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Wisdom Watch: A News Career Beyond Wildest Dreams


I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Poetry in 140 characters or less. You've sent us some wonderful tweet poems in celebration of National Poetry Month. We'll offer up another in our month-long series in a few minutes.

But, first, a Wisdom Watch conversation. That's the part of the program where we talk to those who've made a difference in their work. Today, a groundbreaking journalist. She was the first female African-American television reporter on the West Coast. Belva Davis worked for San Francisco's KPIX TV and covered major stories during one of the tumultuous times in the country's history.

She reported on Vietnam War protests, the rise of the Black Panther Party and the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. And with her mix of hard news and human interest reporting from the Bay Area and from around the world, Belva Davis became one of the most trusted voices in broadcasting.

(Soundbite of broadcasts)

Ms. BELVA DAVIS (Journalist): Belva Davis for Eyewitness News, the San Francisco Film Festival. Belva Davis for Eyewitness News at the Kashia Indian Reservation. Belva Davis for Eyewitness News in the Bay off Alcatraz.

MARTIN: And now Belva Davis documents her years as a reporter in her new memoir, "Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism." And she's with us now from member station KQED in San Francisco. Diva, welcome. Thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. DAVIS: I will take that with all humility. And thank you so very much for inviting me.

MARTIN: You know, your book is actually very funny in parts. And anybody who's ever seen your reporting will certainly recognize that the twinkle that's in your eye when you're on the air is certainly present on the pages of the book. But it's also very tough reading in some parts. You did not have an easy time of it at all. So I wanted to ask you where the title of the book comes from.

Ms. DAVIS: Because what people expected of me made me think that what I really wanted out of life wasn't possible. And so, I would say, well, I'd like to do that, but never in my wildest dreams do I think that can really happen. But, of course, all the time I was working as hard as I could to make it my reality.

The real reason I wrote this book is for young girls like myself, young women like I was back then struggling, a child who was trying to find her place in that sort of hand-me-down society where I lived, a young single mother trying to make it with children, a teen living in the housing projects and trying to live there with dignity and to get out whole. So there were a number of these reasons why I thought I was limited. And now I want to say to young women: forget that, you know, believe in yourself.

MARTIN: Well, just to give people an idea of what you're talking about, people who know you as kind of this elegant, you know, glamorous figure who, you know, certainly cuts a wide swath in San Francisco, might be shocked to learn that you were born in the depths of the Depression during the reign of Jim Crow, as you put it. Your mother was only 14 years old when she had you. A laundress who earned, you know, $4 a week. And it was a tough, tough go.

I must tell you, for me, one of the most difficult chapters was that, you know, your mother really struggled to take care of you. And at one point she left you in a house full of men, where you were - well, do you want to tell the story?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, you know, in looking at my mother and her struggle, her youth, her lack of education, her lack of knowledge about parenting, I have to always reach out to her in my heart and soul. She had a very unhappy life: married too soon, pregnant too soon. But at one point I think she grew into adulthood and she found somebody in her life that she cared about. She was in an unhappy marriage, and so she moved out and she didn't tell anybody where she was going because my father had a very fiery temper.

And I was left in the apartment there where our customary lifestyle was that relatives came and went, depending upon their economic well-being at the time. And I was left in this household with a group of men. And I did not have a person in my life that I could talk with about anything serious. So when the molestation started by some member in the household who was related to me in some way, I didn't know what to do about it. So I thought it was my fault and I just carried such guilt that I thought about suicide.

MARTIN: You did not tell anyone this...

Ms. DAVIS: No.

MARTIN: ...until you decided to write this book. And I wondered why you decided now was the time to talk about the fact that you were abused as a child.

Ms. DAVIS: Well, as we learn more and more about children who are abused, we have to give them more hope of living past that incident, or those incidents in their life. And I thought that for - particularly, for a black female where we know that this is something that kids have to tolerate far too often, that I needed to tell them about this and then say but look, this is what I went on to do with my life. I'm proud of what I've done with my life. I'm proud that I was able to put that behind me. In fact, it may have been a motivator in continuing to push me to prove that indeed I was a worthy person.

MARTIN: How did you get bitten by the journalism bug?

Ms. DAVIS: I had always wanted this thing about writing. But the real commitment started in 1964 and I was in radio and I volunteered to go with the news director of my radio station to the 1964 Republican National Convention, which was held in San Francisco. There we had one day a piece because we were there on visitor passes from a well-known Republican gentleman. But the second day was a day when racism and hatred for the media were paramount and the place was out of control most of the night and we - they came after us. The crowd did with the, you know, the N word and with whatever they could throw at us. But...

MARTIN: Literally threatening to kill you. I mean you write about this in your opening.

Ms. DAVIS: Oh. Oh my...

MARTIN: It's the opening chapter of the book where you literally, they literally say I'm going to kill you.

Ms. DAVIS: Absolutely. So this was tough - this was a tough territory. But in any case, we did manage to get out of there, but not before I was almost on the verge of tears. But once I was in the car that night I thought about what I had seen. I thought about the journalists on the floor and in the booth who were being threatened but who had the power of their networks and their broadcast stations and their newspapers, I assume, to talk about this, to tell the world about it.

And I said to myself here we are injured with these things, bottles and so forth thrown at us and who do we have to tell? And I said I want to be one of those guys. I want to have their power.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with broadcast legend Belva Davis. She was the first African-American female television reporter on the West Coast. We're talking about her new memoir "Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism."

So, you know, you did, you know, manage to break in, and again I have to say, not easy at the time you started trying to break into the business: single mom yourself with two kids, hadn't gone to college, as you mentioned, something that you were sensitive about, but you did get in. You did break in. You met many, you know, famous figures and you met Malcolm X. You interviewed Fidel Castro. I know everybody asks you this but I have to ask you. Of all the things that you covered is there one particular story that stays with you?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, they all live - they still live in my head because they were all memorable things. Meeting Malcolm X was memorable. Having exposure to Dr. King was memorable. To be there for the beginning of the AIDS epidemic and to make a difference in a way that I think helped to save lives will stay with me forever. Having the opportunity to travel to Kenya and Tanzania and to offer and help to facilitate medical supplies for citizens of these two African nations who were injured after our embassies were bombed in their country; that was a singular thing we know we bought relief. These are singular things that you can never forget and it's hard to choose a favorite because you know that each of them have meant something in a number of people's lives.

MARTIN: Another formidable broadcast diva, Carole Simpson, has also produced her memoir this year. It's called "NewsLady" and we had the opportunity to speak with her about that. You both say some similar things in the book. You talk about just the kind of overt racist behavior. But you also make a point of how gender also affected your lives and I wanted to talk to you about that. I mean, Carole makes the point that for all that she had to put up with on a racial basis, that sometimes gender was an even bigger issue. And I wanted to ask if you think that was true for you as well.

Ms. DAVIS: Oh, of course, it was. I mean, the news photographers that I went out with really thought that their lives were more endangered because I was five feet one and female, and that if they got into difficulty I would not be able to hammer it out with somebody and this was a real concern. And there were several guys who really did everything they could to avoid working with me for those reasons when they thought they were going into dangerous situations.

But I think more than anything they soon found out, for instance, when we were doing stories about the Panthers they were safer with me than with anybody else. They - some did find out even at Berkeley because I made friends with the students, that they had a better break with me than they had with somebody else.

MARTIN: Why was that?

Ms. DAVIS: But I had to prove that, you know?

MARTIN: But why was that? Because the audience trusted you? Because the people who you were interviewing wanted to talk to you? Why do you think they did better - they actually found out that they would do better with you than they would with someone else?

Ms. DAVIS: Well, the business had been all-male, so my approach to news gathering was different from what they were getting from the white guys who they'd been dealing with all the time. I actually would sit down and talk and have debates with students to try to understand whatever it was that was driving them to stand there and confront an officer with a billy club and a gun sometimes and still move forward, you know, and express themselves right in their face.

So when I was in Berkeley, at my actually scariest moment on a day when there was violence and death, it was my ability to stand and debate and talk with them and explain to them that if they didn't understand that if they didn't let me go on and do my job and report, no one would ever know what they thought. No one would ever know their point of view. All they would see would be the rocks being thrown.

MARTIN: What do you think your legacy will be? And I do want to mention that you are only semi-retired, that you still host a weekly program on KQED. It's called "This Week in Northern California." But what do you think your legacy will be? What do you hope it will be?

Ms. DAVIS: You know, I wrote something that kept me going for years and it was: don't be afraid of the space between your dreams and reality. That is my message to every young woman; every girl who has a dream who wants to be something more than what people expect of her. If they could just hang on to just that phrase and continue to move forward and leave the baggage behind, if I can leave that kind of message behind for young women then this I would consider a life well lived.

MARTIN: Belva Davis was the first black female television reporter on the West Coast. Her new memoir is called "Never in My Wildest Dreams." And she was kind enough to join us from member station KQED in San Francisco.

Belva Davis, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. DAVIS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure talking to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.