I love when I’m mulling something and then the universe starts to send me signs that I’m moving in the right direction.
In multiple conversations, a friend has been urging me to watch “The Gilded Age” on HBO Max so we could talk about it. (If you’re not familiar, it’s a series that takes place in 1880s New York.) This week, I finally got a chance to do it; I was hooked after episode one. But it was episode four that gave me a nod. In it, the character Peggy, a Black woman who wants to be a writer, meets T. Thomas Fortune, editor of the Black-owned New York Globe, who encourages her talent and insists that the next piece she writes be one about choosing a political party when you don’t have the right to vote.
Fortune is a real figure, and Peggy, well, she’s clearly a riff on Ida B. Wells, whose talent, in real life, Fortune nurtured.
And it was confirmed: I absolutely should be writing about the Black press.
As much as MLK50 draws its mission from the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, we’re also inspired by Wells’ courageous and insistent journalism. I wanted to reflect on the Black press — what it was, what it has been, what it is now.
That led me to a conversation with Dr. Loren Saxton Coleman, an assistant professor at Cathy Hughes School of Communications at Howard University. Dr. Coleman’s research examines, broadly, how Black people engage with media of all types, including the Black press. We had a wide-ranging discussion that included how Black media is defined now (Black-owned or Black-centered or both?), white audiences of Black media, and the ways access can affect coverage.
But mostly, we talked about the Black press as a cultural institution. That brought us back to Ida B. Wells.
After Wells wrote words so powerful she had to flee Memphis, she landed in Chicago and continued her advocacy for the Black community and anti-lynching campaign with the Chicago Conservator. She also contributed to The Chicago Defender, the legendary newspaper that played a pivotal role in the Great Migration. Dr. Coleman told me the city’s first public housing complex for Black people was named after Wells (she later became Wells-Barnett). The Defender’s journalism influenced the construction of those homes. In fact, when labor disputes between the unions and contractors threatened to halt construction, the Defender made the case that it was important not to lose sight of the importance of those homes.
“The Black press wasn’t just a reflection of what was going on in Black life, but played an active role in the community around a particular cause,” Dr. Coleman said. “It was moving away from media as just re-telling. It was an active, a present voice.”
Thinking through those words switched on a light for me. Holding policymakers accountable, exposing systemic inequities, bearing witness to the lives of the underrepresented — the work we do at MLK50 is important and can be deeply satisfying. It’s also deeply personal; in the faces of the community we see our aunties and pops and mommas and play cousins. So, sometimes the work can also get wearying.
But when I consider Dr. Coleman’s exploration of Black media as a cultural institution, one that uses the tools of Black traditions such as storytelling as a means to sustain and build Black communities, that heaviness lifts. She summed it up best: “It’s important work and it’s necessary work. Understanding that is one way to counter the feeling of ‘Is it worth it?’”
Yes, it is worth it, every day. And that purpose is what’s made the Black press endure, even as because of technology or time, it transforms. That is why its history and its place in American history is rich enough to earn a place in a cable drama.
So on this last day of Black History Month, I celebrate the Black press as a cultural institution, as a culture force. And I know that part of the reason it lingered in this Black journalist’s consciousness is because its cast extends far beyond 28 days.
Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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