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From Mourning to 'Moonlight': A Year In Race, As Told By Code Switch

The Code Switch podcast is celebrating its first anniversary.
Chelsea Beck
The Code Switch podcast is celebrating its first anniversary.

One year ago, Barack Obama was winding down his final term and Donald Trump was ... a candidate for president?

Muhammad Ali, Juan Gabriel and Philando Castile were still standing, and Standing Rock, N.D., wasn't on most people's maps. The term "alt-right" required an explanation; the phrase "hot sauce in my bag" did not.

And the Code Switch podcast was born.

Over the past year, our discussions about race have been shaped by pop culture and fine art; academia and activism; tragedy and humor and politics and food. And we've been shaped by you, our audience — the questions and ideas that you bring to us every day.

So for our anniversary, everyone on the team wrote about some of the stories and ideas that changed how they thought about race.

For Shereen Marisol Meraji, it was the idea of an "explanatory comma" — the brief explanation that follows concepts that might be unfamiliar to listeners and readers. (Eg.: Tupac Shakur, a popular African-American rap musician from the early 1990s.) This concept resonated with Shereen because, as a young woman of color, she was often asked to explain herself, but didn't get much in return:

"This could be hyperbole, but it felt like everyone in my very first pitch meeting at NPR got their ideas from a magazine I had never heard of called The New Yorker. I was in my mid-20s, had finally finished my B.A. in Raza Studies from San Francisco State University. (It took forever because I worked full time and went to school.) I'll never forget one of my NPR co-workers saying in a meeting, 'Do all your ideas come from Latino dot net?,' which everyone thought was HILARIOUS. Except me.

"My first few years at that job, I went home and cried a lot. I was like, 'I have no idea what these people are talking about and they have no idea what I'm talking about.' The things I observed in my world, the books I read, the music I loved — after sitting in those meetings — they all seemed insignificant. And, maybe it's not true, but it certainly felt like my co-workers were consuming all the same stuff: The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The White Stripes and anything written by David Foster Wallace.

"I started reading The New Yorker and The Post; I'm a huge fan of the White Stripes and I'm grateful to have opened up my world. But, I did it without ever getting an explanatory comma, and I was expected to give one every time I pitched something that didn't come directly from the erudite 'NPR canon' of 'Things One Must Know.' I'm all for 'explanatory commas' – but they should go both ways."

For Adrian Florido, it was a story he'd seen covered a lot in the news, but somehow still felt lacking:

Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, took sanctuary at the First Baptist Church on May 5, 2017, in Denver.
John Moore / Getty Images
Getty Images
Jeanette Vizguerra, 45, took sanctuary at the First Baptist Church on May 5, 2017, in Denver.

"When I spoke with Jeanette Vizguerra in April, she had become one of the most prominent faces in the new sanctuary church movement. Churches and other houses of worship had been allowing immigrants without legal status to move into their buildings to protect them from deportation; Vizguerra moved into a Denver church in February.

"Her story had gotten a lot of attention. Yet much of the coverage seemed to treat her as a secondary actor to the role that the church was playing in protecting her. So I called her up.

"It turned out Vizguerra was struggling with her own arrangement. She appreciated the help she was getting from the church, while struggling to assert control over how they used her story to make a broader political statement.

"Nonetheless, from the church's basement, Vizguerra was running the show by helping to advise churches across the country as they figured out how to offer sanctuary to immigrants who needed it.

"Vizguerra upended the way I thought about the sanctuary movement. It's about the work churches do to protect immigrants, yes, but it's just as much about the people they're taking in and the decisions those people are making about their own lives.

In late May, Vizguerra emerged from the church to applause and tears of joy. But her case is far from resolved. When I visited her in Denver earlier this month, she spoke of some of the lingering questions that hang over her life like a cloud."

Kat Chow reflected on a story that hit home for her — the period last summer, when, separated by less than a day, two black men, Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, were killed by police officers. In response, a group of Asian-American activists co-wrote a letter urging their family members to stand in solidarity with Black Lives Matter:

"As a kid, I'd hear relatives say things about other racial groups like, "If they just worked harder, like we did..." or "We came here with nothing..." Watching these people write to their families about why they should empathize and support Black Lives Matter felt specific to the Asian-American and immigrant experience. They were, in effect, trying to teach a racial history to their parents, aunts, uncles, grandmothers, grandfathers — who themselves have their own specific places in the U.S.'s spotty relationship with race.

Around the time we talked, Tien Dang, who lives in New York, had never really talked to her father about race, or policing — or, even, the many black men fatally shot by police officers. Many things separated her father Nam and her, including their language and upbringings: He fled Communist Vietnam after he was sentenced to work in a re-education camp for seven years; she left Vietnam as a young child, grew up in a Dallas suburb and joined a black sorority in college.

But this letter — translated into Vietnamese — helped start a conversation. Tien and her dad began to talk, tentatively. Small steps. Now, a year later, Tien tells us that she and her dad are talking more: about last year's presidential election, about the news. Tien says her dad sends her emails — often news about the U.S. in Vietnamese. Tien says they've helped her get a better sense of her father's perspective.

"I had to check myself and my privilege of 'OK, just because my dad doesn't speak English doesn't mean he doesn't know what's going on,' " she told me recently. "And I wish that more parents and kids of immigrants were able to have these kinds of conversations."

Karen Grigsby Bates looked back at a promising young black director and his meteoric rise and fall from grace:

Nate Parker attends the <em>The Birth Of A Nation</em> premiere during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.
Nicholas Hunt / Getty Images
Getty Images
Nate Parker attends the The Birth Of A Nation premiere during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival.

"The Nate Parker story was a riveting mix of sex, race and hubris. (Lecturing black folks on How To Be Black is just asking for trouble, IMHO, and Parker did a fair amount of that.) And I couldn't help wondering, as I watched Moonlight's Barry Jenkins accept the Oscar for Best Picture, what Parker must be feeling. If he had handled things differently, could he have been a contender?

But let's go back to the beginning.

An actor for several years, Parker took a hiatus to make his passion project, a story about Nat Turner's rebellion called The Birth of a Nation. When Parker's film debuted at Sundance, it received a standing ovation. Fox Searchlight paid over $17 million to acquire it— the highest price for a film since Sundance began. There was lots of talk about multiple Oscar nominations.

Then, two months before the film was scheduled for release, an old story resurfaced. As an undergraduate at Penn State,Nate Parker had been accused (and later acquitted) of rape by a classmate. With Parker's increased visibility, the old charge resurfaced—with a shocking new bit of knowledge:The woman who'd accused Parker committed suicide in 2012.

Parker made the media rounds, trying to explain that while this was an unfortunate situation, he wasn't at fault: "I've been proven innocent" he told ABC's Robin Roberts. (Note: acquitted and innocent are different things. One is a legal term, the other is an opinion.) He did not intend to apologize. Our podcast panel debated whether to support Parker's film.

The media appearances designed to put Parker's problem behind him failed. Birth opened to respectable numbers, but not the epic ones Fox Searchlight had envisioned. Since then, Parker has largely disappeared."

Gene Demby reminisced about a movie that felt like its script had been ripped from his diary:

Alex R. Hibbert plays Chiron, a young black man growing up gay in an impoverished part of Miami in <em>Moonlight</em>.
David Bornfriend / A24
Alex R. Hibbert plays Chiron, a young black man growing up gay in an impoverished part of Miami in Moonlight.

"Moonlight is somehow only Barry Jenkins' second feature film. And like his first, Medicine for Melancholy, it's a movie about young black people in a big city trying to find some narrow corners in their worlds in which they can be vulnerable. It's more concerned with things people don't say to each other than what they do. (You gotta wonder if Jenkins' scripts are just pages full of intense ellipses.) Like Medicine, Moonlight felt so familiar in both its small details and big themes that it was personally unnerving; I almost didn't want other people to see it. I didn't want any bits of it — any of me — held up for appraisal.

"Which is sorta what Jenkins and I talked about when he dropped by the studio, around the time Moonlight starting getting serious critical buzz, but long before it won the Best Picture Oscar that was nearly given to the wrong film. I mostly wanted to know how Moonlight felt to make, since much of it was plucked directly from the lives of both Jenkins and Tarell Alvin McRaney, who wrote the play on which the movie is based. (In real life, both men grew up in the same Miami housing project as Chiron, the main character, and like Chiron, each was raised by a mother who battled a crack addiction.)

"As we were wrapping up our interview, Jenkins said that his mother hadn't seen the movie yet, but he wanted to rent a theater where she could watch it by herself, and she was slowly coming around to the idea. 'And I think part of that, is ... [a] thawing [of] this distance she wants to put between herself and the movie and the character. You know, what she said to me was, Yeah, you know, I was out there — I did those things.'

And finally, a word from Walter Ray Watson about what it's been like to produce a podcast about race (by himself, for the first six months!) in a year that's had no shortage of race stories: From what makes a good immigrant, to who gets to make fun of an accent, to what it was like for Audie Cornish to be bused to school in a Boston suburb:

"There we were, just a year ago, trying to conceive of a podcast on race that had gone to territory covered before. We did tryouts with members of the Code Switch team. I sat in on all the studio sessions an edited countless hours of them. Different formats and combinations of players. We talked about finding the right voices to discuss hard truths and explore answers that weren't simply black and white.

"We found ways that kept us rooted in journalism, not just sounding off about painful and disturbing situations. But self-reporting and empathy belonged on this podcast. It's been an ongoing exercise to find the right tone for every episode before we publish.

"And getting there is never 'one size fits all.'

"We've asked: What must it feel like to know safe spaces like the Pulse nightclub as a queer person of color, and think about how that experience forever changed after the deaths of so many in Orlando? How about the real and current fears of Muslims who are regarded as 'other'? Or anyone who's tired of being asked, 'Where are you from, really?'

"Do we understand or accept the ways race played out before, during and after Obama any better now from our episodes on that legacy? Is it possible to talk about race and identity without blame, shame or partisanship? What do you think? (And the question isn't rhetorical.)

"As journalists, we kept mining these discussions that often get set aside because they're too messy, too squishy, too emotional. Recognizing and documenting voices that speak to a changing America remains important. And finding new ways to get at that tension is what we keep looking for."

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Leah Donnella is an editor on NPR's Code Switch team, where she helps produce and edit for the Code Switch podcast, blog, and newsletter. She created the "Ask Code Switch" series, where members of the team respond to listener questions about how race, identity, and culture come up in everyday life.