From debut author Pamela N. Harris comes a timely, gripping teen novel about a boy who must take up the search for his sister when she goes missing from a neighborhood where black girls’ disappearances are too often overlooked. Perfect for fans of Jason Reynolds and Tiffany D. Jackson. When you look like us—brown skin, brown eyes, black braids or fades—everyone else thinks you’re trouble. No one even blinks twice over a missing black girl from public housing because she must’ve brought whatever happened to her upon herself. I, Jay Murphy, can admit that, for a minute, I thought my sister Nicole just got caught up with her boyfriend—a drug dealer—and his friends. But she’s been gone too long. Nic, where are you? If I hadn’t hung up on her that night, she would be at our house, spending time with Grandma. If I was a better brother, she’d be finishing senior year instead of being another name on a missing persons list. It’s time to step up, to do what the Newport News police department won’t. Bring her home. Drop In with us to hear about Pamela N. Harris’ views on race relations in the criminal justice system — having written a debut novel whose plot centres around this very thing — and just after the George Floyd murder trial and successful prosecution of a White Minnesota police officer. Will this landmark verdict change things? Is there hope for better regulation of police violence against marginalised groups? What happens now when White criminals perpetrate violence on African American, Black Brown, or any person of color as a victim? Will African American mothers and grandmothers, fathers and grandfathers always have to have ‘the talk’ with their sons, grandsons, nephews, godchildren and friends? Finally, what can persons of non-color do to ally with the Black community, bear witness to the struggles, and to help create positive change? At a critical juncture in our history, we’ll talk openly and search honestly for answers on the way forward. Drop in with us this Friday
Pamela N. Harris was born and somewhat raised in Newport News, VA—also affectionately known as “Bad News.” A former school counselor by day, she received her BA in English and a Master’s in school counseling at Old Dominion University, her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University, and a PhD in counselor education and supervision at William and Mary. When she isn’t writing, Pam is re-watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, playing with her two kiddos, and pretending to enjoy exercising. When You Look Like Us is her debut novel. She lives in Williamsburg, Virginia.Leave a comment for radio show guests
What’s the story behind the story? We’ll find out on Dropping In. Our guests are today’s original thinkers. Conversations that spark new ways of seeing what’s going on. We bring it all to the table. Diverse perspectives, controversy, loving and singular voices. Magically stories reveal the common threads that link us. Experience the joys, the fist pumps, the detours and the hard-won truths of those who blaze the trail so that we might do the same and now here’s your host Diane Dewey.
Diane: Welcome to Dropping In everyone. We’re in the midst of a historic week. One that has swerved maniacally from the healing of the George Floyd guilty charges against his murderer to the murder of yet another African-American teenager, sixteen-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant by the police. Both daughters and sons feel unsafe. What’s important to us now is that black author voices are heard more than ever. Today we speak with Pamela N. Harris, who wrote a new YA novel When You Look Like Us. It’s a taut, intense suspense story and one that’s frayed with meaning. Welcome Pamela. It’s a great debut.
Pamela: Oh thank you so much. Again thank you so much for having me Diane. It’s an honor to talk to you.
Diane: Well we are privileged to talk to you. It’s been an emotional roller coaster this week. I know that you posted that you talked about the ambivalence of self-promotion during such a tumultuous week. What’s your state of mind currently and your reflections currently?
Pamela: I will say I mean this whole year, I mean I thought we all know that 2020 was a year but I debuted my first novel in January. The day right after my novel came out it was the insurrection at the Capitol. This whole experience to me has been it’s a monumental moment for myself but then I know that my community and many others like me and even personally myself there’s a lot of hurt. There’s a lot of joy and it’s trying to find that balance of trying to be proud and happy for my own accomplishments but also being respectful for the larger issues at hand. It’s kind of like tap dancing that fine line of what do I do in this moment. I’m constantly feeling like I’m on eggshells.
Diane: I reiterate again that even showing up as an African-American voice is a political act. It’s an important political act. That you are visible, that you are heard at this point it really counts. It counts more than the debut of a great YA a novel. I enjoyed it immensely. Let’s give our listeners a little background. Pamela N. Harris was born and somewhat raised in Newport News, Virginia also affectionately known as bad news. A former school counselor by day, she received her BA in English and a master’s in school counseling at Old Dominion University. Her MFA in creative writing at Fairleigh Dickinson University and a PhD in counselor education and supervision at William and Mary.
When she isn’t writing Pam is re-watching Leonardo DiCaprio movies, playing with her two kiddos and pretending to enjoy exercising. When You Look Like Us is her debut novel. You live in Williamsburg, Virginia. Pamela, tell me, this is a place that I envisioned still flying the confederate flags. What’s it like right now in Williamsburg, Virginia?
Pamela: That’s so interesting that you said that because I was driving back from an appointment yesterday and I had to be on the interstate. I was driving back home and I saw like this huge confederate flag just waving freely like over the cars. For a while because I’ve grown up in this area I almost felt desensitized to it but I’ve been hyper aware over the past couple of years. Seeing that and seeing it kind of flying so freely and it was huge. I felt myself clutching the steering wheel. It’s been an interesting time for me. It’s something that I’m used to but I feel like I’m tired of just kind of being like well this is okay. This is the way things are. I think like a lot of us are seeing that something shouldn’t be the way that they should be anymore.
I feel like more empowered to have a voice about things that are bothering me because growing up I’ve kind of become accustomed to well that’s just how things are, this is how people perceive me. I just have to try harder to prove myself and to show that I’m different than what their expectations are but there comes a point where I’m just tired and I’m frustrated. I think a lot of that has to do with me now being a mother myself and trying to make this world better for my children and better for my young readers too as well.
Diane: Absolutely and we are swerving back and forth I think. We got the relief or being moved to tears from the verdict, from the George Floyd vindication and moved to tears breaking that down is because you really don’t expect to be supported by the system. Then suddenly the system acknowledges the value of a life. It’s really emotional. It’s really powerful and then you see the confederate flag. You realize there’s just a whole bunch of people out there that want to go way, way back into something really ugly. We all know what it means. I think that if anything you’ve got to feel more compelled to keep your writing alive.
When you talk about being raised in Bad News, Virginia, partially raised. What did that mean? I felt like I was supposed to know what that mean. I kind of do know what that means but from the author’s view and also because I’m going to dive into the character next. What does it mean to be partially raised?
Pamela: My dad was military. My mom and I will go to the different bases with him. I’ve lived in three different areas in California. We lived in New Jersey, North Carolina. I was born in Newport News but whenever my dad had any kind of, if he had to be deployed or if he was stationed overseas instead of us joining him my mom felt safer to kind of go back to our larger family at hand and to come back to Newport News. It would be something along the lines of we will be gone for two years, come back to my home base, gone for two years, come back to my home base. It was pretty much like that until I was about 13 or 14 when my dad got out of the military. Then from then on throughout high school I spent my whole high school years in Newport News as well and graduated from a Newport News high school.
Diane: It’s pretty impressive what happened after that Dr. Pamela Harris, Pamela N. Harris. I mean then I wondered to the point that you’re talking about age 13. It’s so pivotal. So much can go either way in adolescence. Is that what drew you to write Jason Murphy, Jay, the character, the protagonist in the book. He’s in high school. His sister Nick’s in high school. Is that why you chose YA to have an impact on kids at this age?
Pamela: Absolutely. I remember going through adolescence myself and it was, I couldn’t put the words to how I was feeling. I was angry but I couldn’t figure out why I was angry. I was sad but I didn’t understand why I was sad but then of course I had some happy moments but that time period was so pivotal for me because I know right around when I was 13 my dad was transitioning out of military life. I had lost one of my grandmothers. A lot was going on with me and I remember I was called into an office to speak to a lady at school. I’m like who is this? Why is this lady in my business? This is my third school that I went to in eighth grade because of all the transitions and moving. I felt that later on that she was my school counsellor and she had noticed a change in my grades because I was always an honor student but she had realized that because I’ve kind of transitioned to this third school that obviously there must be something going on with me because I wasn’t performing the way that I used to.
She really looked out for me. She let me come in to talk with her from time to time. She helped me get on track after considering these advanced classes I could take in high school. She asked me about my goals and dreams. When I went on to high school I found a lot of that mentorship too from a lot of my African-American teachers as well. I just remember how that made me feel growing up at that time period because I was first generation, a first-generation college student. Even though my parents were super supportive. Like my mom would stay up late at night if I was panicking about a project. She would try to help me get it done. She would go to the school after hours if I freaked out because I left the textbook in my locker. She would get the janitor to let her in so she can get that textbook for me. They were super supportive about making sure that I reached my dreams but they also didn’t know what they didn’t know because they never went to college themselves.
I remember that that time period was so poignant to me. I had these individuals that really guided me and supported me to kind of figure out my voice and my identity. That’s how my two loves came into place, my love of counseling as well as my love of that age group. It was really feeling that understanding of them trying to fit in and belong because I got to work with that age group too as a school counsellor. I know some of the comments they will always tell me that they wanted to see themselves more in books. They wanted to know more about people, other people that had experiences like them. When I was writing as a school counselor admittedly I was writing a lot of characters that were white because those were the stories that I read about when I was growing up. I read my Beverly Cleary’s and my Judy Blooms, even DC Andrews.
I just assumed like well my story don’t really matter. This is obviously what readers want to read so I’m going to make all my characters white. The only times I wrote about black characters were when I was writing with my cousins. We would spend the night over each other’s house and we would all have our notebooks and jot down stories. It was truly some of the most fun I ever had writing because I was writing freely. I was writing about the characters I wanted to write as opposed to who I thought people wanted me to write about. I just kind of had to find a way to acknowledge that those students and myself really needed to see those characters in those neighborhoods featured in stories. As soon as I had that breakthrough I would say the traction of my writing career really began.
Diane: Because you came home to self, you became, you acknowledged who you were and offered yourself in the characters that you created. Your book is dedicated, I’ll read it because I found it moving. “For my parents, who never had to remind me to make it home before the street lights came on. I was already inside dreaming with a notebook and pen.” it’s a beautiful image. Just as an aside what I do after the show is I get a hold of a book like yours, like JL’s. I get these books and I make sure that they’re installed in the library, in a school, the secondary school here for it primarily serves African-American kids because it’s an underserved community. Just for the point that you’re making the role models are so important to have the black adolescent who’s making choices, who’s got a lot of obstacles, who’s got all kinds of stuff coming at them and who has a lot of potential.
You’re talking about counsellors kind of identifying that potential but lots of times it gets wasted. Jay, who I adored as a character he, okay. Let’s get to the first point. You wrote in a male voice. I wondered how did you come to that. How did you come to that decision?
Pamela: To me I don’t know what it is but naturally when I’m starting a story, when I’m thinking of a story idea I guess it’s the male voice that kind of gravitates to me first. I’ve always wondered why because you know I’m surrounded by a lot of strong powerful women that I love and respect in my family. I’m the only child that I’ve spent a lot of my childhood with my cousins who wrote like my sisters, my aunt was like my second mother. My grandmother was like another mother and of course I had my own amazing mother. I had all these strong influences but I was even reflecting myself a while ago. I’m like well what is it about the male voice that really resonates with me and I figured it out because when I was a school counselor those are the students that connected with me first.
It was something about, I’m not sure what it was but my male students were always the ones that wanted to build that rapport first and also kind of show their vulnerability to me more so than my female students. Then it was pretty much the male students that would encourage the female students to be like you have to go talk to Miss Harris. I was Miss Harris at that time. She’s amazing. She’s awesome. She listens to you. She really helps. It was like my male speakers were like my biggest cheerleaders basically because they allowed me to really get into their heads. Basically they opened up to me.
I think it was because being surrounded by them as students I kind of understood their cadence. I understood their motivations. I understood what their desires were and some things that stood in their way. Ever since then I think I’ve been more naturally drawn to speak from their perspective. I do have some stuff coming out with females too but just to me it’s always easier to tap into that male voice.
Diane: Well I wondered if because I think you did a service here because you got Jay in a place where he was hardened. His mom went back went to prison. He lost his dad. These are not spoiler alerts because this is given as background at the opening of When You Look Like Us. I really felt the hardening. I felt the cooling of his soul that he became, he talks about the old Jay and the new Jay. The old Jay was really tender and open and wounded eventually and so closed up. Closed up, shut down and then it’s what you’re identifying here. This opening up and how the disappearance of his sister requires that he actually become attuned again. I wonder if you’d characterize yourself by writing this way or about the subject kind of like a counselor at large. You’re still a counsellor but you’re talking to a bigger audience right?
Pamela: That’s a great point. Absolutely, that’s a great way of looking at it. I think that Jay was just such an embodiment of a lot of especially my black male students that I work with. I will say there were even traces of myself in it because of the fact like especially when I went to high school after my dad left the military we did end up in public housing in a community that’s very much like the one that I described in Jay’s for his neighborhood. That’s pretty much designed after what my high school experience was. I think because I’ve had a kind of slice of the other life of being on these military bases and feeling really valued to a degree. Then when people finding out where my address is now kind of looking at me differently to the point where I know like I got scholarships. One of my scholarships were based on underserved youth or something along those lines.
I was so ashamed. I was so embarrassed that I got that scholarship that I asked my parents to not show up to the scholarship this big awards assuming they were having at the school because I didn’t want to show up. My goal was to not go there at all because I didn’t want the rest of the school to know about it because I was embarrassed. I remember that feeling and I remember thinking that this must be what Jay is experiencing too at that time because of the fact that he had to be transplanted into this neighborhood. It’s one of those things where I didn’t realize how important and how loved and how amazing that community was until I had some space away from it because it made me the person I am today.
Diane: There’s a lot of shame in poverty. You feel like I’m supposed to have. I’m supposed to be. My family is supposed to have. It’s something that keeps you in its grips I think for a long, long time. The community that you write Jay and his sister Nick and their grandmother Mimi into is called the Ducts D-U-C-T-S. I always thought to myself it’s like the vents through which things pass but like nothing really is there like a sort of like a big empty duct.
Pamela: I love that Diane.
Diane: I mean it was such a huge metaphor for me. I was like it’s not really a place that you go. Then I think what you did, we’re going to pause for a commercial break but when we come back I think we have to look at what you really did after that is you broke down a lot of stereotypes. I mean hardcore stereotypes. That’s a big thing to dismantle. The drug lord Javon, the druggy Pooch. These are characterizations that even your African-American protagonists were looking at in a certain way. Why do we do it? How do we stop doing it? We’re going to find out when we come back on Dropping In with Pamela N. Harris.
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You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you if you have a question or comment about the show. Send us an email to email@example.com. That’s the letter firstname.lastname@example.org. Now back to Dropping In.
Diane: Hey everyone so we’re back. We’re here with Pamela N. Harris and we’re talking about her great YA novel When You Look Like Us and we all know what when you look like us means. It’s frayed with meaning at this point when we’re talking about the criminal justice system and abuses. I think that when you look like us it’s something that it speaks volumes. Pam, thanks so much for this great debut novel and also for bringing out some real raw stereotypes that are just embedded in us so deeply. Let’s talk through some of them. You’ve got Javon. He’s the neighborhood drug lord okay and then you’ve got Pooch. He’s the druggie. Then you’ve got Riley and she’s the daughter of the preacher. How do you start to break down and access these characters?
Pamela: Oh great question. I will say I think writing these characters because I think when I was thinking them up alongside with my editors, a lot of times I was looking at them on the surface. I was thinking stereotypically okay, what does this mean to be like the neighborhood baddie, the neighborhood druggie, to be the preacher’s daughter but I also thought it was just as important to kind of break down and to see layers of those characters and not to just be a stereotype because that’s a responsibility that I feel too as a black author writing about black characters. I want to make sure that readers see that the black race isn’t monolithic basically.
Even though on the paper these characters may come across one way I wanted to really make sure that the readers were able to peel them apart at certain points. I think too that was a learning experience for myself going back to the shame that I felt being in that community because I was so used to living on military bases. I had to realize myself that there were certain ways that I thought about people that belong there. I had to look in the mirror as to be like well I’m here too. What does that say about me? I know my history. I know my parents’ history. I know everything that they fought it did for me to keep a roof over my head. There has to be different reasons why we end up in the system while we end up in public housing.
I will say even learning to become a counsellor myself and going to the graduate program we had to engage in a lot of self-reflection. That’s how I feel like the whole counseling process as well as writing is very similar to me because they’re almost mirrors in a way because I’m really looking in the mirror and really reflecting on what do I mean by the words that I’m putting on the paper. I’m also doing that in my role as a counselor too and even educating future counselors now. I’m always engaging in self-reflection and encouraging others to do that too especially because I’m really pushing for all the counselors that I train to be culturally responsive. Being aware of their biases what does that mean.
There’s an activity that I would do with my students where I would take back when we can actually be in physical classrooms. I would have these large chart papers across the room. I would have some kind of group above that chart paper. It would be African-Americans. It would be republicans. It would be Muslims so just different groups. They would have to go around and I would give them 30 seconds to think up every single thing that they’ve ever heard about that group stereotype or not. We would do that around robin and then afterwards we would do a gallery walk and look at some of these comments. A lot of it was negative, disparaging because these are the stories and messages that we received growing up or maybe we received through the media. Our goal as counselors and as me as a writer right now I’m like trying to think of ways to dismantle it, to dismantle that first thought, that first image that you have when you think of a certain individual. I really wanted to make sure I had the opportunity to do that and make them more beyond what that title was of like the neighborhood drug lord, the neighborhood druggie. I wanted them to kind of see well maybe there’s a backstory as to why they ended up the way that they were basically.
Diane: I think that I love what you said about the mirroring of counseling and writing because both times you’re looking through the layers. Because if you’re counseling you’re looking for that nugget. You’re looking for that potential. You’re looking for that spark that’s still alive inside the cold kid that’s gotten hardened. I think okay but this is not in the writing part. It’s not a fictional process. We have only to look at Jay-Z to realize the neighborhood drug kingpin can become something else.
I wondered when you talk about being a product of the neighborhood, the Ducts, the wards. What if you don’t have a Mimi, a grandmother who’s looking after your parents depart for one reason or another and it’s sad why they depart? You start to look at yourself in a stereotypical way. I’m just a girl of a broken home. My mom’s in jail. My dad’s dead. You start to label yourself in a way that’s so self-defeating. What do you do? I mean what do you do? Where do you go if you don’t have that Mimi? Is it still alive and well? Is it getting better for girls and boys? How do you look at it now?
Pamela: That’s a great question. I will say I think a lot of it is when other people are manifesting or perceiving you to be a certain way sometimes you live up to that expectation. For example I’m even thinking about for me there were two instances. Both of the times I was under 12. I think one time I was like 10 or 11. There was this corner store that my cousins and I whenever I visited them would go to. We would get our little snack cakes and chips but we were there all the time to the point where the cashiers knew our family. I started noticing that he always followed me and my cousins when we were in the store. He was an older white man. I’m always curious. I’ve always been very curious which is probably why I’m a writer now and maybe even a counselor to a degree. My parents would give me a notebook to jot down all the questions I had in the day because I was just, I guess I irritated them to no end with all my questioning.
I picked up on it. I could have been more than 10. I remember asking him I’m like oh, why are you following us. He was just so stunned that this little black 10 year old would ask him that question that he took it as disrespect. I remember later on when my aunt went to the store he complained about me just for asking that question to say like that niece of yours she has a bad mouth. She’s disrespectful just for asking the question that I feel like even right now deserve to be asked because I had given him no kind of indication that I was going to steal from the store. A second incident I remember even going to a costume, Halloween costume shop right around Halloween once again with my cousins. I saved up my money I had. I remember I had 80 dollars in my pocket because I loved Halloween. I wanted to find something really cool to wear that year. The store owner came out and kicked us out the store. I had I had money to spend.
I’m sitting here thinking I’m very young. I’m like okay so I’m supposed to be bad. These are what these messages these people are telling me that there’s something about me being who I am that’s telling me that they’re assuming that I’m supposed to steal. I remember one time I’m like well if this is expected I’m gonna steal with this bag of chips. Everyone is telling me that this is what they’re expecting of me. I end up doing the same thing. This is like I had great role models in my life. Like I said that there were so many strong women figures and even some of the men in my life were just extraordinary but since I was receiving those messages outside of the house it was one of those things that I felt like I had to live up to that because this is what they’re thinking of me. I guess I’m supposed to be doing it.
What I’m trying to be very cognizant of with my own children is I can’t protect them from the stereotypes that others outside of my house is going to have about them but I want to have those conversations to prepare them, to let them know what to expect but then also when I’m speaking with my white students, white colleagues. We’ve been on panels. I’ve been on panels for social justice. One of my colleagues said it best who’s a black female. I’ve been repeating this now is I want you, my white allies, my white co-workers, my white students to teach your kids not to be afraid of mine. I think that’s where it really needs to begin basically is I’m gonna have those conversations with my children about even though I can love you, even though I can support you I’m not gonna always be around you. There’s gonna be people that are going to think these things about you so. What could we do? What can we do to persist? The more and more I can like kind of spread that seed across to anyone that I interact with that don’t look like me. I hope that they can spread those messages within their household seed by seed I think we can start to make a difference if that makes sense at all.
Diane: Totally. I mean I think there’s those of us who wonder as allies, wanting to be allies anyway what can we do. I think the simple shift that you’re talking about in terms of don’t place the expectation of your biases on someone who is a person of color. I think it’s such a powerful thing that you’re talking about if you feel that the eyes following you, the person following you their expectation of you know you’re going to steal. You think to yourself well I guess I might as well. I mean it’s so powerful and it’s not up to the person who’s being you know gazed at to dismantle the whole thing. It’s two part. It’s part of the responsibility of the ally to teach our kids. Look, if you feel that you have fear okay, take a look at that fear instead of foisting it off on somebody else because I’m really sure that a lot of these stereotypes are all just coping mechanisms for dealing with fear. That unless we think about the other as a bad person then how do we justify our fear.
I think it’s going inward to say okay, where’s the fear coming from. It’s not coming from my life. I can tell you that I’ve never had unpleasant interactions with people of color. It’s intergenerational. Where’s it coming from and taking that apart because okay back to Jay now. He’s got the coping mechanism too. He’s got to have the cool girl girlfriend so-called in the school because he’s like afraid of his emotions. If he gets involved with Riley like then he’s afraid but it’s really hard to take that apart Pam unless you have real good reasons. I think you’re giving us like real good reasons. When you came to these, when you came to these realizations and you created this arc and these transitions in the story with your characters growing this way do you think that this is hopeful? Do you think it’s realistic? Have you seen it with your own eyes?
Pamela: Oh I love that question. This story had about maybe two or three other possible endings. I remember there was one that we were leaning towards and I wrote that ending and my editors were like you know what? I felt strongly about it too. We had a conversation that we wanted to make sure that we threaded in a little bit more hope. I think that’s important. When I was writing this story I didn’t have my counselor head on but when I was taking a look at it and thinking about right before it’s being released is there anything else I would change about it. I think that’s when I kind of put that counselor head back on is during that revision and the editing process because whereas I wanted to make sure that the story was authentic. I didn’t want like any of like especially the teen readers picking it up to think like okay here’s this old woman trying to teach me a lesson. That’s like my biggest pet peeve when you’re writing for younger readers like you don’t go in there intentionally thinking you’re going to teach your lesson but I also wanted to make sure that I also kind of integrated and balanced well moments of levity.
Even though the book can get dark I wanted to also kind of show moments of Jay being joyful, Jay cracking jokes with a friend or his grandmother. I wanted to make sure that there were maybe some small glimpses of silver linings. I remember because I try not to read reviews especially from readers. I feel like good reason I stay away from because I feel like that’s just the readers and my own anxiety. I don’t look at it but I’ve read some of the trade reviews. They’ve all been a positive. I remember one in particular though said something about the lines of it was an unrealistic ending. Despite the fact that the ending being unrealistic or something along those lines. I was like well why couldn’t it be realistic.
I think again it’s like that mindset that we’re just assuming because of your skin color because of SES or your social economic status you’re doomed to a certain fate. To me I’m a success story. I know lots of success stories. I came from public housing. First of my family to go to college and now I have a PhD. I think only 12 percent of the population has a PhD and even less when you’re a person of color. I know what can happen through resilience, through grit. To me kind of reading that even though the rest of the whole review is really great. I was just like oh, that kind of just lets me know that you’re still looking at us through a deficit lens. I don’t want that to be the case anymore.
Diane: Absolutely. We’re not going to give a lot away. There’s a teaser here. To delve into this book When You Look Like Us. To me the ending, you’ve got something unexpected. It’s unexpected from, it’s definitely unexpected from a certain lens. I think okay now, here’s the thing. What does it say about us if we think it’s not realistic? That’s where I went with that. When you’re saying that it’s like well who’s the speaker because you need to know that that person doesn’t have a lot of hope and has faded certain character types in a way that okay, maybe the door’s not open for that person to see the power. It’s like the LBJ administration decades back. Well what is the greatest threat to our security? It was the uniting of black people. Well okay. That was actually spoken. Those words were spoken.
There was like a resonance with that because there was segregation. There were all the repressive and they’re not done yet. There was all the repressive measures to make sure that black people didn’t unite and of course this absurd replacement theory and all of the things that are still activated about having hope for blacks is just really not completely acceptable yet. It’s really I think that’s really interesting and that you carved out that ending hey, get used to it people.
Diane: It’s the new reality. Maybe it wasn’t your reality but it’s the new reality. You’re gonna talk to us. We’ve got to pause for a commercial break but you did sneakily allude to next projects and we want to hear about those whether it’s a sequel or whether you have different characters coming on board. Also I really want to talk about something that was to me a silver lining and that is the role of education. Talking here with an educator herself Dr. Pamela N. Harris. Don’t go away. We’ll be right back on Dropping In.
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You are listening to Dropping In with Diane Dewey. We’d love to hear from you if you have a question or comment about the show. Send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. That’s the letter email@example.com. Now back to Dropping In.
Diane: We’re back with Pamela N. Harris, author of When You Look Like Us. There couldn’t be a more potent title right Pamela at this point in time.
Diane: It’s something, I just will share an aside. I mean I do know a white grandmother who’s raising the two children, two young sons of her daughter who died of a drug overdose. I feel as though when you look like us and that us is the kids from the ducts and it’s people of color there are not as many hands reaching out to pull you up, to give you mentorship, that there are just that many more obstacles, many more assumptions about how you’re going to turn out, why you might as well give up now. I mean I think that you’re talking about even through your work creating a net, creating a space so that you know kids are not going to fall through. I wondered before we went to the break. We touched on the idea of education, what it means, what it could potentially mean. What is the role of education in terms of rebalancing race relations, bringing kids up and influencing them?
Pamela: Oh great. It’s interesting. The place where I spent seven years as a school counsellor was a small rural community in Virginia. Of course I saw the confederate flag a lot there. I had a student that always wrote KKK on his sleeve. I had to see that student regardless because I was the only school counselor in the building. I know that a lot of students will come into my office to tell me some really nasty things that their parents would say about black people too as well. Now I’m also in the position now where I’m training individuals to kind of now go into these roles too as well. One of my biggest missions has been as well as a lot of my colleagues like we first up is we want to see a lot more diversity in school.
We’re making sure that we’re recruiting and not just recruiting individuals of color to join different programs and education but also coming up with the training, the skills necessary to make sure that we keep them there because once you’re in school it’s great or once you’re in actual environment where you’re one of the few people of color. Okay we have you but then it’s like we forget everything else. We’re not offering that support to keep you going or to keep you remaining in this area. We’re doing a lot of different initiatives and projects to make sure that we’re finding those individuals to get to schools because all the research shows that students tend to do better when they see individuals like them leading a classroom or leadership positions or in school counseling positions. That even goes to when you’re off in college and graduate school like you want to see faculty people that look like you. That’s one thing that we’re really trying to get full force.
The author Angie Thomas I heard her speak somewhere and of course she’s like this huge best-selling author of The Hate U Give and which has been on the bestseller list for like a thousand years at this point. She’s amazing and I heard her speak. She said it really poignantly regarding allies but she would like to see the movement to co-conspirators. She shared this incredible story which I think it sums it up really well as to what the next step should be where there is a black woman that climbed up this flagpole to take down the confederate flag. The police were thinking about using a taser to zap the flagpole basically to send an electric shock to her and make her fall but she had a white male friend that came with her and said hey, if you’re thinking about doing that you’re going to have to that be first. He hugged the flagpole. He hugged the flagpole so that his friend could continue on her mission. Of course they then in turn did decide to not use the taser.
Finding more opportunities especially in education especially when we’re mentoring our youth to kind of move to being a co-conspirator and not just saying hey, you know what? I’m inclusive. I try to like make sure that I see all my students but we need to more than see them now. We need to really actively engage in like calling out behaviors that’s not appropriate from our colleagues. This is going beyond even race. This is like using heteronormative languages in the halls too as well and not letting students get away for saying things like oh that’s so gay or just catching people and making sure that we’re creating an inclusive environment but being active, having an active role and making sure that environment is inclusive for all of your students. Trying to find ways how do I like use my privilege, use my power to really help make sure that other people feel safe in this environment.
Diane: You, I think made a point in the book of using language that was not inflammatory. It was real, very authentic but not incendiary. I like this idea of we’re not just gonna be allies. We’re gonna be co-conspirators and maybe a body blocker too would be helpful. You have to kind of maybe even take a bullet for somebody or just take a hit for somebody sometime because the deck is stacked. I mean you can come to my neighborhood and try to take the confederate flag down too. It’s something that is audacious, so audacious in the other direction that I don’t think it’s going to be just a bunch of calm, considered moves. Yes, we need to change laws but there needs to be some sort of on-the-ground activism.
Education, you’re now adding your voice as an African-American author. There are going to be African-American girls and boys who are going to look to you and say wow, she did it. I can do it if she did it. That adds another layer to it. How do you make yourself even more visible in that way as a role model?
Pamela: Oh that’s great. I’m just even thinking about the landscape of even young adult literature now and just thinking about how honored I would have been growing up. We have Jason Reynolds. We have Angie Thomas who I just talked about. Nick Stone, Tiffany D. Jackson, JL as you mentioned earlier like just so many beautiful voices and not even just in the black community but we also have like these really amazing authors from the LGBTQIA too spectrum as well that are releasing some really magnificent work right now. I’m just thinking about how this generation is so privileged in the fact that they get to really have access to these unique perspectives but also knowing that too just looking at the numbers there’s still a small number of us in the field, in the publishing field that are actually publishing stories.
I do feel a certain type of responsibility about my public image because I do want to be that model. I do want to make sure that they know that they can achieve these dreams as well. I’m trying to make it my mission to reach out to more teen readers through social media but I’m still learning it myself. I’m trying to be more active especially on Instagram but as soon as I go comfortable with Instagram I realized I’m supposed to be tik-toking. I downloaded that app the other day and I’m so confused. I feel like I need to take a class but my goal is to make sure that I’m visible that they see me out there walking the walk and talking the talk and then also making myself accessible to them with certain boundaries as well for my family. That’s my goal is to make sure that they see me out there I’m doing the work and also um being involved in different organizations that reflect what I want to write about but then also being a mentor for them too as well. You’re giving them words of encouragement as needed because there were times where I needed some of that and I didn’t get it unless I actively sought it out myself.
Diane: Words of encouragement. I would say that’s deeply embedded in this book When You Look Like Us. I think to myself okay here’s you and you might as well learn TikTok Pam because you’ve got kids coming up. They’re going to teach it to you if you don’t learn it yourself. Go for it. I think keep the voices. I think it’s also at this point, keep the voices to get it’s nice to see the unity. I see JL supporting you. I hear you talking about Nick Stone and talking about Angie and lots of other authors that really are paving the way because to recap when you go back, I can’t believe you counselled somebody with KKK on their sleeve. That also takes a lot of courage. When you talk about encouragement I mean. You need a lot of it just to face what can be going on.
In your book too, the smear campaign Jay’s sister disappears. Jay’s close ally also Nick she disappears but what happens is Nick is also smeared by the press because why not create a story around how Nick started hanging out with the wrong kids. Therefore the victim is culpable. The victim being the victim. Even the cops. Finally Jay goes to the cops and he reaches out to an African-American cop thinking okay, here’s the man. Here’s a man that looks like me. Well that doesn’t always work either right because as you defy all the stereotypes it works both ways. The cop basically says hey listen, Nick is a young African-American girl. They disappear all the time around here in the Ducts. You’re like holy smokes. That out of the mouth of an African-American police officer. I sort of didn’t doubt that for a minute and that diminishment of the value of a life. That’s part of the reversal of this. That’s part of the reversal of this week.
Any final thoughts that you’d like to share with us because I do feel like education is the key. Capsule summary, 200 years ago, slavery, the most failed human experiment ever. Here we are without ever having provided a whole population with access to education. Now we’re sort of getting it. Trying to keep kids on track. What are some of your parting thoughts and ways to speak to this issue?
Pamela: I will say to that that peace about Nick being smeared it kind of came on later in the process because I was seeing that a lot myself. I’m older. I call them babies like I’m even thinking about if these were my former students like these horrific stories that we’re seeing that’s happening with black people, with youth of color. They’re kids to me but the way that they’re painted by the media is that they’re these like really grown thugs. They’re these monsters or grown individuals when they’re like 13, 14, 15, 16. I just can’t wrap my head around that because there’s so much brain development that’s not even occurring yet for that age. Certain groups that we know are able to get a pat on the back or say like oh, you made a mistake but for people that look like me at that younger age those mistakes are deadly. It’s not fair so what I tried to really and I actually had to remind myself this message this week.
I shared this a lot too with some of my black students and black readers I want to spread that too is that saying that joy is the best form of resistance. Doing the things that make you happy, telling the stories you want to tell, making sure that you’re having those moments of laughter. I know we experience a lot of pain but I also want to make sure that they don’t take those moments of joy away from a state being like that larger system. I think to me joy is the best way that we can kind of like go against these oppressors basically.
This even remind me of I was actually going on my way to BEA before and that was like this huge book expo. It was my first time there. I remember myself, my cousin and one of our best friends. We’re so excited. We’re all black females. We’re on this public bus heading to BEA to meet our favorite authors and talk about our favorite books. We were “nerding out”. Just like okay which author are we’re going to get into now. I do remember that how this white man turned around and just ridiculed us for speaking, for dare speaking on public transportation.
Diane: Oh no.
Pamela: Yes. We continued our conversation because joy is the best form of resistance.
Diane: Joy it is. It is really. We’re going to look forward to a sequel. Thank you so much Pamela N. Harris. You’ve shed some light when we need to understand what’s going on and I feel more educated. Social media Pam Harris Writes, Instagram, twitter. Thank you very much Pam Harris. Thanks to our engineers Matt Weidner and Aaron Keller, to our executive producer Robert Giolino and most of all to you our listeners. Remember to stay safe and pay attention to who you might be stereotyping. Till next week thank you for dropping in.
Thank you so much for dropping in. Please join Diane Dewey again next Friday at 8 AM Pacific Time and 11 AM Eastern Time on the Voice America Variety Channel. We’ll see you then.