Jun 04, 2024, 06:24AM

An Interview with Sean Yoes

The Baltimore native’s had a distinguished journalism career and isn’t slowing down.

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Sean Yoes is a Baltimore native son, and still resides in West Baltimore. A man for all seasons, and all the right reasons. His journalistic integrity has made a mark in the collective history of Baltimore city. He’s a talented, well-versed pro with panache. Maybe you follow him through social media or watched him in season four of The Wire. I highly recommend his criticality acclaimed book, recently published and available in bookstores and online, Baltimore After Freddie Gray. Yoes has hosted a radio show over the years on WEAA, WYPR and currently has a podcast, meanwhile producing documentaries such as The Highway to Nowhere, about West Baltimore’s unfinished highway project that was never completed and became a wall dividing West Baltimore from the rest of the city.

Tom DiVenti: When did your journalistic career begin?

Sean Yoes: I’ve advocated for my community throughout my career. Different aspects of the community, not just black people, but poor people, anybody who’s been disenfranchised, I’ve advocated for. That’s been ground zero for lack of a better term. I’m just a storyteller.

TD: I think I chose the wrong profession, being a poet. Poets aren’t always taken seriously like writers or journalists are. But, in roundabout ways I feel the same vibe from the type of things we speak to in our lives.

SY: All I am is a storyteller. Just like a poet is a storyteller, or a film maker, a painter, musician, whatever the platform is. That’s the key, the narrative. Who controls the narrative. Who can deliver. To be specific, I was a poet for many years. Back in the 1990s I was co-owner of a coffee house called the Last Cafe.

TD: I heard about that but missed a lot of that local scene in Baltimore during the 90s, living in Brooklyn, NY.

SY: We even had an ongoing mutual relationship with a group of poets in Brooklyn. We took trips to the Blue Moon Café and reciprocated with poets there who came to Baltimore for readings. So, I was in it for most of those 1990s years.

TD: What are your feelings on the demise of printed matter, daily newspapers and magazines. Is it just a sign of the times with digital technology or is it something sinister and more insidious like suppression, or censorship of free speech?

SY: It’s probably a bit of everything. Let me back up. When I was in high school, I wrote for my school newspaper. Even back then, people would ask, what are you going to do with your life? And under my high school yearbook photo it says, “I want to be a broadcast journalist.” I wanted to do this stuff from an early age. I bring that up only to say that many people dissuaded me. They said in the 1980s that the newspaper industry was dying. It’s been dying a slow death for a long time. Technology has played a tremendous part and also just the fact that now anybody can claim to be a journalist. On one hand it can be advantageous because it frees people up to have a voice. It’s a dual-edged sword because having a platform doesn’t necessarily mean you have to adhere to any tenets of journalism, or decency and integrity. We see what’s happening. We see now that groups like the MAGA movement have a powerful propaganda arm. They think they/he can say and do anything. No matter how outrageous and nonsensical. There are millions of Americans who believe everything he and the cult followers say.

TD: MAGA gave all those people a face. A permission for closeted racists to slither out from under their rocks and be the impotent, belligerent, arrogant, self-loathing hateful bullies that they are.

SY: True, we can sit here and say, well racism was always there, this, that and the other. The phrase that you used is key, he gave them permission. The reality is, if you don’t have permission and you’re silent and inactive then you’re not dangerous. Now all these people who were silent aren’t quiet anymore and that’s dangerous.

TD: The threat of stupidity. I don’t know how these supposed Christian people and religious leaders can be trusted and believed as part of the MAGA cult. How can you equate it? They’re like two different animals. It’s like that old movie, The Thing with Two Heads. Where a white racist has a black man’s head attached next to his own beady head.

SY: Well, brother, trust and believe. We have a saying in the black community, that every brother ain’t a brother. I’ll tell you right now as a Christian and a believer in God, when you hear these people professing to be Christian, they’re the furthest thing from it. If you’re a believer in who Christ was, his life and teachings, there’s no way in three hells you can adhere to the stuff that they believe. It’s antithetical, these people are sick. When you idolize a man who’s the antithesis of, the anti-Christ, meaning he’s against everything that the Christ actually believed in. There are certain tenets, biblical tenets, one is idolatry, and another one is judgment. Even the guys like old man Falwell’s son and Billy Graham’s son, they’re basically Klansmen holding a bible.

TD: All those mega church TV billionaire snake oil salesmen. Could you discuss a little bit about your recent documentary on the people of Deal Island, in southern Maryland?

SY: It is a continuation of the work I’ve done my whole life. What I realized once the story was bought to me by my partner Rona, and Andre who directed the film, it’s that continuing of my work, the disenfranchisement, the displacement of poor people, people of color. These people are trying to hold onto their culture, hold on to their families and customs. Their way of life. Through climate change, systemic racism, it’s been tough. They rely heavily on the water. There’s always imbalance and inequality in that, but they learned how to kind of get along. But at the same time there was always a system of racism and white supremacy that was in place. The people we reported on, they want to be able to hold onto their culture. Part of it is, although we touched on all the different aspects of inequality that are very real, ultimately, it’s a dying culture in the sense that Deal Island is sinking into the water. There’s nobody there anymore, a handful of people because the young people leave. When you’re there you realize that there are no children left. They’re trying to cling to something, to preserve something so they’ll be remembered. Whose stories are important? Fortunately, we brought some attention to these people and their plight. They’re starting to move some things around down there. The Governor’s Office has gotten involved, and I can’t speak on that just yet. It looks like they’ll be getting some much-needed help.

TD: It’s always pleasing to see positive change. You did something about the great artist Romare Bearden, a man who was a big part of The Harlem Renaissance.

SY: He was an extraordinary cat! He was a cartoonist for the Afro-American newspaper for a few years. He went to school at Howard University and started professionally at the Afro. They have many of his cartoons in their archives. But a lot of guys did. Carl Rowan got his start there. I worked with Mr. Sam Lacy there. I grew up learning that history as a 23-year-old, just being able to work with Mr. Lacy, I felt like I hit the lottery. I wrote a story when I first started there, one early morning he came into the office and said, “Hey Yoes, that lead you wrote, that was really good work.” I was like, Wow! That was somebody who was a mentor to me. Another guy with the Pittsburgh Courier and Mr. Lacy were responsible as journalists for Jackie Robinson breaking through the barrier into Major League Baseball. They travelled around the country for two years chronicling Robinson’s ascension into the big leagues. He told me, when Robinson played in the minors in a Florida spring training game, camped out in front of the stadium was the Ku Klux Klan protesting. Instead of going in through the front gate, they had to climb through an outfield fence plank to avoid the Klan.

TD: Another man you mentioned was Larry Gibson.

SY: Larry Gibson, he’s my main mentor. He’s the foremost authority on Thurgood Marshall. He’s got all the direct documentation. His widow endorsed the definitive biography on Thurgood Marshall, The Making of a Supreme Court Justice, which I helped him on. Out of all the people I’ve been associated with, Larry Gibson is the most responsible for educating me. He’s a great lawyer. He’s finishing up his 50th year at the University of Maryland as a law professor. He was a big-time lawyer and is very important to me.

TD: Speaking of big-shot lawyers, do you know Billy Murphy?

SY: Yes, a longtime friend, but in recent years I’ve become a close associate with Billy, who I quoted heavily on my piece celebrating Larry Gibson and his half-century anniversary at the University of Maryland.

TD: Billy Murphy is very cool. I think he could’ve made a good mayor for Baltimore. He stole my girlfriend away, ha! It was a long time ago, but I still remember him fondly.

SY: Ha! Yeah, he stole a lot of girlfriends! You know he’s a very good jazz drummer. He started playing in Boston where he graduated from MIT before law school back in the 1960s. He played and traveled with Gary Bartz for a while.

TD: So, The Road to Nowhere, your documentary?

SY: The Highway to Nowhere.

TD: That’s right, I was thinking of the Talking Heads song, but I remember that’s where you would go to route 40 west to hitchhike across the country. I’d look at that monstrosity and think, what a monument to inertia.

SY: The point is, with the expansion of the short film I did with Highway to Nowhere, it’s one thing to say look at this thing. It destroyed and cut the community in half. The reality is you can cut anything in half you can destroy anything but if that thing doesn’t have any value, then nobody cares. What I have to prove, show and demonstrate is, it destroyed something or great value. Then people will care about its value.

TD: Their intent was to destroy the community. Those good ol’ boys in the old Baltimore days.

SY: But the reality is that was done all over the United States. Federally-funded highway projects disrupted and divided black communities all over the country with the same intention. I uncovered something, the architect Klaus Philipsen, who I worked with at WYPR. He’s a pretty sharp guy. He published a story that connected me to another report highlighting the disdain that these guys had planned for black communities. 

TD: Mimi DiPietro, Hyman Pressman, William Donald Schaefer, passing envelopes stuffed with cash over the tables of restaurants in Little Italy.

SY: Let me tell you a story about Mimi DiPietro. I asked Kurt Schmoke about this, but he wouldn’t admit it, but he didn’t deny it. Mimi was on the City Council at a meeting and said, at the podium, well now we know the mayor’s a nigger! He can’t help that! And Schmoke was there and had to take that shit.

TD: My final question I ask everyone, what’s your take on life, death, heaven, hell and the afterlife?

SY: I believe in a god that rules over the entire universe. I believe he’s a benevolent god, and feel that when we leave this plane of existence, we’re spiritual beings having a human experience. When these bodies give out, that’s only the beginning. 


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