Q & A

A Conversation Between Pioneering Journalist Charlayne Hunter-Gault and Sarasota Magazine's Heather Dunhill

An intimate discussion that touches on race, friendship and Sarasota.

By Charlayne Hunter-Gault March 8, 2024 Published in the March-April 2024 issue of Sarasota Magazine

Heather Dunhill and Charlayne Hunter-Gault
Heather Dunhill and Charlayne Hunter-Gault

Image: Clemmie Cash

Anyone who doesn’t know Heather Dunhill might wonder how this white woman manages to give amazing voice to so many Black people—women as well as men—through her “Listening to Black Voices” column. And through this interview it will become abundantly clear that Heather didn’t just start listening to Black voices when this series began—not least because her questions, and the ways she asks them, reveal an unusual background.

I have known Heather for many years now, ever since my husband Ron and I moved to Sarasota. I was first introduced to her by one of our long-term Black friends, and we became close in no time. We had so much in common—not just our group of multiracial friends, but also journalism and, yes, good food (she’s a great cook) and good wine (she knows how to choose a friend’s favorite).

Over time, through Heather’s columns, I got to know better some of my own Black friends—even my own brother and husband, whom she interviewed. She asked them questions I never thought to ask and voilà! Breaking news! What follows is a transcript of a recent conversation we held that touches on her life and interviews. 

Heather, through your series “Listening to Black Voices,” I’ve gotten to know so many interesting people who have made a difference, and I was glad to be among them. When you were growing up, did you hear voices like the ones you’ve chronicled?

“I was born in Rochester, New York. In 1980, my parents and I moved to Florida. I was 10 years old, and that was the beginning of my interactions with the Black community. I was bused an hour and a half to be a part of desegregating a Black school, rather than sent to a school that was 15 minutes away.

“The bus picked me up at 5:56 a.m. It was pitch dark. Tapping into that memory makes me shake my head thinking about Mrs. Robinson, the Black bus driver, and what time she had to wake up to pick up this white girl on the edge of the county. I wish I could thank her.”

And what about the other students? When they got on the bus, did they treat you differently? 

“All the kids were nice. It wasn’t a welcome wagon, but let’s be honest—they were kids. What’s important is that they didn’t treat me like an outsider. Certainly not the way it would happen if the scenario was reversed.

“I smile when I think about how the Black kids called me ‘white girl’ when they didn’t know my name. To be clear, they didn’t say it with any edge—it was just to get my attention. I swear that if someone calls it out in a crowd today, I’ll turn around because I know they’re talking to me.

“One day, two Black girls sat beside me on the bus and one asked, ‘Can we touch your hair?’ I had never been asked that, and had no idea why they wanted to, but I didn’t mind. They had a conversation about the feel of my hair. Then, as a quid pro quo, they asked if I wanted to touch their hair. Honestly, I hadn’t ever thought of touching anyone’s hair, no matter the person’s race, but I could tell it meant something to be asked, so I did. Today, I know what a significant offer that was considering the micro-aggressions associated with touching Black hair.

“It’s interesting for us to discuss that time, because it was 26 years after Brown v. Board of Education, which was in 1954, and Florida was still trying to live up to those mandates.”

While traveling around the country these days, I find that very few people know the significance of the ’54 decision. I’ve asked over and over. And there you were, having an experience that gave you—almost—a firsthand idea of what it meant. Did you understand the significance of the ’54 decision? What it was getting rid of, and opening the door for? 

“I didn’t then, but, of course, I know now. Interestingly, I don’t remember it being discussed or taught in school. Nor do I remember any Black history lessons. However, I was exposed to some Black life experiences and terminology.

“On my first day of school in Florida, in my seventh grade social studies class, my Black teacher handed me a book that I had in fifth grade in New York. So I sheepishly approached her desk and said, ‘I think I got the wrong book.’ Her reply was, ‘Why do you think that, honey?’ I explained and she said, ‘Welcome to a Black school.’ I didn’t know what that meant, but I got the gist that I had the correct book for the class. The same thing happened a couple times that day, so I went to the administrative office and said, ‘I think I may be in the wrong classes.’ The Black woman behind the counter gave me the same reply. Today, I’m clear on what that means regarding the appalling differences between white and minority education systems.”

The ’54 decision made a difference in my life when the Supreme Court ended the lie of separate but equal, and yet we are still fighting that lie. 

“It certainly made a difference to me, too—not on your level, of course—but I know that integration was integral to my life. I am grateful that I was bused to that school.”

Tell us about moving to Sarasota. What was it like early on?

“I moved to Sarasota in 1996. From a demographic point of view, it was rare to see a person of color at an event or anywhere. Gay couples tended to be open secrets, and people typically avoided conversations about their political persuasion. Back then, most Democrats and Republicans knew it was usually a thin line of voting differences that separated us, and we left it at that. It was a time when, if politics entered a conversation, it never got heated or divisive. It was just that—a conversation.

“Geographically, it had an Old Florida feel with undiscovered gems like the Sarasota School of Architecture homes. The Ringling Hotel was still in place, and Leona Helmsley’s dog had inherited her hotel on Lido Key. Our group of friends would frequent dives with character, like the hidden tiki bar, which sat on the sands of Lido Beach, and the Crescent Club on Siesta Key. It felt like a low- and high-brow beach town that had an easy feeling about it.”

What were your early observations and experiences here?

“When I wrote the Sarasota Herald-Tribune ‘Out and About’ social column, I sought out the Black community and minorities to give them more coverage in the paper. To get this done, I needed to ask Black people how to get on their radar for event press releases. I would approach Black women, when I saw one, explain who I was, what I did and what I was after. Honestly, they were taken aback by this white woman who randomly approached them. Once they knew I was for real and delivered on what I promised, doors opened.

“One woman generously invited me to a Links, Incorporated event at The Oaks ballroom. I will forever remember the wonderful feeling of walking into a room of more than 500 Black people. I know that day changed my life, not only to fulfill an inclusivity goal for my column, but I made friendships and connections, which lead to other connections, that I still cherish today.

“On the other hand, seeing that room also made me feel heavy with the truth. At that time, I had lived in Sarasota for 12 years. If that many Black people lived here, then as a community we were doing something woefully wrong since that was my first exposure to more than a couple Black people in a room. I wondered how we could make the Black community feel welcomed.”

Did anyone talk to you, from friends to colleagues, positively or negatively about the new coverage?

“That’s a great question. I have never thought about it, but no. While I was writing for the Herald-Tribune, my friends and colleagues didn’t say anything to me either way.”

That’s interesting. 

“It is. I do remember some of the comments from the Black community. On numerous occasions, while writing for the paper, when I would approach a Black group or couple at an event for a photograph, I was told, some version of, ‘Why bother? They won’t run it anyway.’ I could feel the heaviness of those words and it hurt my heart and I wanted to change that. Since I was responsible for pulling the photos to run in my column, they did run.

“I also remember seeing a handsome couple at the Palm Ball one year—a white woman in a suit and gorgeous Black woman in a stunning gown. I didn’t know, nor did they express, that they didn’t think the picture would run because they were an interracial lesbian couple. After it did, the Black woman sent the loveliest email about what it meant to her, her partner and the gay community, and we are still friends today. I’m still touched by that.”

Did you get any pushback?

 “Sometimes I would receive a disturbing racist email from a disgruntled reader, but when I could avoid eye contact with negative feedback, I did. The same holds true today. I didn’t and don’t look at the comments section, just in case a troll gets in there. I don’t need that in my head and it’s not going to change who I am or what I do.”

Florida is in a difficult racial moment right now. How is that affecting you?

“I am concerned for my friends of color and those in minority communities. With 
no change in sight, quite literally, the faces of Florida are changing and will continue to do so.”

In what way? 

“It seems like there’s a political migration out of state for people who no longer feel safe—whether that’s an LGBTQ+ couple with a child, transgender people or minorities. That’s concerning because I wonder how long it will take for that pendulum to swing back. Or can it?”

Listening to you now, it’s clear that you’ve been listening to Black voices since you were a little girl. But what led you to start your series and when did it begin?

“Well, my friend, it was an email you sent after George Floyd’s murder in May 2020 that was the catalyst. I remember it was a Sunday and it said, ‘On this day of grace and mercy, you must watch this.’

“Because I make a point of doing what you say, I did.”

Remind me what that was.

“It was a video of a moving sermon by Rev. Dr. Otis Moss III in response to Floyd’s murder. In it, he called on creatives to respond to that moment in history. I immediately called my editor with what was either a pitch or a plea for ‘Listening to Black Voices.’ That was in June 2020.”

Why that? Why feature these people at a time when there was so much sadness around George Floyd’s murder?

“We all know that Floyd’s murder unearthed the complexities of racism. With that, I knew I had to do better to understand the Black experience. That meant filling in the gaps of my Black American history knowledge—my white blind spots.

“It seemed like Floyd’s murder shook the world awake and a commitment was needed to listen to—and hear—the Black community in an in-depth way that had not happened before. It was my feeling then, and even more so now, that only in asking questions and having conversations can we bridge that gap. Since my conversations are public, it’s my hope that our readers and I will learn and grow together.”

I remember it was a very painful time, but your pieces are not painful. That’s the beautiful part of the interviews. Even though racism is discussed, it’s mostly positive.

“All the credit goes to the interviewees for their openness. There’s a strength of heart, like Maya Angelou wrote, ‘Out of the huts of history’s shame / I rise / Up from a past that’s rooted in pain / I rise / I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide, / Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.’

“Even though I’ve learned through these interviews that faith is the cornerstone of the Black community, I still cannot comprehend how you all have the fortitude and generosity to persevere, as well as have the grace to be kind to the white community after 400 years of subjugation, racism and gut-wrenching losses. It is staggering.”

Well, not all white people are enemies of Black people, for sure. A lot of white people have given their lives for us, people like Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner, who were killed along with James Chaney during the civil rights movement.

When you mention Maya Angelou, it reminds me of when I interviewed Nelson Mandela after he got out of prison after 27 years. I began giving him context for a question to distinguish myself from the journalists from all over the world, which did not include a lot of Black ones. So, I began with, “Mr. Mandela, I’ve come out of the civil rights movement…” and he broke in to ask, “Oh, do you know Ms. Maya Angelou?” I said that I didn’t know her personally, but I knew her work, and he went on to say, “We read all of her books in prison.”

I’m learning a lot through this series and the history behind these people, some whom I’ve known for decades. I think it’s a real contribution. 

How many of these have you done and how did you select the people you’ve interviewed?

“More than 50 interviews have been chronicled. For the most part, recommendations are given to me by interviewees, and I like to honor that. It is a meaningful compliment that, by word of mouth, this series has moved forward.”

All of the interviewees have distinguished careers, and their experiences may not be widely known, but the way you have explored their lives is different than the typical profile. And most of them worked in predominantly white companies, right? 

“Yes, absolutely. And, let’s be honest, it wasn’t a boulevard of green lights for them to get to executive levels—they had to work 100 times smarter and harder, or more. And I’m sure we all know what the board room table looked like.”

Why is it important to you to have both Black men and women in the series?

“I try my best to balance both voices. I particularly like to get the Black woman’s perspective because of what Malcom X said in the ’60s that ‘the most disrespected person in America is the Black woman. The most unprotected person in America is the Black woman. The most neglected person in America is the Black woman.’

“In my opinion, the Black woman is an esteemed point of view. I can’t leave her out because I’ve learned in these interviews that she’s the backbone of the Black community. And whether it’s explicit or not, her strength can be heard woven through the men’s stories, as well.”

Any surprises while doing these interviews? 

“I want to share two things that I hear frequently that are surprising, one is from the Black interviewees, the other is from white people. The former often remark, ‘I’ve never told that to a white person before.’ And the latter ask, ‘Why would Black people allow a white woman to interview them?’

“I’d like to answer that here: I don’t know why.

“What I do know is that it is a privilege of great magnitude that I take seriously. Creating this series is the closest I’ve come to having my life and work make sense. I am indebted to those who have trusted me with their stories, and I consider myself a steward of these oral histories. I carry them in my heart.”

Even though some of us have had to go through some slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, we’ve come out on the other side and have had great lives, which you have recorded.

I’m a big person on hope and have studied history, as you have, and know that from the first time we stepped off the slave ships we have been fighting to be recognized  as full human beings and we have overcome generation after generation after generation.

In the end, does what you have done with the series make you hopeful or leave you uncertain?

“I have societal concerns, no doubt. But I am hopeful, because the Black community has hope and faith in the future. I don’t feel I have the right to lose my faith as a white person, if the Black community still looks forward.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault is an award-winning journalist and author whose work has appeared in The New York Times and The New Yorker and on PBS, NPR and CNN. She has won several awards for journalism, including two News & Documentary Emmys and two Peabody awards. She is the author of the autobiography In My PlaceNew News Out of Africa: Uncovering Africa's Renaissance and My People: Five Decades of Writing About Black Lives.

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