The rise of the black press

Television: African-Americans' response to a white media that scarcely acknowledged their existence.

February 08, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

I don't like the television industry practice of running most or all African-American-themed programs in February in connection with Black History Month. It can create a television ghetto and cause the programs to blur together. One result is that a lot of fine programming gets ignored.

Don't let the clutter keep you from seeing "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" tonight on PBS. Filmmaker Stanley Nelson's documentary blends biography, historical analysis, media critique, interviews and use of imagery to skillfully tell a story that needs to be heard.

It is the story of black newspapers as voices of identity, affirmation and conscience. More than an engaging history of the black press, "Soldiers Without Swords" is also a valid rebuke of mainstream newspapers for failing to even try to serve all of their potential readers.

"We didn't exist in the other papers," says Vernon Jarrett, a former reporter with the Chicago Defender and Chicago Tribune. "We weren't born. We didn't get married. We didn't die. We didn't fight in any wars. We never participated in any scientific achievement. We were truly invisible unless we committed a crime.

"But in the black press, the Negro press, we did get married. They showed us our babies being born. They showed us graduating. They showed our Ph.D's," he says.

Phyllis Garland, a former reporter with the Pittsburgh Courier now teaching journalism at Columbia University, points to another great truth of African-American newspapers: "The black press never pretended to be objective, because it didn't see the white press being objective. And it often took a position. It had an attitude. This was a press of advocacy. There was news, but the news had an admitted and deliberate slant."

Narrator Joe Morton ("Miss Evers'

Boys") tells viewers that the black press began in response to the routine "vilification" of African-Americans by the mainstream press in the early 19th century.

"By the winter of 1827, an outraged community had enough," he says. "Free blacks gathered on Varick Street in lower Manhattan and decided that they, too, would use the press as a weapon. They pooled their money and started the first newspaper in the United States to be published by African-Americans, Freedom's Journal."

In the words of the first editorial, "We mean to plead our own cause. No longer, shall others speak for us."

The documentary traces the proliferation of black newspapers after the Civil War and, with its keen sense of cultural analysis, explains the role of such publications in helping African-Americans define themselves as a community in the wake of the devastating effects of slavery.

"As slaves, African-Americans were forbidden to read. But, after the Civil War, reading became one of the sweetest fruits of freedom. For many, African-American newspapers were an introduction to the magic and the power of the written word," viewers are told, as the screen fills with images of former slaves in ragtag clothes sitting in the dust in front of tiny shacks intently reading. One of the joys of "Soldiers Without Swords" is its use of archival photography.

The most fascinating segment of the film is the one chronicling the rise of the Chicago Defender and its founder, Robert Abbott. By World War I, the daily paper was such a strong national voice for blacks that it was banned in some Southern cities. Some of the film's best moments are in its description of the role of the Defender in the Great Migration of blacks to northern cities like Chicago.

I wish the documentary had done more discussing Abbott-as-social-conscience vs. Abbott-as-salesman. In the latter role, Abbott introduced tabloid sensationalism to his newspaper and became a millionaire as blacks followed his advice on moving north. But maybe my wanting more is only testament to what an intriguing minibiography of Abbott the documentary offers as part of its larger historical survey.

I also wish the film had done a better job of trying to assess the role of television in the decline of the black press since the 1960s. I suspect the role is significant.

But, then, you can't expect an hour and one-half of television to do it all, can you? "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords" packs a lot of history into 90 minutes and does it in a way that will leave you wanting to know more.

Documentary

What: "The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords."

When: Tonight 10 to 11: 30.

Where: MPT (Channels 22 and 67).

Pub Date: 2/08/99

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