Featured photo: Ayesha Rascoe, photographed for NPR, 2 May 2022, in Washington DC. (photo by Mike Morgan for NPR)

On May 17, NPR’s Ayesha Rascoe, who hosts “Weekend Edition Sunday,” will be in Greensboro for the city’s Greensboro Bound Literary Festival. Rascoe, an NC native, will be talking with WFDD’s Amy Diaz about a new collection of essays she edited, HBCU Made: A Celebration of the Black College Experience, at the Van Dyke Performance Space in the Greensboro Cultural Center at 6 p.m. 

In a conversation with TCB, Rascoe, who grew up in Durham and interned at the Winston-Salem Journal, talked about her own HBCU experience, her feelings about people’s reactions to her voice and her favorite spots to hit when she’s back in NC. 

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

To learn more about the festival, visit greensborobound.com. The festival runs from May 16-19 this year.

Congratulations on your first book. How, when and where did the idea for HBCU Made come to you?

Actually, Algonquin Books approached me and asked if I would want to put together an anthology of essays from HBCU graduates about how they impacted their lives. And I was shocked because I thought there would already have been something like this, but there wasn’t. So hearing that, I knew I wanted to do this because going to Howard means so much to me. The anthology shows a diverse background of people and shows a range of unique voices. It gives a taste of the HBCU experience because no one book could tell you about the HBCU experience, but I wanted it to be a taste.

HBCU Made is a great book for graduates, for rising juniors and seniors in high school who may be thinking about their journey. These stories are about what happened on HBCUs but the stories are universal; they’re coming-of-age stories that everyone can relate to.

What’s your favorite story from the collection?

It’s actually the very first essay that I got by Roy Wood Jr. He tells the story of going to [Florida A&M University]. When he first went there, he got in trouble with the law and he got suspended for a semester. And he credits FAMU with giving him a second chance. The story is about him finding redemption at FAMU and how he would not be the comedian he is today or have the opportunities he has today if it wasn’t for FAMU giving him that second chance. I love that story.

Tell me about your personal experience with HBCUs.

I went to Howard. I grew up in Durham and my mother went to Winston-Salem State University so I grew up going to those homecomings. Obviously there are a lot of HBCUs in North Carolina so you see the culture, the majorettes, the bands. I was very familiar with it. I wanted to go to Howard because it was the mecca. You had all these famous alumni — Toni Morrison, Thurgood Marshall, Zora Neale Hurston — so I really wanted to go there.

I got there on a rainy Friday afternoon; I had never been to DC before and I saw the Deltas strolling and all these beautiful Black people.

What is unique about the Black college experience is it gives you space to grow where you’re not having to constantly defend yourself. People aren’t asking you, ‘How did you get in here? Are you an affirmative action or whatever student?’

It’s a place where you can discover yourself and there’s still a push for absolute excellence but you’re in a space where you’re nurtured and you don’t feel like you’re one of the few or one of the onlies.

People have been increasingly supportive of HBCUs, especially since 2020. In your experience, what have the changes in acceptance of HBCUs looked like in your lifetime?

A lot of what has happened to HBCUs is especially ones in urban areas, in the cities, is that there will be tensions with people outside. Sometimes it’s with white communities outside of campus, but sometimes it’s with Black neighbors outside. 

I think sometimes, the rest of the country may not have an understanding of HBCUs and their role in the world today. Like people understand that they existed when Black people had no other place to go, but in many ways, there are still these gaps in how Black people are treated today. They are a place where people can go to feel embraced; they can feel a fellowship and a kinship. Black schools are uniquely suited to train doctors. Eighty percent of Black judges came from HBCUs, so HBCUs punch way above their weight and as a country, we don’t always understand that and appreciate that. But I think more recently, that’s changed.

You see big donations, like Spellman recently got a huge donation and Howard just had their highest number of admissions in history. So a lot of these schools are having a resurgence.

At the same time, we see the pushback against diversity across the country. In North Carolina, the UNC Board of Governor’s Committee on University Governance voted unanimously to repeal and replace the UNC system’s current DEI policy. What impact does that have on HBCUs and where do HBCUs fit into this current political climate?

I think HBCUs can provide a context for this moment because they’ve lived through this backlash and seen these kinds of shifts in society. They have had to manage through times of being popular and unpopular.

Going to an HBCU has given me a perspective of how this is a society that has always had issues when it comes to diversity and has systematically had issues of integrating society, that this is a journey that this nation has been on and it’s been a rocky one. But HBCUs can be a safe haven.

But they also have to be concerned that they could be the next one to be targeted. And it’s important because HBCUs have never discriminated against anyone; they’ve always allowed people of all races to attend. That’s always important to talk about.

As an NPR host, your voice has been the subject of many think pieces and social media posts over the years for not sounding like a “traditional” radio voice. Can you tell me about how that has personally affected you?

I feel like it’s been a journey. I didn’t realize that I stood out as far as my voice at first, but eventually it became clear to me that a lot of people would react to my voice and say that I sound different. I think most people have been able to embrace me and I’ve gotten mostly positive responses. 

As a person, there are times where I can be less bothered by it and just understand, and there are other times when it really hurts my feelings.

Over time, as I’ve gotten more comfortable, I feel more confident in my voice and I do feel like I am proud to be able to be myself on air. I hope that when people hear me, it allows [NPR] to feel accessible and that it feels like you’re hearing people that sound like you or people you know. And I’m hoping that as time goes on, there’s more diversity so [my voice] doesn’t stand out as much.

You live in DC now, but you grew up in North Carolina. What does being a Black, Southern, female journalist mean to you? What does it not mean?

For me, I feel like I don’t put my identity to the side; I don’t think anyone really does. When you are a person of color, it stands out more, but everyone brings their identity and their experiences to their reporting. I say I don’t put my humanity on the shelf when I report.

That doesn’t mean that I’m not fair or objective; it means that my experience, what I’ve been through, my life, all of that helps inform my reporting, the way I talk to people, the way I interact with people. And I try to bring that Southern hospitality to my interviews and I try to make people feel at home.

I do think that people can try to be dismissive or try to diminish who you are or say that you’re the Black journalist. They can assume that because of my identity, I must believe X, Y and Z. But that says a lot more about them than it says about me. 

I will always be a champion of voices of those who are marginalized, those who are on the edges of society. Some of that will mean telling the stories of Black people because those are stories that need to be told, those are American stories and when we tell those stories, we are telling a more complete picture of this country and of this world.

You’re currently on a book tour for HBCU Made. What are some books you’ve read recently that stuck with you?

The last book that I bought and really loved is Bits and Pieces, the memoir by Whoopi Goldberg. I interviewed her about the book and I was so moved by her story. It’s really a tribute to her mother and her brother; it felt personal. Her mother and her brother have both passed away so it’s also a story about grief and loss and how do you move through the world after losses that monumental? I just love that book.

Lastly, when you come back to NC are there places you know you have to visit?

I’ll definitely go see my family, my aunts and cousins and uncles.

Generally what I like to do, if I have time, is I’ll go to the Dog House in Durham and get a hot dog with chili and coleslaw. You can’t really get good chili and coleslaw here. But I don’t think I’ll have time for that this trip. So I’ll probably go to Cook Out. I get the tray with the Cook Out style burger and a side of nuggets for my kids and fries. I might hit up Zaxby’s or a Texas Roadhouse, too. Those are like my places.

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