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  • NYS Writers Institute

Q&A with Issac Bailey, author of Why Didn't We Riot: A Black Man in Trumpland

"We need each other even if we hate each other or don’t even fully understand why.

We are in a marriage without the possibility of divorce. What I do affects you, what you do affects me."

Issac Bailey

We spoke with Issac Bailey, award-winning journalist and author of the new book of essays, Why Didn't We Riot?: A Black Man in Trumpland.

A former columnist and senior writer for the Sun News in Myrtle Beach SC and a former Nieman Fellow in Journalism at Harvard, Isaac provides an unflinching and personal examination of matters of race in the American South. The book addresses police brutality and profiling, battles over Confederate flags and monuments, overt and covert support for white supremacy and Donald Trump, and many other subjects. A former member of a mostly white Evangelical Christian church for 18 years, Bailey provides an intimate inside view of Southern race relations.

Kirkus Reviews called it, “A powerful lesson in history and truth…Through a combination of poignant memoir and social and cultural analysis, Bailey tackles a range of hot topics as well as his own prior complacency. A masterful storyteller…Bailey pulls no punches…Brilliant, searing, and surprisingly vulnerable.”

Author Clifford Thompson said, “In Issac J. Bailey’s book, James Baldwin meets James Bond—that is, Bailey performs a kind of racial spy mission, bringing back intelligence from deep in Trumpland about the kind of thinking that continues to have disastrous consequences for our country. Why Didn’t We Riot? is a very important book.”

Purchase Why Didn't We Riot? from the independent Book House of Stuyvesant Plaza:

What are you most looking forward to in your personal life in the coming year?

2021 will mark my 23rd year of marriage to Dr. Tracy Lashawn Swinton Bailey, and I want to see what we come up with to celebrate on Aug. 1. It’s the best decision I ever made, and I love recognizing it every year for that reason.

What is your biggest hope for America in 2021?

It’s time to return to some level of sanity. That’s what I hope for more than anything else. I don’t mean that there will be no more political tension or that activists will be quiet or we’d all just get along. That would be insane. I mean that we’ll be able to fight over our ideas and wants in ways that will be productive and lead us to a better place. We must get back to that kind of fighting and leave the destructive kind behind.

What's the most important thing we can learn from the pandemic?

We need each other even if we hate each other or don’t even fully understand why. We are in a marriage without the possibility of divorce. What I do affects you, what you do affects me. That was always true. That’s something we should have always known and acknowledged. But this invisible menace has made it impossible to not realize that anymore. And yet, many of us are still resisting that simple, clear message, which is why this pandemic has been more devastating in this country than it otherwise had to be. If we found a way to embrace that truth, we could do great things the rest of the 21st century while not creating major problems for our grandchildren and their grandchildren.

What activity are you most looking forward to enjoying after pandemic restrictions are lifted?

Being able to stand in a classroom or grocery store and no longer silently and desperately trying to suppress a dry cough or sneeze for fear of scaring the bejesus out of others nearby. And looking at smiles again. And happily taking in a college football game in which I’m afraid the strange dude a seat over might spill his beer or popcorn on me.

Is there anything on Earth that you find unexpectedly beautiful?

The research in a recent New York Times Magazine piece detailing groundbreaking research showing how trees cooperate with other trees as well as a variety of other species in our forests. Our interconnectedness is wondrous and beautiful and astounding all at once. There’s beauty in the mysteries that are all around us, because it humbles us while also proving that we are connected to things much larger than ourselves. The more we understand that complexity, the healthier we’ll be because it will do a lot to undo the belief that competition is the thing that keeps humanity going when cooperation is just as important, and maybe more so.

What new social or technological development excites you the most?

The Covid-19 vaccines!

What did you most enjoy about writing Why Didn't We Riot?

That I got to be mad and not feel guilty about it. I got to say things I’ve long wanted to say but never felt the right time had shown itself – until it was time to write that book. It helped me understand the difference between anger and bitterness and why the former can be energizing and healthy while the latter is unnecessary and potentially harmful.

What idea, subject or field are you most looking forward to exploring in 2021?

My wife asked if I planned on working on another book in 2021, and I told her no because I’m exhausted by these past few years. But, honestly, I don’t know. I always have a ton of different ideas rolling around my head. I just don’t know when they will bubble up in my conscious in a way that will force me to grapple with them on paper. Until that happens, I’m just looking forward to a post-Covid, post-Trump era.

Bailey's previous book was My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty, and Racism in the American South (2018), the story of his older brother's arrest and incarceration for murder when the author was 9 years old, and a reflection on crime, violence, the prison system in the context of his own family's experience.

The New York Times Book Review said, “With a keen understanding of systemic racism…My Brother Moochie delves into a rarely explored side of the criminal justice system: the families of the perpetrators…powerful.”

The Guardian said, “Bailey’s memoir is a triumph, a painful indictment of American inhumanity woven with threads of grace and love…an extraordinary book about crime, punishment, redemption, and the empowerment that can spring from adversity…nuanced, original, and remarkably clear-sighted.”

Bailey lives in Myrtle Beach with his wife, Dr. Tracy Bailey, founder and executive director of non-profit literacy organization, Freedom Readers, and their two teenage children.

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