The Happy Adventurer
September 3, 2010 |  by Farai Chideya

I bet my ancestors never thought meeting the Klan would make one of their descendants happy. But picture this: A blizzard has transformed the park-n-ride lot in Frederick, Maryland, into the interior of a treasured snow globe. The few cars in the lot must have been left the night before. They are covered, gentle snow-capped hills in miniature, except for one vehicle puffing exhaust into the frigid air. As the friend who agreed to drive me and play lookout pulls our car into the lot, three people get out of that lone car. One of them leads a klavern and the other two, a husband and wife, are members. While my friend, a white Southern man, stands beside his car, I go up to them and say hello.

How did I get there? I had recently profiled a black musician named Daryl Davis for ABC News. In his book Klan-destine Relationships, Davis details a friendship, such as it was, with a man who heard him in a bar and said he liked the music, then, seeking to get a rise out of Davis, mentioned that he was in the Klan. Davis showed curiosity instead of fear or disgust, and the two began a years-long dialogue. I interviewed Davis’ friend, an Imperial Wizard, for that piece. When, later, I got the idea to interview a Klanswoman for a magazine article about women in hate movements, I asked the Imperial Wizard to put me in touch with someone. He did, but she and her husband would only meet me out in the open. Then the blizzard happened. What had started out as a meeting in a well-trafficked public space became more beautiful, and potentially more dangerous.

You can tell a lot about a person from how her skin has weathered, and this woman’s face was chapped and toughened. Her mouth pinched tight, and she was missing a few teeth. Her husband was wearing a full-body camo jumpsuit and kept patting a pocket area, as if he had a weapon. (I’ll never know.) I didn’t speak to the husband—he was there strictly to protect his wife, as my (unarmed) friend was there to protect me. When the Klanswoman and I spoke, the narrative was achingly simple: They—white people in general, and her family in particular—used to feel safer and be better off financially, and it was blacks and race mixing that had ruined their way of life. She wanted a world without race mixing, where blacks know their place, so her family could do better.

Obviously, I did not agree with her thesis, but I related to her sense of how difficult it can be to make it in America. My own family had struggled to lift itself from poverty into the professional class. By investing in education, we succeeded—despite discrimination, a lack of resources, and the slings and arrows of common misfortune. My grandfather had dropped out of high school to support his family, and my grandmother put herself through college as an adult with six kids. Two generations later, my cousins and I have graduate degrees and top jobs. My family is this woman’s nightmare. And yet, I had compassion for her.

For me, journalism is a mix of adventure sport and philosophy. I constantly seek the center of the human experience by going to its edges. I have walked Los Angeles’ skid row and seen a man smoking crack drop his glass eye on the pavement when startled by police; been on Air Force One with the presidential press pool; spoken with actress Gabrielle Union about the night she was raped in the shoe store she worked in part time during college; spoken with Nelson Mandela at his home in South Africa; and gone out on high-speed chases and border patrols with law enforcement. I also spent a time as a celebrity reporter, chasing stoned rappers and rock musicians into the interview chair before their attentions wandered elsewhere. All of these experiences, in their way, make me happy—because of the rush, and because of the connection they enable me to make with other people.

When I think about being a journalist, I think about the power of writing what Washington Post co-owner Phil Graham called “the first rough draft of history.” That was a privilege once reserved for whites, like so many of the fruits of America’s bounty once were. Today, race remains a real struggle in the newsroom. Last year, all three branches of journalism with major tracking metrics—print, radio, and television—saw declines in diversity while America is becoming more diverse. This too is part of my adventure in journalism: to stay employed in a business that is shrinking, and doing so at the expense of people of color.

I’ve fought hard to stay in a changing, dwindling, unsparing business that many of my friends have left or been forced out of—not just black or Latino, but white reporters, too, especially those in their 50s and 60s. And indeed, I have found that part of my happiness is directly challenging the rollbacks in diversity and the downsizing of experienced journalists that typify this era of our business. My first job was at Newsweek, a magazine that may not even exist by the time you read this essay. American newspapers have lost tens of thousands of jobs. The emotional toll of seeing your industry in decline and your friends in pain is rough, even if you don’t lose your own job.

Recently I’ve started building a new journalism nonprofit, Pop and Politics, that will produce and market journalism that reports on and analyzes race, diversity, and the changing demographics of America. We are starting with midterm-election specials for public radio. We will be going to the Arizona/Mexico border to do frontline reporting, and visiting several other parts of the country to look at how issues of race, rage, and reconciliation affect us all. Trained as a journalist, I now find myself host, nonprofit manager, and fundraiser. I never, ever thought I would be doing this kind of business development work, but journalism is my passion and my mission, and I’m not giving up.

The stories you do as a working journalist are often mazes that lead you back to things you worked on many years ago. So, to circle back to my visit with the Klan, I posted a blog update recently that mentioned the story. Daryl Davis, the musician, read it and got in touch with me. As it turns out, he is no longer friends with an Imperial Wizard—because the man in the robes put them down and left the Klan. Today, Daryl remains friends with an older white man whose mind and life he changed forever.

See? News can have a happy ending! I’m a sucker for that. But even when I’m digging up stories of malfeasance, pain, and suffering, at least I’m holding a mirror to the world. And this is what brings me joy—an emotion far deeper than happiness. The happiness is in the adventure. The joy—a deep, spiritual joy—is in knowing that I play a small role in connecting one human to another and, perhaps, even bringing a little extra understanding and compassion to the world.

Farai Chideya, an alumna of Johns Hopkins’ Center for Talented Youth, is the author of four books, including The Color of Our Future and the novel Kiss the Sky.