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Podcaster Chronicles Racism, 'Resistance' And The Fight For Black Lives

Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. was born in Sierra Leone and came to the U.S. when he was 8. He regrets that he no longer has an accent. "The accent is like a reminder of who you are and it's a reminder of where you come from," he says.
Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr. was born in Sierra Leone and came to the U.S. when he was 8. He regrets that he no longer has an accent. "The accent is like a reminder of who you are and it's a reminder of where you come from," he says.

On April 11, Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man, was shot and killed by a police officer during a traffic stop in Brooklyn Center, Minn. It was the latest in a long line of killings of Black people by police in America.

An officer's body camera captured footage of Wright's shooting, but podcast host Saidu Tejan-Thomas Jr., who lost a close friend from college to police violence a few years ago, doesn't plan on watching it.

"I choose not to put myself through that," he says. "I know if I watch that, I'll just be frozen ... with grief and frozen with fear, too. And I can't move like that."

Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s "Resistance" podcast explores different aspects of the Black Lives Matter movement. The podcast has been mostly devoted to the protests that started last summer after the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, but it also chronicles Tejan-Thomas Jr.'s personal history.

Born in Sierra Leone, Tejan-Thomas Jr. experienced that country's civil war before coming to the U.S. at the age of 8. He says the violence Black people experience in America at the hands of police brings back traumatic memories from his childhood.

"I think it probably does tap into some more fundamental fear that I have of being killed unnecessarily and folks that I love being killed unnecessarily," he says.


Interview highlights

On his friend who was killed by police

My friend was having a mental health episode, and he was going throughout Richmond with his clothes off ... he just took off his clothes and was running around Richmond because he was obviously experiencing something. And he drove on to the highway and I think he crashed into a tree and then he came out of his car. By that point, the police had been called and the policeman got out of his car and tried to Tase him, and I guess it didn't work. And so the policeman decided to shoot him. ...

As far as I know, there wasn't [any consequences.] And for context, in a town not too far away from Richmond, there was a man who literally had the same thing happen. He was having a mental health episode and he fought with the cop, they engaged with him for a while using nonlethal forces and took him in. And he was a white man. So that ended very differently. And it was around the same time.

On what he remembers of the war in Sierra Leone as a kid

It's hard for me to fully characterize it, because I was like a kid, but what I do remember was when the war came, things changed really drastically, and we had to get out of the city and go to somewhere in the countryside where it was rumored to be safer. And one of the things we had to do was my dad gave me over to one of the people that he knew to smuggle me out of the city. And the way we did that was literally through the sewers, like we had to go down in the sewers and walk miles until it was safe and then come up somewhere where it was safe and then go meet .... whoever we were supposed to meet at the safer place.

I remember the shooting. I remember the fires. I remember the uncertainty. And I was so young that I don't think I really wrapped my head around it because I was very much complaining about things like not having the kind of food that I was used to eating, because we had to ration food and eat ... meals that were easy to cook. All of that was happening. But it was because I was so young, I think I was just kind of like experiencing it and hoping that the people that I loved and myself, I was just hoping that we would be safe. And for the most part we were. But family members ... knew people who were actually really, really ravaged by the war.

On the trauma he carries from the war

I remember when I came to America ... open windows scared the hell out of me because I was afraid that bullets would fly through the window and hit me, or, like, somebody would be trying to pick me off through the window. I always ignored that feeling. But, yeah, it was definitely a result of the war, because one of the things we had to do was hide underneath our beds when the shooting was especially bad and you just couldn't go outside. All the windows were closed. ...

I went back home recently, a couple of years ago, and there were still marks in the walls from where the bullets had hit the walls.

I went back home recently, a couple of years ago, and there were still marks in the walls from where the bullets had hit the walls. And that really resonated with me because I was like, "Oh, this was my childhood." And for some reason I think I ignored a lot of that. I think it definitely, definitely traumatized me.

On learning what it means to be Black in America

I think I fell into the trap that a lot of [Black and African] immigrants do ... when we come here, which is that ... I knew that I was here to get an education, try to live a better life, and for the longest time, I don't really think I engaged with race. And I didn't really engage with what it meant to be Black in America. And, in fact, I think I thought that I was not Black ... and maybe that precluded me from whatever violence was going to happen, because I thought, "Oh, whatever kind of racism happens in this country is obviously directed at African Americans. ... Whatever the hell is going on here, I'm not a part of it. ..."

As I got older, I expressed those views to other Black people, and they very clearly told me, "Listen, when a cop sees you, he does not see an African immigrant. He doesn't see Sierra Leonean. He sees Black, like he sees you the same way he sees me. And when you are applying for a job, when you're doing all these things, people are not going to see you as separate from this because you are literally just the same as the rest of us. And you are not higher than us. You're not better than us."

And that took a while for me to really understand. And I think it was because part of it was ... there being a divide between me being African and people being African Americans and not feeling quite accepted in that community because of my difference. But after a while, [I realized] we're all on the same side, like, there's no difference between me being where I'm from and them being where they're from — and we're all faced with the same kind of threats.

On writing a poem ("Play") about being sexually abused by his uncle as a 6-year-old

I hadn't spoken about that really with anybody. ... I was scared. I was freaking terrified of what reading this poem out loud could mean. I'm glad I wrote that poem. I'm glad it's out there. But ... it's a poem that I wrote before, I think, I was ready to write it. ... I got a lot of good responses from people who felt like they had had similar experiences and it touched them and that was really good. What I was afraid of was some of the things that I even explored in the poem, which was just like, if I put this poem out there, what does this poem about being sexually assaulted say about my masculinity? What does it say about me as a man? And what does it say about me as a Black man? Like, am I soft now? Am I just weaker because of this? Will people see me that way? But that's not at all how people responded to it. And I really appreciated that.

On regretting getting rid of his accent

I did have an accent, but I worked so hard to get rid of it because I think I really have an ear for sound I was really good at masking it and getting rid of it to the point where halfway through the school year, they forgot that I was an immigrant and they never put me in any English as a second language classes because I was just working so hard to get rid of it. And I regret it. I wish I still had my accent. I really wish I did ... because that's who I was and that's who I am. A lot of the time I do feel very distant from home. I do feel very distant from that part of me that I left back home and I feel like the accent is like a reminder of who you are and it's a reminder of where you come from and to own that and to embrace that I think is a powerful thing. But I was just so young and I wanted to fit in and I got rid of it. So I really regret that I did that.

Heidi Saman and Kayla Lattimore produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz and Molly Seavy-Nesper adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.