Activist and podcaster Mckesson lays out lessons from his experiences in On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope (Viking, Sept.).
How do you think your experience working in education has taught you about society and activism?
I think the classroom is the last radical space in America—that it’s sort of the last place where people still fight about ideas and still understand the importance of the best idea. So that, I think, gave me a sense of urgency around being in the street in the first place. One of the reasons that I went down [to Ferguson] was because a kid got killed. It was a kid going to college, and I spent my whole career in education! And it was like, if I say that I’ll stand with kids wherever, then the least I could do was go down to Ferguson. It was my career in education that made me go in the first place.
What books did you read while forming these essays?
So during this process it was a lot of [Bayard] Rustin. Rustin’s writings don’t get as much attention as they should, but he’s just such a clear writer. It wasn’t very flowery, it wasn’t very poetic—that just wasn’t his endeavor—but the ideas are just so crisp. And obviously, I revisited the work of Baldwin, Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Eldridge Cleaver. I was trying to read a lot of activists who had written about their time in their time, and not necessarily 20 or 30 years later. I wanted to read people like Rustin who had engaged in that work, and Baldwin who had engaged in the tension between writing for history and writing for the future.
What made you decide to write this book?
I was listening to a sermon not too long ago entitled, “Don’t Tell Your Story Too Soon,” and [it said] sometimes if you tell your story too soon all you can see is the pain, not the person. I think if I had written a book about what I’ve experienced and seen two years ago it would have been a play-by-play about being in the street. And I’m at a point now where I can look back and sort of see the lessons that I’ve learned from the protests [and] from before when I was a teacher and reflect on them in a way that sets us up for a better future. One of the reasons that I wrote the book is that I thought that we needed clear language about what has happened and where we go. That’s why the book isn’t just a memoir but is my offering of the stories that help us transform the way we think about the world and will then help shape the way that we act in the world.
Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed for the print edition. An audio recording of the complete interview is available at publishersweekly.com/deray.