The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

This week, we’re sharing stories from Nicole Carr, Cullen Murphy, Carrington J. Tatum, Matthew Bremner, and Nitasha Tiku.

Here are five stories that moved us this week, and the reasons why.

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1. White Parents Rallied to Chase a Black Educator Out of Town. Then, They Followed Her to the Next One.

Nicole Carr | Pro Publica | June 16th, 2022 | 7,200 words

This was the scariest story I read all week. Cecilia Lewis was hired in 2021 by the Cherokee County School District in Georgia to be its first-ever administrator focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. But she hadn’t started the job — indeed, she hadn’t even moved down South from her longtime home in Maryland — before a mob of white parents decided she had to go. They sent her racist messages, spread lies about her, and screamed at school board meetings to get their way. And when Lewis took a different job, one county over, they didn’t stop. Nicole Carr’s feature is a searing reminder of just how vicious the right-wing war on progressive education in America has become, and a revealing look at the kind of people — white parents, riding a wave of national bigotry — who are leading troops into battle. —SD

2. Back to Chagos

Cullen Murphy | The Atlantic | June 15th, 2022 | 7,416 words

For most in the Americas who have heard of the Chagos archipelago, it’s likely through Diego Garcia, a tiny atoll that serves as a U.S. military installation in the middle of the Indian Ocean. But ’twas not ever thus. Not by a long shot. For Diego Garcia to be “uninhabited” enough to fulfill its current purpose, it first needed to be emptied of its indigenous populace: the Black people that had lived on the atolls for centuries, enslaved, indentured, and underpaid. Flung across Africa and as far as the U.K., the expatriated Chagossians fought for years to return to the islands; finally, this year, they boarded a ship and sailed eastward from the Seychelles to the land now known as the British Indian Ocean Territories. Cullen Murphy — a longtime Atlantic staffer, now the outlet’s editor-at-large — accompanies the voyage, and tells a long, maddening tale of disenfranchisement and diaspora. “Accompanied by British military personnel, small groups of Chagossians have in recent years been allowed brief ‘heritage visits’ to some of the islands,” he writes. “On their visits, the Chagossians have used the limited time on each island — never overnight — to clear vegetation from the decaying churches and restore the crumbling graves of their loved ones. They have cleaned inscriptions. They have left flowers. And then they have had to depart.” It’s not quite home again, but it’s a step closer. —PR

3. Loans Got Me Into Journalism. Student Debt Pushed Me Out.

Carrington J. Tatum | MLK50: Justice Through Journalism | June 13th, 2022 | 2,370 words

Carrington J. Tatum’s mother held multiple jobs and worked hard to send Tatum to college — the first in his family. Becoming his school’s first Black editor-in-chief, Tatum also discovered a passion for journalism, and realized he could make a real difference in the marginalized communities he reported on. “I was on my way,” he writes, making an impact, winning awards, and doing everything one is supposed to do to “make it” in this world. But the burden of student debt, and rising rent, has meant that he can’t afford to stay in this line of work: “After graduating, I owed more than $90,000 in student loans, about $64,000 of which is private loans to Sallie Mae.” Any amount he has hoped to save has gone, instead, to paying off loans with excessive interest rates. “My journalism degree was more expensive than my wealthier classmates’ degrees because I couldn’t afford to pay in cash,” he writes. “But that’s a common theme with American systems. Poor people pay high prices. Rich people get discounts.” This is a gutting read on the financial hardships that are driving bright, hard-working Black storytellers out of the field, the systems that keep people in poverty, and, in turn, the communities who also lose out because their stories are not told. (Pair this with one of our Longreads essays, by Kristin Collier, on living with debt in America.) —CLR

4. Sacrifice

Matthew Bremner | Hazlitt | December 1st, 2021 | 6,423 words

I am currently doing some renovation work on my house, which entails spending my evenings clutching a paintbrush, grimly painting the walls a color that someone, in a fit of whimsy, called “Beautiful In My Eyes.” (Inadvertently implying it is beautiful to no one else.) I am looking forward to a time when I do not have paint in my hair, and I can go back to being blissfully ignorant of the many different types of door trim there are in the world. (It is a whole thing apparently, there are catalogs.) Justo Gallego Martínez, on the other hand, chose to immerse himself in a building project for 60 years — not because he procrastinated over trims — but because he was building a whole damn cathedral by himself. With no architectural expertise and using waste and recycled materials, Justo constructed something near the size of the Sagrada Familia. As I struggle to figure out how to stop a door handle from falling off, I have nothing but respect for this achievement. So does Matthew Bremner, who finds himself charmed by Justo as he attempts to understand a monk who chose to sacrifice himself to God in such a unique way: “He piled empty paint cans on top of one another and filled them with cement to make columns. He bent corrugated iron rods and fed them through slinky-like springs to create the structure of arches.” Bremner spends weeks with Justo at the site, over a period of years, and learns not just about Justo but about the people who visit and even himself. Have a read — the beautiful descriptions will pull you into a bizarre world, one that Justo built himself. —CW

5. The Google Engineer Who Thinks the Company’s AI Has Come to Life

Nitasha Tiku | The Washington Post | June 11th, 2022 | 2,621 words

Could it be? After conversations with Google’s artificially intelligent chatbot LaMDA (Language Model for Dialogue Applications), engineer Blake Lemoine maintains that the bot has achieved sentience. Google vice president Blaise Aguera y Arcas has dismissed Lemoine’s claims, despite the fact he has “argued that neural networks — a type of architecture that mimics the human brain — were striding toward consciousness.” Lemoine’s on administrative leave from Google and decided to go public. While the story sounds like it comes straight out of science fiction, Lemoine is not alone. “Lemoine is not the only engineer who claims to have seen a ghost in the machine recently. The chorus of technologists who believe AI models may not be far off from achieving consciousness is getting bolder.” Detractors, though, say that making sense is far from sentience: “Most academics and AI practitioners, however, say the words and images generated by artificial intelligence systems such as LaMDA produce responses based on what humans have already posted on Wikipedia, Reddit, message boards, and every other corner of the internet. And that doesn’t signify that the model understands meaning.” Stories like this, as well as “Ghosts,” Vauhini Vara’s incredible essay about feeding the linguistic engine GPT-3 prompts about her late sister (highlighted in Longreads’ Best of 2021), would make any skeptic think again. —KS