Michigan Chronicle publisher, Cathy Nedd continues the long tradition of making sure black newspapers are one of the major voices of the African American community. She and other Black Press publishers are invested in telling the stories that white, mainstream media habitually ignores.
As the founder and director of the Black Press Research Collective (BPRC), I regularly get emails from people across the United States requesting assistance with accessing Black newspaper archives. Therefore, when I checked my email recently and observed a message that came through the BPRC site, I expected the standard request for help. However, I was surprised to receive a message from Jonathan Dickson informing me that his father, the former owner and publisher of the Birmingham World had recently passed away. It was a brief message, but, nonetheless, incredibly powerful. With the simple statement, “Just wanted to inform you that the link to the Birmingham World is not valid and that my father Joe Dickson the Owner and Publisher has passed away,” Mr. Dickson reminded me why I started the Black Press Research Collective five years ago. My goal was two-fold: First, I wanted to make sure that significance of the history of the Black Press was not lost to new generations of students and scholars. Second, I believed that developing a portal for historical and contemporary Black newspapers would help people easily identify and access them. Over the past two years, my initial goals have fallen by the wayside. Teaching obligations and requirements for tenure took me away from the BPRC. However, Mr. Dickson’s message and his desire to make sure his father’s important work and legacy is widely shared inspired me to return to the BPRC with my initial passion and commitment to recovering the history of the Black Press and the many individuals who dedicated their lives to maintaining the tradition of Black journalism. In so doing, I am honored to share the life and work of Joe Dickson.
Former owner and publisher of the Birmingham World newspaper, Joe Dickson, who demonstrated with civil rights heroes Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth and Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights Movement before going on to become a part of former Gov. Guy Hunt’s administration and the chair of the Alabama Personnel Board, has died at age 85.
As a black child in Birmingham in the 1940s, Joe Dickson was arrested by white police officers while playing with a toy gun. He was 10. It was part of a pattern he saw all around him of black people being treated unfairly by white authorities who enforced strict segregation laws and customs in Alabama.
The New Journal and Guide was formed in 1900. By World War II, it was the largest black employer in the South. 118 years after its founding, it follows the same mission of informing and empowering the African-American community, while tackling the challenges of the new media age. Produced/directed/shot by Daja E.
Posted on Paul Delaney, a veteran print journalist, spent 23 years with The New York Times as an editor, reporter, and foreign correspondent. He began his career at two black-owned newspapers, the Baltimore Afro-American and the Atlanta Daily World, before moving on to a succession of other newspapers, including the Dayton Daily News in Ohio and the now-closed Washington Star.
It was interesting to hear Actress Meryl Streeps make comments at the Golden Globe Award defending the press. After talking and making remarks about the situation that occurred between then Presidential candidate Donald Trump and a reporter, Streep said. “Disrespect invites disrespect. Violence incites violence,” she continued.
The oldest Black business industry in America began 190 years ago today. On March 16, 1827, the first edition of the Freedom’s Journal was published, thrusting African Americans into the bustling publishing business. At the time, Blacks in America weren’t even considered citizens, most were slaves and forbidden to read or write.
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.
These 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.”
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.
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.