WASHINGTON—April Ryan’s commanding voice, level eye contact and animated hand gestures during her presentation of her book “At Mama’s Knee,” a book about mothers discussing race with their children, at Politics and Prose on Tuesday night affirmed her unyielding dedication to the field of journalism and the black community.
Ryan is a veteran journalist who serves as the White House correspondent for American Urban Radio Networks. She is also a single mother to two girls with a commitment to teaching them about black history and its applications to the present.
“I’m five generations removed from the last-known slave in my family, and I bet none of them would have ever imagined that I would be at the White House,” Ryan said.
Her book was inspired by her own journey as a mother during the culmination of tense race relations and policing in America in recent years, and highlights how mothers from black and white families have approached their children about the conversation of race.
Her newest book was not her first attempt at discussing race at the national level. The author also wrote another acclaimed book, “The Presidency in Black and White,” which focused on three presidents and race starting from the Clinton Administration.
They all know her by name.
“I am known as a black reporter who asks black questions,” Ryan said. “During press conferences at the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I didn’t even have to raise my hand for President Bush. He said ‘April Ryan, I know you have a question.’”
Despite her recognition by major political figures and the press pool at the White House, Ryan remains firmly connected to her roots. She commutes every day to her office from the heart of Baltimore to host The White House Report, the first and only national radio show to broadcast directly from the White House. To Ryan, talking about race also means remembering where she is from.
“I am a child of Baltimore. I am a product of Baltimore City,” the author said. “I frequent areas where Freddie Gray was taken into custody. I get my hair done around places where Freddie once walked. I go to church there.”
Ryan recalled that the Baltimore riots in 2015 were a critical time for her role as a mother and a chance for her to rise to the occasion as a black parent.
“You want to give your children sugar and spice and everything nice, but the realities of life hit us and they hit us hard,” she said.
Ryan remembered driving past a red pickup truck brandishing Confederate flags on the eve of the riots with her children, and that she wanted to be “as honest as possible” that night if she was confronted with their questions.
“My girls asked me: ‘Mom, what are those?’ And I told them that those flags are a symbol of hate. They are a symbol of a dark past,” she said.
The author incorporated the voices of famous mothers such as Trayvon Martin’s in her work to highlight how mothers navigate racial discourse with their children during the peak of tragedy. Using their voices has aided her mantra of “expressing hurt and pain by spreading their stories.”
“We have to come to grips with the inconceivable pain that happens over and over again,” Ryan said. “I always remind myself, how can I talk about race in the White House if I don’t talk about it in my own home?”
Halfway through her presentation, she read aloud a passage from the book detailing how black fathers have traditionally given ‘the talk’ to their boys by a certain age. The essence of the ‘talk’ is that fathers tell their sons in blunt terms that they may be killed if they do not comply with law enforcement, and that this reality is “more than a soulful truth, it is an unavoidable fact.”
At this point, Ryan pivoted in her talk to emphasize that the duty of giving this talk is being transferred to black mothers. The discussion that is meant to be a “lifetime tool” is no longer exclusive to sons. It is now also given to daughters.
“I remember having to tell my girls about little Tamir Rice from Cleveland, Ohio when they wanted to play with toy guns outside,” Ryan said. “I showed them the video of 12-year-old Tamir Rice getting shot by police. And it was tough. But this is the reality that I face when raising my children.”
Although the author educates her children about being guarded, she also stresses to them that communities have to reconcile differences and learn to take care of each other, a lesson that is a major component in her book.
“My daughters see that I am a proud African American woman,” Ryan said. “But I also love my Asian friends, my Caucasian friends, my Hispanic friends. I love people. So I think that has transcended into both of my kids. This nation is browning, and we all have to learn to love each other.”