Be honest: How many times have you had conversations within your inner circle that include phrases like “That’s what’s wrong with Black folks,” or “Black people can’t never come together”? We can be quick to offer a version of “smh,” but how often do these arguments lead to solutions? Emmy award–winning journalist Ed Gordon wants to change that.
The veteran newsman has authored a new book, Conversations in Black: On Power, Politics, and Leadership, which he hopes will move the narrative forward around African-American leadership in the post-Obama, Donald Trump era.
Gordon, the former host of BET Tonight With Ed Gordon, has something the average person doesn’t. Not just 30 years as a trusted and respected broadcaster, but the access to ask the hard-hitting questions to some of the most lauded figures in Black culture.
His book gathers a dream team of Black leaders, influencers and celebs — Maxine Waters, Stacey Abrams, Jemele Hill, Killer Mike, T.I., DeRay McKesson, Angela Rye, D.L. Hughley and Harry Belafonte are just a few. Together they have a series of honest, compelling conversations about the State of Black America. What Gordon learned, and hopes readers learn as well, is that no matter who we deem the next Martin Luther King Jr., a unified vision is needed for any hope of progress of success.
“I don’t know any team that wins a game without a game plan, I don’t know any business that becomes successful without a working business plan or business model, and I don’t know any people who can continue to elevate to reach the promises that this country has given to all who live here without a plan," Gordon says. “And that’s what I hope this book will become.”
Conversations in Black is not the definitive plan, he explains, but hopefully a catalyst to get us to move from rehashing our problems toward new, action-centered narratives. Here, Gordon elaborates further on the all-stars he assembled, why we need a Black Agenda, and why Conversations in Black should be your next book club pick of 2020.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BET: As a journalist, you’ve been observing culture and society for almost 30 years now. What is it about today’s landscape that made this book feel so necessary?
Ed Gordon: I started the concept of this project in 2012, and then obviously after the Obama years and Trump’s election, the police brutality that has besieged our community and raised its head in a greater way than we’ve seen in a long time, and quite frankly some of the strides that we’ve made — I just thought now was the time.
I think we’ve seen through our existence since we were brought here from Africa, the idea that we’re always a people who are asking, “What’s going on?” because the narrative of America has never been ours fully. I just felt like we needed this more than ever.
BET: As you were writing Conversations in Black, who were you envisioning as your intended reader?
E.G.: I really hoped to target as many people as I could who were moving into what I call “real adulthood.” At a certain age, life starts to become very real very quickly. But I also didn’t want the book to be too academic or be only political. I think there’s a little bit of something for everyone in this book. I think millennials will find much of it interesting; we certainly had millennials who are part of it who speak to issues of the day. And then we also had Harry Belafonte, Maxine Waters, who are legendary, who are Baby Boomers. I wanted it to run the gamut.
BET: The very first chapter of the book is about the State of Black America. Are you more concerned now than ever about what that state is?
E.G.: I’ve always been concerned. It’d be foolish to think that we haven’t made tremendous strides, but I think over the last couple of decades what we’ve seen is, we’ve kind of hit a ceiling, if you will. We kind of beat segregation in a way, but then we saw some regression in the employment numbers. The wealth gap keeps widening. I think a lot of people thought that there would be a Black presidential candidate who was a greater contender than we saw in 2020.
I do think that we’re at a time where we have to as a community make some decisions. We have to decide whether or not some of the ways that we’ve been doing things from 20 and 30 years may have outlasted their usefulness, and maybe we need to find some new ways. And it doesn’t mean that some of the tried-and-true ways that have been going on 60, 70, 80 years should be cast aside if they still work. I think we’ve just gotta take a really close look at what works and what doesn’t.
Maybe some things need to be augmented, and sometimes things do need to be scrapped. I think we need to ask questions of our leadership; Is Black leadership doing enough? But most importantly, we have to look in the mirror and ask ourselves individually, What am I doing other than maybe complaining and liking a Facebook post or an Instagram post, buying a T-shirt?
BET: Your chapter on Black leadership is especially provocative and speaks to a topic that is frequently and passionately debated these days.
E.G.: I think that over the years we tend to romanticize leaders of the past, maybe expect too much from leaders of the present. But I also think it’s fair to be able to grade, gauge and give expectations to leadership of your time. Or to expect more from them than you would expect from white leadership, but also to hold them accountable if they’re not holding up their end of the bargain.
BET: The consensus among the figures you spoke with seems to be that Black America doesn’t have a strong, central leader. But should we even be looking for the next MLK?
EG: Maybe not. We’ve been grappling with that since King’s death. Let’s be honest: King was not the leader of all Black people, even in the ‘60s. Some people followed Malcolm; some people thought that King was a carpetbagger; some saw him as a sellout. Again, we overemphasize King at times. What I do believe, and what we did have in the ‘60s, and what we really haven’t had since the late ‘60s or early ‘70s, is a Black Agenda. And that isn’t necessarily from one leader. We’ve had townhall meetings, we’ve said that we need to have a Black Agenda, but then when you ask again — and we talked about this in the book — no one really can specifically say what it is.
BET: The book debuts the day after Sen. Cory Booker suspended his presidential campaign following many other people of color who have dropped out of the race. What message does this send to Black Americans about leadership and our value in the political landscape?
E.G.: I think what it sends is post-Obama is not an era that promises a Black candidate. It’s not enough just to be Black and a candidate; you’ve got to find a way to speak to America, to Black America, and engage us and energize us. And quite frankly, that should be the truth for anyone we vote for, Black or white. Too often we’ve been taken for granted politically by white candidates and Black candidates, and we’ve got to become more politically sophisticated as a people in order to continue our narrative and our march toward justice.
BET: This is BET, of course. What statement does the book make about how the entertainment industry impacts the State of Black America?
E.G.: One of the chapters in the book is about images in the media. Can we be really concerned about images in the media if in one sense we help perpetuate them? Can we be in love with the Housewives series and then suggest the stereotypical depiction of Black women is wrong? I don’t know that we can have both.
BET: There are some people like Angela Rye, Michael Eric Dyson, who we’d expect to chime in on such a conversation. But there are also voices that might seem controversial, like TI or Charlemagne. Why was it important to include those voices as well?
E.G.: Because those are voices within our community; they are voices with power that speak to the dynamic. I tell everybody, I wanted it to read like the conversations we have in real life and so I reached out to what I thought was a broad base and representation of people and just said to them, hey, tell me your thoughts on these issues, and that’s what came of this.
BET: Though the book is structured as a series of conversations, it also points out that, thanks to social media, people are sharing opinions more now than ever. Will readers come away with actionable steps to move beyond just talking?
E.G.: In the book, that’s exactly what we talk about — the idea that it’s not enough just to have conversations. But what I tried to do is move the conversation along. Throughout the book, I echo the idea that we can’t keep talking about the same things.
I think we have a lot of the same conversations. We’re arguing over the same thing, but we don’t ever say, “OK, how do we solve this? How do we change the dilemma that we seem to be in? Rather than having the same argument over and over, how do we change the narrative?” And I think that’s what’s most important. Not that discussion and conversation shouldn’t continue, but the narrative should change. And then — and I talk about this in the wrap-up of the book — action must begin.
BET: Last, what impact do you hope Conversations in Black will have?
E.G.: We’re encouraging people to read it as a group. We’re encouraging people then to have conversations in your circle — if it’s your circle at church, if it’s your circle of friends, whoever you engage with. And then commit to one another that you will indeed take this conversation and move to an actionable item out of whatever conversation leads you to believe you can indeed make change.
Conversations in Black: On Power, Politics, And Leadership (Hachette Books) is out now.
Driadonna Roland is a wordsmith from the D. Find her at @DreeTV on Twitter.
(Photo: Bryan Steffy/Getty Images for Nu-Opp, Inc)