On April 20th 2015, the Peabody Awards committee announced that “State of the Re:Union” won a Peabody for its fourth season. On that same day, “State of the Re:Union” released its final season. The irony of winning such a big award on the same day the last series is released is not lost on me. But irony reeks of bitterness, and instead I choose gratitude. It was a tough decision to end the show, it took me almost half a year to wrap my head around it. It’s taken even longer for me to be able to write about it.
All these questions popped into my head: How do you write about the show without coming across as self-congratulatory, or self-important? What do you say that people haven’t heard you say a thousand times? How do you honor the people that gave so much to make this show what it was? And so on. I still don’t have the answers for any of those questions, but with the last season coming out, winning a Peabody, and “Reveal,” the new show I host, revving its engine, it’s time to write something. Bear with me – saying goodbye to anything you love in never easy, neat, or simple.
America from the bottom up
In retrospect, “State of the Re:Union” seems like an unlikely idea coming from an unlikely source, namely me. Before I started working on this show, if you’d asked me if I was patriotic, I most likely would have rolled my eyes. I loved the place I lived, my friends and family, but extending it to the country as a whole never really crossed my mind. This may seem strange to a lot of you, but I grew up as a young black kid in the south, and felt completely disconnected from the concept of America. As often as I saw the American flag, I also saw the Rebel flag: the juxtaposition of the two, the promise of freedom and the symbol of slavery, always made me uneasy with America and my place it in. The concept for the show came from my desire to know this country better. I’d been traveling a lot, expanding my horizons so to speak, and the more I traveled the more I began to question the narrative I was seeing and reading in the media. Like that uncomfortable limbo between the flags, I felt somewhat lost in the media landscape. That has been the quest of “State of the Re:Union,” the very public idea of chronicling America from the bottom up and the private journey to find my place.
From the start, I wanted to focus on the America that was overlooked: a little town in Kansas struggling to make a comeback, a gay black civil rights leader, the Hmong population in the Twin Cities, because they are America, too. In traveling as I have with this show, the thing that stands out is how diverse we are as a country in both land and people. I’ve frozen in Alaska in February, eaten Haitian food with refugees in Miami, hung out with a trans woman in the boogie-down Bronx, and stayed in a hunting lodge with a real deal cowboy in Arizona. These experiences have redefined my idea of hero. Heroes are everyday people who wake up in the morning just wanting to make the place they live better, and so they put in the work.
“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves” – W. Shakespeare, Julius Caesar
When I came into public media I came in as a storyteller, a creator. Over time, I learned to be a businessman. In many ways I was successful in that endeavor: I learned how to collaborate, how to manage a staff, read a spread sheet, make a budget and work with outside organizations. But my Achilles’ heel is fundraising. Many people told me that “State of the Re:Union” was a very fundable idea, but no matter where I turned, I couldn’t get a solid foothold in that world. There are larger questions here about access and how funding sources work, but honestly, I can’t live in that gray area, all I can control is my part in it.
Working with WJCT has had it challenges, bringing two organizations together is never easy, but on the whole it’s been a pleasure. There is a direct correlation between the show being housed at WJCT and winning the Peabody. It would have been impossible to embark on such an ambitious season without the institutional support provided by the station. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Delores Barr Weaver Fund at the Community Foundation of Northeast Florida have been steadfast in their support for “State of the Re:Union” over the years, and I can’t thank these three organizations enough. But without other sources of revenue, even with such strong support from WJCT, the program is unsustainable, and so, after fighting the good fight, we go off into that good night.
“Don’t be sad it’s over, be happy it happened.”
That last quote is the mantra I’ve been saying to myself over the last few months…over and over until it settled in my bones. I love “State of the Re:Union.” I love the stories, people, and places I’ve been fortunate enough connect with. The future is bright, a lot of great projects that I’m excited about on the horizon, but if I had a choice, I would continue creating this show, with the staff that sweated, cried, and sacrificed with me to make it happen. Honestly, for a while, I was bitter about the end of the show, but right now, as I write this, I am filled with gratitude, for everyone who supported me, for this show, for my staff, for WJCT, and for you, the community that has supported and loved the work we did. Thank you. I made it just for you.
I don’t think I could have planned it better to wrap the show up while winning one of the highest awards in media. The Peabody revealed a hidden truth that I should have known even without winning. The work we did matters. I should have known this, because at the root of the idea of the show, are people who are working their butts off against the odds, who may never see the fruits of their labors, but that work matters.
“The future is no place to place your better days.” – Dave Matthews Band, “Cry Freedom”
Every episode taught me something about America. I tried desperately to get that across in the audio; sometimes though, it doesn’t translate. The truth is, I’m still searching for my place in America, still unsure where I stand. When I watch events play out across the country and think about issues of inequality, race, and the environment, frankly, I’m worried. But, if there is one thing “State of the Re:Union” has taught me, it is to take heart, to have hope.
The politics of this country may fail us time and time again, but the everyday people do not. We, as a country, are so much better then we know. I don’t say that in a jingoistic Pollyanna-ish way. I say that after traveling the country and meeting the people. Every great change that has ever happened in this country has happened from the bottom up – from the people. The battle now, as I see it, is to bring ALL the people to the table. Regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or any of the other things we use to separate us. If we can turn that corner, if we can all learn to be uncomfortable, so that we might grow, so that we might better understand our fellow man, then we can forge an America that lives up to the lofty dreams it was built upon. We are in a time of great challenges, and at times even I feel hopeless…it’s a natural law, things fall apart. But we the people can bring it back together.
Written by Al Letson