Resistant to generalizations and assumptions, Paul Barrett acknowledges that “If journalism ever works, it’s because of people’s generosity in talking to journalists about their lives.”
Question: Has writing the book changed your perceptions?
Barrett: It was for me personally an extremely fulfilling and satisfying experience. I realize that might sound somewhat selfish or even clinical that I could be talking to people often about tremendous anxiety, and strife, and turmoil in their lives, and I say it’s satisfying. Well it’s satisfying for me in the sense of doing my craft; doing my little thing I do; turning my tape recorder on and sitting and talking to somebody. People were extremely generous with their time. While many were suspicious of me at first . . . I mean you look at me and you walk into a predominantly Black mosque in Bedford-Stuyvesant, people initially think you’re with the FBI. And you just . . . I mean that’s called being a journalist. You get past that after a while. And many of them probably still do think I’m an FBI . . . from the FBI even to this day. But many others sat and they talked to me. Do they think they were talking to the FBI or not? They told me their stories. People were very generous with their stories, and I came away re-affirmed with my basic impression that the . . . you know the right perspective on life is to look for the ambiguity, not for the simple distinctions; re-affirmed with my sense of humility of how little one really understands about everything that’s out there; re-affirmed with my own choice of being a miniaturist rather than a painter of vast landscapes. My book is a series of portraits. My first book was a portrait of one man that just happened to be a book about Black-White racial relations in this country – a story meant to evoke a much more complicated generality. And in many, many cases, journalism is a craft of miniatures. We are much less good at the big, broad sweep because we don’t have much perspective on it. It’s sweeping right past us. But when we can grab an individual person and sit them down, you can get a little snapshot of that person – whether it’s the president or the proverbial man on the street. And so doing the book reaffirmed to me that there’s value in doing that. You can’t extrapolate across the board from those experiences. But you can learn from actually hearing the full story even from a relatively ordinary person. And I go forward trying to continue to do this kind of work on all manner of topics; grateful to the people I talk to in the same way that I’m grateful to all the people I talked to for almost 25 years now doing this kind of work, because people are extraordinary . . . I mean people can be extremely generous not just with their literal time, but with revealing to you what their lives have been like. And if journalism ever works, it’s because of people’s generosity in talking to journalists about their lives. Recorded on: 12/4/07