Nov 15, 2016
Trust Still Processing: Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris Want To Talk It Out
Like so many others around the country, Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham were in shock the morning of Wednesday, November 9.
The night prior, Donald J. Trump was elected the next president of the United States. But Morris, of Philadelphia, and Wortham, of Northern Virginia, both writers for the New York Times Magazine, got out of bed the next morning and met with one another. Through tears, the pair took to their microphones to record a new episode of their podcast, Still Processing, and to help many who, like them, didn’t quite know how to understand and interpret this new reality. To uncover why it had happened.
Still Processing has only been around for a handful of months, and while the subject matter is wide-ranging—topics have included NFL star Colin Kaepernick’s protest, the current television landscape (with shows like Westworld, Atlanta, and Insecure), and a visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture (the ‘Blacksonian’) in Washington D.C.—Morris and Wortham always bring the same eminently likable back-and-forth repartee to their detailed and nuanced takes on complex topics. They’re there to talk through whatever is on their own—and their listeners’s—minds. To work through these things in real time. To process.
Upon meeting Wortham—a Bushwick resident—and Morris—who lives in either Boerum Hill or downtown Brooklyn, depending on who you ask—on a gloomy afternoon in Bryant Park, the weather chilly, but not too cold, I have a general idea of what to expect. I had listened to all of the podcast episodes, and avidly read the work of both writers. Wortham’s thoughtful piece on President Obama’s SXSL summit dropped earlier that morning, and Morris’s own contemplative essay on the depiction of black male sexuality in pop culture would come out the next day. Both were featured in the weekend’s Times Magazine.
Listening to Still Processing, their energy, chemistry, and general banter suggests that the two have been friends for quite some time. They finish each other’s sentences, for Pete’s sake; that kind of relationship has to have been built over a long time, right? The first question I ask is, How long, exactly, have you known each other?
Morris and Wortham exchange a quick glance, before Morris bursts out laughing. “Why are you giggling?” Wortham asks, looking over her glasses with an upbeat and playful ring to her voice. (The answer being that no one had ever asked them that question before.)
“There exists the possibility that I could be continuously surprised by this person.”
As it turns out, the two first crossed paths (with a phone call) about four years ago, but have only really been friends ( “I have a higher bar for who I would say is a friend,” Wortham says) since this past summer, after initially sparking amity in February, working together on a Times roundtable piece on Beyoncé’s “Formation.”
Morris, in particular, is an experienced podcaster, having often used his considerable film and cultural expertise (he won the Pulitzer Prize for criticism back in 2012, when he was with The Boston Globe) to chime in on various Grantland-adjacent shows. (Morris wrote for the Bill Simmons-operated site following his stint with the Globe.) He was a frequent guest on The BS Report and The Bill Simmons Podcast, and co-hosted, alongside fellow culture writer Alex Pappademas (now of MTV News), Do You Like Prince Movies?, also on Grantland’s network.
Since moving to the Times last summer, the newspaper identified Morris as someone who could help expand its podcasting efforts. Partnering with Wortham became a pretty simple choice. “There exists the possibility that I could be continuously surprised by this person,” Morris says.
Wortham, who’s been with the Times since 2008, comes with her own substantial depth of knowledge. She’s got a massive following online—@jennydeluxe has over 600,000 followers on Twitter—and has her finger firmly on the pulse of where technology is headed. Prior to the Times, she was based out of San Francisco, and worked for WIRED. Through connections out west, she maintains well-entrenched in the tech sector. Wortham also explores the topics of gender and identity on a regular basis. An excellent recent piece in the Magazine on the idea of queerness shows the expansive view that her mind can take. But she does not feel bound, always, to the written word, and has embarked on projects such as “Everybody Sexts,” posted independently on Medium, that take big, creative chances.
The format of Still Processing—which once held the working title of Feelings—can vary week by week. (Its hallmark, of course, is the rapport between the two hosts.) In the aforementioned Trump episode, they ride uptown to Columbia University, where they continue to work through the election results with Margo Jefferson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer for the Times and now a professor there. As the ‘Blacksonian’ episode exemplifies—the hosts reacting in a raw, real, and emotional manner to their first trip through the museum (prior to the public opening), before getting into the nitty gritty with a curator—this show knows no bounds. It will go anywhere, touch on any topic, and travel to any number of lengths. And the hosts revel in the randomness of it all.
Future episodes will continue to expand upon the show’s innovative format. One idea has Wortham and Morris attending a concert together. Whose show, however, is up to discussion. (She is a major Beyoncé advocate—Pop’s reigning queen sent her a floral arrangement earlier this year—while he claims not to be a “Beyoncé skeptic” but rather a “Beyoncé realist”).
“I feel like I have so much more to be woken up to, to be honest with you.”
Wortham tells me that there’s no explicit “mission statement” of the show, but that the goal is always to dive into what everyone is talking about. Between the two—Wortham with identity, gender, and tech, and Morris with culture—the range of subject matter they can cover is quite large. “We’re very curious people, about each other’s worlds, and where those collide, and also where they pull apart,” Wortham says. “I feel like every week, whatever we’re texting about usually ends up being what the show is about.”
At one point, I want to bring up an idea commonly used in today’s lexicon—recently besmirched by its use to describe Glenn Beck, of all people, after a surprising New Yorker story—‘wokeness.’ I awkwardly bring this up, and immediately regret doing so. It’s a loosely defined term, even online, and while it tends to generally represent the idea of awareness, there’s a lot more nuance involved in most situations than simply being ‘woke’ or ‘not woke.’ Wortham chuckles a bit, before dismissing the idea.
“I don’t think you and I,” she gestures to Morris, “would ever say that we’re the final word on an issue or topic or thing. But because we’re minorities in many definitions of the word, we’re always thinking about these things through this lens, and so that does come out, because that’s just the stuff that genuinely is interesting to us. Like, we would be talking about Colin Kaepernick anyway. So that bleeds into the podcast. It’s more of an intellectual exploration of the cultural texture right now. And if it ends up feeling like we’re woke, it’s because, well, we are, but I don’t think we’re like…”
Morris cuts in to clarify: “I would never use that word for myself.”
“I would never use the word for myself,” Wortham continues. “I feel like I have so much more to be woken up to, to be honest with you.”
One defining point of Still Processing is how seamlessly the guests find their way into the show’s discourse and discussion. A few weeks ago, Jake Silverstein, the Times magazine’s editor-in-chief, discussed President Obama’s legacy with Morris and Wortham, in a fun, speculative, and somewhat tongue-in-cheek segment of the show. As their editor, Silverstein has a good idea of what makes them such a unique and special pairing. “Every podcast that’s worth listening to for more than even one episode has to have good chemistry between the guests, and certainly between the hosts,” he says. “There are a lot of different varieties of good chemistry, but I don’t think there’s any podcast that quite feels like Jenna and Wesley’s right now. There’s a sense of delight that they take in each other, and in each other’s brains, that is joyful to listen to.”
Max Linsky, a co-founder of Pineapple Street Media, which produces Still Processing, sees the show’s power as its ability to tap into, week-to-week, what weighs heavily on the minds of its hosts. “They are really interested in that emotional experience of culture. They are not wired to just ride the wave of whatever people are talking about,” Linsky says. “The thing that they want to do, and what they’re bringing to the ideas meeting every week, is the stuff that actually affected them.”
Running way long on our time together and with a lot left on their ledger for the afternoon—they’ve got pieces to write and a podcast to produce, after all—things start to wrap up.
“They are really interested in that emotional experience of culture. They are not wired to just ride the wave of whatever people are talking about.”
Before we go, Morris has a question on his mind that he wanted to ask of me: Do you think this show is about race?
It’s a tough question, and I answer honestly: It certainly seems to play a role, but it’s never the show’s central intent. If someone asked me what Still Processing was about, I wouldn’t introduce it as ‘a race podcast.’ It’s about culture, and the dissection and analysis of that culture. Race and sexuality come up often, but they’re a part of life (and culture) for everyone, no matter what their opinion. A discussion of culture where these topics don’t come up could be seen, simply, as incomplete.
“That’s the thing,” Wortham explains. “It’s like, our lives are defined by our races—well, we have the same race—and our sexuality, and those are the two things that we are seeing so much more reflected in the world.”
Just as on the show, the two essentially interview each other, and I become the listener again. They grill each other better than I could ever hope to.
“Two years ago, this would’ve been a race show,” Morris says. “The thing that I’m most surprised about with this show is that nobody that I’ve spoken to, and no one who’s written to us, has talked to us as though we’re doing a show about race.”
“I think that speaks to how pervasive black culture is in American culture, because the things that we’re talking about would traditionally be called, for instance, ‘Black TV,’” Wortham quips. “We were just talking about TV. And that would not be the same in 2015, 2014, 2013.”
“Anyway. Well,” Morris says, collecting himself, and looking straight up. “That was enlightening. Thank you.”
Like their show, in conversation, it’s clear that for Morris and Wortham, it is precisely the process of arriving at an endpoint that endears, and enlightens.
Images by Sasha Turrentine
Listen to Still Processing on iTunes, Stitcher, or here.
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