The author of “The Presidency in Black and White” is interviewed by Kam Williams
April D. Ryan is veteran journalist who has been a White House correspondent for the past 18 years. She also serves as the Washington bureau chief for the American Urban Radio Networks.
Besides covering the Obama administration, April’s responsibilities include hosting “The White House Report,” a syndicated show airing on about 300 radio stations around the country. The Morgan State grad still lives in her native Baltimore which is where she is raising two daughters, aged 7 and 12.
Here, she talks about her new memoir, “The Presidency in Black and White.”
Kam Williams: Hi April, thanks for the interview.
April: Thank you, Kam.
KW: I believe we have a mutual friend in Jennifer Dargan.
AR: Yes! I love her. She’s such a sweet person.
KW: I agree. She’s one of my favorite people. I have a lot of questions for you that were submitted to me by readers. Sangeetha Subramanian says: Hello Ms. Ryan. Congratulations on your book. I wish it lots of success and look forward to reading it. Advocacy seems like a constant tango between knowing which battles to choose and when. How do you find the balance between knowing when to pull back and when to go full steam ahead?
AR: Wow! That’s a good question. [Laughs] You’re right, Sangeetha, it’s kind of a dance we do that’s not scripted or choreographed. We just have to kinda feel our way through. For the most part, you ask questions about current events of the day or about what’s happening in the community. If you think you can get more of an answer, you follow up. But you do have to know when to pull back, otherwise you could make a fatal mistake, because that room is unforgiving. It’s just a dance that you have to learn how to do.
KW: What interested you in writing a memoir?
AR: A friend told me that I could not sit in that room and not write one. I basically started journaling from day one. I tried to work out a book deal during the Clinton years, but it was too soon. During the Bush years we did get a bite, but the editor got fired. Then, when President Obama was elected, my agent and I looked at each other, and said, “This is it!” And it was time. [Chuckles]
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: What would you describe as the high point of your years with the White House Press Corps?
AR: There have been a lot of high points, professionally. But, I’d say it was the 100th anniversary of the White House Correspondents’ Association. My proudest moment was to be the third African-American on the board in the history of the organization. That board was founded by all white men. So, as a black female I was very proud to be in that picture alongside the first black President and First Lady. Things have changed, and I’m very thankful to be in the history books.
KW: Editor Lisa Loving says: In the fascinating exchange between Nancy Giles and J Smooth about the strange Starbucks initiative that “gives Starbucks employees permission” to discuss race with customers, Giles made a swift reference to the racial blowback a black president has had on race relations across the board. What impact has Obama’s presidency had overall on how Americans deal or do not deal with racism?
AR: Well, what I would say is that Barack Obama will always have race and politics follow him, because of the historic nature of his presidency as the first black president. But he has made people talk about race, especially in his second term. He’s now more open and conversational about race than he has ever been. And this is a topic that we, as a people, are hypersensitive about no matter where you are on the spectrum. We have to understand that we are a nation that’s browning. I think this is an issue that’s bigger than just this president. It’s dated back to the inception of the enslavement of Africans in America. We haven’t been able to get it right yet. It’s both a heart issue and a legislative issue. I think we need to talk about it, but if anybody can effectuate a major change, it’s a president of the United States. Just look at history… LBJ and the Voting Rights Act… Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation… and also FDR.
KW: Environmental activist Grace Sinden says: You are in a unique position as a White House correspondent. How much do you think the “troubles” between Congress and the President can be attributed to race and how much to differences in political philosophy?
AR: I believe “race” is that piece of this presidency that people don’t want to acknowledge, but it’s there. We know that there are those who don’t like Barack Obama just because he is African-American. For instance, look at how Loretta Lynch is having a hard time in her confirmation hearings as Attorney General. She is more than qualified, and has been confirmed before. On Chris Matthews’ show, I predicted that it would be difficult for her. And I was right. There are some things you know inherently as a person of color. So, what’s going on is not a surprise to me. Race does play a major factor with what’s going on between President Obama and Congress.
KW: Professor/Filmmaker/Editor Hisani DuBose says: Being on the inside, do you see a difference in the way fellow correspondents question and discuss President Obama as opposed to their treatment of previous presidents.
AR: For the most part, no. They’re very respectful.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: In your opinion, what are some things the president can do to improve race relations in this country?
AR: I think I’ve already answered that. The speech he delivered in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the march was very powerful. It tore me up when we went over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, the most poignant moment of the day was when Congressman John Lewis said, “If anybody had told me 50 years ago, that I would be back here introducing the first African-American President, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” I got goose bumps. It was moving, because John Lewis is not only a hero to me but to so many other African-Americans. If it were not for his getting clubbed over the head and knocked unconscious, along with others who were beaten with Billy clubs, bitten by dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses, we would not have the right to vote, and I would not be in the White House being called upon by name by the last three presidents. That experience touched every part of my being, because that history is a part of me.
KW: Irene asks: What do you envision for race relations with Hillary Clinton or a Republican as president?
AR: My hope is that whoever the next president is, as well as the president after that, they’re willing to deal with race, because, like I said, we are a country that is browning.
KW: Troy Johnson asks: What was the last book you read?
AR: I just started reading “Believer” by David Axelrod. He gave me an autographed copy when we were on Meet the Press. www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1594205876/ref=nosim/thslfofire-20
KW: Troy observes that Obama appears to have a very close relationship with Al Sharpton. How much of a positive impact has this had on the black community?
AR: I don’t know how much of a positive impact it has had on the black community, but he’s not only close to Reverend Sharpton, but there are many other black leaders the president’s working with. Obama wants to hear from the grassroots with connections to the community, and Al Sharpton definitely has his ear to the ground.
KW: Troy also says: Much of the media attention surrounding Cornel West’s disappointment with the lack of attention or focus by the Obama administration on poor and working-class black and brown people has died down. How many of Dr. West’s concerns were justified?
AR: I believe that Dr. West, Tavis and many of the others have some legitimate beefs, and that there’s a need for them because they’re applying pressure. But there’s also a need for a Donna Brazile. In response to one of my questions, President Obama said that African-Americans have been doing better since he became president, and that he’s still trying to bridge gaps. We have seen a lot of improvement, but more work still needs to be done. And I don’t think those communities would be served well if everyone were in agreement with him.
KW: Troy was wondering: What has been your biggest disappointment with the Obama administration?
AR: If I have a disappointment, it would be with the black unemployment numbers. He couldn’t be expected to make a drastic enough change in six years to get it on par with white America’s unemployment rate, but I would still like to see him focus on it more, because the figure is extremely high.
KW: Troy is curious about whether, six years into the Obama Presidency, you believe the Nobel Prize awarded him has proven to be warranted?
AR: I’m not a member of the Nobel committee, but I know that the wars were taking a big toll on the world, and especially this country, financially and in terms of the loss of life. People were so primed for peace that they were eager to give President Obama the Nobel Prize.
KW: Who is the most likeable of the presidents you covered, and who was the smartest?
AR: [LOL] I don’t want to answer that. [Laughs some more] Let me say this. All three are likable. One thing that many people forget is that they are human beings as well as presidents. When I had a soul food dinner with Bill Clinton and other black journalists, he said, “I came because you invited me and I like you, and I like the food.” He said it made him feel like he was back home again, and that you’d be surprised how, after becoming president, people only invite you out for a fundraiser or for this or that official function, but not for a simple dinner where you could just relax and be yourself. That was so telling. I actually felt sorry for him. President George W. Bush and I laughed so much, and President Clinton and I laughed a lot. They’re more gregarious than President Obama, but he’s funny, too. And he’s a nice guy. But he’s had to be more cautious about he’s perceived. All three of the presidents are very smart, although Bush played on the fact that people had low expectations of him. He looked more like the average person than Clinton or Obama.
KW: Which president aged the most in the job?
AR: All three aged a lot, but Obama has aged tremendously. That job will put a lot of stress on you. I understand why he golfs and plays basketball. He looked like a little boy when he first ran for president. Now, you look at him and go, “Who is that?”
KW: Which president cared the most for the poor and which did the most for the wealthy?
AR: I can’t say, but I believe the Democrats are always going to tow the line and try to lift people out of poverty into the middle-class.
KW: What is your favorite dish to cook?
AR: One of my favorite dishes is jerk salmon steak. I also like to make crab bake from my mother’s old recipe. They’re delicious, and you can get each of them done in about a half-hour.
KW: The Ling-Ju Yen question: What is your earliest childhood memory?
AR: Being chased by my mother, when our family lived in an apartment in Northwest Baltimore. It was a big circle and you could go through all the rooms. I didn’t want to have my hair done. My mother was a natural person, and she used to put mayonnaise and eggs in my hair. I do remember that. I was about 3 or 4. Those were some of my fun days. [Chuckles]
KW: When you look in the mirror, what do you see?
AR: I see a woman who’s trying to make it. I see someone who’s aging, who’s getting older. I see a single-mother with two girls whom I adore and who love me back. And I see someone who’s trying to contribute to society by raising two children to become wonderful women who can contribute to society themselves.
KW: Was there a meaningful spiritual component to your childhood?
AR: Yes, most definitely. My family is very, very much into the Black Church. I grew up in church. Sunday was always a big day for us. I did Sunday School… Bible study… I was on the usher board… I sang in the choir… all that stuff. Like a lot of kids, I had a period where I rebelled and didn’t want to go to church, but God is a strength for me. And I became closer to God after my mother died 8 years ago. I think this has really been a spiritual journey because for all intents and purposes, I should not be in the White House. I did not have a traditional reporter’s job. I fell into this by accident.
KW: If you could have one wish instantly granted, what would that be for?
AR: To be able to talk to my mother one more time, to be able to hug her and let her know how much I love her. I just really wish that she were here.
KW: Is there any question no one ever asks you, that you wish someone would?
AR: Yeah, how are you feeling? How was your day? You never know what someone’s going through. I always make a point of asking my daughters that. Adult-to-adult, most people assume you’re strong when you want them to care about how you’re feeling, instead of always taking, taking, taking, or wanting, wanting, wanting. Sometimes, I’d like somebody to tuck me in.
KW: So, how’s your day been today?
AR: Why, thank you for asking. It’s been interesting, and it’s great to be talking to you.
KW: The Melissa Harris-Perry question: How did your first big heartbreak impact who you are as a person?
AR: I’m so happy my first big heartbreak didn’t pan out, although at first I was very, very upset. If it had, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.
KW: What advice do you have for anyone who wants to follow in your footsteps?
AR: This business has changed from when I started out in the Eighties. You don’t have to major in broadcasting anymore because anybody who has a personality and a big following on a blog or on Twitter, can basically get on the air, participate and say whatever you want. I wouldn’t study journalism. It could be a hobby along the way while you’re doing something else. So, the delivery system is changing, so I would really rethink the idea of entering this industry.
KW: What’s in your wallet?
AR: [LOL] Some torn up, old dollar bills my uncle asked me to take to the Engraving Office and exchange for new ones.
KW: Thanks again for the time, April, and best of luck with the book.
AR: Thank you, Kam, and have a great one.
To order a copy of The Presidency in Black and White, visit: www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/1442238410/ref%3dnosim/thslfofire-20