ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
What do you do when you grow up in a town so small that...
AKILAH HUGHES: The biggest thing in town is a water tower that's in the parking lot of the mall that says, Florence, y'all.
SHAPIRO: That's Akilah Hughes. She was determined to write and YouTube her way out of Florence, Ky. That small, predominantly white town could've been confining for a young African American girl, but Hughes refused to be defined by it. Our co-host Ailsa Chang spoke with Akilah Hughes about her new book "Obviously," a collection of essays.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: This book that you wrote - I mean, it's hilarious. But what you also do with it - you take on really serious issues. And I guess the first thing I want to talk about with you is your fifth-grade teacher because...
CHANG: ...She sounded like a horrible human being - Mrs. Murphy.
HUGHES: Oh, truly.
HUGHES: (Laughter) Like, if I ever won an Emmy, I'm going to just have a list of...
CHANG: Are you going to call her out?
HUGHES: Yeah. I'll be like, I'd like to thank everyone on Earth except for Mrs. Murphy (laughter), who is the worst person on the planet.
CHANG: Well, let's call her out now because - I mean, was she, at that point in your life, the most blatant run-in with racism from a grown-up that you ever had?
HUGHES: Yes. I think I was very naive in a way that, you know, white kids get to be their entire lives. I just assumed that the teachers liked you and they wanted you to do well. And that was pretty much the beginning and end of your relationship.
CHANG: I mean, like, did it click in to your fifth-grade mind that she was racist? Like, did you see it as that or you just thought you were being picked on because she just didn't like you?
HUGHES: I think it became clear during Black History Month the February of that year when we had to watch a video about, you know, the civil rights movement. And I'm the only black kid in class. And everyone's laughing at, you know, black people getting bitten by dogs and being sprayed by water hoses because, like, you know, in their defense, they had no context.
HUGHES: Like, there was just nothing.
HUGHES: And I remember her - like, me looking around the room and feeling like I'm the only one who's upset by this but then also seeing the teacher laughing. And I'm like, she has the context.
CHANG: Did your mom help you get your mind in the right place?
HUGHES: Oh, yeah.
HUGHES: I mean - so my mother is a prominent character in the book...
HUGHES: ...But also my favorite person. And she worked at a school my entire life. She still works at the elementary school that I went to. And she would always sit me down and say, you know, there are people who aren't going to like you. And I would just ugly cry and be like, that's not true. Like, (laughter) everyone's going to like me.
HUGHES: And she's like, people aren't going to like you...
HUGHES: ...And it has nothing to do with you. And you're going to encounter this for the rest of your life. And it was really tough love.
CHANG: Speaking of tough love...
CHANG: ...I want to talk about your mom a little more. You know, she - I noticed your mom pushed you to be this extremely motivated kid. Like, she made you sign up for all kinds of activities in school, whether it be soccer, band, speech, drama.
HUGHES: (Laughter) I think my mother - you know, she had my oldest sister when she was 17 years old. And she always had dreams of going to college and traveling the world, and she loved to read. And a lot of her life got put on hold. She'd started college when she had this little baby and couldn't finish because she was, you know, shortly thereafter pregnant again and always underprivileged and in poverty. And it was important to her that we didn't feel limited by where we were.
HUGHES: You know, I'm not defined by where I came from at all. Like, that is something that I have to really believe and something that my mother believed that I was sort of like, OK, Mom. Like (laughter)...
HUGHES: We're all pretty much where we came from. Like, I am the person on the couch...
HUGHES: ...With the chips. And, like (laughter), let me be that. And I don't think it was until I was like, oh, my sister's so free...
CHANG: Yeah. Yeah.
HUGHES: She goes on vacations. I go to - with her to the bank, and she deposits her check. And I'm like, wow, money (laughter).
HUGHES: Yeah - like, amazing.
CHANG: Now, you had a very different relationship with your father than you had with your mom. And when your father died, you cried, but it wasn't out of grief. It was because you were relieved that he had died. Can you talk about that?
HUGHES: My father was absent. I knew him. I knew him well. We would go to his house sometimes. But in all of the important memories I have from being a child, he was never there.
Seeing what that did to my mother - my mom having two jobs almost my entire life - it was so heartbreaking. And I felt like he was making these mistakes that - I'm sorry. I'm a little choked up - but that should have a consequence, right? But he was never feeling them. Like, he had a great car. He had a house. He had a wife.
HUGHES: You know, once he got sick - he had bone cancer, and he passed away relatively quickly after that. But I remember feeling relieved because we didn't have to tiptoe around the conversation as a family anymore. We didn't have to feel this devastation, this abandonment anymore. It was a conversation that ended. There was a period. It was done. I guess knowing that the person who made you feel this way is gone...
HUGHES: ...Was a relief.
CHANG: I do want to talk about your comedy because you have been putting out videos for quite some time now. And there's one that caught not only my attention, but apparently the attention of over a million other people.
CHANG: So just to explain, you were dumped by a white guy...
CHANG: ...And you decided to make a video in honor of the occasion. It was called "Meet Your First Black Girlfriend."
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
HUGHES: Hi, I'm your first black girlfriend. Yes, you can touch my hair. But your friends can't, and your family can't, so don't ask.
CHANG: But what is your advice for dating outside your race?
HUGHES: I mean, I think that you have to trust your instinct on whether someone has good intentions. And if you don't feel like you're being seen as a full person or that you are, like, the thing that makes that person interesting because you're, you know, the other, then I think it is a good time to bounce. And I also think that, like, you just have to go into it knowing that no matter how woke (laughter) anyone is, there are going to be things that people don't understand because they don't have that experience.
HUGHES: And you're not a representative of your race, and neither are they.
CHANG: You have made so many videos on YouTube. I mean...
HUGHES: Endless - I'm, like, the mayor (laughter).
CHANG: You're the mayor of YouTube, basically. I mean, it's become, like, the best medium - at least it feels like you feel this way - it's become the best medium to bring your personality to the world, you found. And I'm curious - why is that? What is it about video that suits you so well, you think?
HUGHES: In terms of, like, teenage black girls in the '90s on TV, I can name one - Raven-Symone. And so immediately upon making videos and having even one black girl be like, oh, my God, you remind me so much of my friend, or, wow, I've never seen someone like you making these jokes. I feel the same way. Like, I feel so seen - part of the excitement for me was, like, wow, hopefully there's a 16-year-old me out there that feels less alone.
HUGHES: Growing up, it's not like this was a career path that, like, someone vision - I always thought, like, maybe one day, there'll be, like, a "America's Funniest Home Video" I'm in. And...
HUGHES: ...We win the money, and that's, like, my life. Like, it's just that was sort of the endgame.
CHANG: So your endgame is TV. I mean, like, that's what it sounds like. You're in LA now.
CHANG: Is that what you're hoping?
HUGHES: I want to write and star in things that feel true to my demographic. And I'm like, there are a ton of black people that grew up in the South. They're still there. You know, when the media sort of talks about the South, they're like, this white place that's racist. And I'm like, yeah, there's more black people in the South than anywhere else in America.
HUGHES: And so I would hope that I can get that across at some point on-screen, and someone will give me the money and time to do that.
CHANG: Akilah Hughes - she's out with a new book called "Obviously: Stories From My Timeline."
Thanks very much for joining us today.
HUGHES: Thank you for having me.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.