tv 60 Minutes CBS July 11, 2021 7:00pm-8:00pm PDT
>> who holds those responsible for war crimes accountable? in syria, it's often civilians who have bravely defied a sadistic dictator, and the 21st century's worst atrocities. as you'll hear tonight, they have risked their lives to tell the stories of the men, women, and children who continue to be murdered by their own government. ( ticking ) ( explosion ) >> ten years after japan's catastrophic nuclear disaster,
the reactors are still far too radioactive for humans to go inside them. cue the robots. working robots with 3d scanners and sensors that can fly, slink, climb stairs, and swim, as they look for the nuclear fuel that still poses a massive threat. ( ticking ) >> colson whitehead has won the pulitzer prize for fiction. twice. his works have range, to say the least; from the jim crow south, to zombie hunters. do you write for yourself, or do you write for the audience? >> really for me, which sounds very selfish. should i have written a zombie novel? it made perfect sense to me. i grew up loving horror movies, and then horror fiction. is that something i should be doing as a literary author? i don't know. and there's no handbook. ( laughter ) you know? ( ticking ) >> i'm lesley stahl. >> i'm bill whitaker. >> i'm anderson cooper. >> i'm john dickerson. >> i'm scott pelley. those stories, tonight, on
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you may pay as little as $25 for a 3-month prescription. >> scott pelley: if you have children watching "60 minutes" tonight, that's usually a good thing. but this story is not for them. the images you are about to see are the honest evidence of the greatest war crimes of the 21st century. as we reported last winter, president biden and his national security team face a horror that erupted when many of them were in the obama administration.
last march brought the 10th anniversary of the popular uprising that began syria's civil war. the syrian dictator, bashar al-assad, has gassed the innocent, bombed hospitals and schools, and made thousands disappear. the evidence is hard to watch, but it should be seen. many risked their lives to tell this story, so that-- even if assad is never arrested-- he will be, forever, handcuffed to the truth. syrian president bashar al-assad did this. these are civilians of a damascus suburb called ghouta. in 2013, ghouta was held by rebels, so the syrian army shelled the neighborhood with internationally-banned nerve gas. 1,400 men, women and children were exterminated. assad had chosen to meet the popular uprising against him,
not with diplomacy, not with war among soldiers, but with terrorism without restraint. >> stephen rapp: we have murder, we have extermination, we have torture, we have rape. >> pelley: stephen rapp is helping to build cases against assad and his regime. rapp prosecuted war crimes in rwanda and sierra leone and served as u.s. ambassador for war crimes issues for six years, until 2015. will there be justice for what's happened in syria? >> rapp: i'm an optimistic american. i've seen other situations that we thought were pretty hopeless, where nobody thought there'd ever be justice, where we succeeded. the possibilities are there. and one of the ways that we build toward that is, get the solid evidence now. >> pelley: much of what he calls solid evidence was abandoned in the war zone. more than 900,000 government documents have been smuggled out and archived by the independent
commission for international justice and accountability. the commission is funded, in part, by the u.s. and european union. stephen rapp is the commission's chair. do the documents that have been collected so far lead all the way to president assad? >> rapp: there's no question they lead all the way to president assad. i mean, this is a top down, organized effort. there are documents with his name on it. clearly, he organizes this strategy. then we see orders down through the system to pick people up. we see reports back. we see reports back about, well, we've got a real problem here, there are too many corpses stacking up. >> pelley: among the corpses is ahmad al-musalmani, a 14-year- old who was last seen on a bus headed to his mother's funeral. his family told human rights watch that assad's military stopped the bus and found a
protest song on ahmad's phone. his family next saw his face, two years later, when this image of his tortured body was smuggled out by the man concealed in the blue windbreaker. >> caesar ( translated ): our job became solely to take photographs of the bodies of dead human beings that had been tortured to death or killed in the different intelligence branches. >> pelley: the photographer's alias is "caesar." he was in the military? we spoke to him with the translation help of mouaz moustafa, of the syrian emergency task force, which works to protect civilians. caesar had been a military photographer for 13 years. in 2011, he was ordered to make a record at morgues that received the dead from assad's secret prisons. we added a masking effect because his images are too horrific for television. the reality of what he saw broke caesar's allegiance to the
regime. to protect caesar's identity, these are his words in moustafa's voice. >> caesar ( translated ): it was very clear that they were tortured. not tortured for a day or two-- tortured for many, many long months. they were emaciated bodies, purely skeletons. there were people, most of them had their eyes gouged out. there was electrocution, you could tell by the dark spots on their body that was used there. there was utilization of knives and also big cables and belts that was used to beat them. and so, we could see every type of torture on the bodies of these individuals. >> pelley: "every type of torture," but the depravity of the gouged eyes leaves to the imagination how maiminscoer information. by 2013, the bodies overflowed the morgues and spilled across a parking garage at this military hospital. >> caesar ( translated ): when i would take photographs, i would think, how can this government
be capable of doing this to its own people? i would also have feelings of sadness and anger at what i've seen. and, at the same time, a feeling of fear, that at any single moment, there's no reason that i wouldn't face the very same torture and be photographed later. >> pelley: how did you get the photographs out? >> caesar ( translated ): every single day, i would get on the computer, i would use a flash drive to get all of the photographs that were taken that day, load them onto the flash drive and then in a secret and risky way go out from work and reach a close friend of mine, sami, who would then take the flash drive and upload the flash drive on a daily basis onto his personal computer. >> pelley: this is caesar's friend, sami, also an alias. for more than two years, he uploaded the daily flash drive smuggled by caesar. we interviewed sami, again, with the help of mouaz moustafa. >> sami ( translated ): it was a
responsibility upon us, upon caesar and i, a responsibility to the syrian people to be able to show them-- prove to them, let them know what has been the fate of their loved ones. i remember i had a neighbor and her son was a friend of mine. i was looking at his photograph in one of the flash drives that caesar had brought to me that day. and i remember every single day that mother would go back to the intelligence branch asking about her son, asking any information about him. and i couldn't even tell her the truth because we didn't want to be exposed as we were doing this documentation. >> pelley: this is victim 9,700. >> sami ( translated ): that's right. >> pelley: sami pointed out the irony of police-state bureaucracy-- arabic numerals, which one day may be a treasure for prosecutors. we blurred the numbers to protect the families of the dead. >> sami ( translated ): with each body, there's usually three numbers associated with it, written on different parts of
their bodies. the first being the number of the detainee, the second is the number of the intelligence branch that tortured that individual to death, and the third number was given by the doctor which was a sequential number signifying which number of dead body he or she was. >> pelley: you would think that the regime would want to hide all of these things. >> rapp: people are basically covering their backside, following the procedures. and people will follow those procedures at peril of getting in trouble. but in the process of doing it, they're creating some of the strongest evidence that any of us who've prosecuted crimes here or elsewhere have ever seen. >> pelley: how do we know that caesar's photographs are authentic, and actually do show what they purport to show? >> rapp: our own f.b.i. verified the metadata and determined that everything was rock solid, that the whole group of photos represented, real people and real events. >> pelley: the f.b.i. analyzed caesar's images. in the 242 pictures it sampled, the f.b.i. says the "image files
exhibit no artifacts or inconsistencies." one prisoner caesar did not photograph is this man, who goes by the alias, ali. he was imprisoned because of the place of his birth. where were you born? >> ali ( translated ): in columbus, ohio. >> pelley: but you moved to syria as a child? >> ali ( translated ): correct. >> pelley: in 2012, on a trip from the u.s., ali, flew to damascus. it was the second year of the war. he never made it out of the airport. his u.s. passport was a ticket to an underground prison. >> ali ( translated ): one of the high-ranked intelligence officers told me, we don't care if you are american. we can kill you. we can keep you detained forever. >> pelley: three weeks of interrogation seemed like forever. he told us his feet were beaten with plastic pipe until he couldn't stand. others, he said, were suspended on a wall by handcuffs and dowsed with boiling water.
but the worst for him was a prisoner he never saw. ali overheard an interrogation-- a boy, judging from the screams. >> ali ( translated ): i heard a child between 12 and 13 years old screaming, "mama, please help me out from the hell." when he screamed, just after pour water and then i can hear the whipping and hitting by like plastic pipe or like something like that. >> pelley: as capriciously as he was taken, ali was released to his family, who hadn't known for 23 days why he never showed up at baggage claim. torture is one of many war crimes committed by bashar al-assad's regime. in 2017, we visited a bombed hospital. thousands of medical facilities, schools, and neighborhoods have
been leveled by assad, and his ally, russia. assad has used banned chemical according to an investigation by the global public policy institute. in all, about a quarter million civilians are dead. 12 million have been forced from their homes. assad's opposition has committed atrocities too, but the scale cannot be compared. >> caesar ( translated ): i did all of this. i risked my life and the lives of my family, in order to show and to expose to the entire world the true face of this dictatorship of the assad regime. >> rapp: we've got better evidence against assad and his clique than we had against milosevic in yugoslavia, or we had in any of the war crimes tribunals in which i've involved in. to some extent, even better than
we had against the nazis at nuremberg, because the nazis didn't actually take individual pictures of each of their victims with identifying information on them. >> pelley: you'd love to go to court-- >> rapp: oh i'd love that, yeah. this would be a great trial >> pelley: trouble is, assad has nearly won the war. the u.s. and others have imposed sanctions, but most criminals will be safe in syria. the u.n. tried to refer syria to the international criminal court, but that was vetoed by russia and china. if assad gets away with impunity, what has the world lost? >> rapp: if the word is that you can commit those crimes, and that you can get away with it, and this is the way that you suppress a popular uprising, then others will do the same thing. the future will be much more dangerous than the past, and a
lot of what we built will be destroyed. >> pelley: already destroyed is what syrians built over thousands of years. assad is condemned to be the monarch of all he surveys. his trial may be distant, but the witnesses are patient. blind witnesses, who challenge the world to see. young witnesses, for whom time no longer matters. they will wait, because a crime buried without justice is never laid to rest. ( ticking ) >> a syrian activist, shining a light on his war torn country. >> justice will prevail. >> at 60minutesovertime.com. to severe crohn's disease. then i realized something was missing... ...me. my symptoms were keeping me from being there for her.
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>> lesley stahl: more than ten years have passed since a monster earthquake and tsunami struck northeast japan and triggered what became, after chernobyl, the worst nuclear disaster in history, at the fukushima daiichi nuclear power plant. when three of the plant's six reactors melted down, hot fuel turned to molten lava, and burned through steel walls and concrete floors. to this day, no one knows exactly where, inside the reactor buildings, the fuel is. and, it is so deadly, no human can go inside to look for it. so, as we first reported in 2018, the japanese company that owns the crippled plant has turned to robots. there are four-legged robots, robots that climb stairs, and even robots that can swim into reactors flooded with water.
they're equipped with 3d scanners, sensors, and cameras that map the terrain, measure radiation levels and look for the missing fuel. this is part of a massive clean- up that's expected to cost nearly $200 billion and take decades. has anything like this clean-up, in terms of the scope, ever happened before? >> lake barrett: no, this is a unique situation here. it's never happened in human history. it's a challenge that we've never had before. >> stahl: lake barrett is a nuclear engineer and former department of energy official who oversaw the clean-up of the worst nuclear accident in u.s. history, three mile island. he was hired as a senior adviser by tepco, the tokyo electric power company that owns the plant, and is in charge of the effort to find the missing fuel. he's also advising on the
development of new robots, like this six-legged spider robot that engineers are designing to hang from scaffolding and climb onto equipment. he describes them as: >> barrett: very advanced working robots that will actually be the ones with long, muscular arms, and laser cutters and such, that will go in and actually take the molten fuel and put it in an engineered canister and retrieve it. >> stahl: should we think of this as a project like sending someone to the moon? >> barrett: it's even a bigger project, in my view, but there's a will here to clean this up, as there was a will to put a man on the moon. and these engineering tasks can be done successfully. >> stahl: why not just bury this place? why not do what they did at chernobyl? just cover it up, bury it, and just leave it here, all, you know, enclosed? >> barrett: number one, this is right next to the sea. we're 100 yards from the ocean.
we have typhoons here in japan. this is also a high earthquake zone, and there's going to be future earthquakes. so, these are unknowns that the japanese and no one wants to deal with. >> stahl: the earthquake that caused the meltdown measured 9.0, the most powerful ever recorded in japan, and triggered a series of tsunami waves that swept away cars, houses, and entire towns, killing more than 15,000 people. at fukushima daiichi, the enormous waves washed over the plant, flooding the reactors and knocking out power to the cooling pumps that had kept the reactor cores from overheating. lake barrett took us to a hill overlooking the reactors, where the radiation levels are still relatively high. so this is actually right where it all happened? the heart of the disaster, right
here? >> barrett: correct. there's reactor number one, reactor number two, reactor number three. and when the earthquake happened, 100 miles away, these buildings all shook and these towers all shook, but the design was such that they were safe. but 45 minutes later, waves were racing in, tsunami waves, from the earthquake, and there were seven waves that came in at 45 feet high and put the station in what we call "station blackout." they had no power. and the cores got hotter inside, and hotter, and hotter again, until the uranium started to melt. >> stahl: how many tons of radioactive waste was developed here? >> barrett: probably 500 to 1,000 tons in each building. >> stahl: so how long will it be lethal? >> barrett: it will be lethal for thousands of years. >> stahl: what we're talking about really is three meltdowns? >> barrett: yes. it was truly hell on earth. >> stahl: the meltdowns triggered huge explosions that
sent plumes of radioactive debris into the atmosphere, forcing the evacuation of everyone within a 12-mile radius-- about 160,000 people in all. weeks later, tepco officials engaged in so-called kowtow diplomacy... >> ( speaking japanese ) >> stahl: ...allowing townspeople to berate them as they prostrated themselves in apology. thousands of workers were sent to the countryside to decontaminate everything touched by radiation, including digging up dirt and putting it in bags-- lots of bags. but while much of the evacuation zone has been decontaminated, there are still entire neighborhoods that are like ghost towns, silent and lifeless, with radiation levels that remain too high. at the plant, they're capturing contaminated ground water--
about 150 tons a day-- and storing it in tanks as far as the eye can see. >> barrett: water is always the major challenge here. and it's going to remain a major challenge until the entire cores are removed. >> stahl: the closer workers get to the reactors, the more protective gear they have to wear-- as we discovered. we were zipped into tyvek coveralls and made to wear two pairs of socks and three pairs of gloves. >> barrett: okay, we've got tape. >> stahl: not an inch of skin was exposed. the layers of protection include a mask... it's a little loose. >> barrett: we'll tighten it up. >> stahl: ...that often fogged up. >> barrett: how do you feel? >> stahl: good. and a dosimeter to register the amount of radiation we'd be exposed to. we were ready for battle. ( heavy breathing ) we went with a team of tepco workers to unit three, one of the reactors that melted down on
that march day ten years ago, that the japanese call, simply, 3/11. lake! >> barrett: there you are, unit three. >> stahl: watch it. step. >> barrett: these are shield plates because there's cesium in the ground. >> stahl: in the years since the accident, much of the damage to the building has been repaired, but it's still dangerous to spend a lot of time here. we could stay only 15 minutes. there's this number i've been seeing, 566. >> barrett: right. that's telling you the radiation level that we're in. it's fairly high here. that's why we're going to be here a short time. >> stahl: how close are you and i, right this minute, to the core? >> barrett: the melted cores are about 70 feet that way. >> stahl: 70 feet from here is the melted core? >> barrett: correct, that's right over in here. we don't know quite where, other than it fell down into the floor. >> stahl: so if you sent a worker in right now to find it, how long would they survive? >> barrett: no one is going to send a worker in there, because they'd be overexposed in just a matter of seconds. >> stahl: enter the robots. this is the robot research
center. >> dr. kuniaki kawabata: yes. this is for remote control technology development. >> stahl: in 2016, the japanese government opened this $100 million research center near the plant where a new generation of robots is being developed by teams of engineers and scientists from the nation's top universities and tech companies. dr. kuniaki kawabata is the center's principal researcher. >> kawabata: this is our newest robot, j-11. >> stahl: so, number 11. and it's an obstacle course. >> kawabata: yes. the operators use the camera image in front of the robot. but it's so many hours required to train, because it looks very easy, but it is quite difficult. >> stahl: they also train here, in this virtual-reality room, where 3d data taken inside the reactors by the robots is projected onto this screen. operators, using special glasses, can go where no humans
can. so we're actually walking through a part of a reactor. >> kawabata: uh-huh. you feel some immersive experience. >> stahl: as if you're in there. >> dr. kawabata: yes. >> stahl: i actually want to duck. i mean, that's how real it feels to me. like, here we're going under this thing. i have to duck. >> kawabata: ah, yes. >> stahl: but even with all the high-tech training and know-how, the robots have run into problems. for the early models, it was the intense levels of radiation that fried their electronics and cameras. >> barrett: their lifetime was hours. we'd hoped it would be days, but it was for hours. >> stahl: tell us what happened to the robot named "scorpion." this is highly sophisticated, and i gather everybody thought this was the answer. >> barrett: that was going to be the first robot we were going to put inside the containment vessel, which is where we need the information the most, because that's where the core is. >> stahl: this is scorpion, whose mission cost an estimated
$100 million. it was designed to flatten out and slither through narrow pipes and passageways on its way to the core. and, like a scorpion, it raises its tail. >> barrett: the tail would come up with a camera on top, with lights, because you have to have its own lights. it's all dark inside. there're no regular lights. so that was the plan. and we had great expectations and hope for that. we all did. took a year to prepare, and it was hard work. >> stahl: but when scorpion went inside, it hit some debris and got stuck, after traveling less than ten feet. i can't imagine the frustration levels. >> barrett: well, but you learn more from-- from failure sometimes, than you do from success. >> stahl: they had more success with this robot, named "little sunfish," which was designed to swim inside one of the reactors flooded with water. in preparing for little sunfish's mission, engineers
spent months doing test runs inside this enormous simulation tank, fine-tuning the propellers, cameras, sensors, and 65 yards of electric cable, all built to withstand intense levels of radiation. they used nuclear reactor number five to help plan the mission. it didn't melt down when the tsunami hit, and is nearly identical to the one little sunfish would scout. finally, in 2017, the swimming robot made its foray into the heart of the reactor to look for the missing fuel. barrett took us into unit five to show us how it maneuvered through the labyrinth of pipes and debris inside the reactor. >> barrett: the little sunfish came down on the edge and it swam underwater down through this little entryway here underneath the reactor vessel. >> stahl: is this the route that the little sunfish took?
>> barrett: yes, this is. the little sunfish swam through this portal, down into this area, it went around the side. it went down through this grating, which was gone. we are standing directly underneath the reactor vessel. molten fuel came through here, and it jetted out under very high pressure. and then it came out slowly, like lava in a volcano, and it fell down and burned its way through this grating, down to the floor. >> stahl: this is what little sunfish saw as technicians guided it through the pipes and hatchways of the flooded interior. it beamed back images revealing clumps of debris, fuel rods, half-destroyed equipment, and murky glimpses of what looks like solidified lava-- the first signs, tepco officials say, of the missing fuel. >> barrett: these robotic steps so far have been significant
steps, but it is only a small step on a very, very long journey. >> stahl: this is going to take, you said decades, with an "s." how many decades? >> barrett: we don't know for sure. the goal here is 40-- 30, 40 years. you know, i personally think it may be even 50, 60, but it's-- >> stahl: oh, maybe longer. >> barrett: it, well, it may be longer. but reality is, this is a challenge that's never been dealt with before. but every step is a positive step. you learn from that and you go forward to another step. >> stahl: the next step, announced in april by the japanese government, is a controversial one: releasing into the pacific ocean the more than one million tons of contaminated wastewater stored at the site. the government says the water will be treated to remove all dangerous isotopes, and diluted to well below safety standards for drinking water. but the plan-- which is set to begin in two years and will take
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he won last year for his novel, "the nickel boys," about the jim crow south. in 2017, he won for "the underground railroad." through historical fiction, he has illuminated the past to tell us something about our present. but, his work does not stay in one place. as we first reported in february, he has written about elevator inspectors, zombie hunters, and the world series of poker. his next book is a heist novel. on of the other four members of the double-pulitzer club, john updike, said of whitehead's style, "his writing does what writing should do. it refreshes our sense of the world." can i ask you about your first lines? "even in death, the boys were in trouble." "the first time caesar approached cora about running north, she said, 'no'." "it's a new elevator, freshly pressed to the rails, and it's not built to fall this fast." "i have a good poker face
because i'm half-dead inside." those first lines, they're all crackling. tell me about the process of the first line. >> colson whitehead: i'm very fond of them. ( laughs ) and i think, you know, i'm doing the outline-- >> dickerson: for good reason. >> whitehead: i'm doing the outline and-- and lines are coming, and scenes are coming. and i think there's a point where i do enough research, and i'm so excited to start writing because i've written this first sentence two months before, and i'm like, i got to put this sentence in the file, so i-- i can start the book. >> dickerson: do they come to you in this intentional process, or are you at the bodega picking up something? >> whitehead: always the bodega. ( laughs ) yeah. >> dickerson: and what happens if-- when that happens? do you have a notebook? >> whitehead: so now, it's-- it's phone. so, 4:00 a.m., you know, tapping, my wife's like, "you know, turn-- i can't see, it's too bright." >> dickerson: do you write for yourself or do you write for the audience? >> whitehead: really for me, which sounds very selfish. should i have written a zombie novel? it made perfect sense to me. i grew up loving horror movies, and then horror fiction. is that something i should be doing as a literary author? i don't know. and there's no handbook. ( laughs )
you know? and if it gives me pleasure, if it's exciting, you know, our time on earth is pretty short. i should be doing what i-- what i feel like i should be doing. >> dickerson: is the propulsive force for you to al-- always be trying to take risks, always running to new, fresh territory? >> whitehead: well, i think... i'm not sure why i internalized this lesson but, i've always loved pop culture, and i love stanley kubrick. and so, kubrick has this war movie, his science fiction movie, his sci-fi movie, it just made sense that you would-- if you're an artist, you just do something different each time.>e elstifhe ran of his interests: science fiction, comic books, and stephen king novels, relics from arch colson chipp whitehead's youth in manhattan. he attended the elite trinity school, one of just five black students in his class, and went to college at harvard. his writing career started at the "village voice," to the initial dismay of his parents,
who owned an executive recruitment firm. >> whitehead: when i told them i wanted to become a writer, they were like, "do you know how much a writer makes?" and i was like, "i have no idea. i just want to write." >> dickerson: but not everyone wanted to read what whitehead had to say. the first novel he tried to sell was rejected 25 times, and the book was never published. >> whitehead: you know, that's what made me a writer. not being a journalist or being 12 and thinking, "i want to write stephen king-type horror novels." i realized there was nothing else i could do that would sort of make me whole. and no one else is going to write it. and so, i have to start another one. >> dickerson: so, the failure was what told you who you were, in a sense? >> whitehead: yeah. i mean, i had no-- i had no choice. i literally had no other options. >> dickerson: for much of the last year, colson whitehead and his wife, literary agent julie barer, have quarantined with their children at their home in long island. >> whitehead: i mean, the one regret is that i-- everyone knows how many naps i take a day. like, i'm just always, like, laying down. >> dickerson: julie, what did you discover about his process, other than the naps? ( laughter ) >> julie barer: i discovered
that he-- ( laughs ) he listens to really loud music when he works. >> dickerson: whitehead cycles through a 3,000-song playlist that is as eclectic as his writing topics: thee oh sees, johnny cash, david bowie. feet away, barer negotiates for her clients. it's a swirl of literary activity born out of a moment of artistic doubt. was there a moment where you said, like, "i have to do something to make money, because writing isn't doing it"? >> whitehead: i do remember after my poker book, you know, it came out, and i was-- and, no one really liked it. and-- ( laughs ) >> barer: i liked it. ( laughs ) >> whitehead: i think it's a great book. i was like, "so you just, like, write a book, and it comes out? then write a book again?" >> barer: i remember this conversation. >> whitehead: "and then write a book again until, like, you die. that seems, like, so terrible." and i was like, "should i go to cooking school?" like, "i don't know. i like cooking." like-- and then, as always happens, i'm like, "i have to get back to work. this sucks." i'm like-- ( laughs )
i just have to, you know, reconnect with, you know, what i love. >> dickerson: after that poker book, he had another book outlined, but julie encouraged him to drop it and instead write "the underground railroad." >> barer: and he started talking about the idea for "the underground railroad," and he was like, "i don't know if i can do it. i've just-- i've been kicking around this idea for a really long time." but i knew he could do it. and so i had to do a little nudge. ( laughter ) >> whitehead: that sounds like-- yes, she was very enthusiastic. >> barer: i was like, "put the other book away." >> dickerson: "the underground railroad" won the 2016 national book award. it was a "new york times" best-seller for 49 weeks, and has been published in more than 40 languages. >> whitehead: croatian, and chinese, and... >> dickerson: and did any of them change the title in a way that's-- you know, sometimes when it's in a foreign language, it's something like "the railroad that is not above the ground." >> whitehead: i don't think so. there was one country that shall remain nameless... ( laughs )
...who put the subtitle, "black blood of america." and i was like-- ( laughter ) "what are you talking about?" ( laughter ) >> dickerson: last december, we went with whitehead to plymouth church in brooklyn, a hub of the underground railroad. we asked him about his book's magical rail system that delivers his heroine to different eras of tragedy in black history, from slavery to lynchings to forced sterilization. the fact that the underground railroad is an actual railroad, why was that important, and what did that help you do in terms of giving people a new way to look at something that is-- that they think they know? >> whitehead: well, the premise is this fantastic conveyance will take you around different points in history... these alternative americas. and so, immediately, it's not real 19th century america, and i can do what i want. and so, sometimes by not coming at things the right way, by coming at them sideways, we see them-- see them a different way, and they make more sense.
>> dickerson: could you have written that book ten years earlier? >> whitehead: i had the idea in the year 2000. i was like, "this is a great idea, it's cool, the railroad is going to be real," and i'm like, "each state is going to be like gulliver's travel, a different alternative america. it is so good, i would screw it up if i did it right now." i didn't think i-- i was serious enough to write about slavery in the way-- you know, with the gravity that it required. i didn't think i was a good enough stylist or craftsperson to do it. >> dickerson: was there a puzzle-- part of the puzzle that you thought, okay, i'm ready to solve this piece now? >> whitehead: i think deciding on the female protagonist was an important piece. being an enslaved woman, it's much different than being an enslaved man. your body is not your own, obviously, and you're supposed to pump out babies, because more babies means more property, more slaves. and when you become a woman, you enter a new, sort of more
terrible phase of-- of being enslaved. and i thought that was worth writing about. >> dickerson: after selling 2.5 million copies, "the underground railroad" has been adapted into a limited series by oscar- winning director barry jenkins, and starring thuso mbedu as its protagonist, cora, who journeys out of slavery, like whitehead's own relatives. you have enslaved ancestors. >> whitehead: yes. yeah, yeah. >> dickerson: and was that part of your thinking as you were writing? >> whitehead: i was thinking about the, sort of existential terror of being descended from slaves. >> dickerson: your own existential terror. >> whitehead: yeah. i realized that, you know, i shouldn't be here. it's just-- it's a real miracle that this person wasn't killed when they were kidnapped in africa, in the middle passage, on this plantation. >> no justice, no peace! no justice, no peace! >> dickerson: the existential terror that life can be altered forever in an instant is at the heart of whitehead's 2020 book, "the nickel boys," motivated by
the police killings of 2014. >> whitehead: it was the summer of-- of michael brown being killed in ferguson, missouri, and the protests, eric garner being killed in-- in-- staten island. and i came across the story of the dozier school that august. >> dickerson: whitehead was propelled by a series of stories, which detailed survivors' accounts of physical and sexual abuse at the dozier reform school for boys, that operated here in the florida panhandle for more than 100 years, before it was closed by the state in 2011. more than 50 unmarked graves were discovered on the site. you said at one point with these two books, "i've been working in the space of very little hope." what does that mean? >> whitehead: to create a realistic world, a realistic plantation, a realistic florida in the south under jim crow, it's bleak and it's terrible.
>> dickerson: that must be, emotionally, quite difficult. >> whitehead: it is, and definitely the last, writing these-- these two books back to back about slavery and jim crow, was very depleting. it helps that people have shared their stories, whether it's a former slave or a former student, and opened themselves up in that way. that gives me permission to try and find my way into their story and put myself in their, in their shoes. >> dickerson: you talked about the existential question of "you're lucky to be here," in a way. chance, being in the wrong place at the wrong time, can determine the whole outcome of your life. >> whitehead: well, you know, i mean, so much of what happens in "the nickel boys" and "underground railroad" resonates with what we see every day in our headlines. and they are connections i don't have to force. young black people being murdered for being in the wrong place at the wrong time with the wrong skin color. and if they'd left the house five minutes earlier, their whole lives would have been different. >> dickerson: have you felt that way in your life, at times?
"at this moment, it could go either way," being either a young black man or even now? >> whitehead: i think about the way-- what i feel when i see a police-- a police car, or four cops hanging out in front of the subway. there is an instance of, "are they are here for me?" and i think about how strange it is just to walk through your own city and have that-- have that thought. and i think, "am i alone?" and i realize i'm not alone. >> dickerson: in total, whitehead's books have sold over four million copies. his next book, "harlem shuffle," part crime novel, morality play, and an examination of race and power, has a signature start: "ray carney was only slightly bent when it came to being crooked." there are a lot of aphorisms about writing, you know? "write what you know." "write your heart." do you all agree on all of those aphorisms? >> whitehead: we don't talk about things on that kind of level. >> barer: yeah, i mean, use one that colson says." you can do anything if you're-- if you're good enough." >> whitehead: you know, the
current debate's over who can write about what, and writing across race and class and gender. and it's only when the-- you know, you screw it up, that people get angry, and i think rightfully so. >> barer: but i hear people ask him sometimes at readings, you know, "is it hard to write from the point of view of a woman?" and he's like, "i'm a writer. that's my job, is to write from"-- >> whitehead: or, "i'm a human being." >> barer: right. >> whitehead: you know. >> dickerson: you're saying, "i'm a human being, this is what i do as a human being." but you're also doing it as a writer, which has-- it has this secondary benefit, which is that it works really well with your audiences. >> whitehead: what was very heartening was the realization that, if it's true for me, it must be true for at least one other person. and so, what i'm saying won't come off as crazy. and if there's one person, there's a dozen. and then, why not 1,000? and if i can find the right combination of words to express my inner truth, then other people can see it the same way. and so, i think we're all in it together. and if-- and if i can find the sentences and words arranged in the right way, where people can recognize that?
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