Curtis Bunn, Michael H. Cottman, Patrice Gaines, Nick Charles, Keith Harrison.
New York and Boston: Grand Central Publishing, 352 pp., $30.
Edited by Jelani Cobb and David Remnick.
New York: Ecco, 819 pp., $35.
Reviewed by Todd Steven Burroughs
TO THE RECORDING-on-cellphone, posting-on-YouTube 21st-century Black citizen journalist, these books are the perfect evidence illustrating how irrelevant Black mainstream journalism can be, particularly and especially if Black lives within white supremacy is the topic. While The New Yorker magazine decides to open up and share its Very Distinguished Negro files, a non-thematic Black mainstream journalism collection shockingly uses all of its collective ability to leave a formerly hot topic even colder.
Scribe common sense alert: if everybody can see, and has seen, the moving picture in his or her minds, then any words that trail behind have to be powerful and (con)textual—they have to take you into new places with the force of a James Baldwin lightning strike or Zora Neale Hurston tornado. Sadly, no one told this to Bunn, Cottman, Gaines, Charles and Harriston, or their editor, who have together managed the time-travel feat of producing a book located somewhere between the first expanded Wikipedia entry and a lost 1999 issue of Emerge magazine.
What’s wrong with just-the-facts? Answer: If a small group of white feminist journos was writing about how long it took for convicted rapists R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein to get to justice, for example, they would metaphorically cut hegemonic throats and symbolically drown systematic babies in a way that would make the king rebel, Nat Turner, bow in reverence. So where’s the thrown spear in White America’s heart that Eldridge Cleaver said Black writing should be? That courage is absent because the established late 20th-century Black journo-authors, waaaay too happy to be relevant again, think their quoted experts are important and their conclusions sufficiently sober. These essays may be more detailed than cute, sardonic Tweets, but that doesn’t mean they are deeper or better. None of the writers went painfully inside the phenomenon and no fingers are pointed, so this critic sees that no activists will be impressed since no one is learning anything new. Their authority, such as it is in 2021, rings hollow; commercials for this book belong on 20th-century curated television channels such cable’s TV Land and its cord-cutting competitor, Me-TV.
With the exception of Nick Charles’ church piece, their journalistic essays kind of meld together, a problem mistakenly thought to be a strength. This book is an example of the editor/publisher respecting his/her writers too much. They could have been guided to conceive a thematic through-line. (One appropriately angry oral history narrative, produced collectively by the unit, would have better serviced this material.) The Names writers, seeking a futile utility instead of searching for and finding a difficult profundity, should have intellectually and creatively sacrificed and pulled out the narrative A-games they had in prior decades on past book projects. The tree that died for this print run deserved better from top writers who knew how to do better but instead decided to hide behind skinny, small notepads.
MEANWHILE, THE NEW Yorker collection overwhelms and intellectually brags, but can back it up. Baldwin, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Toni Morrison! Topics in Matter range from Minister Farrakhan to Albert Murray. The magazine is so filled with authority, supremely confident in how it distributes history’s weight, it can get away with presenting only the context it wants between 1960 and 2020. Cobb’s and Remnick’s cosmopolitan approach turns radical human rights struggles into NPR weekday news-magazine fodder, transforming past geographic history into white-liberal geometry: distance and shape are keys to making the constant horror fit into the American tapestry, as long as it’s flowery and devoid of anger and international Black Power/Pan-African contexts.
What is accidentally at the core in Matter is a point made by Vinson Cunningham in “Test Case,” a first-person about New York City’s experimentation with charter-ish education ideas. “We are all embedded within systems, but each life—each child—is an unrepeatable anecdote.” The New Yorker wants to show Black America in all its individual complexity, but it simultaneously decides when to hold and release the socio-historical reins, controlling the large and small anecdotes, the societal prisms and, therefore, the lessons.
IN BOTH BOOKS, the limitations are clear all around because there’s no decolonizing risk-taking here. In Names, all of the newspaper reporter conventions—writer detachment, use of anecdote, authority quote, search for policy and societal solutions at the end, etc. add up to zero. For example, does Patrice Gaines really think a young Black person organizing on the street, somebody who’s read Michelle Alexander back in college, cares about the conditions of prisons in Norway? This, of course, assumes their book has an audience other than those-in-charge-that-require-eternal-dialogue-and-convincing. But convincing of what? White Americans saw Derek Chauvin’s reflection in their own eyes, protested as a liberal reflex and then ran to Carlos Watson and Oxy so they can feel even better about themselves. Now there is nothing more to see, nothing more to be surprised by in post-Trump, post-Capitol-resurrection America.
The writers reference Baldwin—Matter even starts with him, the magazine’s half of the masterpiece The Fire Next Time!—but all seem wary, if not weary, of the dated (or is it just too harsh?) analysis he still represents.
Alt-journalism is big and getting bigger because in the mainstream, blinders are designed and marketed in 2021 as shades.
Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D., is an independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J. He recently completed a draft of Talking Drums and Raised Fists: Mumia Abu-Jamal, A Biography of a Voice and is working on a second Abu-Jamal book, a biographical anthology. He is the author of Warrior Princess: A People’s Biography of Ida B. Wells, and Marvel’s Black Panther: A Comic Book Biography, From Stan Lee to Ta-Nehisi Coates, both published by Diasporic Africa Press. His 2014 audiobook, Son-Shine On Cracked Sidewalks, deals with the first mayoral election of Ras Baraka, the son of the late activist and writer Amiri Baraka, in Newark.