can’t come back later and say he’s the black candidate when he said no he’s not. A lady at The New York Times called to do a story and I made her change the whole thing. She said, “I want to do a story on Obama and the civil rights generation and the conflict.” I said, “You’ve got a problem. Obama and I are the same generation. We are only six years apart. How do you count generations?” She said she hadn’t thought about that. You could do that with Jesse, but Obama is 46 and I’m 53; that’s not a different generation. Why don’t you talk about that every generation has had blacks on the inside and blacks on the outside. Ed Brooke was in the Senate like Obama when King was alive. Ed Brooke was elected and sitting in the Senate when King was alive, and he was a Republican from Massachusetts. Then we had Carol Mosley-Braun, then we had Obama. Ron Brown was chairman of the party when Jesse Jackson was the outsider. This new thing is that you guys don’t do research. There’s always been blacks inside the system and blacks outside. That’s not generational, that’s functional.

The Iraq War

DS: Do you think there should be conscription?

AS: I don’t know. I don’t know. That’s debatable to me.

DS: Do you consider our military a volunteer army?

AS: Yeah. I think that a volunteer army—I’m against drafts, even when Charlie Rangel came out with it. Even understanding the reasoning, to make rich as well as poor go, I just think the rich will find a way to get around it and there will still be a disproportionate amount of poor.

DS: Which you saw in Vietnam, and many national leaders now found ways not to go.

AS: Exactly right. I was in high school at the time of the Vietnam War, there was a draft, and the rich kids didn’t go. They found a way around it.

DS: How has the war affected you?

AS: I think it has affected me in that I have seen and actually preached at soldiers’ funerals. I’ve seen the families suffer for absolutely no reason. There never was Weapons of Mass Destruction, there never was eminent danger, so I have seen it up close and personal in terms of families losing their sons. I’ve also seen resources that we could have used to provide training and jobs in this country just sent over there arbitrarily. I also watched when Katrina happened the way people who were relocated around the country couldn’t vote at home, but Iraqis could vote from America in the elections in Iraq. I think it brought out the glaring contradictions of American democracy as practiced by people like the Bush administration.

DS: Are you optimistic for the future?

AS: Absolutely. There is no doubt in my mind as I sit here today that the world will be better, America will be better, and that those like us—no matter how controversial—will be redeemed in history. There is no doubt in my mind. Whether we live to see it physically or not, I have no doubt in my mind.

Sharpton as a symbol

DS: I interviewed documentary filmmaker Kira Nerusskaya, who is one of the leading voices in the fat acceptance movement. She is what she calls a “BBW”. A Big Beautiful Woman. Your name came up in that interview and she called you “Reverend 9-1-1” and mentioned that fat people don’t have their own “Al Sharpton”, someone they can turn to when they are being hassled at work because they are a drain on their insurance, or when fat people are discriminated against or harassed. When you hear that you have become a symbol that transcends your community, what do you think?

AS: I thought you were going to say she is disappointed that I’m not as fat as I used to be. On one level I think it is flattering. It is something you never think about when you jump into this. Again, I joined the movement way before I was old enough to understand all of that—

DS: When you were ten, when you were preaching—

AS: Yeah, exactly. People say now I’m living by ambition or whatever else they accuse me of, but what was I living by when I was ten years old? Twelve years old when I joined Breadbasket. It’s also frightening because it makes you all the more a target for every critic. There’s not a month that goes by that we don’t have a serious death threat. Every criminal justice guy is trying to topple you. So you become a target as much as it is flattering, so I always remember the upside and the downside of it.

DS: It’s interesting that you have become that to other people.

AS: It is, but I’ll tell you what else is interesting that she said—and I don’t know if she intended to say it this way or not—when she said I’m “Reverend 9-1-1”. What a lot of people don’t understand, particularly in the white community, is I’m projected as an ambulance chaser. But I’m more the ambulance. People call me because they know I will come. If nothing else you write, I have never fought a case where they didn’t ask me to come. People have this picture like I’m sitting up in bed at night with a walkie-talkie. “You hear anything? Oh, let’s run! It’s Virginia today!” People call us. Jena all the way to Florida all the way to Jasper, Texas, all the way to Sean Bell. Every victim calls us. On my syndicated radio show now if we get a case I make the victim get on and say, “Now, you asked me to get involved in this?” That’s what I did with Jena. Now nobody remembers because nobody knew what Jena was then. We respond to a person coming in, which is why it’s absurd when black conservatives, “Who put Sharpton in charge?” The victim! Who put me in charge of Jena? The people involved with Jena asked me to come. What gives you the right to tell people not to have who they want to represent them. Could you imagine? I’m leading the march on Jena, asked to come in by the parents of the kid in jail, and they’re going to sit on MSNBC that night and ask, “Well, why is Al Sharpton leading it?” Because the parents of the kid asked me to lead it! Duh! So at least let’s be straight-up about it.

DS: Do you think the criticism is more because you are successful for bringing attention to it?

AS: If I was not able to bring public attention, they would care less. And let’s face it: some of them are very cynical and know they can get a lot of play criticizing me. I was talking about it at the rally this morning—we have rallies here every Saturday. You have one guy, I can’t think of his name, a sportswriter from Kansas City who made a career out of criticizing me about Imus. He did every talk show. “Sharpton’s wrong!” Nobody ever said, “Wait a minute, you a sportswriter, what are you speaking for? What are you talking about it?” It’s ludicrous.

I hate to admit it. I always thought I would probably get killed before now. After I got stabbed in 1991 I was sure that if I got to forty, I would never make it to fifty. Now I’m fifty-three, which is probably why I work as hard as I do.
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Why do you think that happens?

AS: Because they know that there is a market for it. They know they can get air time for it.

DS: Did you ever do a DNA test to see if you were related to Strom Thurmond?

AS: No, I just accepted the documents; I never did the DNA.

DS: Do you keep in contact with Essie Mae Washington-Williams?

AS: I only met her one time. Because again, I don’t know that we are related. I know that my great-grandfather was a slave of the Thurmonds, I don’t know that there was any blood. When they came and told me I went down to South Carolina to Edgefield, and visited the cemetery. The cemetery at the First Baptist Church of Edgefield is all Sharptons—of course the white Sharptons—and Thurmonds. While I was there, a man came up and said, “You know, the plantation that your great-grandfather worked on is still intact. A doctor bought it and he didn’t change anything. He told me if you’d like to see it we can go over there.” It’s on Sharpton Road in Edgefield. [Sharpton shows Shankbone the photos of him at the plantation]. I look at it to remind me of how far we’ve come. [Sharpton shows Shankbone photos of civil rights leaders and his family]. This is the last time James Brown was on stage at the Apollo, to do my fiftieth birthday in 2004.

DS: Did you ever think you’d reach fifty?

AS: No. I hate to admit it. I always thought I would probably get killed before now. After I got stabbed in 1991 I was sure that if I got to forty, I would never make it to fifty. Now I’m fifty-three, which is probably why I work as hard as I do. I work 17, 18 hour days. Rachel [Noerdlinger, his assistant] will tell you 20, but she’s lying because she feels I overwork. I feel every day I live is a day I never expected to live, so I try to do everything I can. I think that part of the problem with a lot of civil rights leaders is that this is the first generation that actually lived to be gray. What do gray civil rights leaders do? Because in the era before us, they were all dead by now.

DS: Who are some up-and-coming civil rights leaders under thirty?

AS: Some are in my organization. You’ve got Tamika Mallory, who heads the Decency Initiative here in New York. You’ve got Mark Coleman in Atlanta. You have Jerry Moffet in Phoenix. I could name you fifteen to twenty in various degrees who have a lot of potential. Who will become national? I have no idea. I tend to work with all of them. We have thirty-three chapters, offices in seven cities, and 90% of them are under forty years old. Most of the people who marched with us in Jena and Washington were under forty years old. There’s a resurgence of activism among young people, and I think a lot of it is they went through this era of blacks making it as CEOs and blacks making it in management, and now that era is over. Richard Parsons is gone soon; Obama is not dominating the black vote. So a lot of these people are saying that it’s not happening. They are going back to that we have to struggle as a unit.

DS: At Thanksgiving my brother-in-law’s brother made the point that we in white America don’t remember history, and that when we come across people who do remember history and we are always shocked. “Why don’t you get over it and move on?” But that doesn’t take into account that there is a long history of racial problems that have set people behind in the race by half a mile, and suddenly it’s supposed to be, “You’re equal, it’s a fair race now.”

AS: “Get over it!” Yeah. People are set back half a mile because they were given a disadvantage, not because they fell a half a mile. Then you tell us to “catch up” and forget that the race was unfair in the beginning. You’re right.

DS: One sees this problem with history with the Christian Zionists in the right wing. They have an entirely different perspective on history. They don’t view Thomas Jefferson and George Washington—who were secular—as our founding fathers. When they talk about America’s founding fathers they mean Cotton Mather and the Puritans.

AS: I think you have to be determined to not allow people to dismiss history. You have to use every forum to put history into perspective. People have a reason they want you to forget history, because history does not back up their point. One of the things Martin Luther King III and I talked about is that his father died one of the most controversial figures in the history of America, but you would think now forty years later he was revered by white America. He wasn’t! The New York Times would write editorials about him telling him to keep his nose out of the Vietnam business. “Who do you think you are?” When he died—that’s when I joined the movement—we had to fight to get him a national holiday. But today you read stories that guys like us aren’t Dr. King. Well, in Dr. King’s time they didn’t have him as Dr. King, but that’s the benefit of distorting history. If you can erase history, erase why there are racial gaps across the board—health care, education, income—if you can erase how that all started, then you can make guys like me look extreme. But if you look at history and how we got here, we’re really very reasonable to say some of the things we have said.

DS: Then the focus is on gangsta culture and instead of looking at how that came about, it is talked about as if it is a phenomenon that just happened?

AS: Nobody is looking at that, and the fact that if you didn’t have gangsta culture, we’d still be in the back of the bus. Should we have stronger family ties? Of course. Should we stress education? Of course! Should we stress responsibility? Of course! But people who had self-contained families that were very responsible still had to sit in the back of the bus and couldn’t check into a hotel. Let’s not act like gangsta is what caused racial inequity in our society. It’s like saying you’ve got cancer, but you’ve also got a head cold, so the reason you’ve got cancer is you’ve got a head cold. No, you have cancer and a head cold. You take Tylenol for the head cold, but you’ve still got to deal with the cancer. What they are trying to act like is taking head cold medicine is going to solve cancer. It’s a bunch of crap! If every black in America had strongly family ties, and there were no out-of-wedlock births, which I strongly advocate and preach, it still wouldn’t solve the racial inequality in the social fabric. Let’s be honest about that.

Blacks and whites and talking about race

DS: At the end of the Thanksgiving discussion, I said that if a black person was sitting at the table with us, we would never have had the entire conversation. We talked about that. Do you think there is a nervousness amongst the races to engage each other?

AS: A lot of the nervousness is that white America is uncomfortable with having to deal with the guilt and history of racism, and they certainly don’t want to admit it is still here, and black America in large part has for so long has had to try and act like it’s not there to get along. It’s almost like our silence will get us access so that we don’t offend you. And those of us that are offensive have to then carry the burden of trying to push the envelope. That’s why Bill Tatum, who publishes the Amsterdam News, said if we didn’t have a guy like Al Sharpton we’d have to invent one. Because every generation has to have somebody who pushes the envelope. We just do.

DS: I think it was Lani Guinier who used to talk about the problem is the races too afraid to talk to each other about race.

AS: I think Lani Guinier did talk about that. You have to not only have blacks, but you have to have whites and white leadership that want to have that dialogue. Most of them don’t want to have it. We have to create that dialogue and hopefully some of the things we are doing creates the climate for that dialogue. What I have found is that many people in America, particularly the white people, don’t really want peace, they want quiet. “Just shut up and don’t talk about it. Fine, there may be a problem, but let’s not talk about it.” That’s not peace, that’s quiet. You’ll never have peace until you have real dialogue and look at the difference between the life of a white and life of a non-white in this country, and how we close the gap. That’s how you get peace. So people don’t want racial justice; they want racial quiet. But racial quiet in the absence of racial justice is to allow for things to go forward unfairly. In the long wrong, that leads to explosions because people hold it in as long as they can and then they explode. The way to stop the explosions is to deal with the problem.

DS: Would you say what sums up the problem with dialogue as you see it is that white people are too afraid to offend black people by asking questions about their perceptions, but that black people become too offended by white people’s ignorance?

AS: I think that’s a fair statement. I think that’s a very fair statement. I wish I had said it. That hit it right on the head. Really.

Don Imus, Michael Richards and Dog The Bounty Hunter

DS: When you think about Imus, Michael Richards and Duane Chapman, it’s starting to seem almost like a rehearsed play. They have these racist explosions, and then they come to you seeking absolution. How do you feel about playing this?

The critics say, “Why do they go to Al Sharpton for absolution?” What nobody ever asks is, “What did Sharpton do?” I made Imus go on my radio show and told him he should be fired. I never talked to the “Bounty man” [above]. And I told Michael Richards I’m not meeting with him.” – Sharpton on those seeking absolution from him for racist remarks.

AS: That’s a great question, because if you name Don Imus, Richards, Bounty Hunter, they all three came, and none of them got absolution from me. The critics say, “Why do they go to Al Sharpton for absolution?” What nobody ever asks is, “What did Sharpton do?” I made Imus go on my radio show and told him he should be fired. I never talked to the “Bounty man”. And I told Michael Richards I’m not meeting with him. So, despite what they designed to happen with me, I never cooperated with the design. Imus only went on my show thinking if he did he would get past it; I used it for the basis to get him fired. He got everything but absolution. Why do they come? Because of my visibility. Right now, National Action Network is the only civil rights organization in the country that can put tens of thousands of people in the street. I think we proved that if nothing else this year from Sean Bell to Jena to Washington. He thought if he did he would get past it; I used it for the basis to get him fired. You go where you think if you can get this group not to fight me, you get a pass. If somebody is accused of anti-Semitism, they go to the Anti-Defamation League. Does that make Abe Foxman the “President of the Jews”? No! That’s what ADL does. It’s insulting to us. They say, “Al Sharpton is not the President of Black America.” No, I’m like ADL is in the Jewish community. That’s what he does. If anybody is going to jump on this, it’s him, so let me go to him. That doesn’t mean he’s in charge of all blacks. It means if it’s a civil rights violation—that’s what they have to do—he’s been the guy up front. It’s very simple. In gay communities you have the Human Rights Campaign. With women, you’ve got NOW. In the Jewish community, you’ve got ADL. Why wouldn’t you have a National Action Network in the black community? But if sanity is that NOW can have Kim Gandy, and the Jewish community can have Abe Foxman, and the gay community can have Human Rights group, but the black community can’t have an “Al Sharpton”, that’s absurd!

DS: One of the issues that came up in reference to that at Thanksgiving was political correctness. My brother-in-law brought up the Don Imus ‘nappy-headed hos’ issue and said it was political correctness. His brother said that there is a big difference between calling black girls playing basketball nappy-headed hos versus asking a black person why their families are in trouble.

AS: Big difference. Big difference.

DS: But those get equated as being politically incorrect.

AS: I think you’re right. They equate it, and it’s wrong. The reason I demanded Imus be fired was because he had a record of making these kinds of derogatory statements. It’s clear that ‘nappy-headed’ was a racist term. That’s not questioning social maladies in the community. What is the social malady or irresponsibility about ‘nappy-headed’? ‘Ho’ is not only racist, it’s misogynist. People who tried to put that over as he just wasn’t politically correct are ridiculous. That’s why if I or anybody else said a racist term against anybody else. That’s not politically incorrect; that’s bias. And all of us have made mistakes with language, but you pay for it. Which is why I don’t object to him getting a job again, but he had to lose that job because he had consistently violated that job.

DS: Are you okay that Don Imus is going back on the air?

AS: Well, we’ll monitor him; I’m not saying I’m going to throw a banquet for him and say welcome home. He has the right to make a living, but because he has such a consistent pattern with this we are going to monitor him to make sure he doesn’t do it again.

DS: Do you work with the Hip Hop Action Network?

AS: On some issues. They disagree with me at first when I came out hard on the N-word and all, but then they moderated their view. On some things we work together.

DS: How did they disagree with you?

AS: When I first came out and said the N-word, the B-word, should be stopped. Russell Simmons came out and said we can’t censor artists. Then he got such a backlash he said, “We got it to be maybe voluntary, or something.” Russell kind of slid backwards on that one. My thing is I’m against the use of the word, and I’ve been against it for a long time. Even in my book, Al on America I wrote a whole chapter on the hip hop generation and how to stop that. On top of it, all of us have used it; I’ve even stopped using it privately, because it’s wrong. I think the thing that really drove it home to me was the kid who got beat up in Howards Beach last year, and Fat Nick—the white that beat him up saying no niggers in the neighborhood—his defense in court was that he was using a hip hop term. It’s ridiculous, absolutely ridiculous. We can’t be the only ones in America in which there is no hate term.

DS: If you could choose how you die, how would it be?

AS: I would probably choose doing something active. I would either be leading a march or preaching a sermon. I don’t want to die old and incapacitated. I’d rather die in the firing line.

DS: What do you think is the greatest threat to humanity?

AS: Our ignoring nature. Our ignoring the signs of nature.

DS: Global warming?

AS: Global warming would be at the top of the list. Al Gore ended up being right. I think our ignoring nature, global warming, and then our ignoring the need for one standard of human rights all over the world. This second. But first nature, because we won’t be here if we don’t start taking nature seriously. Like global warming and ecology and whatever we are doing with the environment. Second is how we deal with human rights standard all over the world.

DS: Are there any national politicians you look up to as leaders?

AS: I respect Dennis Kucinich. I respect Keith Ellison in Minnesota. Those are the two that come to mind right away. I’m far more progressive than most, but I really respect both of them.

DS: Do you think Joel Klein has done a good job with New York City public schools?

AS: I think Joel Klein has done better, than I thought he would. I’m not sure I’m into the mayor controlling the system. It’s funny, Joel has a sense of grass roots than one would think. I think he has done better than I would have given him credit for. I didn’t have a lot of hope for him. He has defied my low expectation.


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October 27, 2007

Gay Talese on the state of journalism, Iraq and his life

Gay Talese on the state of journalism, Iraq and his life

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Saturday, October 27, 2007

Talese at home: “You must have a human spirit unmatched since Billy Graham made his first speech! I mean you have to have a real conscience, social conscience, to care [about the Iraq war]. Where are the protests coming out of the Ivy League or the University of Alabama? They’re not there because there’s no conscription. There should be conscription. There should be a draft. There should be. Everybody should serve.”
photo: David Shankbone

Gay Talese wants to go to Iraq. “It so happens there is someone that’s working on such a thing right now for me,” the 75-year-old legendary journalist and author told David Shankbone. “Even if I was on Al-Jazeera with a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be pleading with those bastards! I’d say, ‘Go ahead. Make my day.'”

Few reporters will ever reach the stature of Talese. His 1966 profile of Frank Sinatra, Frank Sinatra Has a Cold, was not only cited by The Economist as the greatest profile of Sinatra ever written, but is considered the greatest of any celebrity profile ever written. In the 70th anniversary issue of Esquire in October 2003, the editors declared the piece the “Best Story Esquire Ever Published.”

Talese helped create and define a new style of literary reporting called New Journalism. Talese himself told National Public Radio he rejects this label (“The term new journalism became very fashionable on college campuses in the 1970s and some of its practitioners tended to be a little loose with the facts. And that’s where I wanted to part company.”)

He is not bothered by the Bancrofts selling The Wall Street Journal—”It’s not like we should lament the passing of some noble dynasty!”—to Rupert Murdoch, but he is bothered by how the press supported and sold the Iraq War to the American people. “The press in Washington got us into this war as much as the people that are controlling it,” said Talese. “They took information that was second-hand information, and they went along with it.” He wants to see the Washington press corp disbanded and sent around the country to get back in touch with the people it covers; that the press should not be so focused on–and in bed with–the federal government.

Augusten Burroughs once said that writers are experience junkies, and Talese fits the bill. Talese–who has been married to Nan Talese (she edited James Frey’s Million Little Piece) for fifty years–can be found at baseball games in Cuba or the gay bars of Beijing, wanting to see humanity in all its experience.

Below is Wikinews reporter David Shankbone’s interview with Gay Talese.

On Gay Talese

David Shankbone: Does it bother you that your name has come to mean ‘homosexual’?

Gay Talese: No, it doesn’t bother me at all! I’ve always been called that, I had bylines in high school. I started getting bylines when I was in high school and I wrote for the Ocean City Sentinel. I was Gay Talese. I even had a column when I went to college in Alabama, it was called Sports Gay-zing – I was the sports editor for the college paper.

DS: [Laughs] “Sports Gay-zing”?

GT: I don’t know when gay revolution or gay rights…I don’t know how it happened or when it happened, but it was a parallel movement that happened at the same time I was alive. What’s the difference? It makes no difference.

DS: Is your ancestry Sicilian or Northern?

GT: No, it’s Southern Italian.

DS: Southern, not Sicilian?

GT: Calabrian. But it is close enough. It’s the total of both. That’s my ancestry. My father was born there, in fact. He was the only person from his family that came to the United States and he did so in 1920.

DS: Do you ever pay any attention to Italian politics and the happenings with the Lega Nord?

GT: I pay attention to it when it’s in the headlines. I read the papers. But do I pay attention to the point of caring? No. I don’t know that the Italians much care about politics. They capitalize on it. They exploit it. I think it’s a country of family influences. Families matter so much there. They’ve had a mistrust of government ever since the fall of Rome. I mean they’re really clans. Just a bunch of clans. Little cliquish people, even now. Even now, with transportation and communications pervasive. It used to be they were stuck in the hills and they didn’t have any means of getting from one part of the mountain to the other so they were insular. Their dialect was held firm. Now, it’s different, but it’s still not a country that’s a unified country. I mean Italy is called a nation, but ….

DS: They can’t seem to do anything politically. They can’t save Venice ….

GT: They can’t do anything. But on the other hand they live damn well. There’s a kind of underground economy that’s been there, probably for centuries. The surface tells you one thing. The statistics tells you this, this, this. But underneath, there’s a core management this kind of internal management of mercenary affairs, or family connections, or ways of gaining what is known on the surface, but underneath there’s a whole mysterious way of prosperity in Italy that isn’t shown. It’s very interesting. You find the news reports or the books that are out saying one thing. I don’t exactly ever see it and I’ve traveled a lot. I haven’t traveled very much in the last ten years in Europe.

On a higher power and how he’d like to die

Gary Talese
Image: David Shankbone.

DS: Do you believe in a higher power?

GT: I believe a higher power can exist for inspiring people toward fulfilling a dream. That’s religion.

DS: What do you think happens when we die?

GT: I was raised as a Catholic, and while I didn’t marry within the church, my wife is also Catholic. It doesn’t necessarily hold that there dies within you all that you believe when you were shaped by the process of being born Catholic, so I do believe–I comfort myself, I comfort myself–with the notion of an eternal life. But as George Eliot said in that great novel you probably read, religion is a fear of the hereafter. Religion is a fear of the hereafter. That’s what it is. It provides you a conviction or belief that there is something there in the hereafter, or else you won’t have any long view. Religion gives you a long view that what you do on Earth is going to shape your destiny in heaven. That’s comforting.

DS: Do you have religion?

GT: To the degree I stated I do, but to the degree that the Pope…I don’t go to church, and I don’t abide by anything the church preaches.

DS: Do you pray?

GT: Privately I do, sometimes, yes, I do.

DS: In certain moments more than others?

GT: In moments when I feel that I’m out of control. That I can not affect the result.

DS: When do you feel out of control?

GT: When I fear I am going to die. I remember praying on an airplane between Denver and Santa Fe. It was a small commuter flight. The co-pilot came back and said we are going to have turn back because our left landing gear will not go down, and we are going to have to dump gas over the dessert because we need to go back to Denver, because it is better equipped as an airport to deal with this crash landing we need to have. More foam and the fire department is bigger. We had twenty minutes before our crash landing. During that time I prayed. I wrote a letter to my wife. I was just about 50. I wrote a letter to my wife and daughters and prayed and thought, “This is it.”

DS: What did the letter say?

GT: How much I loved them. How sorry I was I didn’t have more time. How happy I was with the time I had. How lucky we were, and how sad I was that I wasn’t going to be back. I feared that the letter was going to burn with me. It was ridiculous to be writing a letter, but I did. What a fucking place for the end of me, Denver airport! So that was fear. Fear of the hereafter? Religion and prayers.

DS: How many times have you seen your own death?

GT: Well, sadly, my best friend was killed this year. David Halberstam. We were brothers. I was his first friend when he came to New York to join The New York Times. He lived in this house when he first came. He lived upstairs. When he got married to his present widow, who I was with last night, I was the best man. That was the late 1970’s. And the last year we traveled together as a foursome, his wife and mine. Then he gets killed. Jean calls me up, “Some student in San Francisco…he got killed just like that!” So that’s a death! Now that is horrible, but that’s not so bad. I wouldn’t mind dying like that. The way I would not want to die…every time I go flying I see the porters by the plane waiting for some old crippled person to get off the plane and then they roll them through the airport. I don’t want to go like that. I’d rather go like Halberstam.

DS: You wouldn’t want to be a Terri Schiavo.

GT: I don’t even want to be a cripple who gets pushed across the airport! Forget brain damage. I’m just talking about infirm, getting along and can’t walk.

DS: You’re quite sprite.

GT: Yeah, I wouldn’t want that. That’s why I’d like to go to Iraq. Why? I don’t care about dying. I’d rather go out like Halberstam. Quick–

DS: Doing what you love

GT: Yeah. Yeah. Even if I was on Al-Jazeera with a gun to my head, I wouldn’t be pleading with those bastards! I’d say, “Go ahead. Make my day.” Because when you’re 75 you see around you your own generation, some of them hobbling along. Some writers I know–Gore Vidal; poor Norman Mailer. Not that he’s feeling sorry for himself, I was just with him in Texas earlier this year. He gave his papers to the University of Texas at Austin. I saw someone has to push him in a chair. I’ve known Norman Mailer for some fifty years, and this is the first time someone has to push him. I had a dinner party for him as recently as a year ago, here. And I said, “Norman, you have to come up the steps, maybe we should go some place where there’s an elevator.” He said, “No, no.” So he had to come up the steps outside where you did with his canes. But in Austin with the campus there was someone who needed to push him in a chair. That may happen to me soon enough, but I don’t like to think about it. Halberstam…he finished his work, The Coldest Winter: America and the Korean War, was also thinking of another book and was in the process of researching it, and he gets rammed by a student who shouldn’t have been driving him in the first place. But he went out like that–quick! And he had a great life.

On the media and Iraq

DS: What do you think is the reason there is this collective idea to give Americans a certain view of a place or a people that is not necessarily accurate? I think Iran is another good example, where we are consistently fed images and notions about a people and a culture that aren’t really accurate.

GT: Or fair minded.

DS: Or fair minded. But the reality is far more interesting than the same stories we are consistently fed.

GT: Well it involves more work. I think most journalists are pretty lazy, number one. A little lazy and also they’re spoon-fed information, such as the weapons of mass destruction back in 2003. It’s easy. There are all these lobbyist groups, these special interest groups. Each of them has a position with regard to Taiwan, for example. The anti-China lobby is very strong. Whether it’s the gun lobby or the Israeli lobby or the Taiwan lobby, whatever the hell it is, you have these people who create a package of news, develop it as a story line, a scenario, and they find, as Mailer once said about the press, that they’re like a donkey. You have to feed the donkey. The donkey every day has to eat. So these people throw information at this damn animal that eats everything. Tin cans, garbage.

DS: And Americans are the donkeys as well?

GT: Well the media ….

DS: But people are still consuming what they’re throwing out there though.

GT: Yeah, they are, because they’re getting stories. In Iraq the whole press is embedded. Those correspondents who drive around in tanks and armored personnel carriers, who are spoon-fed what the military gives them and they become mascots for the military, these journalists. I wouldn’t have journalists embedded if I had any power! You said what would you do? Well there are stories to be done. There are a lot of stories to be done. You don’t have to have military protection. There are stories you can do that aren’t done. I’ve said that many times. What story would you do? Well even if you’re stuck in the Green Zone you can do stories.

DS: It’s dangerous to actually go out there and hit the pavement.

GT: Supposed you don’t have to go out there? There are stories to be done in the Green Zone, within whatever the walls of protection are. You could do stories about Iraqis who work within the Green Zone. You could do stories about what kind of sexual activity goes on. Back to sex now. Here’s what’s important: In times of occupation of every historical event involving the United States, whether it’s World War II, whether it’s the war in Vietnam, Korea, occupation of Japan after World War II, World War I, there’s always been a private relationship with the people of the country that’s been invaded. Always.

DS: How could there not be?

GT: Sometimes it leads to marriage. Sometimes it’s just affairs. Sometimes it involves just dealing with bar girls in Okinawa or Leone or Sicily or somewhere.

DS: Sure.

GT: Not so now. This is the first war like that, in Iraq.

DS: Have you been there?

GT: No, I haven’t been there. I’d like to go.

DS: Why haven’t you?

GT: Well, I have to have somebody that will give me credentials.

DS: That shouldn’t be too hard for you.

GT: Sure it is, because you think The New York Times, the Time Magazine, Newsweek Magazine….?

DS: Esquire?

GT: Esquire?

DS: Esquire does political reporting.

GT: It so happens there is someone that’s working on such a thing right now for me. I haven’t heard from them yet.

DS: What would be the difficulties for you in achieving that? It seems like you would just have to make a phone call.

GT: You very much overrate whatever stature you think I have. I mean there are people that are there. The New York Times has probably fifteen, twenty people there. And they’re not going to underwrite me as a freelancer. People want staff now. Obviously you have to be covered by health and all this….

DS: I think you’re underrating your stature.

GT: The point is, I’m not there, okay. We can talk all morning about this, but the point is I am now working on something. But I’m trying to get back to what I was saying before, whether or not I’m there, I’m now here. Will I be there? Maybe. But there are stories. I mean I’m quoting myself as to what kind of stories. The television shows American troops kicking down doors and I wonder: who fixes the doors? The other day I was on an airplane coming back from Bogotá and I sat next to a guy, an American, who was a Green Beret guy years ago. Well now he’s in Baghdad as one of these civilian contractors. He has a company and he invited me to go with this company. That’s my little thing that I have in the offing. But he told me that the worst thing, not kicking down the doors, but they go in there and they open the locks of what we’ll call the hope chests of women who hope to marry. The soldiers go in and they just break open the locks of these women’s hope chests or whatever you call them and that is really the ultimate insult. It’s like raping the women right there. And this stuff goes on all the time. Well you could write about that. And no one writes about that.

DS: I always wanted to know what the cemeteries are like there. What the funerals are like there. Are they like town meetings in a place where there is so much death?

GT: The journalists define news and their editors want news….

DS: It fits a template.

GT: And the reporting out of Washington is the worst.

DS: The press is often cited for it’s laziness and for reporting any source without checking its accuracy.

GT: The press in Washington got us into this war as much as the people that are controlling it. They took information that was second-hand information, and they went along with it. It wasn’t only the Judy Millers who got credit for being in the pocket of Ahmed Chalabi and Wolfowitz and the rest of those people. All of them. The New York Times bureau, not only Miller, but all of them. They went along. They don’t want to get off Air Force One; they want to have access. Also, you mentioned Floyd Abrams. I wouldn’t defend what he defended, this kind of sourcing that goes on. These sources that lie? The New York Times allows such liars to affect news. I’ll give you several examples: the story of the so-called Chinese spy, Wen Ho Lee, the guy who four or five years ago in Los Alamos was supposed to be a spy. He was locked up with chains around his ankles. That was leaked information, one of these celebrated reporters–Risen, or something, was the guy. The story about that Anthrax fellow in Maryland who was supposed to be identified the source of this anthrax. Wrong. The Duke Lacrosse players, we were told raped that girl; the New York Times pushed it on their front page. We didn’t know the facts. You use sources and identify, crucify people who never committed any wrong. It turned out not true. Then it’s too late. It’s just like that whole period before the Iraq War. That information–it was leaked, coming in, publish it. Saddam has an atomic bomb. And they publish it. They publish it and we don’t know the truth. Journalists should withhold information like that.

On the Iraq War

Cquote1.svg What most bothers me are the college students – the worst generation is what I call them. These college students are the worst and I’ve been to a lot of campuses…this year I was at the University of Pennsylvania and I was at the University of Alabama, and I’ve been to a number of campuses this year and nobody cares about this war. Cquote2.svg

DS: Has the war affected you as a person?

GT: I wish it had. The war hasn’t affected America as a person. The only ones affected are the 165,000 troops, relatives, kinfolk, cousins. That’s all.

DS: It hasn’t affected you then?

GT: I wish it had! It hasn’t. It hasn’t affected you either. It hasn’t affected anybody!

DS: It’s affected me.

GT: It’s affected you?

DS: Every single person I interview I ask about the war because I think it’s important and it has affected me.

GT: Then you must have a human spirit unmatched since Billy Graham made his first speech! I mean you have to have a real conscience, social conscience, to care. Where are the protests coming out of the Ivy League or the University of Alabama? They’re not there because there’s no conscription. There should be conscription. There should be a draft. There should be. Everybody should serve.

DS: That’s what Charles Rangel says.

GT: He’s the only voice in Congress that ever said that and he said it five years ago. I don’t know of any other voice. I am not aware of another member of the Congress who said what Rangel said. Not one. Certainly not these candidates, Clinton and the rest of them. Because why? Because they know it would stop the war in an hour. Because then we would have involvement. Right now what’s the involvement? The ridiculous stickers, ‘Support Your Troops’ on the back of an SUV? The cost of gas matters not at all. Nobody sacrifices.

DS: That’s the only thing that does seem to motivate people to be against the war is to be paying more at the gas pump.

GT: They don’t care. Don’t care. There’s no sacrifice. Americans are unaffected, except those in the military or related to military people, doesn’t matter… I go out. I mean, yes you can have conversations at dinner parties about this, but it’s very political. It’s about whether McCain says this or Hillary says this and what’s the position of somebody in the defense department. That’s all bullshit. Really nobody cares.

DS: Does it bother you that there’s a lack of outrage?

GT: Yes it does. It does bother me. And it does bother me that the poor people who need money join the National Guard Reserves because they needed that money or they want to go to college. What most bothers me are the college students – the worst generation is what I call them. These college students are the worst and I’ve been to a lot of campuses. I taught last year at USC. I always go to USC in the spring in April every year. I go for a week or so. And I hang around. Across from the campus, there’s a motel I stay in. College students are always hanging around there. And I was, this year, at the University of Pennsylvania and I was at the University of Alabama, and I’ve been to a number of campuses this year and nobody cares about this war.

DS: Or really much about anything.

GT: Less so because of this technology that’s absorbed them, you know with their God damn ears closed and their eyes affixed. and the God damn games they play.

DS: It doesn’t get better as you go higher

GT: It doesn’t?

DS: No, that was one of the things that stood out to me at Fordham Law. It’s a top 25 law school in a very vibrant city with a lot of thinkers. I told this anecdote to Floyd Abrams: I was in a Constitutional Law class right after Alito was nominated to be on the Supreme Court. The professor asked 120 law students on the first day of class how many of them thought he should be confirmed. About five students raised their hands. “New York,” I thought. Then he asked how many of them thought Alito should not be confirmed. About ten students raised their hands. Then he asked how many did not feel they had enough information to know. about another five students raised their hands. What is that? 100 students in a Constitutional Law class at a top school can’t proffer an opinion on a Supreme Court nominee? Is that apathy…confusion…fear…? What is it?

GT: When I was in the military, there was no war. 1954, 1955; Korea was over by then. I had to camp with people from different parts of the United States. Farmers, sons, rich people, poor people. We were all together for at least six weeks of basic training, and then later on when you are assigned to a unit you really had a sense of the country if you didn’t have the opportunity to travel. Very few of us did; I never traveled anywhere until I was in the army. I went to college, from New Jersey to Alabama as a student, so I was at least in a different part of the United States than that where I was born. Out of college I went into the army, Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I was with people from Texas, North Carolina and people from Boston. Those who don’t have to serve, or choose not to, can say that it’s not their war. But it’s an economic war; it’s a sad commentary on who has to serve, because it is mercenary. They are economic mercenaries. They are economically deprived people, without opportunities, and they seek this opportunity and they never imagine how ill-chosen was their choice when they are missing a leg, or witnessing the horror. It’s been close to five years, and still no protests? You don’t find the students at Columbia protesting? They can protest the President of Iran! They’re good at that, but they are no good at protesting what is going on in to their generation that couldn’t afford to get into Columbia, or any place. It’s so unfair, and so un-protested after so many years…it’s been close to five years!

DS: After Hurricane Katrina there was a lot of debate on whether we would rebuild one of our own cities as we were over in Iraq demolishing their cities. How did you feel about that?

GT: I was there a month after it hit. I had a friend down there, Julia Kass, who I went to see. I stayed in a hotel–there were hotels functioning. It wasn’t that everything was destroyed; there were parts that weren’t–

DS: Yeah, the high areas; the rich areas–

GT: –that’s right. And this was a rich area. It was a good hotel. She would get in her car, Miss Julia Kass, and take me around. And boy did I see that town…it…it…it was just like what you read. And it’s like the military: the outside people just didn’t care. The poor blacks, as there are always those who are invaded by the forces of nature and are not protected then or later, they are the people who get sucked up into this swamp of military life or a disaster such as Katrina. And the sense of humanity and human rights aren’t there. We have a human rights lobby in this country. Amnesty International is very quick to point fingers at countries who are failing, at Darfur or the Chinese with regard to the Tibetans. But right in our own country–New Orleans–the outrage was never equal to what should have been proper and humanely expedient. It’s still a class thing. The country is really divided by class.

DS: More than it used to be?

GT: Well, considering that what this country’s history should be, which is a learning experiment, which is going back to the time of legally abolishing racism in schools and jobs, what came out of the civil rights struggle; all those wonderful laws like Brown v. Board of Education and all. But we are still a racial society. And it’s no less true with the schools in New York than the schools in Alabama. I’ve been to Selma, Alabama every year for the last thirty or forty years. I wrote about it when I was one of the reporters in 1965, and I have not failed to go to that town since then once every year.

DS: Every year you go to Selma? Why?

GT: To watch it. I think it’s a little town that gives a good face of America.

DS: There was a Times report, I think, about Selma and they say that it is very changed.

GT: Bullshit! There’s always a report. Absolute bullshit! They go down there every March 7, John Lewis comes out of Atlanta and they go march, and there’s some old crotchety group of what’s left over from the Bloody Sunday massacre.

DS: Recently Obama and Clinton were down there marching…

GT: Bullshit! It’s all total bullshit. The city of Selma–not to just single it out, the country is racist. New York is racist. This neighborhood! I’ve lived in this house for fifty years, where you and I are now, and this neighborhood. When I first moved in here in 1957, it didn’t have any black neighbors. I’m speaking in 2007. No black neighbors. Does that mean Michael Jackson couldn’t move in? I guess. I don’t see them. I guess you could have stars. But even they would have trouble. And we still have a Harlem. We wouldn’t have a Harlem if we had an integrated and assimilated society.

DS: And that’s going.

GT: If they drive them out…they’ll go. But what I’m saying is they are sectioned off. So we talk about the segregated south, the black ghettos–the black quarter–of Birmingham. We still have that. We aren’t so up front about it, meaning they are less honest and more devious in undemocratic ways.

DS: Did you see the election in Alabama when the Christian Coalition defeated the ballot measure to remove the segregation language from the Alabama Constitution that said nobody is guaranteed a right to an education?

GT: Such a high level of hypocrisy that has existed in this country from decade to decade. I’m 75 years old, and it wasn’t so different when I was 25 years old. That’s a 50 year difference–what’s so different? I don’t know. I travel and I don’t see much change.

DS: Have you changed?

GT: I’ve gotten older and maybe more cynical.

DS: When you were 25 did you look at black people the same way as you look at them now?

GT: Yeah. When I was 25 or 15, it was the same, because in my town Ocean City, New Jersey, I went to school with black people. It wasn’t segregated. I was born in 1932 and when I was in eight or nine I saw the Klan in their white sheets on the Boardwalk. This is not Birmingham, this Ocean CIty, New Jersey. I saw the Klan. My father was a tailor and he was a practicing Catholic. A cross was burned across from his story; I was six or seven. And we knew who the Klan were. The leading pharmacist was a Klansman, my father told me that. Two firemen in the town. They would meet publicly, and black people were in the town. They had their own Harlem in Ocean City. So there is a real estate racism. Ocean City, New York City, Selma, Alabama. They all have their black quarters still.
Julia Kass wrote a book about a black attorney that I go to see in Selma, his name is JL Cheston Jr. He’s a character in my book A Writer’s Life. Schools that used to be all white are now all black, so now there’s a reverse segregation. Alabama it used to be kids couldn’t get into white schools. Now there is white flight and they are all black. That’s true of Selma, public schools in New York, too. They are minority schools, now. They are either black or hispanic.

DS: Do you think Joel Klein has improved it?

GT: Nope. He might have improved the education because the mayor we have now is a very good mayor, and he chose Klein and he brings a certain articulation and wisdom to an egalitarian education. But do we have it, really? Every public school teacher that’s in the system in this town is almost like a missionary. They go off and risk life in the interest of humanism. But the private schools, the disgusting sight of drivers picking up children, disgusting sight of limousine drivers lining up. I’m only a block away from one of them here. All over this city at two and three o’clock, you find dark-skinned women waiting for their young, white blazer-clad private school boy and escorting him either into a car that has a driver or walking the kids to wherever their homes are in the neighborhood. The public schools and private schools are two different worlds. Just like our American military. The people who do not have the resources, and therefore they become dependent on the largess of military life to support their income or because the military affords them opportunity–so they think–because the military provides a life better than the meaningless life they have in private life. They get out of high school–maybe, maybe not even that– and what do they have to look forward to, these people? Particularly the men, the undereducated male. A life of minimum wage in some shopping mall working for some fast food place or driving a truck.

State of Journalism

DS: What do you think about Murdoch buying The Wall Street Journal?

GT: It doesn’t bother me. It’s not like the wonderful Bancroft family was some noble dynasty! It’s not like we should lament the passing of some noble dynasty to the corrupt News Corp.

DS: It’s painted that way.

GT: He’s better than they are! It doesn’t bother me. Journalism -I think there is some very good stuff. There’s some wonderful writing as well as reporting in The New York Times every day. It’s not on the front page, necessarily. The sections I enjoy reading are The City section, stories about life in the city; and the Real Estate section. There’s stories about neighborhoods at night and neighborhoods at day. If you are thinking about renting an apartment or moving into a neighborhood, the story says, “look at it at night. Because at daytime when you usually look at a place you think you might want to rent or buy, it looks a certain way. Then go at night and it looks a different way. It might be more isolated at night; it might be the fact there are nightclubs you aren’t aware of during the day so it has a lot of noise. This is the real estate section – very interesting section. The level of writing is now better at the paper in 2007 than when I was there up until 1965. Of course, people are better educated now. The journalist is now far more formally educated than we were. The journalist today is probably second generation of college education in the family. In my generation, most of us were probably the first to go to college in our families. We had more of a sense of being an outsider. Jews, the Irish and Italians back in the 1950s and 1960s, I do believe we had a sense of being isolated from power and therefore on the outside looking in.

DS: Not any more?

GT: Now the journalists and the people in power, the government and financial world, they’re all of the same class, which is privileged class. Journalists are people who are distant from those who are “The Deciders”, to use Bush’s phrase. I think there is an all-inclusiveness, and I think the Washington Press Corp is representative of what I am saying. They co-mingle; they live in the same neighborhoods and they go to the same places. The Washington Press Corp. is the worst.

DS: Did you see Stephen Colbert roast the Washington Press Corp and Bush at the White House Press Correspondence dinner? Nobody laughed, because they were all coming from the same place.

GT: And it got a bad review, and then a revised review! The first account I read–I didn’t see it or watch it–was that it was boring. Then it took on a life of its own!

DS: Because nobody reported about it, or they just said he bombed. Then it went out on the internet and took on a life of its own and people said, “This isn’t bombing, this a roasting of the entire power structure and the power structure decided they didn’t like it.”

GT: I feel the Washington Press Corp. should be broken up. Just have them distributed around the country. Put them in state capitals and just feed the state capitals with more reporters and have them feed the big papers. Cover the country not from Washington. It’s so federalized. More state’s rights kind of reporting; represent power across the country not just overloaded in one place.

DS: A view of the federal government from the national scene? “Here in Denver the reaction to Washington…”

GT: That’s right! It would be harder, because they won’t be fed. They’ll have to do more…

DS: Reporting?

GT: [Laughs] That’s right! They wouldn’t really like that. And they would probably be able to report the war better as it is reflected in towns with a lot of soldiers, and returning injured and dead in those towns. They would really get a feel for the country, and not just those non-participants in Washington who are mouthing this-and-that and getting defense appropriations.

DS: The way it is now, they don’t get an interview with so-and-so if they write something, or they don’t get to go to someone’s party!

GT: Yeah, well, cut half the leaking. Just leave the capitol and cover the country.

DS: Do you think Bob Woodward is still an intrepid Washington reporter? He’s often been accused of being too close to the people he covers.

GT: I don’t have an opinion on Woodward; he’s been successful. I mean, when I was a young man there was a James Reston. I wrote about him in The Kingdom of Power a lot. He was the most important reporter when I was coming up in the 1950’s, and he was in Washington and in bed with the enemy all the time. He had sources in the administration of Kennedy, of Eisenhower before Kennedy, or Johnson. He was a guy who liked power and liked being around power, and he was very much a patriot writer. He was very popular and wrote easy-to-read pieces.

On travel to Cuba

DS: When I was in my teens and early twenties my travels were very Europe-centric. But as an adult I have been drawn to places either seemingly “dangerous” to me or places that I don’t feel like I know because I’ve read so much about them or seen so often in books and magazines. So Europe is off my map now, though I did sneak into Cuba.

GT: You have? When?

DS: In 2002.

GT: How did you sneak into Cuba?

DS: Through the Caymans Islands.

GT: How did you do it?

Gay Talese at The Strand bookstore promoting A Writer’s Life in 2006.
photo: David Shankbone

DS: Just took a flight on Aero Caribbean. Now they’ve stopped using the dollar. But back then, they were very much encouraging American tourists to come via Mexico.

GT: When was this you were there? 2002?

DS: 2002.

GT: They stopped using the dollar?

DS: They stopped using the dollar.

GT: I was there in ’96. I was there in ’82. And I didn’t sneak in, but I had to get a visa from the Czechoslovakian Embassy in Washington to get in there in ’82. Reagan was in power then and he didn’t want me to go to Cuba. I went. My wife also went for two weeks. And then in ’96 I went. And now you don’t have the dollar. What do you have?

DS: You have the Cuban pesos.

GT: Where do you get them?

DS: I’m not really sure now because when I was there they had the system where you could actually just use dollars. That’s what we used. The local currency was called pesos convertibles that were convertible into dollars. Of course they have no value anywhere else in the world except in Cuba, but then they stopped doing that. Castro has kind of created Batista’s society in some ways; not in every way. The poor are certainly a lot better off than they were under Batista. But with the embargo, the economy is now very tourist-based, which creates this tourist class. We didn’t stay in the hotels. We wanted to stay in what they call casa particulars and I remember talking to a woman who made $30 a month as a doctor. But running this casa particular, she was making around $300, $500 a month, which made her very rich.

GT: What’s the interpretation of that, translation of that mean? Casa particular. Like a rooming house?

DS: Like a rooming house. Exactly.

GT: Or like a Bed and Breakfast?

DS: That’s probably the best analogy. Staying at those the money goes more to the people. The other thing they tell you when you go to Cuba is to bring aspirin and all these things that are in short supply there. The people who run these Bed and Breakfasts, if you will, make out with all the stuff the tourists give them to be dispersed in their communities. I went to Ecuador. I went camping in the Amazon. These are the places that interest me now. Do you find it similar in your own travels to really seek out things underneath, to pull up rocks and try and find places off the beaten path. Going to Timbuktu or wherever. Do you have a travel philosophy?

GT: Well since we’re talking about Cuba, it was only four weeks in 1982 in which I traveled in Cuba to baseball towns. My idea often is to go to places with the announced notion of dealing with almost inconsequential parts of society. In China it was women’s soccer. In Cuba, when I went first in ’82, it was the idea of writing about sports fans and baseball games. The idea was to get me out of Havana. The only way I was going to get freedom, certainly nothing political. But if you’re writing about baseball fans in Cuba, it means you can go to towns, sit in the stands….

DS: And talk to the people.

GT: The people, how they get there, how they’re dressed, how they behave and really observe a lot of people because the town, four or five baseball towns. They’re big. And you can travel around the country. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘We’re going to the baseball game.’ You always can explain yourself. And I was very impressed in ’82. When I went back, I was writing a story I published called “Ali in Havana.” It’s in a collection of mine called The Gay Talese Reader, but it was published in Esquire in ‘96. Since you mentioned medical supplies, I went back to accompany Muhammed Ali on a private jet that left Miami for Havana. He and about twenty people were on that plane able to circumvent the embargo because he was on a humanitarian mission, or at least convinced the government authorities in Washington he was. He got clearance because of who he is. And he took medical supplies down. But he, himself, was so sick with Parkinson’s. At the time, I didn’t realize how unable to communicate I would be with him because I couldn’t hear him. He didn’t make any sense. But that didn’t matter because I don’t really write Q&A kind of stuff anyway. Just hanging around with him was fine. But I was able to see a lot of the Cuban people. I was able to go to the medical facilities, hospitals and clinics to see nurses, see doctors, get a look at the interior of the medical quarters of the doctors and how the patients were dressed and what kind of equipment was around in a medical sense. I was very impressed by the resources of the people. Despite the attempts by such hostile nations as the U.S. toward Cuba, despite the embargo and all the other restraints and restrictions, to say nothing of the assassination attempts on Castro himself, people were very strong and, as you suggested, it’s a very egalitarian society and I was with a lot of black people who were part of the contingent of Ali.

DS: And a happy society. At least I found a lot of people who were very content. They may not have an easy life, but they were quite content.

GT: They have their honor. They have their dignity. They’re not a serf class to the aristocracy.

DS: People dancing in the streets at night.

GT: I went out at night and I saw a lot of that. That’s true. They have their values.

DS: And friendly.

GT: And friendly. Much more than those Cubans in Miami.

DS: My friend I was with was Colombian from Miami, and he made the exact same observation. He had a prejudice against Cubans from his time in Miami and he said, “These people aren’t anything like the Cubans in Miami.”

On Chinese gay bars

David Shankbone: Do you have a favorite country you have visited?

Gay Talese: Well I think the city I found most interesting was Beijing.

DS: You talk about China a lot.

GT: I found that really a place that changes every year. And it’s what you can do. That’s one city. I spent so much time in Europe when I was young.

DS: Is it interesting to you to watch China change?

GT: Yeah, I read everything that’s in the papers about China. I completed a story today about how the Bush administration was being used by China.

DS: Do you get tired of going to the same region and then you’re like, ‘I need to go to Asia for a while?’

GT: That’s right. That happened to me in 1998. Kind of interesting. I was able to see without being interrupted with interpretation because I couldn’t understand anything. I so so enjoyed being places I’ve never been before like Kuala Lumpur, Singapore, not Hong Kong, but other places. You asked me about Beijing. It’s the most interesting city because it’s an international city in which there is this history going back hundreds and hundreds of years of turmoil, accommodation. They are such entrepreneurial people on the lowest level to the highest level, the Chinese. And they’re so quick in understanding how to survive and there are so many of them. God, there are so many of them. Have you been to Asia?

DS: I haven’t been to Asia. It doesn’t particularly interest me all that much. There are countries I would like to see, Cambodia being one. South America is one of the areas that I am most interested to explore because I speak Spanish.

GT: You do? I don’t speak anything. I felt similarly when I first got out of Beijing. I said Beijing is an interesting city because it’s international, because it has the press from around the world and the political representation of the whole world in that capitol city. But at night, especially if you have some Chinese friends who speak English so you’re able to have them tell you a little bit about what you’re seeing as they take you around and you go to clubs. What first impressed me in Beijing was the great number of gay men, and women I guess, but gay men who had clubs, gay bars in Beijing. I don’t read this in the paper. But what impressed me was how open it is. One called Club Vogue. I went there.

DS: What are the gay bars like?

GT: They were just as you would find them in New York where gay men hang around and they have their music and their dancing.

DS: Are they flamboyant?

GT: When I first became aware of it, it’s like in Iran, Ahmadinejad says there’s no homosexuals in Iran…

DS: It’s because they kill them.

GT: Well whatever it is, but in China I don’t hear of any, either boastfully or with reticence, the acknowledgment of homosexuals. I always stayed in the hotel because I don’t have the language so I couldn’t stay in a Bed & Breakfast in China or wherever you did in Cuba. You speak Spanish, you said. But I do not speak anything. When I noticed this, I would sometimes have room service, and invariably it was a guy, sometimes two, who were very very effeminate. They really were. There’s just one thing about how free it could be.

DS: How did you get introduced to a gay bar in Beijing?

GT: I got introduced to it because I needed interpreters and in order to get interpreters, I had people who were college students, Americans, sometimes of Chinese origin. One of them in particular who went to Yale, who came to Toronto from Canton as a young boy, and when he graduated from high school in Toronto he went to Yale and after graduating at 21, returned to China and taught English in one of the high schools in Beijing. When I went it was very hard to get interpreters because anybody who could speak English and Chinese was taken by corporations at high paying jobs because all of these multi-national corporations having Chinese partners needed interpreters.

DS: Including the European ones, right? English is the international language.

GT: Everybody. Everybody. So people like me would have to really scratch around to find somebody. I would get to know journalists very easily because I knew the bureaus. I could go to the New York Times and they had a five or six man bureau and some of the Chinese workers were there. “Can I get somebody to moonlight for me for a little bit?” “Well no, we can’t give you one of our people, but he has got a cousin over here, who’s working part-time at Kentucky Fried Chicken and you can see him after”. So this is how I met this fellow from Yale. Because he knew the city, he not only served as my interpreter when I had interviews, but he took it upon himself to escort me places, including these bars and sex shops. I’m always interested in prostitution because that is really something that involves danger. It involves a kind of corruption because everybody abolishes it, but it exists.

DS: And it’s so basic.

GT: So basic. And who are the Chinese prostitutes? Are they from Mongolia…those are the things I wonder.

On the literary canon

DS: I spoke with a young novelist named John Reed. He wrote a book called Snowball’s Chance that was an attack on Orwell and we were talking about the literary canon that’s taught in grade school and high school. He raised an interesting idea that I wanted to run by you. His point was that kids are not becoming readers. So much of what they learn with books and reading doesn’t seem applicable to their lives. I read in Newsweek that your five favorite novels and there was a lot of classics – The Scarlet Letter, The Great Gatsby, things like that. Reed’s point was that kids have a hard time bonding with these materials. What should be taught at those levels is modern literature. At the more senior levels, once they’ve developed acumen for reading and they relate to it on a personal level, then they’ll go exploring the classics and it’s almost more pertinent to them being able to understand it. An analogy would be as if you had children and they only watched Bette Davis and Joan Crawford movies and then the film genre would wither because young people found it difficult to relate to it. What do you think about that idea?

GT: I think if you delay the reading of the classical works or whatever is defined as enduring in value, you postpone it. It’s too late. As to reading, what is contemporary? People do that anyway.

DS: Not kids.

GT: God, starting with Ms. Rowling, you’ve got Harry Potter. What’s more contemporary than that?

DS: That’s a phenomenon. It’s not really that typical; I mean, it stands out because it’s a billion dollar author.

GT: I think so much of what we read that’s in the canons is pretty political, more now than ever. I mean you have to have women in there, you have to have blacks in there, you have to have Latinos in there. Go, if you should dare…

DS: And they can’t say certain things.

GT: That’s right. Of course, I grew up as a Catholic. When I was a boy you couldn’t read certain things, say certain things, think certain things. So it’s not that we need this political correctness to remind me of restriction, restraint, guidance, governments. I grew up with them. It didn’t much matter. Do what you want to do anyway, but it’s covert. We were all in the closet in those days, one way or another.

DS: Would you agree with the idea that children don’t grow up reading much anymore, outside of what’s required?

GT: I think they do. There’s always been a number of young people who are in the category of being readers and the majority are not. And that was true when I was a child and when my wife was a child. My wife has now been a professional reader and editor for fifty years. But there were those who were drawn to reading and those who were not, found it boring or were more outward than internalized in their nature. Many of the people I know, who are very successful and read a lot, are people who experienced illness or injury when they were young. They grew up with books because they could not interact at a young age with their contemporaries. Off the top of my head, Frances Ford Coppollo, people I know, Scorsese, Lee Iacocca… Or many people who have had to sit when they were eleven or six or five. They had to stay in bed, they were drawn to books and the books became their action. The books became their activity. They vicariously lived through the work of writers or maybe they lived through music, maybe they lived through something else. But that idea of being kept apart from the drive to be popular, the drive to be part of a clique that seemed to be in favor, when you are isolated, then maybe you are drawn out of your isolation by what you read and get a larger sense of the world.

DS: You’re saying that there never was really a time when people read more unless they had cause to read a lot based upon their circumstances?

GT: Well I’ll talk about what I really know, which is what I have personally experienced. I grew up in a home with very few books. There was one book, and I had no idea how my father got it. Maybe someone gave it to him. Short stories by the French writer Guy de Maupassant. I read those stories, all of them, twice probably, when I was ten. Later on, when I was in high school, 12, 13, 14, 15, I was reading fiction. The fiction I was reading, and I wrote about this in my last book, was Frank Yerby. People have never heard of him; he’s not in any canon. Frank Yerby was a black man, who lived in Spain and wrote these romance novels. And there must have been seven or eight or nine of them. They sold very well. A few of them were made into movies I never saw. I loved those stories because they were richly described. The characters were very very detailed. Very precise detail. And that shaped my life. I was a writer who does very much insist on and has affection for detail.

DS: Is that who you were reading at that age?

GT: When I became more mature, if that’s the word, it was about my senior year, going to college, 17, 18, 19 years of age, I fell under the sway of the classic writers who were the generation or two before my own. Namely, Fitzgerald and Hemingway, and to a lesser degree Faulkner. I went to Alabama College, as you know. I assume you know. And so Faulkner was a name I reckoned with. And then, while I was still in college in my third year there, fourth year there, I started reading The New Yorker and reading the great stories of John O’Hara and Irwin Shaw and others … John Cheever. All those stories and all those writers I mentioned give detail. They are really descriptive writers, scenic writers, writers of city life whether it’s Fitzgerald invoking the sense of St. Paul, Minnesota or Coming To Princeton, his novel, or Irwin Shaw walking through the streets of the city of New York or O’Hara getting into New York with a chip on his shoulder from Pennsylvania or later on their literary inheritors, John Updike, William Styron, those other people closer to my generation. Philip Roth is my favorite writer. They all gave a sense of reality. Roth gives a real sense of history. I’ve read every novel he’s written.

DS: I’ve read The Plot Against America.

GT: Yeah, well that’s a distorted sense of the Wilke campaign. But you really get a sense of time and place with Roth, including his latest novel. All of his novels, every one of them. And I’ve never been tempted, with one exception, to write fiction. One exception being I did write a short story in 1965 and got it published and I was never interested in writing again because I thought reality is so remarkable. All you have to do is spend the time, take the time, and you’re going to find things that are hardly believable that are real. At least real to the degree that you say, this is as verifiable as it gets. I’m not saying it’s the truth, the full truth, the half truth, but this is at least something that did indeed happen, at least in the minds of those to whom it happened. And you are a chronicler of their reality. And you can write stories without changing names and altering the facts. And they sound as if they are concocted, imagined works of fiction, but they’re not. They’re not works of fiction. But my reading was fiction and remains fiction. I don’t read much non-fiction unless I have to. If I want to write about China then I’m going to read biographies of Mao. Or if I want to write about Unto The Sons, which is my book about my ancestry in Italy, I have to read all these book about Naples or 20th Century Mafia in Palermo or the English writers who were the great travel writers of the 19th century.


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March 8, 2006

Gordon Parks, African American filmmaker, dies at 93

Gordon Parks, African American filmmaker, dies at 93

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Wednesday, March 8, 2006

Gordon Parks at Civil Rights March on Washington, 1963.

Renowned African American artist Gordon Parks, known for his photography, film direction, and autobiographical works, including the book and film The Learning Tree, died Tuesday at his home in New York. He was 93.

Parks was a pioneering black artist with an impressive list of honors and accomplishments, including at least 40 honorary doctorate degrees. He was the first African American staff photographer for Life magazine, where he worked from 1948 to 1972. President Reagan presented him with the National Medal of Arts in 1988. He published at least five semi or wholly autobiographical books.

Gordon Roger Alexander Buchannan Parks was born November 30, 1912, in Fort Scott, Kansas, the youngest of 15 children. After his mother’s death when he was 16, he moved to St. Paul, Minnesota, where he attended high school. He dropped out in order to find work during increasingly hard times, traveling extensively in the North and Northwest looking for jobs.

In 1938, he bought his first camera and experimented with both documentary and fashion photography. At age 30, he won a fellowship and traveled to Washington, D.C., where he worked as a photographer for the Farm Security Administration and later for the Office of War Information.

During his time at the FSA, Parks composed photo-essays critical of the racial and social prejudices many faced. His work drew attention both to himself and to the poverty and social injustices of the time.

After the beginning of the war, Parks moved to Harlem, where he found a job as a fashion photographer for Vogue and continued to take socially provocative photos of slum life in the city. It was these photos that convinced Life’s photography editor to hire him.

In 1962, Parks wrote The Learning Tree, based on his Kansas childhood. The book was a success, and Parks later directed the film version, for which he also wrote the screenplay and the music. The Learning Tree was one of the first 25 films placed on the National Film Registry. Parks next directed Shaft and its successful sequel, Shaft’s Big Score, as well as a blaxploitation comedy called Supercops.

Parks’ other artistic achievements include a ballet, written about Martin Luther King, Jr., four other memoirs, a collection of poetry, several original musical compositions and at least one other fictional, non-autobiographical novel. Collections and exhibits of his photography have traveled extensively within and beyond the United States.

He is survived by his three ex-wives, Sally Alvis, Elizabeth Campbell, and Ms. Young; his daughter, Toni Parks Parson, and his son, David, from his first marriage; and a daughter, Leslie Parks Harding, from his second marriage; five grandchildren; and five great grandchildren. A son, Gordon Parks Jr., died in 1979.



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