By Samantha Plotner
The Athena Center for Leadership Studies brings assorted leaders to speak on campus every year through their Power Talk series. This past Wednesday, September 14th, journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault gave the first Power Talk of the school year. Her award-winning journalism career spans forty years and includes working for some of the most prestigious news organizations in the world, such as National Public Radio (NPR), CNN and The New York Times. She has won two Emmy Awards and a Peabody Award for her reporting on Africa. Before her talk, I was able to get a few minutes with Hunter-Gault to talk about her life and some of her goals for the talk.
In her Power Talk, Hunter-Gault wanted “to share [her] own experiences…especially how it relates to women’s leadership,” because much of the credit for her success “goes to the women in [her] life.” She made particular mention of her grandmother who taught her psalms as a child. Those lessons came back to her in 1961 when she and Hamilton Holmes were the first African American students to attend the recently-desegregated University of Georgia (UGA). On her second night at UGA, a riot outside her dorm room led to her suspension for her own safety (a ploy often used to force African American students out of recently-desegregated schools). As she walked out into the dispersing crowd, she was comforted by the 23rd psalm, her grandmother’s favorite: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.”
Hunter-Gault tried to downplay the courage it took to face such virulent racism at UGA. She felt she and Holmes “had a right to be there…because of the taxes [their] parents paid.” Prior to her and Holmes attending the university, the state had paid black students to go study at other schools. Hunter-Gault, however, was “seized with the dream of being a journalist” and UGA “was the only school in the entire state with a journalism school.” She was “inspired by the courage of other young people who demonstrated on the front lines.” Her “two best friends were arrested in Atlanta and spent the night in jail.” In writing her newest book To the Mountaintop, which is about the civil rights movement, she wondered “is there too much violence? But it’s what we lived.” She mentioned an incident where protesters attempted to suffocate a bus of Freedom Riders by throwing smoke bombs into the bus then barricading the door so they could not escape, So she asked, as a student at UGA, “how could I not have courage when they had courage?”
The conversation then switched gears and she told me about some of the misconceptions Americans have about Africa, a topic she covered in one of her other books New News Out of Africa. Hunter-Gault sees media coverage of Africa in the United States as done “through the prism of the four Ds: Death, Disease, Disaster and Despair.” As a result “that’s how people see Africa.” However, there are not many American media organizations with a consistent presence in Africa. Many news outlets practice what she calls “parachute journalism” and only send a reporter into African countries when a major news event occurs. In Hunter-Gault’s opinion it is “in our national interest to have people there” because Americans are “not getting news that they can use.” Part of her solution is to train African journalists and “bring more of them up to the standard that will enable them to be the eyes and ears of their people and for the West.”
Hunter-Gault also expressed her views on how American media covers the African American community. As a reporter she has “made a real effort to portray people of color the way they see themselves,” but this is unfortunately not always the case. The Presidential Commission that inquired into the riots of 1968 concluded, “without people who lived in these communities…and understood the grievances of these communities, the rising tensions went unknown and unreported. It was after that report that “newsrooms started having black reporters,” but according the Hunter-Gault “it could happen again. You don’t have any major black faces on network news.” Her suggestion to improve coverage of the African American community is to do what was done in 1968 and “hire people who have an interest in and understanding of these communities.”
During the Power Talk itself, Hunter-Gault gave a speech that was in equal parts inspiring and funny. The topics ranged from “the suit of armor” of moral values she developed growing up to her view on emotions in journalism (“you’re not a computer…how can you not feel something?”). She discussed some of the biggest social problems Africa is currently facing and the place of women in the American civil rights movement. Overall, with her insightful talk Charlayne Hunter-Gault started the 2011-2012 Power Talk series on a high note.
Samantha is a junior at Barnard and the Co-Editor-in-Chief of The Nine Ways of Knowing. She is majoring in Political Science and Human Rights Studies.