As Akilah Hughes
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In the midst of the pandemic, Sinéad talks with comedian and reporter Akilah Hughes about how she is balancing her work and mental health right now, including winding down for the day after intense news cycles. Akilah talks openly about her struggles with self image, and her related decision to leave her northern Kentucky home.
[00:09] Sinéad Burke: Hello and welcome to As Me with Sinéad. I am still at home. It is a beautiful day in Ireland. It feels like summer. And it is a complete contradiction to what is happening in the world. What is happening in this country and the impact Covid-19 is having on so many. Yet in this house, we are trying to make the best of it. We are doing some cleaning, but we’re also sitting out in the sunshine, having conversations with each other, which I think otherwise we would be trapped, looking at our phones or other devices. But we are doing as much as we can to make sure that we are present. And they’re waiting for me. So I’m going to record this and give you my presence, and then go straight back to them. My projects are going well as regards to me attempting to be domesticated and have green fingers. So you’ll be pleased to know that the sunflowers are now at a stage in which they needed support. I had to put — I don’t know, what are they called, sticks? As you can see, I’m really down with the language of gardening — into the pots with them to give them support. I will have to replant them soon, I think, because they feel cramped all together. The tomatoes have begun to show life. There is about two centimeters of growth, but nobody knows better than me that every centimeter counts.
[01:38] Sinéad Burke: But in a new development, what is particularly exciting is the fact that I have bought an outdoor greenhouse for these plants, to really give them space to flourish. The greenhouse is similar height to me. As my mother kindly said, it’s about time I got on the property ladder route. My knitting is coming along well. I am a perfectionist at heart. I blame my Virgo tendencies. So there have been some errors when I have been distracted. So I’ve had to rip certain parts back. So it’s not going as smoothly as I would like. But one will proceed. My pasta making was a once-off attempt. It was so much work. But one thing that I am doing is getting up early and going for walks on my own every morning. The area around me is quiet. I call friends. I contemplate what’s going on in the world and in my head. And it has been a gift to myself. This week on the show, I am joined by the brilliant Akilah Hughes. She’s the co-host of the daily news podcast, What a Day. She shares what it’s like to be a comedian and a reporter during this pandemic, and the importance of taking breaks.
[02:51] Akilah Hughes: I try not to start my day on my phone, although I will say the past few days I’ve been guilty of that. I try to start by reading a chapter in a book or, you know, sitting in the yard for just a second. To remember that there is sun and air. And, you know, I could be so much worse off. How lucky am I to only be asked to stay home while also just, you know, putting the pressure on myself to stay informed. Because, like, people do deserve to hear from a trusted news source, like they deserve to hear someone like who’s distilled this information, who’s trying to make it easier to understand. And so, you know, just trying to fulfill that duty while also not losing my mind.
[03:30] Sinéad Burke: What’s on my mind this week is the future. I think on this show we’ve talked a lot about how it is a moment where we can all learn. And hopefully working from home is going to be looked at as something that is accessible to everybody from now on. Not just disabled people, but people with families, with older relatives who they need to care for. Well, what’s on my mind a lot is the cost of inclusion, the cost of diversity, and how in this new business world, where we will be cutting budgets and expenses and salaries and employees, will we erase all of the trajectory and progress that we have made about diversity and inclusion? Will it be a nice-to-have rather than a necessity? Will it be too expensive in this new economy? That worries me. It worries me for selfish reasons, because this is the space in which I work in. But it also worries me for the future of the world and society. And I don’t think we can afford to go back. And I don’t mean that in a monetary sense, but in a sense of humanity. So I really hope that we all have this understanding and realization that this is just the way in which we go forward from now on. And that diversity and being reflective of the world around us, and representational of that in a really authentic, meaningful way, is essential for the future. That’s what’s going on in my head this week. Are you ready for this week’s show? Let’s go!
[05:07] Sinéad Burke: On this week’s episode of As Me with Sinéad, I have the great privilege of talking to somebody kind of on the other side of the world. I’m at home in Ireland. We’re in the middle of a pandemic, as I imagine you are, too. It’s touched all of the corners of the world. And I am talking to somebody who I have admired for what feels like since time immemorial, but really for a very long period. They are a writer and a podcaster and somebody who uses comedy to disarm the world, and educate them simultaneously, in a way that I can only learn from and deign to be like. This week’s guest of As Me with Sinéad is the extraordinary and incredible Akilah Hughes. Akilah, thank you so much for being part of the show.
[05:49] Akilah Hughes: Thank you so much. Wow. That is the biggest compliment. And honestly, it feels weird to take any, like, you know, credit for anything in the midst of a pandemic. So thank you. I feel like my self-esteem just woke up. They’re like, oh, we’re allowed to feel good?
[06:06] Sinéad Burke: As it should. And yours should be inflated beyond measure. But I’m conscious that in terms of that description of you, it comes from my own lens. But how do you describe yourself personally and professionally?
[06:18] Akilah Hughes: Yeah, I mean, kind of just I’m a writer and comedian, podcast host and former-ish YouTuber. I don’t know, maybe I’ll go back. But I think that like if there’s a way to distill what I try to do, it’s just like, you know, point out hypocrisies in power structures. And like, you know, make a stronger social commentary that focuses on what people are missing. I just try to, you know, point out the thing that people are like just glossing over when they talk about different topics. So, yeah, I try to be just a patient observer of the world, and then kind of throw it back in its face.
[06:56] Sinéad Burke: How did you practice the skill of becoming a patient observer of the world?
[07:01] Akilah Hughes: Well, I think it kinda just happened to me. So, you know, a little bit of background on my life. I grew up in Kentucky, so as much as this is a world away, I’m in Los Angeles right now. You know, Kentucky is a completely different world, right? It’s not like, you know, the Internet was poppin’ there the same time it started happening, you know, in places like Dublin or L.A. or New York. It was kind of a place that time forgot in a lot of ways. And so I think when you have sort of a slower culture, in terms of just like how fast we get our information, there was the space and time to really analyze the different things that were happening in my area from a justice standpoint, from a ridiculousness standpoint, from a very country standpoint. And I think that was how I sort of got my point of view. I was like, oh, we have nothing but time to sit around and drink lemonade on the porch. Let’s point out the weird stuff that’s happening and make jokes to pass the time.
[07:58] Sinéad Burke: And who was your support system in that time that instigated those conversations with you, or also felt that the culture needs to be questioned and critiqued?
[08:07] Akilah Hughes: Well, my mother. So, you know, I think growing up black in a state that’s not especially diverse — Kentucky is probably more diverse than a few like really northeastern states in America, but it’s a pretty homogenous state. And so I think that there is a baked-in sense of, you know, insiders and outsiders, and us and them. And, you know, when you grow up being sort of a “them,” and your parents grow up being a “them,” it’s much more common, you know, to have conversations that feel a little bit more honest, and maybe even pointed in a way that I don’t think I would get in like school or with friends necessarily. But I felt like the only way you can survive when you don’t see yourself reflected is by talking through it with people who understand. And so that was it. I mean, my family was just very outspoken and, you know, shared their point of views freely in the house. We were always laughing and sitting around a table joking. And so some of my success maybe can be attributed to the fact that I come from that tradition of just like cuttin’ up for hours at a time.
[09:15] Sinéad Burke: And did you ever become aware or conscious of the fact that even though at home it was a safe space, and encouraged to question institutions and power and how things are, but when did it become a reality for you, or did it ever, that not everybody agreed with that perception? Or it might be harder to do that in other spaces?
[09:37] Akilah Hughes: Oh, yeah. I mean, I think the first time I realized that my opinion was it, you know, as valued, or even like wanted, was probably around 5th grade. I had a teacher that was especially sort of backwards and racist and hard on me in a way that she was not on other kids in the classroom. And I really just kind of internalized it. I didn’t deal with it by telling my mother immediately or any of that stuff. I think I just ended up internalizing that and just being like, oh, maybe I’m the problem. Maybe everything I grew up thinking is wrong. And I really think when you’re a little kid, you want your teacher to see you as someone who is capable and smart and, you know, has potential.
[10:22] Akilah Hughes: And I never felt that from that teacher. And I think it just really affected me in that way. And so I also think that like part of the reason I left Kentucky after college was because I felt like in a lot of ways I was in a place that was not ready to celebrate, support, or even on the lowest level, just listen to someone like me. But I had been using the Internet that whole time. I feel like Neopets and all that stuff kind of happened starting in fourth and fifth grade for me. And so I had this dichotomy, right, of my reality being people outside thinking that I’m too radical because I think that, like, black people should be treated as people. And then on the Internet, I’m, you know, talking to people all around the world and being treated like just a citizen of the world. And, you know, like playing games and laughing. And it’s never that serious. And so I think that I found the confidence to leave because I knew just from spending time with people online who were not, you know, directly across the street from me, I knew that there was a better world out there, and that there was a space for my voice to be heard. And so the long way to answer your question is I think that I was highly aware of the fact that my sort of energy wasn’t really supported or appreciated, and I needed to leave to find a community somewhere else.
[11:44] Sinéad Burke: You were so young, not only having to articulate that, but having to experience it and physically move. Before you left Kentucky, how did you modulate those two parts of yourself, or those two feelings, even within you.
[11:58] Akilah Hughes: I mean, it was a lot of mental anguish, like depression, anxiety, you know, eating disorders and things that made me question my own inherent worth based on outside projection of what was good and acceptable. And so, you know, part of the leaving was just to save my own life, you know? I didn’t think it would be sustainable to stay in a place where I was being smothered all the time with, you know, a very narrow lens of what is good. And one that is completely unattainable for a person who wasn’t born into money and had skin darker than a paper bag. Like that’s just the reality of where I was from. And so I think I just suffered kind of silently for a long time. And then I was like, oh, I don’t have to be here. Like, I don’t have to be here. It is worth the risk of failing spectacularly to get the fuck outta here. It’s worth it. I would rather try to leave than stay. It’s sort of like — I don’t know if you watch Black Mirror, but there’s that episode, Hang the DJ, where they’re in the simulation forever. And eventually they just decide to leave. I feel like that’s where I was. I was like, oh, I’ve played this every different way and it’s never worked out for me. I think I just have to leave.
[13:12] Sinéad Burke: Yeah. And you have to ask that question, how long can you be part of a system and fight it before it conditions you to just be apathetic? Or when you have a bit of energy remaining inside yourself, what can you do with that kind of frees you from those different approaches?
[13:28] Akilah Hughes: That’s exactly right.
[13:30] Sinéad Burke: And was that when humor first became a device and a tool, or was it always part of you?
[13:36] Akilah Hughes: I mean, I think it was always part of me, but I started kind of using it as like armor maybe more in high school than anytime before that. Where, you know, this was how I put people in their place when they would say something messed up to me. Or this is how I would kind of point out the fact that like we’ve learned about Christopher Columbus a thousand times in history class, but we don’t know who made the streetlight because it was a black person and we hate that. Those sorts of things. And so, you know, I was big into speech and drama in high school. I always love Saturday Night Live and Mad TV. And so I did comedy, improv events in high school. I did like other sort of just speech and drama things. And that was where I really, you know, came to the conclusion that that’s what I have to do with my life. Because I was changing minds every weekend in rural high schools across Kentucky by doing these events. And having people’s generational expectations for what a person like me walking in the room means completely upended. And so I think I knew the power of it. I was obviously poor, hadn’t traveled. I didn’t go on a plane until I was 15 and it was for a college visit, you know.
[14:59] Akilah Hughes: And so all I knew of the world was that like online, you can be whoever you want. But also if you have a message and you are a clear communicator, you can change people’s minds about what they were taught to believe. And so I think that I didn’t know to utilize it immediately, but I did — the moment I was, you know, like winning awards in high school on the weekends and getting the sort of feedback that was like, I’ve never even considered this point of view. I knew that there was obviously a way to use that talent for good, and hopefully make a paycheck at some point. It didn’t happen for like a decade afterwards, but I knew.
[15:43] Sinéad Burke: But an overnight success, right?
[15:47] Akilah Hughes: Yeah. Yeah. Super easy. Like I just did one high school drama competition, and now I’m Jeff Bezos? This is so weird.
[15:52] Sinéad Burke: What’s the airport like at 15 having never been in one before? What’s the experience of a 15-year-old going on a flight for the first time?
[16:03] Akilah Hughes: I mean, it’s kind of hilarious for several reasons. One is that, like, I never got on a plane before 9/11. And so that happened. And TSA, you know, sort of became a real thing in airports. And there was all of this, you know, sort of choreography and getting stopped and stuff that you you hear about, but you don’t know. And I remember going to the airport and being so nervous because I had no concept of how dangerous anything was or, you know, what people’s jobs were supposed to be. It all just felt so abstract. So that was one part of it. The other part of it was that because I’d never been on a plane, I didn’t realize that planes were really cold. And so I was flying to Daytona from Kentucky. We landed in Orlando. We’re driving to Daytona Beach for the college visit. And I thought, oh, well, I’m going somewhere hot, so I’ll just wear flip flops and shorts and a t-shirt for this three-hour flight. And I froze to death. I didn’t pack my CD player, I didn’t have headphones. It was truly like being just thrown into the wilderness. I just didn’t know anything. I had no concept. I didn’t, like, grab a drink while we were in the, you know, airport. So I was sitting on the plane begging for water because I was so dehydrated. Like, it was just like my truly my first day on earth was learning about planes.
[17:26] Sinéad Burke: It’s that anxiety that those of us who travel often — and I’m fortunate to be one of those people — that when you’re in the queue for security and there’s somebody in front of you and they’re like, you know, not sure where to put their liquids, or they’ve forgotten that they have a two liter of juice in their handbag. And you as the individual, you know, we have become so classist and so discriminatory in many ways against those people. And we forget that, you know, sometimes a person is experiencing their first day on earth, and they just happened to be in the queue ahead of you at security.
[17:55] Akilah Hughes: Yeah. I mean, like, truly — I think about this all the time because my mother has worked in the same job my entire life. She’s worked in an inner-city elementary school. And she told me, like, she didn’t fly until she was I think in her late 20s. But like, she has coworkers to this day who still have never been on a plane, who will never leave the country. And like, that’s just of their own volition. Like, they just are terrified of the prospect of going somewhere else. And so I feel like I have this window into several worlds, because I have been that asshole who’s like sighing loudly as I go through pre-check. And I’m like, stop asking about the shoes. You don’t have to take your shoes off. Come on. When he says have nothing in your pockets, that means your cell phone.
[18:45] Akilah Hughes: I have to like literally tell myself, “Akilah, you don’t know that person’s situation.” Also like this is a lot to know. Like I if I didn’t travel, you know, all the time, save for like this pandemic, I probably wouldn’t know that this is supposed to be some very quick process. And like, I’m holding anyone up. So first I have to put this box, and then I put some of my stuff in it, then maybe my laptop? Oh, God! It’s just too much to know.
[19:14] Sinéad Burke: Well, I find myself now being the asshole who is fighting with the different agents in different airports because they go through your bag. They’re like, oh, there was lip balm in your bag and should’ve been in a liquids bag. And I’m like, no. Every other airport does not quantify lip balm as a liquid. I think you’ll find it’s a balm. You know, also, those rules are like gendered. You know, men, or those who choose to not use cosmetics, should not have the same liquid allowance as those who do.
[19:38] Akilah Hughes: I agree with that. I think that there should be at least a checked bag discount. Because that’s the only reason I’m checking bags.
[19:45] Sinéad Burke: You should have some understanding that my exfoliator is a 200 ml bottle and I should not have to throw that out.
[19:51] Akilah Hughes: Exactly. I should get cash money for anything they throw out.
[21:16] Sinéad Burke: In terms of, you know, the moments that have changed you. I think definitely probably getting a flight for the first time is one of those. And moving out of home and finding your voice that is online in a physical way is huge. But what are the other moments that have changed you?
[21:32] Akilah Hughes: This one is also kind of outside of the realm of career and aspiration. But I was 15 when I took the first flight. But when I was 14, I took my first vacation. And my mother took me and my sister, because our birthdays are just a day short of a year apart, so she was turning 15, I turned 14. And our birthdays are always around Labor Day in the U.S. And so we decided to take a full week off of school and drive to North Carolina, to Oak Island, to like a beach. It was the first time I ever saw the ocean. And it’s one of my mom’s favorite stories because I had such high expectations for the ocean. Like I would ask the simplest questions, like, is there really foam on the water?
[22:14] Akilah Hughes: Like when you look out there, like it comes in so fast that there’s foam? And like, what’s that smell? Why is it so salty? Like it was such an like an innocence about the experience that I think a lot of people, you know, if you’re lucky enough to live near a beach, or have traveled to a beach when you’re like very young, then like, you know, you can complain about the sand and all of the stuff that happens at the beach. But I was so excited that I didn’t even take my suitcase in the house. I was wearing my bathing suit under my clothes the entire like 15-hour road trip. And then I ran on to the beach immediately, like on a floatie that I found in this house we were renting. And I was out there for hours. I was jet-black when I came back in. But I felt like I was going to Mars for the first time.
[22:59] Sinéad Burke: And what were your cultural references of the ocean before it?
[23:02] Akilah Hughes: I mean, it was all just like, you know, the O.C. MTV’s spring break, like in Cancun. Cartoons where they were on the beach and they were surfing. And I was like, oh, that seems like something. But there was no sense of like, oh, like the water sprays overtop of the water. The things that you just think about when you’re on the beach. It just never occurred to me at all.
[23:26] Sinéad Burke: My culture references of beaches were similar. And then you go to an Irish beach and most of the Irish beaches don’t have sand. They’re like rock and pebbles. So if you go barefoot, you’re scraped and excavated. And this is not what Hollywood told me it would be.
[23:42] Akilah Hughes: That’s like I think the wildest kind of part of it, too, is like there are so many parts of it that just aren’t what you expect. I thought every beach was like Miami. Or just somewhere that has a full strip of just like airbrushed T-shirts and stuff. Like, oh, you can have like secluded beaches? A beach where people just live? It didn’t make sense to me. So I think that was like a big one. And then the other one that just like immediately comes to mind, in 2015, I got accepted into the Sundance Episodic Story Lab. The sort of CliffNotes there is that every year there are several labs that the Sundance Institute has. And it basically brings together writers from different backgrounds, directors from different backgrounds, showrunners, industry executives. And thousands of people apply for this. And this was only the second time they ever even had the lab. And so a friend of mine, this woman, Lyle Friedman, who’s awesome, she and I wrote a pilot together over the course of like a couple of days because I found out about the deadline and was like, let’s just try to make something.
[24:48] Akilah Hughes: And we got in. And we were the greenest people there. We were so new. We were younger than everybody. Most of our work had been online to that point. Meanwhile, there were like Oscar-winning documentarians who were doing a TV show project that they brought the script for. And like people who’ve directed movies that were nominated for lots of awards and starred like Ryan Gosling there. And then it’s just like us being like, hey, so we have this cool idea for like an Internet-based show about like sisters. I mean, I still think it’s a great idea for a show, but it was like a moment of feeling so grateful.
[25:23] Akilah Hughes: And I think acknowledged like for once by an industry that I think felt a little outside of my realm because I was so online. Only now are we finally like, oh, the Internet’s not so different from actual traditional media. And so, you know, definitely five years ago, people were kind of like shady about it. And so I felt like this just major chip on my shoulder filled in. I was like, OK, actually, people appreciate me. But on the other hand, I think the reason that changed my entire life and career was because it was the first time that I think I had to be incredibly vulnerable, and allow people who are, you know, more talented and seasoned than I am in the thing that I want to excel at, just like tear my project apart. Give note after note after note. Come up with different ways to tell the story. Ask stupid questions in front of people that I admire. It was a real grind. And at the end of those five days, every night at like the end of the night, we’d just come back to the little home they had a set up in and just like not be able to talk for an hour because we were like, wow, like that was a whirlwind.
[26:29] Sinéad Burke: How do you build yourself back up to go in the next day?
[26:32] Akilah Hughes: Well, I think that like the first day I was just super emotional because it’s also in Utah and the altitude is insane. And so, like, I wasn’t prepared for that level of madness. So like, I was already just a little tender. But then I think after a certain point of hearing a note from someone I’m like, they know what they’re talking about. You just have to take it because you know it’s making what you’re doing better. I think that I almost started to look forward to it after like the first day and a half. I was like, oh, this is what people pay lots of money for. Like this is their job. And they’re doing this for me for free. And now my show has a better chance of happening and being sold and being made and whatever else. And so I think that it was a growing experience, honestly. Like, I think, you know, sort of to the point of having to wear this armor of being funny and having to feel like I’m this outsider who’s saying stuff that other people aren’t even thinking about, to go into a place where, no, you’re welcome here, but you’re gonna have to grow some. I think it was like shell-shock in the best way. And I think that I’ve not been the same since that experience. For the better.
[27:39] Sinéad Burke: But it’s such a healthy way to look at not even criticism, but feedback. Because I don’t know that you, but I’m a disabled woman and so often I am the only one who looks like me in a room, and that’s despite me having an abundance of other privileges. But it’s so easy when the majority critique your work, or critique you, that even if it’s coming from a place where the aspiration is for you to grow and for the work to grow, it’s so easy to take it personally because you’ve been defending yourself in rooms like this forever.
[28:12] Akilah Hughes: For sure. And like, I think that my guard was up immediately because I was the youngest person there, but was also the only black person there. And definitely the only person who hadn’t had a TV writing job before. I think I had all of the chips of, like, you’re not good enough and you’re walking into a place where people are going to tell you that. And what I was met with was not you’re not good enough. It was let me help you make this the best thing on earth, because you are dope. And I had to just like, you know, run that track back in my head over and over again, because my instinct from, you know, a lifetime of being told that I didn’t belong places, was to just like blow it up and, you know, take it personally and go on Twitter and yell about it or something.
[28:55] Akilah Hughes: Honestly, the great news is I think being there and knowing that I was gonna be there for a full week kind of made me settle into the idea that like, oh, people can help you even when they’re changing your idea. Even when they’re like, you know, not being as precious about this thing that you think is perfect.
[29:10] Sinéad Burke: And what’s the monologue that’s in your head at this stage of your career?
[29:14] Akilah Hughes: I think now I’m at a point where my sort of running monologue and my mantra is just work really hard right now because obviously we don’t know what the future holds. Like none of us thought we were gonna be in our houses for most of 2020. That just wasn’t where we were at the end of 2019.
[29:38] Sinéad Burke: You mean this isn’t going to last three days?
[29:40] Akilah Hughes: I know. I have friends who are like, “so next week when we go back to work,” and I’m like, oh god.
[29:44] Sinéad Burke: You mean June. July, right. July.
[29:48] Akilah Hughes: Yeah, definitely get your pillows ready for this podcast recording studio. Like that’s how it’s gonna have to work. But I think that I am finally at a point where I have a job that I like. I love hosting a podcast where I get to interview great people. And it’s also like afforded me the opportunity to speak with people like you on your podcast. Like, I feel like I am in the rooms I want to be in. And so that’s great. But I also don’t want to be unprepared if I get an opportunity. And so I’m mostly not even focused on anyone else’s outside perception of me at all. Because I know who I am and I know what I want to make.
[30:24] Akilah Hughes: And I know what I’m capable of. And so I know when to say yes and no. But I also know that if left to my own devices, I probably am not going to make a million things in this like timeframe. And so what’s the thing that I can control? Like, where can I put my energy and focus and hard work? And what can I uplift in the meantime? And so I think I’m just trying to stay focused on the fact that, like, who knows how long we’re gonna live? Who knows if I’m gonna get this illness? Who knows any of this stuff? But while I’m here, I can really just keep, I don’t know, working harder than everyone else so that if something terrible happens to me, there was something here left that they could point to and say, well, you know, she didn’t waste a second of it. And I’m trying to stay grateful and not waste any time.
[31:13] Sinéad Burke: And during this pandemic, besides work, what are you doing to keep your mind, heart, body occupied?
[31:22] Akilah Hughes: Well, several things. For my body, I have started practicing roller skating. I’m terrible. And my mother has been calling me and being like, “it’s not a good time to go to the E.R. Stop roller skating. You’re going gonna get injured.” So I’ve been just trying to do something slightly active in my driveway. And then I think mentally it’s been so important to reach out to people and talk to people that, you know, I’ve been missing. Like I moved to L.A. six months ago. So this is all very new to me here. And I just have been trying to stay in touch with all my New York people that I love and I’ve missed. So that’s part of it. And like family members that I haven’t spoken to in a while. I think that I’m doing a lot of phone calls and Facetimes. But I also, you know, like on the really real like I hired a therapist that does work over Zoom and like Skype or whatever.
[32:17] Akilah Hughes: So, you know, I know that this sort of isolation is weighing on me. And my podcast, What a Day, we’ve been covering the Coronavirus since the beginning of January. And it’s like the slow-motion grief that I’ve just been watching the world will get worse and worse and worse and sicker and sicker and sicker. And I still have people in my life who, like don’t think it’s really happening. And so I think that it is important for people who are in media, who are obviously, you know, very lucky and privileged to not be healthcare providers and people who work in hospitals like the custodial staff and, you know, the cafeteria staff and everybody, who has to be in it and risking their lives for everyone else. So I’m very privileged in that way. But there is a vicarious trauma of having to read about this every day, understand it to a level where I can then explain it to people, and then still have questions all day, everyday from people that are like, but how bad is it? It’s bad!
[33:16] Sinéad Burke: Yeah. Well, it’s also taking a distance to it when it is your work, but figuring out the respite that you need that you’re not paying for with therapy.
[33:24] Akilah Hughes: Exactly. I mean, that’s exactly right. And so I try not to start my day on my phone, although I will say the past few days I’ve been guilty of that. I try to start by reading a chapter in a book or, you know, sitting in the yard for just a second. To remember that there is sun and air. And I could be so much worse off in that how lucky am I to only be asked to stay home while also just, you know, putting the pressure on myself to stay informed? Because, like, people do deserve to hear from a trusted news source, like they deserve to hear someone who’s distilled this information, who’s trying to make it easier to understand. And so, you know, just trying to fulfill that duty while also not losing my mind. I will say that my diet has gone to trash. And I think that like my mental health has suffered, like I probably shouldn’t have Sour Patch Kids for several meals a day. Like, it’s not a good look.
[34:18] Sinéad Burke: I disagree with this thesis. I think you can have them for every meal. But I’m finding it difficult, as somebody who uses the Internet for work, who likes to keep informed, I’m finding some of the Internet really difficult at the moment. Not just the constant news, and I feel like I just wait for like an Irish press conference. And then there’s one from Spain and then there’s figures from Italy and then it’s from the U.S. But I find some of the social commentary, and particularly the flippant and ablest social commentary that exists online and on the Internet, really difficult. So I have started knitting, mostly because it keeps my phone out of my hand, because if I have a knitting needle in each hand, I can be scrolling. And I’m hoping it’s going to help me to sleep. So I consume the news when I need to. And I avoid the hot takes. And I am making a scarf, because when I eventually remove myself from the cocoon of my home, probably July/November, I will need a scarf.
[35:13] Akilah Hughes: Honestly, like I’m so mad. I got into video games, I don’t know, when I first moved here. Because I kind of had the same problem of just there’s too much news and I don’t have much of a life outside of it. And so I was playing this video game, Zelda: Breath of the Wild. And I beat the game, which was great, but it’s like the only video game I’ve ever found that was long enough and like difficult enough that I could, like, spend 200 hours doing it. And like using both hands that I think couldn’t focus on my phone. And now I’m done. It’s just too hard to start it again. Everyone’s telling me I got to do Pokemon: Sword and Shield, so maybe I’ll start it. It has to be compelling enough because I’ve already bought too many video games that I’m like I’m out. It’s too hard.
[37:19] Sinéad Burke: What’s it like, Akilah, to live in your body?
[37:22] Akilah Hughes: I think living in my body is somehow too heavy and too light at the same time. In that I think that, you know, there’s a lot that I carry with me because of my past experience. You know, I’ve had lots of health issues in my own life. And so, you know, there’s scar tissue and there are things that I can’t physically do anymore. And there are things that, you know, I still don’t have an answer for in a like holistic body sense. And, you know, that’s all just physical. And then I think, on the other hand, there is a bit of feeling disposable and small and, you know, whatever else. But also, like, I think that like the mental part of that is being I’m not afraid of those things. I’m not hindered by those things. I have other strengths and value. And I’m not the sum of what other people think about me anymore, which I think as a kid, you have to unlearn those sorts of things.
[38:20] Akilah Hughes: And so now in adulthood, I think that I enter a room as myself with sort of a Teflon skin of whatever people think about me just rolling off. But I’m also my own protector. And so I think there’s just a weight to that. I think it’s hard to explain. It’s I think it’s the place of being a black woman in America and in a world that has never really prioritized, or even taken an extra second, to look at and think about.
[38:56] Sinéad Burke: I think it may be hard to know when to say, but I think you’ve articulated that beautifully and a really powerful way. Thank you.
[39:03] Akilah Hughes: Thank you. I appreciate it. I’m like, gosh, I’m going to think about that for the rest of the day.
[39:09] Sinéad Burke: Well, if you have further comments, you’re welcome to DM me. But what gives you hope?
[39:13] Akilah Hughes: I think what’s given me hope, you know, so one part of it is in a pandemic like this, I do find hope in the fact that people are largely staying home, and keeping their distance and realizing that there is a greater good. I think for the longest time, especially since 2016, it’s been really hard for me to believe that other people in a large group, I guess, believe that there is a community goal. You know, I thought that we were all sort of just everybody for themselves. And like this whole idea of looking out for one another has completely become archaic.
[39:54] Akilah Hughes: And we’re just all want monsters running from room to room asking for things. And what this has shown me is that there are people, and lots of them, who have people they care about. And they are willing to take a break and they’re willing to step back and they’re willing to do what is required, I guess, to protect others. And so there is something calming about that. Like sitting in my house — I read a tweet about it. But, you know, like I can sit in my house and feel super isolated or I can realize that like all those empty places that I’m seeing are love. Like that is love personified. Like that’s what we can look at. An empty park is a family saying we’re not going to, you know, take our kids out because they’ve all this energy today because we don’t want to touch something potentially get sick or pass this on to someone else. And so I think that one part of it is that. But I also think that I’m really hopeful for the future because of Gen-Z. I think that I’m really the most inspired by that generation because, you know, being a hashtag millennial, I remember life before the Internet, you know. I remember playing outside and being super analog and having to be home if you were gonna call someone.
[41:10] Akilah Hughes: And I think that that gives its own life experience when you can see that, you know, you remember you’re like sort of in The Wizard of Oz and it’s all sepia-toned. And then suddenly you’re stepping into color. There is a power in that. But also, if you’ve only ever seen the colorful world, your idea of what is possible is so much bigger than everyone who came before you. And so I think I’m just endlessly inspired by these kids who are like canvassing, and giving up their dorm rooms so that people can turn them into hospitals, and are organizing online, and getting people to vote, and are making a real fuckin’ stink about climate change and income inequality and all these other things. It’s like, you know, I can feel tired all the time about how much I’ve been saying this crap. And there’s some teenager out there who’s like, I’m going to stay up late educating people on the history of this stuff. And like taking it really seriously. And so I guess that a privilege that we all have is watching the people who are coming in behind us saying like, we have your back. And I am so inspired by that.
[42:14] Sinéad Burke: As somebody who is discussing the pandemic so often, one of the things that as a disability advocate that I hope comes from this moment is that for so long we have heard this rhetoric from the majority that, you know, disabled people are difficult to employ because they require working from home. Or offices are inaccessible and they can’t come to the office. Or for disabled people to get a degree. Compromises have to be made because lecturers have to happen in a lecture hall, in an institution, in a university. And what we have learned from this moment is that so much of what we thought was concrete, or was impossible, is not. We have just needed the will of the majority to look at technology and to look at alternative options for things to be done. My hope and aspiration is that this way of working and living and existing, and this level of empathy and vulnerability, and this way of thinking of a collective becomes part of our muscle memory. But I also know that we have to return back to a world that is profitable because that’s what a consumer society demands. Do you also hope, or do you have any inkling that this way of thinking and being, it’s just how we’re going to be from now on?
[43:31] Akilah Hughes: I mean, I think that everything you just said is so spot-on. You know, I think one thing that’s been very apparent is that our reluctance to come up with systems that could work remotely, specifically for people who have been requesting it, for people with disabilities, has been to our detriment. Like this all should be so much more seamless. And it could have been had we just listened. And I think that that is the thing that has really bothered me about, you know, this swift change to things being remote. But all of our remote systems are still kind of lagging behind other parts of the world. It’s because we had a concerted effort to not accommodate people who could have benefited and benefit society all the time already. So like it was just selfish. And so I think that, like, it can’t be overstated that this has revealed a lot about human nature. But I also think, you know, like on the smallest, most selfish version of this, I didn’t want to move to L.A. to do this podcast. I love New York. I lived there for seven years. It was, you know, the first place I’ve ever lived where I felt like I belonged. And I still feel like I belong there more than I belong in L.A., which, you know, neither here nor there. But I was told, you can’t do this remotely. Like this is a thing you have to be in-person for. And we’re now having the conversation of like, well, if this is going to go on for a year and a half of, you know, periods indoors and back out for a little while and then we’re going back in. You know, you might want to decide where you’re gonna be. And, you know, I think the tricky thing is like who is moving in the middle of a pandemic? Probably not going to do that. Who am I going to hire to drive myself across the country, then touch all of it? Not going to do that.
[45:11] Akilah Hughes: So I think I’m here, but it has also just personally on a much smaller inconvenience sort of way, been rolling around my own mind of like, oh, this could have been done separately. This was just a choice. And I do think that this is going to change the way we do work in business and education. And our civic duty is, you know, like voting. Everything is affected because we’ve realized that we didn’t even have a plan. There was no contingency plan for anything like this happening. And what we’re realizing is like, yeah, anything could happen that would require people to vote by mail. Anything could happen that would require someone who can no longer get to the office, for whatever reason, to need a strong connection and software that, you know, isn’t breaking the bank to talk to people.
[46:03] Akilah Hughes: And so I truly do believe that this is going to be one of the hardest lessons humanity has learned, definitely in the 21st century. But it will also change the way we do business forever. Like, I think that like the economy coming back will far more likely be invested in technology that accounts for our mess-up than the things that are going out of business that are, you know, maybe more frivolous. Like maybe we don’t all need a GoPro. Maybe what we need is like the Internet to work in rural areas so kids can still learn stuff when they’re not in the classroom. It’s wild to me that there have been people sounding the bell on this forever. And they’ve been made to seem like they’re whining or complaining or asking for something extra, when the reality is we’ve always needed it. And here’s a great example of a time we needed it and we didn’t have it.
[46:58] Sinéad Burke: Yeah, and it has benefits for everybody. It has benefits if you are raising children at home. It has benefits that if you are disabled and you want to go to college and you want to do your degree. It has benefits that if you get sick. It has benefits for the world over. If you are a migrant and want to study in a safe space, or if English isn’t your first language, that all of a sudden, translation tools are available to you. But I just hope that those who historically and continue to have power, who have had to fluctuate and swivel in their thinking and their way of working, continue to do so. That we don’t allow the return of the way in which we were, in this case. Akilah, it has been such a joy and a real privilege, genuinely speaking with you. And I hope that the next time I’m in Los Angeles, I can convince you to meet me, not to go rollerblading, because like, let’s not go wild here. I won’t be doing that. But maybe we can do coffee in your new haunt when it finally becomes home.
[47:58] Akilah Hughes: Yes, I would love that. And thank you again for having me. It has just been a breath of fresh air to speak to someone so active in all of this, and so open and understanding to just all the shit that’s going on. It is wonderful to speak with you, so thanks again.
[48:19] Sinéad Burke: I loved speaking to Akilah. It was just such a thought provoking conversation. And in this pandemic, you teeter on the boundary of feeling powerless, wanting to be productive, wanting to mind yourself and those who are vulnerable around you. And it’s just this metaphoric hurricane of destruction in your own self and in your own head. And Akilah’s tools to do better, not in a way to perform to the world but for yourself, was just genuinely incredible. Next week, I’m talking to secretary of the Smithsonian Institute, Lonnie Bunch. He’s done brilliant work to increase visibility in museums around the U.S., especially in his role as director of the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. He is one of my favorite people on the planet. And I love his view on the importance of museums to tell diverse stories even in the digital age.
[49:15] Lonnie Bunch: People are now much more comfortable receiving digital content at all ages. So what does that mean for these institutions? I believe very strongly that museums will never be what they need to be unless a diverse array of people not only go, but own it. Feel that that this is their home. And as you may recall, when I opened the African-American Museum, my last comments were, “welcome home.” Because that’s what I want people to think about cultural institutions. I want them to be your second home.
[49:50] Sinéad Burke: This week’s person you should know is, again, not just one individual. One of the things that I have been most moved by are the people who are moving country, maybe coming home from Australia and returning to Ireland to sign on as the part of the health service again. Using their qualifications for the betterment of the country. Even our own prime minister here in Ireland. His background is as a doctor, and he’s signed up again to the Medical Council to volunteer his time and to answer phones. I have friends who’ve come home from Canada. Abandoned their jobs in another country and are stepping up to the mark. And I don’t think it has to be in the roles of a teacher or a doctor, but I am so admiring and grateful to the people who are stepping outside of themselves and doing more. Abandoning whatever dream that they had for themselves, putting it on hold in this time, to ensure that they can cater to others.
[51:30] Sinéad Burke: As Me with Sinéad is a Lemonada Media original and is executive produced by Jessica Cordova Kramer. Assistant produced by Claire Jones and edited by Ivan Kuraev. Music is by Jerome Rankin. Our sales and distribution partner is Westwood One. If you’ve liked what you’ve heard, don’t be shy. Tell your friends or listen and subscribe on Apple, Stitcher, Spotify or wherever you like to listen, and rate and review as well. To continue the conversation, find me on Instagram and Twitter @thesineadburke and find Lemonada Media on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook @LemonadaMedia.