‘The truth of history is unbiased’: Ken Makin on race, justice, and hope (audio)
What makes a Monitor journalist? It takes curiosity, compassion, and a willingness to look for light in even the darkest places. This writer brings all three qualities to his commentary.
Monitor editors hear from a lot of writers who are eager to break into our pages. Many of them we just can’t accommodate.
But when I opened my email this past June, a proposal from a potential columnist stopped me in my tracks.
No one at the Monitor had ever heard of Ken Makin before he reached out to us. But as I read through his proposal, I was struck by the feeling that I was talking to a Monitor journalist – we just hadn’t met him yet.
By now, of course, many of our subscribers know Ken’s work. He has become a frequent contributor since that initial column on the historical roots of the rage and frustration that we saw spilling onto the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.
In this special audio interview, Ken shares a bit about what drew him to the Monitor, his approach to reader empowerment, and how “the truth of history” grounds his commentary.
Samantha Laine Perfas: Welcome to “Rethinking the News,” a podcast by The Christian Science Monitor. Here, we create space for constructive conversations across a range of perspectives, to give you the information you need to come to your own conclusions.
I’m Samantha Laine Perfas, one of the producers. This episode is part of a special series we’re doing for the holidays. We’ll be talking to Monitor reporters. Some of them have been with us for decades. Others are new to our ranks. But they all share the Monitor’s vision: to bring a fresh, balanced perspective to their reporting, and to find the humanity and compassion behind today’s headlines.
Today, we’re joined by Monitor columnist Ken Makin. Ken just started writing for the Monitor this year. But he’s already brought incredible insight into issues like racial justice and the Black experience in America. He also hosts his own podcast, titled “Makin’ a Difference.”
Noelle Swan is editor of the Monitor Weekly, our print magazine. She and Ken talk about how he and the Monitor found each other, why he thinks the past matters when covering the present, and where he turns when he’s looking for hope.
Noelle Swan: This almost never happens. Well, not like this, anyway. As an editor, my inbox is pretty much always full of story ideas from freelance writers looking to break into the Monitor. Some ideas eventually make it into our pages, but most get a polite, ‘No thanks.’ But when I opened up my email this past June, I was pretty floored by this one message from this guy named Ken Makin. As I read through his proposal, I was struck by this feeling that I was talking to a Monitor journalist. We just didn’t know him yet. But by now, of course, many of our subscribers know Ken’s work. He has become a frequent contributor since that initial column, which was on the historical roots of the rage and frustration that we saw spilling onto the streets in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. Ken, I don’t know that I’ve ever told you just how serendipitous that first contact felt on our end. I’m curious, what was it about the Monitor that drew you to us?
Ken Makin: Wow. I will be remiss if I didn’t, you know, say just a deep and profound thank you to Writers of Color on Twitter, which is where I came across the Monitor, and that you all were offering a freelance opportunity. And as I read up on the Monitor, as I, you know, began to have conversations with you all, I found the message "to injure no man," to be compelling. And that’s something that I really strive for in the work that I do. The first and foremost goal for me really is to provide information. Everything that I write, it’s always a dialogue. So it’s not so much that I’m trying to teach. It’s that I’m really just trying to have a conversation. And so it went with the Monitor and so it continues to go.
Noelle: So that’s really interesting that you talk about your writing as being a conversation with the reader. But there was something that sort of happened this year that made it seem like Americans in general are not having the same conversation and in so many different ways. So you hear about it all the time in terms of media silos and our social media feeds. But I’ve kind of also been becoming newly aware that we we silo ourselves in a lot of different ways. And, you know, it seems like white Americans and Black Americans go to different places for entertainment, often look for news in different places, and it seems much harder to kind of have a conversation that sort of crosses these silos at all. And I don’t know. Have you noticed that, too, Ken?
Ken: Most certainly. From the outset, when we talk about having a conversation, I think the apparent thing is that those conversations hurt. And those conversations hurt because in order to have, you know, profound conversations about racial injustice and, you know, sociology and just various issues, we have to have those conversations adequately, I believe. You have to really look at the history of this country. And so when you do that, there are some really sordid tales when you look at the promises of America and what this country ideally should provide. And we can look at that through the context of all Americans. But however, when we look at that through the context of Black Americans, it’s a different story. When you look at post slavery, post reconstruction, post Jim Crow era. A lot of the battles that are being waged now in 2020, I often look back at the year of 1968 and look at the 70s and that being 50 years ago. And we’re waging some of those same battles again, when you talk about voting rights, when you talk about civil rights. And so what happens is that because people don’t have those conversations in a profound and in a historical manner, we end up segregating those, you know, media outlets just where we get our perspectives largely on race.
Even as I look at things in terms of race, I also try to look at things in terms of a class analysis and even a political analysis in that way. Because a lot of times it doesn’t break down as easily as Black and white. Sometimes it breaks down in terms of, you know, what are your political preferences, it breaks down in terms of wages and different things like that.
Noelle: You point to what’s happening now, but you’re sort of insisting that we look backward at where we’ve been as well, which I think is incredibly important. That’s something that the Monitor does really strive to do. And it’s just interesting because I spend a lot of time talking with freelance writers and trying to help them understand that we aren’t just looking to report the news. We’re looking to dig underneath it. And we’re trying to look at all the perspectives and the values and the ideals and the ways of thinking and mindset that sort of shape all of these events and each of the individual characters in them and all of us and how we perceive them. So I guess, Ken, how does that approach inform the way you come to a column?
Ken: I would say that my approach really gives me the level ground and the perspective that I need to be able to write just with the intent of wanting to inform and empower the reader. Because the truth is, is that I look at the news and I have very visceral reactions to a lot of the things that I’m saying. Even when we look at this notion of, you know, voter fraud and, you know, election fraud and the approach that I take to a lot of those accusations and things that I’m saying, it’s really a two-fold approach. Again, I go back to history and I look at, you know, actual voter suppression, some of which was very violent. I am a native of South Carolina and a resident of South Carolina. And so I can go back and look at the 1876 Hamburg Massacre. That hits very close to home for me in terms of voter suppression campaigns. But in terms of my approach, I do have my personal biases. But the truth of history is unbiased. In a way that I know helps me personally to keep good perspective. Because if it were left up to my personal biases, which you all agree would probably be very different. If I’m being perfectly honest.
Noelle: So, like so many things, 2020 seems to have amplified some of the racial divisions that we’ve been talking about. And when you think about this and looking back historically and just sort of what you’re seeing happening today, can this period of unrest and agitation – do you see a pathway for it to give way to a better understanding of each other at all? Or are we, are we stuck?
Ken: I think stuck is the wrong word. I think the challenge here is, again, we have to be honest about, you know, what it is that we’re seeing. George Floyd was was murdered or killed in late May and in the weeks that followed – however, you may have felt about the various forms of protesting – I think there was a very progressive intent in the way of saying, ‘Okay, this is what needs to change in terms of the police. This is what needs to change in terms of how we interpret and address race.’ I think the combination of what we’ve seen with the pandemic, in addition to what happened with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was a real flashpoint, I think, for the country. And it was almost a generational flashpoint in the way that, you know, we saw this response that we haven’t seen literally in decades. And we may look back on it in retrospect and say, what was it about George Floyd and Breonna Taylor? What was it about them specifically? And with respect to them, it wasn’t about them specifically. It was just a part of, to me, a bigger picture, a bigger idea of just this collective social unrest and social injustice where people said ‘This is not right.’ And that energy was palpable for, you know, a few months.
What happened, whether you may think it was an issue of, you know, maybe that movement was commodified, however you may have felt about what happened to it, it kind of lost steam and it kind of lost its way. And it made way for the status quo, and that is a concern for me because historically speaking, I think that has what has often happened with a number of movements is that there’s the initial unrest. And then instead of a profound societal change, I think there’s more of a focus of saying, hey, how do we get back to the status quo? And ideally, that’s good when you’re transitioning from a state of protest or even a state of pandemic to want to get back to a status quo. But to me, the danger of the status quo is that where we were before the pandemic? Where were we before George Floyd? And should we be satisfied with that standard or should we seek or have sought a better standard? And that is the challenge for for all of us, just as a society, I believe.
Noelle: So it makes me wonder, where do you look for hope? Because it does often feel like we’re sort of, we play out these scenarios again and again with, you know, slight variations and you up the volume sometimes and they’re down others. And but we do often end up back where we started. So where do you turn when you’re looking for hope?
Ken: Wow. I turn inward and a lot of ways in terms of just personal faith. But a lot of what I do, I do for my son, and I do to really try to carve out a world for him that’s better than this world. So that when he is, you know, in his late 30s, that maybe, you know, the world will look like a different place. And what I understand as his father is that I can’t rest on my laurels and assume that the world is going to be a better place for him. That is something that I feel compelled to, to carve out. And there’s a quote that I’ve, I’ve actually turned to a lot here in the past few months, and it’s this idea of, ‘I’m not free until we’re all free.’ And so I really draw on that in a way to say that there’s a greater calling and a greater responsibility just even within my own community and just wanting to give back, you know, in that way. And so I find hope in my personal faith and and, you know, or my responsibility as a father. But I also I find hope in my responsibility to the community overall.
Noelle: I think that’s something that we can all find hope in.
Samantha: Thanks for listening. If you liked this episode, share it with your friends. Just search “Rethinking the News” wherever you get your podcasts. And to support more work like this, subscribe to The Christian Science Monitor. We’re offering discounted subscriptions this holiday season. Visit csmonitor.com/holiday for details. This special rate will be active until early January, so sign up now! Again, that’s csmonitor.com/holiday.
This episode was produced by Ibrahim Onafeko, Jessica Mendoza, and me, Samantha Laine Perfas. Editing by Ibrahim Onafeko. Sound design by Morgan Anderson and Noel Flatt. Brought to you by The Christian Science Monitor, copyright 2020.