Elinor Tatum: Black women’s contributions need to be recognized

Elinor Tatum with Jesse Jackson and late David Dinkins.
Elinor Tatum with Jesse Jackson and late David Dinkins.
Elinor Tatum
New York Amsterdam News Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Elinor Tatum with Jesse Jackson and David Dinkins.

Elinor Tatum: Black women’s contributions need to be recognized

The Amsterdam News’ editor-in-chief on her special project with City & State.
November 30, 2020

New York Amsterdam News Publisher and Editor-in-Chief Elinor Tatum could easily have been featured among the power players in City & State and The New York Amsterdam News’ Black Women in Government and Politics special issue. 

After reporting for New York’s largest Black newspaper in 1997, she succeeded her father, Wilbert Tatum, to take over the publication, and has never looked back. She also co-hosted a weekly segment with Al Sharpton on his “Keepin’ It Real” radio show and has been a sought-after political commentator and keynote speaker on topics of media, race, politics and culture.

Tatum, instead, stayed behind the scenes to help select the women honored in this week’s magazine. City & State Interim Editor-in-Chief Ralph R. Ortega worked alongside Tatum and interviewed her after she helped identify dozens of honorees. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The world of politics remains dominated by white men. Why go so far to do a special issue highlighting Black women who’ve made their mark in the political world? 

Because these women deserve to be highlighted, they deserve to be celebrated. They are phenomenal women in their fields and in New York in general. The media, for the most part, overlooks women of color. It's easier to tear them down. In this case specifically, Black women in government and politics, they are not immune to this either. The media is not focusing or celebrating their achievements. It is much easier to perpetuate stereotypes.

“The media, for the most part, overlooks women of color. It's easier to tear them down.”

After working on this special issue, what do you hope to see moving forward?

That people will take a look at this issue and realize how many remarkable Black women are out there. And that they understand that this is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many more women that we weren't able to include. Someone not being in the issue does not mean that they shouldn’t be. These women have each shown us that they are doing something within their communities. They're making a difference and inspiring other women.

Speaking of inspiring other women, these power players were mentored and now devote their time to mentoring others. What do you hope to see come out of those relationships?

Emotional support, advice, mentorship, job connections, help getting up that ladder. And when a power player knows a position is open, they'll talk to their circle of people to say, “Hey, who's looking for that next bump?” Who knows? Maybe somebody coming up that ladder who needs a foot in the door, or somebody who needs a job. 

We all know that this world is about connections. Think about the old boys' network, the way they used to do it. They got together around the golf course and around the social clubs. These women have their groupings and gatherings. It's necessary on so many different levels. You encourage it, absolutely. 

Did you have a mentor who really impacted your life?

There were so many over the years. It’s hard to name just one. Also, so many of them are gone.

I think the most important thing they all did was to give back, and mentorship. The key is mentorship. Always remember to bring someone with you. 

“These women have each shown us that they are making a difference and inspiring other women.”

You’re a career journalist and a single mom about to turn 50. You have a 10-year-old daughter named Willa. Have you already started giving her the type of advice you were given by your mentors? What have you told her? Or is it still too early?

Oh, I've told her a lot. Whether she listens is another story. I told her just to be proud of who she is. You know, for a young person these days, it's really hard. I told her to be strong within herself, not to listen to what people have to say about you. It's what you know about yourself. And if you know things not to be true, then you don't have to worry about those things. And if you are proud of what you have done, that's all that matters and that you have to find your own strength and your own happiness because no one else can provide that for you. Right? Not an easy job being a woman in this environment. She needs to find a community of people that believe in her and know that they will be there for her.

These women, including yourself, have shown that people can rise to a level that exceeds expectations. Can you describe how that translates to the workplace?

A man would say, “I have to leave early today because my kid’s is in a school play,” or “My kid is getting an award.” The father would be applauded.

If a mother would say, “I have to leave early today because of my kid,” she would be penalized. All of these women have to deal with that on some level, whether or not they have children, because they are of the female gender.

The same thing that goes for a man does not go for a woman. How do you fix that? Well, we have to change the paradigm and not make women have to apologize for being mothers.

“A man would say, ‘I have to leave early today because my kid’s is in a school play.’ The father would be applauded. If a mother would say, ‘I have to leave early today because of my kid,’ she would be penalized.”

Former New York City Mayor David Dinkins died at press time. Your first job was working on his campaign for Manhattan borough president. You were only 13 and a volunteer. Please put his life into context when it comes to Black women, including yourself.

He showed me what it meant to be compassionate. He gave so many people opportunities and he embraced youth, making people understand that age was not a barrier to input. He also, as borough president, created a youth advisory board that had young people ages 12 to 20 who actually reported to him on the issues of the day, and he sought their advice when it came to issues on youth. He actually met with young people, and I sat on that advisory board during his entire tenure as borough president. It set the stage for being able to do what I am able to do today. There were a lot of young women that were part of that, and a lot of young women of color. And a lot of those women of color are still involved in city government today.

He was an advocate for people in general and I don’t think he really saw gender or age. He saw talent. 

Ralph Ortega
Ralph Ortega
is City & State's Editor in Chief.
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