Thandisizwe Chimurenga: The Spirit of Ida B. Wells

You can hear her voice every last Thursday of the month at 2 p.m. on KPFK, Pacifica Radio for Southern California, on the radio show “Some Of Us Are Brave.” It has been listened to by people the world over, including Brazil, Turkey, Syria, Korea and Singapore. The show is titled after the revolutionary book edited by Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith, But Some Of Us Are Brave: All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men: Black Women’s Studies.
Long-time media activist Thandisizwe wrote her first short story when she was 5 years old, and learned about journalism when she was 7. Now, she’s working to share her media activism skills with a new generation of women through the founding of the Ida B. Wells Institute. Here’s Thandisizwe…

What are some examples of the media activism that you’ve done over the years?
[In 2002] there was a case here in Los Angeles of a young man—his name was Donovan Jackson [an African-American teen who was beaten by cops]. I ended up being the spokesperson for the Donovan Jackson family. That’s the type of activism work that I have been involved with. I’ve always been an activist that understood the importance of the media. I’m just now coming to the realization that I’m a journalist. I’ve always used the word activist or media activist or organizer. I never called myself a journalist. When I say that word now, people let me in the room. Before they thought I was coming to protest. [Laughs]
Radio shows have been the area of expression that I have focused on. I started writing commentaries and voicing them. One was played this morning on KPFK. It was my comments on Nancy Pelosi’s ascendancy as Speaker of the House as a victory for women.

What did you say?

Which women are you talking about?
[Excerpt from her commentary titled, “Sistahs, where is thy victory?�:
According to, “With the Democrats in control of the House, women are in line to advance to high positions in party leadership and on committees. Four women are in line to take over control of House panels, and numerous other women are poised to control House subcommittees.�
Sadly and treacherously, Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney of Georgia won’t be one of them.
On top of the usual fare of isolation, disrespect and contempt she has had to endure since September 11, 2001, the fall-out from McKinney’s charge of racism after an assault by a Capitol Hill Police Officer earlier this spring was particularly ugly and included complete abandonment by her colleagues in the Democratic Party under the direct leadership of Nancy Pelosi.]

How long has the Ida B. Wells Institute been around?

Probably just this year. But the work that I’ve been doing goes back the last 10 years. I’ve always considered myself to be a media activist. I never really cared for the term journalist because of the sale of journalism as objective. I’m not objective, I’m very partisan. I’m an activist first and foremost, and journalism or media is one of the ways I carry out my activism.
What will be the mission of the Ida B. Wells Institute?
Essentially, what the Ida B. Wells Institute wants to do is to provide a way to empower—that’s a bad word but I’m going to use it anyway—empower Black women and girls to alter their images in the media; to move from marginalization in the media. One of the ways that we want to do this is by providing alternative or independent media forums. Through the internet, radio, underground, or what we call guerrilla or maroon media, record things and pass them out.

What are some of the programs that you want to provide through the Ida B. Wells Institute?

We would like to train Black women and youth in broadcast radio production. This would entail literacy, not only media literacy, but traditional literacy—how to read and how to write critically for radio preparation. How to use the internet to do research, and also for communication in terms of uploading audio and writing blogs. Video is not a high priority at the moment, but it is on the list.

Why are you focusing on the internet and radio?

First of all, radio is an inexpensive medium that pretty much anyone can afford, and pretty much everyone has access. In Africa, and in parts of the Caribbean, radio is a lifeline. So, that is one of the ways that we hope we can better communicate with our sisters in those areas by doing joint trainings and by visiting radio stations to provide training. And dare I say, building a radio station.
The internet gives you instantaneous worldwide access. Access to people, to ideas, to information all over the world. Even though not everyone has access to the internet, it is still an indispensable tool. Because of the lack of regulation and your ability to instantaneously communicate [through the internet] with people all over the world, that is an area that the Ida B. Wells definitely wants to be a part of.

Did you name the Ida B. Wells Institute after Wells because of her activism and journalism?

Yes, because the work she did resonates with me, and in recognition of what it was she did. I think Ida B. Wells was an activist first, who utilized journalism. She’s one of the ones who pioneered what we call investigative journalism. She would find out from the lynchers what they did. Talk to newspapers about their coverage of the lynchings. She would talk to eyewitnesses and victims. It’s amazing that she was actually able to do that. There are restrictions on things now, but she was able to get out and do that.
Also, from reading her diary and autobiography, there are a lot of similarities between my life and hers. I just feel a spiritual connection with her. She’s provided me with a lot of motivation to do what I do.
The radio program, “Some of Us Are Brave� is a project of the Ida B Wells Institute. What are the radio show’s particular goals?
The goals of the show are to put Black women’s voices out there. It does not have a particular ideological slant, primarily because there’s such a dearth of Black women’s voices.
There are recordings, lectures, speeches that Black women have done. Speeches and lectures that others have done that Black women need to know about. There is audio that I did as a program of “Some of Us Are Brave.� I’ve got some audio and interviews that I’ve done with people that will be put up there. Some of it is historical. Clips of Ida B. Wells speaking, Zora Neale Hurston, Toni Cade Bambara. When was the last time you heard Betty Shabazz and Queen Mother Moore? When was the last time you actually heard their voices?
There you go. So it’s historical and it’s contemporary.
What are some of the topics you discussed in your most recent shows?
Looking at immigration and the Black Panther Party through Black women’s eyes. Also, a two-part show on masculinity and patriarchy.

Can you describe your most memorable broadcast?

For this year, I would say it was probably the shows we did on immigration through Black women’s eyes. This was in May, right after the major demonstrations throughout the country involving immigrants. Because of the way the media has skewered the issue towards Hispanic or Latino immigrants, we believe in an effort to scapegoat them, we decided to see what Black women think about this. We had a woman on who was born in Ghana, raised in the U.S., and maintains ties with Ghana. A woman who was born in the U.S. of Liberian parents. A woman who was born in Costa Rica, who’s lived here almost 40 years. And a woman from England, of Jamaican parents, who is a legal resident. We talked about the portrayal of Latinos in the media. We talked about the lack of inclusion of African immigrants, people from the Caribbean. We talked about what the threats of HR 4437 would be for their families. We talked about the need for solidarity with the Latino-led immigration movement. We also discussed what we felt were either organizational or strategic limitations, and the racism that we felt was present. I thought it was a pretty good show.
What would be your dream interview?
I don’t know if it would be with one particular person. I can’t even say Ida B. Wells because that’s who is my spiritual mother. I’ve got her autobiography. I’ve got most of her writings. I don’t know if there is anything else I could ask her. I just want to hang around [with her]. [Laughs]
You know what I would really like to do? I don’t think this is a dream, but I would really like to sit down with Condoleeza Rice—just two Black women. [Laughs] And say, “What’s up? You’re from Alabama, girl. What’s up?� I would like to sit down and talk with her, sister to sister.

There are not many journalists of color in the U.S. I’ve found that to be true for myself. Have you found that to be true for yourself?

There are not many journalists of color as it is. But journalists who are doing advocacy or emancipatory journalism, they’re almost non-existent. Journalism nowadays is a career path. It’s not something that is utilized in service of furthering social and economic justice. When Freedom’s Journal, the first Black newspaper came out, they stated on their masthead, “We should complete our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.� It was necessary for what was happening to Black people in this country. It was a needed active role. We don’t do that anymore.
Why do you think so?
I think part of it is because we believe that we have overcome. And of course, part of it is the lure of the lights, camera, money. For example, there is the National Association of Black Journalists. I don’t know how many of those people went into this profession because they wanted to provide a better image of Black people. I can appreciate a Charlayne Hunter-Gault and [the late] Ed Bradley. I can appreciate how they mentored people, but I don’t know how many people they mentored took away their message of this is what we have to do for Black people. I’m not saying that it’s not there, and I’m not saying there aren’t people who are doing that.
I also think it’s a problem of promotion. You’re not going to get paid the big bucks because you want to portray South LA or Compton or the Southside of Chicago in a positive light. That’s not why you’re going to get hired by The Tribune or The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal. They’re not going to hire you because of that.
What advice do you have for women who want to do progressive journalism?
They need to go ahead and do it. But they need to make sure that they have their emotional support in place and together. And possibly a financial [support], or cultivate one if they don’t have one already. A fire that’s going to keep them going; an internal one to draw from the strength of the people that have come before them. They’re going to draw from that internal strength that I know something is wrong, I need to do something about it. I can do something about it. But they’re also going to need good people around them. Someone who is going to let you just lay your head down, and listen to you rant and rave and not say one word.

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