Inside “The Black Agenda”
In her latest book, “The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System,” Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman features compelling essays from Black experts.
The murder of George Floyd sparked a nationwide racial justice movement during the summer of 2020 that highlighted a fact that Black Americans have always known — the system is broken. In her latest book, “The Black Agenda: Bold Solutions for a Broken System,” author and Harvard Kennedy School doctoral candidate Anna Gifty Opoku-Agyeman pulled together compelling essays from Black scholars and academics to suggest ideas to help uplift Black America.
"’The Black Agenda’ mobilizes top Black experts from across the country to share transformative perspectives on how to deploy anti-racist ideas and policies into everything from climate policy to criminal justice to healthcare,” Ibram X. Kendi, author of “How to Be an Antiracist,” said in his review. “This book will challenge what you think is possible by igniting long overdue conversations around how to enact lasting and meaningful change rooted in racial justice."
The book features essays from Sandy Darity, Monica McLemore, Hedwig Lee and more, and hits on a wide range of topics of concern to Black America: climate, criminal justice, health, education, economics, policy and technology. One thing that Gifty makes clear is that “The Black Agenda” is not meant to tackle each obstacle the Black community faces, nor is it meant to solve every single one. “The Black Agenda” is instead meant to serve as both a resource guide from leading Black experts across fields and a call to action.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
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What inspired you to publish this book?
The book was really inspired by Twitter and also what was happening in the media landscape. So during peak COVID, March 2020, you saw parallel reporting on COVID and what was happening on the ground. So, if you watch CNN, MSNBC, or, God forbid, Fox News, at the time, you saw a lot of reporting around the pandemic happening and how it's bad … maybe not on Fox News, but everywhere else. But what we saw also happening online, specifically on Twitter, was this conversation that Black experts were having.
So this is where you saw people like Dr. Uche Blackstock rise in prominence because there were Black experts saying, wait a minute, COVID is going to disproportionately hit our communities first and harder. So we need aggregated data, or data broken down by race and gender and class, to really get a sense of how big and bad this issue is going to be.
Watching those conversations play out in real-time while keeping up with the news, I thought, ‘Hmm, this is really interesting that the news isn't reporting on what these Black experts who have gone to school and who have studied these subjects are talking about.’
And then the other aspect is that because I'm a little bit more visible in the economic space, you have folks coming to me and asking, ‘What do you think are gonna be the economic effects of so and so?’ I can write about that, but there are more seasoned experts and people who are on the ground who can speak to those realities more than I can. I remember once asking a reporter, “Did you reach out to anybody else before?” And she said, “I don't know where to look.” That’s when I said we should just put all the leading experts in a book and then push that book out as far as we can take it.
How did you craft this book? There are so many topics to cover.
One thing I always want to make clear to people is that I don’t write any of the essays in the book. I’m simply the MC; I’m the DJ. I’m the editor of the book. There are a lot of different topics that are being covered in this book, and that's actually by design.
As someone in economics and policy, I focused on what I knew and brought people in from those spaces. But as the year went on, it made more sense to bring in more subjects because so many things are intertwined with economic justice, with climate, with technology, with healthcare, and they all speak to the Black experience, especially the Black American experience. A lot of it was bringing these experts who are knowledgeable about their subject area and then allowing the different sorts of topic areas to arise from that.
For many, climate change is not necessarily the first topic that would go on their “Black agenda.” Why was it important to lead with that?
Quite frankly, there are just more pressing issues that are top of mind for most people. I moved the chapter toward the front because people don't typically think about climate as something that relates, one, to Black people and Black communities and, two, to their everyday lives. For example, the climate movement as it relates to criminal justice.
There's a really amazing essay by Abigail Thomas, and she talked about how around 500 prisons in the United States are built next to toxic land waste. So think about folks who are incarcerated. Maybe you have a small window to breathe fresh air. But that air that you're breathing, it's toxic. So not only are there poor conditions within the cell and within the prison but even when you're trying to get a whiff of fresh air, it's polluted.
Think about Hurricane Katrina, which gave us a glimpse of what the climate disaster could look like for everyone but hit Black people first and hardest. That's something that policymakers need to keep in mind as they're thinking about solutions to these problems.
All of the essays are interesting, but one that stood out to me was by the leading reparations scholar William “Sandy” Darity Jr. It’s the last essay in the book, and you referred to it as the “mic drop.” Tell me about it.
I really love that essay mainly because Dr. Sandy Darity is a legend, right? He’s one of the foremost scholars in racial justice, especially as it relates to economic justice. In that essay, he lays out facts about where wealth stands between Black and white folks. And the big idea is that white folks have a lot of wealth and Black folks don't have as much wealth — way less than anybody would expect. And so he offers solutions as to why this might be the case. One of the biggest things he mentioned is reparations.
I'm Ghanaian American, and so there's always a lot of conversation about who is going get the reparations if they come to play. I'm of the belief that Black people across the world deserve reparations, but they deserve those reparations from the people who disrupted their history and their ability to build wealth. And so, for example, as a Ghanaian American, I think Britain needs to run our check. I think that there is a direct tie between how Great Britain colonized Ghana and how that had effects on wealth accumulation. So when we bring it to the U.S. context, I believe that the United States holds reparations to Black Americans, specifically African American descendants of slaves. And so that's essentially what Sandy is talking about here.
So reparations are, in my opinion, a place to start but are not at all where we should end. He also introduces other critical policies. Universal healthcare, free internet for everybody — and this ties into all of the other essays that are mentioned before his, which get at these things individually. His essay speaks to an all-encompassing policy measure that is, ‘Look, at the end of the day, Black people are human, and there are certain things that humans deserve.’
You are Ghanaian American, so I’m curious if you’ve received criticism from American descendants of slavery about this project.
I consider myself a “daughter of the diaspora,” which means I very much so want to understand the experiences of other Black people within the diaspora. I recognize that we all go through some sort of collective plight, but our plights manifest differently depending on where we're from and depending on where we're at. So for me, this project was a way to pay homage to those who have come before me in the work around racial justice. When we think about pioneers in that space, a lot of those individuals are Black Americans.
When I talked to different communities across the country about this book, I talked a lot about how Black Americans, in particular, have created a really amazing blueprint of fighting for civil rights — a blueprint that I would argue a lot of different groups follow. You see Asian Americans doing that. You see Latino Americans doing that. You see people in the LGBTQ+ community doing that.
I'm literally a student, but I also want to be the kind of this student who learns from these scholars present at the forefront and at the cusp of addressing some of these problems, both with the evidence that they're generating but also through the public scholarship and the public intellectualism that they're putting out there. I want to be a student of those who have created the path that I'm walking on, but I also want to provide something tangible that people in our community can use to advocate for themselves and for others. Inviting these individuals to be a part of this project was a huge honor and privilege of mine.
Besides everyone, who needs to read this book the most?
Black people need to read the book. Even if some of the essays might feel like they're over your head, it's totally fine. Look these people up and listen to their interviews. A lot of these people are gonna be featured in interviews, congressional hearings and places like that.
Even if you don't want to read the book, use the book as a way to guide the way that you best learn. Maybe that’s following these people on Twitter or reading essays or op-eds they've put out, or listening to a book they've been a part of that might not be this book — even though this book is a great place to start. This book is actually not supposed to be read in one take. You read what makes sense to you in the given moment, and then you go back, reread and find new things. You learn about the different ideas that are coming up in the discourse and you apply it to what you're seeing in the news and seeing maybe on Phil's Twitter feed.
All of these things are really relevant to helping you stay better educated about, the world around you. The biggest thing that I want folks to take away from this book is that the Black community is contested constantly, every day, by people who are debating whether or not we should be seen as human. So this book helps you understand the ways in which we are not seen as human and the ways in which we should be seen as human so you can advocate for yourself, but also vote for people who are aligned with restoring our humanity in a major way that doesn't have to be contested.