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Hammering the Hype : Farai Chideya Crusades Against Cultural Misinformation About Blacks

March 20, 1995|LISA RESPERS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

True or false: There are more African American men in prison than in college. If you answered true , you are incorrect but not alone.

Author Farai Chideya is betting the average person does not know that in 1991 the number of black men in colleges and universities was almost triple the number of those in prisons--and that trend continues.

Chideya has written a book, "Don't Believe the Hype: Fighting Cultural Misinformation About African Americans" (Plume/Penguin, 1995), which she hopes readers will use as a guide to battling stereotypes such as these about African Americans.

Stuffed with facts, figures, ideas and criticisms, the book is part of Chideya's quest, as both a journalist and a reader, for accurate information about African Americans and the black experience.

"Every day as I went through papers I would find something that I thought was stereotypical about the black community, and I would rip it out and put it in a drawer," said Chideya, smiling at the memory. "Pretty soon I had 200 pieces of paper."

The book is Chideya's first and she invested a year in chasing down sources and studies to paint a truer portrait of blacks than she feels the media has done.

Growing up in Baltimore, Chideya bucked stereotypes of a black girl growing up in the city. She and her sister Sekai, 21, were raised by both parents, Lucas and Cynthia Chideya. She credits her mother, who was also once a journalist, with instilling in her a love of language, and she dedicates her book to her and "all the other women like her who have their own books yet to write."

Despite her love of the written word, Chideya originally aspired to be a doctor. After scoring higher grades in her literature courses than in her science classes at Harvard University, she changed her career goals.

"I thought it might be better to get into writing," she said, laughing.

Chideya worked for four years as a reporter for Newsweek before becoming an assignment editor for MTV News, known for its slick and hip Generation X-style delivery of current events. At 25, she is not much older than most MTV viewers.

Yet, she said, it hardly occurred to her that at such a young age (she was 23 when she began writing the book) she may lack the seasoning to attack such an extensive subject.

"That only occurred to me when I was exhausted," Chideya said while she was in Los Angeles on a book tour. "At some points, I was working all day, writing late into the night, sleeping for a few hours on my boss's couch and then going home to shower, change and come back to work."

That type of energy is exactly what attracted Newsweek Boston Bureau Chief and National Sports Correspondent Mark Starr to Chideya in 1989, when she was a college student. Starr heads an internship program for Newsweek and selected the determined young woman with shoulder-length braids to work as an intern between her junior and senior years of college.

"She just arrived full force," Starr said during a telephone interview. "I think we learned as much from her as she learned from us."

Starr chuckles and there is an underlying "where-do-I-begin" tone in his voice when he is asked to give his opinions about Chideya as a journalist and person. He credits her with introducing him to the rhythms of rap music.

"She literally came in and explained it to me in terms of jazz, which I like," Starr said. "I wouldn't claim to love rap but I certainly have an appreciation for it."

*

It is obvious that Chideya has a talent for breaking complex issues down into ideas her audience can relate to--and she does not shy away from the volatile issue that surround race relations.

Her book offers Q&A's with questions such as "Why do African Americans keep harping on the issues of slavery?" and "Doesn't affirmative action promote 'reverse discrimination' with unqualified blacks getting jobs ahead of qualified whites?"

"When many people talk about affirmative action, they really don't know exactly what they are talking about," Chideya said. "No one has come to the table, liberal or otherwise, with any ways to deal with job discrimination other than affirmative action."

Chideya said she tried her best to present data to refute some of the misinformation she feels has become almost standard without introducing her own personal feelings. Not an easy task when dealing with subjects that are being heavily debated, such as welfare and the controversial book "The Bell Curve," (Free Press, 1994) whose premise is that African Americans are intellectually inferior.

"It's really, I believe, a fallacy that anyone is completely objective," said Chideya. "We all reflect our own upbringing, our thoughts and ideas."

What she wants to achieve, she said, is the correction of the belief that the majority of African Americans are anything less than "hard-working people who want the same kind of recognition and rewards as whites."

Starr sees the book as very necessary--even if readers don't always agree with the information presented.

"I think these are issues that we in the media kind of keep on the edges," he said. "They are peripheral and she's saying they should be central."

Chideya anticipates debate on her book, which is now in its second printing. She is especially interested in how her fellow journalists will react to her findings. She hopes her work inspires better news coverage of minority groups.

"I hope people in the media look at it not so much as an accusation," she said, "but as a wake-up call."

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