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Home » Q&A: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the magazine picking up from the 2020 protests

Q&A: Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor on the magazine picking up from the 2020 protests

For Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Jen Parker, the mass protests in the wake of the murder of George Floyd in 2020 were a call to action. In the aftermath of what have been dubbed the largest demonstrations in US history, Taylor, a contributing writer at The New Yorker and professor at Northwestern University, and Parker, a former editor at the New York Times, felt a need to bridge the gap between the organizers, who have long fought injustice, and the millions of people who joined protests for the first time that year. One way to do that, they thought, was a magazine.

In February, after two or so years of planning, that magazine, Hammer and Hope, launched. The first issue features eleven works—including contributions from organizers who influenced the magazine—that outline and exemplify its mission. In one of the articles, KC Tenants, a tenants union in Kansas City, details how it uses direct action to end evictions. “Others organize around ideology; we organize around mutual interests,” they write. In another piece, Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò offers a framework through which to understand Hammer and Hope’s position as a magazine of Black politics. While many media organizations still downplay their political impact, Hammer and Hope is certain about its own. “By publishing stories from movements around the world, we hope to provide a platform for a politics of struggle that is built from the bottom up,” Parker and Taylor wrote in an introductory statement.

The magazine, Taylor hopes, will not only share useful information but also “get people to think beyond the surface of things and grasp the root of what troubles our society.” Recently, I spoke with Taylor about the journey to starting the magazine, its influences, and its plans for the future. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

FM: What was the catalyst to create Hammer and Hope? As a contributor to The New Yorker, what did you feel was missing that you couldn’t do in your work there?

KT: Writing in The New Yorker has given me access to a much broader audience than I might ordinarily be in touch with and, for my own contributions to that platform, that has been fine. But for Hammer and Hope, I think that we envision reaching a different kind of audience. Jen Parker and I decided to do this really in frustration in the aftermath of the protests in 2020, feeling like this was an opportunity for the left, for radicals to move beyond the usual circles or people that we’re in touch with. It felt like that opportunity was not being taken up politically, in terms of media publications that were accessible to the left.

I think the other part of it is that, through those protests, it was clear that there were political debates about what should happen next. Should all of the energy that was generated be funneled only into the presidential election or Georgia Senate races? Or was this an opportunity to do more? There were debates about what the nature of reform should be. Should people be satisfied with the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act? What about the demands for defunding the police or the demand for the abolition of police and prisons? These are serious questions that needed to be engaged, and so that was really the context within which we started talking about the possibility of starting a publication.

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When you say the usual suspects, who do you mean?

I’m talking about people who already see themselves as part of that political endeavor; people who don’t need to be convinced to go to political protest, or who have a critique of capitalism, a critique about policing. While those people still have to be organized, I believe that we can also reach further than that. I think the protests and the Black Lives Matter decade have upended a common sense about policing, a common sense about the status quo, and have raised questions for people.

One response is to just be like, Well, people should already understand this in the first place. We want to take a different response, which is to engage those people, but on our own terms, to try to widen the group of people who see themselves as critical of the status quo, of capitalism and its social effect, of the criminal legal system, and who are not just open to alternatives but want to engage with the existing social movements and struggles to change those things.

How does Hammer and Hope plan to reach those people? 

I think our ambition is to create a publication that has wide appeal, that is written to engage with people’s questions while trying to get people to think beyond the surface of things and grasp the root of what troubles our society and other societies in the world. To create entry points for people into activism, organizing, and struggle.

During the protests in 2020, social media played a big role in communication. Is that part of your plan to reach people as well? I noticed that you have Instagram and TikTok accounts set up.

Absolutely. Ours is a web-based magazine; we might do a periodic print edition, but it’s mostly intended as a web-based platform. We certainly want to take advantage of the platforms created by Twitter, Instagram, and TikTok, because these are the spaces where people are engaged in some of these debates. I don’t think that’s the only means by which we can reach people, because we aim to create a platform for organizers and activists to talk about the particular struggles that they’re involved in. We do want to create entry points into the real world, and not just stay in the imagined world of social media. But that’s where a lot of people are, so we want to be there as well.

How did the funding for the magazine come together?

I was the recipient of the Marguerite Casey Freedom Scholar fellowship in the summer of 2019, for which I received a two hundred and fifty thousand dollar grant. I went back to Marguerite Casey to see if they would match what they had already given to me, and they did that; they did extra, actually. That was important seed money. We’ve gotten some other donations elsewhere and have been able to cobble together the finances for this thus far.

You’ve said before there are no plans for a paywall, ads, or sponsored content. As a professor, would you consider being housed at a university or another nonprofit institution?

We’re going to continue to ask for donations. We might have some merch sales. I think our commitment is to keep this free and accessible with the logic that you can’t build a movement behind a paywall. We see our primary purpose as not just providing a forum for the left; we’re doing it to knit together and build among those groups of people to contribute to social movements, to change conditions that we all oppose, in this country and beyond.

We want to maintain our independence. That’s not to say that if you’re housed at a place like a university you can’t be independent, but we also want to be able to comment on the horrible treatment of the executive body at universities during the strike of adjuncts. And, as universities become more business-like or corporate in their structure, it becomes more complicated to speak as freely as one might want to. It’s the same thing with foundations. It’s one thing to take funding from a foundation, it’s another thing to be a project of a foundation. So we’re trying to do this in our own way, for as long as we can.

What was important for you to communicate with this first issue?

We wanted to basically announce our existence and to get people’s attention through having good artwork, having very good pieces, and having strong writers. This isn’t a daily, it’s not a weekly, and so you want to be relevant and timely, but you also have to, in some sense, have evergreen pieces that will make sense weeks later or months later. That was all important in terms of first impressions. And then I think, with our statement of purpose, we wanted to really give some idea about, Why this publication, now? There’s a lot of blogs out there; Substack, Patreon. You have to explain why this, why now, why it’s important, why it’s not the thing that you’ve already read.

What were the inspirations for Hammer and Hope?

Some of the ones we talked about in our introductory statement were less inspiration but more a tradition that we hope to follow in some ways. The Communist Party in Alabama and the lengths to which members of the organization went to circulate news, because it mattered and it was critical to their organizing efforts. The Black Panther, which at one point in the early seventies, was circulating over a hundred thousand issues a week. I would also add to that Freedomways, the publication steered by Esther Cooper Jackson, who was a member of the Communist Party but also acted very independently of the party. She created that publication to basically have a forum in which the left could challenge and educate each other, but also had a much broader profile than that.

Early on, when Jen and I were going back and forth about what we would call it, I suggested at one point calling it Freedom’s Journal, which was summarily denounced and laughed at. But Freedom’s Journal was the first Black publication in the US and it was written not just as an abolitionist publication, but as a way for Black activists to be in touch with each other about what was happening in their various areas, and how to create political networks to keep in touch with each other. That’s really the spirit of this effort.

Some news from the home front:
On April 18, CJR and Orion Magazine will host a discussion about disinformation in climate reporting featuring Mary Annaïse Heglar, Nancy MacLean, and Amy Westervelt, all three of whom contributed to Orion‘s Deny and Delay series, a close study of climate disinformation generously supported by the Fine Fund. Kyle Pope, CJR’s editor and publisher, will moderate the conversation. You can find more details about the event here.

Other notable stories:

  • Abbie VanSickle, of the Times, profiled Harlan Crow, a billionaire Republican megadonor whose relationship with Clarence Thomas has been under scrutiny since ProPublica reported last week that Crow lavished gifts on Thomas that Thomas did not disclose. Crow, VanSickle writes, is publicity-shy, rarely granting interviews or speaking in public. In 1996, he told the Times that he’d “prefer that John Q. Public hadn’t heard of me.”
  • After Recurrent sold Saveur, a food news site, to investors led by Kat Craddock, the site’s editor, Sara Fischer and Kerry Flynn report for Axios on the broader trend of journalists taking ownership of their newsrooms. The trend reflects “the opportunity media executives see in giving creators ownership of their work,” but also challenges for the media industry “as investors and advertisers pull back and M&A opportunities fade.”
  • In media-jobs news, the US edition of The Guardian named Dana Canedy—formerly of the Times and Simon & Schuster, and administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes—as its managing editor. Elsewhere, Melissa Block, a special correspondent for NPR, is taking a voluntary buyout after more than thirty-eight years with the broadcaster. And John Ferracane, an executive at NewsNation, is quitting to spend more time with his family.
  • Yesterday saw the full launch of Substack’s new “Notes” platform, a feature, similar to Twitter, where writers can post in short-form (without Twitter’s character limit). The full rollout of the feature comes after Twitter throttled links to Substack posts on its platform, then did a U-turn. According to Jay Peters, of The Verge, Substack is positioning Notes “as a tool for Substack writers to more easily get subscribers.”
  • And two writers from a Yiddish-language magazine for New York’s Hasidic communities recently stopped by the Congressional office of George Santos to talk to him (without identifying themselves as reporters) about his many false claims about his biography, including around his Jewish ancestry. Santos claimed to the writers that he has since taken DNA tests that prove it. He apparently did not present any evidence for the claim.

ICYMI: The Dominion-Fox trial, and the legacy of the Murdoch phone-hacking scandal

Feven Merid is CJR’s staff writer and Senior Delacorte Fellow.

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