April Ryan is the author of the new book The Presidency in Black and White: My Up-Close View of Three Presidents and Race in America. She has been the White House correspondent for 18 years for American Urban Radio Networks, and serves as Washington bureau chief. She lives in Baltimore, Maryland.
Q: You write, "I am the only Black woman reporter with a permanent [White House] press pass whose audience is urban America." What perspective has that given you over the years?
A: As the only black reporter with a permanent seat and workspace focusing on Black and Urban America at the White House, I am fortunate to have a unique perch that has given me a unique perspective on the issue of race as it relates to the White House, no matter how prominent the story is (or isn’t) for “mainstream” news.
Q: How have things changed--and remained the same--during the time you've covered the White House?
A: Social media is a big part of modern era change that has forced administrations to be ready for a response almost at a moment’s notice. The reason for that break-neck speed is everything now plays out for the world to see in real time and the public has become accustomed to immediate information or a reaction in real time.
Also, what has irreversibly changed the White House landscape is the impact of social media and how it factors in almost every level as the American public utilizes Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and many other new media tools. The immediacy of the internet and social media has pushed the White House to evaluate almost every issue to be prepared to provide an immediate presidential response.
Q: In the book, you give President Clinton and President Obama B+ grades on race issues, and President Bush a C-. How did you determine those grades?
A: There is no text book or traditional metric to “grade” an American president. What I took into consideration in the grading of each of the three presidents was the impact on the black community during and the years following their policies and actions. Also there was a laser focus on where the black community stood before a certain action and how it improved or lessened their standing.
Also a variable in grading a president was, “How did the policies and actions transcend into changing the racial dynamic in this country?” The Bush White House early on viewed the black vote as a loss so they never built up equity in the community. My grade of President Bush is lower than the other two presidents I covered because he received an F for Hurricane Katrina.
President Obama’s original grade was lower than his now computed B+. His numbers were bumped upward because he began to publicly and directly speak on issues of race last year as he worked to pull America together during one of the most controversial and sensitive racial topics—police brutality involving young black men.
Q: What has been the most compelling story you've covered at the White House, and why?
A: I really can’t say what story is more compelling than any other as each story is historic with its own dynamics and ripple effects. My questions about the black farmers’ pay out following discrimination by the Department of Agriculture is said to have pushed the ball forward for the group to receive $1.25 billion for over 17,000 farmers.
Traveling with each president to Africa and the Door of No Return has been amazing for me as a descendant of a slave (Joseph Dollar Brown) sold on the action block in Fayetteville, North Carolina.
One story that personally touched me was a trip to the Corcoran Art Gallery with then-First Lady Laura Bush. We toured the Gee and Pittway Plantation quilts exhibit. At the end of the view of the quilts, several of the black elderly quilters, descendants of slaves, enveloped Mrs. Bush in a huddle and tearfully sobbed shouting, “thank you Jesus.” I cried! No, I sobbed. It was so emotionally hard seeing these women feel relief from the bit of recognition they never imagined possible.
Q: Are you planning to write another book?
A: First and foremost, President Obama, the first Black president, still has two more years left; therefore there is more to discuss about his presidency. The reaction from this first book is amazing and a good majority of those who are reading the book are calling for book number two dedicated solely to President Obama.
Well, I have been journaling as I did for this book. The process is like none other, but I can tell you I have a lot of new and interesting information for a hot new book! If I do write another I am sure it will be just as interesting (or even more so) as my first book, The Presidency in Black and White. I may have to listen to the call to feed the beast, as people are wanting more. That is a good thing!
--Interview with Deborah Kalb