In an essay in last week’s Boston Globe magazine called “Growing Up Black in All The Wrong Places,” Jonathan Jackson tells the story of growing up as a Black man in New Hampshire. He writes that people are often surprised to find out he grew up in a state that, when he was younger, was one percent Black.
"People also bring up New Hampshire’s fierce motto, Live Free or Die," he writes. "My older brother and I thought that was for other people. Our motto was 'Move quiet and get out of here.' And we did. Now a pandemic has brought me back."
Jackson joined NHPR's All Things Considered Host Peter Biello.
You write in moving ways about how your parents surrounded you with and protected you with love. Can you tell us a little bit about how they did that?
Yeah, my parents just made sure we knew where we were from. My family's Trinidadian, and so my mom and my father just made sure that we knew who people were and we could put names to faces.
And so, I think if it was time with our grandparents, it was time meeting cousins or time with my aunts. It was just really, really important that there be a family structure, not just in blood, but in relationships. And I think they modeled that. And I think what it gave me was sort of a place to anchor in terms of the environment that might not have felt like home with the people that could just love me for me.
Since leaving New Hampshire, you've won a prestigious fellowship from Harvard University. You've co-founded your own media company. But in the article, you write that these accolades caused many white people to regard you as the model of what a “good Black person” ought to be in your mind. Is there a way to celebrate Black achievement without supporting the idea that Black people need to be exceptional in order to be valued?
I think there is. I think you can celebrate Black people at a minimum by engaging with the idea that we are people and that we come with a distinctive and a plethora of viewpoints. And I think exceptionalism creates this idea that there is a way that you should be moving through the world relative to someone else's expectation of you. And so those are based on how we function through stereotypes. We all have them. The danger is that I find that for Black people there is an uncommon and unmitigated weight that is placed upon them to act in a certain way to achieve a certain outcome that is then lauded as success. And I think, again, in the piece, my purpose was to reflect that none of those achievements have any bearing on my value as a person. But they are used to become a standard for how other people should behave and act relative to me. And that palatability, that ability to sort of put someone on a trophy stand and be like, “look, this is how you could be, too, if you just worked harder or if you paid more attention, or if you bought less Jordans and adhered to whatever it is I think you should be doing with your time, attention, finances,” this is what your outcome could be. And that neglects the reality of systems, structures, place environments that I try to outline in the piece to kind of dispel these mythologies that I somehow am an exemplar.
We at NHPR have been looking at our own shortcomings in telling stories of Black and Brown people here. We think one problem might be the way we talk about the state repeatedly saying, for example, New Hampshire is predominantly white. What is the effect of media institutions saying over and over again, “New Hampshire is predominantly white?”
There's truth to that. It is. And you can look at the demographic data. But if you're going to say that, then I also think you have a responsibility to think about what else is going on. So if you're looking at a number that says ninety seven percent, have you spent as much time thinking about what that three percent number is? To me, it's a journalistic integrity question. Have you done the research on the thing that appears in the statement? So if it's 98 percent, that's not 100. And are people being seen? And I don't think there's ever been an intentioned effort. And I think that's not just here. I think it's a New England question. I think it's anywhere around here that sort of has this just prevailing notion that if Black people are there, it's by happenstance or mistake. They are largely, you know, not doing anything or just waiting to get out. And for some, that might be true. But I just think it just doesn't lend itself to dynamic and interesting storytelling.
And your essay ends with the thought you began with, the surprise many people have when you tell them you're from New Hampshire and you write, you're beginning to kind of enjoy those moments when you, “cannot be palatable.” Can you tell us a little bit more about what you mean there?
Yeah, I think there's just this assumption that, I couldn't have possibly grown up where I did and been the person that I am.
And I think that lends itself to this idea that there is, again, a largely held idea of where Black people are, what they do when they're in those places, and that if they're not in those places, they don't exist. And so as I got older, I just started enjoying the idea that it was difficult to get a read on me. It's unconscionable that someone could take a look at my area code and arrive at a fully formed narrative of who I am.