In 'Black Agenda,' thought leaders pose solutions to complicated issues NPR's Leila Fadel talks to Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman about an essay collection from Black experts that suggests solutions to issues that range from climate policy to criminal justice reform.

In 'Black Agenda,' thought leaders pose solutions to complicated issues

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LEILA FADEL, HOST:

In "The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions To A Broken System," writer, researcher and activist Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman pulls together a collection of essays from Black scholars and experts. These thought leaders ask questions and pose solutions to complicated issues that range from climate policy to criminal justice reform. The through line - race and the systemic racism that has informed U.S. policy for more than 400 years. Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman joins us now. Thank you for being here, Anna.

ANNA GIFTY OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you so much for having me.

FADEL: Well, you know, we need to talk about this book, which really tries to do so much through these essays. Why this book? Why now?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: So "The Black Agenda," in my opinion, is giving a really compelling case for the humanity of Black people. And I think a lot of times when Black folks, especially Black experts, are trying to make that case in the mainstream or in public discourse, they're often dismissed or silenced. And a lot of times people say, well, you know, you're Black; how can you be objective about circumstances that are affecting your community or your life? And so this book says, you know, look; Black experts have been generating evidence for years, and so we need to put that out in the open for the mainstream.

And it ultimately was inspired by the fact that, you know, during the very beginning of the pandemic, I was, you know, paying attention to the news, looking to see stories about racial inequity being represented and how we're thinking about data collection and how we're thinking about analyses, and I couldn't find any. And so I went to my literary agent. I said, look; I have an idea. It's kind of crazy. But what if we brought all these Black experts together in one book, pushed the book out and got these folks into the mainstream so that they can now be cited and amplified, as they deserve to be?

FADEL: Is there one particular essay that sticks with you from this collection?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yes, there is actually. Every time I read it, I start to cry (laughter). And the way it goes is - it's by Dr. Lauren Mims. It's talking about sort of the brilliance of Black girls in the classroom. She says, look; I was teaching a classroom of Black girls. And she says, you know, why do you think you're here? And the answers that they provide are heartbreaking. Someone says, because I'm a bad student. Someone says, because I'm a, you know, troublemaker. Someone says, because I'm a teenage mom. And so she talks about how she takes in all of those responses. It makes her emotional. She's trying not to cry. And then after they're done, she goes through each of those responses that she's written on the board, and she starts to cross them out and replace them with positive affirmations.

And I think for me, as a young Black woman who's also been told, like, I'm too enthusiastic (laughter), right? Like, I'm too loud. I should use my inside voice. It was very affirming. I've been that girl in that classroom. And so that's why it's one of my favorite essays in the book.

FADEL: You know, I got to the section on criminal justice, and you start with a stark list of names.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Yes.

FADEL: Just some of the more than 200 Black people that have been killed since George Floyd in Minneapolis, since Breonna Taylor in Louisville, Ky. In the book, Tahir Duckett - civil rights attorney, advocate and the executive director of Georgetown's Center for Innovations and Community Safety - she writes that, quote, "the truth is that no system with policing and prisons at its heart can regularly deliver justice to Black people, as these institutions are designed to criminalize our existence." So let's talk about that because a lot of people get scared when they hear slogans like defund the police or terms like abolish when it comes to the criminal justice system.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Absolutely. I think that's a really great point, and, you know, Tahir makes several points around that. But something that was pointed out to me recently is that criminal justice actually comes up in every single section of this book if you look closely. So what Tahir's talking about in his essay actually comes up in the climate. It comes up in health care. It comes up in how we think about, you know, the rural South, specifically with Black folks. All these Black experts are saying the same thing - it should not be illegal to be Black in America. Black lives should not be criminalized. And in the criminal justice chapter, it is the only chapter where literally the problem is statistics. It's the facts. So for example, out of 17,500 police killings between 2005 and 2021, only 140 police officers were indicted on murder or manslaughter charges. So, you know, when Benga Ajilore says, we cannot solve problems in the Black belt, where, you know, the majority of Black folks are living in the South, by putting more people in jail, we have to invest in community resources.

FADEL: So we've got to talk about this moment that this book is coming out. I mean, it's coming out as we're living through a reignited movement for Black lives, a racial reckoning, but also a backlash against that movement, hysteria over critical race theory. What is it like to try to center Black voices when a swath of this country refuses to acknowledge institutional racism?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: It's hard - period - to do that. But I think that it's always been hard. You know, the fact that folks are being upset around folks teaching, you know, the whole history of America, all of the nooks and crannies of the harms and atrocities done to Black folks, is a direct result of folks feeling guilty, right? Like, you feel guilty that you have benefited from something that has caused so much harm, and you're trying to absolve yourself from it. And I think what this book does in such an eloquent way is it presents us with the facts. These experts have been studying the literature, have been having their lived experience of racial inequality for so long that they understand how this is going to play out. And so for me, this book came at the perfect time. It just makes a case, a compelling case, for why Black life matters.

FADEL: At the end of this book, you have a series of recommended readings. And you spoke about how you didn't see Black experts on mainstream platforms. Is this a reference book? Is this book the start of a journey for a reader?

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: What this book ultimately does is it removes the excuse of, we don't know where to look. You say you don't know what to look? I say, go check out the book. There's 35 names right there. And then look at their sources. And so when you ask me what kind of book this is - it's a call to action to stand with Black people, to advocate for Black life in all sectors of policy. This book ultimately is a work of conviction because the facts are very, very clear - Black life has been criminalized, undermined, underappreciated, undervalued, quite literally, for its entire existence in America's history. And what this book does is it doesn't give you a reason to look away.

FADEL: Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman. Thank you so much.

OPOKU-AGYEMAN: Thank you so much for having me here.

(SOUNDBITE OF ASHLEY HENRY FEAT. THEO CROKER'S "INTROSPECTION")

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