Interview with Writer, Editor, & Cultural Critic Latria Graham

June 24, 2020
Interview with Writer, Editor, & Cultural Critic Latria Graham

You can donate to Covering America: The Face Mask Initiative, a project that provides handmade face masks for those in need at:

I’d love to begin with you introducing yourself, your background, and your work.

I’m Latria Graham, a journalist, cultural critic, and 5th generation farmer…but that last descriptor is in contention because we’re selling the farm. I’m still wrestling with taking that out of my bio. I’ve worked as a writer since 2015. At the time people were downing the South ahead of the election, saying we were too stupid to know much of anything and I wanted to push back on that. The South isn’t the monolith people at that time thought it was—there have always been vibrant, innovative, compassionate people living here, but that is never the dominant narrative. I started in op-eds and sports writing.

My work primarily revolves around the body and the tensions and/or stressors on it—from the environment, other people or policies put in place. So, I write a bit of everything—food history, art criticism, environmental racism, even immigration policy, but my goal is always to make it relevant, poignant, and accessible—something the everyday reader would care about.

Your essay,  “A Dream Uprooted,” recently appeared in the April 2020 issue of Garden & Gun. In it, you say you come from a long line of people who “have always made sense of the hard times through tales.” What tales are helping you in these unprecedented times?

Toni Morrison is holding me tight right now—I didn’t expect that but I’m trying to let myself fall into her prose. Everything she says right now, particularly in her nonfiction, is spot on. Playing in the Dark is a must read that doesn’t get much attention. Another recommendation: watch the documentary titled The Pieces I Am about her life and work. 

I am revisiting a lot of the older books on my shelves: Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. I’m seeing parts of myself illuminated for the first time in Edna Lewis’s work—I have all 4 cookbooks and I’m working my way through those.

I’m delving back into reading poetry after a long break because I’m giving myself permission not to understand every element and function in a line. I realize I’m going to have to go through life not understanding parts of it, but that doesn’t mean I should miss it. I had Jericho Brown’s first two books on my shelf before his third, The Tradition, won the Pulitzer, so I pulled those out and acquired his most recent book. Also reading in rotation:

Malcolm Tariq’s Heed The Hollow, J. Drew Lanham’s Sparrow Envy, Sean Hill’s Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, and Erin Fornoff’s Hymn to the Reckless.

In March, you started posting ten second nature videos to social media under the hashtag #10sofzen. What inspired you to record and share these clips?  

So, I started recording these clips back in 2016. I was a musician (attended the South Carolina Governor’s School for the Arts and Humanities as a clarinetist) and sound works its way into my work all the time—in the cadence of a sentence or the audio visualizer of someone’s voice. So, I wanted to remember what the places sounded like. 

The ten seconds came from my college therapist Dr. Bryant Ford. I hit some terrible rough spots emotionally and he would remind me that if I could get through ten seconds, I could get through another ten seconds, and eventually those would pile up and I would get through the day.

I have a lot of friends that are freelance writers, and we were often hunched over our desks all the time, stressed out about a deadline. It was my way of saying “Hey. Thinking of you. Drink water, relax your shoulders and here’s a little nature to get you through the day.”

I knew when the shelter-in-place went into effect that some of my friends in larger cities and/or with disabilities wouldn’t be able to get outside and it would start working on their brains. Mental health is so important.  So, I used what I already had at my disposal—these hundreds of videos from all over the world (I’ve got some from Nova Scotia and the suburbs outside of Paris I haven’t posted yet).  I’ve been lax in putting them up lately because of everything that’s going on, but I want to get back to it. 

It’s also *really* hard to get more than 10 seconds of silence. Sometimes I see how long I can go—30 seconds, a minute…. something often interrupts the scene before I can get to two minutes. Humans don’t realize how loud we are or how we barge into a space—even if it’s as large as an open field. As a species we’ve forgotten how to sneak/use light footwork. There’s no need to—rarely are we worried about spooking the natural world the way generations before us were. 

You’ve been instrumental in helping equip our staff with necessary protective gear. Could you talk a bit more about the homemade masks you and your mother have been making and distributing across the county?

I went into the dollar store in early March—right when the CDC was talking about cloth masks, and the workers there had nothing in the form of PPE. I asked them if their employer had any plans to equip them with things, and there was no plan in place. You could see the fear in their eyes when I talked to them—we didn’t know as much about the virus then (we still don’t know much, it seems), but something about the situation just didn’t seem fair.

I talked to my mom about what we should do, and we decided we would make masks for anyone that we encountered that needed them. My mom was a fashion designer and has 50+ years of sewing experience, and I’m a cosplayer with 15 years of experience. We knew the people that were going to be hit the hardest by this were those without the time, money, resources, and/or skills to acquire a mask. So, we knew that was our goal.

There were calls for PPE for hospitals and healthcare workers and that was/is important. But the thought is that if we can keep these frontline workers masked so the virus didn’t spread, they could avoid the hospital in the first place. 

We’re at almost 700 masks now, and it doesn’t look like we’ll be stopping anytime soon. We’re answering the call for masks that are coming from communities around the country—Cheyenne Nation, Eastern Band of Cherokee and Navajo Nation all put out calls for masks and we’re working to send them 50 each this round, and then 50 more later in the month. 

My job, as a journalist and as a mask maker, is to find where the holes are and evaluate them. We’ve started making the masks with clear inserts so that people who are deaf or hard of hearing can read the lips of the wearer. We also make kids masks. I’m a cosplayer and I had all these fun interesting cottons with cartoon characters on them at home. I figured if the masks were fun, kids would wear them. 

Most of the people in my life are essential workers—my mom is a postal carrier, my “big sister” from college is a healthcare worker. If our produce stand were open right now, I’d be out there selling goods to those that need them and trying to take care of my community. I’m not out there so I am doing what I can from here. 

You can’t pick peaches or process meat over Zoom and we’re an industrial and agricultural state. So, we’re doing our best to reach those people too, even though they aren’t considered frontline retail workers. They demand dignity, respect, and higher wages and I’m devastated all I have to offer them is three layers of cotton, but it’s what I’ve got, and we’re doing what we can with what we have. 

In addition to grieving the loss of life as we knew it, people of color and our allies are mourning the wrongful deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. As an activist, how do you reconcile this compounded grief? What can we do when we can’t take to the streets in protest?

So much has happened since you wrote this question like the Christian Cooper incident in Central Park, including the deaths of more black folx like Tony McDade and Maurice Gordon.  

Let me be clear: this isn’t just a race issue. It’s a human rights one. 

I realized this week that I’m getting tired of finding new words for old ails and I’m trying to sit with that. The pieces that I wrote about racism at the beginning of my career are still incredibly relevant and that devastates me. I feel like I’m living in a loop. There are moments where it seems the only thing that has changed is that we can watch people being murdered in high definition instead of grainy video footage. 

If you’ve got the money, contribute to the bail out funds, the NAACP, or some of the organizations focused on creating Black joy, and expanding the horizons and knowledge of this community. Investigate the companies you buy from—are they anti-racist? Send them an email, message their leadership on LinkedIn. Make them understand that their survival and the survival of their companies comes with embracing diversity on all levels—their boards, executive leadership, retail management. That should go for any entity that you interact with. Peel back the covers and look at the foundation these places are built on.

Do the work of becoming anti-racist. We’re living at a time where there are so many resources—books, webinars, collective meetings—that can help you do that. Harness the power of the internet.

Understand that you’ll always be earning continuing education courses in this—it isn’t something we solve in a moment—it’s going to take a lifetime. Be committed and unshakable in that. It’s going to be uncomfortable work—I won’t pretend about that—but I’m uncomfortable about 80% of the time that I go out in public—natural spaces are one of the few reprieves I get. Any time I step beyond my doorstep—and this is as an educated, probably middle-class light-skinned Black woman in America—I think about what I’m wearing, whether or not I look friendly, and whether or not I will “belong” where I’m going—even if it’s just to Publix. 

White people, you must be willing to risk things. Racism is expensive and America is in great debt. Everyone must pay into that balance owed. It might cost you relationships with friends or family members. But understand that for Black people it is costing us our joys, our sanity, our lives. 

Millions of Americans are out of work due to COVID-19. Writers, especially freelance writers, have taken a considerable hit during this time. At the Hub City Writers Project, our mission is to cultivate readers and nurture writers. How can folx nurture you and other freelance writers right now?

Some of these suggestions don’t cost any money: post about the book on your Instagram. If you read something by a writer, and it’s touched you, let them know. Most of us are on social media. When I get emails from readers, I print them out. I keep a stack that shows me I do great work…so much of writing can be (and maybe it shouldn’t feel this way) self-flagellation. There’s a lot of doubt. Sometimes those letters from readers keep you going. Sometimes they break your heart. But it’s a tether—a way of letting the person on the other end of the line know somebody is listening. Some days I write and I’m worried that I’m a has-been or I’ll put out an article and no one will care. My best work right now comes when I know I’m writing towards a person. Suggestions that cost money: if you find a book that you like, buy one for you and buy one to give away. If they have a Patreon and you have a couple of dollars, send it their way—funding is so crucial and so many of my own options are limited because I don’t have the money to tell the story I want to tell. 

Institutions are failing so many of us—me included. I’ve had to write 5,000-word stories on my cell phone because my computer was broken, and I was waiting on payments to come in. As freelancers we never know if the check is gonna arrive, and it is hard to finish stories if you aren’t sure where your next meal is coming from. For writers working on a book, they’re writing for free until the book sells—depending on the size of the advance, even after the book sells, so many writers are working…basically for free when you do the math. 

Some of the stories I’m working on take years of reporting and I won’t see a dime until after the work is done. So, I have to work harder and take on extra work to fund the stories that I really want to do.


Latria Graham is a writer, editor and cultural critic currently living in South Carolina.

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