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Joint Venture Reimagines Anti-Slavery Newspaper For The 21st Century

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Can America exist without racism? Two hundred years ago, the editors of the country's first abolitionist newspaper, The Emancipator, asked a different question. Can America exist without slavery?

IBRAM X KENDI: How they could imagine a nation without slavery at a time when slaveholders were among the richest and most powerful people in the world. It was their imagination. It was their calling forth the impossible that inspires me to this day.

MARTINEZ: That's Ibram X. Kendi. He's a historian and the founding director of Boston University's Center for Antiracist Research. He says that the vision from 1820 is at the heart of his center's partnership with Bina Venkataraman, who is the editorial page editor at The Boston Globe. They're working together to revive The Emancipator. Together, they want to use the legacy of the paper to work toward an anti-racist future.

BINA VENKATARAMAN: We wanted to draw a line from the rich newspaper tradition of the 19th century in Boston, which really served to accelerate the movement for abolition of slavery in the United States, and to try to draw a line with today's conversations that are so needed on racial justice.

MARTINEZ: And during its original run, as you mentioned, The Emancipator was an abolitionist newspaper referring to the movement to end slavery around the world. Ibram, in 2021, what is an abolitionist newspaper?

KENDI: An abolitionist newspaper recognizes that racism today is slavery yesterday. An abolitionist newspaper recognizes that in order for this nation to truly live up to its professed ideals of liberty and equality for all, it must end racism just as yesterday it had to end slavery. An abolitionist newspaper knows that there are many different perspectives on how we achieve equality and how we achieve justice. And so bringing together research and scholars and opinion journalists to debate these issues, think about a world anew, is what The Emancipator will do today.

MARTINEZ: So, Ibram, could we call The Emancipator in 2021 anti-racist journalism?

KENDI: I think so because I think anti-racist journalism presupposes that there should be this sort of journalistic effort towards equality and justice.

MARTINEZ: You know, many newsrooms around the country have struggled to deal with editorial racism, things like what stories are chosen, how they're framed. Bina, you're the editorial page editor at The Globe. So why isn't this a part of that newsroom?

VENKATARAMAN: Well, in a way, it will be. This is a partnership between Globe Opinion, our opinion team at The Boston Globe, and the Boston University Center for Antiracist Research. And part of what we want to do is build on these rich newspaper traditions of the 19th century in Boston and bring them into the fold of what The Boston Globe is doing and to reach new audiences with our journalism. Boston obviously has a mixed history when it comes to issues of race and racism. While we were the cradle of the abolitionist movement in the 19th century, we've also seen profound injustice, profound systemic racism at play in Boston in its history. And for The Boston Globe, this is an opportunity, actually, to say that we need to bring in more journalists, more thinkers. We need to bring in the rigor of evidence and scholarship, which comes from the academic partnership with BU, to enrich these debates about racial justice in a way that still draws on our existing community of journalists and op-ed contributors but also expands that and really kind of says, let's not ask whether we want a racially just and equitable society. Let's instead ask how we get there and produce a project of ideas and opinion journalism that answers that question.

MARTINEZ: Because, Bina, I got to admit, when I first heard about this and I saw all the details, I kind of thought, OK, well, The Boston Globe is here, The Emancipator's over there. It's - I know you mentioned it is a partnership in some ways, but it almost feels as if The Boston Globe is taking a step back from it just to make sure that there's no intermixing of the two.

VENKATARAMAN: I wouldn't say that. So we are looking for an editor-in-chief that will sit in The Boston Globe newsroom that will be part of The Globe opinion team, and that editor-in-chief will serve alongside a co-editor-in-chief based at Boston University at the Center for Antiracist Research, who will bring a more academic orientation but also be a journalist. And together, those two journalists will sort of forge this vision. That said, we also wanted to create a hybrid newsroom that could be innovative and inventive in a way that perhaps is more difficult for a legacy newspaper to do in its existing structures. So we wanted to free up these editors-in-chief to chart a vision to be truly digital first, for example, but also to think of it even from a different perspective in terms of the business model. So this will be philanthropically supported and supported through corporate sponsorships so that the content is free to everyone. We just think this journalism ought to be widely disseminated so that this conversation about racial justice can move forward in a way that it actually provokes progress in our society.

MARTINEZ: Ibram, when it comes to an expectation maybe by some to have mainstream journalism be anti-racist, specifically anti-racist, have you given up on that?

KENDI: No, I have not, just as I haven't given up on creating an anti-racist society. And indeed, when The Emancipator was first founded in 1820, there were people who had given up on the idea that we can have a nation without chattel slavery, that one day we could wage a war for freedom. And so I'm not giving up that we can create that today. And I see The Emancipator as one of the vehicles that can indeed create an anti-racist society. And I think in order for us to reach an anti-racist society, we certainly need journalists and scholars who are pointing the way forward.

VENKATARAMAN: And I think that's the sort of lens that journalists who are part of this effort will one day be able to look at it through to say I was part of a journalistic effort that deals with one of the most profound problems of our time, which is racism, which deals with really the foundational ideals of this country, the unfinished business of achieving liberty and justice for all. For journalists to be part of helping America live up to its highest ideals I think is among the most profound things a journalist could do with his or her career.

MARTINEZ: Bina Venkataraman is The Boston Globe's editorial page editor, and Ibram X. Kendi is the founding director of the BU Center for Antiracist Research. My thanks to you both.

VENKATARAMAN: Thank you so much.

KENDI: Yes. Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEN WILLIAMS' "I AM A MAN (INTRO) (INSTRUMENTAL)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.