Fifteen Minutes sat down with IOP fellow and renowned journalist Farai Chideya ’90 for a cozy chat about radio, faux-hawks, and science fiction.
1. Fifteen Minutes: Welcome back to Harvard! What’s it like being back?
Farai Chideya: I love it! It’s great to experience Harvard life from a different perspective.... The people who end up at Harvard are incredibly passionate and sophisticated, but still kind of starting out their lives and careers, and it’s nice to have that energy.
2. FM: Which classes have you been auditing?
FC: I have not yet been to the bioethics class. That’s the number one class that I want to audit. There’s also a sociology class with William Julius Wilson and there is another class that I haven’t been to yet about how folk and myth has influenced contemporary fantasy writing, like J.K. Rowling.
3. FM: I know you’ve only been back briefly, but how would you say Harvard has changed since you were here?
FC: I think the level of undergraduate teaching is better. I think when I was here there was a lot of emphasis on having famous professors teach even if they didn’t really like teaching or didn’t relate well to undergrads.
4. FM: Last year you were Leader in Residence at the Colin Powell Center for Policy Studies, teaching about media and policymaking. How was the transition to teaching?
FC: I loved it.... You get a lot of energy from interacting with students and you also then have to stay up on your game.
5. FM: You’ve had a whirlwind career in journalism, from hosting shows on NPR to being a political analyst and commentator. How did you first become involved in journalism?
FC: Well, it was here at Harvard. I was at The Independent, but really it was the Office of Career Services that told me about an internship at the Boston Bureau of Newsweek... I was able to get this internship at Newsweek, and later on I was hired by them.
6. FM: How do you see the future of broadcast radio in an internet age?
FC: First of all there will be a lot more programming that is online-only, but then I think terrestrial radio will be around for a while because of cars. There’s always going to be a huge audience for radio, as long as there are people in their vehicle who are bored!
7. FM: You’ve done so many different things in your career so far, but what have been some of your favorite roles?
FC: Well, writing is hard, but in some ways it’s my home base, and it’s what I always return to. I’ve written four books, and I’m working on starting some new book projects so, to me, writing—including short-form writing like magazine writing and blogging—is what I always return to.
8. FM: Speaking of career goals, what did you want to be when you were younger?
FC: Well, what I wanted to be when I was little I’m still working on... I wanted to write science fiction and fantasy. I’m working on the outline for a young adult science fiction trilogy that’s set 300 years in the future.... Science fiction is really where people play out alternate discussions about issues like equality. I think it really talks a lot about human nature.
9. FM: In a blog post last year on The Huffington Post, you use this great phrase, saying you were disillusioned with the “government cheese” in the 80s. Where do you see this type of government cheese today, particularly in light of the 2012 election campaigns?
FC: Well, the phrase “government cheese” comes from the Reagan era when literally blocks of cheese were given to poor people. It was like, let’s do government cheese instead of a bigger solution to poverty.... In this election, you’ve heard a lot of rhetoric like, “Well, I’m not even going to bother taking care of the poor.” It’s like, you don’t get any government cheese and you don’t get a solution either! Even the president’s State of the Union address had a lot of small solutions, as opposed to big things.
10. FM: Speaking of big solutions, last week was Harvard Thinks Big, an event where eight professors were given 10 minutes to talk about what they see as today’s most pressing issues. Given this opportunity, what would you speak about?
FC: I would say that the impact of the combination of economic instability and the lack of family and social ties mean that a lot of people are very alone when they go through periods of trouble.... I think that rebuilding the economic safety net but also finding ways to rebuild the social safety net is really important, and they don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
11. FM: During your time here at Harvard you were part of an improv troupe. For you, what role does humor play in political reporting?
FC: Well, with political commentary...you have to be well-informed and serious, but you have to be able to crack a joke. I was just on the radio yesterday with two other people and one of them said that CPAC, a conservative convention, was like a Star Trek convention, and then the Republican on the panel got very upset, and I tried to sort of broker a peace, but it was really funny.... I think doing improv really helped me with being a political analyst because it gave me an ability to think on my feet and be quick.
12. FM: You once said in an interview that you have been called out by the black community for not being “black enough.” What do you think that means?
FC: Well, I think my whole feeling is that we shouldn’t judge people on being black enough, but sometimes people do. I myself during college was kind of a goth.... I had a kind of faux-hawk, and I wore all black, and I also did improv.... During college people would be like, what’s this girl doing with this crazy hair, listening to The Cure? And it was simple: That’s what I wanted to do.
13. FM: You did a piece for NPR a while ago about how eating disorders are mistakenly thought of as a white person’s disease. Are there any other areas where you’ve found unexpected racism?
FC: Well, when I was at Harvard I developed bulimia and at the time they just thought, “Oh, it’s the skinny white girls who have an issue.” I think when it comes to race...I had a real alternative-culture streak to me, and a lot of times racial preconceptions come into play about who can subscribe to what kinds of culture. A lot of my work deals with how race plays into inequality.
14. FM: Your work has taken you to almost all 50 states and around the globe a few times. What have been some of the most eye-opening experiences of your travels?
FC: Well, I have to say that India totally blew my mind. If you’re driving down the road in India, you can go from the 4th century to the 25th century in half an hour. So one moment you’re by an old temple and people are picking rice by hand, and the next minute you’re in some tech hub from the future.
15. FM: Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to our generation?
FC: Wow, well, I think that one of the things I’ve learned the hard way is that you cannot sacrifice your own health and mental health for work. Sometimes you have to stay awake for three days, I mean you have to do it sometimes, but it’s a balance.... Stay curious, stay active, and stay healthy!