Ask a Mentor-Editor: Janus Adams on Bravery, Brown v. Board, and the Future of American Journalism

Award-winning journalist, historian, producer, and publisher, Janus Adams is the author of three books and creator of the groundbreaking BackPax children’s book-and-audio series. A scholar of African American and women’s history, Adams specializes in putting current events into historical perspectives. She writes the syndicated column, “What Do We Tell Our Children,” her commentaries are regular features of NPR, and her OpEds have appeared on UPI.com and in USA Today. Her on-air guest credits include CNN’s TalkBack Live and NBC’s Today Show.

RK: You are an Emmy Award-winning journalist, historian, author, producer, publisher, and non-profit founder. You’re also a classically-trained pianist! Do you have a favorite hat? What advice do you have for young people who have multiple passions and are struggling to find careers that incorporate and cultivate them all. What about those of us who don’t know?

JA: I started playing the piano at age 3 and began life thinking I would be a musician.  Ultimately, I turned to writing and journalism, but the discipline of practicing up to six hours a day by the time I was in graduate school powered everything else. As for a “favorite hat,” I love the art and craft of communicating ideas and information – by any means necessary. I have degrees in music, theatre, and history.  And if you listen to my BackPax children’s CDs or attend my “Glory Days: In Concert,” you’ll  find it all there.  So, my advice would be the usual: do what you love and put in the time to do it well.  Nothing is ever wasted.

RK: Not only have you divided your energy between different pursuits, you’ve also split your focus between different generations. What prompted you to form BackPax and write your “What Do We Tell Our Children” essays?

JA: Never underestimate necessity as the mother of invention and invention as the necessity of mothers.

I founded BackPax – publisher of children’s books, audios, and games – in answer to the needs of my twin daughters and their peers for non-racist, gender-inclusive materials.  I used my training as a broadcast journalist to produce the first audios (on location throughout the Americas) for what I thought would be a radio series.  The response of teachers and parents eager for the tapes led me to form the company.

My “What Do We Tell Our Children?” essays were inspired by letters from readers of my column and at signings for my “Glory Days” books.  Now, the response to those essays has inspired the launch (March 2010) of my “What Do We Tell Our Children?” campaign to “parents, educators, and other concerned adults.”

RK: At 8 you were one of four children selected to pioneer the desegregation of New York schools in the wake of Brown v. Board of Education. Did you understand the importance of what you were doing at age 8?

JA: We were quite aware.  This was a national story made local.  With the violence of segregation threatening every African American, North and South; we saw Brown, too, as affecting us all.  With New York City among the first major northern school districts to test desegregation of the elementary grades, we left our all-Black school to take our place in an all-White school just weeks after Rosa Parks kept her historic seat launching the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

With White parents and teachers openly hostile, our families, neighbors, churches, former schoolmates rallied to our support and our parents armored us for the battle as best they could.  One parent spat at me and tore my dress.  An exception to the terror, one teacher, Mrs. Rose Zir, stood out for her sheer human decency.  I also got to meet Dr. King when I was ten.  He asked what I was doing for “our people.”  I told him about the four of us and our school.  He hugged me and said that what we were doing was “important.” That one gesture from him helped cleanse the wounds.

RK: What would you identify as the most formative experience in terms of your association with journalism?

JA: I was fortunate in the midst of misfortune.  In my first full-time job in television, I was working at Metromedia Channel 5 (now Fox News) when a union strike dragged on for twenty weeks. With our crews on the picket line, non-technical production staffers had to take on assignments beyond our job descriptions.  In my case, as production assistant I ended up as the show’s principle writer.  That was the turning point for me.  Years later, I helped pioneer feminist programming.  My shows – excerpted and aired on NPR – brought me to their news director’s attention and I became NPR’s first National Arts Correspondent.

RK: You’ve been involved in media for a long time—what are some of the changes you’ve observed take place?

JA: What the union was fighting in that 20-week strike I mentioned was the future: robotics.  You go into television stations across the country today and what IATSE feared has come to pass: tech crews have been replaced by robotic cameras and reporters with minicams.  My entry-level position as a production assistant is done by unpaid interns.  The story isn’t new.  The erosion of media jobs has been going on for quite some time, but now it’s affecting once-untouchable major media executives and frontline talent.  For newspapers, the biggest story is reporting their own demise.

RK: Have you experienced any sexism in your career?

JA: I left television because of sexism.  After that strike and the awards garnered by our show, I was promoted to management where my new boss explained that my responsibilities included being chased around the desk and getting caught.  Sexual harassment wasn’t a term then.  There was no one to talk to and nowhere to file a grievance.  You got along by going along or you left; I left.  This wasn’t about television; this was about abuses of power when sexism and racism hold sway.  But, if this was going on behind the camera, how well do we think the news covered racism and sexism in other workplaces?

RK: On the OpEd Project website we have a page titled “Arguments That Changed the World,” that includes “If Men Could Menstruate” by Gloria Steinem, and Martin Luther King’s “Letter From a Birmingham Jail.” What are a few articles you would select for this page as examples of extraordinary and influential argumentation?

JA: I love the essays Toni Morrison has written over the years for The New York Times. Particularly powerful is her “What the Black Woman Thinks of Women’s Lib” (1971), and, of course, her Nobel Prize acceptance speech on the power of language.  I’d also include Alice Walker’s “In Search of our Mother’s Gardens,” the original and revived “This I Believe” radio series, and almost any essay by James Baldwin, a master of the form.

RK: This is a very uncertain time to be embarking on a career in journalism—as people rely more and more on the internet for their news, we hear about the declining circulation rates of national and local newspapers; more than a few have gone under completely. And yet many seem to think that journalism does have a future, that it’s just undergoing a radical transformation. What do you think? What future do you see for journalism? For people who want to make a living doing it?

JA: Journalism will always exist because people will always want to know what’s going on.  The real issue is: “it’s the econom(ics) stupid.”  The radical transformation that’s about to happen on the internet is awaiting someone powerful enough to break the unsustainable luxury of “free.”  It’s already happening – e.g. the Wall Street Journal started charging for its core content two years ago.  The challenge will be to find a balance between “free” and the free-flow of ideas; maintaining good business (business as a source of employment) and good access to information.  In the wrong hands, one danger of monetizing the internet would be a cable television model.   Societally, were already being steered to rely on the internet for everything.  When that transition is complete, we’re in danger of a financial model that will emulate our cable TV scenario where even free channels must be viewed via cable, the cost for which is skyrocketing.  We could be forced to pay for everything via escalating modem and wi-fi fees with premium pay-per-use services.

RK:Who is the thought leader that stands out in your mind? Historical or current? Who most influenced you?

JA: My grandfather: William Landsmark, an AfriCaribbean immigrant.  When his children were young, he began a Sunday ritual of roasting peanuts and reading to them from the New York Times. “Now the politicians say this, but you have to learn to read between the lines” he’d tell his daughters aged ages 6, 5, and 3.  When my cousin and I came along, he was never without two newspapers – the Times and Muhammad Speaks – and other insights on the state of the world.  My father died when I was young, so I’d put my grandmother, Myra Landsmark, and my mother, Muriel Landsmark Tuitt, a phenomenal educator, next. And, for his sense of the world, my former husband, musician Max Roach, is up there too.  I don’t do this for sentimentality sake; it’s my truth.  When I published “Peanuts and the Sunday News,” a story about my grandfather’s love of reading, it was picked up for a standardized test and has since gone on to inspire children the world over.

RK: What is the one thing that helped you to get where you are that you didn’t expect?

JA: Growing up, I thought a career was about making a living.  Now, I know it’s about making a life.  Racism and sexism can detract us or power our climb.  I’ve been excluded by White women because I was Black. I’ve been excluded by Black men because I was a woman. I’ve been denied my rights by an “officer of the court” for looking “not too bad off.”  Then I came upon a book of African American women’s history with a title that put all that nonsense into perspective:  All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us are Brave. When I can’t be brave, or forget how, I “whistle a happy tune” and put on something outrageously red.

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