The poet and author discusses her latest collection of writings, titled The Evening News: Essays and Commentaries from NPR and Other Clouds.
Writer S. Pearl Sharp
Tavis: Pleased to welcome a true renaissance woman to this program, S. Pearl Sharp. The influential poet, actress, commentator, award-winning documentarian and author is out with a collection of 40 essays and commentaries broadcast on NPR and other media, including on a radio show called The Tavis Smiley Show.
In the book, she balances her insight with humor as she rifts on headlines, personal issues, politics and life lessons. The text called “The Evening News: Essays and Commentaries From NPR and Other Clouds”. S. Pearl Sharp, good to have you on this program.
S. Pearl Sharp: Thank you for having me. It’s good to be here.
Tavis: I’m glad to have you here. I want to start by asking this because you and I have shared and had to navigate similar terrain in that, in this public television and public radio space, we’ve tried to indeed have the duty, the responsibility, to bring some different visions and voices and values to the airwaves.
As a woman, as a person of color who comes out of that Black Arts Movement, what’s been your takeaway from the journey you’ve had trying to infuse public radio with a different kind of insight?
Sharp: I think one of the things I’ve encountered is that very often a community sees who’s on camera and they think that that person is totally in charge. In your case, that is so.
But when you are dealing with the new shows coming on, “The Jeffersons”, “The Sanfords” at that time, and we thought we were making progress with the civil rights movement, we were not necessarily in charge. We might have been in charge of a little bit, but we were not controlling the image then.
As a matter of fact, one of the organizations that I help cofound was the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition and we were dealing with what were the images of Blacks in media, in television, in books that were coming out at that time, and we had a lot of educating to do of our audience, of our own community.
That was the first thing, and then the second thing was getting the industry to accept us. We were the Black Anti-Defamation Coalition. The first letter we got in the mail when we opened an office was from the Jewish Anti-Defamation League from their attorney saying they were going to sue us for using the name Anti-Defamation in our name.
And then we had organizations like Variety and Hollywood Reporter. For more than a year, they wouldn’t even refer to us by our name. We were “that group of disgruntled actors, that group of unemployed writers”. You know, you had to struggle with people accepting the fact that you had the right to claim something or to protest to something or to act for something different.
Tavis: I want to go back and pick up a few things you’ve said now. You said a mouthful in that one answer. One, it’s one thing to educate white people. You said first, though, we had to educate ourselves.
Sharp: Yes, absolutely.
Tavis: What do you mean by that?
Sharp: Because we don’t often know what goes behind the scenes and we don’t often look to know what’s going on behind the scenes. We accept the glamour of whatever–you know how we did. Oh, there’s somebody Black on TV. You know, we get excited.
And to do the research and find out who is controlling what’s being on TV is a whole other vocabulary. When we were trying to get certain shows stopped or trying to get certain shows changed, we learned that, rather than starting at the bottom, we had to go to the top. Who’s at the top of NBC?
And they would drop us down a little bit. When you start at the bottom, then you never do get to the people who have the right to say yes or change it. And most people in those hierarchies can only say no. There are only a few people at the top who can say yes.
Tavis: My granddad told me years ago and I never forgot this. He says, “Tavis, never accept no from anybody who doesn’t have the power or authority to tell you yes anyway.” [laugh]
Sharp: That’s right, absolutely [laugh].
Tavis: I’ve never forgotten that.
Sharp: Your grandfather was right.
Tavis: Yeah, he was right. I learned that the hard way, my grandfather’s right. So this is such an obvious question, but I need to ask it anyway, which is what is your sense today of the images of Black people on television, on radio, all these years after you all started this anti-defamation campaign?
Sharp: It’s kind of painful to say, but we are in control of more things in terms of decision-making. I don’t think we are in control at the consciousness level that we need to be at yet. And that consciousness level looks beyond the ratings, beyond next week’s show. It looks at what are your children and their children going to get out of this? What are they going to learn? What are they going to absorb from this?
So just like years ago when Super Fly came out–you know, back in another lifetime. We were both there–young men wanted to be like Super Fly. They wanted to be Super Fly. They started wearing the clothes. They started, you know, carrying those habits. We’re still creating a lot of that kind of product. Maybe I shouldn’t, you know, have the desire for us to raise the consciousness level, but I really do.
Tavis: I just saw the cover of the new issue of Ebony magazine, and speaking of Black communities on television, you can see now. It’s a picture of The Cosby Show family with a cracked face basically. You take what the picture, obviously, is trying to say there onscreen.
What do you make of not Bill Cosby, the individual per se, but the fallout that that show and what that show tried to feed us about Black life and about Black families, what do you make of the impact on the show itself, The Cosby Show?
Sharp: I think Malcolm Jamal Warner said it very well the other night. I happened to catch him on a sound bite and he was saying the show represented so much to so many families and to all of America because it deflated a lot of the negative myths about us.
Now it was a loving family and he said the damage that has been done to the image of the show is pretty much irreparable because it was the number one role model of what a Black family looks like as opposed to what we had had prior to that time.
Tavis: Because Black people always get painted with the same broad brush, is there going to be–I mean, there are a couple of TV shows on now. I think of “Black-ish”–I’m sure there are a couple of others I could think of right now, but I wonder whether or not there is going to be irreparable damage to the Black family on television because of what’s happened to The Cosby Show.
Sharp: I don’t think so. I think it’s our responsibility to make sure that that doesn’t happen. You know, we have to write the letters. We have to do the teaching in the schools. We have to sit down with the kids in front of the television and explain to them what they’re seeing, you know, particularly with what they’re getting on the worldwide web.
You can’t let it be random. You have to specific with your family members. And when I say children, sometimes it’s your grandmother. Sometimes it’s your aunt you got to school, you know, and say this is what’s really going on here. Think about this, think about this.
Tavis: I think back sometimes about my entrée into public radio. As you know, in 2004 I became the first African American to have his own public radio show five days a week on NPR. I say that not for cheap applause. I say it because I want the point to sink in.
It was just in 2004 that a person of color had his own daily radio program on NPR, and then I became the first person to do that just a year or two later on public television. Here we are now, almost 13 seasons later, still on PBS.
Tavis: Thank you. I appreciate that. I raise that only because I know the journey I’ve had to walk and I know the kinds of mail that I received when I first hit the airwaves at NPR with this voice of mine and talking too fast and laughing boisterously. I wasn’t the “this is national public radio.” I mean, I was just so different than what they were used to hearing…
Sharp: Loud and loose person, yeah.
Tavis: Exactly. Loud and loose. The hate mail that I got from the very beginning was just astounding. I mean, it broke my heart when I first got that mail…
Sharp: Did you hear from Black people too or just…
Tavis: Not from Black people, from others, not us. I think Black people were, by and large, happy to have somebody on the radio whose point of view they could resonate with.
Sharp: And rhythm.
Tavis: And rhythm, exactly, and who was offering, you know, a different perspective on the issues of the day. And I think we just appreciate hearing the different voice, different perspective, sometimes. Anyway, enough about me. The reason I’m raising this, I’m curious as to what kind of response you were getting when your commentaries started hitting the public airwaves.
Sharp: I got a variety of responses. Some were very supportive. Usually they dealt with a specific issue that I was getting…
Tavis: What you were talking about, right, right.
Sharp: You were getting response to just being there. I was getting the issues. The one that I got the biggest feedback from and the most derisive comments was when NPR asked all of the commentators to write a memo to President-elect Barack Obama. He had not taken office yet, but he’d been elected.
So my essay was about please take some of that money from the space program and use it for more domestic issues because there are people who are sleeping in their cars while these space things are going over their heads.
I got beat up terribly, and the worst part was I wasn’t into the web thing, you know, the response thing at that time. By the time I found out that I had been beat up, all the comments were closed [laugh].
Tavis: It’s not your fault. It’s impossible for anybody to keep up with a beat-down in cyber space. It’s hard to keep up with it, yeah [laugh].
Sharp: But that was when they were first beginning to do that, you know, with NPR. Yeah, I really got beat up bad, but there’s vindication because, two years later, he did cut down the budget of the space program.
Tavis: Have you rethought that point of view? Because I understand your point of view, but I also understand those who would make the point, if they made it earnestly and respectfully, I could understand the point that space research is about the future and, if we shouldn’t be researching the future, then what should we be researching? So in anyway, any of that getting you to rethink your point of view on this?
Sharp: I thought about it, but I hold to my point of view because some young person sleeping in a car–and I used to tutor on Skin Row–some young person who doesn’t have enough food, who’s in school without a meal, could be one of the people who becomes that scientist.
And they may lose that opportunity because they didn’t have the economic support and they didn’t have everything that they needed. They may get there anyway, but we may lose that brilliant mind. So I hold to that.
I think you have to have the home front taken care of first and then–you know, our parents used to say, “You got to do your homework and clean the bathroom, then you can go out and play.” Then you can go out, you know, and go to the party, then you can go do the extracurricular activities.
That to me is–I understand the defense that a lot of new medical developments are coming out of the states’ program. I understand that, but I’m more concerned about the human issue of those people who are deprived of certain things that they should not be deprived of.
Tavis: I think, at the end of the day, it ought not to be a choice of either/or. It ought to be both/and.
Sharp: It ought to be both/and. Thank you.
Tavis: And that’s the problem we suffer from. As always, we get the short end of the stick and they make the argument that we can’t do both. Well, yes, we can.
Sharp: Yeah, we can.
Tavis: If we wanted to, we could do both. I got you. Let me close on this note. What is your sense–another big question here. What’s your sense of, given the work that you have done and continue to do–your sense of the role that Black folk are playing today with regard to literature and commentary?
Are we in the right space? Are we where we need to be? Are we expressing, espoused, in the right kind of point of view?
Sharp: I don’t know if it’s necessarily about the right point of view. I’m excited that there are so many points of view, that we have Black commentators on the web, we have Black commentators on CNN, we have Black commentators on radio…
Tavis: The Black blogosphere didn’t even exist, yeah, yeah.
Sharp: Right. Somebody told me the other day there’s a Black Google [laugh]. So I’m excited that we have taken the opportunity to get these expressions out there in so many ways. I don’t have time to keep up with all of them, but the fact that that is happening is powerful because it’s out there. It will be out there. Those things don’t tend to go away.
And it gives the people who want to have access to that information so many more tools. And it presents us in the light of being thinkers and being analyzers and being able to absolutely delve into that kind of material. So anyone who’s still in that thought process that we are not as bright as the rest of the world, we’re laying it out there.
Tavis: She has been, and continues to be, a vital voice on the issues that matter in this country. Her name is S. Pearl Sharp. Her new text is called “The Evening News: Essays and Commentaries From NPR and Other Clouds”. An honor to have you on this program. All the best to you.
Sharp: Thank you so much. It’s good to see you again.
Tavis: My pleasure. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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