If one thing has become clear during the two years of working the race beat at Fortune is this: Everything has a backstory. Our ability to understand and embrace these hidden histories can help us all become more curious, aware, empathetic and informed.
Here are three podcasts that I’ve recently enjoyed that brought a fresh perspective to something I already thought I knew a bit about. Turns out, I was missing more than just some interesting facts. Enjoy.
Good Muslim, Bad Muslim is a delightful podcast, and ordinarily a breezy conversation between two friends, Tanzila ‘Taz’ Ahmed and Zahra Noorbakhsh, about their complicated modern relationship with faith, love, social justice and American life. They took a break from their usual dish to join an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar, a Japanese American internment camp just north of Los Angeles. This year’s visit commemorated the 75th anniversary of Executive Order 9066, which ordered the incarceration of more than 110,000 Japanese Americans and was signed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (Executive orders matter, yo.) The trip was organized by the Vigilant Love Coalition and their Bridging Communities program, which draws parallels between the Japanese experience post-Pearl Harbor and the experience of Muslim Americans today. “Today we are retracing the humanity of a group of people who our country shamelessly mistreated,” the tour guide begins. While Taz and Zahra continually hand the mic to other pilgrims and survivors to make sure their stories are heard, the bigger message is clear. “Your citizenship will not protect you,” one woman tells them.
Every installment of Second Wave is a revelation and a thoughtful exploration of the experiences of Vietnamese Americans in the aftermath of a war that hasn’t ended for everyone. One delicious example is Pho, part savory noodle-dish, part iconic comfort food born in a faraway land and now, a dish ripe for cultural appropriation. Seemingly out of the blue, the dish has been embraced by hipster chefs in the U.S. and turned into a barely recognizable version of itself, with pho experts everywhere making fancy derivations like pho dumplings, pho salads, even rolling “phorritos.” Host Thanh Tan sits with two women who have made their own careers with the noodle dish, writer Andrea Nguyen and chef Yenvy Pham, owner of Pho Bac in Seattle, and have a fascinating conversation about what the soup meant to both the working class and elites in Vietnam, and the uncomfortable peace they’re making with its gentrification stateside. And then the talk turns to a scandal you may have missed — the recent Pho-gate, and their ultimate defense against the ultimate erasure.
I’ve fallen hard for Uncivil, a new Gimlet podcast about the Civil War that explores the stories that have been left out of history if you get my drift. Again, there are no wrong choices, but for the purposes of digging into a juicy backstory, start with their eye-opening exploration of the true origins of Dixie, the unofficial and still beloved anthem of the Confederacy. The common knowledge was this: Dixie was a Confederate anthem, written by a Southerner, during the dark days of the Civil War. As usual, the common knowledge is completely wrong. There are a couple of twists before we get to the painful truth, an erasure so profound that it’ll get you whistling Dixie yourself. Hosts Chenjerai Kumanyika and Jack Hitt are both excellent. But later in this episode, Kumanyika talks about “coon spaces,” a framing for performative blackness for the benefit of white audiences. It yields one of the richest conversations I’ve heard in ages. In this instance, it’s with a musician named Justin Robinson, who both understands the true roots of the song and has performed it with a sense of dignity and restorative justice. It didn’t quite work. “They invite you to dehumanize yourself for profit, for their pleasure, to deepen their sense of identity,” says Kumanyika of the “coon space” dynamic. “You’re sort of hitting on the head what it means to be black in America or indigenous in America,” Robinson begins.
Cult leader Charles Manson dies having failed to achieve his dream of a full-on race war
It’s an element of his cultish control over his “hippie” followers that often gets the short shrift. His murderous rampage was not just an attack on the Hollywood elite. It was a full-throated attempt to incite a race war that would – insert magical thinking here – end with him running the world. The Root has a great explainer here. I’d also point you to another podcast, currently in production called Young Charlie. It unfolds as the breathless true crime it actually was, but also gives rich context to the person Manson was and the country he was planning to overtake. Not only did he fall through every possible crack in his young life, he was monstrously smart and profoundly cynical, fully prepared to leverage a racist country for his own benefit.
How rapper Meek Mill has come to personify criminal justice reform
Rapper Meek Mill is back in prison for a parole violation stemming from various criminal charges he faced over a decade ago. And now, the Philadelphia home town hero has become a flashpoint in a long overdue conversation about reform and judicial overreach. If you haven’t been following the story, then this explainer from the Washington Post will get you up to speed. But don’t stop there. Read this op-ed from Jay-Z, whose Roc Nation reps Mill, but who has also become increasingly outspoken on justice reform issues. “On the surface, this may look like the story of yet another criminal rapper who didn’t smarten up and is back where he started,” he begins. But Mill was nineteen when he was sent to jail for drug and gun possession and served an eight month sentence. “For about a decade, he’s been stalked by a system that considers the slightest infraction a justification for locking him back inside.”
Lena Dunham under fire for siding with friend accused of sexual assault
The man in question is Girls writer Murray Miller, and he was accused by actor Aurora Perrineau. While the backlash was swift and followed by a penned apology, writer Zinzi Clemmons has decided enough is enough. In a statement posted to Twitter, she announced that she will no longer be contributing to Lenny Letter, Dunham’s online feminist newsletter. “She cannot have our words if she cannot respect us,” she writes. She also describes the casual racism, and worse, that she believes defines Dunham’s circle, many of whom she was acquainted with in college. “It is time for women of color — black women in particular — to divest from Lena Dunham,” she says.
The Washington Post has interviewed 25 North Koreans who have lived, in some capacity, in the country under Kim Jong Un. Their tales are uniformly grim and disappointing. They all thought that the millennial leader would bring fresh ideas and much-needed change to a country crippled by generational dictatorship. Instead, things got worse, as the state broke down and the economy crumbled. The only way to survive is the constant hustle of dealing in bribes and the illegal/informal economy. The threat of state violence, they say, is ever-present. “I once went for six months without getting any salary at all. We lived in a shipping container at the construction site…Once I didn’t bathe for two months,” said one construction worker who escaped in 2015.
Here’s just one example: Researchers have recently found evidence that Samuel Finley, the school’s fifth president, sold his slaves in front of his stately 18th century clapboard home, once a popular stop on the campus tour. That is just one of many stories being brought to light as the institution works to reconcile it’s complex past. To that end, it’s worth spending time with the Princeton and Slavery Project, an evolving work of depth and honesty that includes primary documents and articles highlighting the university’s long history of slavery-related funding and racial violence.
The bleak and poignant history of black NASCAR drivers
After a 46 year dry spell, a black rookie driver is set to become the first full-time black driver since Wendell Scott stopped driving in 1971. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace, Jr., is set to drive car number 43 for Richard Petty Motorsports next season. “There’s only 1 driver from an African-American background at the top level of our sport … I am the one,” he said on Twitter. “You’re not gonna stop hearing about ‘the Black driver’ for years. Embrace it, accept it and enjoy the journey.” But it’s worth remembering Scott, the very first black driver, who braved Jim Crow laws and death threats to persist in the sport. He won money and acclaim, but never the traditional post-race kiss from the white beauty queen. Click through for the real deal history.
Take a jazz lesson with Wynton Marsalis and Jon Batiste
Batiste, the less-well-known of the two jazz greats, is the leader of the “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” band, and absolutely holds his own with Marsalis, during this hour-long segment on the genius of jazz from The Aspen Institute. The conversation includes plenty of music and technical talk, like how pentatonic scales originally came from Africa. It also weaves in discussions of painful elements of life under the English plantation system, which also exploited Irish people. The strange mix of race, culture, and oppression found its way into the alchemy known as blues and jazz.