“Who Will Commemorate Them?: The Memorialization of Black Celebrities in the Mainstream Press” by Carrie Teresa

In 1966, two years after beating Sonny Liston at the age of twenty-two, joining the Nation of Islam, and forsaking his “slave name” Cassius Clay, heavyweight champion Muhammad Ali refused to enter the draft. He reasoned, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go 10,000 miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on Brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?” A sound argument both then and now, but one that got him arrested on draft evasion charges, cost him his title, and resulted in his expulsion from boxing. He did not fight for four of his prime years, until 1971, when the Supreme Court overturned his draft evasion conviction and reinstated him.  “There was much that Ali had — a gold medal, notoriety, fame, money,” noted the Philadelphia Tribune recently, “that he was willing to surrender for justice and integrity.”

When Muhammad Ali passed away the early morning of June 3, 2016 – surrounded by friends and family, as conflicting news reports of his rapidly deteriorating condition circulated on social media and broadcast news stations – journalists from nearly every corner of the world paused to assess his legacy. Newspapers from around the country, including Ali’s hometown newspaper in Louisville, Ky., the New York Times, and just about every other major U.S. urban daily, and newspapers from as far afield as London, Berlin, Istanbul, Taipei all commemorated on their front pages the “People’s Champion.”

In the weeks after his death, glossy commemorative special editions of Rolling Stone, Sports Illustrated, People, Time, USA Today, and Life crystallized Ali’s legacy through compelling visual narratives that more often than not depicted Ali before he was “Ali” – in 1964, when he was Cassius Clay, twenty-two years old, strikingly handsome, smiling. Having only moments before knocked out Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title, shouting at ringside “I must be the greatest!” as if everyone watching did not already know. Before he was “draft dodger” Muhammad Ali, stripped of his title and demonized by the American press who refused to call him by his Muslim name.

People_AliThese tributes depicted young Ali as gregarious, egotistical, and outspoken. “Brash,” “boastful,” “brutal when he had to be” are just some of the descriptors that People used to describe him. “People reviled him, even scorned him. Some even feared him,” began Rolling Stone’s Mikal Gilmore. Later in his life, Ali was recast as softer and more approachable, and the narrative focus shifted to his humanitarian work – which was the focus of Politico’s stirring photo tribute – and battle with Parkinson’s Disease. These tributes superficially addressed his conviction and subsequent ban only in the context of a great American comeback story, much like the one described in Sports Illustrated’s “Muhammad Ali, The Tribute” and even Robert Lipsyte’s “Ali: The Greatest, “ published in Time’s commemorative edition. These celebratory narratives are attractive even if they fall short in reflecting the tumultuous racial landscape against which Ali rose to both fame and infamy. Ali’s charisma, which was as prevalent in private moments captured spontaneously as it was when he was posturing in front of a swarm of journalists, made him irresistible. Ali was, to quote GQ’s Peter Richmond, a “national treasure.”Ali_Sports Illustrated

Commemorative journalism is ritualistic. It allows us, as a society, to come together and collectively mourn for a figure that we may not have know personally, but with whom through media have formed strong parasocial ties over the years. When ESPN televised Ali’s funeral I cried on my couch as if I had lost a family member. Through commemoration, public figures become venerated, as journalists provide as narrative closure their ultimate contribution to society. For Ali, the one “who would never stay down, no matter what,” his major contribution was resilience – against his opponents, the government, Parkinson’s disease. Because he rose again and again, clearly, so have “we.”

I have previously discussed the symbolic power of “celebrity” for Black communities during the long struggle towards civil rights, arguing that Black press urban weeklies, in conjunction with W.E.B. Du Bois’s the Crisis glossy magazine joined later by Jet, Ebony, and Essence, provided the staging ground for conceptualizing Black-centered celebrity. I have also argued that mere publicity of Black celebrities was not sufficient for those citizens “living behind the veil.” Black-centered celebrity culture was defined not by public admiration and aspiration to upward social mobility (as was the case with Hollywood’s “star system”) but rather by an activist ethos shaped by American racism.

Ali was a civil rights activist. Tony Norman’s June 7 tribute reminds readers that “Mr. Ali’s outspokenness was so refreshing to millions of Black Americans — he modeled a compelling voice of dignity and defiance, especially in those early years following Martin Luther King’s assassination.” Norman, writing in the context of his childhood in 1960s West Philadelphia, recasts Ali as not the universal hero but as a racially transgressive figure, unafraid to “sass” Whites during a period of widespread institutionalized hatred and violence against Black Americans. Gillian B. White’s tribute to Ali and her father’s admiration of him in The Atlantic similarly repositions Ali as a symbol of Black American identity.

With the well-documented demise of Black-centered media companies, it has become increasingly difficult to find voices that shape and interpret the lasting legacy of Black-centered celebrity in the context of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black press newspapers and magazines have suffered a precipitous decline over the past 50 years as advertisers have found new ways to reach Black audiences and media conglomeration has pushed alternative and niche media companies to the fringes. The recent sale of Ebony and Jet magazines by Johnson Publishing has left two of the nation’s strongest and most revered Black publications with uncertain futures. To wit, journalistic voices that belong to people of color become chilled – there are very few mainstream publications with representative numbers of Black or Brown journalists, editors, or photographers. The whitewashing of Ali in journalistic commemoration upon his death is indicative of the lack of independent voices of color in shaping these commemorative narratives.

Through commemoration Ali has been transformed into a universal figure whom we as a culture can now, in the vast gulf between the living and the dead, safely define as the kind of American hero with which we feel most secure, a cipher through which we can make sense of (read: absolve ourselves of) years of racial acrimony.

 

 

Crossing National Boundaries with the Early Black Press by Ben Fagan

As one part of a larger forum on “Digital Approaches to Periodical Studies” recently published in American Periodicals (a collection that includes a contribution from the BPRC’s Kim Gallon), I discuss how we might confront and change the fact that black newspapers published before the Civil War are totally absent from freely accessible digital databases like Chronicling America, and can instead only be accessed by those who are affiliated with institutions that subscribe to databases created by the for-profit companies that have “captured” and assert ownership over publications produced by 19th-century African Americans. My piece focused on the problems that this state of affairs presents for scholars researching early black newspapers, but the racial politics of digitization also cripple our ability to teach the black press to our students. In particular, the absence of early black newspapers in publicly available digital archives makes it nearly impossible to invite students studying outside of the United States to explore the depth and range of the early black press.

Through the Fulbright program, I am spending this semester teaching early African American literature to students at the University of Graz, in Austria. Because of the high-cost of obtaining print copies of African American literary texts outside of the United States, nearly every text that I have chosen to teach is freely available online. Since I am focusing my classes on early African American literature I have not had much difficulty finding high-quality digital versions of the vast majority of texts I assign, thanks in large part to the efforts of the team that created the University of North Carolina’s Documenting the American South archive. DocSouth makes it simple and easy for my students to locate and read works by David Walker, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Jacobs. But my time in Austria has crystalized the difficulties of teaching with black newspapers abroad, since there is not yet an equivalent of DocSouth for early black newspapers. As I discussed in an earlier blog post, there are a variety of ways to incorporate black newspapers into the literature classroom, including methods specifically designed for spaces where we do not have access to expensive digital archives. For example, Just Teach One: Early African American Print has provided a wealth of materials that make teaching the short story “Theresa” (from Freedom’s Journal) and the “Afric-American Picture Gallery” (which appeared in the Anglo-African Magazine) possible. Both those texts appear on my syllabi this semester in Austria.

But since my students cannot access the wider body of early black newspapers, we cannot explore together some of the more striking connections that early black newspapers created between the United States and Europe, in general, and Austria, in particular. For example, in 1848 Frederick Douglass’s newspaper The North Star devoted a substantial amount of space to connecting the revolutions that rocked Europe that year to the fight for black liberation in the United States (if so inclined, you can read more about those efforts here). And in 1852 Douglass’s second newspaper, Frederick Douglass’ Paper, spent months covering and commenting on the visit of the Hungarian nationalist and revolutionary Louis Kossuth to the United States. Kossuth holds a particular relevance to Austrian history, since he was fighting to free Hungary out from under the control of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And in its coverage of Kossuth’s visit, Frederick Douglass’ Paper routinely connected that anti-imperial struggle to the fight for black liberation in the United States. In teaching early African American literature in Austria, I am always inviting students to consider how what we are reading relates, in some way, to their own lives and history. Early black newspapers in particular encourage precisely this kind of reflection since they often worked to carry and connect the concerns of black men and women living in the United States to readers in a variety of international locales. The lists of subscription agents and, in the case of The North Star, ledgers of early black newspapers show how these journals courted readers in spaces such as Haiti, Jamaica, Scotland, England, and Ireland. And the coverage of Kossuth’s 1852 visit in Frederick Douglass’ Paper offers a prime example of how early black print linked the causes and concerns of black Americans in the United States and Europeans. I can tell my students about the presence of Kossuth in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, and share with them individual articles and quotes from the paper. But since my students do not have access to the digital versions of Frederick Douglass’ Paper, which sit behind subscription paywalls, I cannot invite them to read deeply and broadly in early black newspapers, and see what kinds of connection emerge though that experience.

The potential for teaching with black newspapers outside of the United States, and the difficulties of doing so at present, reinforce the need to change the status quo of periodical digitization. A collectively created, freely accessible archive and database of the early black press would make it possible for readers across the world to access and engage with works that are not only critical to our understanding of African American literature and history, but that also routinely related that literature and history to distant places and peoples. An open archive would, then, make it possible for teachers and students at institutions within and beyond the United States to use the early black press to reveal and create international connections, and in doing so to honor and continue the efforts of the men and women who fought so hard to create and distribute early black newspapers in the first place.

 

Jackie Robinson and the Pittsburgh Courier

That Time Jackie Robinson Was a Columnist for the Pittsburgh Courier

With Ken Burns’ two-part Jackie Robinson PBS documentary looming this month, Negro-newspaper sportswriters will return to black America’s consciousness. The Negro press of 1945 to 1948 not only advocated for the desegregation of Major League Baseball but also, for Jackie Robinson’s and the race’s sake, became the de facto public relations wing of his team, the Brooklyn Dodgers, to make sure the “great experiment” succeeded.

Discovering A Different Side of Black History in the Archives of the Black Press

Discovering a Different Side of Black History in the Archives of the Black Press

O’Day Short, a black refrigeration engineer from Los Angeles, defied local racism when he bought land in a traditionally white neighborhood of Fontana, California, in 1945. Short and his family-wife, Helen; children, Carol and Barry-were building a home on the five-acre lot when they started getting threats of trouble, cloaked as warnings.

The Media Force That Made ‘Black Twitter’ Possible

The media force that made ‘Black Twitter’ possible

Kim Gallon is an assistant professor of history at Purdue University, a visiting scholar at the Center for Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University, and the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective. Where would Black Lives Matter be without social media?

 

Getting the Word Out: The Circulation of Black Power Newspapers

Getting the Word Out: The Circulation of Black Power Newspapers

Back in October, I wrote about , the short-lived Jamaican radical newspaper which, in the late 1960s, played a central role in articulating distinctly Jamaican and West Indian approaches to Black Power.

The Defender by Ethan Michaeli – Featured on NPR

New Book Highlights Historic Black Newspaper

‘The Chicago Defender’ is a legendary black newspaper. It may no longer have the reach it once had, but the paper, founded in the early 20th century, has a fascinating history. SCOTT SIMON, HOST: American newspapers once stood for something more than a marketing plan.

 

Celebrity Culture in the Early Twentieth Century Black Press

By Carrie Teresa

The development of entertainment journalism in the Black press was an important factor in bolstering the circulations of Black  newspapers during the first half of the twentieth century. Entertainment culture continues to be a driving force for many Black news institutions that are drawing upon a journalistic tradition that developed apart from, but contemporaneous with, trends in the mainstream press.

The Black press very much aligned with the mainstream sensational press in establishing coverage of entertainment culture as particularly newsworthy, even if the contextual elements of celebrity reporting differed substantively from that of mainstream journalists covering white celebrities. By 1922, the New York Amsterdam News had established an entertainment section. Three years later, both the Chicago Defender and Pittsburgh Courier followed suit. In 1929 and 1930, respectively, the Philadelphia Tribune and Baltimore Afro-American also began to dedicate a section of their newspaper to entertainment coverage so that by the early 1930s, entertainment sections were commonplace in Black press newspapers. Even the Philadelphia Tribune, a conservative newspaper that rarely devoted front-page column space to anything other than stories devoted to politics and education, began to cover entertainment more aggressively to compete with other Black newspapers in the northeast. It even began to run a column called the “Tribune Theatrical Night Life Page” which featured society news and “theatrical chit chat.” Often, in the Tribune and other Black-centered newspapers, this “chit chat” included celebrity gossip.

Celebrities came alive in the pages of these newspapers, whose writers did not shy away from sharing personal – and sometimes salacious – bits of gossip about their favorite entertainers. Journalists let readers know about Louis Armstrong’s failed diet plans and Roland Hayes’s affair with an Italian countess. They chided Josephine Baker’s fiancé as a “gigolo.” And they speculated about the likely unpleasant long-distance phone call Jesse Owens received from his childhood sweetheart – a phone call that encouraged him quickly thereafter to put a ring on it. Yet, it would be inadvisable to merely write off this coverage as a means to shift newspapers. Celebrity journalism, as in all other forms of news, contains important social and cultural cues, and for the writers of the Black press, the idea of “celebrity” was often imbued with issues of representation in public discourse. Fig 1_Matthews' weekly BAA column

The concept of “celebrity” is a journalistic invention developed in the early twentieth century by mainstream “yellow” newspapers hoping to bolster their circulation figures. Scholarship on American celebrity culture has suggested that celebrities, as early as 1900 when moving picture and recording technologies began to bolster an entertainment-based leisure market, operated as symbols of shared cultural values and beliefs. Journalists catapulted entertainers to god-like status, heralding their achievements as paragons of American self-determination. This concept emerged during a time when the racist ideologies of Jim Crowism became so deeply embedded in American values that Emancipation became an egregious misnomer of the condition of Black Americans. Accordingly, mainstream newspapers failed to cover Black entertainers, whose “inherent inferiority” forbade them from achieving such high cultural status. Black journalists paid attention to Black celebrities otherwise maligned or ignored in the mainstream press. Some of the most newsworthy celebrities to appear in the early twentieth century Black press have received little academic attention. To date, biographical information on entertainers such as Fredi Washington, James Reese Europe, Charles Gilpin, Harry Wills, Florence Mills, and Roland Hayes is sparse. Their important contributions have been overlooked – first in the mainstream press itself and later in scholarship relying on only those publications as their primary source material.

Yet, those entertainers came alive in the pages of newspapers and magazines written by and for the Black community. Journalists writing for the Black press during this period helped to establish the creative and aesthetic terms of Black American cultural expression. Their concept of celebrity differed from that of mainstream journalists covering white stars – Black celebrities, according to the journalists who covered them, often carried with them the obligation of representing the Black race (in all of its disparate social, geographical, and economic forms) as a collective entity battling for basic civil rights. CarrieTeresapostillustration

The insights provided by inquiry into Black press content challenge official histories that have notoriously overlooked and undervalued the contributions of Black Americans. The more that Black press scholars engage with this material, the better equipped they will be to train beginning journalists facing the task of making sense of celebrity culture in the context of enduring struggles against American racist ideologies.