Leon Decosta Dash


Leon Decosta Dash was interviewed on June 26, 2014. Mr. Dash talked about his appearance on  Booknotes on November 10, 1996, where he discussed his book "Rosa Lee: A Mother and Her Family in Urban America."


Interview Transcript

Good morning. Today is Thursday, June 26, 2014, and we are interviewing Professor Leon Dash, who appeared on Booknotes on November 10, 1996, to discuss his book, "Rosa Lee, a Mother and Her Family in Urban America." So, Professor Dash, how did your book come to be on Booknotes?

I don't know. I know that either Brian Lamb or someone on his staff called me and made the arrangements.

Your book had come out, the article had come out, what, two years before?

September of 1994, correct.  And the book came out in the fall of 1996.

I'm curious about your technique. Did you make audio recordings of your interviews with Rosa Lee and her family?

Yes, microcassette tape recordings.

Oh, right. You must have used an awful lot of cassettes in the four years.

More than I can count, yes.

Oh, dear. So how did you prepare for your appearance on Booknotes?  

There was no preparation. They invited me, we set the date and time and place, and I came. I had been interviewed by Brian for a book I had done in 1986, I think it came out. No. The book came out in 1989 called "When Children Want Children." I don't remember if that was on Booknotes or was just a C-SPAN interview, to be candid. But when that book came out, Brian had interviewed me, and then I was invited back for the interview when the book "Rosa Lee" came out. I don't think there was any preparation on my part. I just went and sat in on the interview.

What do you remember most about your appearance on the program? I realize this is almost 20 years ago, but if you could please describe your experience, if you remember anything especially interesting.

I really don't. I remember that Brian, as always, had read the book, and it was obvious that he had read the book, and asked me questions, I think it was for about an hour, on different aspects of the book and the life of Rosa Lee and her family. I had interviewed over a four-year period Rosa Lee, all eight of her adult children, five of her 30-yard grandchildren, and six of her living 11 brothers and sisters. So Booknotes' hour-long format differed greatly from most of the network television interviews, which lasted three minutes or less.

What do you think are the benefits and/or drawbacks of this longer format for the author and for the viewer?

To get a real sense of the book, if you go into great detail, I would imagine, really helps the viewer understand the content of the book, the thrust of the book. I don't know that that comes over in the regular format or the regular commercial format of three minutes or less. Three minutes sounds like a long time. But three minutes or less, I was interviewed when the book on adolescent childbearing came out in '89, I was interviewed on an NBC program, I can't remember, it must be today, by, I can't remember the, she's well-known, but I don't remember her name. And that was a very short format and really didn't cover what the book on adolescent childbearing covered. So the formats were very different and each provided a different level of information to the audience.

Judging by the extensive marginalia in his books, it appears Mr. Lamb read them thoroughly before the interview. Do you find this to be normal for the interviewers and how does it change the interview experience?

Well, I have been interviewed by a lot of people in terms of the two books all over the country, both in radio and television, and for internet publication, and Brian's interviews were the most extensive interviews that I ever experienced. And most people had a sense of the book, but you could tell they had not really read it because they would falter in the interview after asking one or two questions that you could tell that they really didn't know what to ask next. And they would ask you a very generalized question. And from that point on, I would take over the interview by supplying them with information that helped them ask follow up questions. But you could tell that they hadn't read the book, and that was often the case, particularly in doing a book tour, two book tours around the US. So some people were prepared and some people were totally unprepared. I imagine that's got to be frustrating to get to an interview and be all ready to talk about the book and then the interviewer falls away from the process. Right, but from a self-centered point of view, it is frustrating because you're there to talk about your book, and the person hasn't had the time or bothered to read it and doesn't know what to ask about it. So, but that's part of the frustration of a book tour. It's not uncommon. My experience is not an uncommon experience.

So Mr. Lamb asked about an author's research and writing methods. Do you believe the reading public finds these details about the practice of writing interesting? Do you think other authors or publishers find them interesting?

I think some people found, I don't know how many, I don't have an assessment of that, but I find that people are still getting requests on using, how to use my interview method. I get people to talk so candidly about their vices and missteps in life. And I tell them all, and I teach this methodology now at the University of Illinois journalism program. I tell them all that it's not a quick interview that will lead you to that kind of revelation. I start out, everyone that I interview, with four set interviews. And each of the interviews are done separately, maybe a week apart. And each one begins at that person's earliest childhood memory in that area. So, and the first interview starts out in a relatively neutral area, and I do the person's school history first. I want them to get accustomed to the rhythm of the conversation because I want to turn it into a conversation rather than an interview. And I want them eventually to lose sight of the digital recorder. I no longer use tape recorders. Now I use a digital recorder. And so we do the school history from the person's earliest childhood memory, and that could be preschool, first grade, or kindergarten. Wherever school began, that's where we would start. And we go through at least the 12 years getting through to high school, or in the case of Rosalie and some of her children, at the point where they dropped out of school. Then after I complete that, I come back and do another two-hour interview on growing up in the family. And we start at the same place, the person's earliest childhood memory, growing up in his or her family. And that can be any number of things. The first Christmas, the first Easter, people remember chocolate bunnies for Easter. Whatever the memory, earliest childhood memory is, that's where we begin, the family history. Then after the family history, we do faith or worldview, the exposure to faith or the non-exposure to faith, whether this person is religious or not, how they were exposed to church, their first visit to any church, did they attend church school, what do they call it, Sunday school. And we go through that from their earliest memory of any discussion of faith until the present moment. And then the fourth interview is growing up outside the family, when you begin to acquire some independence, when you can travel on your bicycle away from the vision of your parents and away from the front of the house or the front of the apartment building, where you begin to experience some independence and interact a great deal with peers outside the family. Now, after completing those four interviews, almost classically, contradictions begin to appear between the third and fourth interview. The person begins to subtly and sometimes dramatically contradict what they told you in the first two interviews. And as I told my students, you don't react to these contradictions. You're happy they have happened because now you know the person is more willing to bring you in closer. And what you've been seeking to achieve in these four interviews is to get the person to partially or fully remove his or her public mask. And it's a mask that we all wear that we acquire, and that's how we want the world outside of ourselves to see us. But I want I with my students and with my own work, I want to get something a lot deeper than the public mask. And so when you have these contradictions appear, you don't note them. You might note them to yourself, but your expression doesn't change. You don't tell the person, well, that's not what you told me two weeks ago in the school. You don't even acknowledge that a contradiction has appeared to the person. And then you follow up these first four interviews with countless, what I call focused interviews. And one of the first things you do is focus in on one of the contradictions that you've identified. And an example of how you would you don't call it a contradiction. An example of how you would get into it would be you. We discussed your father and you said your father never attended church with the family because he was always hung over every Sunday morning. Right. And let's talk a bit about that and how that impacted you and the family. And then the person is at a stage where they're ready to talk, where they may not have been in the first two interviews. Now you're doing the fifth interview, what is called the first focus interview, right into the contradiction. Because they tell you something different about family life in the first two interviews. It was more idyllic. Now they've opened up a window for you to enter and you begin talking to the person about the father's drinking. And it turns out that it wasn't this weekend drinking. It was daily drinking and it was full blown alcoholism. It was very destructive to the family. Now, none of that had the interviewer been told I'm using an exact example, none of that had the interviewer been told in the first two interviews. There was no hint of any disruption in the family was almost too perfect. But in the church interview, the third interview, the person being interviewed, she indicated that her father was hung over every Sunday morning. So then you begin to think that there's more to this than that. And let's go into this contradiction with the first focus interview. And I want to emphasize, the focus interviews go on indefinitely because you, the interviewer, will decide when you will stop and really you can't get any more. I mean, there isn't any more to get about this person's life. And that at that point, you sit down to write. Yeah, well, this is an this is an ex-process. It's a long term process. This is an exhaustive process. This is, you know, this is an amazing amount of work to get people beyond that, those memories that they've already established a narrative for and get beyond that narrative to their basic, more basic reflections. True.

Well, this is this is fascinating. I, I, I would love to have been able to take one of your classes.

Well, thank you.

Yeah, I will be I will be in at Champaign-Urbana for some research for my own dissertation.

But unfortunately, I've got to finish up writing my own research. But what is your dissertation on?

My dissertation is on 20th century mass communication technology in in the during the Cold War behind the Iron Curtain.

Well, contact me before you come out. I do a lot of travel in and out because I'm doing my own research at the moment.  But if you contact me, if I'm in town, let's sit down, have a cup of coffee, sir. 

I would I would be honored. Unfortunately, unfortunately, now I have to get back to  Booknotes.

I would like to ask that Mr. Lamb frequently asked his guests guests by a lot biographical questions. Did that surprise you? And is this generally different from most author interviews you have experienced?

No, people often bring up biographical. I don't know what Brian Lamb has a style that is sort of very neutral in his delivery. So what author people bring up biographical details to establish your relationship with the people you're writing about. Are you knowledgeable about this area or knowledgeable with this this vicarious exploration of another lifestyle, that kind of thing? So there are biographical questions that are asked, but they generally asked to establish whether you have any credibility with the subject matter you're writing about.

Right. Were you surprised by any of Mr. Lamb's questions?

I was surprised by the delivery. The delivery left me somehow uncomfortable. And I remember that very clearly. I felt that he was taking a harder line view of Rosalie and her choices than I would have taken. I felt it was less neutral than the interview he did with me on the adolescent childbearing book, where we explored more of the context of the world these poor adolescents were growing up in than I believe we did in the interview about Rosalie. And one of the things that I felt very uncomfortable with at the end of the interview, after the interview had been completed, it was filmed by a black male technician. And Brian made some comment to him about the whole subject matter of Rosalie. And you could see that the black male technician was also uncomfortable with the entire subject in terms of talking about the black American underclass. So I was a little put off by that. I didn't feel that he had to make that kind of comment to the black male technician. It didn't serve a purpose.

Sure. And you had mentioned that there was quite a bit of backlash about your book from the African American middle class.  

Right. More so with the series that appeared before the book. Right. I think 4500 people called in and about a third of them called in with harsh criticisms of the series. And most of those people were middle class African Americans. It took me two months, but I returned every critical phone call. Oh, my goodness. Yeah. In fact, so much time had passed before I got when I got to the bottom of the list that I had to remind people what they had said when they called because they had forgotten they called and they thought I was calling to sell a subscription to the Washington Post. I said, no, I called because you said in your comment that you want a return phone call from me to explain why I did this. And that's why I'm calling you back. So I often by the second month, I often had to remind people of who I was and what they had called about. But I didn't convert one person to my point of view that it was necessary to shine a light into this area, which was my underlying purpose. I didn't convert one of the people that anyone that I call back, but at least they gave me a hearing. And they said they told me very clearly that they still disagreed with me, but they now understood what my purpose had been.

But I mean, the book itself, while beautifully written, is a very difficult read. I'm sitting here, you know, privileged to go to a wonderful university a bare 20 miles away from this culture that unless I had read your book, I would know nothing about. Absolutely nothing.

Well, that's the purpose of the book. The book is not written in one audience that I spoke to in Washington. One of the people who in the question and answer session, one of the men stood up and shouted at me. You have given me a headache. And I said, well, that was my intention. So I was successful. I didn't want you to walk away from this feeling comfortable. No, he was sort of stunned that that would be my intention.

Do you think about the people who the journalists, such as Jacob Reese and Nellie Bly, who did essentially some of the same things you did about 100 years ago. Is that frustrating that you have to repeat that exercise?

Well, I don't think Jacob Reese. I modeled myself after Jacob Reese because. And the second writer, I don't know. No. Yeah. Nellie Bly. I don't even know. I don't even know of her. But Reese had particular issues and stereotypical issues with the black poor that he didn't have with the white poor. Ah, OK. I don't model myself after Jacob Reese.

Right. And I've never read any of I've read one of his works and that that told me enough about his attitude. And so I know of people who have looked at these conditions. I don't think I've read any of them. Right. I do. I'll take that back. I did read about a guy who wrote about an underclass family in Mount Rainier, Maryland. Right. In the 1950s, a white underclass family. And the name of the book, if I remember correctly, is Perry Street. Is all E.R.R.Y. And that's all I remember about the book. I don't remember the name of the author, but I found it very interesting because he was identifying and characterizing the exact same behavior I found in Rosalie's family. But in a but in a white family.

It becomes very clear from your interview with Mr. Lamb that that, you know, this was  the problems that we're seeing are not problems of race. Essentially, they're problems of poverty and being the underclass, although there is a racial component in that, you know, Rosalie went through that sharecropper experience and her mother did. Her mother did. Yeah. Rosalie was born in Washington. Sheer cropping and all of the isolation and marginalization that that involved in terms of also not giving them an education.

Right. Well, OK, back to Booknotes. Did you watch Booknotes before or after your own interview? And did you? OK. And did you experience your experience on the show change your impression of it?

No, not really. In general, I thought the interviews with everyone else that I watch went very well. No, my opinion didn't change. I felt that my subject matter was a hard subject matter. Yes. I didn't feel with Brian there was enough context of what the book was trying to the purpose of the book was to bring to an audience that might be interested in.

Well, you also I mean, you're not just sensationalizing you were not just sensationalizing this. Your book has a lot holds a lot of discussion of the data from the Urban League and know and what the well, some of that I believe so.  

I'm very sorry. The Urban Institute.

Thank you for correcting me. And that you were not just trying to sensationalize this woman's life, that you were looking at it as a more societal problem, if I may.

Exactly. And I was using the Urban League's definition of what constituted an underclass family when I began looking for the families that I wanted to follow. Right. They have a five point definition that I think it's important. This has changed since the Clinton administration. But when they first published their first study of the American underclass, I believe it was in December of 1986. Here was they had this characterization that that five parts of it told me where I should look for the families I wanted to be involved with. And the first characterization was that the first part of the definition is that an underclass family is generally female headed. Right. Second part was welfare dependent. Well, you can't be welfare dependent today. But at that time you could be. And then the third part was almost all the adults in the family are only have been marginally educated. And the fourth part was most of the adults between the ages of 18 and 65 in the family are generally unemployed or under employed. Right. And then the fifth part. So I said that one of the aspects of an underclass family is that many members of the family are involved in petty criminal activity to supplement the welfare stipend. And that immediately popped into my head as criminal recidivism cycling in and out of a prison system for petty crimes, not crimes of violence for which you get long sentences, but petty crimes and property crimes generally. And getting a year sentence or two year sentence and then coming back out into the world and starting all over and being re-arrested on a new charge again involving petty criminality. So that's why I started looking for the families. I knew that half of the Washington, D.C. prison population was made up of criminal recidivists. Right. Well, that's where I'll go to find the families that I want to follow. I did interviews with 20 men and 20 women in the D.C. jail and selected four families to follow. But once they left jail at the end of the sentence or under some sort of court release, probation or parole, they were impossible to follow. And Rosalie was one of those people who was anchored because she was looking after her three grandchildren because her youngest daughter was in jail for selling crack. And so then our relationship developed from there.

Well, if I can go back to Booknotes, the Booknotes series focused entirely on nonfiction books published between the late 1980s and 2004. What do you think might be the advantages of an 800 book collection with this focus?

Well, I really don't have a thought about it. Except that it provides a resource for people who are looking at a particular segment of the book market in terms of what was published and what was highly thought of. Would Booknotes say that they of course they haven't approached every nonfiction book that was published in that period, but what was their selection criteria for these 800 books? I'm asking you. Oh, sure. I actually do not know. Mr. Lamb was the one who had final say about which books got in the collection and which books did not. And there was also who could they get a hold of and how could, you know, making the arrangements to actually physically be on the show. So as far as the selection of the collection, I don't think there was a specific criteria set. And it's certainly not an exhaustive collection. I understand that. But so I would the first person I would ask is Brian Lamb. What was your criteria in making the final selection of the books that appeared on Booknotes? Well, we're going to be talking to some of the production people, the people who actually made the contacts with the publishers and authors. We're starting to interview them tomorrow. So hopefully we can get some insight into that. Well, tell me something. Is Brian Lamb still with C-SPAN?

He still is. Sort of a president emeritus.  

Right. Oh, OK. That means he's just enjoying life. Yeah. And you're going to put his feet to the fire and say, look, we need an answer to this because we need to understand what your criteria is. I will include that. And tell him that Leon Dash said put the fire. He'll listen to that.

OK, so Brian Lamb and C-SPAN had a rule about Booknotes that authors could only appear on the program one time. If asked, would you have returned for another interview?

Well, that confuses me because the interview on the adolescent childbearing book was in '89. Sure. Booknotes? Yeah, that was that was not Booknotes. That was not Booknotes. That was not Booknotes. No. OK. Yeah. There were just specifically looking at this one, this particular 16 year series as a whole. Give me the year again. Give me the years. They started in the middle of 1989 and then they went to 2004. There are now other other programs. But just for the sake of our of these oral histories, we're just looking at the singular Booknotes series, the 16 year series. My book, my book on adolescent childbearing came out in late '89. Interesting. '89. So you're telling me that it started in mid '89? Yeah. No, I. OK. It might have been a different show. All right. Essentially. Brian Lamb was the interviewer. Yeah. Yeah. He did. He did a lot. He did a lot of other things during that time.

So was there a difference in sales or national attention for your book after you discussed it with Brian Lamb on Booknotes?

I don't think there was a difference in sales. Both books are being purchased today. The One Children, One Children is in its fourth edition, and that last edition was published by the University of Illinois Press. Right. In 2003, I believe, or 2004. And I'm now in discussions with Penguin about a reprint of Rosalie because they have first option. All right. They're very aggravating because they haven't, through the literary agent, told me yes or no. They have to discuss it with in-house. And the discussion is taking a long time. Do you have. So you're asking that question has brought that back to mind. So I'll be calling them later today. Oh, boy. You made a decision because if they decide contractually, they have first option.  So I don't want to violate the terms of the contract, but they're taking a long time to say yes or no.  

Do you know if your books are being used in classrooms?

I do know. I get maybe two or three inquiries about both When Children Want Children and Rosalie each month. Right. People all over the U.S. And most of those are academics or students. People who were in schools where either one or both of the books were assigned reading.

 Did your experience with Brian Lamb and Booknotes cause you to rethink any of your own approaches or assumptions regarding your research or writing?


OK. You were you were already a very well-established author and journalist.

So I wouldn't you know, I wouldn't expect anything before. Before I met Brian. Yeah. Well, you have your you have an extraordinarily rigorous interview process as it is. So it's yeah, it's fascinating. Well, what have you been working on after this book and which works are you most pleased with and why? Well, this came off a seven year effort to do a documentary film on disability in America. Right. We never were able to raise the money for it. Oh, how frustrating. Eight hundred thousand dollars. A lot of lip service, but no. So I pulled the plug on it in January. And now I'm working. But all of the research and the interviews that I've done all now in the University of Illinois archive. So available to wherever, whoever wants to look at it. So it's all been indexed and cataloged and so on. That's a huge job. I'm happy about that. OK. But now I'm working on a book on defining ethnic moments in American life, interviewing Native Americans, black Americans, white Americans and Asian Americans and Hispanic Americans. Now, by ethnic moments, what do you mean by that? What experience have you had in your life that gave you a clear understanding of where you stood in the American society? That's interesting. My husband and I, if I might add a personal note, my husband and I have done historical documentaries. And the first one we did was on the Japanese American internment. OK. During World War Two. And we interviewed quite a few people who had been in the in the camps and we got them to talk about growing up in the Central Valley of California. And one gentleman, you know, we kept, you know, asking what was it like? And he he said, you know, we couldn't use the same swimming pools as the white kids. And he thought for a moment, he said, you know, they treated us like they treated the blacks under Jim Crow. And that was the first time in his life that he had ever realized that. Right. And so I could see where a book or a series of articles or even a documentary on those what you call ethnic moments could be extraordinarily powerful. I hope I also it's several years in the making. Right. Yeah. These are not these are not easy programs to do. And they're all over the country. The interviews will be done all over the country. So I have to do it in between. Teaching and committee work. Right. And that you're the head of the journalism department now. No, no, no. Oh, OK. I'm the director of the Center for Advanced Study. Thank you very much for clarifying that for me. I apologize for not getting your your title correct. I have a chair, Swanman Swanman chair professor. Right. Give me a research and travel stipend to do this work. And then I am the director of the Center for Advanced Study, which is a body here at the university that grants release time to junior and senior faculty on a competitive basis, depending on their proposals for what they would use the release time for. And that also being a member of that center gives me a second research and travel stipend. And then I'm a professor in the Department of Journalism. Right. In the College of Media.

Well, in your estimation, do you think that Booknotes has had a lasting impact in American society?

I think it has. I think it's missed in terms of the end of you say it ended in 2004. That's correct. But since then, I think I've seen old interviews be played. Yeah. And I'm always looking for I'm always paying attention if I turned if I caught it in the after the interview has begun, I have to listen closely to try to figure out when this book was published. But I don't understand why it was stopped. I was I would assume that it would have been very, very popular among the part of the society that is very literate. It's it has been. And you are certainly not the first person we've interviewed who has raised that complaint. OK, so what did happen? Do you know? No, we don't. Yeah. That would be Bob. Right. And Brian. Yes.

What I know from this, Professor Dash, is that I think after so many years, I think Brian just needed a break from it or something like that. I think he also got married right about that time. So it could have been just him reading so many books per week per week. It probably just became a bit of a drag or what have you.

Well, it became too much. So why? Why just keep it to himself? Other people in this society who are literate. Sure. You can have opinions and reactions to books. Sure. Why does he have to be the only interviewer? That's a good question. I think that's a very good question. You're giving us lots of ammunition for me to interview. Interview. This is the second question you need to put to Brian. Yes, sir. The Emeritus, director of C-SPAN. Well, we certainly have appreciated that you have taken the time to talk with us about this. I would like to ask I'm at the end of my scripted questions except to ask you, is there anything else you would like to add regarding the Booknotes program C-SPAN or Brian Lamb? No, I'd like to see it come back. It's been off the air now for what you tell me. I didn't know that the dates to this and off. Yeah, it's so I'd like to see it come back. I think it was a major public service. That's how I see it.

Well, I'm going to formally close our our interview for right now by saying, Professor Dash, thank you for agreeing to do this oral history interview and for sharing with us your experiences on this groundbreaking television interview program. Thank you very much, sir.

Thank you very much. I've enjoyed it.