Fireside Editor Apologizes for “Auditory Blackface” by Narrator of Essay in November Issue

Fireside Magazine has come under intense criticism because in the audio recording of one of its essays the white voice actor used an offensive stereotype of the American southern Black accent in his narration. 

“Da Art of Speculatin’” by Dr. Regina N. Bradley was offered as a free-read article accompanied by a free-to-listen audio of the text.

Fireside editor Pablo Defendini has since taken the audio down. The essay itself, discussing the influence of the Southern hip hop group OutKast, is still available at Fireside.

Dr. Bradley (@redclayscholar on Twitter) tweeted these grievances about how her work was treated, illustrated by a sound bite from the now removed audio:

There have been many responses and expressions of empathy, including —

Tressie McMillan Cottom

Daniel José Older

N. K. Jemisin

Roxane Gay

Mikki Kendall

Fireside editor Pablo Defendini tweeted apologies (thread starts here) which were incorporated in his longer write-up “Regarding our audio recordings” explaining what happened. A major revelation is that he didn’t listen to the audio before putting it online,

Earlier today we published an essay about OutKast by Dr. Regina Bradley. This is an essay written by a Black woman, about Black musicians, and edited by a Black man. I hired a white man to narrate the audio version of the essay, and that narrator decided to use an offensive stereotype of the American southern Black accent in his narration. This basically amounted to auditory blackface, in the worst tradition of racist minstrelsy. So why did I publish it? Frankly, I didn’t listen to it before I posted it. More on that, and on the other errors I made, in a second, because this is the context, not an excuse.

There is no excuse for having published it. I apologize for having done so. Specifically, I apologize to Dr. Bradley for having undermined her work, to Maurice Broaddus for having stained the otherwise outstanding issue of Fireside Quarterly that he edited, and to Chelle Parker, our copyeditor, for having put them in the line of fire for this, when they had no visibility into the audio production process or ability to prevent this from having happened.

On Twitter he emphasized:

Just to be explicitly clear: I’m the only one who manages the audio production process—this was entirely my doing, and no one else who works on Fireside had a chance to hear the audio, much less rectify. This is all absolutely my fault, no one else’s.

The work was done by voice actor Kevin Rineer, who tweeted his own apologies but has since taken down his account. Here are screencaps:

Rineer’s video says in part:

I know that it was completely inappropriate for me to have recorded especially with that accent. It was almost the same as if you tied a blindfold to a high school quarterback and expected him to make the game winning throw. It was horrible disgusting and a complete miss that’s what i meant by the the analogy there… My actions though were disgusting inappropriate and for that I do apologize

Yet it’s hard to reconcile the person capable of the self-flagellation of this apology with the one who made the original choice he did about his performance.

[Update: Rineer now has also closed his YouTube account. The video formerly linked here is no longer available.]

Defendini underscored his own failure to review the audio:

Apart from the inappropriate choice of narrator, I also didn’t provide any pertinent direction at the outset of the engagement. Normally, when I hire voice talent for narration, I send them some notes about the pieces I want them to narrate, pointing out special considerations, or particular pronunciations of tricky or uncommon terms. I failed to do that here.

I also failed to check each recording when I took delivery of them. I was pressed for time and trying to get work out the door, and I did not take the time to review the finished recordings. As many have correctly pointed out, it takes two seconds of listening to the recording to realize that this one was deeply, deeply problematic. I did not do so — I just moved the files along — and the result is that I allowed an extremely hurtful racist caricature to be published on Fireside’s website.

While it may not have been intentional, intent doesn’t matter. The harm caused is real. And this particular type of harm — in this particular moment in history — is extra fucked up. All I can do at this point is apologize, try to fix it, ensure it doesn’t happen again, and try to make up for it.

Because Kevin Rineer voiced the recordings for all the stories in the current issue of Fireside Quarterly, Defendini has pulled them all and will have them re-recorded.

And he will be making other changes to the production process:

  1. Starting with the Winter 2021 issue of Fireside Quarterly, which ships on January 1st, all stories will be narrated by individual narrators as opposed to by one narrator for an entire issue’s worth of stories.
  2. Starting with the Winter 2021 issue, I’ll send the final audio of each story to its author, in the same way we send them proofs of the print issue before it goes to press.
  3. Starting with the Spring issue of Fireside Quarterly, I’ll consult with the editor of each issue on the choice of narrator for each story before we hire anyone.

Defendini closed his post with further self-criticism and intent to make amends:

Finally, my personal neglect allowed racist violence to be perpetrated on a Black author, which makes me not just complicit in anti-Black racism, but racist as well. I have to grapple with that, and make amends. I’m not sure exactly how, yet, but some kind of concrete reparation is absolutely called for. I’m speaking with various folks who have reached out (and who I’ve reached out to as well), in order to figure out what that looks like.

This letter is the beginning of the process of making amends. I know that words don’t mean much without action to back them up. I’ll be doing everything I can to make sure that nothing like this happens again.

Some writers commented that there needs to be a change in editor, Kate Dollarhyde, Merc Fenn Wolfmoor, and Sarah Gailey, who indicated the issues raised today are not the only ones besetting Fireside:

27 thoughts on “Fireside Editor Apologizes for “Auditory Blackface” by Narrator of Essay in November Issue

  1. Tp paraphrase Lincoln, calling an offensive choice in voice acting an “act of violence” does not make it an “act of violence”.

  2. A few former people at Fireside (Meg Frank in particular) are also speaking out.

    Sure looks like a lot of ugly things over there, the underbelly of all the good things they have done.

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  4. @Hyman

    That is not your decision to make. If the person wronged views it as an “act of violence,” then that’s what it is. You’ll notice the offender also called it that.

  5. @Bonnie McDaniel: “You’ll notice the offender also called it that.”

    Nobody believes anything in an apology any more, no more than they believe a plea bargain or a court-ordered appearance at a high school.

  6. Hyman Rosen on November 24, 2020 at 10:47 pm said:
    Tp paraphrase Lincoln, calling an offensive choice in voice acting an “act of violence” does not make it an “act of violence”.

    Yes, that generated a massive eye-roll over here.

  7. Oddly enough, when it comes to the new bail reform law in New York State, cash bail can still be required for someone accused of a violent crime, but “violent” is defined as causing physical injury, such that a disturbed woman was released without bail after punching strangers on the street, two times. The third time she was finally held.

    Words ought not to be so malleable that they mean whatever the user wants them to mean. People think that using inappropriately severe words to describe what happened to them will reinforce the severity of their claim, but done enough, it merely reduces the perceived severity of the word.

  8. My first reaction to “act of violence” was similar, but then I gave it further thought. I had an exceptionally bad experience involving my work being posted in an office for mockery, then irretrievably erased after people had their fun with it. I wouldn’t call that violence; I would say it* was worse when I was taken into the country and mugged.

    We really need a better vocabulary for this. Hanging adjectives off of “violence” isn’t cutting it, plus people often don’t bother to use them when they’re appropriate.

    Till we have that vocabulary, I don’t know what else to call it but violence.

    *There was more to “it”, of course, but this was the crowning moment.

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  10. @John A Arkansawyer

    Till we have that vocabulary, I don’t know what else to call it but violence.

    Call it offensive language, call it “auditory blackface”, call it something that reflects the fact that a white person read her work in a way that she doesn’t like. But it’s not “violence”.

    Violence is what happened to Medgar Evers, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. To use that word in reference to what happened to Regina Bradley minimizes what happened to real victims of violence.

    (and she titled her work in eye dialect, sending mixed signals about what voice it should be read in.)

  11. The use of the word “violence” to describe having non-physical damage inflicted upon you is long-established and widely understood. Debating it with the let’s-endlessly-relitigate-social-justice-101 peeps got really, incredibly boring five million years ago, and always leaves me wondering why some people are more invested in complaining about how people talk about the oppressions they face than they are in tackling those oppressions.

    Sus.

  12. It’s emotional violence, and people are very familiar with that, except when someone doesn’t want to recognize or admit the extreme offensiveness of what has happened..

    This is whole heck of a lot more than “a white person read her work in a way that she doesn’t like.”

    (and she titled her work in eye dialect, sending mixed signals about what voice it should be read in.)

    She didn’t expect it to be read by a white man.

    And, as she said, she was available. They could have asked her to read her own work. Because the dialect it was written in should have been a great, big, flashing, neon light that this was a work where not having it read by an appropriate person who wouldn’t sound wrong reading it was a very, very, important “detail.”

  13. The default meaning of violence without an adjective is physical violence. It’s best used with an adjective in other uses. I myself wouldn’t intentionally say violence bare unless I meant physical violence. I’d rather have a different word altogether, as my experiences of physical and emotional violence are quite different, with some common points.

  14. @John A. Arkansawyer–Emotional violence is often worse, more devastating. And let’s be clear here that we’re talking about a specific variety of emotional violence that you’re not experiencing every time you venture into public.

  15. bill on November 26, 2020 at 4:09 pm said:

    Call it offensive language, call it “auditory blackface”, call it something that reflects the fact that a white person read her work in a way that she doesn’t like. But it’s not “violence”.

    Violence is what happened to Medgar Evers, Rodney King, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner. To use that word in reference to what happened to Regina Bradley minimizes what happened to real victims of violence.

    I’ve been the victim of a physical assault – spent a Saturday evening in Glasgow Royal Infirmary as a result – and that is probably why I had a certain response when I saw that phrase.

    However, where would we be in a discussion about oppression if we didn’t elevate middle class psychodrama?

  16. @Lis Carey: “we’re talking about a specific variety of emotional violence that you’re not experiencing every time you venture into public”

    I doubt every person Regina Bradley runs into knows about this, any more than every person I ran into in town knew about the way I’d been put out of the weekly I’d founded, then put back onto the masthead so a writer who was loyal to me would let them print her story, then had my best efforts mocked and thrown back out again.

    I’m sure it sucks for her anyway, just like it sucked for me. I was a broke nobody without even a GED; she’s a Ph.D with a teaching job and a book. I’m not sure if that makes the indignity worse or better. She’s got more to lose and further to fall than I did, but she’s got a lot more resources to fight with. I suffered; I’m sure she did, too.

    The woman whose story I was used to obtain–Nancy Saunders, recently deceased, a much better journalist than I was ever going to be–was run off the road while she was working on it. She’d been writing about a proposed garbage dump near her home. Next to that act of violence, I can’t say what happened to me was also violence.

    Anyway, I think writers should be do better than average with words.

  17. rob_matic: However, where would we be in a discussion about oppression if we didn’t elevate middle class psychodrama?

    Yes, it’s interesting how such discussions quickly devolve into people a) talking about themselves, b) saying “so-and-so had it much worse”, and c) saying “I don’t think it’s that bad, therefore it is not that bad.” 🙄

    Having your intelligence and expertise denigrated and demeaned may or may not be violence, but for people who have this done to them with some frequency, it sure as hell is a violation.

  18. @John A. Arkansawyer–Oh, please. It’s not about whether everyone she encounters knows about this particular outrage. On the contrary. It’s the day to day, routine denigrating and demeaning of herself, her intelligence, her expertise, her achievements, because of her race and sex, by people who will be shocked and outraged to be told that what they did or said is racist and/or sexist. It wears down on one, tears down at one’s resilience. And many, even acknowledging that any particular incident is “unfair” want that incident judged in isolation, unwilling or unable to grasp that a lot of the damage comes from the fact that they’re not isolated, but constant,

  19. @Lis Carey: I urge you to read some reviews of Glenn Close’s latest performance. Ignore the movie itself–it probably sucks. Just read about the response to her physical appearance and manner. Roll around for a while in the visceral critical disgust for her poor white trash ass. Get the stink of it on you good and heavy.

    Then come back and make that argument again, without the implied uniqueness.

    You aren’t wrong, you know. Just lacking in sympathy for people not like yourself and vulnerable to the disproportionality that brings on. It’s a common failing. I share it.

  20. John A Arkansawyer: I urge you to read some reviews of Glenn Close’s latest performance… Just read about the response to her physical appearance and manner. Roll around for a while in the visceral critical disgust for her poor white trash ass. Get the stink of it on you good and heavy.

    I’ve just now read more than a dozen reviews in major venues, and none of them fit this description. Maybe such reviews do exist. If so, I’m sure you can link to them.

    What I’d like to know is this:
    1) What does this have to do with the main post?
    2) Why do you feel you’re in a position of authority to speak to the veracity of the experience described in the main post?

    Holy hell, this is the very definition of “making a marginalized person’s experience all about ME ME ME.”

  21. @JJ: I may have overreacted to the reviews I’ve read, but I’ve seen enough uses of the word “fright wig” to describe normal-looking hair to tick me off. The stills I saw from the movie look to me like underprivileged white country people look in a way I seldom see portrayed. Whether I like them or not, I know my people when I see them.

    And since this is far from the original topic, I’ll stop. The author was wronged and has my sympathies, no matter how little I like the arguments some folks make for her.

    Actually, I won’t stop.

    I realized after writing that I hadn’t read the damn thing. It’s really good and the author is right to say “I was available”. Most of that article doesn’t require her voice, but the parts that do absolutely require it. Partway through, I started thinking “I could read this”, then stubbed my toe hard on my hubris when I went back to the first paragraph.

    This is exceptional editorial misassignment. The piece would have to be at least a little rewritten for anyone but the author to read it right. I don’t see how that was missed.

  22. Q:
    A friend tells you that her house was stolen from last night. Do you
    a: try to consoled her, tell her about what she can do and who to call, and assist her in any way that she needs. Or be:
    Inform her that the correct term is burgled, as stolen from does not make sense grammatically in her sentence.

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