Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a titan of American and New York City journalism, just released an anthology of her work, “My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives.” The title alone should tell you it is no ordinary memoir.
Her work is partly a mirror onto the lives of underrepresented New Yorkers going back to the dawn of the Civil Rights Movement and its most significant victories. Yet Hunter-Gault, 80, didn’t just write about the news; she also was part of it.
In 1961, Hunter-Gault and the late Hamilton Holmes became the first African Americans to register at the University of Georgia, after winning a court battle to gain admission. Hunter-Gault graduated in 1963 and came to New York the same year.
She became the first Black writer for The New Yorker and later opened The New York Times’ first Harlem bureau, writing about New York City’s Black community in the 1960s and 1970s.
But New York wasn’t big enough for Hunter-Gault. She went on to become a national correspondent for “PBS NewsHour” and chief Africa correspondent for NPR, covering the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa.
Called “an eminent dean of American journalism” by Jelani Cobb, dean of the Columbia Journalism School, Hunter-Gault recently sat down with Gothamist to discuss her work in New York City, her approach to covering Black communities and reflections on the nation’s ongoing struggles over racial justice.
Here are some highlights from the conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Coming to New York in 1963
William Shawn, the legendary editor of The New Yorker, had read about my case at UGA and had managed to get in touch with me and asked me to come to New York because he was interested in possibly giving me a job. So I went to New York, he interviewed me, and he said, “now you would start here as an editorial assistant.” That meant typing – those were the days of typewriters – typing rejection slips and you know.
Calm after a riot
There came a time when I was living in Brooklyn. There had been a riot by people who were unhappy with what was happening for people of color. And I got home, and the riot was happening, but then the next morning as I walked back to the subway, everything was eerily calm. And it just had an impact on me, I don’t know. It was so weird that the night before had been so raucous, and in here everything was really quiet. So I wrote this little piece and handed it to Mr. Shawn’s office. And that was the first piece that I ever had in The New Yorker.
A senior writer’s challenge
Then [after my first story], I got emboldened. So I wrote a short story called, “A Hundred-Fifteenth-Between-Lenox-and-Fifth.” I wrote about my first visit with my grandmother to 115th Street between Lenox and Fifth [avenues], which is Harlem.
I showed it to another colleague after I had turned it in, and he came in and he put it on my desk and he said, “You know, this is OK, but you should be writing about all the problems that people are having in Harlem, not about what a good time you had as a kid.”
I thought, uh oh, this was a senior writer at the magazine. I thought, I have really screwed up now. But within a few minutes after I had this encounter, I got a call from Mr. Shawn. He said, “Ms. Hunter, I’ve read ‘A Hundred-Fifteenth-Between-Lenox-and-Fifth,’ and if it’s all right with you, we’d like to put it in the magazine.” I didn’t know what to say. If it was “alright with me?” Are you kidding? And that was the second piece.
Who wasn’t there
I began to look at what was in the magazine and what wasn’t in the magazine. And there wasn’t a lot about people of color. The competition was very stiff at The New Yorker, as you might imagine. In order to get pieces in the magazine, you had to have something that was very unusual. And the stories that I then went and covered, mostly in Harlem, but every now and then in Brooklyn, were about my people, and they always got in the magazine because they were unusual. Although they were usual in terms of the people who were living those experiences, but not usual getting into a magazine like The New Yorker.
Hired at The New York Times in 1969
There were some Blacks working at the Times at the time, and they said, “Well, why don’t you come over and interview? Maybe you could get a job at the paper.” I went, and I was interviewed by the legendary editor, Arthur Gelb, who was metropolitan editor. And it was an interesting conversation.
He said to me, “if I sent you to Harlem to cover a story about a man who had done something wrong, if he was a friend, would you be able to write that story?” And I said, “Well, Mr. Gelb, I would be able to write the story, but I would want to find out what was behind it, because so many Black people get accused of things they didn’t do. So if he in fact was guilty of something, I could write that, yes. But I would want to investigate to make sure that this was the truth about what had happened with him.” Long story short, he accepted that. I got hired.
Starting the Harlem bureau
The more I looked at what was in the paper and in other papers, the more I realized that the best way to cover Harlem was to be there. And I managed to talk him, Mr. Gelb, into letting me open a bureau in Harlem, the first of its kind in the country.
I positioned myself in a small room. The office belonged to a lawyer. He gave me the room, and I could look out the window. To the right was the legendary Apollo Theater. To the left was 125th Street and Seventh [Avenue], where so many Black men going from Marcus Garvey to Malcolm X had stood on the corner giving speeches to people about their people, my people.
The Black-owned bookstore
In the next block [from my office], 126th Street – this was before the state office building – was a bookstore and it was owned by a small Black man who had one of the largest collections by and about Black people in the country actually. All kinds of writers – Black, white, Caribbean – used to go there to go through his books and they would have lectures and talks and so forth. So I wrote a piece about the professor, and one of his quotes was — this was again in the early, late ‘60s, early ‘70s — he liked to quote things like “the white man’s dream of being supreme has turned to sour cream.” And I put all of that in the piece and the piece ran in the paper.
There were so many positive pieces that were being ignored because up to that point, most of what was covered about Black people was either crime or somebody unusual, like Muhammad Ali or somebody like that. But nothing about just everyday people and the lives that they lived.
A nudge toward a book
At the University of Georgia, Valerie Boyd, professor of writing, said, “you know, you really should put your articles together, because this is a good time for it when people are so confused about history. And you have recorded so much about people of color in a different way.”
Black representation in media
There are good things. There are Black people who are doing wonderful work these days, and also I think that the demonstrations and the consciousness that’s being raised by those demonstrations is leading to a greater degree of representation. You look at television these days and you see more women and more people of color in these very important positions on the air, on television and in the newspapers and magazines.
However, the one area where we still have a big challenge is in the decision makers. Those who make the decisions about who gets hired, what position they have, when they get hired, how much space they get in the paper or the magazine or on television. So we need to keep working on helping achieve greater representation from all people, especially in these areas that affect everybody, and that is media.
Progress, past and present
I listen to the news all the time, and I get questions about today and how horrible our country is. We’ve been there before. If you go back to the 1600s and move forward, you know that we make progress, and then it stops, and then you make more progress, and then it stops.
We’ve been here before and we have overcome, and that’s why our history is so important. There are gonna be “some difficult days ahead,” Martin Luther King used to say, but “we shall overcome.” That’s still relevant information, still relevant advice, still relevant to keep in our heads – that we can overcome.
Impact of Black Lives Matter protests
Well, I think it’s making headlines and affecting the consciousness of people. Now there are people who are not happy with it, to be sure, but there were people who weren’t happy with the civil rights movement. But I think that this is a new generation that has looked at things that haven’t changed and want to change them.
While I don’t go out there marching with them or any of that, I’m keeping up with their activities and their protests. And I think that it could be very beneficial to them to have exchanges with the older generation who have been through much of what they’re going through. Because none of this is new.
So that we can form a coalition of the generations. Not so much because demonstrators from my generation are gonna get out there and march with them necessarily. But they can encourage them, help them. They can say, “well, we made mistakes, but also succeeded in so many ways.” And they can share that. Our history in effect is our armor. And that armor is going to protect us no matter what challenges we face.
Measuring racial progress
Well look, we need people to become educated to the facts of this moment. And the facts are that the pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on people of color because so many of them don’t have health insurance. The current situation with the economy, if you look at who is being the most severely affected negatively, it’s people of color – which is not just Black people, but brown people, Asian people, and Native American people.
That is another reason why it’s so important to have our history told because it will also, I hope, inspire people to do the right thing. “If they get good information,” as Jim Lehrer said, “I think they’ll do the right thing.”