Photo credit for feature image: Q&A With Hosts of NPR’s “Throughline”
Laura Marti – January 23, 2024
Embarking on a journey of understanding race and racism requires a commitment to learning, unlearning, and embracing diverse perspectives. In this pursuit, Brownicity encourages exploring various resources that foster a deeper comprehension of our shared history. Every day I read, listen to, or watch something that informs me about race/ism. One invaluable resource for me personally has been the Throughline podcast produced by NPR.
Discovering the History We Didn’t Know
Throughline debuted February 7, 2019, just prior to the Covid-19 pandemic. So when the pandemic moved us all into isolation, I started taking more walks outside, like many people did, as one of the only safe spaces. It was at that time that I found the Throughline podcast and began listening to it on my walks. It has been one of my “go-to” podcasts ever since. It’s kind of a holistic experience for me – it allows me to learn and ‘nurture’ my mind, at the same time I’m nurturing my body while walking out in nature.
Throughline provides the history we sometimes forget — or didn’t know in the first place. Hosts Rund Abdelfatah and Ramtin Arablouei give up-to-date facts and perspectives often missing from history textbooks to help us understand our world today. There is such a broad range of topics in their episodes that I never know what to expect and I’m always pleasantly surprised by what I may discover.
Their engaging storytelling is couched in a captivating auditory experience that makes you feel as if you are there. The sound experience is something I especially appreciate – it can feel like I’m in Bagdad when the Mongol horde invaded, or I’m in Tenochtitlán when Cortés was trying to bring down the Aztec Empire.
From the Show Creators – Getting at the Truth
Here’s how Abdelfatah and Arablouei describe the show:
“The show originated from frustration around current events and the lack of historical context that was being provided for them. The essence of the show as we’ve always imagined it, is a history podcast that helps you understand the present world better. That includes talking to historical experts, weaving in archival tape, voice-overs, sound design and music. What we are always striving to do is to represent as many different experiences as possible, because I think that draws people in who might otherwise feel excluded or left out of the conversation. – Rund Abdelfatah.
“We put ourselves in the place of the audience, where we approach the story with awe, curiosity and our own intellectual – but also emotional – journey into a story. There will always be someone that feels we could have taken a slightly different angle. But we just try to make sure to challenge our assumptions as much as possible so that we are not allowing our own biases to blind us.” – Ramtin Arablouei
What sets Throughline apart is its ability to unearth stories often omitted from mainstream discourse, and unravel hidden narratives that have been woven into the tapestry of history. This allows listeners to confront uncomfortable truths.
Expanding Our Horizons
One of Throughline’s notable features is its commitment to exploring global histories. The podcast transcends geographical boundaries, presenting episodes that delve into the complexities of various cultures and their interactions with race. From Venezuela’s Rise and Fall to The history of settlements and displacement in Palestine to How Korean Culture Went Global, Throughline broadens our horizons, fostering a global perspective on race, ethnicity, culture, and identity.
During a time of rampant mis- and dis-information, the care they give to thoroughly researching the content and interviewing subject matter experts / scholars, is critical to getting a full, accurate history. Each episode serves as a stepping stone on a personal journey of discovery, challenging assumptions, and fostering a commitment to lifelong learning.
Deep Historical Roots
Throughline excels in narrating stories that remain on the periphery of mainstream awareness. Episodes like American Police and Mass Incarceration delve into the roots of systemic racism, offering listeners an in-depth look at the historical foundations of these contemporary challenges. By learning about the untold stories of marginalized communities, we gain a more nuanced understanding of the forces shaping racial dynamics today. The American Police episode especially impacted me and changed the way I understand policing in America. It aired just after the murder of George Floyd, and I desperately wanted to understand why the killing of Black men and women keeps happening. As they walked through the racialized history of policing in America, I discovered things I was completely unaware of and began to see quite an ugly picture unfold. It was heartbreaking and painful, but it was at least in some way clarifying. Sometimes I feel like the blinders just fall away from my eyes when I learn something I had no idea about, and the clarity always moves me toward transformation.
An Award-Winning Approach
In 2022, Throughline received a Peabody Award for its three-part series, Afghanistan: The Center of the World. The series aired in 2021, twenty years after 9/11, and just weeks after US troops withdrew from Afghanistan, and the Taliban took control of the country. Many other outlets focused coverage on this pivotal moment from a U.S. perspective. Throughline took a different approach, shifting the narrative to center Afghanistan and its people in this award-winning series.
Who gets to frame the past? Whose stories matter? The series Afghanistan: The Center of The World, exemplifies how Throughline challenges audiences to see the world from new perspectives, to examine not just what happened in the past, but why…connecting us as a collective humanity in an ever more complicated, chaotic world.
Connecting the Past to the Present
Throughline is a testament to the power of storytelling in shaping our collective consciousness. The podcast’s ability to weave together historical events, personal anecdotes, and expert insights creates a narrative tapestry that invites listeners to engage critically with the material. I was drawn in because I wanted to learn, and stayed because of the excellence of how they tell the stories of our collective histories. It has become a constant in my life and dependable source of learning on my journey.
So why does this matter? History connects the past to the present, helping us understand how we and our world came to be. When we look at the world through a historical lens, we open ourselves up to new insights about the present, and the world around us begins to make sense.
Learning history encourages our sense of belonging. Each of us is part of multiple communities that give our lives meaning, and understanding the overlapping and sometimes contradictory histories of these different communities deepens our connections to them, so we can become better caretakers of these communities.
Learning history allows us to see the diversity of human experience and helps us appreciate cultures, ideas, and traditions that are not our own – and to recognize them as meaningful components of specific times and places. History helps us realize how different our lived experience is from that of our ancestors, yet how similar we are in our goals and values.
Delving into history holds particular importance for me as it provides insights into our shared humanity and instills a necessary skepticism about our own beliefs and practices. By learning about people and places far removed from our current lives, we become aware of our interconnectedness, of other ways to be human, and hopefully we become aware of when we are at risk of losing our own humanity. We often discover how our own lives fit into the human experience. As James Baldwin observed:
“The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it in many ways, and history is literally present in all that we do. It could scarcely be otherwise since it is to history that we owe our frames of reference, our identities, and our aspirations.”
Learning history is meaningful and captivating. It can also be painful, heart-wrenching, and shocking, but it is not threatening. It is a slow unfolding, an unearthing of the diversity of humanity that came before us, and the transformations of societies and civilizations over time. Because history gives us the tools to analyze and explain problems in the past, it positions us to see patterns that might otherwise be invisible in the present. We can on one hand celebrate the perseverance of the human spirit, and on the other provide a crucial perspective for understanding (and solving!) current and future problems. Throughline becomes a gateway to discovery of all that human history has for us to behold.
Episodes to Explore – A Few of My Favorites
Tenochtitlán: A Retelling of the Conquest (09/28/2023, originally 10/07/2021) The story of how a few hundred Spaniards conquered the mighty Aztec Empire and how Tenochtitlán fell to Hernán Cortés has become a foundational myth of European dominance in the Americas. For a long time it was accepted as truth, but in recent decades researchers have pieced together a more nuanced, complicated version based on Indigenous accounts, that challenges what one historian called “the greatest PR job in the history of the West.” This episode is the real story.
Policing in America (04/08/2021, originally 06/04/2020) After the death of George Floyd, this episode explores the origins of policing and how those origins put violent control of Black Americans at the heart of the system. Historian Khalil Gibran Muhammad, who dedicated his career to studying the criminal justice system, joins the conversation.
400 Years of Sweetness (12/08/2022) This episode covers the 400-year journey that took sugar from a rare delicacy for the wealthy to an inextricable part of our lives, our culture, and our bodies…A journey that began on the brutal sugar plantations of Haiti and eventually went global, confronting us all with an impossible moral dilemma.
The Forgotten Mothers of Civil Rights History (05/17/2022) MLK Jr., Malcolm X, and James Baldwin are household names, but what about their mothers? Author Anna Malaika Tubbs joins the show to explore how these three women shaped American history.
Read more from Laura Marti as she shares from her learning journey: