Race News: Black Journalists and the Fight for Racial Justice in the Twentieth Century.
University of Illinois Press, 278 pp., $27.95.
The Rise and Fall of the Negro Press: Claude Barnett’s Pan-African News and the Jim Crow Paradox.
University of Illinois Press, 272 pp., $24.95.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
Manning Marable, a Black press columnist as well as an academic, once described the role of Black journalism thusly:
“Black writers must see themselves part of a rich historical tradition, as the latest generation in the heritage of free, democratic-oriented journalists….What is a Black journalist? As writers, as part of this tradition of Afro-American critical thought, we have a responsibility to comprehend that racism still exists, and that we should never apologize for taking an uncompromising attitude against racial inequality in our work…..Poverty and hunger still exist, and are becoming worse. Unemployment, educational underdevelopment, and political underrepresentation have not yet been overcome. And our task and challenge, as Black writers, is to raise questions revealing these problems, and to write with a critical vision of social justice and human equality, the basic values which were embodied by the lives of previous generations of Black writers.”
He wrote this in a self-syndicated Black newspaper column in the 1980s, an analog period when Black journalists who had made inroads in (white) mainstream, desegregated media were grappling with notions of negotiating Blackness versus professional “objectivity” and fairness. They were fighting for further inclusion into America’s journalistic white hegemony on Black middle-class terms. Meanwhile, Black-owned and -oriented print journalism, in the throes of a decline that had started in the middle 1950s, continued to battle for relevance, fighting an uphill battle against being replaced not only by mainstream newspapers, radio and television, but by national and local black public-affairs television and radio programming.
In this 21st social media/DIY commentary/grass-roots journalism era, much of that discussion might seem quaint. And to mainstream Black journalists then, enjoying the power, prestige and perks of being white-subsidized Black voices for post-World War II liberal democracy, the detailed discussion Fred Carroll and Gerald Horne have in these two very well-researched and thought-out books could have been seen as equally antiquated.
Separate but equal, the two historians do something long needed: outline, in historical narrative, the intellectual and ideological history of 20th century Negro print. Carroll traces Negro press intellectual history from the 1920s through the 1970s and beyond, while Horne creates a biography of Claude Barnett (1919-1967), a Pan-Africanist of sorts who founded his own national Negro newswire, the Associated Negro Press. Both academic works break the monolith of “the Black press” apart, showing the many intersections between the writers, editors and topics of “radical” Negro periodicals (The Negro World, The Messenger, etc.) and the “mainstream,” commercial Negro press (The Chicago Defender, The Pittsburgh Courier, et. al.). Along the way, they list the impressive army of writers, intellectuals and activists who wrote news and opinion for more than four decades for a national and international Black audience created and managed only by Black people.
THE HISTORIANS take a deep dive into the microfilm and into the secondary sources, presenting a rare insider’s view of Black newspaper writers and editors as well as publishers. Carroll makes great use of all of the memoirs, studies and biographies of Black writers, including Negro press journalists and Negro newspaper publishers, while Horne sorts through the massive, microfilmed papers of Barnett with a tweezer. They document a phase in which, as Carroll writes, “[t]he astonishing surge in newspaper circulation during the interwar years financed a transnational communications network that informed, inspired, and mobilized Black activism.” From the period after World War I to approximately the period after World War II, writers and editors moved “black” and forth between Negro mainstream to the Negro radical periodicals, and Negro publishers made money fighting Jim Crow in a diverse, but united ideological front. Pan-Africans appeared on the same pages as Communists, and luminaries as diverse as Jackie Robinson, W.E.B. Du Bois, Langston Hughes and Amy Ashwood Garvey sought—and got—a national audience for their varied views.
As the unofficial national and international bureau chief for Negro America and a consummate networker and broker at home or abroad, Barnett unapologetically used his news service for purposes entrepreneurial and political. Horne has great respect for his biographical subject, even though Barnett—a New Deal Republican who is both an opportunistic hustler and a dedicated Pan-Africanist who personally knows several African revolutionaries-turned-presidents—is constantly mired in his own political contradictions. But perhaps it was a contradictory time; as Carroll correctly states, “profits and protest went together.” In Barnett’s case, the more the world tore down its racial, social and geographic barriers, the more business opportunities he saw. But the ANP/Negro press Victrola was being slowly shunted to the side by a Hi-Fi nation, and all Barnett could do was what he always did: play all the angles. “Inevitably,” writes Horne, “Barnett the entrepreneur would win out over Barnett the activist.”
BOTH WRITERS discuss the factors that ended this golden era. They include: the Civil Rights movement, already compromised and constrained by the Cold War, and the mainstream media coverage it forced; the development of faster mass mediums, television and radio, and the steady racial desegregation of both the new(s) coverage and the new mediums.
The new media platforms supplemented the old in a faster, more open society that had decided its political and economic directions by killing and ostracizing dissenters and building up, and rewarding, those ready for admittance. Both writers point out, for example, that Ebony magazine survived and thrived through the beginning of the Cold War by keeping quiet and presenting a politically light touch. Concurrently, the Negro mainstream newspapers, intimidated by McCarthy, took a lowered volume, fired all its radicals, and became politically stagnant. This story ends when capitalism and neo-imperialism, disguised as world desegregation, helped Pan-Africanism to implode similar to the way American desegregation and the Communist witch-hunts created the Black liberal.
The Jim Crow “luminaries” of the Negro press, those like Barnett and the other star publishers and writers, who fought for desegregation and some sort of Pan-Africanism, became as relevant as the evening paper in the television age. They quickly became Black History trivia questions in an ain’t-no-stoppin’-us-now socio-political phase exemplified by Soul Train and Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Operation PUSH. Is the Baby Boomer-desegregation generation, that once-young, hip group that replaced the Old Guard, destined for the same fate—becoming a collection of indexed Wikipedia entries and vintage YouTube clips in a nation and world run by Millennials and post-Millennials? The answer to that question might already be known, since this country has always encouraged amnesia.
These two books show the power that desegregation and the Cold War, those authoritative siblings, had to completely manage Black intellectual life via old fears and new access. When Barnett died, for example, Muhammad Speaks was growing and The Black Panther was an embryo. They were the two most successful anti-establishment Black papers of the Movement era. But, like the Associated Negro Press, they “two” would eventually fade into microfilm by 1980, becoming photocopied samples to be clipped and filed away by J. Edgar Hoover’s Federal Bureau of Investigation in the 1960s and early 1970s and now, in 2018, the occasional .jpeg.
With the exception of The Final Call (a national, self-proclaimed successor to Muhamad Speaks), the Black newspaper press collectively survives, for the most part, as a group of small local papers with small online presences. But their individual and collective archives contain treasure chests of correspondence of 19th and 20th century activism and intellectual thought, chronicled mostly week by week.
Horne and Carroll succeed at catching, examining and mounting the scores of those Black intellectual lightning bugs that shone in the segregated sky. Together, these works shatter simplistic discussions of 20th century Black political development, but also, importantly, show an important thru-line of Black radicalism, showcasing it as normal as the hegemony it opposed. Media historians of other Black mass mediums, such as television and radio, now have a map showing how 20th century Black intellectual discussions should be narrated.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D,–a Black media historian who once worked as an intern and freelancer, and later fulltime writer and editor, at the NNPA News Service, a Washington, D.C. based Black wire service that once rivaled the Associated Negro Press—is the author of “Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates” and “Warrior Princess: A People’s History of Ida B. Wells,” both published by Diasporic Africa Press.