Since his unsuccessful run for Maryland governor against Larry Hogan in 2018, Benjamin Todd Jealous, former president of the NAACP, has kept up the pace he established as a scholar, activist and entrepreneur before trying politics. He served as president of People for the American Way, has a professorship at the University of Pennsylvania and next month becomes executive director of the Sierra Club. Jealous, who lives in Anne Arundel County, turned 50 on Wednesday. His new book, “Never Forget Our People Were Always Free, A Parable of American Healing,” has just been published.
The title is taken from something Jealous’ maternal grandmother, Mamie Todd Bland, had said. The granddaughter of a slave who became a civil rights activist and social worker in Baltimore, she died last April at age 105. She seems in large part the inspiration for her grandson’s book.
My conversation with Ben Jealous took place by email and phone. The questions and answers have been edited for length and clarity.
DR: I’ve been listening to your narration of your book via HarperAudio. It’s a memoir of personal discovery about your ancestors. What’s meant by the title?
BTJ: Three years ago, my grandmother turned 103. I knew that I needed to solve the greatest riddle she threatened to leave us with, her repeated assertion that our people were always free. It took a lot of research and a global hunt for a particular DNA mutation [to] discover the answer. It shocked me and changed how I viewed my enslaved ancestors and at least one of those who enslaved them. The search taught me that the spirit that words inspire inside you is more important than understanding how they make sense.
DR: The book also seems to be a series of essays about racism and the pile of problems we face, and how we get to a better place. We’ve got white supremacists, a disturbing level of hate crimes, more guns than people. Some people think we’re headed for another civil war.
BTJ: I don’t. Every family has too much to lose. Moreover, I see a greater yearning in the hearts of the people of this country to come together than a willingness to tear it apart.
DR: Given the state of the Republican Party, and tons of people who believe in conspiracy theories, the unwillingness of millions of Americans to agree on objective facts, a wide political divide, how do we ever get to a better place?
BTJ: The doorway to a stronger, more united America starts with each of us deciding to listen to all of our neighbors, not just the ones who agree with us. As it turns out, most families have similar concerns and worries. When we listen to each other, it’s hard not to recognize the commonalities that appear that are all but invisible on social media.
DR: I don’t see this as a cycle ending naturally any time soon. Do you?
BTJ: Yes. Politics is a lot like physics. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction, thus Clinton/Bush, Bush/Obama and Obama/Trump. A noted political scientist observed that another law of physics applies to politics: Something in motion will return to its original state. Both that professor and my grandmother encouraged me to always remember that, before there were slave rebellions, there were colonial rebellions — enslaved Africans and indentured Europeans rising up together. Much of my book is peppered with the history of European and African Americans rising up together. … What gives me hope is that [multiracial] working people have not just come together repeatedly across color lines throughout American history, but that was the norm in our nation during its first century. One thing that makes me optimistic is my faith that my professor was right: We will return to a time when people are more concerned about winning a better future for their children than their neighbors’ skin tone or hair texture.
DR: But where does the breakthrough come?
BTJ: People coming together consistently across color lines is not just our nation’s past but also our future. I wrote this book ultimately to shift people’s mindset about race and racism. … Most American centuries have ended much better than they’ve started. I have faith this one will too. Most decades in between are likely to be tumultuous. However, by the time we approach the middle of this century, whites will have joined all other groups in being a minority in this country. … More energy will be put into how to build effective alliances instead of trying to turn back the clocks, trying to resist change. I believe we will reach that place [if we] listen with an open heart to fellow Americans with whom we assume we have nothing in common. When we do, we will find invariably that we have way more in common than we don’t.
DR: You say in the book that it’s a lie that racism has always been with us — and that racism will always be with us.
BTJ: Maryland existed for a century before this American notion of race. In other words, this is something we created. Its purpose is to divide the many in order to diminish their power. Its original purpose was to divide most Americans in order to enable the king’s ability to accrue greater wealth. Anything we have built we can move beyond.