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Meet Jamil Smith: Three questions with The Emancipator’s new editor-in-chief

A behind-the-scenes conversation on Black liberation, politics, and the future of the publication

Reginald Cunningham

When Jamil Smith was a child settling into the couch with his dad to watch episodes of Star Trek, he wasn’t thinking about the legacy of racism in America — of the various places and spaces that Black people occupy in society, and how they are threatened. However, even at a young age, he recognized the gravity of watching Lieutenant Uhura step onto the bridge.

“Ever since I was a kid,” Smith said, “I’ve understood the value of imagining a future with Black people in it.”

Solving the issues of racial inequity and injustice in America and abroad will require more than a little imagination. That’s why we are so excited to welcome Smith to the team as The Emancipator’s new editor-in-chief. Founding co-Editor Amber Payne will fully assume the role of Publisher & General Manager.

The Cleveland, Ohio native returned to political journalism in 2010 after several years producing for NFL Films and MSNBC, where he was a producer for both The Rachel Maddow Show and Melissa Harris-Perry. Most recently he was an essayist for the Los Angeles Times and has held senior positions at Rolling Stone, Vox and The New Republic.

His political and cultural commentary have appeared in publications ranging from the New York Times and the Washington Post to Esquire and Vanity Fair, including an award-winning 2019 Time cover story about the cultural significance of the film Black Panther — completing a journey he started on that childhood couch watching Star Trek and documenting the Afro-futurist imagination of the next generation.

“The thing that I continue to take away from Black Panther, every time I watch it, is this is about a classic dilemma of Black life around the world. We have so much within our cultures and resources that we can share with the world, but we are scared to share them, because of how the world works,” Smith said. “And I think that’s a debate worth continuing, especially considering our modern reality.”

I sat down with my new boss to talk about everything from L.A. versus Boston weather (he’s excited to have seasons again) to the biggest issues he’s grappling with in journalism (the death of local news), including what he’s currently reading (the new memoir First Gen by his friend, the former Obama White House aide Alejandra Campoverdi), watching (the documentary Silver Dollar Road), and listening to (Colours by Goapele, which makes for excellent Q&A background music).

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

Alex LaSalvia: Your recent writing explores how narratives of Black struggle are often sanitized to fit with the values of a predominantly White ruling class. Why is it important to go back and make sure the full stories are told?

Jamil Smith: None of us are going to erode or mitigate racial inequity, of any sort, unless we both have all the information that we can and think critically about that information. If we rely upon a sanitized version of reality to make us feel better or to merely get ourselves through the day, it may help anesthetize us to the pain that racism causes. However it isn’t going to actually help end it.

As I prepared to join The Emancipator, I learned more about the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s studies at Boston University. That said, rather than simply celebrating his legacy, I hope our publication can be a part of continuing to fulfill his mission of true liberation through the end of racial inequities, both here in the United States and abroad. The press can and should be a part of that mission. It is essential that we at The Emancipator continue helping our audiences understand how racism and discrimination affect and afflict our lives and our systems. I’d add that we cannot cover merely the oppression and horror of racial inequity without providing nuanced looks at how people are surviving and thriving in the midst of it. I want an Emancipator that will help audiences envision solutions for a better future, all while providing nuanced looks at how to survive and thrive in the midst of our current reality.

What makes a good Emancipator story?

A good Emancipator story makes sure that you are not just simply informed, but inspired towards action. It’s about stimulating people to be intellectually honest about the country we live in, the world we live in. How can we fix the problem of racial inequity if we’re not willing to question what’s going on?

What we want to do at The Emancipator is give people the tools to question. I have a very strong faith in people, and I do believe that people do want to find out the truth. I come from a working class family, you know, both parents working multiple jobs. And I understand what it’s like to see people who might not have time to think about the world outside of them, but who still made sure it was a priority to talk about within the house.

I got so much of my education about the racial realities of this country from my parents. It was not something that was discussed heavily in school, but when I got home, I had my Black history classes. When I went to church, I had my Black history classes. I had to learn this history on my own, with the help of those who loved me and the communities around me, so what I want for The Emancipator is to provide a tool that the younger me did not have.

We can’t fully understand the problem of racism in this country without understanding the problem of bigotry writ large. We can’t just cover racism that happens to particular groups, and not cover what we’re seeing now — the rise of anti-Muslim and antisemitic attacks, rising out of ignorance, and people’s discomfort with reality.

I want people to read an Emancipator report, essay, column, and come away more curious and say, “Okay, I gotta go read this book that they’re talking about,” or “I gotta look more and analyze other coverage about this particular issue.” If anything, an Emancipator piece should make you want to dive further into the topic. We’re going to give you a comprehensive amount of information, no matter what, but I do want to put responsibility upon our audience to go further.

Ultimately, the signature of an Emancipator piece is inspiring curiosity, inspiring vigilance, and helping people be more intellectually honest as they explore.

Editor-in-Chief of The Emancipator Jamil Smith talks to UC Berkeley journalism student Myah Overstreet at The Emancipator's 2023 Racial Reporting Convening.George Annan

With the eyes of the media on the presidential election next year, what do you see as The Emancipator’s role in that conversation?

I argue all the time is that race is in everything. It is inescapable in the entertainment we watch, in the food that we eat, and in the air that we breathe. And I would say our role during such campaigns is to make sure we illustrate how policy positions, how platforms will affect, benefit, or detract from the oppressed communities that we cover.

I want The Emancipator to show, during this election cycle and beyond, what racism looks like, how does it manifest? What does it actually do? How does it move through our lives? And so when I say that racism is in food, in the air, in our workplaces, in our social gatherings, I want people to recognize that and think differently about what they’ve been looking at their entire lives. We now have, not just an opportunity, but a responsibility to depict that reality to its fullest.

So when we’re talking about horse-race politics, and who’s up in what poll and all of that stuff, that does matter, but it’s not ultimately the thing that affects people’s lives in the most direct way. I want us to make sure that we are providing coverage that fills in some of the gaps.

What should readers expect from the next year of The Emancipator?

I think they should expect us to do our job. They should expect The Emancipator to continue covering this issue with enthusiasm and focus. Racial inequity in America is an emergency, and The Emancipator is going to treat it as such. We’re going to be doing our best to tell stories that help people understand the problem writ large, and to give them tools to help them as they continue to explore information and solutions related to this emergency.

Jamil Smith can be reached at jamils@bu.edu.

Alex LaSalvia is The Emancipator’s Digital Producer. He can be reached at alexla@bu.edu.