On Dec. 20, I was delighted when City Arts & Lectures interrupted its regular programming on KQED to air a 26-year-old conversation between feminist cultural scholar bell hooks, who died last week, and novelist Walter Mosley.
I was in the audience the evening that conversation took place and left with a huge crush on hooks and Mosley. Until the past few years, I hardly ever saw two people of color invited to talk to each other at a City Arts event. It was a treat to hear two Black writers, a woman and a man, highly acclaimed in different genres, talking together in public about their work, their lives, their friendship — a situation rare enough that each of them brought it up.
Toward the beginning of the night, hooks mentioned seeing a newspaper article describing their upcoming conversation as a “debate,” as if a meeting between a Black woman and a Black man on a San Francisco stage would by default be a confrontation. Mosley replied he’d met a man at a book signing who was worried about what would happen to him if he took the stage with hooks.
What came through that evening and again on the radio several days ago was the respect and affection hooks and Mosley had for each other. Because of who they were — a woman credited with breaking open what it means to be Black and feminist and a man whose mystery novels lived at the top of the bestseller lists — and because they trusted each other, their conversation played in multiple dimensions.
Listen for the layers when they talk about how hooks asked Mosley for help in finding a place to live in New York City or when they discuss his decision to make an important character a rapist. At one point Mosley says to hooks, “I like hearing you talk” and I think: Where are the romantic dramas where Black intellect is centered and sexy? I don’t think either of them would mind me saying this.
I was already sketching out this end-of-year column when I heard the broadcast. My holiday gift to you is a short list of some of the voices I turn to when I want to hear smart, informed, sometimes funny and always honest people of color in public conversations with each other.
Note: it has never been my intention for my word to be anyone’s last word on what Black people think about anything. Several years ago, I began to realize that when some white people come to me for my take on something involving Black people, whatever I say will be the beginning and the end of their sample. That’s not good for any of us. A while ago, I stopped automatically answering those questions. Sometimes I tell them to ask six other Black people and get back to me. They never do. A few times I’ve said I’ll entertain the discussion for a fee because otherwise, there is nothing in this for me.
Perhaps you’ve heard the Chris Rock joke about how many Black friends most white people have or perhaps you recall the 2013 Public Religion Research Institute survey of the racial composition of Americans’ friend groups? How many “friends” of other races do you have? How sure are you that those people would count you among their friends? Do you invite them to your home? Do they come? If they’ve invited you to their home, did you go? Those last three questions are mine, not the survey’s. Not every friendship requires sitting at someone’s dining table, but it’s worth really thinking about who you can count on and who counts on you.
While you are imagining the guest list for the parties you want to have or attend whenever we are free of coronavirus worries, here are some of the people of color talking that I listen to. Don’t just take my word for it — check them out:
The title of this podcast from Maximum Fun is a mashup of “fan” and “anti,” as in what happens when something you like/liked is also a problem. A good place to start — and where I shifted from casual listener to ride or die — is the second episode in which hosts Tre’vell Anderson and Jarrett Hill, both journalists, sort out the mess around Gayle King’s interview with WNBA star Lisa Leslie after Kobe Bryant’s death. Anderson, who is gender nonconforming, and Hill, who identifies as queer, operate on Black culture, society and politics with the precision of the very best brain surgeons. They are so funny they make me look like a fool laughing so loudly on Muni.
For a good time, check out “Don’t Experiment on Thanksgiving.” One of my favorite crossover episodes was when they went on NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” to discuss “Respect,” the Jennifer Hudson Aretha Franklin biopic, with two of that show’s long-time white hosts, Linda Holmes and Stephen Thompson. I’m a fan of all four of them and it was cool to hear something rare: Hill and Anderson brought extra levels of insight into the history and performances in the movie and Holmes and Thompson received it without being dismissive or patronizing or trying to one-up them. Hill and Anderson didn’t make Holmes and Thompson seem like clueless white people. All four of them were being their fully unapologetically Black or white selves and getting along really well. A lesson for us all.
Journalists Jay Caspian Kang and E. Tammy Kim, and historian Andy B. Liu started this podcast in April 2020 as a way to address the global impact of the coronavirus and how the pandemic was affecting being Asian and being in America. The tension between being Asian and being in America and being American are as much a subject for them as the tensions hooks captured in being Black and a woman and a feminist. The “ands” are what you see and feel when you are having to navigate these categories you had no say in building.
I confess I only became aware of “Time to Say Goodbye” recently through a best podcasts of 2021 list. It is fascinating to go back to the beginning and compare where the three hosts thought we were heading with what’s actually transpired. There is a bit of the feeling of sitting up late in a dorm listening to your three smartest friends range from serious to silly over the course of an evening — that kind of combativeness and camaraderie but from adults who have been in the world and know some stuff.
Similar to hooks and Mosley or the friends at FANTI, there is something exciting about listening in on people who respect each other’s expertise and intelligence discussing things that matter in the world. I appreciate that they are honest about their privilege and how they get into the complexities and inadequacies of how “Asian American” is framed.
Kang, a staff writer for The New York Times, lives in Berkeley and drops in Bay Area references from time to time. I’m looking forward to the episodes where he and Liu, an assistant professor at Villanova and a Steph Curry super fan, talk basketball. But a handful of random episodes in, my favorite is Kim, who has said she came by her progressive politics through her parents. All three of them complicate how I think about Asian American political interests, but she is the best at tearing new holes in what I thought I understood.
To be continued in 2022.
Teresa Moore’s columns appear bimonthly in The Examiner.