Friday, July 24, 2009

Charlayne Hunter-Gault - "Women are the Poorest of the Poor"

It’s been more than two months since I saw Charlayne Hunter-Gault speak at the Simmons Leadership Conference, but her grace, wisdom and strength still stick in my mind.

She’s had an illustrious career to date, currently serving as a foreign correspondent for NPR. Previously, she was chief national correspondent for The Newshour with Jim Lehrer on PBS from 1983 to 1997. She was the first African-American reporter for The New Yorker in 1963, and reported for the New York Times for more than ten years. She received the New York Times Publisher Award, two Emmy's, a Peabody, the Journalist of the Year Award from the National Association of Black Journalists and multiple honorary degrees.

I missed a few minutes of her speech, but I walked in just in time to hear her story of growing up in a small rural town in Georgia, attending a segregated elementary school. They got the hand-me-down books from the white schools.

Once a year, everybody in the community came together for a fundraiser for “this poor little black school,” as she described it. The child of the family who raised the most money was the school king or queen for a day.

“So the money was counted, and I heard my name called. I just couldn’t believe it. I got a Bulova watch and this little diamond tiara,” Hunter-Gault explained. “So the next day, I went to school in my bobby socks and loafers, and my little diamond tiara. I was just so proud.”

Hunter-Gault said she internalized this lesson of pride in oneself and in one’s community.

“So when I walked through those crowds at the University of Georgia, and they were yelling ‘Kill the niggers,’ I thought of that little diamond tiara,” she said. When there was a mob outside her dorm, throwing bricks, she thought of her grandmother, who’d taught her bible verses in the summers. “Yeah though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil.”

She eventually got suspended, “for her safety.” This tactic had worked at another school, because then the student criticized the school and she was expelled.

But Hunter-Gault somehow endured the climate at the university, and in 1962 became the first African-American woman to graduate from the school.

Hunter-Gault's remarks then fast-forwarded to modern-day South Africa where the “born frees” registered to vote this year in record numbers. (Born frees are citizens who were born in the post-apartheid era.) Two women ran the election process; 17 million people voted in a near-flawless election. Fifty-five percent of the voters were women.

“I look to the women of Africa to bring the second wind of change to our world, the first being the era of post colonialism,” said Hunter-Gault. “If we save the women of Africa, we can save Africa. They say that if you educate a man, you educate an individual. If you educate a woman, you educate a nation.”

But even as women are making advances in some areas, it is not translating to success in others. “In South Africa, a woman is raped every 26 seconds. In Darfur, women are raped as they go out to gather wood to cook food for their children.

"I am committed to giving you some good news too. There is more to Africa than the four D’s – death, disease, disaster, despair. That’s why I wrote New News out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance."

The number one problem in Africa is poverty, explained Hunter-Gault. “Women are the poorest of the poor."

Why should we care? "Ghana and Angola have tremendous oil reserves. And terrorism feeds off poverty," she noted.

“So beyond caring on humanitarian grounds, and I know that many of you do, we should care out of our own national interest,” Hunter-Gault closed.

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