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Michael Harriot: ‘Black stories aren’t always about the first black president’

Michael Harriot (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

By Ariel Worthy

The Birmingham Times

Michael Harriot (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)
Michael Harriot (Ariel Worthy, The Birmingham Times)

What Michael Harriot writes might not sit well with everyone.

“I receive criticism all the time,” Harriot said. “It comes along with putting stuff in public places. If everybody likes what you do you’re not making an impact, especially with what I choose to do. I know it will agitate people. It’s meant to.”

Harriot is a poet, a culture and race reporter for Ebony and The Root, a macroeconomics reporter for Politico, founder of “unapologetically and unashamedly black” site Negus Who Read (NWR) and host for the podcast, The Black One.

“I don’t pander to a specific audience,” Harriot said. “When I do a piece of work I don’t think ‘people will like this.’ I just put out raw, unfiltered content.”

Harriot, a Birmingham resident since 2008, avoids some labels, such as “artist.”

“I think it’s pretentious because everybody wants to use the title of artist; I’m just a writer,” he said. “I write and sometimes its comes out as poetry, sometimes it comes out as a post, sometimes it comes out as fiction, sometimes it comes out as an article.”

His love for writing was inspired by his mother’s aspirations to become an author, and he began writing at the age of 11. In 2008 Harriot published The Situation in South Carolina, which talks about an officer killing a black man, and the town’s reaction. The town was based on where he grew up.

The incident in the book was inspired by a run-in his friend had when an officer sprayed pepper spray in his mouth. Unlike the character in his book, his friend survived.

“The novel was before the Black Lives Matter movement,” he said. “It’s still similar to what is going on today, though.”

‘Uncensored, unafraid’

Originally from Hartsville, South Carolina, Harriot moved to Birmingham eight years after living in China for a year. During that year in China, Harriot covered the economic buildup for the 2008 Olympics. Harriot knows Mandarin, which he spontaneously learned in college at Auburn University.

“I registered for classes late [in college,] and the only available foreign language was Chinese,” Harriot said. “I ended up taking all the courses.”

After graduating from Auburn with a degree in Mass Communications, Harriot attended Florida State University where he studied International Business.

In addition to writing for The Root, he created a platform on Negus Who Read and his podcast for smart, intelligent people to have a conversation from the black perspective. In his podcast, he has had different black people on his show, such as POWs from the Vietnam War, a transgender woman, and a stripper.

“I wanted to do something that found black people and told stories that you didn’t hear in popular media that was uncensored, unafraid,” he said. “I’ve always thought that black people are pigeonholed and the stories that are always told are told in a way that exists almost apologetically. Black stories aren’t always about the first black president.”

His perspective makes his story-telling unique.

“The stuff I talk about that people think are funny are actually written from the premise of ‘blackness is normal, everything else is weird,’” he said. “I take instances that people think is weird, and show what you think are weird is normal to someone else.”

Spoken Word

Harriot’s feelings about race are also portrayed in his spoken word, which constantly keeps him on the road. He just returned from the Individual World Poetry Slam (IWPS) a four-day poetry slam festival that gives dozens of poets from all over the world an opportunity to perform for the championship.

It’s like the Super Bowl of poetry,” Harriot said. “Out of 96 poets from around the world I got 17th place.”

Harriot recently left the Lake Eden Arts Festival, another popular poetry slam where he came in 4th.

Currently, Harriot is working on a book that will be a collection of his work from The Root and NWR, called The Caucasian’s Guide to Black America. He also just signed a development deal that could make The Caucasian’s Guide a TV show and in addition to all of that he is looking to take his podcast, The Black One, from a weekly show to a daily show.

“The tagline is if anyone asks you what podcast do you listen to tell them the black one,” he said.

If that is not enough, Harriot is also on YouTube, where he has a channel, Dem Thrones where Game of Thrones episodes are reviewed. Harriot and his friend and poet BStuc have done this for the past two seasons of the show.

Much of Harriot’s goal in his work is the same, he said.

“My goal is for it to be like you are hearing interesting conversations from intelligent people as if you are a fly on the wall,” he said.

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