Friday, March 23, 2007

Revive the Black Press

March 17th, 2007 was a first for me. Until that Saturday afternoon in downtown Oakland, I had never attended, let alone covered, a political campaign rally. And of all campaigns to get my feet wet, I was covering an Obama rally. I held my head pridefully high as I checked into the press area, ahead of the thousands that lined Broadway at 13th Street.

It was as if I was pioneering, working on staff for Charlotta Bass's California Eagle or Robert Abbott's Chicago Defender. I was the political reporter. I was also the photographer. But instead of being armed with only a notepad, pencil, and maybe an old, awkard 4x5 camera, I was armed with a digital audio recorder, a digital SLR with a freakishly long 70-200mm lens, a bound notebook and a pen. But for some reason, the difference in technologies did not distinguish me from, say, an Eagle or Defender reporter about to cover Bass's bid for national office in 1952. For some reason, I knew what I was about to capture was history in the making. And I had a reason to be proud.

I walked over to the press area and examined a mixed crowd of reporters, cameramen and women, photographers and radio broadcasters setting up shop in and around the press riser. I met eyes with a few black reporters, one plugging his audio device into a media feed box, another chatting and laughing with a colleague. We were all part of the pack. Except many of us were not going back to our newsrooms to file front page, screaming headline stories about the Obama visit and what it meant for the African American community. Most of us were mainstream media reporters. A story: the significance for young African Americans to see a black man (interracial or not), with the same facial features as they had, commanding an adoring crowd of over 10,000. Not to mention having Oakland's black mayor as one of the people to introduce him, metaphorically hoisting him up "Simba-style" before a largely African American crowd. Neither of those stories would appear in the Sunday paper.

At the end of January 2007, the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) called for news organizations everywhere to diversify their presidential election coverage teams. I couldn't help feeling that even if newsrooms heeded NABJ's call their would still be stories missed. These stories would have, perhaps, appeared in the Defender or the Eagle.

But ever since newsrooms integrated, especially after the race riots of the 1940s, where mainstream papers started hiring blacks to file stories from communities overtaken by riots, I would argue that it became a lot easier for important black stories to get lost amidst a white publisher's overall agenda. Fact was (and probably still is), that you'd earn a lot more money working as a beat reporter for the New York Times than you would at the Defender, the Eagle or any other pioneering black paper in the 40's and 50's as the metro editor or director of photography.

Back then, members of the Black Press were the heroes of the black community. The coverage of lynchings, the mass black migration from the South to the North and unfair treatment in the U.S. armed forces during the wars were stories that the mainstream wouldn't dare touch, lest they be accused of sedition or treason.

So there I stood, waiting for Obama to take the stage, and positioning myself so that I could capture good audio and great photographs. My feet were beginning to hurt and I was sweating profusely under my armpits. I was nervous. I didn't know what I was going to come away with, nor did I know if my efforts would be seen as anything more than a PR campaign for Barack Obama.

What I did take away from my experience was an overall thirst to publish what I had. Forgetting that my story would not be about young blacks recognizing the significance of what took place that day in Oakland, I was anxious for people to see and hear the images and sounds of African Americans coming out in support of one of their own. I wanted young people to look at Obama's photograph and just smile, much like they smile when they see their favorite football player hoist up the Heisman Trophy or see their favorite rapper or singer win a Grammy. In my compromise, this is what I got. CLICK THE PHOTO BELOW.

Though I knew little about the history of the Black Press in America before I entered college, I now know, more than ever before, that many journalists of color (black or otherwise) would not be where they are had it not been for pioneers like Abbott and Bass. They dared to tell the stories that mainstream were reluctant to tell not because they sought glory or recognition, but because it was their duty to their families. They did it so that blacks everywhere could pick up the paper and see an important, uplifting, and sometimes sobering glimpse of themselves. Or they could at least obtain pragmatic information that allows them to carry out productive, simpler, and informed lives.

I think we're not too far from needing a revival of the Black Press.

For more information on the Black Press check out the following information:

The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords - A PBS documentary


Posted by Aaron Morrison at 1:19 PM | link

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