Charlayne’s Web

In her new book, Charlayne Hunter-Gault reflects on five decades of Black history ­and the people who defined it.

Oak Bluffs summer resident Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist, correspondent, and the author of five books. At the age of eighteen, Hunter-Gault made headlines when she and another student successfully challenged the segregation policies at the University of Georgia, from which she would later graduate with a B.A. in journalism. She has been writing from the front lines as both an activist and storyteller ever since, in print for such publications as The New Yorker and The New York Times, on television for PBS’s NewsHour and CNN, and as a foreign correspondent on NPR. 

In advance of the paperback release of her latest publication, a collection of essays and reportage entitled My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives (Harper, 2022), Hunter-Gault talks to Martha’s Vineyard Magazine about looking back, looking forward, and what she loves most about the Island she calls home.

MVM: As a child you moved around quite a bit, following your father’s military career, until settling in Georgia. What did you know about the Vineyard as a young person, and when did you first visit?

Charlayne Hunter-Gault: I first came to Martha’s Vineyard when my husband [retired banking executive Ronald Gault] was working at the Ford Foundation. A co-worker invited us, and we went up to Aquinnah, then called Gay Head. We had a wonderful time up there, but I had also heard a lot about the Vineyard from my high school classmate Bobby Jackson. His father used to bring his family to the Vineyard. This was during segregation; there were no beaches that Black people could attend from Georgia to Massachusetts. So, he would drive his family all the way up to Oak Bluffs.

After that visit my family rented for a long time at different locations. One day – we were living in South Africa then, and I’d get a month in August, when I worked for CNN and NPR, so we’d come for the month of August – we decided we wanted to buy. We were about to leave – I think my husband was getting in one last round of golf – and I walked down the street and saw this For Sale sign. I called the agent and said, “I’d like to look at the house.” She said, “Sure, I can meet you Monday.” And I said, “You don’t understand, I got a one o’clock ferry. I want to see it now.”

So she showed me, and it needed work. But we loved it and we bought it. This was in [the mid-nineties], and we’ve been coming from about June to November ever since.

MVM: Your most recent book, My People, is a collection of your many years of reporting on Black life in this country. What was the process like of reflecting and selecting the pieces you felt should be included in the book?

CHG: It was hell. Cutting was the hardest part. I had to leave out a lot of stuff, but I think it’s representative. Most people think My People is just about Black people, but I feature lots of people – people from the Vineyard, like Lucy Hackney; people who have connections to people of color and some of the injustices they took on.

MVM: After spending so much time with your own writing and reliving, in a sense, so much of what has happened in the past fifty years, particularly surrounding civil rights, did you feel at all frustrated by what might be seen as
a lack of progress?

CHG: I don’t feel frustrated at all. Once you give in to negative feelings, you can’t be effective in your communication. You can be involved in exposing injustice, which there is an awful lot of these days. And you can get frustrated because people don’t seem to be getting good information. But if you’re a person who has spent a lifetime trying to communicate good information, you can’t get frustrated.

MVM: You’ve covered race and social unrest and injustice – as well as progress – for decades. It seems lately like the very nature of truth and history is under attack, with controversies over banned books, changing curricula, and fake news. What do you think is the role and responsibility of journalists today?

CHG: [Former host of PBS’s NewsHour] Jim Lehrer used to say, “Give people good information and they’ll do the right thing.” I do think that idea is still alive and well. And [broadcast journalist] Edward R. Murrow famously said [of the television], “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and it can even inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.” Those two quotes – I think there are answers out there. We have a younger generation joining the media, and I think it’s important for them also to know the history. I had a professor once who said, “We learn from history that we do not learn from history.” I took that as a challenge. I would add: “…so learn from history!”

MVM: How do you spend your time on the Island? Is it a place of refuge or do you work while you’re here?

CHG: It’s both. This past summer I did a piece on the Wampanoag people for PBS – I consider myself a student of history, but I’m also open to learning from history – and that happened to me when I interviewed the Vanderhoops at [Sassafras Earth Education in Aquinnah]. There was so much I learned that I never knew!

I love learning about the Island, the libraries, the bookstores, but mostly the people. People here are so creative, so adaptable. When we first bought our house, that first summer a contractor tore down walls and set up different things and the house was totally empty. Wires were hanging from the ceiling. But I wanted to have a party. My husband is a banker and he’s a little more formal, and he said, “What about this mess?” And I said, “People are going to love it.”

And they did! I had music to play and people danced and it hasn’t stopped.