Podcaster Chronicles Racism, 'Resistance' And The Fight For Black Lives

Apr 15, 2021

On April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn. It was the latest in a long line of killings of Black people by police in America.

An officer's body camera captured footage of Wright's shooting, but podcast host Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., who lost a close friend from college to police violence a few years ago, doesn't plan on watching it.

"I choose not to put myself through that," he says. "I know if I watch that, I'll just be frozen ... with grief and frozen with fear, too. And I can't move like that."

Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s "Resistance" podcast explores different aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement. The podcast has been mostly devoted to the protests that started last summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but it also chronicles Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s personal history.

Born in Sierra Leone, Tejan-Thomas Jr. experienced that country's civil war before coming to the U.S. at the age of 8. He says the violence Black people experience in America at the hands of police brings back traumatic memories from his childhood.

"I think it probably does tap into some more fundamental fear that I have of being killed unnecessarily and folks that I love being killed unnecessarily," he says.


Interview highlights

On his friend who was killed by police

My friend was having a mental health episode, and he was going throughout Richmond with his clothes off ... he just took off his clothes and was running around Richmond because he was obviously experiencing something. And he drove on to the highway and I think he crashed into a tree and then he came out of his car. By that point, the police had been called and the policeman got out of his car and tried to Tase him, and I guess it didn't work. And so the policeman decided to shoot him. ...

As far as I know, there wasn't [any consequences.] And for context, in a town not too far away from Richmond, there was a man who literally had the same thing happen. He was having a mental health episode and he fought with the cop, they engaged with him for a while using nonlethal forces and took him in. And he was a white man. So that ended very differently. And it was around the same time.

On what he remembers of the war in Sierra Leone as a kid

It's hard for me to fully characterize it, because I was like a kid, but what I do remember was when the war came, things changed really drastically, and we had to get out of the city and go to somewhere in the countryside where it was rumored to be safer. And one of the things we had to do was my dad gave me over to one of the people that he knew to smuggle me out of the city. And the way we did that was literally through the sewers, like we had to go down in the sewers and walk miles until it was safe and then come up somewhere where it was safe and then go meet .... whoever we were supposed to meet at the safer place.

I remember the shooting. I remember the fires. I remember the uncertainty. And I was so young that I don't think I really wrapped my head around it because I was very much complaining about things like not having the kind of food that I was used to eating, because we had to ration food and eat ... meals that were easy to cook. All of that was happening. But it was because I was so young, I think I was just kind of like experiencing it and hoping that the people that I loved and myself, I was just hoping that we would be safe. And for the most part we were. But family members ... knew people who were actually really, really ravaged by the war.

On the trauma he carries from the war

I remember when I came to America ... open windows scared the hell out of me because I was afraid that bullets would fly through the window and hit me, or, like, somebody would be trying to pick me off through the window. I always ignored that feeling. But, yeah, it was definitely a result of the war, because one of the things we had to do was hide underneath our beds when the shooting was especially bad and you just couldn't go outside. All the windows were closed. ...

I went back home recently, a couple of years ago, and there were still marks in the walls from where the bullets had hit the walls. - Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr.

I went back home recently, a couple of years ago, and there were still marks in the walls from where the bullets had hit the walls. And that really resonated with me because I was like, "Oh, this was my childhood." And for some reason I think I ignored a lot of that. I think it definitely, definitely traumatized me.

On learning what it means to be Black in America

I think I fell into the trap that a lot of [Black and African] immigrants do ... when we come here, which is that ... I knew that I was here to get an education, try to live a better life, and for the longest time, I don't really think I engaged with race. And I didn't really engage with what it meant to be Black in America. And, in fact, I think I thought that I was not Black ... and maybe that precluded me from whatever violence was going to happen, because I thought, "Oh, whatever kind of racism happens in this country is obviously directed at African Americans. ... Whatever the hell is going on here, I'm not a part of it. ..."

As I got older, I expressed those views to other Black people, and they very clearly told me, "Listen, when a cop sees you, he does not see an African immigrant. He doesn't see Sierra Leonean. He sees Black, like he sees you the same way he sees me. And when you are applying for a job, when you're doing all these things, people are not going to see you as separate from this because you are literally just the same as the rest of us. And you are not higher than us. You're not better than us."

And that took a while for me to really understand. And I think it was because part of it was ... there being a divide between me being African and people being African Americans and not feeling quite accepted in that community because of my difference. But after a while, [I realized] we're all on the same side, like, there's no difference between me being where I'm from and them being where they're from — and we're all faced with the same kind of threats.

On writing a poem ("Play") about being sexually abused by his uncle as a 6-year-old

I hadn't spoken about that really with anybody. ... I was scared. I was freaking terrified of what reading this poem out loud could mean. I'm glad I wrote that poem. I'm glad it's out there. But ... it's a poem that I wrote before, I think, I was ready to write it. ... I got a lot of good responses from people who felt like they had had similar experiences and it touched them and that was really good. What I was afraid of was some of the things that I even explored in the poem, which was just like, if I put this poem out there, what does this poem about being sexually assaulted say about my masculinity? What does it say about me as a man? And what does it say about me as a Black man? Like, am I soft now? Am I just weaker because of this? Will people see me that way? But that's not at all how people responded to it. And I really appreciated that.

On regretting getting rid of his accent

I did have an accent, but I worked so hard to get rid of it because I think I really have an ear for sound I was really good at masking it and getting rid of it to the point where halfway through the school year, they forgot that I was an immigrant and they never put me in any English as a second language classes because I was just working so hard to get rid of it. And I regret it. I wish I still had my accent. I really wish I did ... because that's who I was and that's who I am. A lot of the time I do feel very distant from home. I do feel very distant from that part of me that I left back home and I feel like the accent is like a reminder of who you are and it's a reminder of where you come from and to own that and to embrace that I think is a powerful thing. But I was just so young and I wanted to fit in and I got rid of it. So I really regret that I did that.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. I've been listening to a terrific podcast that seems especially relevant now with the Derek Chauvin trial underway at the same time as Daunte Wright was killed by a police officer who said she thought she'd pulled her taser, not her gun, and an Army lieutenant in uniform was pepper-sprayed by an officer during a traffic stop. The podcast, "Resistance," has been mostly devoted to the protests that started last summer after George Floyd was killed. "Resistance" is described on its homepage as a show about refusing to accept things as they are, stories from the front lines of the movement for Black lives, told by the generation fighting for change.

It's hosted by my guest, Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. Several of the episodes are about founding members of the group Warriors in the Garden, which organized several large protests in New York last summer. Another episode is about the only Black man in the small town, Harvard, Neb., who organized a Black Lives Matter protest and wondered if anyone would show up. One very personal episode is about host Saidu Tejan-Thomas relationship with his mother. He grew up in Sierra Leone. His mother moved to the U.S. when he was 1 year old, expecting her husband and son to soon follow, but because of issues with their papers, Tejan-Thomas Jr. didn't come until he was 8, and his father never made it. He died when Tejan-Thomas Jr. was 14.

Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. got his start doing slam poetry. The best introduction I can think of for him and his podcast is to play his opening narration from Episode 1 of "Resistance." We'll start the interview after that.

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RESISTANCE")

SAIDU TEJAN-THOMAS JR: When people all around the world first started going outside and protesting, I'm kind of ashamed to say that I was on my couch playing video games. I was tossing touchdowns in one game, then shooting people's heads off in another. And the most I raised my voice for anything was to talk trash to my friends over a headset. But it was during one of these games that my boy asked me, yo, did you hear about what happened to George Floyd? I hadn't yet. But these days, your homies don't just ask you if you've heard what happened to a Black man you've never heard of unless that man is already dead.

And I really wasn't trying to hear that. And I know that it's important and necessary to talk about these things when they happen, but I just didn't want to have to think about that all the time. I just - I didn't have the capacity for it. So I just shook my head and told him, damn, dog, that's crazy, and I went back to trash-talking.

A couple days later, though, as the protests got more intense, I kept thinking about this. And I convinced myself that the reason I wasn't out there protesting was because I didn't want to catch coronavirus, or maybe it was self-care or some [expletive] like that. And I think those are valid points. But in all honesty, I know that I stayed on my couch because, for me, I didn't think there was much use in fighting anymore.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEJAN-THOMAS: When I was in college, I went to some of the first Black Lives Matter protests in my city. I remember shouting the names of Trayvon and Tamir and Sandra and Akai and countless others until I lost my voice to tears. I remember crying on my friends' shoulders, spitting in the direction of cops. I waved signs, led chants, stopped traffic, wrote poems. It felt like I did everything. But it didn't stop this [expletive] from continuing. So when this new movement met me on my couch, it low-key met me in a kind of surrender.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TEJAN-THOMAS: As the weeks went by, though, I couldn't help but read some articles about what happened to George Floyd and the many ways people were standing up against it. And I kept seeing, in story after story, a common theme taking over the headlines, like teen girls organized Nashville's largest protests or the Black youth leading the George Floyd protests. It wasn't all that surprising that young people were at the vanguard of this new movement. Aren't we always? Like, I think of Marcus Garvey, Bayard Rustin, Assata Shakur, Angela Davis and a whole lot of other people. By the time they were in their early to mid-20s, they were already getting busy and shaking things up.

But I was surprised at myself because when I looked at those headlines about this new generation of activists and organizers, my first question wasn't, wow, how are they going to shake things up? My first question was, wow, how are they going to keep this up? How are they not going to end up like me - 27, on the couch, tired of yelling, and trying to drown out their anger and frustration in a video game? So that's what this show is about.

A thing I keep hearing over and over again is, this time it's different. But, like, how? Other than the fact that a bunch of white people are protesting for the first time, how is this time different for young Black and brown people who are once again offering themselves up to fight? Because as the streets clear and folks return to work and there isn't a pandemic forcing people to pay attention anymore, what will have really changed for us?

GROSS: So that was a clip from the opening episode of the podcast "Resistance," hosted by my guest Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. Welcome to FRESH AIR. Your podcast and your writing are so really terrific. Thank you for being our guest.

TEJAN-THOMAS: Thank you so much for having me.

GROSS: The clip that we just heard, which begins your series, starts with you talking about why you can't watch the George Floyd video, why you're not out in the streets protesting. But of course, you did do and are doing this incredible series about resistance, about protests. We're recording this Tuesday. Just in the past few days, Daunte Wright was shot and killed at a traffic stop by an officer who said she thought she pulled her taser, not her gun. And then at another traffic stop, an Army lieutenant, Caron Nazario, was pepper-sprayed by an officer who threatened to do much worse. The officer was wearing his Army uniform and was being so calm and polite, trying to get the officer to calm down. Have you watched the videos? Have you felt like you could deal with watching them?

TEJAN-THOMAS: I guess the answer is, like, absolutely not because - (laughter) I guess that sigh says so much. But, like, it's like, I already know it's there. And I - and when I say that, I don't necessarily just mean that, like, I feel like I know what happened, or I know the facts of the case, or I know, like, you know, every single detail about why this is messed up. I feel like I know what's there for me as well. I know the pain that's there for me. And I know that it's a tender spot for me to visit and choose to revisit. And I choose not to put myself through that because I know if I watch that, I'll just be frozen. Like, I will just not really know what to do with myself - and frozen with grief and frozen with fear, too. And I can't move like that.

GROSS: So a few of the episodes are about members of the group Warriors in the Garden, which describes itself as a New York City collective of nonviolent activists dedicated to protecting our community from all forms of systemic oppression. In following Warriors in the Garden, you get to a really kind of foundational argument - not only in this movement but, I think, in a lot of political protest movements. And in this movement, it's the conflict between, you know, whether it should be a peaceful protest or a more confrontational protest, whether it should be about Black joy or Black rage.

And you frame the debate, this debate, by having two of the people from Warriors in the Garden talk about it. And one of the members, John, you know, when everybody's asked to give, like, what is the skill that you're bringing to this? His was like, my hands, 'cause he knows how to fight. He knows how to do protection. And the job he took upon himself was trying to protect the demonstrators.

And John gave up eventually on the idea of peaceful protests and Black joy because he was the victim of a hit-and-run, and he was pretty certain that it was an undercover police officer who had intentionally hit him 'cause he had also started getting threatening texts. And then the other person who we hear from in the clip that I'm about to play is Derrick, and he's an advocate of Black joy. And, you know, the protests that this group, Warriors in the Garden, had staged, where - I mean, there was dancing. There was music. There was Black joy. So I want to play this excerpt of your podcast. So this is an excerpt of "Resistance."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RESISTANCE")

TEJAN-THOMAS: He says the kind of protest the Warriors have been doing since then, the kind with lots of dancing and singing and people burning incense, they're not working for him anymore.

JOHN ACOSTA: Yeah, I love it when they're happy. I do, man. It makes me happy, too, man. But we just don't have no time for that. And when I seen them, I just feel like they're losing sight of what's going on. I've been thinking about that solid, like solid. And we out here giving out Black joy. Yo, I was fine with it for a little bit. Then I started to realize, yo, what the [expletive] is going on? I looked at myself. I'm like, where the [expletive] is the rage, bro? Like, I'm not feeling this no more.

DERRICK INGRAM: I think Black joy is a form of protest.

TEJAN-THOMAS: This is Derek Ingram again. He says the joy is the whole point.

INGRAM: Because the amount of deaths that occur at the hands of police and all the inequities that Black people have persevered, one would expect us to be jaded, to be upset, to be angry. And that's also a stereotype, is that Black men are - especially are dangerous, that Black women are angry. And when we kind of do the juxtaposition of that and show them that we're happy, we're carefree, we're light, we haven't been completely bogged down by the horrible things that society has thrown at us, I think it's a form of protest.

ACOSTA: Let me ask a [expletive] question. When Breonna Taylor was slain in her bedroom, was she giving out Black joy? Was she listening to music? Was she bopping her [expletive] head? No, no music. It was just rings, gunshots. Why the [fuck] are we giving them our Black joy? They don't deserve our Black joy. They deserve the Black rage we have, every ounce of it. This is war.

GROSS: That's an excerpt of the podcast "Resistance." The episode is called "Give Me War Music." And my guest, Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., is the host and writer of the series. We heard his voice narrating that part. That really just kind of frames such a fundamental debate. And I'm wondering if hearing how this played out in the group had an impact on you and where you kind of stood on that divisive question of what forum protests should take.

TEJAN-THOMAS: It was tough because I think at various points I've been on both sides of that, right? Like, me not engaging with, like, watching the police videos and not going to protests and just sort of, like, being who I am and, like, just existing as a Black person in this - in America, like, I think, like, you know, I've seen that as a form of protest. I've seen that as, like, OK, me just being sort of as carefree as I can be, being successful, doing all the things that I want to do with my life, that is political in itself, and I should be able to just, like, do that as, like, my contribution.

But at the same time, I've been exactly where John is. I've - I lost a friend to police violence. And I remember, after feeling, like, just shock, the next feeling that came right after that was, like, a deep, deep sense of anger and rage. And I didn't know where to really put that. I didn't really know what to do with that.

GROSS: So Derrick, who in the clip we just heard makes the argument for, like, Black joy as being fundamental to protests, he got a knock on the door. It was the police. They had no warrant. And I don't know what the chronology is. I don't know whether this happened before or after the clip we just heard. So the police came to his door. They wanted to come in. He said, where's your warrant? They didn't have one. He refused to open the door and let them in without a warrant. He knew what his rights were. He called his lawyer, who confirmed, do not let them in. More and more police kept coming. They were on, like, the roof. They were all over the street. This was a standoff that lasted five hours until the police, just for some reason, they decided to leave.

This is how you tell the story in the podcast. And I'm wondering, like, so after that, did he have more rage and want to express that? Because anything could have happened. I mean, he could have been hurt. He could have been killed. Like, who knows what could have happened?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yeah, yeah. That's a question that I had for him as well, and he very much - I think he saw that as a moment to double-down on what he was already doing, which was protesting with Black joy and organizing and doing things he - the way that he was already doing because I think he saw that as a sign of, oh, what I'm doing is working. You know what I'm saying? Like, this isn't like - this - he didn't see it as, like, the police came to my house, and there was a siege on my apartment that means that, like, they're engaging with this as war, and I need to respond in kind. He saw it as, like, oh, I'm actually agitating them to the point where, like, they're proving how savage they are. They're proving how willing they are to go above and beyond and try to intimidate me. And...

GROSS: They had a battering ram and were pounding on his door.

TEJAN-THOMAS: (Laughter) They had a battering ram. It was a very traumatic experience for him. But - and I just wondered why he didn't feel angry about that or why he didn't feel scared, really, and, like, you know, just want to, like, stop protesting altogether. But yeah, I really think it was like - it just proved what he was trying to get at.

GROSS: We need to take a short break here, so let me reintroduce you. My guest is Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., host of the podcast "Resistance." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., a poet and host of the podcast "Resistance," in which he follows the lives of people who have been protesting against police assaults on Black people. Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He moved to the U.S. to be with his mother when he was 8. She came to the U.S. when he was 1 year old with the idea that he and his father would join her in a couple of years, but there were problems with their papers, and it never worked out that way.

I want to ask you about something that I know happened in your life, that you referred to a little earlier. You had a friend - a college friend, I believe - who was killed by the police, and that was very traumatizing for you. If you're willing to talk about it, if it's not too upsetting to talk about it, can you tell us what happened?

TEJAN-THOMAS: It's hard to know where to start. Well, my friend was having a mental health episode. And he was going throughout Richmond with his clothes off. He was - he didn't have any clothes. He just took off his clothes and was running around Richmond because he was obviously experiencing something. And he drove on to the highway and crashed into - I think he crashed into a tree, and then he came out of his car. By that point, the police had been called. And the policeman got out of his car and tried to tase him, and it didn't - I guess it didn't work. And so the policeman decided to shoot him. And yeah - and that's kind of what happened.

GROSS: Were there any consequences for the police who shot him?

TEJAN-THOMAS: No, there wasn't. As far as I know, there wasn't. And for context, in like - in a town not too far away from Richmond, there was a man who literally had the same thing happen. He was having a mental health episode, and he fought with a cop, was - they engaged with him for hours - I mean, not hours. They engaged with him for a while using nonlethal forces and took him in. But that ended very - and he was a white man. So that ended very differently. And it was around the same time.

GROSS: And it's not like your friend - if he was naked, it's not like he had a hidden weapon he was going to pull out.

TEJAN-THOMAS: No. No, he was naked. It was just his body. He was - he loved to work out. We would work out together. And so he was a big dude. He was - you know, he had muscles, and he, like, really appreciated those muscles. Like, we worked hard for those muscles (laughter). And I think the cop saw that, and he saw that he was Black, and he saw it differently than the way we saw it.

GROSS: Was there a video of the cop shooting your friend? Was it a story that became a news story? Did people chant your friend's name at protests? Or did it go - was it basically just in the background?

TEJAN-THOMAS: No, there was a video. There was a video. There was a very clear, vivid body cam video. And I think some other people had taken videos as well. Yeah. And I watched that video. And for the longest time, when it happened, yeah, they didn't know his name for a while. They had just been referring to him as naked man and - but people who had been seeing, like the news - but people who had been seeing it knew that this was him, people who knew him. And yeah, there were - when protests started in Richmond last year, with the killing of George Floyd, from what I understand, people in Richmond definitely, like, chanted his name and, you know, showed up for him in a very meaningful way.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., host of the podcast "Resistance." We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBERT GLASPER'S "MAIDEN VOYAGE/EVERYTHING IN ITS RIGHT PLACE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., a poet and host of the podcast "Resistance," in which he follows the lives of people who have been protesting against police assaults on Black people. He grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He moved to the U.S. to be with his mother when he was 8. She came to the U.S. when he was 1 year old with the idea that he and his father would join her in a couple of years. But there were problems with their papers. And it never worked out that way.

There's a great episode in your podcast, "Resistance," that's about your mother and relationship with her. You grew up in Sierra Leone. And when you were 1, your mother moved to the U.S. with the idea of renewing her visa and becoming a citizen. And the idea was you and your father would follow in a couple of years when your papers were in order. It didn't quite work out that way. But before we get to that part of the story, what did it feel like when you were 8 to leave your father and board the plane alone to go to a new country? Did it feel like an opportunity once you arrived?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Well, once I arrived, for a while, it felt very cool. Like, it still had that allure because, yeah, America is, like - for the most part, it was really nice, like, being able to - I don't know - watch cartoons on TV whenever you wanted. Like, all the kids stuff I think I was, like, very excited about. But I think after a while it felt like, oh, this is, like, totally different from what I had back home. Like, what I gained in, like, sort of material things, like being able to watch TV or, like, go to a good school, I didn't really have. But I lost just as much in, like - with time with my mom because my mom wasn't really around much. She was working all the time. So that was something that I didn't really expect was, like, not having the same kind of relationship with my mom that I had with my dad.

GROSS: You grew up toward the end of the civil war in Sierra Leone. And there was fighting for control of Freetown, I think, while you were alive. A lot of children in Sierra Leone during the civil war were kidnapped and forced to become child soldiers. Were you exposed to any of that? Were any of your friends in jeopardy or orphaned by the war?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yeah. I mean, it was - it's hard for me to fully characterize it because I was, like, a kid. But what I do remember was when the war came, things changed, like, really drastically. And we had to get out. And we had to get out of the city and go to, like, somewhere in the countryside where it was, you know, rumored to be safer. And one of the things we had to do was - like, my dad gave me over to one of the people that he knew to smuggle me out of the city. And the way we did that was, like, literally through the sewers. Like, we had to go down in the sewers and, like, walk miles until it was, like, safe, and then come up somewhere where it was safe and then go meet whoever we were supposed to meet at the safer place.

And, yeah, I remember the shooting. I remember the fires. I remember the sort of uncertainty. And I was so young that I don't think I, like, really wrapped my head around it because I was very much, like, complaining about things like not having the kind of food that I was used to eating because we had to, like, ration food and eat very, like, kind of easy meals that were easy to cook. It was - yeah. It was - all of that was happening. But it was - because I was so young, I think I was just kind of, like, experiencing it and hoping that, you know, the people that I loved and myself, I was just hoping that we would be safe. And for the most part, we were. But, yeah, family members and stuff knew people who were actually really, really, like, ravaged by the war.

GROSS: Do you think you were traumatized even though you're saying, you know, you were a kid and, you know, it wasn't as upsetting as it might have been? You missed the food (laughter) that you wanted to have. But do you think, like, on a more fundamental level that it really was traumatizing?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Oh, totally. Totally. I remember when I came to America, one of the things that I was, like, really - I didn't know where this came from. But open windows scared the hell out of me because I - and I always - I was afraid that bullets would fly through the window and hit me or, like, somebody would be trying to pick me off through the window. And I always, like, ignored that feeling.

But, yeah, it was definitely, like, a result of the war because one of the things we had to do was, like, hide underneath our beds when the shooting was, like, especially bad. And you just couldn't go outside. All the windows were closed. But still, sometimes, like - I went back home recently, a couple of years ago. And there were still marks in the walls from where bullets had hit the walls. And that really resonated with me because I was like, oh, like, this is literally - this was my childhood. And for some reason, I think I have, like - I ignored a lot of that. But, like, it's still - I think it definitely, definitely traumatized me.

GROSS: Was the war one of the reasons your parents really wanted to move to the U.S. and to raise you in the U.S.?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yes, it was. I came right after the war. And I had to go to lots of meetings with people talking about how bad the war was.

GROSS: So that's why you were able to come but your father wasn't?

TEJAN-THOMAS: I think so. I think that's what it was.

GROSS: So when you came to the U.S. and you had to navigate issues surrounding race, how did you learn what race meant in America and how you might be perceived by some white people and relations with police, like, all the things you had to be careful about that you didn't necessarily know about when you got here? Like, who - how did you learn? Who taught you? Or did you learn just through experience?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yeah, I think I fell into the trap that a lot of immigrants do, Black immigrants - African immigrants even, for the most part - do when we come here, which is that I came here. And I knew I was - like, I knew that I was here to, like, get an education, like, you know, try to live a better life. And for the longest time, I don't really think I, like, engaged with race. And I didn't really engage with what it meant to be Black in America. And, in fact, I think I thought that I was, like, not Black.

Or I think I was, like - I thought I was an African American. And maybe that precluded me from whatever violence was going to happen because I thought, oh, whatever happens, whatever kind of racism happens in this country is obviously directed at African Americans. It's not directed at me because I'm not part - whatever the hell is going on here, I'm not a part of it was what - I think I was, like, kind of thought to think by my mom and, like, other African people, which is, like, we're here to, like, work and do what we got to do. And keep your head down and just, like, grind, you know? And I think as I got older, I expressed those views to people. And people very clearly - other Black people - and they very clearly told me, listen; when a cop sees you, he does not see African immigrant. He doesn't see Sierra Leonean. He sees Black. Like, he sees you the same way he sees me. And when you are applying for a job, when you're doing all these things, people are not going to see you as separate from this because you are literally just the same as the rest of us. And you are not higher than us. You're not better than us.

And that took a while for me to, like, really understand. And I think it was because - part of it was because, like, what I was saying before about there being a divide between, like, me being African and people being African Americans and, like, not feeling quite accepted in that community because of my difference. But after a while, I totally was like, oh, like, this is - they're right. Like, we are all - we're all on the same side. Like, there's no difference between, like, me being where I'm from and them being where they're from. And we're all sort of, like, faced with the same kind of threats.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., host of the podcast "Resistance." We're going to take a short break, and then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE ROOTS' "SACRIFICE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., a poet and host of the podcast "Resistance," in which he follows the lives of people who have been protesting against police assaults on Black people. He grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He moved to the U.S. to be with his mother when he was 8 years old. She came to the U.S. when he was 1 year old with the idea that he and his father would join her in a couple of years. But there were problems with their papers. Saidu was able to come when he was 8. His father never was able to come to the United States. And he died when Saidu was 14.

When you came to America, you and your mother were almost like strangers because she had left Sierra Leone for the U.S. when you were 1. She'd made at least one return trip to Sierra Leone. But mostly, your conversations were by phone. And you were a kid. So there's a limit to how much you can engage by phone when you're a kid, how much meaningful conversation you can have. So your episode about your mother in your podcast "Resistance" is called "Borders Between Us." And it's really a long prose poem with poems in it. And I think you're a terrific writer and poet. So I want to play you reading one of your poems from that podcast. And this poem is called "Another Poem For My Mother." Do you want to say anything about writing it before we hear it?

TEJAN-THOMAS: No. We can listen to it.

GROSS: OK. I just want to add here, your mother died of cancer when you were 16. That's referred to in the poem. So I want people to know that before we hear it. So here's Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. reading his poem, "Another Poem For My Mother."

(SOUNDBITE OF PODCAST, "RESISTANCE")

TEJAN-THOMAS: [Reading] "Another Poem For My Mother." For the first few years of my life, there was a voice on the other end of the line that I did not recognize. I heard it on my birthday, on Eid and whenever I was sick. The voice always seemed to call when there was something to celebrate or something that needed mending. It was my mother's voice reminding me that she was always there, even when she wasn't. We held a whole relationship over the phone. From dial tone to ring, to the operator announcing that the credit was almost finished, we talked on borrowed time, trying to maintain connection an ocean apart. Even though all she did was ask me questions and all I did was answer yes or no, it brought me some small comfort, her voice. A few days after she died, I tried to call her. I laughed at myself when I picked up the phone. What was it that I had to say to this woman that made me foolish enough to forget that she was no longer here? I think I finally know the answer. I want to do what she did for me growing up. I want to ask her questions. What happened to the woman on the phone? Why were you so different in America? Was I a disappointment to you? Was I the reason you died?

GROSS: And I should say, what we hear at the end is a shift from you onstage to you in the studio narrating the podcast. There's so much I want to ask you about your mother. She came to America in part to, like, give you a better life. And then when you were growing up here, you got into trouble, you know? You say that you burned CDs so that you could sell them to buy sneakers. You got into fights. You got expelled from school.

I'm thinking about how upsetting it must have been for your mother when you got into trouble. You know, she - and I'm sure you've thought about this, too. She made so many sacrifices to raise you here. She was without your father, who didn't have the papers to get here. She's working all these jobs, including cleaning white people's homes. And you're getting into trouble. How did she talk with you about that? Did she?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Oh, man (laughter), she did.

GROSS: (Laughter).

TEJAN-THOMAS: Man, my mom, my aunts, they have this gift - and I think maybe this is where I even get it from. They have this gift of being able to not only tell stories but also, like, tell you about yourself in the most, like - and make you feel so ashamed and just, like, bogged down with, like, heavy shame and guilt once you did something. She would just sit me down and just, like, really point out the facts of what was happening, right? I am in this country. I'm doing this thing. I'm doing - I'm working at white people's houses. I'm cleaning. She would say that I'm, you know, doing this really hard, grueling work, work that is not easy. And I'm on my feet all day, and my back hurts. I have all this back pain, and I've brought you here to create a better life for yourself and to really do something, make something of yourself. And this is what you're doing with that opportunity, this is what you're making of yourself?

And it just put it - it just put it in really stark relief of just, damn, she's right. Like, why am I doing this? Why am I doing this? Why am I putting her through this? And why am I not making something better of myself? And - yeah, yeah. But it was like - that's how - basically, that's how she would break it down to me. And she would do it in such a way that was just so dramatic. It would just be so dramatic. It would be like watching somebody do a monologue really, really well. And it just hit every single time.

GROSS: Your father died when you were 14. Your mother died of cancer when you were 16. So you were orphaned when you were 16. Who did you live with? What did you do?

TEJAN-THOMAS: I lived with my aunt. So at this point, when my mom had left to go to America when I was really young, there were seemingly basically like a village of women who, you know, filled that role in my life. And one of those people was my mom's younger sister. And I had developed this really good relationship and bond with her back home. And my mom's younger sister - a few years before my mom got cancer, my mom's younger sister had come to America, so she was here now. And she was just getting on her feet, getting a job. And when my mom passed, she just, like, resumed that role. She just stepped right back in. And so did my uncle, my mom's - he's not even my uncle; he's my cousin. But I call him my uncle out of respect. But my mom's nephew, he stepped in. And all these people who had, like, been there for me while my mom couldn't be or when my - yeah, when my mom couldn't be, they stepped right back in and just sort of filled that role. So my aunt and my uncle, they moved into the house where my mom was at. They, you know, started paying the rent together. They resolved to, like, raise me and my little sister. And they just did their best and, yeah, just picked up where they had left off.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., host of the podcast "Resistance." We'll be right back after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ROBBEN FORD'S "PIXIES")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., a poet and host of the podcast "Resistance" in which he follows the lives of people who have been protesting against police assaults on Black people. He grew up in Freetown, Sierra Leone. He moved to the U.S. to be with his mother when he was 8 years old. She came to the U.S. when he was 1 with the idea that he and his father would join her in a couple of years, but there were problems with their papers, and it never worked out that way.

So you know, you have a poem that's on the Internet. And it's called "Play." And it's a poem about being sexually assaulted by your uncle who had also been assaulting your cousin. And I'm not going to play that. It's kind of a little graphic for public radio. It's very heavy, but I will recommend it. And if you just Google to Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. and the title of the poem, "Play," you'll find it right away, and you can hear it. And you're in tears when you're reading this poem in this particular performance of it. And I couldn't help but wonder if this was the first time that you'd read it and what it was like for you to, like, read it onstage. I'm not sure if it's anything you'd ever spoken about before.

TEJAN-THOMAS: No, not really, not really. I hadn't spoken about that really with anybody. I think I read it once or twice for my team and the people I was working with. And then they were like, OK, don't read it anymore. And I just I hadn't read it anymore at all until I did it onstage. I was scared. I was freaking terrified of what reading this poem out loud could mean. And - yeah, I'm glad I wrote that poem. I'm glad it's out there. But it's definitely a poem that I'm like - it's a poem that I wrote before I think I was ready to write it.

GROSS: It doesn't sound that way.

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yeah, maybe I was. But presenting it, doing it onstage and the nervousness and, like, the fear that I had told me that, oh, maybe I wasn't ready to do this. Maybe I wasn't really ready to, like, put myself out there - 'cause I don't really think of, like shame - things like being shameful of my own story and stuff, I have this very weird thing where I'm just like, oh, like, I don't need to be ashamed about this. Like, I'm just going to go do it. But then I do it, and then I'm like, damn, why did I do that? (Laughter) You know? Like, damn, that was actually really hard. And I guess that's just the way it is. But like, on the front end of it, I'm really, I guess, courageous about just doing it. But then on the back end, I'm just like, damn, why'd I just put myself out there like that? (Laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. Well, I think part of what makes somebody somebody write really well is the ability to, you know, to go deep and to be exposed. But, you know, you said you were terrified when you were reading it. Were there - did people perceive you differently in a way that made you uncomfortable after you read it?

TEJAN-THOMAS: No. I think people really saw it for what it was and felt like they got a glimpse of sort of some of the stuff that I was dealing with and felt really like, you know, sympathetic towards me, but also like - they appreciated the poem. And I got a lot of good responses from people who felt like they had had similar experiences, and it touched them. And that was really good. What I was afraid of was some of the things that I even explored in the poem, which was just like, if I put this poem out there, what does this poem about being sexually assaulted say about my masculinity? What does it say about me as a man? And what does it say about me as, like, a Black man? Like, am I soft now? Am I just, like, weaker because of this? Will people see me that way?

But that's not at all how people responded to it. And I really appreciated that. Yeah. And yeah, it was really powerful. It was really good for me. Like, what I really appreciated about that poem was like really being able to, like, say how I saw it and live in that for a moment as a kid and like what would - what does the child in me who experienced this have to say about this from their perspective? And how do they feel? And how do, you know, how do I feel? So, yeah, being able to like really reframe that narrative from my experience was like really, really helpful.

GROSS: I want to ask you about your voice. You have a very rich voice. Did you work on it when you started podcasting? Had you been used to hearing your voice?

TEJAN-THOMAS: No. I - yes, I've been used to it. I've been used to it because - from poetry, because so much of poetry is writing for the ear. And so much of it is like writing for - to be listened to. And so it was a natural transition between that. And I think doing podcasting was like, oh, I know - it's different because, like, being on stage, you're sort of like - you're kind of yelling a little bit like slam poetry.

(LAUGHTER)

TEJAN-THOMAS: It's a little - it could be a little, like, much. But I knew that making the transition into podcasting that I - I always had this idea of what I wanted my voice to sound like on - in the radio and audio. And I wanted it to be more intimate. I wanted it to be more deliberate and powerful, but like really reserved and - yeah. And so when I got into podcasting, I was like, oh, I'm just going to try out what the sound I had - in my head. And yeah, thankfully, it's working. But I was very much used to it, I think, before with poetry.

GROSS: When you came to the U.S., did you have an accent?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Yes. Yes, I did have an accent. But I worked so hard to get rid of it. And I was - because I think I really have an ear for sound, I was really good at, like, masking it and getting rid of it to the point where, like, halfway through the school year, they forgot that I was an immigrant. And, like, they never put me in any English as a second language classes because I was just like working so hard to get rid of it. And I regret it. I wish I still had my accent, I really wish I did. But I was...

GROSS: Why? Why do you wish that?

TEJAN-THOMAS: Because, like, that's who I was and. That's who I am. And so - for so, like - a lot of the time, I do feel very distant from home. I do feel very distant from that part of me that I left - I feel like I left back home. And I feel like the accent is like a reminder of who you are. And it's a reminder of where you come from. And to own that and to embrace that, I think, is a powerful thing. And, like, and - but I was just so young. And I wanted to fit in. And I just - I got rid of it. So - and I really regret that I did that.

GROSS: Saidu, it's really been great to talk with you. And I wish you the best with whatever you decide to do with your podcast and whatever you decide to do in addition to that. Thank you so much.

TEJAN-THOMAS: Thank you so much, Terry. I really appreciate it.

GROSS: Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. hosts the podcast "Resistance."

If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed, like this week's interviews with Emerald Fennell, the writer and director of the Oscar-nominated film "Promising Young Woman," or Leslie Odom Jr., who's nominated for two Oscars, or Henry Louis Gates, or Patrick Radden Keefe, author of a new book investigating the Sackler family that owns Purdue Pharma, which makes OxyContin, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.