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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
Just a heads up, this episode contains some strong language. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. So we started Black History Month discussing reparations, and we are ending it with reparations - a conversation I had with two people. The first - let's see - you may know her as "Living Single's" Maxine Shaw or perhaps "Get Out's" Detective Latoya, maybe The RZA's mom on "Wu-Tang: An American Saga" or by her real name.
ERIKA ALEXANDER: Erika Alexander - sometime I call myself Erika Alexander the Great. But I'm Erika Alexander. I'm a writer and actress and a producer and a filmmaker. And I'm also co-host of "Reparations: The Big Payback."
WHITNEY DOW: Hello, I'm Whitney Dow. I'm a documentary filmmaker. And I'm the co-host with Erika Alexander - or as some people call her, Erika Alexander the Great - of the podcast "Reparations: The Big Payback."
MERAJI: But do you call her that, Whitney? That is the question.
DOW: It depends on the day, Shereen.
MERAJI: So Erika, give me the elevator pitch.
ALEXANDER: Oh, that's actually a very hard thing to do. I would say that - OK, here it is.
ALEXANDER: "The Big Payback" is a podcast about two people - one Black woman, me, and Whitney Dow, a white man - talking about race and slavery and America inside the conversation of reparations. And reparations is the making of amends for a wrong one has done by paying money to or otherwise helping those who have been wronged.
MERAJI: I thought that was fantastic - off the dome. Whitney, is there anything you'd like to add to that?
DOW: No, I just - I try not to follow Erika Alexander...
ALEXANDER: The Great.
DOW: (Laughter) ...the Great when she's doing elevator pitches.
MERAJI: By the way, the title - every time I say it out loud, James Brown is stuck in my head. Whose idea was it for the title?
ALEXANDER: Moi - the Great again comes in.
MERAJI: (Laughter) Erika Alexander the Great.
ALEXANDER: You know, actually, we should tell you a little bit about the title because Whitney had a different title. And I want you to tell them that gold ticket that you came up with. What was it?
DOW: I'm trying to - its....
DOW: Appropriate remedies (laughter).
ALEXANDER: Doesn't it sound like you're going to get a laxative?
ALEXANDER: Take this appropriate remedy, America. Shit out all your crimes. You'll feel better in the end. Yeah.
MERAJI: If that's the tag, appropriate remedies would be OK. But I doubt that they would let you make that the tagline (laughter).
ALEXANDER: Yeah, that was a hard sell, you know.
MERAJI: (Laughter) That would have been a very difficult sell.
ALEXANDER: Not just a hard stool, it was a hard sell. So it didn't happen. "The Big Payback" was what I thought - I say, hey, man, we talking about money. "The Big Payback" sounds great. And Whitney thought, OK, I'll go for it.
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MERAJI: Whitney may sound familiar to y'all. We've had him on the show before, and I've interviewed him a number of times. He's an award-winning documentary filmmaker, and he makes films about race. He's also had an ongoing project called The Whiteness Project, where he talks to white Americans about what being white means to them.
Both Erika and Whitney discussed their interest in reparations with a mutual friend who ended up introducing the two. Whitney was a bit apprehensive about working with an actress. And Erika didn't know much about Whitney at all. All right. Back to our interview.
Yeah, I would love to play a little bit of tape. And it gets a little bit into, Whitney, your origin story.
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DOW: I didn't have a lot of skills. I was a bad student. You know, I wasn't the greatest athlete. I was kind of this pissed off child. I got thrown out of schools. I was always getting into fights.
ALEXANDER: So that's why you got into race work? Because you were a mediocre white man?
ALEXANDER: Couldn't make it anywhere.
DOW: (Laughter) Exactly.
ALEXANDER: Is that what you're saying?
DOW: (Laughter) Exactly.
ALEXANDER: I failed everywhere else so race took me in, and I made a career out of it?
DOW: (Laughter) A career out of...
ALEXANDER: Because that's what we need in this business. We need rejects.
MERAJI: There's something about this tape that I just find really illuminating and hilarious. And I would love to get your reaction to it. And whoever wants to jump in...
ALEXANDER: When I hear it, as it was told to me, and he was saying how many things he had failed at, I thought, why are you doing race? It's - you know, this is something that, you know, you need champions for. Now, obviously, I'm kidding him at some level, but there's a part of me - and I discuss this with Whitney - that he's also a proxy for all the things that I think that I can't say to white men or white women.
ALEXANDER: That they seem to advance no matter what they do badly. I have to do everything well. And if I don't, it sticks to me harder. I can't keep failing upwards.
MERAJI: How do you feel about being that proxy, Whitney?
DOW: I'm not a performer, yet I'm playing a role essentially on this podcast and trying to be a stand-in. And so, you know, the tape is a reflection of our relationship. And I think that, you know, we have - you know, Erika and I, we've always, like every creative collaboration, we have some bumps along the road. But we really care about each other, and we respect each other. And so we trust each other. And I think that - hopefully, that comes across in that tape. When she's going after me, I'm not offended by it. I think it's as funny she does.
MERAJI: You were both thinking about reparations separately. Before you even came together, why was reparations a topic that was really interesting to you as individuals?
DOW: I came to reparations after doing a lot of work on race and keep finding that all the stuff that I did on race didn't include me. Like, it was all about some horrible racist or some terrible racist crime or whatever it is. I'm like, well, where am I in this? Am I, like, avoiding the whole thing? That was the basis for the Whiteness Project. And I think that once I did that, it was like, oh, this is - it's - those puzzles where, like, whatever thing you turn down, you end up coming back to the same place - it was all pointing toward reparations.
ALEXANDER: I keep looking for an explanation to why my life feels so limited. And it's frustrating for me. We talked to Mary Frances Berry on this. And she used the word loss of human potential, that that's what happened, really - that for hundreds of years, because we stifled and we oppressed those people, we didn't get their real gifts. And I look at myself and my life sometime and say, daggone (ph), why can't I have this, or, why couldn't my mother have this, or, why is it so hard for this?
And you start to see this all these invisible barriers and these structures that are working against you, and you want to tell that story. I want to tell the story of why these things are out there, and then I want to help remove them. If I can't get rid of some of these things by taking my life's journey and exploring and asking why but also finding remedy, then what the heck am I here for?
MERAJI: Erika, I think people listening to this and listening to you talk about how you haven't been able to reach your full potential and then seeing you where you are in your life and how successful you have been are going to have a really hard time holding those two things together. And I would love it if you could explain what you mean by you felt like there were obstacles in your way to reach their full potential.
ALEXANDER: Well, the most obvious one is to say, because she's famous and celebrity, that she's obviously won the lotto. And I have, but I also have even building Color Farm Media. There's less than, I think, 2% of Black female people who've created companies funded at all.
MERAJI: And this is your production company, Color Farm Media.
ALEXANDER: My production company...
ALEXANDER: ...Color Farm Media. That's a loss of potential as far as I'm concerned. I have to work ridiculously hard to raise money to do these things, and I have to do it all the while I do my other job and do this, that and that. I'm not saying that, hey; every entrepreneur has to build himself. Everyone always wants to make, you know, a sort of false equivalency. But there are things that Black people can literally point to to say, you're not working as hard as me, and you're getting the benefit of the doubt. They want to put money into your space.
When I was coming up as a young actress, the first thing I thought is, wow, this is great, until I realized I was dark-skinned and nappy-headed. And I was limited by what I could do subtly, even being a female. Again, that's another thing. But I wasn't Scarlett Johansson, so I would never be the ingenue. I had an - my own agent said to me, Erika, no one would ever mistake you for an ingenue. I was 19. I can only play foster children, slaves and prostitutes, which I had already done in that order. She's telling me that's where the serious roles are. That's what you want to do.
It was sort of a - you know, a backhanded compliment, but I saw it as a loss of face because I wasn't vulnerable. I would never be saved. I wasn't the damsel in distress. So I was limited and worse because there were no ingenues at all. There was no Nia Long then, no Jada Pinkett. Most of the people working in that area from Cicely Tyson, Lorraine Toussaint, Gloria Foster, people like that, Regina Taylor, Samuel L. Jackson's wife LaTanya Richardson, Pauletta Washington - these are the people who raised me. They were working because they had already crossed an age cutoff that they could be authority figures. I wasn't going to get there for years. So they were basically telling me, good luck. So, yeah, I got the lotto ticket, but it's also a lotto ticket, you know, that's dipped in tar.
MERAJI: Whitney, if the fight for reparations is won, do you think that white people will ever let go of these preconceived ideas that Erika was talking about, that Black people can't do this or they're not able to do that or - you know, all of these racist ideas that are in the subconscious of many white Americans? I don't know. Will that be what solves that problem?
DOW: I mean, that's a really hard question. I'd like to answer it optimistically, but I'll answer it what I think honestly, which I think is no. I think that that's - and I think in some ways, with reparations, that's not even necessarily the point because I sometimes worry about reparations. If - people say - talk about repair and reconciliation. For me, as a white person, I don't even think reconciliation is the point. The point is that, you know, as a white person, acknowledging the injury caused by my community and making the restitution. I think it's important for white people to do that and white people to - I think that is the step - here's what I think. Let me sort of - because I've been thinking a lot about this lately, this idea that - I believe that one of the things that's stopping reparations and stopping this movement to fully embrace Black Americans by white people is that it's this existential threat to the story about ourselves. How do we - how can we imagine ourself if we accept that we are the beneficiaries of this system? How can we imagine ourselves if the legacy of what we have is this horrific violence and oppression? Well, if you start by making that admission and you start by making restitution, you can then start a new story. It's like apologizing to anybody. Once you apologize, you can move on. I think - is the same way that it would be a new beginning for Black Americans, it could be a new beginning for white Americans as well.
MERAJI: And talking about beginnings, you actually take us in the first episode to New York's municipal slave market, to the site of a former slave market in Manhattan. Why was that important to do in your very first episode of "Reparations: The Big Payback"? Erika?
ALEXANDER: That was Whitney's idea, and so I think that he should explain it a little bit because I didn't know it existed. And he thought it would be a good place. He sort of knew that it was very close to Wall Street, and he thought that that was the intersection - a very dynamic and, more importantly, powerful intersection - of what America was about.
DOW: To sort of go back, it was Erika's idea to go to Wall Street. She thought, let's go - you know, because it's called "The Big Payback," let's go where the money is. Because I'm kind of a research nerd, I started doing a bunch of research, and I came upon the fact that the slave market - and I had never heard of the New York City slave market. And I was like, well, it's actually just down the road of Wall - from Wall Street. And I thought it was just, you know, phenomenally interesting. It was actually started before the stock exchange was started. And it was this - I think it was the second-largest slave market in the country at the time. I just thought, you know, if you're going to start at the beginning, that's really the beginning.
(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "REPARATIONS: THE BIG PAYBACK")
ALEXANDER: There's a sign here, probably less than 2 feet across and just over 1 foot high with this drawing on it and has a green New York Parks emblem. And it says, on Wall Street, between Pearl and Water Streets, a market that auctioned enslaved people of African ancestry was established by a Common Council law on November 30, 1711. This is New York's Municipal Slave Market sign.
DOW: But you can look up from this site and see Trinity Church, and you can see the New York Stock Exchange. And the foundation of it all, American slavery, gets a 2 by 2 plaque.
ALEXANDER: You know, I've been here before, but this is the first time I'm seeing this. So I'm a little pissed off. I don't know why it's not more prominent. I don't know why it's just a sign. Look - there's a big, old statue of George Washington over there, big buildings that we talked about with stones, looked like it should be here. And this looked like it could be knocked over by a hard wind.
DOW: How does it make you feel, thinking about all this? You're visibly upset. You're shaking.
ALEXANDER: I'm not shaking. I'm upset. I mean, I really wish I could rip that sucker out. It's not even worth it being there. And then also, I'm kind of mad because I have been here before, and I didn't see it (crying). There are people walking through. They're immigrants. They got their children. They've got all their families. They should be able to see it. There should be the stain of it. And New Yorkers should have to live with it. They should have to learn about it. They should be confronted with it. I want them to really acknowledge slavery.
I want them to give us justice. Black people want justice. We deserve it. We should have it, by any means necessary. And part of that justice is that you should not be able to come and walk by a slave market marker and not be moved by it or at least have to reckon with it or see it.
DOW: That was so brutal, being there with you, Erika, someone who I care about, and seeing the visceral reaction, the pain that it caused you to be there. It left me feeling kind of helpless. And I know that if I'd been alone, if I had been there by myself, I would have found some way to push myself away from it and the absurdity of it and just kind of intellectualize it, where being there with you forced me to own it a bit. But that's my problem, not yours.
ALEXANDER: It is your problem and Black people's burden to bear. I mean, we gave you money and paid the vig on your loan. Who needs bootstraps when they've got friends like you, Whitney? That's what I meant earlier when I said your truth is filled with a lot of lies. These realities, they show up for me every day. Meanwhile, you're underwater thinking your real estate has value.
DOW: What I'm thinking about is solutions. And I really believe the only way towards a true reconciliation is to create a funded reparations program. And white Americans are going to have to decide if they want to rise with Black Americans or fall with them.
ALEXANDER: I see. you, Whitney Dow. You doing something. And you're here. You're working on it. You're talking about it. But don't expect a parade or props for showing up to clean up the mess you've made.
DOW: (Laughter) Yeah, it is a big mess. And, Erika, you've told me in the past that you feel like - James Baldwin or Ta-Nehisi Coates has said that you don't really believe, you don't really have faith that white people have the ability to change. And I totally understand that. If I were Black, I imagine I would feel the exact same way. And especially looking at the events of the last, you know, few weeks, and we've had 3- or 4,000 white people storming the Capitol. And it looks horrible. Those images were just, like, atrocious. But at the same time, we've also had millions of white people in the street marching alongside Black and brown people protesting police violence.
MERAJI: What does it feel like listening to that? I know how it feels for me. I've heard this, like, 10 times, and it makes me really emotional every time I hear it. So yeah, how do you all feel listening to that? I'm sure you've heard it a number of times, too.
ALEXANDER: I feel really emotional, too. Sorry, Shereen.
MERAJI: No, don't apologize.
ALEXANDER: I get emotional now more than ever. You know, life is so hard. And then you put race and gender and just human cruelty on it. America is supposed to be different. It would be different if we sold ourselves differently, but we didn't. We sold the American dream. It's a nightmare because you can feel so able, so optimistic, and also feel smothered by, again, the loss of potential, the consistent dark hearts that want to plunge people down for no good reason.
So any sort of conversation that authentically or at least honestly wants to approach it is painful because you can't even put your finger on any one thing, there's all these things. We all saw George Floyd be murdered. Nobody could do anything. What is America if not something that's been told that we can do anything?
DOW: She was really upset, not just for that moment, but we were walking around Manhattan, lower Manhattan, for another probably couple hours afterwards. And every time we came to, like, another sort of, you know, statue or something, she wanted to, like, tear that down, too. The idea that this is - there's so many representations of everything and that this idea that this horrific story, which is really the - what that our country was founded on, it's intentionally not acknowledged.
That - you know, I think that plaque is relatively new. I know de Blasio put it up. So the fact that here's this thing where, you know, thousands, if not tens of thousands of lives were destroyed by and passed through. You look what we've done for the 3,000 people who were killed at Ground Zero. They have had this, you know, huge, massive memorial to that. And here's this little plaque.
But as I said, how did it make me feel is I was trying to - it's the thing that I've been struggling with for pretty much my whole working life is how do you create a moral story? How do you create a moral space for yourself inside a story you know is amoral.
MERAJI: Well, Erika, near the end of that, Whitney says that you've said to him that you don't believe that white people have the ability to change. Do you think that's an accurate characterization of your feelings?
ALEXANDER: Yes. I'm not proud to say that. I'd like to be a person who has hope, and I do. I have hope in and I have optimism in individuals who I've met who I know would lay down their life for another person, Black, white or otherwise. I don't know, as a people, if the structure around it supports that type of comprehensive deep recognition and change that needs to happen because there is a loss of self. And if you've been told a lie that props you up as superior, whether you understand that this acting on you or not, why would you abandon it? You have to actively abandon it. You have to destroy it. And in a way, a piece of you dies - the worst piece, but right now it probably feels like home.
MERAJI: Whitney, you've been doing this with Erika for two years now. Do you - and you say in that clip you do have hope. You know, people marched in the movement for Black Lives. How are you feeling?
DOW: Well, I mean, I think that what has been interesting for me - and I think that there has been an incredible change over the last, I'd say - it really started 2014 with the murder of Trayvon Martin, where I feel like we started down this particular path of a national dialogue about race that really, you know, after George Floyd, was an awakening that I never - in white people that I never thought I would ever see. And I would say that we're all human, we're all complicated. We all have these, like - we're all trying to, like, hopefully - trying to become our best selves and work towards something. So I'm not optimistic that there - that when you say will white people's attitude change, I don't - I'm not optimistic that in their hearts it will not change, but I do think that more and more white people are recognizing that the actual structures are no longer functional, and they're damaging our country.
ALEXANDER: I just want to say something. And it's not to counter you, Whitney, but I don't think we're all trying to work to be our best selves because I don't think there's any incentive in it often. And if you see that 70 million people could vote for an openly racist and evil administration - and I'm sorry if people don't like what I said. And you see that people will self-sabotage and destroy themselves in order to bring down others. All you have to do is look at the Nazis.
DOW: No, I agree with you, Erika. I agree that there's - that not everybody - that maybe that was probably not as accurate a term as I could have used, the idea of a best self. But I think what I was saying is that we're - that an increasing number of white people do recognize that the path we're on is unsustainable. Now, whether that's going to be actually enough - as you say, 70 million people voted for Donald Trump - whether that's going to be enough to actually turn the tide and actually have real changes, I vacillate back and forth about being optimistic and pessimistic. And in some ways, I even question myself. As a white person, I feel like I can advocate for anything because I'm not completely convinced it could ever come true. So in some ways, I sometimes feel like - kind of like a fraud. Like, yeah, I can go out and say reparations for all - whatever. And it's like, if I don't believe in my heart that's possible, it kind of lets me off the hook.
I think we say it in that first - I think it's in the next episode that we're working on, we have this conversation, Erika. We say like, I don't want to give up what I had. I want everybody to have what I had. And Erika says, you know, that's unrealistic. That's not possible. You're going to have to give up of what you have. That's an unrealistic position to take, and I think she's right.
MERAJI: You said that maybe it's easy to talk about reparations because you may know in your heart of hearts that it'll never happen.
DOW: Well, I think that - it's not that I don't believe that reparations happened and that I feel like I'm taking a false position on it. I really believe that reparations - and I've said before - are critical for white people as well as Black people in a very - in very, very different ways. But I can say deconstruct anything because I'm - it's so apparent to me by the reaction that it's not going to happen.
And I just - you know, I just - you know, look; I try and be hard on myself. And I try to, you know, be honest with myself. I'm not always perfect at it. But in the conversation of monuments - and I remember when Trump said, you know, well, if we start this - start taking up monuments, next thing you know, we'll be taking down the George - the Washington Monument. And I was thinking - I said - and I always said, like, he's not wrong. We don't know yet what the boundaries are. And if you're going to enter the discussion about monuments, yeah, we may be taking down the Washington Monument at some point.
MERAJI: But also, what's so wrong with that?
MERAJI: What's so wrong with taking down the Washington Monument? I mean, like, what's so wrong with following that arc to that place?
DOW: I'm saying there's nothing wrong with that. But what I'm saying is that it's that sometimes I wonder, you know, how much change do I really want? I'm just - you know, I'm just trying to be honest here. If - I mean, I always think about the difference between - and I always look at - get really annoyed about, like, these inclusion officers that are everywhere, inclusion and diversity officers, because it basically is sort of admitting that the structure is OK. Inclusion means come on in. Transformation is something else entirely. They should be transformation officers. Don't want to - we'll include you in what we're doing, but let's not change it too much. And I think that once you really engage this, if you really engage it, you're going to be changing things in a profound way. And that's what I'm not sure that people are really ready for. They can say, defund the police. They can say, Black lives matter. They can say, reparations now. But can they say, we want a complete transformation of our society into something that is totally different?
ALEXANDER: I didn't know about the George Washington taking down, all of that. And I immediately asked the same question that you did, Shereen. Like, what's wrong with that? I said to myself, is there something wrong with that? And I thought about the idea of what they say about a more perfect union - that in order to create it, that means payback's a b****, frankly.
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MERAJI: I'm really, really honored that both of you were so open and vulnerable and had this conversation with me. It's been a wonderful ride. I feel like this is what it's going to be like listening to the podcast. I've only heard the first episode. So - how many episodes are there going to be?
ALEXANDER: There are going to be 12. Like - and you know what? And thank you for the work you've done in this space because one of the reasons why we'll have a good reception is 'cause you guys have been doing it so well for so long. So thank you for having us on. We appreciate it. And we'll do 12 and maybe be back if we can not kill each other.
DOW: Thank you so much, Shereen.
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MERAJI: That's it for this CODE SWITCH extra. You can find "Reparations: The Big Payback" wherever you get your podcasts. And I produced this episode with help from Jess Kung, and it was edited by Leah Donnella. Shout out to the rest of the CODE SWITCH crew. We will be back in just a few days with our regularly - with our regularly scheduled programming. Say that 10 times fast. All right. Peace.
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