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Anna Deavere Smith On What It Takes To Bring About Change

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

The actress and playwright Anna Deavere Smith has been thinking and writing on what it takes to bring about change. One thing that probably won't get you far - being well-behaved or nice. It's a conclusion Smith came to when she was a student in the late '60s at Beaver College in Pennsylvania.

ANNA DEAVERE SMITH: That was a period of time when some schools, as they do now, but in a different way - probably more low-key way - were really making an effort to - I don't even think they used the word diversity - but to bring, you know, Negroes to their school. And the school that I went to was one of those schools. As my high school counselor said to my mother, there's a lot of schools looking for nice Negro girls like Anna.

KELLY: Smith has written about that in an essay titled "The Last Of The Nice Negro Girls." It's part of The Atlantic magazine's Inheritance project. When I spoke to Smith, I asked her to read a line or two about the whole family piling in the car to drive her to college.

SMITH: (Reading) My father sat behind the wheel. And two brothers, my two baby sisters, my paternal grandfather and my mother piled into the car.

KELLY: A lot of people, a lot of expectations. Smith told me she has been thinking hard on those expectations and how she navigated them back in college as she's navigated this moment in our nation's history.

SMITH: The word that is probably one of the most popular words about 2020 was unprecedented, and particularly after George Floyd was killed. And, of course, you know, the pandemic is unprecedented. But a lot of the race conversations actually weren't unprecedented. And a lot of people split from different schools. You know, I hung in.

KELLY: Yeah. You write about one incident when four nervous white girls - your words - visited your dorm to ask you to be their emissary. Just set the scene and pick up the story from there for us.

SMITH: Well, you know, as far as memory can serve me, I don't remember knowing those young women very much. And their roommate, who was from the South - and by the way, the difference between the north and the South was also more intense than now. So for a Southern young lady to come to school in the north was a bigger deal than we think of now. And she had flown the Confederate flag after our team won a lacrosse game. And so I was asked to go to the other Black girls and to apologize. I don't know why I was chosen to do that, but my other Black classmates...

KELLY: Apologize - what? - on behalf of the white girl?

SMITH: Yeah, to say she didn't really mean any harm. And so I went, and, you know, they gave her the benefit of the doubt. I don't think that would happen now.

KELLY: The experience brought Smith and the six other Black students in her class closer. It was the 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. that sealed their bond, though, and spurred them to action.

SMITH: For me, I just - you know, I - it was shocking and very upsetting and also upsetting that I recall some of the white girls in my dorm really being more concerned about curfews and how those curfews would interrupt their spring vacations. And that was pretty sobering and upsetting. But we immediately got to work, like Black students all over the country, and we tried to get the administration to hire a Black professor and to start some semblance of a Black studies class or a Black history class or - I don't think we even called it that then; maybe Afro-American history class - but something to do with Black culture.

KELLY: And when you say hire a Black professor, there was zero? There were no Black faculty?

SMITH: No. No, no, no. No, no, no, no, no, no, no. No. It's hard to imagine...

KELLY: Yeah.

SMITH: ...None.

KELLY: You have a line in your essay where you talk about this as the veil being shredded. Explain.

SMITH: Well, the main building on campus was a castle. And so that became a metaphor for our situation, that we were, you know, living behind this fortress, really, of a different idea of education. So between the assassination of Martin Luther King and other things happening in the country, that veil of, you know, this kind of almost bucolic but not quite bucolic way of coming to school, it was gone. And I think many of us questioned what our education was about. And we had to sort of make it up as we went along because there was a sense that what we were doing and learning wasn't really relevant.

KELLY: Tell one more story, which is what happened when you went to the dean of your college.

SMITH: Yeah. There was this dean who was a new dean, and she was from the South. And she sat us down in this classroom, and she said we were exhibiting undesirable behavior and that the administration wasn't going to be very happy to have us here if we continued to exhibit undesirable behavior. And then the real line was...

KELLY: The undesirable behavior was asking for a Black professor.

SMITH: Asking for - yeah, yeah. And if we continued to show undesirable behavior, they were certainly not going to pay to have us here. And of course, that was a sign about the scholarships that some of us were on. And, you know, she wouldn't even have gotten as far as you're going to pay to have you here in this day and age. She would have been fired because somebody would have texted just the first part.

KELLY: Yeah. Well, what's the lesson you would want people today to take from your experience at Beaver College in the '60s?

SMITH: I think I would want them actually to take a lesson of resilience, to tell you the truth - how to persist, how to be, how to survive when you don't really have a sense of belongingness. And when you are not welcome, what happens? What kind of resilience do you need to get through? And it is also, I think, a signal to people who have a conscience in their own institutions about am I extending what I call a radical hospitality to folks? Because if it's not radical, they probably are not going to be able to make it.

KELLY: That's a lovely way of putting it - radical hospitality - something for us all to think about practicing in these strange and uncertain times.

That is Anna Deavere Smith. She's an actress, a playwright and author of "The Last Of The Nice Negro Girls." It's part of The Atlantic magazine's Inheritance project. Anna Deavere Smith, this was a pleasure. Thank you.

SMITH: Well, it was such a pleasure for me, Mary Louise. And let me say that your very vocal tones have a radical hospitality.

KELLY: (Laughter) I'm so glad to hear that. And I hope that is true, and I hope that everyone that I have the privilege of getting to interview feels that because we feel it here.

(SOUNDBITE OF KAREN O AND THE KIDS SONG, "HIDEAWAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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