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?
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
With the summer coming to a close I’ve been prepping my syllabi for classes this fall, and thought it might be a good time to reflect on the challenges and possibilities for including black newspapers in literature courses. Like many of us, I suspect, I don’t often have the luxury of teaching a course focused exclusively on the black press, but must instead find ways to work black newspapers into survey courses or seminars that mainly revolve around more familiar kinds of literary texts. One strategy in such cases is connecting black newspapers to other kinds of texts. For example, in a class on “African American Literature and the Media,” we spent a few weeks reading Richard Wright’s novel Native Son. White reporters and newspapers appear at critical moments in the text, and the media emerges as one of the novel’s major concerns. Indeed, real-life newspaper coverage of an alleged black murderer in Chicago inspired the basic outlines of Native Son’s plot. So alongside the novel we read contemporaneous articles from the Chicago Tribune and, most importantly, the Chicago Defender. For a paper assignment, students were asked to analyze newspaper reports in the same way they would a passage from the novel. They composed essays exploring the power of the press to shape events through language, and offered insightful comparisons between coverage in black and white newspapers. Native Son is particularly well suited to this kind of approach to teaching black newspapers, given its inspiration from real-world newspaper coverage, treatment of the media, and the fact that the Defender covered the events fictionalized in the novel. But such an approach could be adapted to a variety of other texts that regularly make their way onto literature syllabi. One could, for example, pick a particularly powerful theme from a novel, poem, play, etc., and then ask students to research that same theme in black newspapers. This kind of research assignment is, though, potentially limited to institutions with subscriptions to commercial databases, which were not available when and where I taught Native Son. In that case, I provided students with the relevant issues from the Defender and the Tribune. This deprived them of the opportunity to conduct their own research, but they were at least introduced to the pages of black newspapers.
Another successful way to work black newspapers into the literature classroom is, in my experience, to teach texts that appeared in the pages of the black press, and focus on that context in classroom discussions and essay assignments. For example, in a survey of African American literature before 1900 that I am teaching this coming fall, students will read the short story “Theresa – A Haytien Tale,” which originally appeared in 1828 in the pages of Freedom’s Journal. We will read the story itself, and then the four issues in which appeared. A possible essay topic could then ask students to connect particular themes in the story to concerns in the newspaper. Similarly, I will be teaching sketches from the Anglo-African Magazine in an upper-division course on the literature of the American Renaissance. Both of these choices are inspired by the Just Teach One: Early African American Print initiative, which provides not only the primary material for teaching these texts but also sample assignments, lesson plans, and teaching reflections. And one need not be teaching a course focused on African American literature in order to incorporate black newspapers. Frederick Douglass’s Paper serialized Charles Dickens’s Bleak House in its entirety, and a variety of black newspapers printed poetry from now-canonical figures from both sides of the Atlantic (e.g. Longfellow and Tennyson). Teaching these texts in their periodical context would not only introduce students to the archive of the black press, but also underscore how all kinds of literature circulated in the 19th –century.
Hopefully, this post has highlighted the ways in which black newspapers fit, with a bit of creativity, into a variety of kinds of literature classrooms. And in my experience, even the smallest introduction to the black press can be enough to inspire students to explore the archive of black newspapers outside of the classroom. Of course, such exploration is made far more challenging when black newspapers are trapped behind the massive paywalls of commercial databases, a fact that makes the work of expanding access to the black press all the more imperative.