Writer, most well known for his Hartford based journalism, Mr. Ragland keeps it real with us. We talk about how he got here and experiencing life on both sides of the tracks right here in Hartford. This is a long one but you are gonna want to read to the end.
BL&D: I think we’ve worked together like a little, in a number of different ways and we’ve had a lot of different conversations about Hartford. And the pros and cons. But to start off, I wanna, just for our readers here, I wanna hear your story about how you’ve come to know Hartford through living here and through going to Trinity, and then talk about your work with the Hartford Courant.
JAMIL: Okay. I’ve, um, I’ve lived in Hartford for most of my life now. I came—my father was born in Hartford, and he met my mother when he was in the marines. She was in the navy. So when I was born, I was born at Groton Naval Base, in Groton, CT, and we moved around for a little bit, because they were both in the military. My brother was actually born in Hartford hospital, so we lived in Hartford at the time. Then we moved back to Georgia, where my mother is from, and my other brother was born there, and when he turned one we moved back to Hartford again. So from four to eight, I lived in Hartford. I lived in the Martin Luther King Projects, right next to Dutch Point. And we lived there until I was eight years old, then I moved to Bloomfield at eight, and was there from the time I was eight until I was twenty. I graduated from Bloomfield high school. And around twenty, I met my ex wife, we moved in together in Hartford, and I’ve lived in Hartford ever since. So between 4-8 and 20-30, I’m 32 this year actually, I’ve actually lived in Hartford more than I have lived anywhere else. So, you know, when I was in Bloomfield as a kid,—I’ve always viewed Bloomfield as separate and distinct from Hartford, right? We don’t have, you know, the same issues, we don’t have the same types of people, that sort of thing, right?—so when I got older, I started to think “Bloomfield basically is Hartford.” This is a larger city, like most cities around the country. Bloomfield, East Hartford, West Hartford—all of these places are suburbs of Hartford City. So just because of the idiosyncrasies of local rule in CT and the history of CT, we have all these places that are considered to be separate and distinct from one another, even though all the inner rink suburbs are intertwined. So when people ask me now where I am from, I say, “I’m from Hartford, I’ve lived in Hartford my entire life.” Because West Hartford, New Britain, Bloomfield, all of these places, if this was a regular city, would be Hartford and they still rely so much on Hartford for their survival and their sustenance. Even though they don’t seem to give back in that direction. So, living in the city since I was 20, it was easy to understand how Hartford works and doesn’t work. That, it acts as a seat of government for this region and for this state, that it has a lot of the educational institutions, it has Trinity, it has Capitol Community College, it is gonna have U Conn soon. It has local courts, state courts, it has the legislative offices—it has all these places, right? All these things, and all these services, that people rely on. It has addiction and welfare services, it has all the services that people in a region rely on, right? But they come into the city and receive these services, and then they kinda go back out of the city afterwards.
Knowing all of this information, how did that inform your time at Trinity? And, interlinked with that, when did your journey with writing start?
JAMIL: So, I’ve been writing basically my entire life. The first thing I remember was in the fourth grade. We had to write a story for some class, and it was a story about alien cats visiting earth, right? So, my teacher gave me the name for this story, it was called “Close Encounters of the Furred Kind.” At the time, in the fourth grade, I didn’t appreciate what a great title that was, but after I got older, I realized how great it was. But I’ve been writing ever since. The first thing I ever remember writing for fun, were these long intricate Star Trek fan-fictions. I was huge into Star Trek as a kid, and I would write all of these fan fictions where I had all of my favorite characters on the ship, right? And then I was the captain. So we’d go on adventures, and we would fight and stuff like that. They would be hundreds of pages. As I got older, I would write different fan-fiction, about Dragon Ball Z, things, like that I really loved it. Then I joined the writing club at Bloomfield high school. I wrote a story, it was called “Problems,” and it was about a sexual relationship between teenagers. But it was too risqué for the administration in the school, so that story never got published. All I got published was awful poetry that I wrote. But that was the first time ever I sat down and wrote something original and new. After high school, I went to school for one year in Richmond, and I did a lot of writing there. I would sit in my dorm room by myself and just write and write and write. That’s when I started taking writing classes, and thinking about being and serious writer. Not someone who does Fan fiction, but who writes in the style of, like, Ernest Hemingway, about adult stuff, like divorces and marriages—stuff that adults do. And this actually turned me off from writing for a while, because I found that the more that I write this serious fiction, the less I enjoyed it. What I really enjoyed was cheesy anime stuff. That’s what I really liked. So I had this tension between what I liked and what I felt like I had to do, which stopped me from writing for a few years. Now, fast forward to 2008, I was working at a gas station in Bloomfield, and I was reading the Hartford Courant one night, and I read a piece and I said, “I can write something like this.” So I did. The next night, at work, when no customers were there, I wrote a piece about magnet schools and why I felt they weren’t the best fit for Hartford, and the Courant published it. And that was the beginning of my relationship with the Hartford Courant. For a long time, I stuck with the Courant as my go-to place to publish, because it was safe. So when they rejected an idea from me for the first time, I felt ready to be rejected by anyone. So I wrote more broadly, and submitted my work to more broad places. I was open to the idea of being rejected by other places. And now I understand that being rejected is just a part of the writing process. Every writer is rejected, every writer has to go back to edit. No one is special or unique. JK Rowling, Harry Potter was rejected thirteen times. All of these people who are successful now failed at some point. And the last two years in particular for me have been a story of failure. While I was going into writing, I came back from BCU, and I spent a semester out of school. They kicked me out of school because I owed them too much money. My grades hadn’t been great either. So I came back home, and I was depressed because I had been kicked out of school. So I spent a week temping at the Hartford insurance company, in their mailroom. And I was treated very well by some very nice people who worked there, right? So the job was taking the mail off of the conveyer belt, putting the mail in the box, and I did this for 8 hours a night. One week of that was enough for me. So after that week, I went and enrolled in community college and then became a regular student there. That’s where I met my ex wife, and we met in May 2006, I knocked her up in September 2006, and we got married December 2006. And my son was born July 2007. For my son, for my family, I had to work and go to school. This made me want to go to a four year school. At the time, I wanted to go to U Conn to become a history teacher. And a professor at Capitol suggested to me, “I think you have what it takes to be a student at Trinity.” So I said to myself, “okay, I can finish my degree there”.
What was your perspective on Trinity before you ever attended?
I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t know anything about Trinity. And the school has this weird relationship with Hartford. Trinity didn’t interact with Hartford and Hartford didn’t interact with Trinity. So I entered Trinity as an adult student, and I really enjoyed my time there academically. Trinity is the place where I finally began to expand my worldview. Because I was an idiot when I was eighteen. All the idiot things you could think about the world, I thought when I was an eighteen year old. So all those bad assumptions I had about the world, they were challenged by my time at Trinity. I learned that women have issues. Homosexuals have issues. Immigrants have issues. Everyone has issues. And now I was aware of them, where I wasn’t before. And I felt that if I could move my agenda forward, as a black man, I could move all of their agendas forward, too. We move forward together, to improve the world for everyone. Trinity introduced me to that idea. Trinity also helped my writing. The first paper I submitted at Trinity, provided me comments that said something like, “this is okay, but it didn’t answer the question.” And at first I thought, “how dare you? This is what I do, I write. You don’t tell me if I wrote it right or not.” But after listening to what the professor said, I realized that I didn’t answer the question. So then I went through a revision process on the paper. And that’s what made me take revising seriously. In that class, I ended up getting a B+ and I was very proud of it because I worked and earned that B+. That class, and that professor, influenced the rest of my journey throughout Trinity. Of course, it wasn’t all positive at Trinity. It’s a very white and rich school, and I got a taste of that. I was in the cafeteria one day, and I heard a young lady telling a story about shopping online that she had bought these $600 boots, and she had accidentally clicked the order button three times and ended up being charged $1800. She was laughing about this with her friends, but that amount of money would have ruined me at that time. Never mind the idea of even fathoming buying $600 boots. For what? Why would you need that? But it showed me that people like this actually exist. There was good, and there was bad. I knew that there would be people who would be far richer than I could ever be, and that’s just the way that they were born. That’s what it is.
Has that experience at Trinity influenced how you operate since you’ve left?
In a way, yes, it has. In the sense that, you know, all those people, all those kids some day, they’re gonna be my boss. They’re gonna be everyone's boss. It gave a little bit of insight to their mindset, their thought process. I had an experience at Trinity…and there’s a lot of racist stuff that happens at Trinity. So, it was our senior dinner for the American Studies Major, and so, at this point, we were talking about who had won the department awards. We had an award for the best thesis, and award for the best project. And a project at Trinity is basically just a single semester thesis. The thesis is two semesters, the project is one semester. So one person wrote a thesis in our department that person obviously won the thesis award. The rest of us had done projects so we were trying to figure out who had won the project award for that semester, right?
And so that same day the email had gone out to the winners that they had won the award. I had won and another young lady had won the award, right? So everyone is sitting around speculating about the project — who won the award. and I said: you really want to know who won? they say yeah yeah yeah. And I say, I won, right. and then the young lady says I won too. They were disappointed and had wished they won. And one kid said “I see you won the being black at trinity award. And so we have been drinking and it didn't hit me what he had actually said until the next morning. When I sober up a little bit. and I was like, I can't believe that mother fucker said that to me. You know. And I never saw him again. But that's the experience of being a non regular student at Trinity because there are people you just don't see again. That guy is going to be someone's boss someday, that guy who, feel this in his heart and felt bold enough to say it— whether it was the alcohol or not — felt that he could say that in that venue. And so I think about that as I navigate the world that there are people out here who are not going to be on your side who are not going to congratulate your success, who are not going to be interested in all the same hard work that you put into this project. I worked hard than he did, and that's why I won. I am a better writer than he is — that why I won. I have better insight than him, I had better resources than him, I had better interviews than him, I am better than him and that is why I won. But as far as he is concerned, I won because I am the black kid. You know. And that's his worldview and that's what his worldview is always going to be. So there are people out there where it doesn't matter how much better I am than them, how much harder I work than them, how much effort I put in, I will never be able to stand on the same level as them for as far as they're concerned, I'm just the black kid. I'm the affirmative action kid. I am the one who gets in to here to make it more diverse. So I'm allowed to play the role of that. I just can't bat you I can't be better than you. I can be the token but I can't be better. And so I keep that in mind when I go places. And so I work harder and I try harder and Im out here to show you, no, I am better than you, and I am going to prove it to everyone else. I don't care what you think, you're never going to believe it, but when those awards come out they're going to come to me because I am better than you. And you're going to have to hold that and that's how I think about it. I am going to win, I'm going to be better than you.
Do you think that having your perspective, on one hand— growing up not the other side of the tracts, like you said, but also having a Trinity education and really allowing your writing to be a bit more hones and your experience to be a bit more broadened — I feel like because of that you have this special ability to translate larger issues through populations. and you do that. whether its doing interviews on NPR or op-eds in the Hartford Courant — is that something that you've been intentional post trinity career? or is it something you fell into.
I have been intentional about trying to translate info across those barriers. I have the ability and therefore the responsibility to do it. You have to meet people where they are. Trinity taught me that and where I work taught me that as well. When you're communicating with people in my neighborhood, I live in the North End on the corner of Main and Nelson in subsidized housing. So there's a specific demographic, african americans live there, right. People who may not have gone to college, or have GEDS, people who may not be as well educated as I am. And so you have to talk to them but understand that your degree doesn't mean anything about how intelligent you are. being educated doesn't make you intelligent and not having one doesn't make you not intelligent. So you have these conversations. And the people in my neighborhood have given me thoughts and insights into things I didn't understand. You have to be willing and open to the idea that it doesn't matter where people live, what their education is, they have things to say because they have eyes, they have ears, they have brains—and they can put the pieces together was well as anyone else. So I can take that info and translate it to the people who don't think they have ideas. Who don't think the people don't have thoughts and solutions and perspectives on their own lives. Because that seems to be the perspective that a lot of people on the other side of that bench think. That you have to swoop into these areas and save people. That you have to give them the ideas. They have the ideas, the need the tools. People cross those tracks and think "oh well these people don't have any perspective in their own lives" which of course is a ridiculous assumption. Of course they have ideas on how to fix their community. But no one will cut them the check for it. No one will erase the red lines on those housing maps, no one is desegregating this place in a way that is effective for them to make their communities better. There is a reason why the sidewalks look the way they do in the North End versus the West End—there's a reason for that—and the reason why is because the money goes there and it doesn't go there. We get the same amount of snow we get the same amount of traffic—the money goes one place and not the other. So these people don't need you to come in and give them ideas. Cut them a check. Give them the resources, give them the infrastructure. Support them the same way you support other people. And you'll see that these people know how to solve their problems. On the other hand, these people on the other side of the tracks—on the good side of the tracks—sometimes don't know how to communicate their ideas; you come across as condescending, you come across as out of touch. You come across these ways and you need to have someone who can translate your inability to communicate with people who live in these communities. What I try to do is find the right words for both people. That's a task I take very seriously because it doesn't matter how good the idea is if you can't communicate it well—it gets lost. So when you're talking to a donor or a person at wnpr or you're talking to a person at real art ways or you're talking to a person in city hall—there's a certain language they use, there are certain words they use, there a certain metaphors, and things that they use to communicate their ideas. You have to be able to parse that, understand what they're trying to say, and then say to them—well here's what these people, with the metaphors, and this language and these ideas are saying, and you also have to be able to bridge those two people together, right? One of the things that I've really become interested in is the language of activism. I think the language of activism is ever as important in academia. How do you put language into words people understand so that they don't feel threatened by them. And that's the main thing—that you have to put thesis ideas into language where people don't feel threatened by it and you know one of the experiences I had that made me really think about this was—I was reading an essay in a class, at Trinity, and it was was called race and urban space and the class was about how urban space is organized in a way that reinforces segregation along racial lines and you know, for someone like me, who isn't spatially oriented at all—it was a really informative class. It was a really informative class. It made me think about why sidewalks are wide in this part of town and narrow in that part of town. Why does the concrete floor encasement here but not there? Why do streets flow this way in this part of town and that way in that part of town. All these things that I can't conceptualize on my own, were taught to me in this class, right? So I was doing the reading for this class, and I appreciate that it taught me something I didn't know. I am reading this essay and the essay uses the word “anglophone” and this frustrates me to no end because anglophone is a word that means english speaker, but, it's written as anglophone for literally no reason than to erect that language barrier between a person who knows the root phone and what anglo means, anglophone does not communicate an idea that english—speaker doesn’t. It is just a choice of word that keeps certain people in and certain people out. There's difference between cerulean ann periwinkle. Those are both blue but different shades of blue. Those are different colors. Anglophone and english- speaker are the same word. They mean the exact same thing. So when you chose to use “anglophone” you are make a choice that builds a barrier for certain people. Even if that barrier is simply going online and googling the meaning of the word. It's a barrier you have aerated with word choice. So I look at language and think: how can I break down these barriers. How can I code words that communicate effectively between the two sides or the three or the five sides. Because there's a word for that there's not one word to communicate it. But when you talk to party A they use a word. You think, how can I translate it so that party b can understand it. thats what language is, that is what communication is. The ability to share these complex ideas between people and I do take it very seriously, the ability to make those changes. Some people call it code switching. Some think about it in those terms. I think about it in terms of facilitating communication between people. If I write something in the Hartford Courant and people in the North End of Hartford get it but people in the West End don't get it—then I've failed. If I write it and it's the opposite way around, then I failed. I need to write something that both these groups can understand. And that is my goal when I write—that people will understand it. There will be people who disagree and I can't control that. I can control how understandable I make this, how clear I am. And so I do take that seriously. And so the experience at Trinity is good because I can talk to those people. Living in the north end is good because I can talk to those people. And whoever else wants to talk to me right. You know. If you want to talk to me, come talk to me. 'Cuz I want to know, I want to learn. You have things to say that I can't think of by myself. You have ideas that I can't come up with. Now my goal is, once I talk to you, is to get that to other people. And that's how I think about the responsibility and the privilege of being able to cross those borders.
What is it that the powers that be can do to help the people living in all neighborhoods, and really be responsible for all residents of Hartford.
I think that there's a certain parcel in the north end that has been designated as a federal zone. so that opens up that parcel to federal monies that weren't available before. And that started with the cigar administration. And I've been very critical of the cigar administration but I'll give credit where credit is due. That was a good thing that happened. Because it is about having the money to make these things works. But I think that in terms of how do you help this community. You help this community by recognizing that it has been personally disadvantaged over decades. And that's the starting point. You cannot correct the issues that affect the north end without first recognizing this fact. That you know all the terms that get thrown around. Red lining happened. Block-busting happened. Restricting covenant happened. The refusal to lend into communities like ours, happened. That people refusing to allow subsidized housing to be built in the communities happens today. And that's why all those buildings are in the North End right now: cuz you can't get them built in other communities. Those things happen, they are happening and until you recognize that yes, all of these things were done with explicitly racial intent, it's not a coincidence that the North End is largely people of color. That's no coincidence. It's not a coincidence that places like Simsbury and Avon are largely white. These things were done on purpose with explicit racial intent. If you go back and you read the history of these places, it's right there in the language. Literally. And I'm going to rant for a second, so please indulge me, but it frustrates me to no end that in the current educational climate that history just tosses things aside so quickly. I remember reading a poll in the newspaper that asked people why the civil war started and the plurality of people said slaver— like fifty percent. Forty-seven percent said states' rights. If you read the articles from the 1850s, from the 1860s. they explicitly state that they are seceding to protects slavery. It is right here. When you read the documents that's what they say. You don't have to speculate about the meaning. The words are there, the op-eds and the editorials from southern newspapers are there. This is what people thought. They knew they were leaving the union to protect slavery. There should be no question 150 years later why they left. But do you know what there is—because you don't read primary documents in high school you don't read Eric Folder in high school. No, it's stem, it's math, it's science. Math and science are important but so is history. So now when you ask people why only african americans are in the North End, people will say stuff like “it's because they don’t want to live anywhere else. It's because they want to live around each other.” NO. it's because it was fucking illegal for them to live anywhere else for 50 years. It's because it was legal to deny them loans; to build the equity in their homes to sell them and then afford a house in Simsbury. It's because there are all sorts of legal and social and cultural barriers that were built explicitly and written fucking down. You can read them. You can go read the restrictive covenants that were written into deeds in West Hartford—right now. But we don't teach that. We don't encourage people to explore history. That's why we get shit like, "african americans live where they live because they don't want to live anywhere else". No. I'd like to live in Simsbury. I'm never going to have the money to, probably, because I'm never going to have a house that is going to allow me to build the equity to sell it, to afford that. I'm not going to have the credit to qualify for a loan to buy a house out there. It's because I'm black. I know that and we all know that. But we can pretend otherwise because people don't want to look at the language that's written in front of them. Look at the words that are right in front of them. That shows them that this is why things are. And if you want to start, you're going to have to start there. Acknowledging that these things are because people made them this way. Because then you can say, we can change these things because people can make a differently. If we all just believe there is a magical force that segregates people then we think there's nothing we can do about it. NO. this was built by people. It can be unbuilt by people. And you don't do that by building magnet schools where you still allow segregated communities to exist. The most segregated schools in the entire state are white schools. No one is saying we should desegregate those schools, right, because it's not about segregation, it's about quality. No one wants their schools desegregated in Simsbury because schools serve the purpose they want them to. And until you can address that, that people want their communities to look the way they do for a specific reason, then you get them to start making changes about it. We let the North End look the way that it does because we want it that way. Because we make choices every single day that make it look like that. And until you acknowledge that those choices were made, you can't start making different choices. You can give lip service to the idea that we are going to invest in the North End, but what does that actually mean. What that actually means is making different choices in terms of development, making different choices in terms of financing, in terms of funding. Making choices about where you close schools and open schools. Making choices about where you put housing, where you direct loans. And things of that nature. Making choices about banks and all these things that form the structure of everything that is wrong with the North End. If you can't acknowledge that first, then all this other stuff does not matter. All the lip service doesn't matter. We closed all the factories in the North End empty because it is better for the people who own them in NY to let them sit empty and hope that someone buys them some day than to invest the money to fix them right now. So you can walk down the street in the north end and see an empty apartment building, or see empty houses. Because the absentee landlords draw more value from it now then they would later. That is a fucking choice. Until you confront those people these lots will sit empty forever.
What are things that Hartford residents can do, if that acknowledgment isn't going to come anytime soon from people in positions of power?
The best thing that we can do is to organize for ourselves. There's a lot of organization that happens at the grassroots level in the North End. There was a story a few years ago when Mayor Perez was on trial the first time. It was the Colin McEnroe show on WNPR and they were referring to how much residents don't care about this sort of stuff. I wrote an op-ed in response to that, they do care. I go to NRZ meetings. I've been to community meetings, right. I walk down the street and I hear people talking about the issues that face their communities. No one wants to live the way that they live in the North End. No one wants garbage all over the place. No one wants to see these same types of issues over and over again. The pot-holes, right? So people do org at the grassroots level people do talk to each other, the do have meetings. But grassroots org only goes so far without support from other people. The same people who built these systems on top of us now have to take it off of us. Have to lift that weight. If it was just a matter of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps then people would be fine. In all these inner city areas, they'd be fine. Because people do care and they do work. But you know they have a weight pushing down on them. And that's where the acknowledgment comes from. There is pressure on them. It is not simply that they don't care but that things push them down and powers push them down. Sickness pushes them down homelessness and food insecurity and all these things push them down. The fucking baseball stadium, in the area where there should have been a grocery?? I know, because I wrote about it. I know that those plans for the grocery store were concrete plans. So the food insecurity and the access to healthy food was a choice made to not go in that direction by an administration that was supposed to be for us. I mean we have a latino mayor, right? We have a gay latino mayor. He's on our side, right? No, he's not. He wasn’t. Whatever his calculation was in terms of a grocery store versus a baseball stadium, he made it. And guess who is fucked? We are, because we still have to go to New Park Avenue for groceries or to Bloomfield for groceries. Or to the little bodegas around us. And so it’s that sort of the thing. All the agitation in the world for a grocery store and that progressive action was shot down by the people in power. That’s that downward pressure, so what do you do against that? You keep trying. It requires us to vote, we have to get out there and vote. We have to hold elected officials accountable to us. We have to make sure that we don't just give our votes, that our votes are conditional. We will vote for you if you do this thing. If you don't do this thing, we will pull our vote from you. We have to make sure we are engaged at every level of the process. We are already doing these things. There are people on the school board right now. There are people in the North End that have meetings and opinions. But as long as there is that type of pressure that prioritizes baseball for suburbanites as opposed to a grocery store for residents— what do you do against that?
Interview by Jeff Devereux and Emily Dowden
Photography by Darcy Hughes