If nothing else, Gilliam Communications CEO Art Gilliam’s recently published memoir “One America: Moving Beyond the Issue of Race” presents an endearing essay taking the reader on his personal journey through America.
Available now at the Tennessee Regular Baptist Book Store, Booksellers in Laurelwood and Burke’s Book Store, “One America: Moving Beyond the Issue of Race” certainly has been released with impeccable timing. The nation’s first African American to serve as president has had to issue contemplative messages following seemingly race-based murders of young African-American men, economic data points to a different kind of segregation that many say is more dangerous to the African-American community than legal segregation and his hometown is at a crossroads trying to figure out if an African-American population base can create a fairer and better metropolis.
Readers may be surprised that Gilliam does not delve more into or center any of the book on his purchasing and building WLOK radio station. But as a conversation with him for The New Tri State Defender readers revealed, the lifelong communicator’s goal is to engage the nation through the experiences of his own footsteps.
“I really started to think seriously about it after Barack Obama was elected president. The book is formally classified as memoir, but it’s really a book about this country told through the experiences I’ve had,” said Gilliam. “It struck me that 50 years after I had to sit on the back of the bus we have an African-American president.”
The book begins with a remembrance of Gilliam begging for the johnnycake from his grandmother’s regular baking sessions to the pivotal decision his family made to send him to prep school in New England. A retelling of the Emmett Till murder foretells the decision.
Reading at a fourth-grade level when he was six, Gilliam was 16 when he was admitted to Yale University. Later, he joined the Air Force, had pioneering career positions in media with The Commercial Appeal and WMC TV 5, and worked for Congressman Harold Ford Sr.
A pivotal moment comes in the moving brief about Peter Norman, the Australian silver medalist who willingly stood on the stand during the 1968 Summer Olympics in solidarity with gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos as they raised their fists to signal what Smith later would call “a human rights salute.”
“Memphis has moved beyond the issue of race, but in a different way,” Gilliam feels. “When I say moving beyond race I see it as meaning understanding each other and recognizing each other for doing the right things. You can do that now because you have the power to influence certain things. We’ve achieved political power here so that creates a different kind of situation.”
Naturally, the conversation moves to the current election.
“Memphis is still a city that is still involved in racial thinking and conflict in some ways. We’re voting basically out of a reference to the past. You go from slavery to discrimination to the various things that have happened to Memphis in the past and many times voting reflects that history. I think we have to move beyond that on the national level, but we’re not there yet in Memphis.”
For me, the book’s core thesis crystallized on page 143, where Gilliam writes this:
“When the horrific injustices of slavery are really understood, we as a nation can begin to comprehend the underpinnings of our racial issues. To directly observe the result of evolution for many of the slaves, it is only necessary to walk around blighted inner city neighborhoods and look at the level of squalor. It is these poor that I refer to as the black eyed peas of our society, relegated to the bottom of the American stew. For many Americans, they are faceless, but when I drive through the ghetto, I see their individual stories.”
In his own individual story, Gilliam explains that the black-eyed peas are part of a stew that becomes great because of their inclusion. Not just as something dropped in, but a ready, accepted and honored part of the whole. And he has written a reflection of the modern American ethic that can be recommended, cherished and shared.