April D. Ryan is veteran journalist who has been a White House correspondent for the past 18 years.
She also serves as the Washington bureau chief for the American Urban Radio Networks.
Besides covering the Obama administration, Ryan’s responsibilities include hosting “The White House Report,” a syndicated show airing on about 300 radio stations around the country. The Morgan State grad still lives in her native Baltimore, which is where she is raising two daughters, age 7 and 12.
Here, she talks about her new memoir, “The Presidency in Black and White,’’ with Kam Williams.
Kam Williams: I have a lot of questions for you that were submitted to me by readers. Sangeetha Subramanian says: Hello Ms. Ryan. Congratulations on your book. I wish it lots of success and look forward to reading it. Advocacy seems like a constant tango between knowing which battles to choose and when. How do you find the balance between knowing when to pull back and when to go full steam ahead?
April Ryan: Wow! That’s a good question. You’re right, Sangeetha, it’s kind of a dance we do that’s not scripted or choreographed. We just have to kinda feel our way through. For the most part, you ask questions about current events of the day or about what’s happening in the community. If you think you can get more of an answer, you follow up. But you do have to know when to pull back, otherwise you could make a fatal mistake, because that room is unforgiving. It’s just a dance that you have to learn how to do.
KW: What interested you in writing a memoir?
AR: A friend told me that I could not sit in that room and not write one. I basically started journaling from day one. I tried to work out a book deal during the Clinton years, but it was too soon. During the Bush years we did get a bite, but the editor got fired. Then, when President Obama was elected, my agent and I looked at each other, and said, “This is it!” And it was time.
The high points
KW: Harriet Pakula-Teweles asks: What would you describe as the high point of your years with the White House Press Corps?
AR: There have been a lot of high points, professionally. But, I’d say it was the 100th anniversary of the White House Correspondents’ Association. My proudest moment was to be the third African-American on the board in the history of the organization. That board was founded by all White men.
So, as a Black female I was very proud to be in that picture alongside the first Black president and first lady. Things have changed, and I’m very thankful to be in the history books.
KW: Editor Lisa Loving says: In the fascinating exchange between Nancy Giles and J Smooth about the strange Starbucks initiative that “gives Starbucks employees permission” to discuss race with customers, Giles made a swift reference to the racial blowback a Black president has had on race relations across the board. What impact has Obama’s presidency had overall on how Americans deal or do not deal with racism?
AR: Well, what I would say is that Barack Obama will always have race and politics follow him because of the historic nature of his presidency as the first Black president. But he has made people talk about race, especially in his second term. He’s now more open and conversational about race than he has ever been. And this is a topic that we, as a people, are hypersensitive about no matter where you are on the spectrum. We have to understand that we are a nation that’s browning. I think this is an issue that’s bigger than just this president. It’s dated back to the inception of the enslavement of Africans in America. We haven’t been able to get it right yet. It’s both a heart issue and a legislative issue. I think we need to talk about it, but if anybody can effectuate a major change, it’s a president of the United States. Just look at history… LBJ and the Voting Rights Act… Lincoln and the Emancipation Proclamation… and also FDR.
KW: Children’s book author Irene Smalls asks: In your opinion, what are some things the president can do to improve race relations in this country?
AR: I think I’ve already answered that. The speech he delivered in Selma on the 50th anniversary of the march was very powerful. It tore me up when we went over the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, the most poignant moment of the day was when Congressman John Lewis said, “If anybody had told me 50 years ago, that I would be back here introducing the first African-American president, I’d have said, ‘You’re crazy!’” I got goose bumps. It was moving because John Lewis is not only a hero to me but to so many other African-Americans.
If it were not for his getting clubbed over the head and knocked unconscious, along with others who were beaten with Billy clubs, bitten by dogs, and sprayed with fire hoses, we would not have the right to vote, and I would not be in the White House being called upon by name by the last three presidents.
That experience touched every part of my being, because that history is a part of me.
KW: Troy Johnson was wondering: What has been your biggest disappointment with the Obama administration?
AR: If I have a disappointment, it would be with the Black unemployment numbers. He couldn’t be expected to make a drastic enough change in six years to get it on par with White America’s unemployment rate, but I would still like to see him focus on it more, because the figure is extremely high.
KW: Who is the most likeable of the presidents you covered, and who was the smartest?
AR: I don’t want to answer that. [Laughs.] Let me say this. All three are likable. One thing that many people forget is that they are human beings as well as presidents. When I had a soul food dinner with Bill Clinton and other Black journalists, he said, “I came because you invited me and I like you, and I like the food.” He said it made him feel like he was back home again, and that you’d be surprised how, after becoming president, people only invite you out for a fundraiser or for this or that official function, but not for a simple dinner where you could just relax and be yourself. That was so telling. I actually felt sorry for him.
President George W. Bush and I laughed so much, and President Clinton and I laughed a lot. They’re more gregarious than President Obama, but he’s funny, too. And he’s a nice guy. But he’s had to be more cautious about he’s perceived. All three of the presidents are very smart, although Bush played on the fact that people had low expectations of him. He looked more like the average person than Clinton or Obama.