Charlayne Hunter-Gault: Her place in history
Whether she's reminiscing about her childhood in the segregated South or musing about what makes the Vineyard so important to her today, award-winning journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault speaks her mind. As an African American woman born in Due West, S.C., in 1942, Ms. Hunter-Gault grew up in an era that didn't encourage outspokenness. Yet throughout her life she says she has drawn upon the strength and spiritual conviction that held her family close to spur her to remarkable achievements.
Whether she is discussing her positive reactions to President Obama's upcoming visit and Sonia Sotomayor's appointment to the Supreme Court, or her negative responses to the Cambridge police treatment of Skip Gates, or the changes in contemporary journalism, Ms. Hunter-Gault is direct and candid. Concerned about the Island being depicted as a playground for the super-rich, she says: "The Vineyard isn't changing. There might be an influx of new more affluent residents, but I think the Obamas will enjoy the same sense of community, the same feeling we all love about the Island. I'm sure people are hoping to catch a glimpse of him and his marvelous family, but people have busy lives here. The Vineyard is a place where we have to get a lot done in a small space in a short period of time."
Ms. Hunter-Gault made civil rights history as the first black woman to enter and graduate from the University of Georgia. The daughter and granddaughter of ministers, she recalls reciting the 23rd Psalm under her breath and weeping tears of frustration as classmates and townspeople at the University of Georgia screamed racial epithets and hurled bottles at her dormitory windows. "I cried not out of fear," she explains, "but out of anger because I knew that if I spoke out against what was happening I would be barred from attending school there."
She was the first African-American women to write for The New Yorker magazine and, joining Nancy Hicks, for The New York Times. She went on to work for CNN and National Public Radio (NPR), and as national correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, the first 60-minute evening news program on television. An author and memoirist, she has won many prestigious awards and is the recipient of more than two-dozen honorary degrees.
On Thursday, August 20, at 5 pm, she will moderate "Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama," a free panel discussion hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr. at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. Sponsored by the W.E.B. DuBois Institute for African and African American Research.
Today, Ms. Hunter-Gault divides her time between homes in Johannesburg, South Africa, and Oak Bluffs. A recognized figure in both settings, she is a sought-after speaker who has, as she puts it, "journeyed to the horizons without forgetting my roots."
With her husband, investment banker Ron Gault, Ms. Hunter-Gault first visited the Vineyard in 1970. They fell in love with the Island, returning summer after summer until they bought their own home 10 years ago. She plays tennis, socializes with friends, participates in nonprofit events, and scouts the Island flea markets for treasures.
This summer, however, Ms. Hunter-Gault says she has been under "house arrest," due to a series of sudden health problems. The experience, she says, has heightened her bond with the Vineyard. "I didn't have to tell my friends that I needed help," she says. "They were falling in the door with bags of groceries and prepared dinners. They washed dishes. These are people who are there through thick and thin."
Ms. Hunter-Gault likens the Vineyard to her childhood home - Covington, Georgia. "There are few places with a strong sense of community," she says. "The Vineyard is like a small town even when it swells to 100,000. Although I meet new people all the time, I have a coterie of friends that is a constant in my life. We play tennis here and they've come to South Africa to visit. Sometimes we talk about serious social issues and sometimes we just have fun, like sit on the porch, look at the sea, and watch motorcycles ride by."
Ms. Hunter-Gault admits that her husband calls her and her pack of friends "the hyperactive thyroids" for their nonstop, sun-up to sundown schedule of activities. "I'm always open to opportunity," she says. "I leap at the chance to do things and sometimes my family gets upset. I have to explain to them that this is what I do - it's who I am."
Recently, she was a keynote speaker at the August Tea & Advocacy fundraiser in Edgartown, drawing on the influences of her family, her place in American history, and her own sense of purpose.
In achieving her own dreams of becoming a journalist, Ms. Hunter-Gault paved the way for generations of African Americans. "My family and community couldn't legally give me first-class citizenship but they gave me a first-class sense of self," she explains. "The church provided a spiritual floor beneath us and I grew up seeing challenges, not obstacles. I never forget where I came from. I have a special empathy for people who are denied equality in society."
Charlayne Hunter-Gault moderates "Achieving Equality in the Age of Obama," Thursday, Aug. 20, 5 pm, Old Whaling Church, Edgartown. Hosted by Henry Louis Gates Jr., Free. 617-495-8508; dubois.fas.harvard.edu.
Freelance writer Karla Araujo is a regular contributor to The Times.