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Looking forward: New editor-in-chief takes over The Emancipator

Jamil Smith is the new Editor-in-Chief of the Emancipator, a publication through BU’s Center for Antiracist Research, first announced in a Nov. 13 press release by the publication. Inspired by 19th century abolitionist newspapers, the multimedia digital magazine focuses on explaining and identifying solutions to structural racism, according to the publication’s website.

Jamil Smith, the new Editor-in-Chief at the Emancipator in March 2023. At the Emancipator, Smith hopes to cover the inner work of racial justice and take a nuanced look at the lives of people affected by this type of policy and politics. PHOTO COURTESY OF REGINALD CUNNINGHAM

Smith, a seasoned journalist, brings over two decades of experience to the publication, originally launched in March of 2021 under the Boston Globe by the Center’s founder and director Ibram X. Kendi.

Smith most recently wrote for the Los Angeles Times as an essayist and has previously contributed to Vox, Rolling Stone Magazine, Time Magazine, the New York Times, the New Republic and MSNBC, among others publications. His career has followed an interesting path, “but ultimately it’s been one of fulfillment,” Smith said, adding that he thinks his “varied experience” will help him in his new role.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

What led you to the Emancipator? Why was this an important opportunity for you to take?

“What led me here was the opportunity to take something up I thought was really promising, that’s shown to produce some really substantive investigative journalism about the subject that I’ve covered the most during my career, but also the opportunity to help build that publication even further and see what the potential could truly be. That was something that ultimately I found just very appealing. And, of course, there’s the intrigue as the son of an academic. My late mother was an anthropologist in Florida, and she entered academia around the same time in her life as I am, and there’s a certain symmetry there. So, being able to do what I do in terms of producing good journalism within an academic environment, that kind of opportunity doesn’t come along all that often.”

How do you hope to lead the Emancipator? What editorial ideas do you bring to the table and is there a certain type of story or subject that you want to see covered more?

“You can see that the coverage of race and racism in this country is too often focused on reacting to something or reacting to somebody being shot, or harassed, or insulted, or to discriminatory policy being discussed, passed or enforced. But I feel that we don’t as often take a look at the inner work of racial justice or the fight for racial and racial equity. My hope is that even as we cover the policy and the politics involved, I want to make sure that we are also taking a nuanced look at the lives of the people affected by this policy and these politics. I want to see how people who are fighting for change live their lives and what they do to maintain their composure and fortitude when things become undeniably, sometimes irrepressibly, stressful. I want to have a publication that can talk about race and racism, while also making sure that we show that racial oppression and discrimination are not the entirety of the experiences of the people who suffer from them.”

How do you hope to carry on the legacy of The Liberator and other abolitionist publications that partially inspired the Emancipator? 

“To paraphrase Dr. Kendi, the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify it and describe it, and then you have to dismantle it. Now, that’s a comprehensive process. One that the Center for Antiracist Research is undeniably engaged in. I see that our role in the press is to put our energy more towards the first two steps. I’m an evangelist for critical thinking. I want people to think more critically about the world around them, and about ways to change the world. What I hope is that by identifying and describing the realities of racial inequity, not just here in America, but more globally, is that we can help people think with more thorough information about the world around them and help enhance their curiosity about that world so they go forth and do more to dismantle what needs dismantling. Undeniably, the structural racism that we’ve seen in this country and abroad needs dismantling, but I don’t know if it’s the role of a publication to do that. I think it’s our role to shine light on solutions and the people trying to find those solutions, and the different ways of thinking and coping that we must engage in if we’re to lead ourselves forward.”

Where do you see the Emancipator fitting into the BU community? What do you think is the benefit of publishing under a university?

“I see us fitting in by making sure that we interact in a constructive and fruitful way within the community. I’m looking forward to getting to know BU and the people there: everyone from students who wish to write for us or read us, to faculty members who offer their own contributions with their expertise, to folks who are working as university employees and potentially, there are stories to tell there. I learned during my college days that the university community is a really complex ecosystem, and there’s not one part of it that can be taken away and, you know, and we can hope that everything is going to run as smoothly as it wants to. When I say being part of the university community, I really do mean everyone from linecooks to the provosts and the president. I want everybody reading us, listening to us and watching us on social media. I want everyone involved to feel like they have a stake in our success, because we certainly feel like we have a stake in theirs.

Do you hope that students specifically will utilize the Emancipator as a resource?

I want to enhance the curiosity of our readers and of every person who comes to the Emancipator. I want them to take what we put into the world and push it further out into the world…I personally hope that it will enhance their thinking. These young people are in one of the factories of scholarship. This is where scholars are made. This is where the barriers are broken and rules are bent and sometimes fractured. All of that, I think, inevitably leads to progress. And if we can continue to encourage people to see which roles need to be broken, see what parts of the society need replacing and inspire them to find creative ways to do that. They may not write a word for us, but they may, in fact, carry forth the mission of the publication as well as anyone.”

In your interview with the Emancipator producer Alex LaSalvia, you said you want to make sure the publication provides “coverage that fills in some of the gaps” of traditional media election coverage. What would filling in the gaps look like?

“Too often race is seen as a fringe topic, as part of the ‘culture war,’ which often within media circles is segregated from the economy, climate and other different topics. It’s treated as if it’s its own thing when in fact, it’s actually part of every story. I hope that we can continue the work that a number of minority-led newsrooms have been doing to help contextualize the issues in the persistent American dilemma of racism … It’s in sports, it’s in business, it’s in style, it’s in entertainment. All of these things that are typically regarded as their own subject until it’s convenient to discuss race in a way that’s regarded as safe … Now, I think that this publication is ideally suited to play a part in helping correct that.

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