A black woman's view of life at the 'Post'

June 22, 1993|By Rachel L. Jones | Rachel L. Jones,Knight-Ridder News Service

The inherent drama of Woodward and Bernstein's "All The President's Men" probably launched journalism careers for thousands of hungry, brash, young white males eager to carve out their share of fame and power. But few books have dared to portray the perspective of people of color on succeeding amid the tension and competitiveness of high-profile newsrooms.

Anyone who thinks making it in mainstream America is effortless for "qualified minorities" has not begun to walk even an inch in those shoes.

If you're black and you've achieved some measure of success, you become an instant anomaly if you mention that racism still exists and still hinders and frustrates you. Outspokenness often is perceived as hostility, a differing viewpoint as a lack of team spirit.

Changing that perception could be the overriding value of "Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience," by former Washington Post writer Jill Nelson.

She takes readers for a stroll through the world of journalism that is tumultuous, funny and ultimately wrenching.

Ms. Nelson's scathing tell-all is not for those with delicate sensibilities or for those who'd rather pretend racial inequities don't exist anymore. It oozes a deft cynicism that stings like salt on an open wound.

And no target is off-limits: She starts with journalism legend Ben Bradlee ("I was expecting Jason Robards from 'All the President's Men,' tall, gray, and handsome. Instead, I'm greeted by a short, gray, wrinkled gnome") and goes down the list of Post editors and reporters. A scant few survive her sharp pen.

Ms. Nelson's personal history is eclectic.

She was born to upper middle-class black parents in New York and attended private schools.

Her family owned a summer home on Martha's Vineyard; her father, a prominent dentist, lectured his children on the necessity of being "No. 1" because so many of their counterparts would never have the opportunities they had.

Her credentials are impeccable. She spent 15 years as a prominent free-lancer for Ms. and Essence magazines among others, and her work for the Village Voice established Ms. Nelson as a premiere writer/righter of wrongs for the underprivileged.

But by 1986, when a new Post magazine editor approached her, she and her 13-year-old daughter were tired of being poor.

So Ms. Nelson stifled negative hunches about the harshly competitive, elitist atmosphere at the Post, took the money and ran.

Smack into a brick wall.

It started with the revamped magazine's first cover story, an obscenely stereotyped tale of a black rapper that launched a boycott and negative nationwide publicity for red-faced editors.

It ended in frustration with editors who too often edited her stories into oblivion and with disrespect and disregard from management.

Journalism aside, Ms. Nelson's struggle to define herself as an "authentic Negro" is the book's dominant theme.

How she balanced her self-described bourgeois beginnings with a dawning awareness of racial struggle is at times funny, heartwarming and sad.

Woven throughout her travails at work are revelations about her family; these stories of drug and alcohol addiction, alienation and dysfunctional silences are painfully poignant.

Whether or not you agree with Ms. Nelson's journalistic assessments, there's no mistaking the honest tone of her self-revelations.

She dares to address what many blacks swimming in the mainstream often sidestep: how it can often be incredibly lonely and painful when there's no respect for the differences you bring to the table.


Title: "Volunteer Slavery: My Authentic Negro Experience"

Author: Jill Nelson

Publisher: Noble Press

Length, price: 243 pages, $21.95

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