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Linguist John McWhorter

John McWhorter's newest book is called The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language. He has written on Ebonics, language and African Americans, and the origins of the Creole Language. His other books include Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America and Word on the Street: Debunking the Myth of 'Pure' Standard English. McWhorter is a professor at the University of California at Berkeley.


Other segments from the episode on March 11, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 11, 2002: Interview with John McWhorter; Interview with Joel Meyerowitz.


TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: John McWhorter discusses African-American language and
culture, and how they effect African-Americans' education and view
of themselves

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, John McWhorter, writes thought-provoking, often controversial essays
about race. He's the author of the book "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in
Black America." In this book, he explained why he thinks that white racism is
no longer the main obstacle to black success and achievement. He blames the
cult of victimology, the emphasis on separatism and a strain of
anti-intellectualism within the African-American community for holding back
African-Americans. McWhorter is African-American, and has also written a book
about American English and the debate over Ebonics called "Word on the
Street." He's an associate professor of linguistics at the University of
California at Berkeley. His new book is called "The Power of Babel: A
Natural History of Language."

One of his linguistic interests is Ebonics. He sees African-American English
as a very rich dialect, a precious national creation. I asked him about his
interest in African-American dialect.

Professor JOHN McWHORTER (University of California-Berkeley; Author, "The
Power of Babel"): Well, in general, my linguistic work has not focused on
that particular dialect, and that's because I've always been interested in the
exotic and, for rather obvious reasons, black English is not exotic to me.
That's what I grew up hearing relatives and friends speak.

But when the Ebonics controversy came up, I felt moved to put in my 2 cents
because it was clear that the United States thought of black English as bad
speech, and it's understandable why people think that, because we're trained
to think that standard English is the English and everything else is a
departure from it. But, in fact, if a Martian came down and the first person
they met was a fluent speaker of black English, or Ebonics, then the
description that they would write of the rules in that dialect would be every
bit as complex, every bit as tricky as one would be of standard English, and
that's not always obvious, because we're trained to hear the things that black
English lacks that standard English has, whereas, in fact, there are quite a
few things that standard English lacks that black English has.

And so during the Ebonics controversy, one of the things I wanted to do was to
try to make it clear to as many people as I could that whatever your position
on whether or not this dialect should be used in the classroom that black
English is not bad speech. And unfortunately, it's not as if I was the first
person to do that, but most of the people who had stepped up to the plate on
that issue were more concerned with expressing an idea that black English is
part of black culture, and therefore to reject black English is to reject
black people. I don't think that that argument really convinces anybody. I
think a lot of people come away from that argument thinking, `Well, black
culture may be nice and vibrant, it's too bad they've got that broken-down

So I tried to use an argument where the dialect itself was analyzed, and I
think some linguists are afraid to share with the public linguistic analysis.
We're afraid that we won't be able to break it down or that we'll bore people,
but I think if you really work at it, you can get it across.

GROSS: Well, you just said that there are certain standards that black
English has that standard English doesn't. That's an interesting contrast.
Maybe you can give us an example.

Prof. McWHORTER: Well, you know, one example of that is the use of `be.'
Many of us listen to black English and what we hear is this sad, unconjugated
verb being thrown all over the place. But, in fact, when a person says, `I be
walking to the store,' what they mean is not that `I'm walking to the store
right now,' but that `I walk to the store on a regular basis,' say, for
example, every Tuesday, etc. It means that specific thing. If somebody stood
at a window and pointed and said, `She be walking by,' that would be
non-native black English. It would be clear that that person had not actually
grown up in the culture. It would sound as off as saying something like, `a
boy good' as opposed to `a good boy' in standard English.

This is the sort of thing that one is often not aware of. Many
African-American speakers of black English are not aware of that, just like we
standard English speakers are not aware of a great many of the subtle things
going on in our dialect. But standard English does not distinguish this kind
of what's called habituality, the idea of doing something on a regular basis
in that overt kind of way.

Some languages happen to indicate that sort of repetition in a very clear way.
Some languages don't; some dialects do, some dialects don't. Standard English
is kind of naked as far as that goes. You just have to kind of get it from
context--`I walk on Tuesdays.' Black English actually has this `be,' and it's
very systematic. Next time you're listening to black English--you're standing
in line and people are using the dialect behind you--listen to how that `be'
is used. Never will it describe something going on right at the time. The
`be' is always used to describe one's habits over time. Now multiply that by
a couple dozen things, and black English becomes a much more wondrous thing
than we're used to thinking of it as.

GROSS: Well, clearly you think that, you know, black English is very rich and
very interesting. Does that mean that you think it should be used in the
classroom or that classes should be taught in Ebonics?

Prof. McWHORTER: Well, no, actually. There is obviously a serious problem
with black students in education, and for a long time there have been people
who thought that perhaps there was a translation issue. But it immediately
seemed to me that, first of all, throughout history, there have been a great
many black people from all circumstances whose home dialect was black English
who did very well in school, and also that it seemed to me that the issue was
a larger cultural one. And so during the Ebonics controversy, that seemed
obvious to me, and so I started saying it when, to my surprise, the media
started calling me and asking me, and I found that I was the only
African-American linguist who was taking that position, and that was an
eye-opening experience for me because I suppose it was my first immediate
encounter with what happens when an African-American steps outside of a
certain orthodoxy in their public statements.

GROSS: What happened to you?

Prof. McWHORTER: Well, I found that immediately I was getting angry e-mails
and phone calls and that various African-American linguists who were concerned
with black English were cutting me dead, which a couple continue of them to,
to this day. And the problem would seem to be that I was going against an
unspoken rule that African-American scholars and leaders are to stick up for
black victimhood when the cameras are rolling. I honestly had never had
occasion to think about that before then, and this was the motivation for it.

GROSS: What did you grow up speaking, both?

Prof. McWHORTER: Well, that's an interesting question, Terry, because I grew
up around it very much. It's what most of my family speaks, and good friends
of mine spoke it, and yet, nevertheless, neither me nor my sister incorporated
that dialect in any serious way. And it wasn't as if we were told at home not
to speak that way, and even if we had been the fact is that a great many black
parents tell their children not to use certain constructions and not to talk
in certain ways, and it has no effect, because speech is so deeply seated.

Thinking about it over the years, it has occurred to me that I grew up in a
home where my parents were, despite all the wonderful things about them,
rather socially insular people, and there was a tacit message conveyed in our
home that you are not like them, and `them' was not just black people. `Them'
was white people and everybody else. There was a sense that we were in our
own little cocoon. No one actually said that, but you drink in subtle cues
from your parents, and I think as a result, there was a always a sense, in me
as well as in my sister, despite the fact that she is much more of a joiner
than I am, that the way you talk is the way your teachers in school talk and
the way you hear your parents talking.

And it's a shame, unfortunately, because many African-Americans are viscerally
put off by another African-American who doesn't have a certain what's often
called `black' sound, and I've often considered myself quite literally vocally
handicapped by the fact that I don't really have the dialect, because after a
certain point, just as it's hard to learn another language in any native way
after the age of about 13, you know, if you wake up and you're 25 years old
and you don't have a dialect, if you try to use it, you're going to sound as
fake as you would in trying to fake a good Russian accent or something like

It's interesting. During the Ebonics controversy, one was often told that
children who have black English as a home language are handicapped because
they face a different dialect in school, and I thought, `Yes, one could say
that.' But I've often myself felt equally handicapped in terms of not having
that dialect when I am in black culture and finding myself sticking out.

GROSS: Were there even some expressions that you wished you could use but
they sounded kind of fake in your mouth?

Prof. McWHORTER: Yes. I can't say `man,' you know. I've tried and tried.
It would be so nice if I could say, `Come on and have a drink with me, man,'
and I sound just like that. It's unfortunate. If I could get that one word,
then I think I could take away about 25 percent of the problem, but it's just
not there. I always sound like a 50-year-old white insurance salesman, and
I'm just stuck with it.

GROSS: My guest is linguist and writer John McWhorter. His books include
"Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," "The Word on the Street:
Fact and Fable About American English" and the new book "The Power of Babel:
A Natural History of Language."

More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is linguist and writer John McWhorter, author of the new book
"The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language" and the book "Losing the
Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America."

Now you say you were a very good student--and I don't doubt that--you know,
when you were young, and that you really enjoyed learning, but that you found
that academic achievement isn't valued by most African-American young people
and, in fact, it can often be looked down on, that academic achievement is
often seen as white. Now other people have made that observation, too. What
was it about your own personal experiences that led you to that observation?

Prof. McWHORTER: My first experience with it was when I was four years old,
maybe five, and some African-American kids in the neighborhood we had just
moved into asked me to spell `concrete,' and I spelled it. And one of them
had his little sister come up and slap me on the arm over and over again--for
some reason I didn't run away--but the idea was that you were not supposed to
spell. And, of course, there is some of that even in mainstream white
culture, but in black culture, particularly in the teen years, there is a
sense that you are really selling out, that you're kind of a traitor if you
embrace school.

Now I actually personally did not get much more of that after that. I just
kind of learned that when you're with black kids, and I was very much when I
was young, just as much as with white kids, that you kind of keep that sort of
thing quiet. But I had friends that I made when I was a teen who were not
aware of that, and I watched them being tortured and made fun of repeatedly.

It's just very much in the air, and then you find, if you happen to look into
the issue, that studies have been done that are noting that this is a problem,
and very often it's thought of as, well, one of many things, and there's a
very strong focus in the educational establishment and in graduate schools of
education on attributing black students' problems in school to racism and
various shades of racism. Those people are very well-intentioned, but the
fact is that if there is a very strong tendency--and I don't think anybody can
deny that there is--for black teens in particular to tease one another as
acting white if they do well in school, why wouldn't that be a very important
part of the problem? In fact, why wouldn't that be the dominant explanation?
And so far, very few people have answered that question.

Of course, there are funding discrepancies among schools, and that is not
fair, but then on the other hand, there are a great many students in those
very same horrible schools who do very well. These are students with a
different culture than African-Americans, and all that suggests is that we
look to the culture in trying to solve the problem. Conversely, there are
lushly funded schools with an incredible battery of supports for minority
students in many suburbs in the United States where, in fact, black students
still tend to cluster at the bottom.

The solution there is not to blame black students, but if we're going to look
to solutions to the problem, we can't keep looking to white racism as if it
was still 1950. So that's the value in pointing out the acting white
phenomenon, and it's something which I personally experienced very little of,
but I certainly saw it going on with others, and I think that it's a very
serious issue that we have to put a name on and think about sustainably if we
really hope to make an difference in lagging scores between black and white

GROSS: I want to say something that you've already kind of acknowledged, and
that is that, you know, it's usually not considered particularly cool for a
white kid if they're smart. I mean, smart white kids are often really mocked
for being smart, for getting good grades or for studying.

Prof. McWHORTER: Yeah. There is certainly the nerd syndrome, and that's an

GROSS: Exactly. Right.

Prof. McWHORTER: ...probably universal trope in American society, probably a
human trait. But in African-American culture, there's more. It's one thing
to be told you're a nerd, it's another thing to be told that you are acting
white--that is, identifying with the oppressor; that is, thinking that you're
better than other black people. And what one sees is that in many places it
turns not just some but most black kids away from doing really well in school.
So the idea is not to compare holocausts, but there's a particular sting to it
in black culture that I think has a disproportionate effect.

GROSS: (Technical difficulties) for some black teen-agers, being smart or
being interested in school, studying, is perceived as being white, and
therefore not a very good thing for a black person to do?

Prof. McWHORTER: Well, this problem actually only traces back about 35 years.
It's not inherent to black culture. It's something that starts in the late
'60s with post-civil rights, black power, ideological atmosphere. And where
it came from, I believe, is a sense that came in, in black culture around that
time, that white culture was an evil that it was no longer worth trying to
integrate towards. The idea at this time was that integration was folly and
that separatism was a better path. And, of course, there was some truth to
that. And I think that that's made our discussion of race a lot richer in
many ways than it was before the late '60s.

However, it's not an accident that it's around that time when the separatist
current was at its strongest, that black kids began teasing each other in that
way. Before that, black kids were certainly teased for being nerds sometimes.
My mother was teased for being a walking encyclopedia in Atlanta in the late
'40s, but she wasn't teased for, quote-unquote, "acting white." That's
something that starts later. And I've even had people write to me since my
book "Losing the Race" came out, which in part discussed this issue. And it's
quite clear from the ages of the people that this is a phenomenon that started
around 1966. And I even got one letter from somebody said quite unprompted by
me that they had never experienced this in school in the early '60s, but then
they noticed that their cousins were running up against it in the last '60s.

And I think that today interracial relations are much better than they were in
1966. However, there is what I have called a virus, a certain sense of what a
black identity is, which is passed from peer to peer to peer, and has been
over the past 35 years, which is that to excel in school is to be like the
oppressor, to be like the people which we at 12 and 13 are in the process of
defining ourselves against. And whatever you have to say about this sort of
cultural self-definition, and one may have some good things to say about it,
the fact is that I think it, unfortunately, condemns a lot of African-American
students to scholarly failure. And I'd like to see that change.

GROSS: Are there any solutions you've been thinking about?

Prof. McWHORTER: Oh, yeah, definitely. It's an ironic solution. Black
children often can be weaned off of that acting white tendency in small
all-minority schools. We see this across the United States. When you have a
school with, you know, at most a few hundred students, most of them or all of
them black, and you have teachers who are deeply committed and set high
standards, then you see that there is a representative number of excellent
black students and a lot less of the idea that to do well in school is to step
outside of your culture, because after all, in such schools there are no white
people to define yourself against. And so what this means is that as many
African-American students as possible should end up in such schools. And what
that ends up meaning is that vouchers are a good idea. So for me, vouchers is
not a matter of giving my allegiance to the Republican Party in return for
some sort of favors later, etc. It's that as many black students as possible
should be rescued from failing public schools, which, if they're ever going to
not fail, they're going to take at least 20 years to not do so, and put them
into places where they can get a real education and develop a genuinely
healthy, proud black identity by doing well in school without feeling guilty
about it.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John McWhorter. And he's the
author of several books. His new book is called "The Power of Babel: A
Natural History of Language." He's also the author of "Losing the Race:
Self-Sabotage in Black America" and "The Word on the Street: Fact and Fable
About Modern American English." He teaches linguistics at the University
of California at Berkeley.

We've been talking about what you describe as a phenomenon in which
African-American students sometimes see being a good student, achieving
academically, being serious about school (technical difficulties) and so
they're reluctant to put too much value on school, and they see school itself
as a kind of institution of the white oppressor. You think that this ties in
with what you describe as the cult of victimology.

Prof. McWHORTER: Yeah. Ultimately what this traces to is a tendency, which
we've also seen in black culture predominantly only since the late '60s, which
is to see victimhood at the hands of whites as one of the defining (technical
difficulties) of the African-American experience. Now what it comes down to
is something very simple, and that is a conviction which we've seen
particularly from the left in general since the 1960s, which says that a group
cannot achieve in any meaningful way until racism, even in its residual forms,
does not exist.

That's something that we're often told actively and passively, particularly
living in our moment, and yet, that would have surprised a great many groups
on the rise in the past. It would surprise a great many groups on the rise
today, including very black immigrants from the Caribbean and Africa. And
yet, we're often told that for African-Americans, until life is more or less
perfect, until there are no biases even of the most subtle nature, that
African-Americans are barred from achieving, or better, that only the
occasional superstar will do so. And that is the definition of the cult of

It's not that one should not call attention to one's victimhood if one is
really being victimized, but it seems to me that once we've gotten rid of
legalized discrimination and then once we've also stomped out a great deal of
the more overt kinds of spiritual racism, as you might call it, we've
basically gotten about as far as we're going to go on that score. And it's
time to start admitting that if we are a strong people then we can achieve
despite obstacles, even serious obstacles.

GROSS: John McWhorter is the author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in
Black America" and author of "The Power of Babel: A Natural History of
Language." He'll be back in the second half of the show.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)


GROSS: Coming up, we talk with photographer Joel Meyerowitz. He's touring
with the World Trade Center Archive Project, a traveling State
Department-sponsored exhibition of the photographs that he's taken of ground
zero. And we continue our conversation with linguist John McWhorter.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with linguist and writer
John McWhorter. His new book is called "The Power of Babble: A Natural
History of Language." He wrote about Ebonics in his book "The Word on the
Street: Fact and Fable About American English." And he wrote about what he
describes as the cult of victimology within the African-American community in
his book "Losing the Race." He describes that cult as treating victimhood not
as a problem to be solved, but as an identity to be nurtured. He says when he
was young, he used victimology to explain some of his experiences.

Mr. McWHORTER: One episode I remember is that back in--I suppose I would
have been in ninth grade, and I had a loud voice and we were in a study hall
and I kept on whispering to a friend of mine, and my version of whispering was
pretty much speaking at a normal level for other people. And the proctor of
the section, who was a white woman, made me sit out in the hall. Well, I was
embarrassed, and she had done this in front of a girl I liked, and so I
mumbled something about her just wanting to see white faces in front of her.
And that felt really good, because, of course, what can she (audio loss) and I
can feel morally exalted and it can detract me from the fact that, really, in
that particular instance, I was just talking too darn loud.

And there were all sorts of episodes like that. And in this I was warmly
(audio loss) by my African-American friends (audio loss) was even progressive
that the (audio loss) not immediately apparent, but if you could perceive this
kind of subtle racism, then you're kind of one step ahead. But the fact of
the matter is that life is rarely that simple and that none of us are perfect
and that all of us benefit from looking at the ways that we're not perfect.
And I'm the last one to claim that racism doesn't exist in America anymore,
but I'm also the first one to claim that it is vastly less a problem than it
was 40 years ago, and that most of the kind of racism that we experience today
is the kind of thing that most people in the world face.

When I think about victimology and arguing against the tacit idea that we are
to think of ourselves as victims rather than as victors, I think to myself
that racism of the kind that we're often encouraged to look at--people pulling
their purses closer when black men walk by, subtle (audio loss) of racism
(audio loss) etc., there is not a country in the world where those sorts of
things don't exist. That doesn't mean that it's OK, but that it means that
our idea that here in the United States we're not going to have any of those
things at all is quixotic really. We're asking for something which is never
going to happen, and we're asking for something which does not need to happen
before black people can be the best that they can be.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you thought things like this a long time before you
said them publicly.

Mr. McWHORTER: Wow. What an interesting question. Some of them, yes,
although they were unformed. Because the fact of the matter was that, until
the demise of racial preferences at Berkeley, these issues were not ones that
I devoted myself to in any meaningful way. What I was was a linguist, I did a
whole more lot theater back then, and there are all sorts of other things that
I do. But studying that particular problem led me to read around and to talk
to various people, and as time has gone by, I found that my thoughts on these
things were becoming more precise, and that's certainly been (audio loss)
since "Losing the Race" came out.

Nobody ever believes this when I say it, but I really didn't think that
anybody was going to care about what some anonymous linguist had to say about
race in America. I figured that things rather like what I said had been said
by a great many people before, that it would be old news. I just wrote the
book to get my views out there; it was my fifth book. But, all of a sudden,
there was this attention that was paid, and I found myself being called upon
to talk about these things. And I do find that my views on these things get
clearer and clearer as time goes by. As a matter of fact, over the past year
and a half, it's gotten to the point where the speech that I make out on the
circuit about these things really has departed so much from "Losing the Race"
that it practically would be worth a new book, although I really don't have it
in me to write one right now.

GROSS: What kinds of things are you thinking now that you weren't thinking
when you wrote "Losing the Race"?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, for example, the point that I make about residual racism
not being a condemnation to failure. I say that in "Losing the Race," but I
kind of dance around the subject, because I hadn't realized how very important
that was. Many people seem to misinterpret me as saying that there was no
racism, and I think it's very clear in the book that I know that there's
racism; I describe how I've experienced it in a rather extended section. But
it occurred to me that the real issue is why precisely are we focusing so much
on racism in its subtle forms? And I realized that throughout my life, that
had been my major ideological bone of contention with my black peers.

Once this racism talk started coming in, my general feeling was `Who cares?'
If I walk into a Woolworth's and somebody follows me a little bit down one of
the aisles because they think I'm going to steal something, frankly it takes a
lot more than that to ruin my day. And yet, for a great many
African-Americans I knew, things like that were worth sounding the alarm. I
finally realized that that kind of dialogue was much, much sparser in black
America before the black power movement, and I started to feel that that
predominance today is a departure rather than progress. That's one of the
things that I have thought about more.

GROSS: Now I have to admit a certain awkwardness as a white person
interviewing you about these subjects. I feel if I'm not very challenging to
you that some listeners might think, `Well, sure it would by easy for her to
be accepting this because as a white person, what you are saying lets me off
the hook.'

Mr. McWHORTER: Right.

GROSS: Because if racism isn't really the issue, and if, therefore, white
people aren't really the problem, then, you know, I'm absolved of any possible

Mr. McWHORTER: Sure. As far as I'm concerned, an individual white person is
absolved of wrongdoing to the extent that they are conscious of the evil of
institutionalized discrimination, to the extent that they're conscious that
there's a such thing as systemic racism and to the extent that they work on
themselves in terms of trying to purge themselves of racism as much as
possible. My view is that most educated--in particular white Americans have
gone about as far as they can go on this realistically--and I think that most
whites in America have. As far as society is concerned, I firmly believe that
the government has a responsibility to assist African-Americans, partly
because of our history in this country and partly because of the reality of
the ideological currents that I've talked about, which we may not like but
which are not going to go away just by people writing Op-Eds saying that
they're not a good idea. But we have to realize what people can do to get
themselves off of the hook as opposed to what actually leaves them on it.

So for example, open-ended welfare--that left white people on the hook.
Welfare reform, if intelligently done--that gets white people off of the hook.
Affirmative action, where it's overdone, where it takes underqualified people
and puts them in positions where they not only make black people look
incompetent, but also are emotionally destroyed themselves--as far as I'm
concerned, that kind of affirmative action leaves white people on the hook.
Affirmative action where there's a search made for qualified people and such
people are supported in their efforts as much as possible--well, for me that
leaves white people off of the hook, even if such a search does not
necessarily create a 13 percent black work force or student body. We live in
a society here.

So that is a rich issue. I don't think that white people are completely
absolved, but I think that the absolution will come much more from general
governmental efforts than from things going on in individual interactions. As
far as I'm concerned, you're not a strong person if you genuinely believe that
the minute you sense any kind of bias from someone in the individual
interaction, you are spiritually destroyed as a human being. That's a very
disempowering message. And African-Americans have been taught to believe it
for far too long.

GROSS: You first published your book "Losing the Race" in 2000.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's right.

GROSS: And that's when you started publicly saying the kinds of things that
you've been saying on FRESH AIR today.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's right.

GROSS: I'm wondering if you have become any more or less controversial since
the book was first published? In other words, whether you find more
African-Americans agreeing with you or strongly disagreeing with you.

Mr. McWHORTER: Oh, agreeing. Actually, one of the biggest myths about that
book and me is that I am hunkered down in my living room having been
threatened and screamed at and rejected by the black establishment. Not at
all. Actually, I have gotten so much love mail from "Losing the Race" over
the past year and a half that I barely know what to do with it literally. At
least once every few days an African-American person stops me on the street
and tells me how much they like the book or an appearance that I made
somewhere where I expressed its ideas. I actually think that most
African-Americans agree with what's in that book. For whatever it's worth,
I'm really not that far to the right. And I think that most of the things in
that book are certainly not a matter of genius. It's just a kind of common
sense that we've often been detracted from. There are a certain number of
people in black academia, particularly in humanities and the social sciences,
who naturally don't like a book like "Losing the Race." But really the
humanities and the social sciences, or specifically the black people who work
in them and then people who work in schools of education and the graduate
students there and some schoolteachers, that's only a tiny sliver of the
African-American community.

GROSS: Well, John McWhorter, I thank you very much for talking with us.

Mr. McWHORTER: Thank you, Terry.

GROSS: John McWhorter is the author of "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in
Black America" and "The Power of Babble: A Natural History of Language."

Coming up, photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who's touring the world with an
exhibition of his pictures of ground zero. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Interview: Joel Meyerowitz discusses his exhibition of photographs
of ground zero of the World Trade Center towers

Today marks the sixth anniversary of the September 11th terrorist attacks.
It's a day of remembrance, dedications, moments of silence and prayers.
Photographer Joel Meyerowitz has been creating a archive of photos taken at
ground zero documenting the aftermath of the attacks and the process of
recovery. He started going to ground zero just a few days after the attacks,
received a special permit to take pictures there and has been spending several
days a week there ever since. He's creating an archive of his ground zero
photos for the Museum of the City of New York. Some of these pictures are now
touring the world in an exhibition sponsored by the State Department Bureau of
Educational and Cultural Affairs and the museum. Meyerowitz left New York to
tour with the exhibition one week ago. Before we hear from him, let's listen
back to a brief excerpt of the interview we recorded last October. He
described the view the night of September 24th when he walked through and
climbed the stairs of the World Financial Center, which was opposite the south

Mr. JOEL MEYEROWITZ: In every place that we passed you could see the record
of flight, which was--in some way what it reminded me of was Pompeii. When
you go to Pompeii and you see what happened when the lava came down and
stopped people in the ordinariness of their lives. And now all is revealed in
some way. And this dust encrusting everything showed you, you know, books
that were open and wallets left on desks and people's possessions--their
coats--whatever they left behind when they fled, it was all there encrusted in
this--entombed in this dust. The roof itself was littered in about a foot
deep of papers and chairs and pieces of metal that had flown off of the World
Trade Center. The cladding, the aluminum cladding went flying through the air
and wound up in these ribbon masses, venetian blinds and curtains. And I came
across--it was a bottle of, you know, some mineral water, and it was standing
upright. I mean, you know, where did it come from? It must have flown out of
some window and landed vertical in this mass. But when I got to the edge and
I looked down, it was lit as if by stadium lighting, so you could see the
masses of metal. Just dripping over every structure that was there was this
spaghettilike, bird's-nest-like, swamplike mess of wiring and metal. And I
tell you, it takes your breath away.

GROSS: Photographer Joel Meyerowitz recorded last October. He's now touring
with the State Department sponsored exhibition of his ground zero photos.
This week, the show is opening in Rome, Dar es Salaam, Panama and Paris. It's
already opened in London, Manila and Istanbul. I called him in Istanbul on
Friday and asked him to describe some of his recent ground zero photos.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: The image that seems the most iconic one for me and the most
consistent one is that of the fireman with a rake. Sometimes you see three or
four men standing there--they look like shepherds leaning on their staffs.
And the grappler comes along and grabs a mouthful of stuff and sifts it for
them. And the firemen walk in and start raking, hoping to look for or find a
purse or a shoe, a ring, something that might identify the remains of someone
and give some comfort to a family.

I did see, it was just about 10 days ago, the discovery of $11 million in cash
from the Bank of America's vault on the 11th floor of the north tower. They
found it four stories below ground, and it was burst open. And the image was
almost a surreal one. It was dusk and there were about 12 policemen lying and
sitting in the rubble reaching in and pulling out fistfuls of dollars and yen
and lira and stuffing it into laundry bags. And there's something about it
that was almost hilarious, the way these guys were going about it. They each
had a cigar--chomping on a cigar and stuffing money in bags. I think that
kind of makes...

GROSS: Did you get photos of them?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yeah. I photographed all of the discovery and then finally
all dozen police officers held the bags up against their chests, proudly
displaying $11 million worth of money that they had to trade in real fast
before the euro was completely established.

GROSS: Is there anything you find most surprising about how the site of the
World Trade Center has been transformed ever since September 13th when you got

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: I think what's amazing to me about the whole place is the
determination on the part of everyone who works in there--the devotion that
they show about cleaning the site out and making it ready--or completing it so
that the next time they can begin to build, the site has had some peace in it.
It has gone from a smoking pile six stories high to this vast, empty space,
which is astonishing to stand on the edge of and look across.

GROSS: How did the State Department decide to tour an exhibit of your photos?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, you could say that your program is responsible for
that. So many people heard our interview and someone at the State Department
picked up on it and thought that these photographs might be just the thing
for them to tour, as they said, to our friends and enemies alike. And so I
was contacted by Brian Sexton(ph) of the State Department Bureau of
Educational and Cultural Affairs. And he came to visit with Undersecretary
Harrison and staff. And they looked at lots of the work from the first two
months only. And together we choose 27 photographs. And they're now going
out around the world to 27 different countries.

GROSS: Now you said the State Department thought that this would be good to
tour to our friends and enemies. What are they hoping this exhibit will do
for our enemies?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: I think that what they anticipate is that by showing that
this event really happened and that there is the aftermath, that it wasn't
some Hollywood, you know, fake, that it will show people that we suffer, too,
and we're recovering from this and that there are people who are humanitarian
in the way that they're going about repairing the damage.

GROSS: As we record this, you're in Istanbul, Turkey. Turkey's an Islamic
country. This is the first Islamic country that this exhibit has gone to.
What kind of questions are you being asked about the show?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, so far, they've been softball questions that really are
about what were my emotions like down there, what does the site make me, you
know, think of, how has it affected people in New York. There have been no
political questions. And I haven't been given any protocols on the part of
the State Department in ways to answer anything. It's been a relatively
free-handed relationship.

GROSS: Are you expecting somebody to say to you, `Well, sure we don't really
quite believe the story because it was actually a Jewish conspiracy. Didn't
you hear that no Jews showed up at the World Trade Center that day? And by
the way, Joel Meyerowitz, isn't that a Jewish name?' Are you expecting to
hear that?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Hmm. I would imagine that that would be possible in the
Islamic countries. It certainly wasn't a question I received in London at
all through the various correspondents that interviewed me, but it wouldn't
surprise me here.

GROSS: What are the photographs that are getting the biggest response so far?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: The photographs that--people are astonished by the
complexity of the pile. But frankly it's the human activity down there, the
collections of men who are searching in the rubble or relaxing after their
work. And one single image of a fireman who was wounded on the day of the
attack and who was coming back in a wheelchair and he's rolled himself up to a
barricade and he's looking over the barricade into the pile. And something in
his posture tells it all. And for some reason, that picture gets people kind
of weepy.

GROSS: My guests is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. He's traveling to several
countries with a State Department sponsored exhibition of his photos of ground
zero. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is photographer Joel Meyerowitz. He's been documenting life
at ground zero ever since a few days after the attacks. He's now traveling to
several countries with a State Department exhibition of his photos. We called
him Friday in Istanbul.

The first time we spoke about your photos at ground zero, you told us that a
search and rescue team had taken you under their wing, and that they were
helping get you to kind of secretive, hidden places within ground zero that
were hard to get access to. What's your relationship with them now?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Interestingly enough, we speak to each other almost daily.
They've been removed from their work at ground zero because they're needed
elsewhere in Manhattan and New York. They are the arson and explosion squad,
so they're constantly being challenged in other ways. But we talk to each
other by cell phone almost every day. And two of them came with me to
Washington last week and were cited by Colin Powell for their efforts in
ground zero and for their making the whole job possible for me. In fact, I
think one of them is being sent on part of the tour down to South America.

GROSS: Are you worried about having inhaled fumes for so long?--because you,
like the firefighters who are there and the other rescue workers, have just
been inhaling a lot of fumes from the burning pile.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Yes, I am concerned somewhat about my own health. I mean, in
the early days the masks that were given out were not the most protective
ones. And there was a tendency on clear, fresh days to take it off because
working with it on for four or five hours at a time was terrible. I mean, you
just were sweaty inside of it. It was actually hard to breathe; you got dizzy
sometimes. So I certainly took it off. But you know, I wasn't there on the
round-the-clock basis the way some of those other workers were there. I mean,
I know guys who were there 50 days straight, spending 10, 12 hours a day. And
every one of them, when they were removed from the site, got sick one way or
another, mostly respiratory illnesses.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, you've been at ground zero since September. And now
you're touring to cities around the world with the exhibit of your photos from
ground zero. I wonder what it's like for you to be going to all these other
cities after having been focused for so long on the rubble at ground zero?

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Well, I'll tell you, taking a break is a welcome change. Yet
here today in Istanbul when we were met by a bunch of people from the embassy
of Turkish descent, and they were telling us about the earthquake two years
ago that killed 40,000 people, and how the efforts to recover the dead there,
you know, reminded them of what we've been going through in New York. So it
was a chance to share in a national tragedy in a surprising way. I hadn't
unexpected that.

And also, interesting to say sharing, because in London, the Museum of the
City of London put up a show adjacent to mine of the blitz photographs from
World War II. And they were so incredibly close to my photographs: the same
attending to the dead, the same hosing down the smoking structures. I mean,
it was eerie in a few instances to see that the photographs were almost
exactly the same.

GROSS: Well, Joel, I wish you good travels with your exhibit. Safe travels.
And thank you for talking with us.

Mr. MEYEROWITZ: Thank you very much, Terry.

GROSS: Photographer Joel Meyerowitz. An exhibition of his photos of ground
zero is traveling to several countries in a tour sponsored by the State
Department Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs and the Museum of the
City of New York. Our talk was recorded Friday from Istanbul, where his
exhibit has already opened.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross. We'll close with a song from the new CD, "Wish You
Were Here: A Collection of Love Songs for New York."(ph) This is Ari Up(ph).

(Soundbite from CD)

Ms. ARI UP: Hey, this is Ari. I'm here to say the New York tragedy affected
in me in a very personal way. My seven-year-old son grew up admiring the
towers. On that very same week of September 11th, I was going to take him
sightseeing in the towers.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Child: Mommy.

Ms. UP: Pick up, New York.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about New York.

Ms. UP: (Singing) Oh, no.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about my city.

Ms. UP: (Singing) What I've been told.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about New York.

Ms. UP: (Singing) Oh, don't you know?

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about my city.

Ms. UP: (Singing) It's good.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) It's good.

Ms. UP: (Singing) It's good to me.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Good to me.

Ms. UP: (Singing) It's all I care about. Mm-hmm.

(Soundbite of clapping)

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about Brooklyn.

Ms. UP: Brooklyn.

(Singing) Oh, no.

Oh, it's so good.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about Queens.

Ms. UP: (Singing) What I've been told.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about the Bronx.

Ms. UP: Queens. Rhode Island. New Jersey.

(Singing) Oh, don't you know.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Don't say nothing bad about Manhattan.

Ms. UP: (Singing) It's good.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) It's good.

Ms. UP: (Singing) It's good to me.

Unidentified Chorus #1: (Singing) Good to me.

Ms. UP: (Singing) You better shut your mouth.

Unidentified Chorus #1 and Ms. UP: (Singing) Lots of people hate the city.

Unidentified Chorus #2: (Singing) So go upstate to...

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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