What Made Me: Michel Martin of NPR’s “Tell Me More”

Martin talks to us about “radical” hairstyles, reading “The Exorcist,” and a family tragedy.

By: Abdul Ali

Michel Martin. Photograph by Douglas Sonders.

The Role Model: Melba Tolliver was the first black person to anchor a network news program, at WABC-TV in New York. The day before she was supposed to cover Tricia Nixon’s wedding, she got an Afro. Her bosses said it was a “radical” hairstyle and took her off the air. I was nine at the time, and my mother made the mistake of letting me go to the beauty shop by myself. I came back with a ’fro because of Melba. I still remember my mother going, “Oh, Lord Jesus!” I saw Melba years later at a journalism convention, and what was she wearing? A Mohawk. But I wasn’t tempted to follow her there.

The Example Set by Her Parents: My parents were always reading—they wouldn’t think of getting on the subway without a newspaper—and they didn’t restrict what we read. I read The Exorcist and didn’t sleep for days. I was terrified. But my parents’ attitude was “If there’s something you don’t understand, you’ll tell us, you’ll ask.” That’s something that carries with you as a journalist—that if you don’t understand something, you ask.

The Words of Wisdom: Anita Hill said to me, “You can be healed, but you’re never the same.” My brother, a firefighter, tragically took his own life two years ago. I think about him all the time. His death connected me with millions of other people who’ve been through this. I see them and understand them in ways I never had before.

This article appears in the October 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.