IS THE BLACK PRESS A DYING BREED?

My final research paper for COMM-270: How News Media Shaped History.

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During the abolitionist movement from the 18th to 19th century, black newspapers served as a public forum for African Americans to let their voices be heard, to express their views, and to represent themselves in the press. Upon the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865, the ability to read and write were two of the most profound and powerful declarations of freedom for blacks. While the black press was a representation of African Americans’ newfound freedom and literacy, it simultaneously covered and reported on issues that were affecting blacks in their local communities. At last, African Americans had a vehicle to combat racism from the mainstream press. “For over 150 years, African American newspapers were among the strongest institutions in Black America” (Nelson, PBS).

Throughout this paper, I have examined the role of the black press in the past and the relevancy of this medium in the present. I argue that the black press is a dying breed in our current society. While there are some historically black magazines like Ebony, Jet, Essence and Black Enterprise in addition to the few black newspapers that still exist in some major cities and a scarce amount of black television program networks like BET and OWN, most of the content and the quality of the depictions of blacks and “black life” presented in these programs is misguided and reinforces negative stereotypes. Instead, the black media focuses more on entertainment rather than presenting important information that is happening all around us and to us. Unfortunately, black journalism has become antiquated and relegated to the back of the bus.

In a PBS film titled “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords,” Vernon Jarret opens with the following statement:

“We didn’t exist in the other papers. We were neither born, we didn’t get married, we didn’t die, we didn’t fight in any wars, we never participated in anything of a scientific achievement. We were truly invisible unless we committed a crime. And in the BLACK PRESS, the negro press, we did get married. They showed us our babies when born. They showed us graduating. They showed our PhDs.”

Black newspapers created and stabilized communities, uniting black readers across a nation irrespective of their location or vocation. For the first time in history, there was a ground swell bringing blacks together. On the role of the black press, Phyl Garland said, “It often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and a deliberate slant” (Neldon, PBS). Black newspapers were outlets that provided a fair forum for debate, and a comfortable place where blacks could respond to issues personally affecting them on a daily basis. Additionally, there was a fundamental “desire to communicate, [and] a desire to connect with black people establishing newspapers” (Nelson, PBS).

The first African American owned and operated newspaper in the United States was Freedom’s Journal, founded in 1827 by Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm in Manhattan, New York. The publication informed the black community on international, national, and regional events, and included editorials on slavery, lynchings, and various racial injustices. As stated in an article from Freedom’s Journal, “Whatever concerns us as a people will ever a ready admission in terms of the Freedom’s Journal interwoven with all the principal news of the day.” Unfortunately, Freedom’s Journal had a short run and stopped printing around 1829. After the shutdown, 24 more black newspapers emerged in the media in its place though.

The Chicago Defender is the longest running African American newspaper in American history. In fact, it is considered to be one of the most important black metropolitan newspapers in the United States (Encyclopedia of Chicago History). Founded by Robert S. Abbott on May 5, 1905, it was “the nation’s most influential black weekly newspaper by the advent of World War I” (PBS). For over six decades, the Chicago Defender has been a leading voice for African American communities inside and outside the city of Chicago, and continues to intelligently challenge the status quo and fight for social justice. The Chicago Defender’s “commitment to safeguarding civil liberties opened a new space for blacks to air their views and to voice their discontent” (Encyclopedia of Chicago). This was not a paper that offended its audience, but defended them with the power of the written word.

The Chicago Defender primarily covered racial injustices in America with a more militant editorial style that directly attacked these issues within its columns covering editorials, society news, culture, and local politics. “Sensationalistic headlines, graphic images, and red ink were utilized to capture the reader’s attention and convey the horrors of lynchings, rapes, assaults, and other atrocities affecting black Americans” (PBS). This publication was not afraid of what it printed, despite discontent from the south. The paper also refused to use “Negro” or “black” and referred to African Americans as “the Race,” thus unifying readers and black communities at large. The Chicago Defender ‘s slogan was “American race prejudice must be destroyed,” and the paper was true to its word (Encyclopedia of Chicago).

The Chicago Defender often covered events like race riots first-hand, up close and personal, which their white competitors did not have the ability to do. The paper also recorded history and covered important events that were often times neglected by other publications. Famous and distinguished writers like Walter White and Langston Hughes were also columnists for the newspaper. By 1956, The Chicago Defender was the largest black-owned daily newspaper in the world. The Chicago Defender influenced an entire race, and played a significant role during The Great Migration by influencing millions of blacks to move from the south to the north. Black newspapers were “a resource on which entire communities depended. But in the coming decades, the papers would also provide black readers with something intangible, hope and pride” (Nelson, PBS).

In one section of the book Broadcasting Freedom, Barbara D. Savage discusses WWII and how black leaders and the black press actually encouraged black men to enlist in the army and fight the war, claiming that it was a continuous fight against discrimination on American soil. Although this stance was contradictory, Savage argued that “black leaders and newspaper publishers refused to make the claim for racial equality secondary to the war effort or to postpone its pursuit” (Savage, 71). The use of editorial campaigns in black newspapers swayed black public opinion and reminded everyone that segregation was still prevalent even during the war. During this time, black newspapers also became a legitimate resource for search of employment opportunities by European immigrants (Nelson, PBS). As of 1910, approximately 275 black newspapers were up and running. Overseas, the formation of the black press did not occur for another seven decades.

Although Olatunji Ogunyemi’s “The News Agenda of the Black African Press in the United Kingdom” focuses on blacks in the United Kingdom, it mirrors similar themes that emphasize the importance of a black press in society. For centuries, the mainstream press in the UK misrepresented people of color as “a series of problems, objects, and victims,” further excluding black communities in society (Ogunyemi, 630). It was not until the early 1980s that Val McCall founded The Voice, London’s first black newspaper. Though circulation for this publication decreased around the year 2000, it is still functioning today.

As Clarence J. Munford points out in “Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century,” the black press is unable to survive because black capitalism “cannot function as a provider and nourisher” (Muford, 243). Similar to this idea of “black capitalism,” the black press has also become “irrelevant to the life-shuffle of the majority of the Black community” (Munford, 244). Following the post-war period, black newspapers continued to advocate for social change. However, while the success of the Civil Rights Movement evoked a new sense of black power to the nation, it also brought about the downfall of the power of the black press. “The Civil Rights Movement made African Americans more visible to the rest of the nation, and big advertisers began to see black papers as a way to reach out to black consumers. Increased advertising dollars lessened the newspapers’ dependence on circulation, but often advertising also had an effect on the paper’s editorial policy” (Nelson, PBS).

All that seems to be left of the black press is Ebony, Jet, Essence, Black Enterpise, and “O” The Oprah Magazine— which does not actually depict “black life.” “What to print in the Black press that is politically relevant and what to broadcast over Black electronic media that contributes to the flow of our struggle, have always caused puzzlement,” (Munford, 501). In the beginning, “black newspapers were a training ground for African American lithographers, pressmen, and typographers. For artists and writers, black newspapers could be an important launching pad” (Nelson, PBS). Now, this does not seem to the case.

The fact that the database for African American Newspapers stops after 1998 is evidence that the function of the black press has become obsolete ever since the new millennium. Both of these resources provide actual articles from numerous black newspapers starting as early as 1827. During the twentieth century, there was a “spontaneous rebirth of African American press,” but it has dwindled since then (Munford, 501). Christopher Reed said in the PBS film, black newspapers “informed people, elevated morale, [and] built a sense of racial consciousness” (Nelson, PBS). Garland’s summary of the purpose, function and accomplishment of the black press essentially sums up everything:

“What weapons or what tools did black people have in order to further their own cause or to present their argument? They were shut out of the society as a whole, but the black press represented this sort of separate world in which black people lived, where they could be liberated from images, inferiorities that prevailed, that permeated, were reinforced by what was taught in schools or shown in mainstream newspapers or in the movies. And they also gave them an opportunity to establish their own image, their own identity, and to tell each other what they thought of themselves separate from that mainstream” (Nelson, PBS).

Munford argues that black “periodicals and newspapers must push the tradition of exposing the harmfulness off white supremacy on into the next century” (501). While black voices are comfortable projecting views of this nature on the Internet in blog posts, op-eds and tweets, I constantly wonder why their words aren’t printed on the front pages of any publications. Why are these heated discussions regarding racial appropriation and black/white feminism going viral, but then leading to nowhere? The most essential element that is missing from this equation is cultural integrity. “The black press today seems to react only to an issue or a situation or react to something that’s in the white press. We very rarely in our black press today initiate, dig up stories or our own. And I think we do need a black press today, very, very much so. We have no voice that tells us about our own lives,” said Evelyn Cunningham (Nelson, PBS).

With all of the progress that has been made, we are not giving ourselves enough credit anymore as black scholarly writers. There are real issues that are affecting our people, but they are not receiving the exposure that they deserve. As a result of the decline of the black press, African American audiences no longer have an accurate and/or authentic representation in the print media— there are no black pages to turn to. “Without this network of communication, it has been far more difficult for African American people to comprehend fully what is happening to them, to be able to have a debate on issues among themselves, and also to develop and to choose their own leaders,” said Garland (Nelson, PBS).

The shift from covering and featuring hard news to sports and entertainment has diminished the credibility and impact of the black press and has prevented them from shining the light on events in our own communities. Instead of highlighting important issues, the black press chooses to glamorize superficial, materialistic and hedonistic topics. While many of these black empires are still profitable and recruit talented employees, their role and position in the media has become much less valuable.

How can we, as a race, grow if we let our roots die? Frederick Douglass said it best in 1847: “In the grand struggle for liberty and equality now waging, it is right, and essential that there should arrive in our ranks authors and editors as well as orators, for it is in these capacities that the most permanent good can be rendered to our cause.” If the mainstream press is going to resume covering topics of race, the “races”— meaning blacks — need to rise up and let their voices be heard loud and clear standing on their own platforms. There needs to be a place where all thoughts can come together and collaborate in a public forum. Some will argue that dividing the press by race is unnecessary, divisive and regressive; I disagree. History has shown that one of the most crucial methods for preserving one’s own history while lending a voice to and shining a light on a race. It has the ability and opportunity to depict one’s multi-faceted race fully and accurately through the written, spoken and visual word. The press in all of its forms is the storyteller and the gatekeeper; it is the mirror and the reflection. Now more than ever, there needs to be a revival of black journalism in America.

Works Cited

African American Newspapers, 1827-1998. <http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/HistArchive?p_product=EANX&p_action=timeframes&p_theme=ahnp&p_nbid=W5CM58KNMTM4MTc3MTcxMi40ODM3ODU6MToxMzoxNDcuOS4xMTEuMTE5&p_clear_search=yes&d_refprod=EANX&&d_collections=EANAAA&gt;

African American Newspapers: The 19th Century. Accessible Archives, Inc. (1990)

<http://www.accessible.com/accessible/brand?McAfrican+American+Newspapers=on&gt;

The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society, The Newberry Library, (2004-2005). <http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/248.html>

Munford, Clarence J. “Race and Reparations: A Black Perspective for the 21st Century“ <http://books.google.com/books?id=B2IhPX0LdewC&pg=PA93&lpg=PA93&dq=role+of+black+press+in+the+21st+century&source=bl&ots=rZ0_gaH-vn&sig=ZBGLfudUDHv0e-QkKfKEzl15Ry4&hl=en&sa=X&ei=UFdHUt7cNdDC4APUmIDQAw&ved=0CCgQ6AEwADgK#v=onepage&q=media&f=false>

http://whyy.org/cms/radiotimes/2013/02/11/black-media-in-the-21st-century/>

Ogunyemi, Olatunji. “The News Agenda of the Black African Press in the United Kingdom”. Journal of Black Studies , Vol. 37, No. 5 (May., 2007), pp. 630-654. Sage Publications, Inc. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034359>

Nelson, Stanley. “The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords”. PBS, Halsell New Media, LLC. <http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/film/fulltranscript.html>

“The Chicago Defender “. PBS.  <http://www.pbs.org/blackpress/news_bios/defender.html>

Van Horne, Winston A. “The Concept of Black Power: Its Continued Relevance”. Journal of Black Studies , Vol. 37, No. 3, Sustaining Black Studies (Jan., 2007), pp. 365-389. Sage Publications, Inc. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/40034781&gt;

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