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Karen Hunter is Code Switching for No One

Pulitzer Prize-winning writer and author of more than 30 books, Karen Hunter will be one of 50 esteemed featured guests at the 16th Annual National Black Writers Conference
Karen Hunter Photo: Supplied

Karen Hunter is code-switching for no one. The New Jersey native is not softening her voice to give you the warm-and-fuzzies, nor checking her tone for appropriate sake. Karen Hunter is on a long-term mission to speak truth to action and has little interest in comfort stations or lucrative off-ramps along the way.

Still, in all of her non-conformity, she is a master communicator: Hunter was the first African-American female news columnist at the New York Daily News, where she also served on its editorial board. She’s won Pulitzer Prizes and the Polk Award; has authored more than 35 books and co-authored five New York Times best-selling books; and today she runs The Karen Hunter Show, also known as the hottest show in the galaxy, on Sirius Satellite Radio, with a listenership of more than 3 million. 

She is one of the most influential modern figures in media, managing to do what very few Black journalists are willing or able: share unbridled and unrelenting facts while speaking unapologetically through her own Black lens.

Beginning Wednesday, March 30, and continuing through April 2, Karen Hunter will join more than 50 other respected Black authors from around the country to participate in The 16th National Black Writers Conference: “The Beautiful Struggle: Black Writers Lighting the Way.” The Brooklyn-based event will be presented virtually by the Center of Black Literature at Medgar Evers College.

In advance of the conference, Karen Hunter sat down with BK Reader for an intimate discussion about Black history; why she's no longer writing; putting hot sauce on chitlins; and why, for her, the National Black Writers Conference is so important.

BK Reader: Let's talk Black History: There are a lot of Black people, unfortunately, uninterested in books on black history because of the shame associated with being part of such a painful past. How do we push past those feelings and reconcile with our past?

Karen Hunter: There are some communities that say, “Never forget,” and every season, they make sure that their stories are told. There’s a right of passage where the stories are told; where the language and the culture are revisited, are learned, parroted, promoted… even the pain and suffering. And as a result, there’s a generational edict for what survival looks like. 

Now, part of the reason why [Black People] are still here is because we have another kind of superpower, which is Black joy. We’re going to find the peace that surpasses all understanding. We’re going to find joy and laughter in the midst of all of the horrors. We’re going to always make chitlins taste delicious, because that’s who we are. But in that trauma that we cover over, those entrails that we spice up and put hot sauce on … is still a whole lotta ish that needs to be escalated. 

I think too many of us center what we’re going to do around how they’re going to see it. We must center our lives through us– not through oppression or racism or white privilege or white nationalism.

So we need collective counseling; we need a community where we can safely talk about these things. We need healing. Our community, our homes must be havens where we can just be… and that’s our responsibility. 

Karen Hunter, The 16th Annual National Black Writers Conference, Brenda Greene, Center for Black Literature
Karen Hunter

BKR: What you just described as a "safe haven" is a lot like your radio show, so obviously you’re modeling that. How were you able to get the owners to allow you to run your show unfiltered? That must have been some heavy persuasive powers…

KH: No, I didn’t have to persuade anybody. When I came to them, they didn’t see me. ... And I wasn’t hiding! I’m right here! But that’s the thing: They never see us. So we get to hide in plain sight. And I’m grateful that they didn’t see me when I came in the room. Because had they seen me, I guarantee you, I wouldn’t be here right now. And then later, it’s always a shock, like, ‘Oh! She… What?’

No this is not a game! And then when they talk to me, I’m not code-switching either to make you feel good. You maybe can jump in… 

But I’m grateful to the people (the listeners and those she works with) because I couldn’t have this level of freedom if folks didn’t buy into it; if they weren’t already looking for it. But I want people to roll up their sleeves and get busy and not just be like, 'Oh, I’m doing black things.' No, this is work! And you’re going to pay to come in and work, because somebody’s gotta do this until those roots get in the ground and the shoots start sprouting up and we bear fruit! Somebody’s gotta hold that fort until it happens. And I’m built for this, and I’m happy.

BKR: What is your aim for your two newest learning and social platforms, Knubia and Knarrative?

KH: Knarrative and Knubia were created so Black people could have a safe place where you can just relax your shoulders, because it’s a space where there’s no judgment. And even if we misspeak, we know we’re family. And even if we disagree– And we should disagree. We shouldn’t agree with everything– but we disagree with respect and love in the midst of it, and we work through it. Because that’s what we should be learning to do.

I’m not really pushing or promoting them. Because we rarely get to build without interruption or without someone waving some money. But I’m self-funded, and this is not being sold. This is my 20-year project that has nothing to do with business, and it has nothing to do with selling it for the next round of whatever. Because this has to be here thousands of years from now… It’s a level of commitment that we need to have, and I have it. So, that’s what that is.

BKR: What are you writing and reading right now?

Karen Hunter, The 16th Annual National Black Writers Conference, Brenda Greene, Center for Black Literature
Photo: Pinterest

KH: I’m not writing anything, because I’m not passionate about writing. It may be my gift, but it is no longer my passion. But as a reader, I’m really dialed into a lot of historical fiction. Like, I just read a book about Hannah Elias who was a very wealthy Black woman in California. The book’s author, Barbara Chase-Riboud, fictionalized a story about her life and her journey. I’m also reading a lot of non-fiction books. I’m doing a book club or book dissection of “Where do We go From Here: Chaos or Community,” by Martin Luther King, Jr. I’m also reading “Miss Chloe,” who we know as Toni Morrison, a book about a friendship she had with an author A.J. Verdelle. And I’m also reading “Born in Blackness,” Howard French’s amazing book about how Africa seeded the wealth of Europe and America. And there would be no greatness in either of these countries without Black bodies.

He takes us from Mansa Musa, whose trek across the continent from Mali to Cairo on his mecca journey destabilizing gold was the spark that made the Portuguese know that, “There’s gold in ‘dem dere hills." And maybe instead of going around the continent that they should go into Africa. So I’m actually reclaiming my mind in my reading diet right now.

BKR: In the midst of all that you’re doing right now and considering you’re not writing, why did you decide it was important you participate in the annual Black Writers Conference?

KH: The reason I said “yes” to the conference is Dr. Brenda Greene (founder of the National Black Writers Conference). Brenda Greene has been a pioneer in this area, giving light to so many writers when nobody was paying attention to Black literature. She was holding a conference where she could convene all of the greats from Jerome Dickey to E. Lynn Harris, to L.A. Banks, Victoria Christopher Murray and Reshonda Tate Billingsley … 

When these writers were not getting mainstream attention, Brenda Greene was giving them mainstream attention.  So now that writers are getting mainstream attention, we better show up for Brenda Greene! So it is my honor to be a part of it. I will do anything for Brenda Greene, because she is the blueprint.

To register for the National Black Writers Conference, go here.