Black History Lesson 101: There have always been many voices speaking against the rise of the descendants of slaves in America. There have also been some voices speaking up for the betterment of our condition.
Sadly, there have been too few voices of Blacks speaking for themselves. So said editors John B. Russwurm and Samuel Cornish on March 16, 1827 when together they launched Freedom’s Journal, the first Black-owned and operated newspaper in the United States.
“We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations in things which concern us dearly,” the editors wrote in their first editorial, addressed: “To Our Patrons.”
That newspaper was sorely needed at that time because the prevailing avenues for public discussion were closed to Blacks–whether slave or free.
Strong voices pleading our cause are still needed, perhaps more than ever today.
White newspapers at the time of Freedom’s Journal were closed to Black viewpoints. Indeed, one White newspaper–The New York Enquirer–openly used its pages to degrade Negroes by questioning the character and courage of Black men and impugning the chastity of Black women, according to Dr. Clint Wilson, an author on the history of the Black press and a Howard University professor of Journalism.
Since 1827, there has been a proliferation of outlets for discussion of the Black condition in print, on television and radio, and on the Internet. Ironically though, some of the prevailing messages about Black people remain curiously the same today. A vigorous Black communications industry consisting of more than 200 newspapers, about 300 radio stations and a handful of television stations is growing in this country.
In addition, 29 years ago another movement was born “behind enemy lines,” so to speak, among the then-small cadre of Black journalists working in the corporate-owned, major metropolitan media–the White American press. It was called the National Association of Black Journalists and it agitated for an increased Black presence in the nation’s 20,000 print and broadcast newsrooms and for a diversity of ideas in the products produced in those newsrooms.
Soon, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) followed, and the Asian-American Journalists Association (AAJA) and the Native American Journalists Association (NAJA). In the early 1990s, they organized themselves into an alliance–Unity-Journalists of Color–and in 1994 they held their first joint meeting in Atlanta. This year, they met in Washington, D.C.
“We wish to plead our own cause,” Juan Gonzalez, president of NAHJ and a New York Daily News columnist, told the conference opening session Aug. 4.
And so, amid 500 news company recruiters who got a chance to pick over the best and the brightest Black, Latino, Native American and Asian journalists in the country–many of whom came with just one objective in mind: getting a good or a better job in the corporate-owned media industry–the solemn call went forward yet another time: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us.”
More than 7,500 journalists of color” convened in Washington for the meeting, and by definition they reiterate Freedom’s Journal’s appeal.
The conference theme, “Unity-Journalists of Color … A Powerful Alliance. A Force for Change,” implies that there is something beneficial resulting from the unity of non-White journalists. That theme also reminds us that a desperate need for change in the condition of non-Whites and in their relationship to the dominant society also remains.
In 1975, when NABJ was founded, only two dozen or so members participated. That number has grown exponentially, and yet there is a stubborn resistance to progress in “mainstream” America. That there are now thousands of Black, Latino, Native American and Asian journalists from all over the country meeting in one place is evidence of some progress in adding diverse voices to the otherwise all-White landscape.
And yet, an unmistakable reality remains. We all, they all, know that there is something about our history and origin that is in conflict with the people who control the media.
The answer, of course, includes more of our voices in those corporate newsrooms–not there just to say whatever the powers-that-be might want us to say–but to reflect our unique perspective and reality in those White-owned outlets.
But more importantly–as Chicago journalist Lu Palmer (as well as A.J. Liebling) reminds us: “The only free press is the one you own”–the Unity-Journalists of Color movement tells us that we must energetically develop, maintain and protect media outlets that we own and control.