Nieman Storyboard » Storyboard Posts Exploring the art and craft of story Fri, 24 Oct 2014 20:46:41 +0000 en-US hourly 1 5 Questions for David Finkel Wed, 22 Oct 2014 13:55:32 +0000 David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

David Finkel describes his "deliberate" reporting process to the Nieman Fellows

In selecting David Finkel for one of its “genius” grants in 2012, the MacArthur Foundation described him as “a journalist whose finely honed methods of immersion reporting and empathy for often-overlooked lives yield stories that transform readers’ understanding of the difficult subjects he depicts.” Finkel, the Washington Post’s national enterprise editor, followed an infantry battalion deployed to Iraq in his 2009 book, “The Good Soldiers,” which was named one of the 10 best books of the year by The New York Times. A second book in 2013, “Thank You for Your Service,” traced the struggles of those soldiers as they returned to their lives at home. He also won the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in explanatory reporting for a series of stories in the Post about American efforts to bring democracy to Yemen. Finkel spoke recently with the current class of Nieman fellows and sat down with Storyboard afterward to continue the conversation. Following are edited excerpts of those discussions:

Talk a little bit about the nuts and bolts of writing. What do you do, in a very practical way, what do you start to do to shape a story so that you have something that comes out at the other end of it?

It’s a pretty deliberate process, and a lot of it involves working from an endpoint. But the first thing is I have to have a question I’m interested in answering. Then, after that, I go do reporting. I am a pretty ferocious reporter.

That doesn’t mean questioning all the time. All the tools we know. Learning to use silence as a reporting tool. All the things we do. Getting people to talk to each other. Trying to recede so something might occur as if it would have occurred if you weren’t there, if that’s possible. But, eventually, realizing what the story is I want to tell and then finishing the reporting to tell that story.

You finish the reporting for that story and then again it’s very deliberate. I go over my notes. I index all my notebooks. I transcribe everything. I’ve been doing that all along. I reread everything. I’m looking for…Because I’m not just a camera you turn on and I record everything. I’m trying to think my way through things. I’m trying to find patterns or I’m trying to find things that might relate in an authentic way.

You read your notes and read your notes and read your notes and eventually, I come up with a very specific outline. The outline is guided a lot by — and it’s not just knowing when I write this book, it’s going to be this many chapters — but it’s knowing where the book is going to end.

I may not know the words, but I pretty much know most of the words and what the tone will be. Then it’s just a matter of outlining my notes to get to that tone and those words as efficiently as possible. It helps if you go through your notes and organize.

It’s not for me a clean process. I don’t know. When you write, maybe if you’re having a bad day, you can forget the beginning and go to the middle and start writing the middle. Man, I’ve never been able to do that. I’ve got to write that first line until I get it right and at least the second line, and then the third. I write and rewrite all the way to the ending, but when I write the last line, I’m done.

If I’m having problems writing a story, it’s probably because I’ve screwed up in the previous step. If I’m having problems writing, it’s probably I haven’t organized well enough. If I’m having problems organizing, it’s probably because I haven’t reported thoroughly enough. You take a step back to the previous thing and it’ll solve the thing you’re in.

You mentioned using silence as a reporting tool. Could you tell us more about what you mean?

I want to reach the point in the story where people aren’t talking to me, where I’m just going along. The people I’m with, they no longer feel the obligation to be a host to me. You know how when your mom comes to visit, and your mom says, “Every second has to be filled with conversation because this is a special moment.” You want to get past the special moment and let things go.

Again, serendipity, this kind of reporting. You’re there. You’re there. You’re there. You just want to be there. If people are going to be quiet, let them be quiet, and listen to them be quiet. If they’re talking to each other, hear what they’re saying to each other. That’s much more valuable — don’t you think? — than them answering a question.

For the second book, especially, so much of that was built on just being present and being silent. A lot of the second book, these families recovering took place while they’re in the front seat of the car fighting with each other, and I’m in the back seat just trying to stay behind the headrest so that maybe they’ll forget I’m there.

How do you get to that place where people feel like you’re part of the situation, the normal situation, so they behave like that and you can observe things like that? Because you have to win their trust, you have to explain what a journalist does, but psychologically and personally, how do you do that?

If I go through a process, it’s when I’m interested in the possibility of a story and the possibility of someone being part of the story. I’m upfront with them. I’m quite transparent about the way I work ‐‐ that this is going to involve spending a good bit of time with them, and I hope I’ll spend enough time that it’s right up to the moment, maybe an inch short of where I would become entirely irritating to them. But that to do anything less, then I’m going to write a story that’s going to embarrass me, embarrass them and embarrass this subject, so they have to realize there’s an investment of time.

I try to explain this kind of journalism, because people don’t necessarily know it. I don’t give a lesson, but I try to explain it as much as I can and say the best way you can figure out what I do is … I mean, look at my previous work. If you want me to send you some stuff, I will. If you want to find it on your own, then do it that way.

I also explain some of the ethics and obligations involved. I explain that the story is being written about them. It’s not being written to them, and there’s a difference. The way to underscore that is I emphasize that they, despite their investment and time, despite everything they’ve agreed to, including having me around, they don’t get to see the story until it’s published. Because if you see it before, then that’s just, it’s an ethical violation. It taints the story. They become their own editor. In effect, they become their own censor, and that can’t happen. They have to realize that they’re not going to see the thing until it comes out. I lay it out and then I say, “So think about it. Think about whether you want to take a leap here. If you do, we’ll go at it, and if you don’t, I totally understand.”

Then we go from there.

What makes that difference in making the transition from reporter to great editor? What is it that’s needed?

When it’s done, I’ll let you know.


No, I’m telling you. I’m feeling my way through this. I was an editor once before and I think I was pretty ham‐handed about it. I was trying to get everybody to write a story as I write a story, and that’s not very fair. I was trying to solve a problem, and the way I would solve a problem of a story that wasn’t working was try to rewrite it into the way I would write it. That’s not being a good editor.

This time, I think I’m a little better at it, but I’m still learning my way. Editing is, it’s just, I don’t find it an easy thing to take a story and work through it and get it into better shape. I’m not giving an eloquent answer. It’s just hard.

I don’t know what being a great editor is except I’ve had great editors. I try to think, what made them great for me? We all get better by having templates, by having examples. Just like I became a better writer by becoming a critical reader, maybe I’m becoming a better editor by being a critical thinker about what my editors did for me, what made them good. The stuff that worked for me, do that, and the stuff that ticked me off, don’t do that.

But it’s a work in progress. If you ask five reporters, I think they would agree. Some days I’m quite helpful and some days I’m sure they wish they had a different person perched on their shoulder.

What is the role of long‐form? Where do you see the genre going?

I don’t know where it’s going. I just know it’s not going to be in the one thing I do. It’s not like long‐form is disappearing. I keep reading all kinds of places, “There is a resurgence.” I hope that’s true.

Like any proponent of long‐form, I believe in serious attempts. I believe in the power of a story. But what I don’t [know] is what storytelling is going to become. I’ve been doing this for a while. I have my moves, I have my likes. In a great story, it involves a primary emphasis on reading a written story, word by word, line by line, without adornment, without interruptions of hyperlinks, without interruptions of, “You’ve read what they say, now hear them say it in this video.”

It doesn’t make sense to me, but I know I’m in a minority — and an increasing minority. Things are shifting. They’re probably shifting in very, very exciting ways. I would count on it. It’s just, it’s not my move to master that shift. But I’m sure other people are.


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Fourth “Power of Storytelling” conference opens in Romania Fri, 17 Oct 2014 12:06:39 +0000 If we were in Bucharest today, we could listen to newly named New York Times deputy international editor Amy O’Leary talk about digital storytelling or delve into the less glamorous aspects of the writer’s life with Esquire’s Chris Jones or watch Indiana University professor Kelley Benham deconstruct her remarkable story about the premature birth of her daughter.

But those of us stuck at home during the fourth annual “Power of Storytelling” narrative journalism conference need not despair. Thanks to conference founder Cristian Lupsa, editor of the non-fiction journal Decât o Revistă and a 2014 Nieman fellow, and his colleagues, Storyboard will bring you excerpts from the two-day conference as soon as they’re available.

In the interim, you can follow the happenings on Twitter, with the hashtag #story14, and whet your appetite here with some highlights from previous conferences.

In this session at the 2012 conference, Jones spoke about the purpose of writing and what makes a good writer:

I get asked all the time about what makes a great writer. What makes a good writer. And it’s such a hard question to answer. There’s things like curiosity, determination and honesty, and all these things are important, but the thing that for me – it’s my test – if I was to hire one person out of this room, who would I take? It would be the person who cared the most.

The same year, Atavist editor and founder Evan Ratliff talked about the challenges of creating his venture and how it required him to do all the work he had “become a writer not to do:”

“I think the lesson here is one that I’m still grappling with. I think that sometimes you just have to get over yourself, and sometimes you just have to survive. And this is what we had to do to survive. We had to do things that we were not ready to do and I think that is true for a lot of journalists who want to strike out as freelancers, who want to write things that are different from what your editors want you to write, and you want to go out in the world and find new magazines and find new homes.”

You can also read radio producer Starlee Kline‘s take on developing ideas or see what Jacqui Banaszynski thinks about the future of storytelling. And stay tuned for dispatches from this year’s sessions.

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Jonathan Eig searches for the characters of his new book Tue, 14 Oct 2014 12:46:39 +0000 In previous books, best-selling author Jonathan Eig profiled baseball legend Lou Gehrig and Chicago gangster Al Capone. But as he set about researching his most recent project, he faced an interesting dilemma: what do you do when your main character is a little round pill? In this installment of the Storyboard feature “Writing the Book,” Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, discusses the challenges of finding and establishing the protagonists of his new book, “The Birth of the Pill.” You can read the New York Times review of the book here.

Before I could begin writing my latest book, I had to kill Allan Pinkerton.

I was fascinated with Allan Pinkerton. I still am, really. But that didn’t stop me. The more I researched the life of the legendary detective, the more I grew to dislike him and the more I came to believe that he would never be good to me or anyone else. So I killed him. I buried him in the basement next to some of my other recent victims and set out looking for someone or something else to write about.

“Write a book women will want to read,” my wife said.

“Are you saying that women don’t care about my other books?” I asked.

When I stopped feeling defensive, I started making lists, as I always do when I’m searching for ideas. There are so many things I’m interested in writing about that making lists is easy. The hard part is narrowing down. I look for stories with conflict and passionate characters, because conflict and characters move plot. I look for stories that might give me something important to say, because Melville said to write a mighty book you must choose a mighty theme. I look for stories that might attract big audiences, because I like for my work to be read and I like getting paid.

This time, I also looked for a story that women might want to read, because I love my wife and she’s always right.

Here are some of the lists I made: most important Supreme Court cases; most important inventions; most important Jews; most important women; most important athletes; most important women athletes.

After a couple months of building lists, I noticed that the birth-control pill had popped up several times. It made my list of important inventions; in fact, The Economist had called it the most important invention of the twentieth century. Margaret Sanger, the crusading feminist who coined the term birth control, made my list of important women. And Gregory Pincus, the scientist who invented the pill, made my list of important Jews. Now I had a Venn diagram in my head with three overlapping circles.

It struck me as odd that I knew so little about the origin of the pill. The more I thought about it, the odder it seemed. Why would anyone invent a birth-control pill in the first place? To give women more power? That seemed unlikely. To help women better enjoy sex? Even more unlikely. In the 1950s, before the pill, men had almost complete control of government, science and business. What motivated the men in charge of these institutions go to work on a new contraceptive? And if men in charge didn’t make it happen, who did?

I knew something about Sanger and her longtime cause, which dated back at least to 1914. It was Pincus who intrigued me. Who was he and why had I never heard of him? What was in it for him? Every other scientist Sanger had approached told her no, they would never agree to work on a birth-control pill; it was too controversial, they said, and ultimately pointless. No company would ever manufacture such a pill and the FDA would never approve it.

I called Pincus’s daughter, who lived in Boston, and arranged to meet her. When she told me her father’s story, I was hooked. Pincus had been dismissed by Harvard in the prime of his career because he’d been too radical. He’d been working on in vitro fertilization in the 1930s and bragging to reporters that his work would change forever the way men and women reproduced. The world wasn’t ready. When Harvard denied him tenure, Pincus couldn’t find work anywhere, so he built his own laboratory and started his own foundation in the garage of an old house in Shrewsbury, Mass. Twenty years later, he agreed to take on Sanger’s birth-control project in large part because he had nothing to lose.

Let’s look back at my checklist for good stories.

Conflict? Check.

Passionate characters? Check.

Important? Check.

Ability to attract a big audience? Who the hell knows?

Something for women? Check.

The first two “checks” excited me most. This story had a ton of conflict and a great cast of characters. Sanger and Pincus were classic heroes–outsiders summoned to perform a seemingly impossible mission. And they were acting not for fame or glory. They fought to give women equality, make sex more fun, and prevent the planet from becoming overpopulated. Sanger, who was in her seventies and suffering from heart failure, sincerely believed that Pincus might get this done while she was still around to see it.

BirthofPilljacketFrom a storytelling perspective, there was one big challenge. In addition to Sanger and Pincus, I had two more compelling characters: Katharine Dexter McCormick, the heiress who financed the entire research project; and Dr. John Rock, the Catholic gynecologist who defied the church to lead the clinical trials. Constructing a narrative around four characters is tricky. Was the pill the hero of my story, or was it this team of crusaders?

For inspiration, I went back and re-read Laura Hillenbrand’s “Seabiscuit,” which is one of my favorite recent works of non-fiction. There are chapters in that book that could be books on their own—it’s so rich. Seabiscuit made for a problematic central character because horses, with the exception of Mr. Ed, don’t talk. Hillenbrand overcame the problem by making heroes of three men surrounding the racehorse—the owner, trainer, and jockey.

It’s a nifty trick on her part. Hillenbrand describes Seabiscuit as an unlikely champion, with an awkward stride and a sad little tail. Even so, the reader never really cares about the horse. We know, win or lose, that Seabiscuit is going to get a warm paddock and plenty of oats. The humans are the real heroes. We care about Seabiscuit because they do.

In their quest for a birth-control pill, Sanger, Pincus, McCormick and Rock were fighting long odds. It was illegal to disseminate birth-control products or even information about birth control in most of the United States in 1950, when they began their work. The Catholic Church would fight them all the way. If those obstacles weren’t enough, consider this: the birth-control pill would be the first medicine designed for daily use by healthy people. If it made women sick or led to deaths, the results would be catastrophic.

Yet Pincus, Sanger, McCormick and Rock pushed ahead because they were true believers. In their minds, even the greatest risks were acceptable because the potential rewards were so enormous. And it was here, as these men and women took risks, that I was able to add the most new detail to the story of the pill’s invention. Patients had no privacy in the 1950s. Women participating in scientific experiments were not asked to give their consent.

At the Library of Congress, among Pincus’s papers, I found letters he wrote to gynecologists asking them to engage in what Pincus no doubt considered a minor and harmless deception. He asked the doctors to give birth-control hormones to women seeking treatment for infertility. The women would be told that these hormones would rest their reproductive systems. When they finished treatment, their systems would kick back into gear and they might be more fertile. In truth, Pincus was interested in only one thing: making sure his hormones shut down ovulation.

Then he tried testing the birth-control formula on mental patients at the Worcester State Hospital. He tried it on men as well as women there. I found lists of names. I tracked down some of the children of the women who were tested. They told me their mothers had no idea. Doctors at the hospital confirmed it. They said they injected men and women with all kinds of experimental drugs, never asking for their permission and seldom offering explanations.

After testing their birth-control formula in the insane asylum, Pincus and Rock traveled to the slums of San Juan, Puerto Rico, and conducted large-scale field trials on women there, where American laws would not apply. They gave women massive doses because they knew the Food and Drug Administration would assess the drug only based on its effectiveness, not on its side effects. They weren’t too considered with women suffering nausea and headaches just so long as the pill came close to 100 percent effectiveness.

Pincus and Rock were operating well within the ethical standards of their time. In fact, they considered themselves progressive—both in their treatment of women and in their scientific methods. In the 1950s, they really were more sensitive and more concerned with women’s rights than most men. This is what made them such compelling heroes—they weren’t perfect, and they were willing to take chances for something they strongly believed.

“Seabiscuit” and my book had one more thing in common: predictable endings. Before they turn a single page, readers of both books will know the horse is going to win the big race, just as they know the pill will win approval and change women’s lives.

But with strong characters and plenty of conflict, predictable endings are not necessarily bad. My book hinges on the FDA decision to approve the birth-control pill, which went by the brand name Enovid. In writing those critical pages, I pretended that I didn’t know the outcome of the agency’s decision. It wasn’t hard. I spent three years working on this book, and speaking to dozens of men and women who had known these characters. Every time I met with Pincus’s daughter or Rock’s daughter, I felt like I was looking into my characters’ eyes, that I was getting at least a glimpse at how they might have moved, how they might have spoken, how they might have felt. A writer can’t really know what’s in his subject’s heart, but he can try. At the very least, the writer can try to see the story through his character’s eyes. And so I tried to remember as I wrote the book’s climax that my characters didn’t know how it would end. I came to love these characters, and I was rooting hard for them to see their hard work pay off.

If I did my job, readers will feel the same way.

They’ll be rooting for the pill as it comes down the stretch.

As for me, I’ll soon be moving on to another book. Pincus, Rock, McCormick, and Sanger will be carried from my office to the basement. But they won’t be buried alongside Pinkerton. Pinkerton got a cardboard box. These heroes will get a fireproof file cabinet.

They earned it.

Jonathan Eig is the New York Times best-selling author of four books: “Luckiest Man,” “Opening Day” “Get Capone” and, most recently, “The Birth of the Pill.” He is currently working on a biography of Muhammad Ali. Before writing books, Jonathan worked as a reporter for The Wall Street Journal, Chicago magazine, The Dallas Morning News, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune. His work has also appeared in The New York Times, Esquire and The Washington Post.


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Pinker, King and Sager on writing Fri, 10 Oct 2014 14:21:03 +0000 For this weekend’s selections, Storyboard recommends reading about writing; we’re highlighting some recent articles that feature advice from authors whose worlds range from horror to science to journalism.

Harvard cognitive scientist, psychologist and dictionary boss Steven Pinker — he’s the chairman of the usage panel of the American Heritage dictionary — has a new book out about writing, “The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century,” and he seems to be talking and writing about it everywhere. You can check out these pieces in The Wall Street Journal and Scientific American. We like this Q-and-A with the New Republic. In it, he describes his theory of the “classic style” of writing, telling interviewer Jesse Singal: 

“Classic style makes writing, which is necessarily artificial, as artificially natural as possible, if you’d pardon the oxymoron. That is, you’re not physically with someone when you write. You’re not literally having a conversation with them, but classic style simulates those experiences and so it takes an inherently artificial situation, namely writing, and it simulates a more natural interaction, the more natural interaction being (a) conversation (b) seeing the world.”

On The Atlantic website, contributor Jessica Lahey interviewed author Stephen King about how he teaches writing. Sentence diagramming? Yes. Essay assignments? No. The Oxford comma? It depends. Plus, this piece of advice that’s useful for anyone who wants to improve their work:

“You need to take out the stuff that’s just sitting there and doing nothing. No slackers allowed! All meat, no filler!”

We randomly stumbled upon this list of 51 writing tips on Esquire writer and author Mike Sager‘s website and struck gold. Here are his first five commandments:

“Thou shalt not bore.

Do not start stories with the time, season, or weather conditions.

Do not start with “It was” or “It’s” or “When.”

Do not ever use time sub heads (12:15) to break up a feature story. Write in scenes.

Get an imagination. If it’s been done before, find a different way to do it. If it’s been said before, find a different way to say it.”

Other personal favorites include Nos. 19, 22 and 40.

Happy reading — and writing.


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Annotation Tuesday! Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and “If He Hollers Let Him Go” Tue, 07 Oct 2014 13:11:02 +0000 image (1) (1)Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah and I met recently in her Brooklyn apartment to talk about “If He Hollers Let Him Go.” Her story, which is and isn’t about comedian Dave Chappelle, ran in the October 2013 issue of The Believer and was a finalist for a 2014 National Magazine Award. (Ghansah has also written for The LA Review of Books, VQR and The Paris Review.) We talked about racism, the use of comedy as a weapon and editing as a trust fall, among other subjects.

My comments are in red; Ghansah’s responses are in blue. First, a few questions: 

How did you pitch this to The Believer? How did you envision the story? Was it always meant to be so broad?

Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah: I didn’t pitch it. I don’t really do a lot of pitching because I’m terrible at it and I would rather just write the piece I have in mind.

How long was the reporting and writing process?

The reporting went on for so long because I was just sitting there, bummed out watching Dick Gregory clips. I knew that I needed a scene. I couldn’t just do Neal Brennan and phone conversations. So when I went to Ohio for a couple of weeks, that just added another gap of time in the process. I started the story in late May of that year and by the end of August we were done.

Where does the title come from? I assume it’s a reference to the original, racist version of “Eeny, Meeny, Miny, Moe.” But does it have a resonance beyond that?

I picked the title. I pick all my titles out of superstition. “If He Hollers Let Him Go” is a Chester Himes book about segregation in Los Angeles. I picked it because no one would let Chappelle go, and yet he had been hollering. He was saying, “Leave me the fuck alone,” and no one would. The nursery rhyme never crossed my mind.

Did you ever hear from Dave Chappelle about the piece?


If He Hollers Let Him Go
By Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah
The Believer
October 2013

Although the city of Dayton is small and has been hit hard by the decline of industry, in Xenia and Yellow Springs the land is green, fecund, and alive, even in the relentless heat of summer. Xenia is three miles from where the first private black college, Wilberforce, opened, in 1856, to meet the educational needs of the growing population of freed blacks that crossed the Ohio River. Yellow Springs, a stop on the Underground Railroad, was initially established as a utopian community in 1825. In 1852, Horace Mann founded Antioch College and served as its president. During the ’50s and ’60s, Antioch and Yellow Springs were hamlets of anti-McCarthyism and antiwar and civil rights activism. Today there are a lot of hippies and there’s even more tie-dye. Between the villages, you can drive over rolling hills and pastures and not see another car for miles, and only far off on the horizon will you be able to spot a farmhouse.  I love this opening and I’m shocked you got away with it. I know it’s just a paragraph, but a lot of editors, I think, would push for you to mention Dave Chappelle ASAP. Anyway, why did you begin it this way? I wanted to say, Here’s what surrounds him. If you think about where he’s from as being germane to this story, we should start there. This is kind of like setting up a scene, because at that point I’d spent a week or ten days in Ohio. It was really a fascinating place to me. I was spending a lot of time at the Dayton libraries and I was reading all these histories, so for me it was an opportunity to talk about the things that I had been reading on my own, that were, if not ancillary, at least tertiary to the story of Dave Chappelle–but to me essential. Because I went to Wilberforce and I was fascinated by this school for free blacks that existed close to Dave Chappelle and that his mother worked at for many years. I was just interested in this tiny town giving birth to this really big celebrity.

I spent a week in this part of Ohio, and during my stay I was invited to do all sorts of things with people of all kinds—rich and poor, white and black. I was invited to go flying, dig for worms at midnight, and plant raspberry bushes. My request to drive a tractor was turned down, not because I don’t know how to drive but because the tractor had been put away. In Ohio, there is space for people to do what they want. There is a lot of land, plenty of it. This is where enslaved people ran to, certain that they had finally evaded capture. This is where America’s first prominent black poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, wrote “We Wear the Mask.” And somewhere in the midst of it all is Dave Chappelle’s home. This is so interesting. It’s just the second paragraph of the story, but what you’ve done here–in telling us all these things you did in Yellow Springs–enriches the entire narrative. I didn’t think it was intuitive.  Well, it was intuitive for me.   Why? Why was it intuitive? That’s the way it went. That’s the way the story began for me. I went to Paul Laurence Dunbar’s house, I asked someone else to ride on a tractor, someone else asked if I wanted to go flying…That’s the way my life is, kind of. Do you know what I mean? Things happen. I went there to do one thing and then all these other things happened, and they were equally interesting to me. And I didn’t think they could happen just anywhere, so it felt very intuitive to say, “Well, this is the sort of place that this area of Ohio is.” In other words, these things are not part of the narrative; they’re part of the location.   Yeah, it’s a location story. It’s about Yellow Springs and the history of Yellow Springs. It’s a historical town. I’m from Philadelphia and I think those sort of places get under your skin. We were in Athens visiting family friends, and they said, “Do you know what it’s like to everyday look up and see ruins?” It’s something that alters your mentality and how you look at time and how you look at the world. And so I felt like Yellow Springs, with all of these Underground Railroad houses and this huge sense of liberation–this free-to-be-yourself-ness–was a part of the story. Everyone there was just doing their thing, and it felt unusual to me. And that’s what I picked up on.

From above, everything seems smaller and less complicated—or at the very least things are put into perspective. From a plane at thirty-five thousand feet it was much easier for me to understand why Dave Chappelle quit his hit TV show, Chappelle’s Show, and said goodbye to all that, and didn’t stop until he got home to Yellow Springs, Ohio. When news of his decision to cease filming the third season of the show first made headlines, there were many spectacular rumors. He had quit the show without any warning. He had unceremoniously ditched its cocreator, his good friend Neal Brennan, leaving him stranded. Chappelle was now addicted to crack. He had lost his mind. The most insane speculation I saw was posted on a friend’s Facebook page at 3 a.m. A website had alleged that a powerful cabal of black leaders—Oprah Winfrey, Bill Cosby, and others—were so offended by Chappelle’s use of the n-word that they had him intimidated and banned. The controversial “Niggar Family” sketch, where viewers were introduced to an Ozzie and Harriet–like 1950s suburban, white, upper-class family named “the Niggars,” was said to have set them off. The weirdest thing was that people actually went for such stories. Chappelle’s brief moment in television had been that incendiary. Why the italics? Emphasis. I think about sentences a lot with rhythm. How would someone write if they were speaking it to you? I don’t like the idea of the written word being in absentia of how we speak–our dialect. With any sentence, it’s how you hit something hard, so people understand, This is where the importance is. Do you read your work aloud? Yeah, always. To other people or yourself? Sometimes I read it to my husband. The problem of reading to someone else is you’re changing it, you’re leaving out words and putting words in. But aren’t you, then, subconsciously making edits that ought to be made? That’s what I try to do when I read it aloud. I’ll sit at the computer just to change it to the way I’m reading it. That’s really important, just so the rhythm is right. I listen to a lot of hip-hop, a lot of rap, and that gets in your ear. And any really great writer that I love has a keen sense of rhythm. Philip Roth and Toni Morrison are my favorite novelists and I reread them constantly even though I don’t write fiction because their sentences are just powerful. I think sentences work better when they have a cadence. Do you have certain writers in mind when you do certain pieces?   No, but I have the pantheon, and they’re always in mind for structural reasons or for sentence reasons or how they make things pop. I’m working on something now and Renata Adler’s “Toward A Radical Middle” is what I keep coming back to. I like how she’s able to keep an even keel and an even tone, while at the same time being very observational and picking up on every detail she’s seeing. It didn’t matter that Chappelle himself had told Oprah on national television that he had quit wholly of his own accord.

Chappelle didn’t seem to understand that these rumors of drugs and insanity, though paternalistic, were just the result of disbelief and curiosity. Like Salinger’s retreat from fame, Chappelle’s departure demanded an explanation: how could any human being have the willpower, the chutzpah, the determination to refuse the amount of money rumored to be Chappelle’s next paycheck: fifty million dollars. Say it with me now. Fifty. Million. Dollars. When the dust settled, and Chappelle had done interviews with Oprah and James Lipton in an attempt to recover his image and tell his story, two things became immediately apparent: Dave Chappelle is without a doubt his generation’s smartest comic, and the hole he left in comedy is so great that even ten years later very few people can accept the reason he later gave for leaving fame and fortune behind: he wanted to find a simpler way of life. You made two bold assertions. Why were they necessary? And was there any worry that you might turn off the reader who doesn’t agree? Well, none of those are assertions really. Name a smarter comedian than Dave Chappelle. And if people don’t miss him, then why are they constantly still looking for him? So, to me, those aren’t assertions–they’re just reads of the landscape. Look, he’s way smarter than Kevin Hart, a close rival with Chris Rock, but doing very different shit. Who else is there? Andy Samberg? If someone disagreed with me, bring it, but bring something, something logical to the argument. And secondly, he states over and over again why he leaves. It gets a little ridiculous. He’s not being oblique about it. So, to me, those aren’t assertions. But why say what you did about Chappelle’s stature? Isn’t it self-evident? You have to build in stakes. If you don’t build stakes into something, well, then the reader has a right to wonder why are you telling me this? Why does this matter? Of what importance is this? It’s a little bit ridiculous to read a story where you don’t know the stakes. To me, it is counterintuitive to what the essay is supposed to do–which is, in some way, to argue for something.

You know you must be doing something right if old people like you.

—Dave Chappelle

Dave Chappelle was in his teens when he first appeared on the comedy-club circuit. He was twenty-three when he and his friend Neal Brennan wrote Half Baked, a now-classic stoner flick about four hapless friends who try to enter the drug-dealing game so they can get bail money for their friend Kenny, who has landed in jail after inadvertently killing a cop’s horse. They were young and had no expectations except to have fun and be funny. They certainly had no idea Chappelle’s Show, another collaboration, would become the most talked-about show on television. But early into the show’s first season, critics at the New York Times would take notice of Chappelle’s “kind of laid-back indignation” and his “refusal to believe that ignoring racial differences will make anyone’s life better.” What Brennan and Chappelle were doing every week was so unusual that the Times declared that “it almost looks like a renaissance for African-American humor on television.”

Chappelle’s comedy found fans in many worlds. At a recent barbecue in Philadelphia, a friend of the host dutifully but disinterestedly interrogated me about my life, and got excited only when my mother let it slip that I was working on a piece about Dave Chappelle. The fourth wall breaks here. It reminds me of something John Jeremiah Sullivan said. He said he liked when the process of reporting a story “gets trapped in the writing of the piece and recorded.” This happens in other areas as well. How and why did you choose to step into the story? That’s interesting, because I don’t feel like I ever step into the story. I always feel like I’m in the story. I would never want to write a story where I’m not in the story. You’re always there. I don’t need to be on the page but I’m present, of course. There are stories where people who have well-defined personalities hold back, but you know they’re so present that they don’t need to be there in first-person. “Sentimental Journeys” comes to mind, where [Joan] Didion doesn’t do what she’d done before in a lot of her reporting, say, “This was told to me” or “This is what the hippies did in Haight-Ashbury. But you know that everything is being filtered through her and you can hear her sensibility. To me, you’re always there. I’m there in how people interact with me; it’s different than if, say, you were reporting or anyone else. What’s happening to me is very personal. It seems necessary, or honest, to say this is how it felt to me as it happened. I don’t like it, generally, when writers insert themselves into their work. It doesn’t often seem necessary and most often gratuitous. I don’t think it’s gratuitous. I think it’s the opposite. In fact, I think the West has this huge importance on saying, “I’m not in the story.” But you’re always in the story. It’s just that you’ve placed yourself in the center, as if it’s not subjective. And part of my subjectivity coming to it, as a woman and a black woman, is that you’re in the story as much as you’re not in the story, even when you’re not present. You can’t remove yourself from the center. There’s a sensibility, especially in journalism, for people to say, “I’m not in the story! It’s objective!” Well, that’s not true at all! You are the filter of the story. You are in it, whether you want to be or not. It’s good to know the vantage point of the writer. That’s why, in “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” Talese is in the story. He’s Italian-American. He related to this person in a different way. It’s why Hunter S. Thompson is in the Ali stuff. They’re both from Louisville. It’s awesome when he says we’re both from Louisville, but we probably never encountered each other. Because at the moment we grew up in Louisville, our worlds were splintered. “Aw, man. I miss that guy,” he said. “He was my friend. I really felt like he was my friend.” I hear this a lot, usually from white people, and usually from white people without many black friends—like this seventy-year-old comparative literature professor in Birkenstocks. Part of what made the show so ingenious was that Chappelle’s racial invective found friends in strange places. With a regularly broadcasted television show, Chappelle was finally able to display what writer and activist Kevin Powell described in an Esquire profile as a “unique capacity to stand out and blend in, to cross boundaries and set up roadblocks.” Almost overnight, Chappelle became America’s black friend. He was a polyglot. He told Powell that, growing up, he used to “hang out with the Jewish kids, black kids, and Vietnamese immigrants,” and it was apparent that Chappelle had used these experiences to become America’s consul and translator for all things racial. More than any comic of his generation, he lanced the boil of how race works and also prodded at how nuanced race had become. “Sometimes convention and what’s funny butt heads,” Chappelle confessed to Entertainment Weekly in 2004, “and when [they do], we just err on the side of what’s funny.”

Besides race, three things make Dave Chappelle’s comedy innovative and universal: wit, self-deprecation, and toilet humor. This is the same triumvirate that makes Philip Roth’s writing so original. Woody Allen’s movies, too. Chappelle had a keen sense of the archetypal nature of race, and understood just as acutely how people work on a very basic level. In a Chappelle’s Show sketch about the reality show Trading Spouses, a black man sits on a toilet in a white family’s house and flips through a copy of People magazine while taking a dump. He looks up: “Who the fuck is Renée Zellwedger?” In another sketch, a stodgy, Waspy white man (Chappelle in whiteface) lies in bed with an attractive black woman in classy lingerie. He wants her. But he wants to make love with his pajamas on.

What guided how you wrote about Chappelle’s comedy? It must’ve been tremendously daunting to write about the most famous comedian on the planet without recycling old ideas. How did you reach your conclusions? You sit and you watch thousands of years of Chappelle’s Show. And you’re like, what are the themes that he keeps talking about? What makes this work? It’s just being observational. What’s the common ground that he’s laying out that makes Half Baked work? What’s the common ground that makes Twain’s “Letters From The Earth” work? I think people are bawdy and human and you need some ground-level bawdy, biological stuff to anything that’s highbrow and brilliant. You need to lay the groundwork for your humor. That’s what Chappelle does well and what Woody Allen used to do really well, when he was younger.  

Chappelle did such a good job of truth-telling, on every subject, that nobody knew what to do when he just stopped talking. In no way did his quitting conform to our understanding of the comic’s one obligation: to be funny. To talk to us. To entertain us. To make us laugh. We aren’t used to taking no for an answer, to being rejected, especially not by the people who are supposed to make us smile. Especially not by black men who are supposed to make us smile. I’m generally put off by the use of ‘us’ in stories. Who are you to speak for me? But it works here. Why? Did you have the audience in mind? No, I never think about the audience. That doesn’t come up for me. When I think about “us,” it’s a better way of saying “folks.” It’s the collective. With someone like Dave Chappelle, who really touched millions of people, I think “us” is completely appropriate. There are figures that are that galvanizing and that unionizing and uniting because of the connection they made to so many people, so it is acceptable to say, “This is why we love them.” Michael Jackson would be one of them. It’s a sort of level of celebrity and Chappelle is definitely on it. With him, it’s not hard to find a big group of people who will say, “Yeah, I felt that way about him too.” And yet Chappelle did just that. And so, like everyone, I wondered what had happened. What had happened, and, more so, what had brought Chappelle to—and kept him in—Yellow Springs? At a stand-up appearance in Sacramento in 2004, a frustrated Chappelle lashed out at his hecklers from the stage, yelling, “You people are stupid!” So what was it about this small college town—where hippies slipped me bags of Girl Scout cookies, where Tibetan jewelry stores and fair-trade coffee shops dotted the main street, and where kindly white ladies crossed the street to tell me my wild hair was giving them life How did you respond? The same way I do to lots of weird people who come up to me and tell me they like my hair: “Oooookay.” As long as you don’t touch it or ask me how I wash it, you just keep it moving. —that made it more satisfying than celebrity or fame?

Even before Chappelle himself, politely but firmly, turned down my interview request, I had begun to suspect that the keys to everything he was doing politically and culturally—block parties with Erykah Badu, videos with Mos Def and De La Soul, and campaigning for young black candidates like Kevin Powell, who stressed social responsibility—were interests deeply informed by his parents. What would you have done if Chappelle had talked to you? Would you still have talked to his mother? Do have any idea what sort of piece that would’ve been? That’s so theoretical. So I don’t know. You know, sometimes I don’t like doing interviews, only because people are sometimes not the best observers of themselves. You sometimes don’t get that much information out of them, as opposed to the information you get from people who know them well. His mother is a historian and his father was a dean of community services and a professor of music. Edward Countryman, the American historian, has pointed out some worthwhile context: “Until John Hope Franklin joined the University of Chicago in 1964, no black person held a senior rank in a major history department that encouraged research and trained doctoral students.” But Chappelle, like Kanye West, grew up in a home where black activism and black leftist thought were the languages of the household. No wonder, then, that both Chappelle and West have wrestled so bitterly and publicly with their sense of responsibility to and also their failure to meet those same obligations. Why did you bring Kanye West into the story? Are there other parallels between them? Don’t I explain that? Yes, but aren’t there other people with whom the comparison would have worked? Were those circumstances so unusual?   Um, I don’t know of other people who grew up with Black Panther or radial leftist professor parents who grew up to be very famous in the hip-hop generation. It is rather specific, no? “It’s a dilemma,” Chappelle told Kevin Powell. “It’s something that is unique to us. White people, white artists, are allowed to be individuals. But we always have this greater struggle that we at least have to keep in mind somewhere.” Chappelle’s throwback kind of celebrity and his many concerns about “social responsibility” are faintly reminiscent of the work that his mother, Professor Yvonne Seon, did in the ’60s and ’70s as a scholar of the Negritude movement.

In 1939, the poet Aimé Césaire would return to his island homeland of Martinique, in the Caribbean, after spending years in Europe. The move would prompt his book-length piece of prose poetry, which André Breton would call a masterpiece: Cahier d’un retour au pays natal (Notebook of a Return to the Native Land). Césaire, a gifted writer, was sent to Europe as a young man to study in the center of the French-speaking world. Once there, he reunited with his childhood friend Léon Damas and a young Senegalese poet and future president named Léopold Sédar Senghor. Together, as black men in France, they attempted to educate themselves in a culture where the word negre was inherently a pejorative. To cope while living under the double bind of colonialism and racism, they created “Negritude,” literally a “Blackness” movement.

Sometime after my first few interviews with Seon How did she react to your request for an interview? Was there any hesitation because her son had turned you down? We had many conversations. I never talked to her about her son. I was genuinely only interested in her. I was interested in what that generation of women meant for their children. And there was this whole moment in the seventies and the eighties when black academic thought was really strong. So I was really interested in connecting with Professor Seon to know her experiences. And the thing about her is that her life was absolutely incredible—as incredible as her son’s in a lot of ways. But also, I’m a person who writes about celebrity, but has no real interest in celebrities. Celebrity in itself is interesting, but celebrities aren’t interesting to me. I care more about why people care. And I do care about how people get to the point where other people care about them. So I really like coming-of-age stories and origin stories. That’s what saved this piece. You don’t go blindly to the brightest thing in front of your face, right? The brightest thing would’ve been Chappelle himself. The more interesting thing, I think, was his mother and the foundation she laid for him and his siblings. When you approached her, how did you position the story? I said I grew up around a lot of these guys, and I’m interested in the connection that many of them have professor mothers. And I was interested in their leftism, and their radical academic work–and how the vestiges of it show up in their sons’ entertainment work. So Chappelle was tertiary to your pitch? To me, the story is barely about Dave Chappelle. Ultimately, the story became about a lot of people and things, and one of them was Dave Chappelle. Because if someone is going to tell a story about Gay Talese, they’re gonna have to talk to Nan [his wife], they’re gonna have to talk to his kids. We are each other’s bounties, said Gwendolyn Brooks. We are each other’s harvest. All of these people are always coming into your being. That’s why profiles are always kind of spoked. We start here, but then we follow all of those spokes out to what makes the whole story. To me, she was one of them. Was she eager to talk to you?   She was eager to talk to me. She knows she has an interesting story in her own right. And one that the world needs to hear. She knows that. How can you not? she mailed me an essay that she wrote in 1975 that had been published in a magazine called Black World. The issue features Muhammad Ali on the cover, and in her essay Seon describes Negritude as being more of a sensibility than a literary movement that is fixed in the past. To me, more than anything, it voices the dilemma her son would experience decades later:

When one speaks of Negritude, one may be speaking of either of two quite different things. In its narrow definition, Negritude is a literary movement of the late 1930’s. In this restricted sense, it represents the use by Black French-speaking poets, of the techniques of French Impressionism to break away from French culture and to give creative expression to an inner, African self that had been hidden away. But the broader, more important meaning of Negritude has to do with a process isolated and identified by these poets. It is the process by which Black people, who have been cut off from and made to learn to know themselves again, come to accept themselves, and begin to believe in (i.e. to value) themselves. At what point in the reporting and writing process did you make the connection between Negritude and Chappelle’s own life decisions? That happened before I even wrote the piece. Because I knew that Professor Seon had worked for Lumumba and is a poet herself. So I knew that he already knew about Negritude. Writing about women tends to be about inner lives, domestic lives, household lives. Never lives that go out and change nations. And so, for me, that Dave Chappelle had a mother who knew she could change a nation–as a woman–meant that he was probably imbued with that sense from the moment he was born. Because how many people’s mother can tell them, “I was driving down the road in Kinshasa and they pulled us over with guns…”? It’s crazy! She’s an extraordinary figure.

Seon was born in Washington, DC. Her father was a fair-skinned man who was adopted by a black woman. Although he self-identified as black, by all accounts he looked Greek. He was also blind. On the day Martin Luther King Jr. was shot, Chappelle’s grandfather was on a city bus and overheard rumblings of a beat-down about to happen to a white fellow on his bus. That guy’s gonna be in trouble, he thought. He did not realize that he was the white man being threatened. This anecdote about his grandfather would inspire Chappelle’s “Clayton Bigsby” sketch—the unforgettable short mockumentary about a blind white supremacist who does not know he is black. Where did you get this information? His mother. She told me that story, more than a few times.

Beginning in 1944, Seon’s mother worked as an administrative assistant for the NAACP. Seon tells me about early memories of sitting outside of NAACP meetings and waving hello to the organization’s chief counsel, Thurgood Marshall, who was working on the cases that would dismantle the Jim Crow laws. In the ’50s, when Africa began to hammer off its colonial shackles, her family found itself in the front lines as black American allies.

“My mother was very much one of the people who was paying attention to what was going on in Africa; she knew the ambassadors, we went to the celebrations of independence. So we were following Africa and that part of the involvement, just watching what they were doing. We were aware of the avant-garde, the people who were questing for liberation in Africa.”

Seon was twenty-two when she met Patrice Lumumba, the young, energetic prime minister of the Congo, at a society mixer. That same afternoon, he offered her a job. She went home and asked her parents for permission, and they came back and talked with Lumumba. It was agreed she would fly to the Congo and help Lumumba, who, unlike Ghana’s President Kwame Nkrumah, didn’t have a college degree or much of a background in government. Instead, Lumumba was a beer-selling postmaster who had crushed one of the most dehumanizing, despotic colonial regimes with pure rhetoric and was now learning how to establish a new nation. She made plans to leave in the winter, but on December 1, Patrice Lumumba was arrested. “The hardest part was not knowing,” she says. In the weeks to come they found out: Lumumba had been murdered, most likely by American and Belgian operatives; Lumumba’s pan-Africanism, his vision of a unified Congo, and his utter lack of patience had alarmed the West so much they had had him killed. (Belgium apologized in 2002 for its “moral responsibility” in the murder.) I could ask this anywhere, but what was the editing process like? Light? Heavy? There are editors who want to go in and change everything because…who knows? But Karolina [Waclawiak] was absolutely awesome and she is an author in her own right. Eliza Mills is another incredible editor (she is not at the Believer) who I trust implicitly and I showed her a draft as well. The editing process with Karolina was, I’d send her things and she’d say, “Ehhhh! Do you like that sentence here?” And I’d say, “Actually, I really do.” And then we could have a dialogue. Some people, you end up fighting them. It’s like, “Dude, I would never write that sentence if I was dying. It has no rhythm, it’s flat, it does not sound good.” Sound is really tricky. How do you express to someone that it doesn’t sound good? But it’s as bad as an editor who came to me and said, “This is clichéd.” I thought of something Renata Adler said: If it’s clichéd, point to it and show me the cliché! Because you just saying it’s clichéd is completely subjective, right? Karolina, though, was so incisive, so correct and so encouraging. I was having a meltdown in the process of writing this piece. I was getting married in two weeks, and she was saying, “Where is this piece?” I knew Chappelle wasn’t going to do the interview. So I was like, “I need to go to Ohio.” And they were like, “You need to go to Ohio? For what?” “Well,” I said, “I don’t know but you just have to trust me on this.” And she did. So the editing process was, to me, a tract of trust, a bond. I was constantly asking for things that had seemingly nebulous returns. But every time I asked Karolina to have faith in me, she did. That’s the ideal kind of editor. We were doing trust falls all summer.

But here is the part you should remember if you want to understand Dave Chappelle’s unbridled wit and compulsion to be free: a young Yvonne Seon still decided to take off for the Congo, not knowing what to expect, but knowing that her contact there—a man who was being mourned by Malcolm X and Che Guevara, whose death incited outraged protests all around the world— had been murdered. She needed to fulfill her promise to the dead man and his hope for a “history of dignity” for African people. “We were very much aware that if America was going to have its independence, our independence was tied to the independence of the African countries. And I personally believed at the time that African Americans would not be able to get civil rights until Africa had won its independence, that the two things were interrelated.” Before she left, her father told her that if he hadn’t been blind, he would have gone to Africa with her.

When she returned to the States two years later, Seon attended graduate school and met her husband, William David Chappelle (who died in 1998), in those times of great hope and unrest. In the late ’60s, they came to Yellow Springs to visit friends for the weekend, and, besotted with the town’s counterculture, diversity, and leftist vibe, her husband didn’t want to leave. When Chappelle was two, his parents divorced, and his father returned to Yellow Springs to teach at Antioch while his mother stayed in Washington, DC, with the children. Dave Chappelle has said of his childhood, “We were like the broke Huxtables. There were books around the house; everybody was educated to a college level. We used to have a picture of Malcolm X in Ghana. Last Poets records. We were poor but we were cultured.”

When they reached the age where he and his siblings could start “running the streets,” his mother sent them to Yellow Springs to live with their father. Chappelle returned when he was fourteen. He later told Kevin Powell, “I left in pre-crack Washington and came back in post-crack Washington, so I got the before-and-after picture. It was literally jolting, like, what the fuck happened? My freshman year of high school, over five hundred kids my age were murdered.”  Is this true? It may not be. Even if it’s false, doesn’t that still say something about Chappelle’s beliefs? Why isn’t it true? The highest number of total homicides in a given year was under 500. How much under? I don’t remember. But is there ever an obligation to correct a falsehood that’s in a quote? I don’t think that’s a falsehood. I think if you’re growing up in crack-burdened D.C. in the eighties, saying that 500 kids were killed–even if it’s 300 kids–that’s just being honest to the magnitude of violence that’s you’re living in. There’s an emotional truth. Now, if he said, “I grew up in D.C. and one kid got killed,” that to me is what I’d be worried about–the veracity. Not, though, if it’s emotionally true and speaks to an understanding of the cataclysmic nature of what was happening to that city at the time.

In addition to the typical growing pains that accompany adolescence, Chappelle found himself having to navigate what he described to James Lipton as being “a very segregated city, especially at that time. Statistically speaking to this day—statistically speaking—there’s not one poor white person in Washington.” Not to belabor the point, but is this assertion, which isn’t true, allowed to stand unchallenged because this is an essay?   Ha! I bet he’s right about that. I mean, how many white people were in Washington then? It was called the Chocolate City for something. Let’s look up Washington demographics [takes out phone] I bet there’s maybe one, but there aren’t a hundred. I grew up near Washington, in Reston, where my mother worked for the State Department. So, in 1970, when he was living there, the black population was 70 percent. That’s incredible. You don’t have black cities like that anymore. So it’s 30 percent for other people, and you can imagine that they weren’t just bumming around. They were probably there in government. It’s a pretty segregated city, but also an intensely black city when he was living there.  DC was a far cry from Yellow Springs, and he struggled to adjust to the culture shock. It was his mother who gave him a copy of a magazine with Bill Cosby on the cover. Chappelle felt instantaneously connected to the comic. When he finished reading, he says, “I put it down. And it was like: I’mma be a comedian. And, man, I’m telling you, I could see it so clearly, so clearly, man—this is it. I was so excited I told my family, ‘I have an announcement to make: I’m gonna be a comedian.’”

Because he was fourteen and his mother took him to gigs around the city, other comics called him “the kid.” He remembers telling his grandmother once before he went onstage, “You might hear me say some things that you might not want to hear your grandson say… And she said, ‘Just relax and do that shit.’ I was like, Wow. I had never heard her curse!” How did you decide to credit your secondary sources? There are wonderful quotes from Lipton, Esquire and elsewhere. Was it a difficult trick to properly credit without breaking up the flow of the story? (This is a constant struggle for a lot of writers. Gay Talese, for example, doesn’t like doing it.) I don’t think it’s difficult. If anything, it probably speaks to a generational divide of having the Internet and ease of cutting and pasting. No, I’m just talking about crediting sources. For instance, in “Frank Sinatra Has A Cold,” Talese took a scene from a story written by Maurice Zolotow, but he didn’t credit him. “I just clipped it,” he said. He didn’t mention Zolotow because he didn’t want to. So it’s not about finding the information. That is probably also generational. How can you get away with not crediting someone’s information that anyone else can find? People get in trouble for that all the time. It wasn’t an uncommon practice among the New Journalism guys. Tom Wolfe did it, too. There’s no latent privilege going on with that crowd, right? I sort of can’t imagine taking someone’s hard work and not putting their name in it. Because I wouldn’t want someone to do that to me because people have done that to people who look like me. I love the blues but how those guys were robbed breaks my heart. People deserve credit for what they do.

Over lunch in Ohio, Seon tells me, with the same optimism as every other time we’ve talked, about the years she spent in Kinshasa. Her stories are populated with dangers she still seems impervious to: Évariste Kimba, a prime minister who soon succeeded Lumumba, was also executed, and the Congo was at the start of a long period of war. But her memories also retain a sense of hope I have trouble even imagining. “You know,” she says, “I’ve never gone back to the Congo, because it is difficult, you know, to look back at a place that was so full of possibilities and see what has happened. That is always hard to see, isn’t it?”

There is a strange moment in James Lipton’s interview with Chappelle where the comedian discusses his decision not to attend college. “I was the first person in my family not to go to college, that had not been a slave.” The audience laughs. I can never tell if they realize that he is serious. Can we talk about the structure? It’s not a classic profile structure. In the two grafs above, for example, we have two seemingly disjointed moments—Seon in Kinshasa and then the Lipton interview. And that’s directly followed by a leap to Muhammad Ali. Clearly, there’s purpose here. The jumpiness is how you get all these things to fit in. You need sections, which help you think about the piece as small parcels. If there are drastic jumps, think about how you end your graf and how you begin the next graf or section. How did you make sense of all the information? Do you use an outline? No. But I write down the theme from one section to the next. And sometimes I’ll write the grafs and then cut them out, physically, and move them around, so that it becomes something palpable and I can think about the flow. You can take up the whole living room, but you need a very supportive roommate or significant other.

In his fantastic profile of Muhammad Ali, Hunter S. Thompson writes that “the Champ, after all, had once hurled his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River, in a fit of pique at some alleged racial insult in Louisville.” The medal was a symbol of a white world that Ali “was already learning to treat with a very calculated measure of public disrespect.” Like most people of the post–civil rights generation, I think that Chappelle, whose family had long been free, educated, leftist, and radical, had hoped that his success would not need to follow that same militant path. Despite the fact that four in ten white Americans do not have any black friends As I read this, a study has come out that 75% of white people do not have a single black friend. So apparently the problem has gotten even worse. I don’t think it’s unusual. These days I don’t really care if you don’t have a black friend. I care if you don’t have a black boss or a black employee or a black coworker. Friends, to me, are neither here nor there. But what that statistic meant for me is that we aren’t even comfortable around people unfamiliar from each other. So the viewpoints are going to be disparate. But what Chappelle did is he became this great interlocutor and he was able to do a lot of that going in-between. When you grow up in a diverse environment, you’re able to have a conversation with anyone. and more pressingly, that all too many workplaces are integrated only in theory, I think Chappelle hoped that he could bring Yellow Springs’ open-mindedness to the world. For a while he did, but then he became aware that his brand of humor was not without a history and was forced to acknowledge its context. Next came conferences with suits at Comedy Central about his use of the n-word and his being chastised in the press, and finally he was humiliated and called insane. Like Thompson once wrote of Ali, Chappelle was put through “one of the meanest and most shameful ordeals any prominent American has ever endured.” Without knowing his history, Dave Chappelle’s decision to figuratively toss his gold medal into the Ohio River does seem like a bizarre, illogical act that abbreviated a successful career on its ascent. But was it illogical? Hardly. Revolutionary? Possibly. To turn his back on Hollywood, to walk away from the spotlight because it was turning him into a man he didn’t want to be—a man without dignity—was a move that was, in a way, Chappelle’s birthright, his own unwieldy kind of Negritude.

There’s no friends like the old friends.

― James Joyce

Why did you use quotes like this throughout? How were they chosen? Reminds me of “Frank Sinatra.” Talese used quotes? Wow, he is so great. [Hunter] Thompson uses quotes, too. And I like it. The quotes let me get where I need to go. They serve as epigraphs. They help to get me started, not just transitionally but mentally. So I could say, “This is about this.” They’re focal points or writing prompts. Was that always the plan? Yeah, these were all in the first draft.

“I wasn’t crazy but it is incredibly stressful,” Dave Chappelle explained to Oprah on The Oprah Winfrey Show in 2006. With his mother sitting in the front row, he was trying to explain why ten months years earlier—without explanation to his wife, to Brennan, or to his bosses at Comedy Central—he had quit his show.

“I would go to work on the show and I felt awful every day,” he said. “I felt like some kind of prostitute or something. If I feel so bad, why keep on showing up to this place? I’m going to Africa.” Five years have passed since that interview, and Brennan has gone on to write for President Obama at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and to work with comedians like Amy Schumer and Chris Rock. Brennan repeats to me how much he respects Dave, but he tells me that being “trashed” by Chappelle on Oprah still bothers him. In 2011, he told a reporter: “You know, for a black artist that’s beloved to go on TV and say he was victimized by a white corporate structure, that is like white-people nectar, it’s like white liberal nectar, like, ‘Oh my god, this young black man has been victimized.’ Dave did real well from the show, you know. There was a huge benefit to Dave. So the idea that somehow he was victimized . . . My experience was he wasn’t victimized and that it was a matter of pressure and needing to eject from the pressure.”

Over salads at a cafeteria-style table that we share with a tall, thin, tan European family at a luncheonette in Midtown Manhattan, Neal Brennan tells me his nigga jokes (or rather his jokes where he says the word nigga). Two weeks earlier, in New Orleans, I had hung out in the whitewashed wings of the Civic Theatre and watched Brennan direct his first Comedy Central one-hour special. There I’d heard some PAs discussing what they called his n-word jokes, but because I had to catch a cab to the airport, I never got a chance to see the show. In New York, sitting a few feet from each other, I tried to prepare myself for the inevitable, but each time I thought about it my hands had instinctively cocked and curled into fists under the table. At this point, there isn’t even a suggestion that Brennan is white. Why? I wonder if it’s because I thought that Neal Brennan is kind of a celebrity? Also, I can’t imagine a black person saying, as Brennan does, “Oh my god, this young black man has been victimized.”

Brennan says Chappelle’s Show told two stories: “What it was like to be a dude, and what it was like to be a black dude.” He grew up in the Philadelphia suburbs and is a former altar boy, the youngest of ten kids in a large Irish Catholic family. He is very thin and he has what he himself calls a “roguish charm.” Brennan is really, really funny and quick. He wears a uniform of jeans, sneakers, and a T-shirt. He has large ears and wide eyes and spiky hair that is often gelled to a point, cockatoo-style. As we talk, I realize that I recognize many of his expressions from the show. Brennan tells me that as a writer he knows how to shape and structure a joke. He directs the jab. “My job and life are basically just saying, ‘Hey, say this.’ Say, ‘Doctor says I needs a backiotomy.’”

Brennan met Chappelle when they were both eighteen. Everyone else in the New York comedy scene was in their late twenties. “Comedy,” he shrugs and sighs deeply, “is incredibly racially integrated. Probably the most diverse workplace there is, and it’s not clannish—there is a table at the Comedy Cellar where we all go, and you can look around some nights and it is Mexican, white, Jewish, black. You are friends based on your comedy ability, not based on your age or something. Like race is almost irrelevant.” Brennan studied film at NYU during the day, and at night he stood outside and worked as the annoying guy who yells, “Hey! Come inside and check out the comedy show!” Chappelle had moved to New York to do stand-up and was working in Washington Square Park, learning from a street comic named Charlie Barnett.

Neal and Dave had similar sensibilities: they liked the same movies (Spike Lee Joints), the same music (hip-hop), the same TV shows (Family Ties). It was kismet. “Chappelle had been on all of these pilots and had been paired with all of the wrong writers, wrong actors; like no thought to chemistry. Just: ‘He’s a hot writer and you’re a hot stand-up,’” Brennan says. Entertainment Weekly would say of Chappelle’s first sitcom: “The worst thing about Buddies is that it makes racism boring.”

Years passed, and Brennan left New York to live in Los Angeles and write comedy for Nickelodeon, but he stayed in touch with Chappelle. Their film, Half Baked, was totally unexpected and came about quickly. In fact, they had only a month to outline it. “We pitched it. Universal sold it in, like, March, and we were shooting it in July. Which is crazy. Really crazy. But we didn’t know anything because we were, like, twenty-three.” Is all this biographical information up until now, and following this, all from Brennan? Or was a lot of this already in the public record? All from Brennan. We talked a lot. We hung out briefly in New Orleans, I went to his show, we talked on the phone.

From the moment they arrived on the set, Brennan says he knew that something was off about the production. “First of all, it should have looked more like Kids and Trainspotting. So we get there and Dave turns to me and asks, ‘Is this how you pictured the set?’ And I go, ‘Nope.’ And he goes, ‘Me neither.’” Neal shrugs again. “But again, twenty-three. And there is just nothing you can do. I’m not a fan of the movie. Dave’s not a fan of the movie.” Directed by Tamra Davis, Half Baked was released in 1998, the same weekend as Titanic, and flopped. Brennan and Chappelle stopped talking for a while. These silences are themes in their friendship. I ask him why. “I guess not wanting to acknowledge responsibility, negative association, you want to leave the scene of the crime. Like having a child die and the parents want to get a divorce.”

It would be the first defeat in a series of many. After Half Baked, Dave bought his “Fuck you, Hollywood” farm, sixty-five acres of land in Ohio. He was living there and having a tough time professionally. Killin’ Them Softly, his one-hour special, came out in 1999. Brennan is blunt about it: “No one cared. But Killin’ Them Softy is a great one-hour special.

“Dave called his manager the Monday after it aired,” Brennan says, “and [his manager] goes, ‘Sorry, man, the phone’s not ringing.’” That is how it was. It cemented a sense within Brennan and Chappelle that show business is built upon what’s hot and what’s not, and, worse, that show business is random, anti-intellectual, and often pretty far behind. “We were the underdogs. We were left for dead and came from behind and did CPR on ourselves.” He pauses and peers over the heads of the towheaded European family sitting next to us. “To give you a sense of things, this is how little respect Dave was getting: we pitched Chappelle’s Show to one station and they literally looked at us like we were lepers. Like, because Chris Rock had just gone off the air, they were like, ‘Chris Rock is everything and you’re nothing, Dave.’ Then we walk up Fifth Avenue and pitch it to Comedy Central. They buy it. And it becomes the show. And now Chappelle’s Show has sold three million copies on DVD.” (It remains the world’s top-selling TV-to-DVD series.)

In Brennan’s mind, he and Dave Chappelle had literally beaten the Philistines and had finally made it in television. But, as Chappelle told Oprah, this was not at all true. When Brennan discusses the demise of the show, he discusses it as a conflict about renegotiating the terms of the third season. Or, as he told fellow comedian Joe Rogan How many secondary sources did you use? I have no idea! I don’t even think about it. It just happens. But I think I mention every single secondary source I actually used. Maybe 30 or 40? in an interview where Brennan looks visibly pained, “It became an ego thing, once the negotiations started. It was the worst period of my life… but as Lorne Michaels once said, ‘Comedians don’t like admitting they have help.’” Brennan says that at the height of the contretemps, they both said awful things to each other. When Chappelle discusses his exit, he does not deny that things went haywire, but he attributes it mostly to his discomfort with the material, the politics of the show, and the climate on the set. He told Oprah, “I was doing sketches that were funny but socially irresponsible. It was encouraged. I felt I was deliberately being encouraged and I was overwhelmed.”

I ask an older friend who is black and a theorist of sorts what he thinks about Chappelle’s Show. I get an answer that surprises me with its vitriol: “Chappelle was at the end of the one-hundred-and-fifty-year minstrel cycle and fifty years after the height of the civil rights movement and ten years after the beginning of Southern hip-hop and in the midst of the most coonish aspects of dirty South hip-hop. He wrung the last bits of potential energy out of taboos that had been in guarded reserve that show niggas as violent, unintelligent, unlettered beasts. And he portrayed niggas that way (while maintaining an ironic distance from those caricatures). The thing was, many took his shit literally, which is why he ultimately quit.” This is such a wonderful quote. Why did your friend want anonymity? I’m going to let the cat out of the bag with that one. That’s Richard Nichols. He was probably the most brilliant person to come out of American culture in the 20th and 21st centuries. He was the manager of a hip-hop group. He passed away in July. He was more of a father figure to me than anyone I knew. He was kind of a theorist, of sorts. When I say that he said it with vitriol, that vitriol wasn’t directed at Chappelle. He loved Chappelle. It was directed at me. It was the nature of our conversations–probing, open-ended and theoretical. He was an absolute genius. And when you talk to people like that, they get exasperated. Like, “What do you mean? Obviously it’s this!” It was just a result of me asking, “What is it?” And that’s what it was. Him yelling at me. So, why didn’t you mention his name? At the time, he had to protect his position as a manager, someone negotiating business on his own. Maybe I should be respectful of that, but he’s too brilliant for me not to go on the record. Now that he’s not here, I’m going to. Was the quote spoken or in an email? It was probably a Gchat. That was our primary means of communication towards the end. I go back and watch “The Mad Real World” sketch, a spoof of the MTV reality show. In the sketch a white man moves into a house full of black roommates and, in the ensuing weeks, his father is stabbed while visiting, his blond girlfriend is turned out by two guys, and the living room is regularly transformed into a makeshift nightclub. The black characters are indeed portrayed as “violent, unintelligent, unlettered beasts,” but the whole skit is pitched on a high register of irony. When I ask Brennan how he dealt with backlash about the show’s use of the n-word and its edgy racial humor, he objects. “As much as people say that about Chappelle’s Show, no one ever got pissed. People ask, ‘Were you worried?’ and it’s like, no, because it was all founded on real, empirical observations and lived lives. Like, that ‘Real World’ sketch was a discussion we had been having for a decade about black people on The Real World. The guy who pulled the blanket off the girl was Dave’s best friend. So we knew what that shit was like.

“Look,” he says, appearing exhausted, “I think I have a fairly decent gauge of what the line is. It is not perfect, but, like, I say the n-word eight times in my stand-up. And it works. People can tell if you mean it. And the other thing is I never say it, I’m always paraphrasing someone. And… I open up by shitting on white people. And pedigree. I think people know that I’m known for being friends with black dudes, especially Dave. And I talk about that, I talk about being called it. I talk about the first time I was called the n-word. I get called the n-word every day. I can show you texts.”

Scrolling through his phone without looking up, he tells me, “So it is a weird thing where you expect me to inhale something and not exhale. And people are like, ‘You can’t say that.’ But I get called it every day. Constantly, for twenty years.” I choked on this a bit. I kind of want to shake Brennan and yell, “THAT IS NOT THE SAME THING, WHITE PERSON.” How did you react to this? Generally, I try to keep very cool with stuff like that before I flip out. But usually it takes about ten attempts. I don’t like people saying n-word at all, ever. And I was expecting him to keep pushing it and then I would just explode. We, as people of color, become very socialized with accepting people’s bad behavior. And so I wanted to indict our acceptance of that behavior, as much as I wanted to indict the people who test us with that behavior. But I did what was comfortable in the moment, which was to laugh. Which was to say, “He’s guilty of something here and I’m guilty of something here.” Which is why Chappelle is even more interesting. He finally said, “Fuck this bullshit. I’m fucking out. You can call me crazy, but I don’t give a fuck because my dignity’s intact.”

Later on, Brennan brings up an idea first posited by the psychologist Beverly Tatum about the ways we tend to segregate ourselves as we get older and grow apart from our friends of different races. Neal tells me, “It’s like when black kids sit at the lunch table with only black kids, and the white kids sit with white kids. I think it is just like, ‘Well, they look like family.’ It is just some animal shit. It is safety.” When I read Tatum’s book, she says something that sticks with me: that so often the difficulty in discussing race is about working around the divide of that which we do not know. As I listen to Brennan talk, I think about how he is right, that comedy is different. Comedians live for the joke and the joke alone. White writers have long written jokes for black comics with great success (my favorites being Ed. Weinberger for Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. for Chris Rock), but at the same time none of this goodwill can negate the possibility that Chappelle experienced what his mother had written about twenty years before: the desire to “learn to know himself again.” And that for all the post–civil rights progress we have made, it is possible that you could be best friends with someone of a different race without being able to enter worlds and spaces that they can, or in the way that they do. I think this is absolutely true. Is it specific to race? Is this also true of men who are friends with women? It’s with many things. But race is one of those things that people always want to immerse themselves in. You see young white people constantly saying, “I’m a black, or I’m so down,” and they don’t want to take on anything. Anything but the burden, for them. Like Iggy Azalea, who is dreadful, people don’t want to do it for more than fun. Ultimately, being anything is not always fun. It’s life. I think there are people, actually, who give up their race and identities, but I’m not entirely sure that they give up their privileges. Who? James McBride’s mom. A Jewish woman who effectively gave up her life as a Jewish woman to live in this black community. She had black kids at a time when people didn’t do that. What I find interesting is you don’t see a lot of people of color who are able to do that, who are able to give up their lives and say, “Hey, guys! I’m white today!” It’s a one-way street. It’s a privilege. So maybe you’re not so much giving up your privilege as exerting it.

After two hours of remarkably easy conversation, I can tell it is time for the moment I’ve been clenching my fist about. Maybe he had needed to feel me out. Neal Brennan, who definitely embodies the best of the easy wit of Chappelle’s Show, goes for it. This moment is the point of highest tension in the story. To be blunt: a black woman confronts a white man about race. And the story itself is about a black man confronting how the world at large (both white and black) perceives his comedy about race. Did you see yourself as a stand-in for Chappelle here? Maybe I did. I remember thinking that Brennan didn’t really know what he was talking about at times, and he knew so little about Chappelle’s mom. That seemed like something he would know and also think about, when he’s popping off saying the n-word constantly to this dude. I mean, how long is that gonna fly for? Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote about him after this piece and I realized then that people tend to see that Neal Brennan is someone who has both a good and bad gauge of things.

“The joke in my act is: ‘It is so bad I call myself it when no one’s around.’ It will be lunchtime and I’m like, Nigga, you need to eat. And I’m like, Who are you talking to?”

My hand unclenches. His n-word joke reminded me of the weird moments when I’ve been around young white men who identify with hip-hop culture and who, for some strange reason, despite their stated best intentions, need to access that word as proof that they are accepted or acknowledged by the community they are involved with. They do not realize the hubris and dominance inherent in the act of wanting to use that word. Brennan’s joke is a joke on those guys, but it is also, inadvertently, a joke on himself. I think he knows this. Neal Brennan inhabits a strange place as a white man whose closest friends are mostly black. But what, if anything, does that mean? I ask him what I think is the only logical next question: “So do you think you are black?”

“No!” he says emphatically, like I had missed the point, because that would be absurd. “I also think that is a silly thing. Like I’ve never spoken Ebonics.”

“Do you think that you’re a racist?” I ask, but not because I think Brennan is any more racist than any other white person, especially if racism is viewed as a system of white privilege and unearned benefits. I ask this because part of knowing where the line is is knowing where you situate yourself along it or against it. I love that you asked this. I think his answer is a cop-out. Yeah, it’s a pat answer. But what does anyone do when asked, “Hey, are you a racist?” I was really asking Brennan how self-aware he was.

“Uh, I think that everybody is racist. It is a natural human condition. It’s tribal.”

Another evening, Brennan and I talk about what the ride of success felt like. He remembers hanging out at a club in Arizona where he and Chappelle were approached by a white fan who was loose with his use of the word nigger and who praised Chappelle for making it so funny. “It was awful,” Brennan recalls.

The thing is, I like Neal Brennan. And I got the joke, I think. But when he first told it to me, there was an awkward silence that I think both Brennan and I noticed. The cafeteria seemed to swell with noise. And for a brief moment, my head clouded, and there was nothing I could think of to say, so to get out of the silence, I did what was expected: I laughed. When I got home, this troubled me deeply. On the whole, how did working on this story affect you? I was just going crazy in general because there was a lot going on. But I remember being deeply engrossed in comedy, more tragic comedy. Comedy was the id to me. We all have that accurate, let-it-bleed reality in us that we keep tucked away because we’re not brave enough to let it out. It was definitely something I became more aware of.

You can’t say anything real when it comes to race. That’s why Bill Cosby’s in such trouble for saying black folks have got to take responsibility for their own lives. I spoke at my high school last week and I told them, ‘You’ve got to focus. Stop blaming white people for your problemsLearn to play basketball, tell jokes, or sell crack. That’s the only way I’ve seen people get out.’

—Dave Chappelle

Last time I was down South I walked into this restaurant, and this white waitress came up to me and said: “We don’t serve colored people here.” I said: “That’s all right, I don’t eat colored people. Bring me a whole fried chicken.”

—Dick Gregory, Nigger

 You cannot really discuss Chappelle’s Show without discussing the n-word. Why ‘n-word’ and not ‘nigger’? As noted below, this puts you at odds with Dick Gregory. I just don’t use it. I don’t like it when white people use it, either. Like you. I think this is the first time I’ve said it aloud. I just don’t think it’s a word to use. I use it socially with other black people, but I think there are private conversations, right? The stupidest argument I’ve ever heard is, “You say it, why can’t I?” All cultures have things that one says that we can’t say to other people. If you don’t know that, then you haven’t existed within any sort of subculture or culture. I asked because you can use the word. But I wouldn’t use the word with you. I wouldn’t use the word with the general public. I don’t use the word with the white people in my life. It’s a private conversation. One also cannot discuss the n-word without discussing Dick Gregory. Neal Brennan and Dave Chappelle weren’t even born yet when Dick Gregory bounded onto the American comedy scene and asked to stand flat-footed or to sit down and be spoken to like a man. Yvonne Seon tells me that when Dick Gregory campaigned for president in 1968, “we all had our eyes on him.” Dick Gregory is a larger-than-life sort of man. To reach him, you have to get past his wife of fifty years, Miss Lillian. “You were lucky,” Gregory tells me. “She is tough. She once told the president I’d have to call him back.”

Although things have slowed down from the days when he commanded a weekly rate of something just shy of fifteen thousand bucks, when the only peers in his earning bracket were Woody Allen, Mort Sahl, and Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory is still on the move. All of his activity is made even more remarkable by the fact that he is now eighty. He still runs and does regular juice fasts, and his long white beard makes him look like a Methuselah among men. And maybe he is. Richard Pryor once said: “Dick was the greatest, and he was the first. Somebody had to break down that door. He was the one.”

Before Dick Gregory, there were no elegant black men in comedy. The generation before Dick Gregory’s grew up on Stepin Fetchit, the stage name of a black actor named Lincoln Perry and one of America’s most famous black personalities for more than twenty years. These days it is difficult to find clips of Stepin Fetchit and the existing films are rarely shown. Stepin Fetchit acts like a shuffling, befuddled fool, and because of this many of Perry’s films have been deemed offensive. Little remains to show his enormous influence on- and off-camera: he was the first black A-list actor, a millionaire during the Great Depression; he owned a fleet of limos and sports cars and he employed a retinue of Asian maids and butlers. He carried guns, he wrote essays for black newspapers, he was handsome, he was a Hollywood outlaw—but none of that mattered on-screen. I can’t imagine how much research you did for this piece. How long was the original draft? We didn’t cut much. Maybe two pages. What kind of stuff did you lose? Stuff that was kind of dangling, repetition. On-screen he stooped his neck, and dropped his bottom lip, and acted as shiftless and stupid as possible. Stepin Fetchit is the id figure, in characterization only, that sits on Chappelle’s shoulder in one of his skits and demands that Chappelle make himself happy and order chicken during a flight. It is not the chicken that is the problem, it is the familiarity of the characterization. That whether Chappelle liked it or not, whether Dick Gregory liked it or not, this was the precedent.

“When the Playboy Club brought me in,” Dick Gregory recalls, “up until then you could sing, you could dance, but you could not stand flat-footed and talk and just tell jokes, because the people upstairs didn’t want folks to know just how intelligent black folks were. [The Playboy Club] brought me in, though, and it opened up the floodgates. Now,” he says, “Will Smith’s movies alone have made three billion dollars.” Dick Gregory’s gig at the Playboy Club started in 1961, and three years later he would write his memoir, entitled Nigger. This is the part of his dedication to his mother that is often quoted:

“Dear Momma—Wherever you are, if you ever hear the word ‘nigger’ again, remember they are advertising my book.”

When I suggest to Gregory that he used his comedy as a weapon, he shouts, “What?” so loud I get scared. “How could comedy be a weapon? Comedy has got to be funny. Comedy can’t be no damn weapon. Comedy is just disappointment within a friendly relation.” This surprised me. I can’t tell if Gregory is being modest, if he didn’t understand what you meant, or if he genuinely believed this. Why, do you think, doesn’t he see comedy as a weapon? It is, right? Well, it’s the sense that comedy isn’t more than the sum of its parts. If it’s not funny, it can’t be a weapon. So what he means is, the forefront of the joke is not to be a weapon; it has to be a joke. It either makes you laugh or it doesn’t. Can’t it be funny and a weapon? Your joke could be a weapon, but it wouldn’t necessarily be a joke. Jokes and weapons have two different functions. That’s what he’s saying. Is his understanding generational? No, I think that’s a comedian’s understanding. Chappelle, he says, was very good at it. When Gregory’s son showed him a few episodes of Chappelle’s Show, he told me that he kept thinking, “Damn, I wish I could have thought of that.” Then Gregory volunteers to tell me the names of the three greatest comedians of all time, and in a proud and awesomely fraternal way, he says, in order: “Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and Mark Twain.”

“Yes,” I say. “But isn’t it difficult to be that profane and that profound, in droves, especially as Twain in Pudd’nhead Wilson?”

“Did you say Pudd’nhead Wilson?” Gregory shouts.

“Yes,” I say, scared again that I’ve said the wrong thing.

Pudd’nhead Wilson! Brilliant stuff! I could kiss you! Mmhm,” he says. “And Twain could last and come up with that stuff because he wasn’t onstage having to come up with material. But listen,” he says, waiting a beat. “Nobody said comedy was easy.”

Dick Gregory admires Mark Twain’s audacity as a white man to discuss race in America. He hates the idea of concealing the word nigger behind euphemisms like the n-word, and he seems to think it should be a shared burden. “Before Twain, no white people would ever write about lynchings. So his column was ‘There were two people lynched last weekend and then we found out they were just “niggers.”’ And then he did the whole article about how the good Christian church people were there. And the white women brought their babies and children were selling Kool-Aid and lemonade, like, ‘So what? They were just niggers!’ That was the first time that anyone in history wrote anything like that, nothing about those gatherings had ever been written about lynching! That had never been done before! And like that, that is comedy!” When I ask Estee Adoram, the lovely, legendary, no-nonsense booker at New York’s best comedy club, the Comedy Cellar, what sort of person becomes a stand-up comic, the first thing she says is “A very brave person. A person willing to be laughed at.”

When I read about Twain saying the word nigger, in the exact same way Neal Brennan did, it does not raise the hairs on my neck. I do not think we want censored comics. It occurs to me that this piece is as much about your own self-education as it is about Dave Chappelle. Am I overthinking it? No, you’re right. Because, while I liked comedy, I didn’t know much about it. I had to figure out how it worked. I tried to get as close to the answer as I could, and the learning process is what you’re hearing. But I’m given pause. Estee tells me she can sense when there is “an unfunny bitterness behind the joke.” The fun of humor is the way it pushes at the boundaries. The joke is indeed a tricky thing. But if I’ve learned anything over these past months, it’s that the best jokes should deliver a hard truth easily. It is the difference between asking girls in the crowd how their butt-holes look—a roast my sister and I endured one night at a comedy club—and mastering the subtlety of the uniquely American art form of stand-up comedy. Dick Gregory has a joke for me:

So I’m standing at the airport and I see this white lady talking to her daughter. Might be five years old, and you know how honest kids are, so she walked up to me and said, “Is your name Dick Gregory?” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “My mamma says you have a tail.” And I said, “Yes, and you tell her my tail is in my front.” What’s it like interviewing Gregory? Is interviewing a legend difficult? How do you maintain your composure? Well, I grew up around show business. Celebrity doesn’t really intimidate me. Socializing with anyone might be difficult for me, but interviewing is just game face.

Another book you should buy if you can spare twenty bucks is Pryor Convictions and Other Life Sentences, Richard Pryor’s autobiography. In it, he tells of a dinner party thrown in his honor by Bobby Darin. Pryor is seated across from Groucho Marx, who told him “that he’d seen me on The Merv Griffin Show a few weeks earlier, when I’d guested with Jerry Lewis.”

It hadn’t been one of my better moments—Jerry and I had gotten laughs by spitting on each other, and Groucho, it turned out, had a few things to say about that.

“Young man, you’re a comic?” he asked.

“Yes,” I nodded. “Yes, I am.”

“So how do you want to end up? Have you thought about that? Do you want a career you’re proud of? Or do you want to end up a spitting wad like Jerry Lewis?”

The man was right… I could feel the stirrings of an identity crisis. It was coming on like the beginning of an acid trip. Groucho’s comments spoke to me. “Wake up, Richard. Yes, you are an ignorant jerk, pimping your talent like a cheap whore. But you don’t have to stay that way. You have a brain. Use it.”

The next sentence? “The thing was, I didn’t have to.”

The thing about Chappelle is that he wanted to use it, and he knew how. There is no doubt that Chappelle’s Show is his finest work, but the block party that he put on and filmed in Bed-Stuy in 2004 is also a revealing production in the sense that we get to see the comedian almost at rest, listening to the music he enjoys with his celebrity friends. I was there, both in the crowd and backstage, and there was a remarkable amount of solidarity, love, and exuberance even in the drizzly September rain. This is, I think, the first time you talk directly about your own connection to Chappelle’s work. And that’s an interesting thing about this story, that your connection is deep, but also long. When did you start thinking about writing it? Oh, man. I’d been wanting to write about Chappelle for so many years. I’ve got everyone I want to write about in my mind. Anyone I’ve ever written about has been on my mind since I’ve known about them. That’s why I don’t like it when people ask me if I want to write about someone. My sister and I, growing up, were really nerdy girls. We had like three VHSs. One was Wayne’s World and we had it memorized. Every single line. She was Garth and I was Wayne, only out of age difference. And after we outgrew that, somehow she acquired Half Baked. My sister is five years younger. She’s in almost every piece I write. She’s the Robin figure in my Batman caper shit. So she got Half Baked and I thought, “What twelve year old kid gets Half Baked and knows all the lines?” She knew the lines before she’d even grown up, which was bizarre but really funny. And Pootie Tang, too. She had the VHS of that, too. But Chappelle we deeply connected to as black nerds. It was like, Oh snap, here is this guy that perfectly summarizes our life in an academic world, growing up in a diverse, hippie community, moving around a lot, being a black weirdo in a family that had more books than kind of money–exactly like us. That was Dave Chappelle’s life, too. When he came out with Half Baked, we both thought, “He is us!” So, he’s always been in my mind, kind of like a totem. There’s a real connection here between the writer and the subject. Oh, yeah. I saw Mike Myers on the street the other day while we were driving. He was all alone. I saw him and I said, “Mike Myers! Yaaaaaaaayyyyyyyy! Party on, Wayne!” He did the hand wave back and I almost lost my mind. There are people who you hope will see you because you’ve seen them for so long. Half Baked and Wayne’s World were the two most important childhood movies of my life. Deep connections to those guys. The kind that I can’t forget. Watching a triumphant Lauryn Hill resplendent in cream slacks and a Yankees cap, reunited with her bandmates from the Fugees. Looking down from a nearby roof, I believed anything was possible—for them, for us Who is “us”? Well, here ”us” is black people. Chappelle was the kind of celebrity who wanted to reach out to fans who looked like him, and it was clear that as much as he aspired to universality, he realized that “the bottom line was, white people own everything, and where can a black person go and be himself or say something that’s familiar to him and not have to explain or apologize?” So sometimes it was very nice to have, as the comic himself said, “Five thousand black people chillin’ in the rain,” like a Pan-African Congress right off of Putnam Avenue.

When I ask Yvonne Seon what she thinks about the n-word and how easily it is used these days in hip-hop culture, she says, “There has always been a tendency to try and rehab a word that has been used as an epithet for you. It’s a way of claiming something that hurt you, hoping that you can say, ‘Now this word won’t hurt me anymore.’ It’s a part of the attempted healing. When James Brown sang, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ that is an example of how he tried to rehabilitate that word. Because there was a time when I was growing up when you didn’t call anybody black unless you wanted to get knocked into next week. There was too much shame involved.”

“Do you think—” I start.

And she laughs and cuts me off with a question. “Do I think, like, ‘I’m black and I’m proud,’ ‘I’m a nigga and I am proud!’ could exist?” We both laugh at the absurdity, and also the very real possibility, of that song. “Hm,” she says. “I have trouble with the word nigga. I associate that word with lynching, violence, and hate, and I don’t associate the word black with that. But I do associate the word nigga with that history. So it’s not a term that I could ever use easily or encourage the use of. There have been articles written about teaching this history, and we’ve discussed them in my black studies class, but what usually happens is that the class eventually decides that they’re going to be part of the movement against the word nigger. Once they understand what the history is and what the word means, they stop using it and they encourage their friends to stop using it.”

“It is about choices,” I say, feeling guilty for a lot of reasons before she demurely stops me.

“Yes, it always is,” she says, “about choices.”

Just being a Negro doesn’t qualify you to understand the race situation any more than being sick makes you an expert on medicine. Do you agree with this? I get what he’s saying but I think, on some deep level, the analogy is facile. I don’t necessarily agree with it. The quote I like more is from Toni Morrison. She said, “I can’t be the doctor and the patient.” That makes more sense.

—Dick Gregory

Tamra Davis, the director of Half Baked, is feeding her children, so she can’t say out loud the last lines of the movie she directed. These are lines she had to fight for, and, along with Brennan and Chappelle, she had to try to convince fifteen studio executives that they deserved to be in the movie. She tries to talk around the lines, but finally she whispers, “I love weed, love it! Probably always will! But not as much as I love pussy!” She giggles. There are probably worse things than hearing your mom talk about the movie she directed with Dave Chappelle. Tamra Davis is nonchalantly cool, despite having the distinction of having directed the early movies of Adam Sandler (Happy Gilmore) and Chris Rock (CB4). She grew up in California and has been around comedy all her life. Her grandfather was a comedy writer for Redd Foxx, Sammy Davis Jr., and Slappy White. She understands comedy instinctually, and knows that the difference between a writer and a comic is the energy and love a comic must bring to the stage, to the audience.  You talked to some really interesting people. Who, aside from Chappelle, wouldn’t talk to you? Paul Mooney, Louis C.K. and I couldn’t find a connect to Chris Rock. Also, Bill Cosby wouldn’t talk to me. I pursued him for three months, the entire time. There was no brotherly love shown to this Philly girl by Cosby. He was my imaginary dad, too, growing up.

Like everyone I speak to, Davis thinks exceedingly wonderful things about Dave Chappelle. The man has a hagiography; I hear it from everyone: from Neal Brennan to a former executive of Comedy Central, who tells me, “I have so, so much respect for Dave. He is a great guy.” For all the bridges he has supposedly burned, Dave Chappelle is beloved. Tamra Davis is the most direct. “I just really think his voice is an important voice to be heard. I’ve spent my life working with young people who all of a sudden get launched into an incredible position of celebrity and fame and it’s very, very difficult to handle. And people handle it in different ways. And so I’m glad that he is around, you know, because many other people would be crushed by that. Having to have that inner dialogue in your head, knowing that everybody is talking about you. It’s a very difficult thing to have to navigate.”

What separated Dave Chappelle not just from Neal Brennan but also his fans is that he was suddenly vaulted into the awkward position of being the world’s most famous interlocutor in a conversation about race—the one conversation no one likes having. Yes, it is hard to look back. But it’s easy to understand why Chappelle was done with being misread, tired of explaining, finished talking. As Brennan, and then everyone else, told me: the man turned down fifty million dollars. You will never get him to speak with you.

“Beware, my body and my soul, beware above all of crossing your arms and assuming the sterile attitude of the spectator, for life is not a spectacle, a sea of griefs is not a proscenium, and a man who wails is not a dancing bear.”

—Aimé Césaire, Notebook of a Return to the Native Land

When a chance came to visit Yellow Springs, I had no expectation that Chappelle would be there. But I wanted to see it. In Yellow Springs, I met Yvonne Seon. We had a good time. We discussed my wedding, we discussed Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and she introduced me to her family. It was a lovely day. Idyllic, even. On my way out of town, I felt tired, so I stopped for some coffee at a local coffee shop. As I was paying, I saw a few guys out back in the garden, talking, and then I saw Dave Chappelle, in a weird white tank top that strained to contain his muscles. No longer lean. Well-defended.

So at a cash register in Yellow Springs I stood and watched as the person I had so badly wanted to talk to walked toward me. But when he said hello, I made a decision that—until my plane ride home—I kicked myself for. Moving on pure instinct, I simply said hello, turned and finished paying my bill, and left.  This decision of yours–to let him go, as it were–was quite contentious! “There was no conversation to have,” you told Longform, because Chappelle had already declined to do an interview. “The point is he’s stated all he needs to say.” Is this the difference between being a reporter and an essayist? I think a reporter would be obligated to be, as you put it to Longform, a pest, while the essayist has the freedom to stay back. But is the reporter obligated to find things if they already know the answer? Plus, I don’t think the story needed it. You need to respect people’s autonomy and their ability to make decisions for themselves. It’s a comment on the entire history of black people in America. We haven’t had autonomy and ownership of things. Here was someone who had ownership of all that stuff, and didn’t have any reason to return again. I don’t think I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wanted to be pestered; I wanted to see Dave Chappelle, the person who wouldn’t talk to me. And that’s what I got. I was pretty satisfied with that.   As soon as you saw Chappelle, did you know that was going to be the end of the piece?   Yeah, I did know. I knew when I went out to Yellow Springs, that what are the chances of me seeing Dave Chappelle? I literally just went to have lunch with his mother. I just found her so amazing. It never crossed my mind that I might see Dave Chappelle and it never crossed my mind to ask her to meet him. We never talked about him. So when I saw him, I thought, “Oh, my god. This is crazy. You’ve been looking for this person for three or four months now.” And here this guy is, just walking down the street. Do you know what that is like? That was cray-zee. I knew for months that I just needed him in it. And then the dude walks by in a tank top and a backpack. He’s fucking buff, too. It was weird as shit. It was weird to catch up with him ten years later and he looks like The Incredible Hulk in mocha. I have one more thing to tell you, because this is the last interview I’ll ever do about this piece, so I’ll let this one out. When you see the person you’ve been reading about–thinking about, talking about; almost living, eating and breathing them–just walk down the street, it’s incredible. I went to get the coffee and he just walked right by. And he actually said, “Hello.” In that moment–which was kind of Negritude; that is what my mom calls it when black people see each other, we know instinctively to always say hello–I knew I could’ve said, “Hey, I just had lunch with your mom,” or “Hey, I’m working on this piece.” But as soon as it happened, it was over. And he kept living his life. And that, to me, in my gut, that was the end. I got the right thing. So then I’m flying out of Dayton on this small plane, and I’m sitting next to this guy and we’re talking. And he ends up being Dave Chappelle’s best friend in Yellow Springs. And that’s when I really knew I had done the right thing. I knew it was all good. Finally, the other thing is, Dave Chappelle did a show at Radio City Music Hall and I got backstage passes from Richard Nichols. Rich was always looking out for me. So my husband and I are going backstage because there was a break between shows. And I knew that I might see Dave Chappelle and I was going to tell him that I’d written this long piece about him. And I was so excited to let it all bleed. There’s a scene in Chappelle’s Show about what if everything was in slow motion. So we were walking backstage and, all of a sudden, I see Dave Chappelle coming towards me. He’s carrying a bottle of Veuve and security is around him. But I have my pass and I’m feeling emboldened, so I get ready to talk to him. Then suddenly a big hand goes pssshhhewwww! We’re not small people but we were cleared the fuck out! Which is exactly what he does in that skit, he imagines being cool enough to do that to people. And I thought, anytime you get to make a skit like that come to life, just keep on truckin’, brother. So I’m still searching for Chappelle, ten years later.

Did I mention that the light is beautiful at dusk in Yellow Springs? The people walk the streets, going to the grocery store or looking at the theater listings. There is a café that was once a house on the Underground Railroad that now serves delicious Reuben sandwiches and plays disco music. People say hello in passing, kids with Afros zip by on scooters. It is small-town America, but with hemp stores. I didn’t want to leave, because it seems like an easy place to live. Not without its problems, but a place with a quiet understanding that conversation is the minimum for living in a better world. You know, simple things.

At a memorial for his father a few years back, standing next to his mother at the podium at Antioch College, Dave Chappelle ended his speech by thanking the community of Yellow Springs. “So,” he said, “thank you to you all for giving my father a context where he could just exist and be a good dude, because to be a good dude, as many good dudes have shown you before, is just not a comfortable thing to be. It’s a very hard thing to aspire to. And so thanks for honoring him, because sometimes it is a lonely, quiet road when you make a decision to try to transcend your own demons or be good or whatever he was trying to do here.”

In my car’s rearview mirror, it doesn’t seem strange to me at all that I am watching America’s funniest comic standing in a small town, smoking cigarettes and shooting the shit with his friends. Like everyone else on the street, one friend is white, the other is black—the only difference being that they are with Dave. But here Dave is just Dave. Totally uninterrupted, unheckled, free to be himself, free to have a family, and land, and time to recover. Time to be complicated, time to be a confessed fan of fame who one day decided that it was important to learn to be himself again. Chappelle took a drag on his cigarette, and laughed, and it was apparent that he was doing what he said he wanted most in life: having fun and being funny. So, for better or for worse, I took this to be my answer.

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5 Questions for Jill Lepore Mon, 06 Oct 2014 13:43:22 +0000 lepore_1_uncroppedNo wonder Jill Lepore describes herself as a “code-switcher.” She’s both a prize-winning professor of history at Harvard University and a staff writer for The New Yorker magazine. Her most recent book, “Book of Ages: the Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin,” was a finalist for the 2013 National Book Award for non-fiction and Lepore was also a finalist for the 2006 Pulitzer Prize in History for “New York Burning: Liberty and Slavery in an Eighteenth-Century City.” After speaking recently with the current class of Nieman fellows, Lepore sat down with Storyboard to talk about her upcoming book on the strange and wonderful story behind Wonder Woman (a morsel of which you can read here); what journalists and historians can learn from each other; and that time she didn’t footnote the birds. Following are edited excerpts of the conversation:

If you could talk about Wonder Woman first, how did you get that idea and what attracted you to the subject?

Well, I guess not what one would think. I wasn’t a Wonder Woman fan as a kid. I came at from a completely different angle and then I felt compelled to write it because it seemed to me I’d come upon an important discovery, meaningful as a piece of political history, chiefly.

I’m really interested in the history of privacy, and I’d been researching the history of privacy for a while, and I come across William Moulton Marston, because he’s key in the development of what becomes the lie detector test and the polygraph is really important in what becomes the history of privacy. So I spent a good amount of time with Marston and it turns that he also, much later, goes on to create Wonder Woman.

Meanwhile, the news was sort of broken in the 1990s, he had a polyamorous family; he lived with three women by whom he had four children. And that’s just interesting on its own. And then I happened to go to Smith College to do some research for a New Yorker piece I was asked to write on the history of Planned Parenthood. I was interviewing Cecile Richards, who was the president of Planned Parenthood but I was doing some archival work, too. And Margaret Sanger, who founded Planned Parenthood with her sister Ethel Byrne in 1916, her papers are at Smith and so are the papers for Planned Parenthood.

In any case, while I was looking through the Margaret Sanger papers, I kept coming across letters from Olive Byrne, who is Margaret Sanger’s niece, the daughter of Ethel Byrne. And Olive Byrne is one of the women Marston lived with. No one had ever noticed that before because everyone had agreed to keep it a secret. When people would go to write biographies of Margaret Sanger, they would go to find her surviving family, and Olive Byrne not only was her niece but was essentially raised by her and became her secretary and also organized her papers when her papers were given to the library. So Olive Byrne was a really crucial source in the history of Margaret Sanger. People would go interview her and she had this whole fiction about who she was married to and who was the father of her children. Never mentioned Marston.

So it would be very difficult if you were just reading Margaret Sanger papers or interviewing Olive Byrne to make the connection to Wonder Woman, but I knew a little about Olive Byrne because I knew about Marston. Then I talked to the family and the family eventually let me look at the family papers and it turns out Wonder Woman is based on Margaret Sanger, which, when you think about that, explains a lot about the 20th century and the history of feminism and that seemed to me really important to tell, in spite of the fact that I really never otherwise would’ve chosen to write about a superhero. 

Can you talk a little bit about your methodology? How is the methodology of a historian the same or different from the methodology of a journalist? What can they learn from each other?

I’m the archive rat kind of historian. I love being in the archive. I love finding stuff. And then as a writer, I love trying to bring the dead to life. I love trying to animate a story that’s long dead, not just the people but the happenings, to bring it to life. And so it’s a very kind of gumshoe sensibility. I love pounding the pavement and getting the story.

And it’s a part of why I love doing the journalistic piece that sometimes involves reporting, like about Planned Parenthood. I loved going to interview Cecile Richards, too, but I would not be the journalist who would go only to interview Cecile Richards. That to me is not a story, that’s an interview. For me, the story, you would have to have an archival piece. And not a lot of historians would think in writing about the history of Planned Parenthood they should go interview Cecile Richards. They would abjure the journalistic piece. But I have nothing but respect and esteem for that work. That reporting is so important. So I love the chance to try to combine those two because they do bear a great deal in common, in terms of the discovery, the discovery of facts and then the telling of the story that explains something that’s quite complicated narratively. I love delivering an argument through narrative. And the best journalism does that exceptionally well, too.

An easy problem for journalists to fall into when they want to write about the past — now anyway– is the false analogy. Because not working in what historians call “the longue durée” about large-scale change over time, most people tend to assume that in other eras, people were just like us — just like us but they dressed differently. There’s a kind of costume drama to it. So when the global financial meltdown happened in 2008, journalists kept writing about the Great Depression and finding someone who lived through it, and [asking], “What was it like to be so hungry?” Actually, 1929 and 2008 have very little in common. The analogy was just quite specious. So I think that’s a little terrible, honestly. I think that’s a little terrible, and I think that’s a little lazy. Even though I understand the temptation and the good intention behind it. So it’s something I try really hard not to do, but even I tend to fall into the analogies. Analogy is such a powerful device for how we understand and what’s going on at this moment. So I think what journalists, when they’re asked to think about earlier moments, to remember that work is about as much to chronicle and demonstrate how different it was as is it is to illustrate what might be similar.

How do you go about putting those pieces together as a writer? If you are interested in narrative nonfiction and you want to create a character and you’re dealing with people who are long dead and for whom the information is perhaps sketchy, how do you go about reporting that out, to put it in journalistic terms, and trying to fill in the gaps with accurate information?

So, research, research, research, research, research is the answer there. I think that’s it’s always an error not to do the extra leg of research. I wrote this book a few years ago called “New York Burning.” It’s about the slave rebellion in New York in 1741. So I did a lot of work in one chapter, the opening of the chapter of the first day of the trials because they’re all brought to trials. I spent paragraphs setting the scene before the trial begins of having the judges come. I knew where they lived, so there’s really only a certain number of ways to walk there. There’s not that many roads in New York. And what time the peal ringer rang the bell and I knew how much he was paid to ring the bell and at what hour he would have had to ring.

I just did a lot of careful work to try to set the mood of this and it turns out there was a massive bird population in early America that we have completely forgotten about–the people wrote all time about the numbers of birds — because they begin a great decline in the 19th century. But in the 18th century, there are just thousands and thousands of birds in the city all the time. So in the scene I set in the beginning, and the judges entering and they’re walking up and there’s the men who were below ground and what that means and all these sort of literary devices but leaning very heavily on the very careful reconstruction of the records of the building of the building.

I know what year they put the wainscoting on, and how much the plasterers were paid, and then I get to the end and the bell rings and I say something like, “The birds scattered from the cupola with the ringing of the bell.” The bell was in the cupola. And this one historian wrote I was such a storyteller, which was meant as an insult, and a weaver of fictions because he checked my footnotes, and nothing in my footnotes had anything about the birds. And I just thought this is the perfect metaphor for the problem with a certain form of pedantry in the sense that I guess maybe I didn’t cite the remarks other people made on other days about the number of birds. But if you’ve ever watched a bell being rung in a cupola where there are birds on the cupola, when the bell rings, the birds fly away.

Did you perform that experiment, just to be sure?

I know, right! Scene-setting is important to me in the same way it would be important to a narrative nonfiction writer who’s not a historian. And the precision of the detail is really important to me. But in my field, there tends to be a lot of suspicion [that] somehow you’re playing fast and loose if you’re using a literary device, because it’s obviously such a literary gambit, the way this chapter begins.

When you’re crafting a narrative, to what extent are you thinking of the reader? A journalist is thinking of the reader and so many academic writers are not thinking of the reader.

You know it’s easy to bash academic writers, but it’s completely unfair in the sense that academics aren’t writing for those readers. They’re writing for other academics and specialists and that’s all to the good and what they should be doing. That’s an efficient way to advance the production and distribution of knowledge within a field, within a field of inquiry. There’s nothing wrong with that.

[W]riting for a different audience is really fun. To the degree I have the capacity to do that, I owe it entirely to my editor at The New Yorker, who is just an incredibly brilliant editor and has taught me more than I could possibly hope to ever really learn and digest.

But thinking about how to take a complicated body of knowledge that particular historians have, bring it onto the page in a way that will reach a reader that does not have that body of knowledge but does not want to be spoken down to in any way because they’re a very, very smart person, and bring it to life by respecting that these people lived lives and they’re not to be used, they’re not fodder for our cannons, they’re real people who lived and died and they deserve every bit of the truth and dignity of the lives they led and not to be put to some political use in our particular moment in time. Nonetheless, to have a story have a kind of resonance with the current moment because we’re all human and because we face struggles in common, struggles over time, that’s like the most fun jigsaw puzzle. It’s just fun to me. I think that’s an incredibly interesting intellectual project. And the idea of maybe it also offering delight to a reader in this kind of 18th-century Laurence Sterne way. Like, may I tickle your fancy? That I love.

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Bringing creativity to complex issues: The Washington Post, New Republic and CIR Fri, 03 Oct 2014 12:23:13 +0000 This week’s 3 for 2 picks highlight recent work that incorporates elements of creative storytelling to examine complex issues, with standout journalism on national security, criminal justice and the environment. Plus, noses found in a sewer.

In a series of articles detailing lapses in security at the White House, the Washington Post’s Carol Leonnig broke open the scandal now engulfing the U.S. Secret Service, marked by the resignation Wednesday of director Julia Pierson. That’s just plain kick-ass, but her work is also notable for using narrative in what might otherwise be a traditional investigative story. Look at the opening paragraphs of her Sept. 27 story detailing a 2011 incident in which the Secret Service failed to respond for days after a man fired high-powered bullets into the White House:

The gunman parked his black Honda directly south of the White House, in the dark of a November night, in a closed lane of Constitution Avenue. He pointed his semiautomatic rifle out of the passenger window, aimed directly at the home of the president of the United States, and pulled the trigger.

A bullet smashed a window on the second floor, just steps from the first family’s formal living room. Another lodged in a window frame, and more pinged off the roof, sending bits of wood and concrete to the ground. At least seven bullets struck the upstairs residence of the White House, flying some 700 yards across the South Lawn.

President Obama and his wife were out of town on that evening of Nov. 11, 2011, but their younger daughter, Sasha, and Michelle Obama’s mother, Marian Robinson, were inside, while older daughter Malia was expected back any moment from an outing with friends.

Following a federal investigation and a number of negative media reports (including this New Yorker article), the New York City Corrections Department announced this week it would stop putting juveniles in solitary confinement. One of the most striking approaches to covering this long-running story, which, as you can imagine, is difficult to portray visually, is a 5-minute, black-and-white animation, one element of a comprehensive, ongoing investigation of the solitary confinement issue by the Center for Investigative Reporting. Produced by Michael Schiller, with reporting by Trey Bundy and Daffodil Altan, the animation uses bold illustrations by Anna Vignet to accompany an audio interview with a former juvenile inmate.*

The loss of land in Louisiana has been the subject of several interesting projects, among them strong pieces by 2013 Nieman Fellow Brett Anderson in the online publication Matter  and a collaboration by ProPublica and The Lens, a nonprofit newsroom in New Orleans. But for its lede alone, this New Republic story by Nathaniel Rich is worth your time:

“In response to complaints some years ago about blocked plumbing along New Orleans’ Claiborne Avenue, city workers opened up the sewer main and found a human nose. Following the line down the avenue, popping open manholes and looking inside, they discovered ears, fingers, fingernails, shriveled flaps of skin, viscera. Where had it all come from?”

How could you not want to keep reading that?

Storyboard welcomes suggestions for our 3 for 2 feature. Send stories you think we should read, watch or hear to

*(Full disclosure: I have done occasional consulting for CIR but did not work on this project; I just think it’s cool.)





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Best of the best of the best? Thu, 02 Oct 2014 14:15:00 +0000 Here’s a highly curated list for you. Robert Atwan, the editor of the “Best American Essays” series, has selected for the Publishers Weekly website his top 10 essays since 1950. Atwan is careful to point out that he chose the best essays, not the best essayists, and that to make the winnowing easier, he eliminated from consideration examples of New Journalism, including work by Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe. So, what’s left?

Well, the list, which is in chronological order, begins with James Baldwin’s “Notes of a Native Son,” which originally appeared in Harper’s in 1955. About this piece, in which Baldwin examines his difficult relationship with his father and his racial identity, Atwan writes:

“Some today may question the relevance of the essay in our brave new “post-racial” world, though Baldwin considered the essay still relevant in 1984 and, had he lived to see it, the election of Barak Obama may not have changed his mind. However you view the racial politics, the prose is undeniably hypnotic, beautifully modulated and yet full of urgency.”

The list concludes with David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the Lobster,” from Gourmet, in 2004, which recounts his visit to the annual Maine Lobster Festival. Wallace’s work, Atwan argues, is often mistaken for traditional magazine journalism:

“Those factually-driven, expansive pieces on the Illinois State Fair, a luxury cruise ship, the adult video awards, or John McCain’s 2000 presidential campaign—but once you uncover the disguise and get inside them you are in the midst of essayistic genius.”

Situated between these bookends are Joan Didion and John McPhee and Annie Dillard, among others. And left behind, of course, are all kinds of questions — nothing since 2004? — and, for essay enthusiasts, inevitable quibbles about what didn’t make the honor roll — not Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings?”

You can read the entire list, with links to most of the essays, here.




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Barbara Mahany and the spiritual landscape Wed, 01 Oct 2014 12:21:00 +0000 Editor’s Note: Welcome to the newest installment of “Writing the Book,” an occasional Storyboard feature in which journalists turned authors discuss the challenges of creating their work. In this essay, freelancer and 2013 Nieman affiliate Barbara Mahany explores how she approached writing about the sometimes uncomfortable issue of spirituality in her upcoming book, “Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door,” which Publishers Weekly recently named one of the top 10 religion books of fall 2014. You can find the archive of “Writing the Book” here.

Barbara Mahany

Barbara Mahany

I’ve written about my mother’s cancer. And the string bean of an unborn baby who slipped through my fingers in the dark of the hollowest night, amid clots of blood and a wail of primal grief.

I’ve written about the abyss of the hour when I paced an emergency room, waiting to hear if my older son’s spinal cord had been severed when he flew from his bike to a trail in the woods. I even once dared to write — in the pages of the Chicago Tribune, my hometown newspaper — how I became anorexic my senior year of high school, and, in the flash of a few short spring months, plunged from glory to shame in my infamy as the homecoming queen who had to be hospitalized after dropping 50 pounds.

But saying out loud that I look for and find God nearly everywhere I wander? That scared me.

Especially among my fellow journalists, for whom skepticism is religion. Pulling back Oz’s curtain, taking down the too-powerful, those are the anointed missions. To stand before an imagined newsroom and say I bow to the Almighty source of all blessing, I believe in the Unknowable, the Invisible, a force I know to be tender and endless and ever in reach, a magnificence that animates my every hour, that is to stand before the firing line. That is to expose yourself, I feared, as unfit for Fourth Estate duty.

But I did it. Led by a deep, still voice.

Now, it’s all bound in a book, called Slowing Time: Seeing the Sacred Outside Your Kitchen Door (Abingdon Press, 2014). And, as of Oct 7, you’ll find it in bookstores, on Amazon, even on the shelf of my town’s library.

 The burning question for a journalist who’d dare to chart the spiritual landscape is how, using the tools of the craft, do you toughen the fibers, sharpen the edges, of a subject that, by definition, is formless? How do you put hard-chiseled words to believing, indeterminate act that it is?

For me, it boils down to three non-negotiables: Pay exquisite attention, even when it’s your soul you’re sliding under the examiner’s lens; root yourself in the earthly while soaring toward the heavenly; and don’t flinch. Your edge comes from your capacity to pull back the veil where others dare not.

Paying Attention

It struck me recently that my paying-attention curriculum, the part that came from syllabus as much as natural-born curiosity, began in the halls of a college of nursing, where in shiny-linoleum-tiled classrooms, in the fall of 1976, a whole lot of us — sophomore nursing students on a four-year track — began to learn to see the world through a nurse’s dare-not-miss-a-detail eyes.

My very first assignment, once a white nurse’s cap had been bobby-pinned to my run-away curls, was to bathe a woman who was dying of a cancer. I was taught, straight off, to look deep into her eyes, to read the muscles flinching on her face, to hear the cracking of her words as she tried to tell me how warm she liked her bath, and which limb hurt too much for me to lift it.

And on and on, the learning went — as I became a pediatric oncology nurse at Chicago’s Children’s Memorial Hospital, and watched the waning light in the eyes of a 15-year-old boy at the hour of his death. As I gauged the depth of blue circling the lips of 6-year-old girl with cystic fibrosis. As I buried the sobs of a wailing father against my shoulder, as he absorbed the diminuendo of his 12-year-old daughter’s final breaths.

At the precipice of life and death, I learned to live a life of close examination. And when I made the leap from nursing to newsroom, a narrative twist brought on by the sudden death of my father, and an off-handed comment after his funeral that I ought to try my hand at journalism, I only broadened my lens. Paid keener attention to the singular detail that revealed the deeper story.

Root yourself in the earthly.

Even if I’ve never broadcast the holiness that informs my every day, it’s always been there. It was front and center, back in 1985, when I criss-crossed the country, documenting the faces and forms of hunger in America, for a 10-part series unspooled in the Tribune. It was a pilgrimage that put flesh to my own personal gospel: One that drove me to see the face of God in everyone whose path I happened to tread, everyone whose story spilled into my notebooks. From ramshackle cabins in Greenwood, Mississippi, to urine-stenched stairwells in Chicago’s Cabrini-Green, high-rise housing hell.

I never set out to be a religion writer, though when the slot opened once at the Tribune, I gave it a moment’s consideration. Nor did I ever set out to expose the whispers and truths of my soul. All I wanted was to hold up to the light the stories of everyday sinners and saints who so richly animate the grid, urban or rural or spaces between. It was in the backwash of the forgotten, the pushed aside, the indomitable that I noticed the glimmering shards.

In my own way, always drifting toward stories that fell in the crosshairs of human struggle or anguish and rose in crescendo toward triumph or wisdom gained, I was gathering notes on the human spirit, and never surprised when I felt the hand of God — like a thud to the heart, or, more often, a tickle at the back of my neck.

There’s an ancient Hebrew text, one with echoes of Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave,” that teaches us that while we can’t see God, we can see God’s shadows. The more etched the shadows, the more we know God, according to the teaching. It’s wisdom that drives me to tether my prose in the concrete, to allow the metaphor to spring from the particular, to capture a glimpse of the Holy from the depths of ordinary.

Dont flinch.

Back in 2006, my then 13-year-old, who’d scored enough in bar mitzvah gifts to cash in on a refurbished MacBookPro, bequeathed his old laptop to me. As part of the deal, he built me a website one December night when the winds whistled in through the cracks in the door. He told me I could handle a blog. I shivered.

Then I started to type. Called it “Pull Up a Chair.” Set out to write about the heart and soul of the home front.

Each weekday morning for a year, I rose before dawn, poured a tall mug of caffeine, and I wrote. Exercised narrative muscles I’d never known were there. Connected dots in the course of free-flowing sentences. Sometimes felt the particular buzz that tells you you’ve tapped just the right vein. The one, in my case, that flowed from my heart to my soul. I’ve been writing that blog ever since. Nearly eight years of accumulated essays.

By day, I forged on with the daily grind of newspapering. But what happened at dawn – the writing that drew me into places I’d never explored aloud – it freed a particular voice. What had been un-utterable became a tremulous whisper, and, in time, a brave clear call.

Along the way, I’ve endured what might be the hardest lesson: The one where I find myself plumbing depths that are truer than true, though I’d never quite put them to words. As in: “I seem to hum most contentedly when my canvas has room for the paint dabs of God. When I hear the wind rustling through pines, when I take in the scarlet flash in the bushes, when I trace the shift in the shadows through the long afternoon, that’s when I feel the great hand of the Divine slipping round mine, giving a squeeze. That’s when I know I am not deeply alone. But, rather, more connected than in a very long time.”

Or: Writing of the sleepless night when, in desperation, I reached for a rosary I’d not fingered in years. “It’s the [rosary] I squeezed till my fingers turned white when they threaded the wire into the heart of the man who I love, the man who I married. And when they dug out the cancer from the breast of my mother. And that I would have grabbed, had I known, on the crisp autumn night when the ambulance carried me and my firstborn through the streets of the city, his head and his neck taped to a stretcher. I prayed without beads that night, I prayed with the nubs of my cold, clammy fingers.”

Call me crazy — or oddly courageous — to invite readers under my bedsheets, where I finger the rosary. To whisper aloud the words of my prayer, not cloaked in cotton-mouthed vagaries, but laid bare in the most intimate script, the one that unfurls from my heart to the heavens.

Instead of playing it safe, instead of turning and running, I plunge forward. I follow the truth. I say it out loud. And then I hit “publish.” Often, I find myself queasy. Call a dear friend. I rant, and I fret. Consider deleting the post. Then the emails come in, the ones that tell me I’ve captured a something someone never quite noticed, something that gave them goosebumps. And therein, I discover communion, in its deepest iteration. That’s how you learn not to flinch.

The story of how my book came together — how hundreds of pages were sorted and sifted and whittled and culled, how words written in silence at my old kitchen table would emerge to be passed from friend to friend — is, like most things spiritual, an amalgam of the mystical and the prosaic.

high res SLOWING TIME coverIt all traces back to books I spied on the desk of the Cambridge professor who would become our landlord during our Nieman year. I knew, once I saw the stacks of poetry and divinity titles, that his book-lined aerie, the top floor of a triple-decker just off Harvard Square, was the one we needed to rent. What I didn’t know is that the gentle-souled professor would soon introduce me to a Boston book editor he termed, “the best of the best.” Nor that I would fly home to Chicago at the end of that Nieman year with a contract and an end-of-summer deadline for a book I’d loosely conceived of as a Book of Common Prayer, believing it’s the quotidian rhythms that hold the deepest sparks of the Divine, and it’s in the rush and the roar of the modern-day domestic melee – held up to the light — that I find improbable holiness.

And so, what had been occasional dabblings into the sacred realm — written over seven years, refined over one summer — became a tightly woven tapestry that now, as I read from beginning to end, feels something like a banner. Or maybe a prayer shawl in which I quietly, devoutly, wrap myself.

I’m braced – I hope – for the cynicism, or maybe worse, sheer dismissal. A dear friend, one whose book spent the summer on the New York Times best-seller list, gave me what amounts to a lifeline: “The real reviews,” she said, “come in handwriting and human voices.” Already, those voices have begun to trickle in, to tell me they’re staining the pages with coffee rings as they read and ponder and read some more. To tell me they’re giving the book to their dearest circle of friends. To tell me they’ve underlined and scribbled in the margins. To tell me one particular essay carried one reader through the week-long dying of her mother.

I’ve found my holiness slow and steady. It crept up unawares, almost. I never expected that I’d write a prayerful book, with my name on the cover, and my heart and my soul bared across its pages.

But nothing has ever felt quite so right. Nothing so quietly sacred.

Barbara Mahany is an author and freelance journalist in Chicago, who writes these days about stumbling on the sacred amid the cacophony of the modern-day domestic melee. She was a reporter and feature writer at the Chicago Tribune for nearly 30 years, and before that a pediatric oncology nurse. She tagged along on the 2012-13 Nieman fellowship of her husband, Blair Kamin, the Tribune’s longtime architecture critic.

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Pearls before Breakfast, Reprised Tue, 30 Sep 2014 23:41:18 +0000 Almost anyone who loves narrative journalism or music or social experiments or who simply believes that children are wiser than adults knows the Gene Weingarten story “Pearls Before Breakfast.”

In this Washington Post magazine piece, which won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing, Weingarten arranged for the famed violinist Joshua Bell to play incognito at the L’Enfant Plaza public transit station in Washington, D.C., during the morning rush hour. The question, as Weingarten phrased it, was this:  ”In a banal setting at an inconvenient time, would beauty transcend?”

The answer? Well, no.  More than 1,000 people simply ignored the ethereal music in their midst; only 27 stopped. Most notable, however, was one particular observation about those who did pause, an observation that helped turn the story into a legend (one meriting its own entry on the debunker website

“There was no ethnic or demographic pattern to distinguish the people who stayed to watch Bell, or the ones who gave money, from that vast majority who hurried on past, unheeding. Whites, blacks and Asians, young and old, men and women, were represented in all three groups. But the behavior of one demographic remained absolutely consistent. Every single time a child walked past, he or she tried to stop and watch. And every single time, a parent scooted the kid away.”

In addition to winning the Pulitzer Prize, “Pearls Before Breakfast” became the subject of countless cocktail party conversations and research papers — even, according to the Post, a children’s book.

Earlier today, Bell returned to a D.C. Metro station to play, this time as part of a well-publicized effort to promote music education and his new album. Crowds thronged the main hall of Union Station to hear him; some listeners, the Post reported, had arrived two hours early to get a spot.

Bell, the newspaper’s account says, looked out upon the audience and said, “This is more like it!”

You can watch video of the original experiment here:





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