NPR Host Michel Martin's Own 'Letter From A Birmingham Jail' After seven years hosting NPR's Tell Me More, Michel Martin felt she had left some of her own struggles unspoken: the unique challenges for women of color trying to balance work and family.
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NPR Host Michel Martin's Own 'Letter From A Birmingham Jail'

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NPR Host Michel Martin's Own 'Letter From A Birmingham Jail'

NPR Host Michel Martin's Own 'Letter From A Birmingham Jail'

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Our next guest is a familiar voice to many of you. Michel Martin has been host of the NPR program Tell Me More for seven years. This week, NPR ends production of that show. We'll talk more about Tell Me More's conclusion in a moment. The main reason we've asked Michel in our studios today is to discuss her cover story for the National Journal's annual "Women in Washington" issue. Her article is called "What I've Left Unsaid." It explores the unique challenges that women of color face balancing work and family. Michel Martin, welcome to the program.

MICHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: You begin with a story about hiring a nanny, and you've interviewed her over the phone and everything's going well and describes what happens next.

MARTIN: And then she emails back, and she says, what race are you? And nobody asks that who doesn't have a reason. (Laughing). So I told her the truth, and asked her why it mattered. And she said, well, I'm not going to work for somebody who's not white. And this was not when dinosaurs walked the earth, by the way.

SHAPIRO: This is the 21st century.

MARTIN: This was just a couple of years ago. And the National Journal asked me to write a reflection on a piece that - a very popular piece. In fact, the most viewed on The Atlantic's website - Anne-Marie Slaughter's piece about why women still can't have it all - and asked me to write reflections on that as a woman of color. And this is the first thing that came to my mind.

SHAPIRO: And that experience with the nanny shows overt racism. But you also describe much subtler ways in which women of color face challenges that working women who are, as you describe it, white and privileged may not face.

MARTIN: Well, I don't want to be too grand about this, but this was my - this was my letter from Birmingham Jail. OK? Now, people may forget that Martin Luther King's letter from Birmingham Jail was directed to his white clergymen - his fellow clergymen. And at the time, they were mostly men, let's assume. And it was not - you know, this wasn't aimed at the bad people. This is the people who are throwing and screaming and throwing signs and, you know, screaming at people and calling them the bad words. This was aimed at good people, the good people - his colleagues who, in his view, were oblivious to the realities of his life and the lives of the people that he led, and for whom he was such an important symbol. And this is really my letter to my colleagues who might be sitting right next to me or down the hall from me, and don't really think about the challenges that their peers face and could. And if they were to think about those challenges, I think that we would all be better off.

SHAPIRO: To what extent are the challenges that women of color face tied specifically to race as opposed to economics. Because you write that minority women make 64 cents on the dollar to white men. So how do you parse these two things?

MARTIN: It's both. Well, it's both. It's both. One of the things that I think sometimes our colleagues don't understand. And I mean colleagues broadly - and our peer professionals don't understand is that people of color, particularly - but not exclusively, blacks and Latinos are connected to poverty and to disadvantage in ways that often our white colleagues don't understand. And that that causes you to have to think about things that they aren't thinking about. And that's the kind of thing that I really feel a need to call attention to. And this is sort of subtle. Sometimes it's subtle, but sometimes it's not subtle. For example, you know, you're called away on a family emergency that has to do with addiction, all right, or has to do with a family member being foreclosed upon. You not only have to deal with the substance of that, you have to figure out how you're going to talk about that in a workplace where you think that could be stigmatizing.

SHAPIRO: I imagine that some people read this article and say, Michel Martin, you have a husband, a rewarding job, a nanny. If you struggle to balance these things, what hope do I have?

MARTIN: I would say that the truth hurts.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: So you're saying as hard as it is for you, this will be harder for others?

MARTIN: It's hard. It's hard. I mean, I think this is one reason, again, I'm grateful to Anne-Marie Slaughter and the other kind of high-profile, you know, white women who kind of opened the door to this conversation. But what I'm also saying is we are all connected to each other. And I understand that there are struggles that they're having, but I'd like them to consider and other people to consider that the struggles that people have who don't have those advantages, and some of those advantages are deep and profound. This is not just a matter of, like, personal choice. Let me just raise one question around the whole question of marriage. I thought - what I thought you were going to ask me about is the whole question of marriage because the marriage rates among, particularly, African-American women are a lot - there's a big difference. Marriage is not...

SHAPIRO: You're saying many more women of color are raising their children as a single parent. Not as...

MARTIN: Right. Right . And there are a number of people I know from a policy standpoint who feel that we really should be promoting marriage as part of the vehicle of economic opportunity. Well, I'm sorry, Cinderella doesn't live here anymore. And marriage is not necessarily a hedge against poverty. I mean, during the recent recession, black college-educated men had twice the unemployment rate as white college-educated men. The unemployment rate at the height of the recession for white college-educated men was 4 percent, for black men it was 8 percent. So that is my way of saying that the mechanisms that hedge against poverty for some groups don't necessarily work for other groups. And so yes, I do have a wonderful husband and great kids and I'm very grateful for my, you know, professional opportunities, and the fact that I can sort of tell these stories. But part of the reason I'm telling this story - I'm telling it more for the people who don't have access to this microphone 'cause it has to be said.

SHAPIRO: We're talking with NPR host Michel Martin. And the show you created, Tell Me More, Michel, ends production this Friday. So I just want to ask, of the many memorable segments and interviews that you've created over the years, is there one that in these last few weeks of production you have found yourself coming back to and thinking about again and again?

MARTIN: One story that I come back to, even though we haven't had a reason to talk about it, that dates back to, really, our first couple of months on the air, which was in 2007, an interview I did with a man named James Harvey. And the reason I go back to that is his son DeShawn Harvey was about to start his junior year at Delaware State University. And instead, he and two other friends were killed. And I just felt that, you know, every now and again, you have to stop and listen to somebody's story. Unfortunately, we've had too many stories like that in the ensuing years. But I just thought that, you know, for a lot of people, that is the terrorism of their lives. They - you know, his son left the house. He was getting ready to go back to school, and his whole life changed. And for what? And I just felt that he deserved to be heard. For that 10 minutes, he deserved to have our full attention. And I was happy to give him that.

SHAPIRO: It's been an incredible seven years. And I'm happy to say that starting in September, you will be a regular contributor to this and other NPR programs. And Michel Martin will also be holding live NPR events around the country. You can follow her on Twitter, @nprmichel. Thank you, and congratulations on a terrific run.

MARTIN: Ari, thank you so much.

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