restricted access 2. Enter the “New Crowd” Journalists

From: Race News

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Chapter 2 Enter the “New Crowd” Journalists WallaceThurman,anovelist,editor,andfailedpublisher,launchedinNovember 1928whathedescribedas“anindependentmagazineofliteratureandthought.” HecalleditHarlem:AForumofNegroLife.Inhisfirst(andnext-­to-­last)editorial, Thurman criticized an older generation’s spent reportage as “nothing else but preaching and moaning.” For Thurman, modern black journalism was inextricably linked to the sensibilities of the “New Negro”—that idealized figure symbolizingtheforward-­lookingAfricanAmericanforgedfromthedissonance of twentieth-­ century industrialism, urbanism, and mobility. Thurman urged journaliststoemulatetheconvention-­shatteringauthorsandpoetsoftheHarlem Renaissance by embracing “new points of views and new approaches to old problems.”1 That same month, literary benefactor Eugene Gordon outlined similar parallels between the professionalization of black journalism and the trope of the New Negro. He praised reporters for developing a new sense of professional standing and converting to political radicalism. Gordon, a leftist press critic andtheonlyblackeditoratthewhite-­ownedBostonPost,creditedyoungcollege graduates with redesigning sloppily edited and poorly composed weeklies. He contended that young journalists, inspired by Harlem’s radical orator-­editors, “daredtostatebaldlyontheprintedpagewhathadhithertobeenonlywhispered insecretanddarkplaces:adesireforcompletesocialequality;anadmirationfor theBolshevisiticexperimentinRussia;andcontemptforallNegroeswhowere 42  •  Chapter 2 less radical than the writers themselves were.” Realistic depictions of black life in fiction freed journalists to more forcefully scrutinize and chastise real-­ life race leaders. Like their more celebrated literary colleagues, reporters used text and image to interrogate stereotypes as well as conventions concerning class, culture,andcitizenship.“Theyallbreathedthatsamefiercefireofindependence andradicalism,”Gordonclaimed,“independenceofthoughtonsacrosanctquestions of the day; radicalism with relation to the social and economic condition of the workers.”2 Thurman and Gordon trumpeted the perspective of a young cohort of journalistswhosepoliticalradicalizationandunsparingcriticismofaracistnation -­ stateduringtheinterwaryearseventuallyestablishedanewtemplateforblack newswriting. The outlines of this reporting style first appeared in the pages of a fledgling alternative press that formed during World War I. Radical editors , frustrated by an exclusionary war effort and escalating postwar violence, equatedcompromiseandconciliationwiththecontinuanceofAmericanracism. They instead searched for alternatives to the status quo, advancing race-­ first concepts like “Negro consciousness” and “back to Africa,” as well as socialist and communist critiques of the nation’s discriminatory political economy. Commercialjournalistsextendedthealternativepress’sinfluencebyproviding news coverage of radical editors’ political views and cultivating a network of personalfriendshipsandprofessionalrelationshipsthatencouragedwriters— whethertheyconsideredthemselvespoliticalactivists,professionaljournalists, or literary authors—to write for different mediums within an expansive black print culture. The young writers of the Harlem Renaissance further refined blacknewswritinginthe1920sbydevelopingamodernistliteraryaestheticthat explored the meaning of black life and identity in its fullest terms, regardless of possibly inviting white condescension. These authors and poets challenged established writing conventions by highlighting the hypocrisy of conservative Victorian values and exposing the sins and scandals of their race. The controversiesstokedbyradicalpolemicistsandliterarysuperstarsreinforceddecisions by many commercial newspaper publishers to shift to tabloid sensationalism, theera’sdefiningjournalisticmode,amidbruisingcompetitionforcirculation. The “New Negroes” of Newsprint World War I ended in November 1918 with an Allies victory but few significant gains for the oppressed and colonized people who had aided the winners. The victorious European nations swiftly reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining imperial empires and ignored President Woodrow Wilson’s support in Enter the “New Crowd” Journalists  • 43 peace negotiations for a “free, open-­minded, and absolutely impartial adjustment of all colonial claims.” Despite their contributions and sacrifices, African Americans received no meaningful recognition from either the military or the federalgovernment.W.E.B.DuBois’spleato“closeranks”withwhitecitizens producednoameliorationofblackgrievances.Instead,awaveofracialviolence gripped the nation in the summer of 1919 amid high unemployment, climbing inflation,andexaggeratedfearsofanarchistterrorism.Morethantwentyriots occurred, with black victims suffering at the hands of white attackers in cities as diverse as Knoxville, Tennessee, Omaha, Nebraska, and Washington, D.C. Federal officials routinely characterized black expressions of dissent as “race hatred.”Whiteauthoritieswhohadblamedwartimeracialunrestontheprovocations of German spies now feared African Americans were being duped by communist infiltrators inspired by the Russian Revolution.3 The most violent attacks happened in Chicago, and federal investigators and municipal officials accused journalists—white and black—of inflaming racialtensionstherewithinaccurate,exaggerated,andprejudicednewscoverage . The rioting started with a drowning. A black swimmer died after he was pelted with rocks thrown by young white men angered when he drifted into waters reserved for whites. Days of mounting violence erupted. Several dozen African Americans died, and hundreds were wounded. City leaders formed a commissiontoexaminetheriot’scauses.Commissionmembersrecommended changesinhownewspaperscoveredracialissues.Theyurgedwhitejournalists to present African Americans in a more objective and positive manner. They similarly encouraged black publishers to abandon sensationalism and report with greater accuracy on interracial incidents. The commission, though, also revealed how white citizens perceived black journalism as a threat to the prevailing social order. Its members paternalistically asked black publishers to muffle their militancy by devoting “more attention to educating Negro readers as to the available means and opportunities of adjusting themselves and their fellowsintomoreharmoniousrelationswiththeirwhiteneighborsandfellow-­ citizens.” By asking African Americans to conform to white expectations, the statement amounted to an endorsement of Booker T...


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