[Begin Tape 1, Side A]
Moorhus: We want to start this evening with the column that you started writing in 1979. Did the Post editors give you any guidelines before you started to write?
Gilliam: Let me back up a little bit to how that whole thing came about. I had been working as an editor in the "Style" section for seven years, and the mood was changing. I felt that I really just wanted something different. One of the things I did was to send a proposal to [Benjamin C.] Bradlee about the [Washington Post] magazine. That didn't fly with him, but then he asked what else I was interested in, and that's when I proposed the column.
In terms of guidelines, basically what he suggested was that I move over from the "Style" section to "Metro," and start writing some kind of long analysis, feature, whatever, kind of pieces, so that they could get a sense of how I would do. So I didn't come over and immediately start writing columns. I came over and I did some fairly longish "people" pieces, and then I did a number of other pieces, but things that I think really came out of the community in a way that they were not touching.
So after I did that for a few months, then the editors at that time, the "Metro" editor and the city editor—the "Metro" editor was Bob Woodward, and the city editor was Herbert Denton. They, I'm sure in concert with Bradlee, said, "Let's start the column." So that's what happened.
There were lots of discussions about what a column should contain, but no real guidelines—I mean, no parameters. My sense is that they probably preferred the "people" columns. When I started trying to do more issue-oriented columns, getting in more of the issues of race, etc., that those columns were not as popular.
The eighties were real difficult times. You had Ronald Reagan in the White House. You had the country turning from the sixties and the seventies into a very conservative mode by the eighties. I had a lot of strong opinions, and I know that sometimes I would feel that people would write notes in my computer, taking issue with certain things—not editors, but just other reporters. Sometimes they would sign them, occasionally they wouldn't, but most of the time they would. A lot, a lot of reader response. I'll get some of those columns, those early columns, because they really were very different.
I often got accused of being a black racist and just a whole bunch of stuff. You see, I think part of it is that in those days, first of all, there weren't that many women writing columns. There weren't that many blacks writing columns. The other Post columnist who was black was [William] Raspberry, who was on the editorial page. I love him a lot. He's wonderful, and he's a good friend, but he leans much more to kind of a conservative, moderate position, and I considered myself much more liberal and much stronger on—I mean, I would not necessarily try to hedge an opinion; I just let it out there.
As I was telling you, this article that was in The Washingtonian, I have to say I feel badly about it.* Nobody likes to be put down in public. Although since I dish out my share, I have to realize I have to have thick skin as well. But this article, when you read it, you'll see that it makes a few anonymous kind of references to the way some people in the Post apparently regarded it. None of this stuff is really attributed. I feel much of it is pretty sophomoric, as far as I'm concerned, but at the same time I think it does reflect the views of some people.
My reaction to it is that one of the problems with American journalism is that there's very little tolerance for authentic black voices unless those voices are—maybe more so now than certainly when I was starting, with some of the things I've done. I think as a pioneer who really was one of those early black women in the white male-dominated field of journalism, some of the kinds of things I said were particularly upsetting to people. One of the rubs that the article mentioned was that I often presented blacks as victims. I don't quite know what they mean by that. What I was more often accused of was being so sympathetic to black Americans, that I was unable to see the negatives, all of which is a bunch of crap. It just isn't true.
But in general, I would say that I think the column developed. When I first went over, as I said, in the first few months I was primarily writing longish features that did get good play, but they were not stories that were done on that regular twice-a-week kind of schedule. When I did start [the column], I have to say that I think that some of them were rough. There were some real rough spots occasionally. It was a very different craft form—column-writing versus news and feature-writing—and I had to learn it. There were also a lot of internal things going on at the Post. I think I did some good work. I think sometimes my work was problematic. The period I remember being most problematic with the column was during the time I was getting divorced or the time I separated, the time I left my husband.
Moorhus: What year was that?
Gilliam: That was 1982.
Moorhus: Early, middle, late 1982?
Gilliam: October 1982. Unfortunately there are people who, instead of giving you direct feedback when there are problems, which I much prefer, no matter how critical the feedback can be, there are people who prefer to do the whispering thing, you know. Sometimes that kind of opens a floodgate. So that was a rough period, but after that period passed, after that kind of transition passed, I think the column really started doing very well. I think one of the things that Bradlee talks about in this book,* he basically said that he thought that after the column got going, he thought I did a very good job.
Moorhus: What kind of people did you choose to write about initially?
* "This article" refers to "Getting Personal" by Alicia Mundy, in The Washingtonian, June 1993. The magazine was on the newsstands May 24. The article is about Donna Britt, black columnist in "Metro" section of the Washington Post; it includes disparaging comments about Dorothy Gilliam's work and reputation at the Post.
*"This book" refers to She Said What? Interviews with Women Newspaper Columnists by Maria Braden, University of Kentucky Press.
Gilliam: They were Washingtonians who lived primarily in the city, and people who didn't get very much play, people I felt were kind of presented in sort of more stereotypical terms. For example, I did a piece—I picked a young man and really followed him for several years, who was a student at Cardoza High School in Washington. He came from a very poor family, lived above a grocery store on Fourteenth Street, and he had been a real hell-raiser, just a total hell-raiser, but through the help of sports and a number of teachers who just worked with him, he just turned his life around. His name was "Big Red." I did sort of the first story on him, and then I went back and did a story a year later when he graduated from high school. Then I went back. Then he was picked up. He went to junior college, and I went out to his first game out in Iowa, following this kid from Fourteenth Street out to the middle of Iowa, and his adjustments. Finally, I just happened to have been out in Arizona when he was at the University of Arizona, and I did a piece on him then.
So it was that kind of thing, of trying to really take sometimes these young people who were just sort of stereotypes and statistics, and just really turn him into a human being that people could understand, could admire, and then to also try to use it also as a way to challenge him.
Moorhus: How did you find him?
Gilliam: Through some contacts at the school. One of the reasons that I think I got deep into the community was because by the time I started writing the column, I [had] lived in the community for fifteen years. I hadn't written for the Post that whole time, but I had been at the Post for a little while in the sixties, and then I was out and doing a number of other things, as I discussed with you earlier. Then when I came back to the Post as an editor, I also made a lot of community contacts, and I also have been of the community so often.
One of the reasons that I think you get a certain kind of writing is that reporters just kind of come into the community and live here and start writing, and they don't have very deep roots in the community. And I do have those roots, so a lot of times I'll get people who will call me and tell me about certain people or certain things or certain events. This, I think, is part of the reason, in a way—some people will say, "You're just too close to the community," you know. I think that gives, for some readers, the sense of being too sympathetic. I feel very appreciated by the community. I mean, I get lots and lots and lots of mail and phone calls and people who say that they feel through the years that I have my finger on the pulse of the community, and that's reflected in the writing.
All of that comes from, as I say, feeling very much a part of the community. So a lot of the ideas I got, I remember one of the early—I'm trying to remember was this a column or was I still writing those kind of occasional longish features before I made the switch. But I remember I did a piece on a man who I had actually met in the sixties, and who was now just a total victim of a lot of the issues that are really rife in this town. They called him "Lamb," and I wrote about him and what was going on in his life and the community. He lived in the Mount Pleasant community. Sometimes I wrote about people that I knew, because I had seen them around. Living in Mount Pleasant at the time, I really had gotten to know a real wide cross-section of people. But ideas came from everywhere, as I said, from readers, from friends, from people who just liked what I wrote, or didn't like what I wrote, just a variety of ways, a general number of ways we get ideas.
Moorhus: How is the writing and the editing different, doing a column, from doing the kind of feature pieces you were doing?
Gilliam: The main difference in the writing at that point was switching from the more objective reporting or the fair and balanced reporting, to having a point of view. This was a hard shift for me. It's interesting, because today there's much more writing like that, so that it's an easier shift for somebody who's starting out. Column-writing as an art form has changed a great deal. It was pretty much in its heyday in that early period in terms of having the "Metro" column. There were always the few fabled columnists like [Mike] Royko or Russell Baker.* There were always a few. But you certainly didn't have the number of local columnists that you do now. Most newspapers have local columnists, in part to compete. They're the personalities that compete with television. There weren't a lot of rules, and the editing was primarily designed to help you say better what it is you wanted to say, as opposed to the formula or any variation of news formulaic writing.
It's a very challenging form of writing, and for me, as I said, just as I was kind of getting started, beginning to learn the form and all of that, then I had some personal issues that really made it a little more difficult, so it took me, I think, a while to get back on track in the way that I was comfortable. But during that time, a lot of things happened. I was syndicated for a while, so the column was being picked up and noticed.
I keep referring to that article, because obviously it's on my mind since it just ran, but I think it's relevant because it kind of gives me a point of some objective response to it. The thing that I think is important is to see what I do in the larger context of where black journalists are in this country. I think I told you that when I started in the business, the number of black news professionals was less than 1 percent, and over the years, with a lot of pushing, a lot of work—and I've been among those people really pushing—those numbers have finally this year, for the first time, crept up to 10.4 percent. That's not just black journalists; that's black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native Americans. We finally now in this country hit the double digits.
So there's nothing that even approximates authentic black voices. I think there are a few papers where you have some voices, and the columns come closest to that, but still there are relatively few black columnists, and there are also relatively few papers that have as many black columnists as the Post. It's really very unusual to have two black women. So the Post is unusual in that. But in general, it is a real problem in this country that African-Americans still have such an underdeveloped voice. There just is not that authentic voice. When I say "authentic voice," I don't mean one voice; I mean enough people so that you have the kind of diversity represented so that you can have, and I think the Post has had that. You can have a kind of moderate to conservative, a conservative moderate. You can have somebody who's more liberal, and you can have somebody who can be more outlandish, and you can have somebody who is more Black Nationalist, you know. That, to me, is the kind of range that is important, but I think the overall context for all of this is the real, real serious situation that exists in this country with too few black voices.
Moorhus: Who do you credit at the Post with having helped foster that kind of diversity?
Gilliam: I guess Raspberry, when he came on originally. I believe Ben [Benjamin] Gilbert was the city editor. That was one of the first. I was the next one, and the first woman. Then there was Bradlee, who brought that on. Courtland Milloy came on under Bradlee, and I guess
* Mike Royko (1932- ). U.S. journalist. Columnist with Chicago Daily News (1959-78) and the Chicago Sun-Times (1978- ); awarded Pulitzer Prize in commentary, 1972.
Russell Baker (1925- ). U.S. journalist, author. Writes a nationally syndicated humor column for the New York Times; Pulitzer Prize in commentary, 1979.
Donna [Britt] came on under the new guys, under [Robert G.] Kaiser and [Leonard] Downie [Jr.]. So I guess it's been a combination, but I guess the person who has probably done the most would be Bradlee, as far as I'm concerned. He certainly was the person who gave me opportunity. I know that there were many times that there were things that he didn't like. And I don't care. I mean, it isn't even important to me that anybody share my opinion; what's important to me is that what I do is done as well as I can do it. And once I've done that, there's nothing more I can do.
The fact that there are white people on the paper who think I make black folks victims, or thought I did, or whatever, you know, I couldn't care less, because, in part, they have no real idea of what the black experience is like, anyway. I guess I just object to seeing two black women sort of being pitted [against each other]. Why do we have to be compared? She can just be who she is, and I can be who I am. But I know it's deeper than that. I know that's what journalists do, unfortunately—compare and pit and stir up stuff, sometimes when there's nothing to stir up.
Moorhus: Tell me about how syndication happened, and how does that work?
Gilliam: Syndication happens in many different ways. The Post itself has a writers' group, and Bill Raspberry was part of that. They never asked me to be a part of that; I asked to be a part of it. They said they already had a woman, and that was Ellen Goodman. So that took care of that. There may have been some other reasons they did not want me, but that was the reason they gave me.
So I was eventually picked up by a small syndicate that, again, came to me. Why am I blanking on the name of the syndicate? It folded after a few years. I can get that for you at some point, the name of that syndicate. I know my column appeared for several years in the Philadelphia Daily News, in several other papers, and, of course, it's been on the L.A. Times and Washington Post wire, and it was on that for years. When I first became syndicated, I asked them to take it off, because when it's on the Washington Post/L.A. wire, you don't get paid extra for it; they just use it. But when it's syndicated, there is payment for any extra usage of it. But syndication can work any way. I know some columnists have, when they were not approached by a syndicate, worked very hard to find a syndicate—gone and interviewed and called and sent columns. So you can take a very active role in this, or you can simply wait to be discovered.
Moorhus: Did it change the topics that you wrote about?
Gilliam: Well, I did a little less local stuff, yes. I've been doing a lot more local stuff since I've been back from New York, primarily because the paper—not that I do exclusively that, but I've been doing more because the nature of the business is changing a lot, and they're really trying to be much more local and regional.
Moorhus: Oh, really?
Gilliam: Not in the national sections, but in the metropolitan sections. You'll see over the country more papers have a local columnist or two or three. They still have Op Ed Page columnists, but basically the "Metro" columnists are people who are expected to write a lot, although, as I said again, none of this is exclusive, because I've written from as far away as Russia. So it just depends on where I am and what I'm doing.
One thing I think that's different, the Post has changed in the last year or two. They're more interested in really, really, really personal columns. I didn't do personal, personal, personal columns; I wanted to do columns that had points of view, "This is what I think about things," and I would occasionally write personal things about my children or my family or whatever, but not columns that I would consider really intensely personal.
Moorhus: Or "true confessions" kind of things.
Gilliam: Right. Now they seem to be encouraging that and wanting more of that.
Moorhus: Why do you think that is?
Gilliam: I think it's some sense of what they think the readers want, but I still don't do that. I will do some, and I'm trying to do a little more, but I basically have to be myself. I certainly will try to open up more where it's relevant, but I'm just not convinced, for me. I think readers might be more interested in what I think about events, etc., etc., than every aspect of my personal life.
Moorhus: Have you ever written a column that an editor wouldn't run?
Gilliam: Yes. There's a column I wrote, that ran, that Bradlee said that had he been around and seen it before it got into the paper, he would have suggested that I rethink it. That's what he said. That was a column that I wrote after the Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington. I was truly, truly outraged. [Tape interruption.]
When you read this [book], you might want to incorporate some of this, because they've got some quotes by Bradlee. He said, "I told Gilliam to try a column because she was a decent writer and moved around town in circles where no one else moved."
Moorhus: But he picked you specifically because you were different, that says.
Gilliam: Yes, and "moved around town in circles where no one else moved." He said, "We had nobody talking for that segment of our audience. We were becoming aware of shortcomings in local coverage, but none of us were as prescient as we should have been. The credit belongs to Dorothy. When she got going, she did a good job." That's not a rave, but, you know— [Laughter.]
Moorhus: That's pretty good.
Gilliam: It could be worse.
Moorhus: Did you have some feeling that finding your voice in the column was part of generally finding your voice and growing up, which is what we all had to do?
Gilliam: Yes, in many ways. I have said that I feel like I grew up in public, because there's something, of course, about being a reporter, where you basically are going out to get all sides of a story and arrange those sides in an interesting way, that's really very different from having a point of view, basically feeling that you have something to say twice a week.
As I said, you have to really think about the culture of a newsroom. Each newsroom has a different culture, all of them being very much white male-dominated. But within the context of that, when I was in J [journalism] school, they used to say the New York Times was run like the
Ladies Garment Union, and the Washington Post was run like the Democratic party. I didn't know what they were talking about, but there certainly exists within newsrooms a specific set of dynamics that make a lot of difference in terms of how one operates as a columnist or a report or whatever.
I feel like I'm really rambling. Restate the question and let me get refocused.
Moorhus: You said it took you a while to find your voice, and you also said that you separated from your husband. I was wondering if those two were linked in terms of your finding yourself and then deciding with your own voice you wanted to perhaps go further in your life in a different direction.
Gilliam: I don't know that they were linked. It's an interesting question. I certainly know that after I separated from my husband, I began to find more of myself. I think that perhaps even in the best of marriages, there's a certain amount of "deselfing" that goes on with one party or the other. Usually that party is the woman. Certainly it happened in my marriage, particularly because I was married to an artist who certainly at that time was particularly temperamental and brilliant and emotional. So there were a lot of issues. So certainly once that separation took place, I was trying to find—I call it "reself," and part of that was getting my voice and having a voice.
Then, as I said, the column shifted, because after a while I wasn't satisfied simply doing those "people" pieces. I felt they were too soft. I wanted to be able to have something to say on problems, issues like racism, like a lot of the problems in the city. I think after that difficult period, the column started getting a lot better, I would say. In my view, it was a year or so where I felt I was—I guess the word is "uneven." But I will show you a lot of columns. I think I'm harder on myself, as I think most people are, than others are.
Moorhus: But maybe it's not hard on yourself; maybe it's very insightful, looking back, and you can see how you grew, and that growth shows up in the columns.
Gilliam: I hope that's the case. I certainly know that it has been a growth period. As I said, when I said I grew up in public, I really mean that quite literally, because I can remember there would be times and events when I would just literally throw up my hands in print, you know, and I certainly see that now I don't have those same reactions. I remember during the time of the Atlanta murders,* I was just feeling somewhat hopeless about that whole situation. [Tape interruption.]
Moorhus: When the phone rang the first time, you were talking about the piece that was withdrawn, or that Ben Bradlee questioned about the Ku Klux Klan. I want to go back to that. Then you had started talking about the Atlanta murders and how you felt about that.
Gilliam: Let me start with the Ku Klux Klan. The Ku Klux Klan marched in Washington. There was a big uproar before. It was on a Sunday. I certainly joined in the uproar and the outrage over that. Something unexpected happened, and that is that there was violence. A lot of Washingtonians went on a minor rampage. It wasn't a huge one, but any loss of property is a problem. I wrote this column, and I basically said I didn't usually condone violence, but in this
* From 1979 to 1981, more than twenty young black boys were found murdered. In February 1982, Atlanta photographer Wayne B. Williams, 23, was found guilty of having killed two boys; other cases considered closed.
case, this was like a war situation when the Ku Klux Klan marches in the middle of the nation's capital. I compared it to a military situation and said I could see why the violence took place. I certainly said it more artfully, but people were just totally outraged. I just got tons and tons of letters. People just couldn't imagine that a responsible person would ever condone violence. So that was a storm that raged for a while.
As I said, later—she picks it up in this book, that, had I thought about it, I might have thought about it differently. But to me that was a real difference in being in black and white culture, you know. In white culture, you just don't condone violence. It's like this is a violent country, but there is a certain kind of veneer of respectability. There are certain things you don't say. That was the real sense that I had from that column, that I had entered into an area, kind of unawares, that was a no-no in the culture. I felt very strongly about what I said, but I guess probably had I had more time to think about it, I might have done it a little differently. But I sure didn't feel like that when I said it.
Moorhus: Did the reaction you got to that column affect the way you approached issues after that? For example, the riots in Los Angeles after the [Rodney] King verdict.*
Gilliam: No, no, that didn't affect anything else.
Moorhus: Then you were talking about the Atlanta murders and your sense of helplessness and frustration about that.
Gilliam: Right. I remember one of the letters I received was from an older woman. Her name was Pauli Marshall, and she was a black woman who was also an Episcopalian priest. She said, "There's so many things you can do. You can pray. You can realize that there's some power higher than Atlanta and than you." She started kind of rapping me on the knuckles for giving in to despair. As I look back over the years, I think that one of the things that has happened to me as a person is that I have moved beyond that kind of despair. That's part of the growth.
When I say I grew up in public, I don't mean the public grew me up; I mean that the maturation process took place quite publicly. I think because I've lived through so many different eras, in a way, by that I mean kind of coming of age in the fifties as a teenager, then just being totally changed in the sixties by the civil rights movement, my life chances being changed, my sense of self, at least the beginnings of that. I'm so very different from the little girl who grew up in Kentucky in terms of my sense of self, in terms of my understanding and my view of the world. But at the same time, I don't mean that I have any more answers than I had when Pauli Marshall was taking me to task for giving in to total frustration, but I know that I don't see things in such black and whites anymore; I see things much more in the grays, because I know that we all have pros and cons—all people or groups of people. So I think that's part of the maturation.
Moorhus: Are there topics that you avoid writing about?
Gilliam: I think there was a time when there were topics that I avoided. There's always been this kind of titillation, I guess, about African-Americans. I think that there was a time when I avoided writing about subjects that I felt I couldn't present in a sufficiently full context to really
* Riots erupted in Los Angeles in 1993 after four white Los Angeles policemen were acquitted on charges of beating black motorist Rodney King. The beating had been videotaped by a citizen bystander.
explain what was going on. Things that I thought were stereotypes and distortions or whatever, I think I may have avoided them.
One thing I didn't write as much about—various aspects of middle-class blacks as I might have. I've written about middle-class blacks and I've written about people who are middle class who have other roles, like politicians or school leaders, and I've also written about middle-class blacks as such. But I remember once some editor saying, "Why don't you write about black people and their maids?" I mean, that was one that I chose not to write about. Looking back, I guess I could have. It might have been interesting, but it just didn't seem to be very important to me to do something like that.
There are things that I don't write about (that I might write about) if they possibly expose somebody else to some kind of ridicule. And I'm not talking about public officials and things like that; I'm talking about, say, even family matters that I feel invade the privacy of members of my family. I won't write about it, even though I might want to. My daughters have reached the point where they've said, "Before you write about me, ask me."
[End Tape 1, Side A; Begin Tape 1, Side B]
Gilliam: I write about them a lot, and I have written about them over the years off and on. A lot of people say that they feel that they know my daughters. It's hard for you coming into Washington. I think you came when I was gone, which meant when I came back, I was writing less, so you've probably seen much less of what I've written and have much less of a feel for what I do, because I've just been writing less and been doing a lot more of the organizational stuff.
I write about them, and have, but I think what happens is that you have to realize I started writing this column around 1980, so that was ten years, and that was the ten years when they were really very much coming of age. I wrote about their high school graduation, their college graduation, those kind of things.
Moorhus: You said earlier that the columnists in a newspaper sort of parallel with the stars on the news broadcasts. Does that imply that being a columnist is a prestige position and that it's something one aspires to and you move up to that in a newspaper kind of hierarchy?
Gilliam: Oh, yes, absolutely. Absolutely. There's no doubt about the fact that being a columnist is a prestigious position. That's why when there are changes and shifts and all, it can be so difficult for all involved. First of all, you're assured of space on a regular basis, and you get to write anything you want to. You don't have to go through editors. You don't have to travel that phalanx of higher-ups saying, "Yes," "No," "Why is this a story? I don't like this," this, that, or the other. You do what you want. In a sense, once they say you can do it, they're kind of locked into it. They can always fire you, and everybody maintains that right, but in a sense, it's a little more difficult to do that, because you also build up a following. So you have some community out there that you can go to and scream and yell when certain things happen. Like this person who is a friend, and I didn't want her to do that initially, because I said, "Oh, no, you can't do that," and she said, "Yeah, but—," but she will write a letter to The Washingtonian and will have somebody else write a letter. Now, whether they'll use it, I don't know. But that's the kind of following you build up as a columnist that you don't necessarily build up as a reporter.
Look at the Post, for example. David Broder, who is known as a fine reporter, also writes columns, but I think he is better known as a personality than, say, someone who is considered equally fine as a reporter, but who doesn't do columns. A Tom Edsell, for example, is known
maybe by the reporters, but I'd say a lot of readers wouldn't necessarily know that name. But I think Broder would be an exception; more would know Broder. Part of that is the column.
So, yes, in the hierarchy, the column is definitely one of the plum jobs, no doubt about it. It's usually given to people who have had some variety of experiences within the paper—reporting and editing before they become a columnist. Some exceptions. Some exceptions, certainly back in those early days.
Moorhus: Do you read other columnists regularly?
Gilliam: Yes, yes.
Moorhus: Are there any that you especially admire?
Gilliam: There are those who I especially admire for certain things. I like a lot of what Ellen Goodman does. I like some of Anna Quindlen. She's really a delightful writer. Once again, the age difference kind of shows, but I like a lot of what she does. I think [Mary] McGrory is a fine writer. I think Raspberry is a fine thinker and writer. There are different things about people that I admire, so there are people I read regularly. That's not the entire list.
Moorhus: Were there things you missed about reporting when you got the column?
Gilliam: Since the previous few years had been spent as an editor, I had gotten pretty much away from reporting, and also, in a way, being an editor in the "Style" section and occasionally writing back there had also started me on the path toward the column-writing, because those certainly were not news stories, and they certainly were not conventional feature stories. So the reporting was far enough in the past that I didn't really miss it, but I must say that I was not particularly prepared for the column-writing genre, and I was really quite scared. It's really different. It looks so simple, but it's really very different. But there's so many factors, you know.
I hesitate to talk about other writers, but I think about my colleague Judy Mann, who has done a lot of writing about women, and who has also been in the shakeup that took place a couple of years ago when I was away. When I came back, I kind of got hit with it, because they had added new columnists while I was gone. One of the things that Judy talks about is, again, as a woman who wrote a lot about women, and who had a strong female perspective, she was called "strident" by men, just as I was called somebody who tried to present blacks as victims.
I think part of what we get caught in is a certain kind of historical evolution, so those of us who are back there kind of breaking the ice, just as Judy was writing about women's issues, she started her column even a little before I did, and so she was writing about women's issues during the eighties at the same time I was writing a lot about black issues, and I think we both got tagged with various kind of monikers. In part, you're in there trying to break new ground and very often there's resistance to what you're trying to say and what you're trying to do.
Moorhus: For the record, talk about when you left and you went on the Freedom Forum semester. Then how is it that it happened when you came back, you stopped writing twice a week and went to once a week?
Gilliam: Let me just back up a little bit. One of the parallel tracks that I was on even all the time I was doing the twice-a-week column was also working in the industry to try to increase the number of minorities. In 1985, I became chair of the Institute for Journalism Education.* Previous to that I had been on the board. The Institute for Journalism Education is a multiracial organization dominated by non-white people, but a multiracial organization that pushed training for minorities. So I spent a lot of time working within this organization at the same time I was doing the column. That, in itself, is unusual to be both a journalist and really be involved in industry work, I mean really trying to bring about change. The Institute for Journalism Education has succeeded in putting almost five hundred journalists of color either into the business or helping them move up in the business.
Moorhus: Is that based here in Washington?
Gilliam: No, it's based in California. So I go to California at least two times a year, sometimes three. Based in California, we ran the programs at various universities. One was at the University of California at Berkeley; that was the entry-level reporter program. One other is an editor training program which we run at the University of Arizona, and the other is a management training program which we ran at Northwestern. The entry-level reporter program we closed down about four years ago, but the editor training and the management training we continue to run to this day. Plus we've added some other programs. So there was always that involvement in the industry at the same time I was writing the column.
Moorhus: When did you get involved?
Gilliam: In 1976, I joined the IJE board. I was asked to join the board. I did board-level things, but I actually became chair in 1985.
Moorhus: And '76 is also when the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) was established.
Gilliam: NABJ began in 1975. But that was totally separate. The National Association of Black Journalists is a membership and an advocacy organization. IJE is a training organization, primarily devoted to training. As I said, I use "people of color" because it was all races, not just African-Americans. So I had had this continuing interest in the industry and had been steadily working on industry-related issues, trying to increase those numbers, and did a lot of stuff. I think we did a lot of good and have continued to do good.
One of the reasons I decided to take a leave was to go to the Freedom Forum, to write a book about these issues of racial diversity which I had been working in for the previous ten years, from '76 to '86—Lord, really thirteen, fourteen years by the time I decided to try for this fellowship. But the most concentrated work had been the period of '85 to '90.
So when the fellowship came—and of course the Post was very aware of what I was doing, because they had supported it. The Post had also given money to the institute, because there had been a number of Post people who had been through the programs that I had been involved in. So when I went away, I'm sure I was also feeling a certain kind of burnout. It had been a long time, a very difficult experience because of some of the things I've talked about—the rough periods, the
* In 1993, the Institute for Journalism Education was renamed Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in honor of Robert C. Maynard.
internally rough periods. There were some real difficult things that did happen. I knew that there were people who didn't like what I was saying, but I continued to say them, and I had the strength, but it took its toll. Plus the other thing, as I said, had been the end of my marriage, trying to get divorced, all those things, trying to do all the things I had to do with my daughters, and just a number of things were going on. So it worked out very well to take this leave and do this. I knew, when I took a leave, that I could not be certain that I was going to have the column when I got back.
Moorhus: When did you leave?
Gilliam: I left in December of '90, so the official leave was from January '91 to January '92.
Moorhus: One full calendar year.
Gilliam: One full calendar year. Right. I told them that while I hoped that I could do the column when I got back, that I realized that columnists didn't take leaves, you know, not yearlong leaves. Or if they did, I didn't expect them necessarily to hold the space for me. I said I hoped it would happen, but it was my choice to take the leave.
Near the time that I was to come back to Washington, I got a call from one of the maybe third-level people saying, "There's a job open as ombudsman. Is it something you think you'd be interested in?" And I hadn't thought about that, but certainly a lot of issues I was looking at in terms of the way the media was functioning and covering the news and all the change and new technology, etc., all that interested me a great deal, and it was really fresh on my mind.
I came down for a couple of interviews. It became clear that that wasn't really what they wanted. I was not the one they wanted. So it was just a matter of trying to figure out just what I was going to do.
As I said, several things had happened. There had long been discussion about the fact that there was not a white male columnist. At one point Richard Cohen had been on the "Metro" page. When he moved to editorial page, there was that hole. So they had hired a man in preparation for his being a columnist. So he was on board actually before I left. I don't think he wrote his first column until maybe a few months before I came back.
Moorhus: And his name?
Gilliam: Steve Twomey. Courtland Milloy was writing before I left, and then they hired Donna [Britt] while I was away. So basically what happened was, when I came back there was one free day.
There were a couple of things also that had happened while I was gone. One was that in addition to my working in the Institute for Journalism Education, I had also run for, and been elected, vice president of the National Association of Black Journalists. I had no intention of running for any NABJ office when I left on leave. This happened as I sat in those seminars, having gotten out of that day-to-day newspaper writing, and felt like I was seeing what was happening in the industry and what was happening in America in sort of a new way, and I felt a particular need for this organization to be strengthened. I thought some of us who were veteran veterans should get involved. People had come to me at other times and said, "Why don't you run for this office?" or that office. So I thought it really made sense to do that. So that was a whole new level of involvement and activity.
Plus, the other industry work that I had done was kind of converging with a new focus in the industry on diversity, so I found myself very caught up in a number of activities. I was on one of the diversity subcommittees of the Newspaper Association of America; that was formerly the American Newspaper Publishers Association. I was invited to both diversity summits, sponsored by the Newspaper Association of America. When I say invited, I mean invited to participate. These were meetings where there were CEOs around the table representing about eight hundred American newspapers. So my profile in industry-related diversity work was growing.
Another thing that had happened while I was away was that I had started coming to terms with myself some more, too, because, as I said, I was feeling some burnout when I left, and I did some interesting work with a bioenergetic therapist named Alexander Lowen. It was very funny, because, you know, when you lose your father when you're very young—my dad died when I was fourteen, but in many ways because he became ill and really wasn't functioning at peak level—I think I lost my dad the way I remembered him when I was probably nine or ten. So a lot of my ideas about the world just aren't shaped in quite the way I think they'd be shaped if I'd had a father who was there giving me certain information.
I can still remember Dr. Lowen saying to me, "You've got to be less naive about the world." I would tell him how frustrated I would be that things didn't change more—racial things, gender issues, why some of the problems with women didn't change more, why all the race problems. He just went into these long discussions about why things change so slowly. He said, "It doesn't mean you shouldn't fight and try to change them, but you can't sacrifice yourself and burn yourself up worrying about something that you have relatively little control over." A lot of stuff was really very simple.
People always talk about therapists as father figures, but I really felt in many ways that he really was saying some of the things that I might have heard from a father, except that I realized that there was nothing in my family, from my mother or my father, really to prepare me for a world like the Washington Post, like being a columnist at probably the second most important newspaper in America, in Washington, D.C., and stepping out on point twice a week, saying what was on my mind. So whereas my father wouldn't have had the experience to have outfitted me for this, there were certain things he might have said, that might have made it a little less stressful.
At any rate, one of the things that Lowen talked about, he said there's so much in this culture that is really crazy. He said people move so fast, they move too fast to think. He said a lot of the culture is running wild, and we're running wild with it. A lot of stuff that when you think about it, they sound almost like homilies. But I came back to Washington a little less stressed out, and I knew that there was only one day left for me to write.
I thought about whether I even wanted to come back. I had some offers to teach. I had an offer to teach at the Columbia J School. These are not things that were consummated, but it was a serious offer, because I knew all the players. But I just wasn't ready for that. I knew that there were some other things that I wanted to do. One of the things I wanted to do was to run for president of the National Association of Black Journalists. I realized that, once Donna started writing, because I knew she had been hired to be a columnist, that there was going to be one day a week left. So my discussions with the assistant managing editor were that I would do that column and then I would do some other pieces in "Outlook" or "Style." I talked to both the editor of "Style" and "Outlook," and they said, "Yes, we'd welcome anything you wanted to do."
But what happened was the industry work, when I came back, and the reality of the industry work and running for office, what I was doing for NABJ as vice president, what I was doing for the Institute as chair—and I'm still chair; I will be giving that up, hopefully soon—plus doing the one column was really kind of a very full plate. But what had prepared me for being reasonably satisfied with doing less was the work with Lowen in New York, where he said he thought that it was just crazy to be caught up in thinking that if you didn't have a certain constant level of visibility, that you somehow had no currency. I just realized that I was perfectly comfortable with writing once a week.
When I originally came back, the column was appearing on Wednesday, and that felt more comfortable to me than writing on Saturday. I really resisted the shift to Saturday. But what happened was Courtland [Milloy] was writing. Let me just back up. While I was gone, apparently for most of the time, the only person writing was Courtland and then Judy [Mann]. Then they moved Judy to the comic pages, and that basically left Courtland writing. He was writing maybe two or three times a week. Then he kind of stopped. It was very chaotic. Then he was writing once a week. Then they just sort of reactivated him slowly. They brought Twomey, who was sort of in the wings; he started writing. Meanwhile, Donna had been hired, and she was over there getting acclimated, because she was in the "Style" section. So she spent a few months getting acclimated.
So when I came back, Milton Coleman, the assistant managing editor for "Metro," said what he'd really like to do is have me write once a week. At first, as I said, I resisted, but I thought back to what my experience in New York had been, how I had identified, I think accurately, that there were two strains to my personality. I needed the self-expression of the writing, but I also needed the industry work. I needed the feeling that I was doing something more than writing; I needed the feeling that I was trying to effect some change more than just what I could do in writing, and not just on issues, but effecting some change in the industry itself. I guess a part of that was also the recognition, the different kind of recognition that the industry work gave me. So I think I had come to terms with a lot of stuff, whereas when I finally realized that I was going to end up writing once a week, it took some adjustment. It bothered me at first, but basically I don't think it took me that long to make the adjustment.
Moorhus: You said it was very different writing on Saturday than on Wednesday. What's the schedule for producing your column? When do you actually write?
Gilliam: The difference from writing on Wednesday and Saturday was not the schedule for writing; it was the schedule for when it appeared in the paper.
Moorhus: I see.
Gilliam: My reaction was that the Saturday paper was not as well read as the Wednesday paper. So that's what I fought. I could adjust to writing once, but I just didn't want to be totally—I felt like they were really pushing it aside. So I went in and talked to Leonard Downie and [Robert] Kaiser and Coleman and everybody, and they assured me that it didn't mean anything. I still held to what I thought, but basically when it was clear it was a battle I was going to lose, I just had to make some decisions. I just decided that the other things I wanted to do—first of all, as I said, I think the work with Lowen prepared me for feeling that, "Hey, it's going to be all right."
There was a certain amount of growth involved in even deciding that since I didn't want to teach, I wasn't ready to give up daily journalism, I still had a column in the Washington Post, I still had the voice, and it was also going to give me the opportunity to do something else, do
something that was really important to me, which was run for this NABJ presidency, and if I get it, I think it will very much feel to me as though my career has kind of come full circle. You know, I don't know what I would do after that if I get the office. It's a two-year term, so I would be in the office, God willing, till probably August of '95. I've certainly talked all this over with the people at the Post, who support my running.
Moorhus: Will you continue to write?
Gilliam: Oh, yes.
Moorhus: I wanted to ask you about Donna Britt. Where did she come from, and have you talked to her at all about what your experience was when you first got to the Post?
Gilliam: Donna came from L.A. You know, I'm not quite sure. Donna worked for USA Today at one point. I'm sure if you read The Washingtonian article, which just came out, it will tell you that. She came to the Post as a "Style" writer and worked in "Style" for maybe three years—two, three years. Just a very strong voice. Just a very, very good, good writer, and very much a younger generation. I guess Donna was under thirty-five when she got there, and probably thirty-seven now. I always liked her writing when she was in "Style," and I've encouraged her since she's been at the Post, been in the "Metro" section. I have talked to her about my work, and we've been supportive of each other. I'd be lying if I didn't say I didn't have some feeling, but it was very slight, because I think she's just a good, strong voice.
She's somebody I try to encourage. She would always say, "I just can't imagine what it was like at this place for a black woman, talking about being here in the sixties and even the seventies. And you were the first columnist!" She understood what it was. And even now, she rarely comes to the office. She said, "It's just too crazy. I just can't." She just doesn't do that. She came on with a lot of self-confidence. What makes me feel good is because I feel it's because women like me have been able to survive and to break some ground, that you can have a woman like Donna come and do what she does.
So I feel there's very much a continuity, and I feel that she very much appreciates the support and the encouragement that I've given her, because I know how hard it is when you put yourself out there. I certainly don't put myself out there in the way that Donna has, but I've put myself out there in other ways. By that I meant just baring your soul in your column. I have bared mine less, as I said, on a lot of personal things. I don't write about myself and what's going on in my family with the same regularity that she does, but certainly in terms of my views on race or my views on issues, it's real tough. Because when you put it out there, then you're going to get commented on and you're going to get nasty phone calls and the letters and the racist mail and hate mail from Virginia. There's a lot that comes, and I know she's gotten her share of all that, too, and I did, too, in those early years.
So, yes, I have shared with her some of my experiences. When she's found herself feeling particularly bruised about either something she's written that was very risky, that she felt real exposed on, or whatever, I've tried to talk to her and just share with her. I've tried to tell her to protect herself, you know, because a lot of the things she's going through are things that I went through in a different way.
Moorhus: That's what your work within the industry has worked for, getting more people like Donna into the business and into the mainstream papers.
Gilliam: And trying to provide a situation where they could really be themselves and not feel that they'd have to tow the line or kowtow or anything else.
Moorhus: Do you think there's a place for papers like the Defender today?
Gilliam: Oh, yes. Absolutely. I think ethnic papers are very, very important. I think that black newspapers serve a very important role of advocating for the community in a way that a metropolitan daily does not, and will not, do. I think when the metropolitan dailies are operating in a more optimal fashion, they're doing a better reporting job on the community, but in the absence of that—and a lot of them don't report as well on the community as they should, including the Post—then I think there's a real role for the black press in really looking at the local community from the inside out and in a very user-friendly manner.
Moorhus: Do you ever think about working for the black press?
Gilliam: I started out with the black press many years ago, and at that point I was very, very interested, of course, in becoming a daily reporter. I have thought about owning a newspaper. There was a period that I went through in the eighties, when I thought about wanting to start my own newspaper, but clearly I know enough about the business to know that that kind of thing will only succeed if you have an extraordinary businessperson who is certainly equal with the editorial person. That's somebody who knows newspapers, who knows advertising, who really knows the business frontwards and backwards, as a matter of fact.
As a matter of fact, I went to the Post, because I thought I had such a person, and we were working together to talk about maybe some kind of regional black newspaper. Of course, always the problem is capital. So one of our ideas was perhaps to see if the Post was interested in putting up some of the capital to start a black newspaper. The Post was not. [Laughter.] Unlike, say, the Miami Herald, that has a Spanish-language newspaper which it publishes. There are certainly some other instances of daily newspapers, where they have partnerships with various ethnic papers.
Moorhus: So there would have been some precedent, but you got no encouragement.
Gilliam: No encouragement on that one. So, yes, I have thought about the black press, but primarily from an ownership perspective. I don't see anyplace I'd want to work now. I think I've done that. But what might have been fun was to own and run my own paper.
I don't know what the future holds. I don't see that exactly. I've had, certainly, offers, because I know there are a number of people who have thought about starting black papers, even now, because there's still a great deal of unhappiness in the black community about the portrayal of the African-American community in daily newspapers. I'm not talking Post-specific at all. One of the things that my work in industry has brought me very close to, and I will be writing about that when I do my own book, is this whole issue of portrayal. If you look at this country as a whole, most of the writing about people of color is negative. There are some very serious repercussions of that. I think certainly the Post is a lot better than a lot of papers, but still the problem exists. From reading most newspapers, I think the average white reader would not know, as one writer pointed out, that black people buy VCRs and microwave ovens and all the things that everybody else does. You just think rape, murder, crime, etc., etc.
I think increasingly both people of color and women are saying that the portrayal is real, real, real, real key to the way people are treated in society—the roles they're allowed to hold.
This is what just fascinated me about this whole business, and one of the reasons I'm running for NABJ president at all, is because I think communities have to be educated about how they can help pressure the media to do a better job on that, and those of us who are in the media who know the pressure points have to be willing and able to apply that pressure, too.
Many blacks who talk about working for black newspapers are talking about that because they can advocate on behalf of the community, but they can also try to present a more balanced portrait, one that really doesn't distort the community—I hate to say "the community"—but that doesn't distort African-Americans. So I think a lot of harm has been done by media in the distorted—and sometimes there are sins of omission as well as commission, but I think overall almost any reasonably nonpartisan critic would say there has been distortion.
[End Tape 1, Side B; Begin Tape 2, Side A]
Moorhus: I did do a computer printout of the titles of your column for about a year, in order to see the kinds of topics you have written about over a longer period before you went on the sabbatical. One of the recurrent topics that you were covering—but I didn't read the columns, so I don't know the content—was the trials and tribulations of Mayor Marion Barry.* I wonder if that fits in here in terms of whether that was an issue for you about how you handled his situation. Was that an issue for you?
Gilliam: Yes, in a sense, because there were times when I wrote criticizing the Post coverage of him, because I thought there was a period in the eighties—I would say probably the mid-eighties, maybe '85, '86, something in there, '87—when I thought the paper was not using good editorial judgment in terms of printing articles that was pure leaks, more leaks and some stuff that was unsubstantiated, over-reliance on official sources, not enough checking. So there were times when I was really, really pained, I mean, with the Post coverage. I would write sometimes negatively about Barry, I mean critically about Barry. Occasionally I would praise him. But I really felt sometimes I was just so disappointed with the Post's coverage. I just thought there was some irresponsible reporting.
I know this is not going to win me any friends, and I know that's part of what that article is talking about, when they talk about blacks as victims, but I felt that if you're going to write an article that is going to condemn an official, no matter what, then let's have the evidence and let's get it from a variety of sources. But the U.S. attorney and that whole office, they really were just sort of pouring things in.
Moorhus: So your critique was of the journalism coverage of Barry's situation.
Gilliam: Of the early situation, especially before we got any kind of concrete information. When we started getting concrete information that something was wrong and we got beyond the rumors and innuendos, then I was the first one to call for him to resign. For example, once the mayor was found to have been at the Ramada Inn, at this hotel, with a person who was identified as a person who has dealt in drugs, at that point when he refused to give any kind of explanation for
* Marion Barry, former mayor of Washington, D.C., was arrested in a police raid in January 1990. He was charged with, and convicted of, possession of cocaine, a misdemeanor, and subsequently served a six-month prison term. Following his release, Barry was elected in September 1992 to the D.C. Council as the representative of Ward 8.
why he was there, anything that made any sense, then I thought that—and I called for him to resign, and he never did it.
Then I looked at that situation, coupled with the fact that in this city we were having unprecedented numbers of young men who were dying from the drug battles that were ensuing, and those drug battles were, in part, ensuing because the Republicans had so decimated the economy—for many inner city areas, drugs have become the underground economy—but I saw the combination of the mayor's troubles, which he wouldn't explain, and the fact that this city had a major problem with drugs, as just making him unfit as a leader. "Either you're going to explain it and tell us why you were there, or you have no credibility to stand up and denounce the drug war that's killing our children."
At every point I did the best that I could, and I did what I felt was right, and I always knew that. I never tried to be politic, you know, in the sense of just trying to stay afloat, but to really speak what I thought. So that made different groups mad.
Moorhus: I suppose you got criticism, then, as being disloyal or too hard on him when you did ask for him to resign.
Gilliam: Right. Exactly. But interestingly enough, even though I got a lot of criticism from the community, I think that I am perceived by most black Washingtonians as being very fair, but having some understanding of the depth of the problems. One of the things that happens now is that rarely do we get very much contextual reporting. You just get something thrown out there, without knowing why and how. I think that we have a responsibility to report a lot more comprehensively, and so that's what I've tried to do. [Pause.] I'm beginning to sound defensive.
Moorhus: No, I don't think so. I like having you talk about the struggle to articulate what it is you believe you want to say and balancing the advocacy and the good journalism.
Gilliam: Yes, it's a very important part. I know how often I was making Barry and his crowd angry at me. At the same time, I was having a lot of white Washingtonians, Washington area people, angry at me because they thought I wasn't being hard enough. He thought I was being too hard. So I figured I was probably doing it about right.
Moorhus: Are there other issues of ethics in journalism that you want to talk about, or could talk about?
Gilliam: I think diversity is an ethical issue, because I think probably the first commission to start talking about the need for diversity—and back in those days, diversity was black and white—was a body called the Hutchins Commission, back in 1947, calling on the industry to really live up to its responsibility, to quote fully and on all segments of the community. Of course, the Kerner Commission, in 1968, really just took the industry to task. So it's been an ongoing problem, and I think it's an ethical issue. It's truly an ethical issue in terms of the numbers of people who you bring to interpreting the news and reporting on the news and the way it's interpreted.
Other ethical issues. In a general sense, I'm certainly worried about the quality of reporting these days, not as much in newspapers as television, particularly, and I'm not talking Washington-specific now. But I think the quality of a lot of local reporting has gotten really bad—a lot of exploitation of the pain of people, especially with drugs and murder, etc. To me it's really one of life's many paradoxes to see newspapers that once just totally ignored blacks now
saying, "We're not going to let one murder go unnoticed." On the one hand, of course, you don't want it to go unnoticed. A life is a life.
But what happens too seldomly is any kind of real depth reporting on what's really going on so that you present what's going on in a particularly besieged inner city community in its larger context—the different places and different levels of where drugs are permitted to get into the country, how they aren't stopped at the borders, the big business that drugs are, the billion-dollar money laundering in the banks, the multibillion-dollar gun sales that are involved. I've written specific columns about this kind of thing. Some of that needs to be—when you don't write in that kind of context and really educate your readers on and on so they really understand, it is so easy to scapegoat, and that's what this country—that's what white America has done with black folks all along. So I think in many ways you take these recent tragedies, and I'm not painting black folks as victims; I'm saying they've been victimized and obviously blacks have a responsibility. But it's just rare that we make our public understand in a larger context what is really going on. That, to me, is not really responsible journalism. So that's an ethical issue, I think—the whole coverage issue.
We're in the midst of a lot of change in journalism. I always say it's a revolution in many ways. The technological revolution has made a change. But readers are dropping off, the newspapers are having to downsize, people aren't reading newspapers as much. The Post has been somewhat fortunate in that it's been able to pretty much maintain its readers, but in many places newspapers are closing down. So there's a lot that's happening in the business now. It's particularly troublesome when people stop reading newspapers, because then we know that even though newspapers are, of course, businesses, they also serve a real vital function in the democracy. So what happens if people really break those newspaper habits? Where are they really getting the kind of information they need to function in a democracy, so they can form decisions about voting and stuff like that? Obviously there's television, but television is doing less and less of that.
So I think we're in a real interesting and kind of challenging time, where I feel newspapers have a greater responsibility. Certainly the networks, we know, right now are in turmoil—have been. We don't know which morning we'll wake up and find out we're one network shorter. So it's an interesting transition period.
Moorhus: Have you experienced any incidents or situations of sexual harassment?
Gilliam: There are people who make sexual remarks and are not sexual as much as they are remarks with just sort of those kind of connotations. I guess you call it arriving at a certain point in my life or whatever, but there's just nothing that I can't particularly handle. Some of them, they come from people who you just sort of say, "Oh, that's what's-his-name," you know. There's nothing that's been so offensive that I would feel like I needed to go and report somebody.
One of the things is, once again, we get back to the particular culture of the organization. Those kind of things may be—I don't know. I'm just thinking of a couple of people that I know, and they're always saying little things. You just say, "Oh, that's what's-his-name," and you go on. It's not an issue. I don't find it an issue that I can't handle. Perhaps at some unconscious level it's playing havoc with my self-esteem and I don't know it. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Probably not. You're pretty reflective. It probably just isn't there.
We've talked about politics and the column, and we've talked about issues of family and whatever, but one of the other things that you have alluded to a couple of times that we haven't talked about specifically is your growing awareness and interest and involvement in the artistic world, from your marriage with Sam. You've referred to that a couple of times earlier in the interview, and you also referred to it when you were editing the "Style" section, that you had had a lot of contact with black artists. I'd really like you to talk a little bit more about your involvement with the artistic community.
Gilliam: It really was a part of life that I knew almost nothing about before I got to know Sam, I mean aside from art appreciation courses in college. This was not something I knew much about at all. So once Sam and I started dating, I learned more about it. Once we got married, I became deeply enmeshed in the art world, and it was fascinating. In the early sixties in Washington, as I had said, Sam was an abstract expressionist. He was kind of immediately sucked up into a particular existing community, a "school" called the Washington Color Painters. It just was really fascinating to me to see these things that I would have never called a painting, being called a painting, and then finally learning to see their beauty.
I can remember once early in the sixties, we went to the studio of a guy named Tom Downing, and Tom painted circles, just colored circles on white canvas. I can remember going to the studio. He rolled this thing out, and there were these circles on white canvas. I thought, "Where's the face? Where's the body? Where are the legs?" and all this.
Little by little, Sam did a lot of educating. As we were married, we also ended up traveling all over the world, with his being in shows, and my knowledge and love and appreciation grew.
The other part of the art world, in addition to meeting a whole lot of artists and painters and gallery owners and gallery dealers, the other part of it was my introduction to kind of a social world that I never knew existed, and my introduction to the way that a segment of America lives—the people who bought paintings—was really, really shocking to me, coming from, as I said, very modest circumstances in Kentucky.
Sam and I got married one day, and we left that same day for Washington. I had been in Washington the year before, but Sam was actually moving to Washington. He already had a job teaching school, but neither of us had had that—I mean, we negotiated Washington together and were going into the homes of people who were buying art. I mean, still, to me, it just was really stunning to see how people lived, how well they lived. There would be so many homes where people would have works of art in every room, room after room after room. These are just small examples, and not just in Washington, but in New York.
It was the sixties, and the civil rights movement was beginning, and black people were "chic," you know, and it was hip to have us. We were just everywhere, in and out and in New York and Washington. A lot of things were happening.
When I quit the Post in '65, from '65 until '72, when I was doing television and freelance-writing, I had a lot of flexibility to travel with him, and I really became Mrs. Sam Gilliam, you know, during that period. Talking about "deselfing," that really was a period when a lot of that happened.
I felt I got a real education in terms of how the other half lives. I remember we were in Minneapolis. Sam was having a show at the museum in Minneapolis, the Walker Art Museum.
We had been invited to dinner by a builder. I mean, you know the people who are always the socialites, who are the people involved in art in every town in America. We were invited to dinner at this builder's house, whose wife was very involved in the arts. It's the typical rich man with the socialite wife—especially before the women's movement when women started having something on their own. So we went to his home, and I believe they were buying one of Sam's paintings. What I remember was not Sam's paintings, but they had the most incredible collection of African art, and they had built this house that seemed to me the length of about three houses, and they had erected all of these special cases for their African art. They had the most stunning original pieces, you know, with real human hair, and the cases were specially [built]—the correct humidity for the care of that particular object. This was just a private house. It just comes to mind, of many experiences.
Talk about naive, I was really naive at the beginning. In fact, Sam's dealer, when Sam had his first show at the P Street Gallery, his dealer was a woman named Nesta Dorrance. Nesta lived out on Reservoir Road out there, and she was giving a party for him. I think it was a party before the opening, or maybe it was a party the weekend afterwards or something; I don't know. But I remember calling my mother, or writing her a letter or something after that, and commenting on the fact that they had all these waiters and waitresses. I mean, they had all the help and all that. Because at that point, that was new. It just seemed like such a—looking back, it's like how could you be impressed with that? But I realize, yeah, those were some of the early experiences. I hadn't grown up with having all those things. And we were the guests of honor, you know, having all this sort of pomp and circumstance.
So those were years of learning a lot about the world, about a different world, and it's an experience I think that a lot of reporters don't have, because it's a fairly rarified world. Not that many people are married to artists who go on to do well, who really are successful. People are a little more likely to be married to a lawyer or somebody else. It was really quite different, I think, for both of us.
As I said, Sam was an abstract expressionist. During the sixties, he came into some conflict with a lot of the black artists who felt that his art wasn't "black" enough, so it was real interesting, because I was always, in my writing, considered too "black," and he was considered in his art not "black" enough. So it was like, this is one stupid country. [Laughter.] But he was always very, very, very strong about what he wanted to do in his work, and he always did it, and would fight off whatever he had to fight off. I was much more vulnerable to what people said and thought, etc., etc.
Moorhus: You've said that there was not social support and social friends from your work at the Post. Where did you get your social friends, and what kind of a social life did you have here in Washington?
Gilliam: I may have overstated if I said that I got no social friends or no social support, because in a sense, in the early years, in the sixties, during that period I got some social support from one of the other black reporters in particular, and I also got some support from my city editor, Ben Gilbert, who really reached out to both Sam and me. But I never felt that my main friendships were from the Post, so my social supports in those early years, in the sixties, were primarily neighbors, and I also went to church. I was not real strongly religious in the organized sense, because that's something Sam didn't feel strongly about, so in those early years we were still trying to negotiate and find common ground, you know. My social support were people that I met through my work, as I was beginning to build a Washington network.
When I went back in the seventies, by then we had moved to another part of town, so my social support included, again, neighbors. Originally we lived for a year in an apartment in Adams Morgan. Then we moved into a predominantly black neighborhood in Upper Northwest. Then we moved back into Mount Pleasant, which was this real multiracial, multiethnic area. During those years, when I worked in the "Style" section, my social supports, as I said, were my neighbors.
Then there were increasing numbers of black reporters on the paper by then, and some—not a lot, but some of them. I certainly had many more work-related friends, many more people on the paper with whom I could share my experiences and my concerns, and who understood them. But I didn't necessarily do a lot of socializing, although there were two or three people who I would consider good friends, and we would certainly go to each other's parties. We didn't socialize every week or whatever.
There were also, even back in the sixties, some white people who were friends—not a lot. I think particularly of a woman named Rasa Gustaitis, who was one of my co-workers. As women, we had some things in common. I believe we may have gone to each other's house once or twice. We'd occasionally do lunch.
What had happened over the years is that I was really beginning to sink my roots into the Washington community, and getting to know people to the point where I think there was a whole level of trust. I think that's how you really get your pulse on the community. I mean that's how you really know what the community is thinking and feeling. And some of those people became my friends—not a lot in terms of people who were really news sources. I always tried to make those distinctions. So my social supports became a lot of different groups, and that's continued to grow as I have developed as a person.
One of the things, I have been in twelve-step programs. I think I mentioned I consider myself a compulsive eater, so I've been in a twelve-step program for compulsive eating, and that's been an interesting experience of expanding, again, my network—I would say expanding my circle of acquaintances. It's been important in really breaking down barriers for me. It's helped me to become more open in expressing a lot of things that I once may have tried to hide. I think of something like the whole issue of homosexuality. In these twelve-step groups, there are a number of women who are lesbians. There are men who are homosexual. I mean, you just start seeing people for who they are, and you learn to love them for who they are, for what you have in common as human beings and what you have in common in terms of various problems that you're working on. That's been a real wonderful experience for me. I haven't had any physical recovery, as they say, but that's not important. The most important thing really is the emotional and the spiritual recovery that you get in these programs, even though you do slip and eat chocolate now and then. [Laughter.]
Moorhus: Once in a while is probably okay.
Gilliam: It's probably okay. Right.
Moorhus: You mentioned the traveling. The trip to Africa had been so important in your early development. Were there trips like that later, that were also very important to you?
Gilliam: Yes, there were. A trip to India was very important.
Moorhus: When was that?
Gilliam: That was in 1971, and that trip was with Sam. Sam was invited to show in an exhibition in New Delhi called the Indian Triennial. They were really trying to pattern it after the Venice Biennole. I think that they probably only had it once, maybe twice at most. What they did was, through the Museum of Modern Art, I believe, they invited about seven or eight Americans over for this exhibition, to install their works, and then to take part in a number of official things.
That was a fascinating experience to me. I had never been in a country and seen that kind of abject poverty in the way that it was there. Certainly there was some poverty in Africa in the sixties, but nothing like that, not the kind of urban squalor and poverty, and culturally a lot of it was very strange. It was a very fascinating experience to me. Not the same kind of trip that I had in Africa, but another way of just broadening my perspective.
En route over there, we stopped in Beirut, which is fascinating. When I look at what has happened to Beirut in the interim, it's certainly very, very different.
In the late sixties, we first went to Europe, and Sam, basically by about 1970, was having shows in Europe every other year, so we traveled on a regular basis to Europe. He had a dealer in Paris, a woman named Dorothea Speyer, who owned the Speyer Gallery on the Left Bank, so he showed with her and we'd go over there. So there are many, many, many, many memories of being in Paris on a regular basis—both good and bad. But just fascinating kind of growth and blossoming, really with some tempestuousness as well, given the temperamental artist and all that. There are a lot of very positive things about those years, as well as a lot of difficult things.
Another trip was a trip to Poland, which was also fascinating, again with Sam. He was invited over by USIA to come and do some lecturing in Warsaw, so we went to Warsaw. This was in the early seventies. This was, looks like, before the world changed in many ways. Went to Poland and Yugoslavia and places like that, and many different times, as I said, to France and Italy and England and all those countries.
Moorhus: Where did your girls stay during those trips?
Gilliam: Very often my mother would come to Washington. My mother died in 1979. I always made it a habit to make sure that the girls spent some time with her in the summer, and we almost every Christmas went home. Then very often my family would come up for Easter. So two, three times a year, maybe more, but there would be contact with my family. Mother was very happy when she was asked to come up and stay with the girls.
The other thing was, of course, I had babysitters, too, and they would do some short-term things, but on most of the longer trips, Mother would come. I remember when we went to India, Mother came up. It was kind of a combination of Mother and then the babysitter kind of helping in terms of whatever the girls needed—driving them to school and stuff like that, things that she couldn't do. Then I also had an old friend, Jim and Gail Whitley. They were in so many ways just like family, you know. They would come. I could drop my kids there if I was in a pickle or if I had to stop on a short trip. So it was a combination.
Moorhus: Have you been back to Africa?
Gilliam: I was back in 1985, and also went in '81. 1981 was a short trip, just to Senegal for about a week or ten days. In '85, it was a relatively short trip, but not so short. I was in Egypt and then back in Nairobi, back in Kenya. I was there for the International Women's Conference in 1985. That was really, really very exciting. I was so busy, because I was writing, primarily writing.
I wanted to go back and revisit some of my old haunts from 1961 and just absorb some of the same experiences, but I just had real limited time. So I'd like to do that again some day.
Moorhus: Are there some other things that you would like to do as you look ahead, instead of backwards?
Gilliam: I'd like very much, as I've said, to become president of NABJ and to really be a change agent in the industry, I think even more than I have. I'm uncertain about whether I'd still like to own a newspaper. I'm a little less certain about that, but I'm open. Certainly I think it might be fun to do some teaching at a certain point, but I also want to have some time to write. When I think about the book that I left to write a couple of years ago, as I said, when I put it off primarily when again my old buddy Dr. Lowen, he said, "You can't do both. Do one or the other. Write the book later. Don't put that pressure on yourself." And I'm so glad he did that, because I was thinking, "I've got to do this. I've gotta, gotta, gotta, gotta." He said, "But you don't. Life is not made to make yourself crazy; it's made to live." But I would like to certainly write that book, and I want to see how I feel about that.
You know, there's also the possibility of combining my writing with maybe some business aspect of diversity. After having given so much time as a volunteer, both in the Institute and now with NABJ—I mean, these things take an incredible amount of time. I think of diversity—if we're really going to change the mind set in the national consciousness in this country so that we really begin to feel that being different is just fine, we really value differences, it's going to take a lot of work, a lot of training, and a lot of changed mind sets. It's a very difficult area.
As I've seen people who have done some work in it, I think there's been a lot of literature, particularly about women, not as much done about people of color, but, you know, the different voice in which women speak, different ways women communicate, how women are different from men—it's like it's okay. You can stand up and you can say that, and you let people deal with that. You don't want to be put down for saying, "I'm different." Much less has been done in terms of people of color. So that is something that could be an interest. But I'm trying to let my life flow and see where it leads me.
Moorhus: You raised the difference between the consciousness and acceptance of the voice of women versus being black. Which do you think has made it harder for you as a journalist—being black or being female?
Gilliam: Oh, I think being black. Yes. I guess there would be some women who would definitely say being a woman, and I guess it's just a matter of perception and a matter of experiences and a matter of which experience has been harder. [Pause.] I don't know. My top-of-the-head answer is being black, and then I think back, and I think, well, you know, I wonder if you might have got more of a chance for this or more chance for that.
Interestingly enough, there's a book that I recommend to you that's just come out, called Voluntary Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, and it's written by a black woman who worked at the Washington Post.
[End Tape 2, Side A; Begin Tape 2, Side B]
Gilliam: It's called Voluntary Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience, by Jill Nelson. I think the books are out now. But I do recommend it.
Moorhus: You said she was at the Post for three years?
Gilliam: Three and a half, maybe. Maybe longer. She may have been there as long as five years—four or five years. Maybe as long as four years. I'm not quite sure.
Moorhus: That sounds like a very good one to read.
Gilliam: It will give you a real contrast to me and my experience and my way of handling it and my way of dealing with it. She's very, very angry—very angry, and talks about the white male culture and what it did to her. Part of it is that she came into it. She's a person who was very much in touch with her anger when she got there, who had been a freelance writer, who was in her mid-thirties when she got there, as opposed to me being twenty-three, and who had never worked for a newspaper. So she had never worked in a company, in a corporation, at all, so here you sort of get dropped into all of that then, in the middle of the eighties, which were just real strange times anyway.
Moorhus: Did you talk with any of your daughters about going into journalism?
Gilliam: No. The question is, did I try to encourage them. The answer is no. I didn't try to discourage them, but it was never an interest that they had shown.
Moorhus: You would not have discouraged them, however?
Gilliam: No, even with all the drawbacks, because I think the field is so important, and I think that it's so important to have that diversity. I just think media is such an important part of this whole scheme of things. At the same time, it gets so little scrutiny, really—serious scrutiny—that there's just a whole bunch of little dirty secrets. So I wouldn't have necessarily encouraged my children, but I wouldn't have discouraged them.
My youngest daughter is going to be a filmmaker, is trying to be a filmmaker, so in many ways I think some young people who today are filmmakers might have been journalists twenty years ago.
Moorhus: A different media, but also a way of expressing a point of view and making some statements.
Moorhus: Is there anything that I should have asked you, that I haven't?
Gilliam: I must say, our interviews have been separated by such wide spaces of time, I just have not taken the time to read over the interviews.
Moorhus: You'll have time before the video. Then the last question would be, what are some of the satisfactions that you've experienced as a journalist?
Gilliam: The satisfactions are, from the beginning I felt that journalism was the key to a door that would just lead to an incredible number of new and different experiences, and I really have never been disappointed in that. When I find myself getting even slightly stale, I know that it's something I'm doing wrong. It means I am not going out to the source, to people, to contacts, to hearings, to interviews, to new experts, to new sources. It's ever enfolding, ever unfolding, ever expanding.
So that key that I think I found as a teenager, that first time when I went running out of the Louisville Defender office and realized that through this particular job I, the little preacher's daughter, was going to meet all these people in the world that I didn't even know existed. You think about people who just sort of live in whatever their situation is, go, and never have any kind of direct contact with what's going on.
Just last week with all the tragedy of the D.C. Council president.* You know, I knew him as a news source. I wasn't particularly close to him as a news source, but he was a person that I knew, and I knew other people in the community who knew his family and his wife. But I was really disturbed by it in so many ways. One was obviously just the shock, and then, of course, the way it happened, and then because I had problems in my own family with manic depression, it just really struck me.
I chose to go to the press conference where they were going to be talking about it, where the city council members would be gathering, not because it was my time to write—I guess I could have written; it just wasn't my day, so I couldn't. That's one of the few times when you want to be writing more often. But I chose to go to make it become real, to make it come in a way that I could feel it, you know, to make what was so shocking at least make a little more sense. When I saw each of those members of the city council walk and take their place, and watched them cry and watched their sadness and all that, you know, the whole thing really struck home. I felt like I had experienced what happened at a different level of feeling.
The same thing when I went to the wake. The wake was something everybody could have gone to, but it was a combination of having done what I could do as a reporter, which is just go and look and listen. One of the great things about being a columnist is that you don't always have to write right away. You can take a day or two to absorb and see where you're going to come out. Then, of course, by the time I went to the wake, I was prepared for another level of experience.
So all I'm saying is that from traveling internationally and interviewing heads of state, going to the White House and having those experiences, going to Southeast [D.C.] and having those experiences, going to the suburbs, whatever, that journalism just continues, for me, to be a very special key that just opens up the door to ever new aspects of life and living, and it keeps deepening me as a person. I feel very, very, very grateful to be in the business because of the things I learn from listening to people. We get a few extra perks, and I have to admit that those are nice. The job is not without its risks, not without its responsibilities, not without its vulnerabilities, not without its pain, but the rewards are enormous. I have never regretted making this my profession, and as I said, I don't know what's ahead.
Moorhus: Thank you very much.
Gilliam: All right.
* Washington, D.C. City Council President John D. Wilson was found hanged in his basement, an apparent suicide, on May 18, 1993.
© 1994, Washington Press Club Foundation.
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