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In her debut memoir, Natasha S. Alford explores what it means to be young, gifted, and an “American Negra.”
A little brown-skinned girl gazes out from the cover of Natasha S. Alford’s upcoming memoir, “American Negra.” The photo, nestled between illustrations of Puerto Rico’s national flower, the Flor de Maga, and the red, ripe apples of her home state, shows the toddler perched upon a stoop in Syracuse, New York. With a pacifier in her mouth, a bottle in hand, and her father’s arm protectively encircling her, she has no idea her journey will take her from those steps to Northwestern University, to Harvard, and even to theGrio — where today, Alford champions Black communities and media alike as the site’s vice president of digital content and an anchor for theGrio TV.
This is the very American story at the center of Alford’s first book, “an original, unique perspective about one Black experience in America,” which will be published by HarperCollins on Feb. 27, 2024. Speaking with theGrio as the book’s cover was revealed, Alford drew parallels between its message and her longtime work at her home outlet.
“Often there is a monolithic approach to talking about Black people,” she said, “and I think that that is the work of theGrio; we are showing the range, the complexity, and the nuance of what it means to be Black in America. And so, ‘American Negra’ is one story of growing up Black with roots across the diaspora.”
Born to a Black American father and Puerto Rican mother, Alford has “grown up at the intersection” of those identities, with roots that extend from upstate New York to Puerto Rico to South Carolina to Florida. Her unique heritage forms the backbone of what she hopes is a universally accessible narrative.
“I think I always knew I would write a book about the journey of growing up in upstate New York and of going out into the world — going from Syracuse to Harvard to corporate boardrooms to classrooms,” Alford told theGrio. “I mean, my journey is definitely a millennial journey. One of, you know, constantly that search for purpose, right? And what are the lessons that I’ve learned both about racial and ethnic identity, but also what it means to live the American dream?
“It’s not just a story about race; it’s a story about the promise of America and what it means when you get access to certain privileges,” Alford continued. “When you walk into certain rooms where you’re the first one, whether it be from your neighborhood or your community, what do you do with that? And how do you make meaning of that?”
Like its cover, which was born from an online comment made by the late journalist Ayesha K. Faines, the book itself was inspired by Alford’s growing exploration of her identity amid a growing digital landscape. “I wrote an op-ed for The New York Times back in 2018 about how the internet changed my understanding of my racial and ethnic identity, and that I would say was really when I started to truly work on the book in earnest,” she explained.
At the heart of Alford’s premise is a necessary but often lacking conversation: “That we cannot separate our American identity from our ethnic origins. That is the story of America,” she says, later adding: “And the reality is that all of us are part of the American story. And so, I don’t shy away from identity politics. I think that our politics is one of identity — and that those who try to assign that [solely] to Black people are ignoring the ways in which they have used identity to their advantage.”
That includes looking at the ways Black media, including theGrio, has remained instrumental in advancing democracy in the United States.
“If you don’t know theGrio before you get this book, you will know it,” laughed Alford, jokingly referring to herself as “a mascot for Black media.” “[B]ut also how it fits into the larger landscape of the Black press really advancing democracy; being on the front lines of civil rights; the reporters who had to hide that they were reporters so they wouldn’t be attacked; who had to dress up like they were preachers. You know, we literally have told the story of America and risked our lives. That’s what Black journalists have done. And so I talk about the literal work of building and running theGrio and how it fits into this American project of democracy.”
As a proud Afro-Latina, Alford also discusses for readers her reporting from that ethnic intersection. “[T]oo often, we are not in conversation with each other, whether it’s because of a language barrier or just geography,” she explained. “And there are so many parallel experiences across the Black diaspora. … part of my work at theGrio has been breaking down those barriers, showing just how much we have in common, even as we talk about the differences.”
To that end, while Alford has written a memoir with universal themes, she is clear that it was particularly written from and for the Black millennial gaze.
“We are a generation that was promised the American dream. We were told that anything was possible with merit and hard work. And a lot of us have realized the empty promises inherent in that,” she explained. “I wanted people to go past the celebratory — OK, this Black person did this amazing thing and to understand the cost that comes with success, with ambition, with us trying to live up to the expectations of being young, gifted and Black.”
“American Negra” by Natasha S. Alford will hit bookshelves on Feb. 27, 2024.
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