- Programming Practices
Steven D. Classen’s Watching Jim Crow provides an incisive and multi-layered history of the struggles for African-American representation in Jackson, Mississippi, local television stations, WLBT and WJTV. These stations, both founded in 1953, explicitly regulated broadcast material in opposition to the “liberal” northern press and used this regionalist platform to spread segregationist values. Consequently, representations of African Americans were often grossly caricatured, interrupted, or altogether eliminated. Classen’s study focuses on the activists who, on numerous fronts and in multiple manifestations, fought against and eventually helped to change these programming practices. Classen thus situates Jackson’s battle for integrated television within the larger context of the Civil Rights Movement and demonstrates television’s potential to both hinder and precipitate social change.
Approaching his subject matter from the perspective of contemporary cultural studies, Classen measures television in terms of institutional power and practice: it is “something people do” (6). As such, television is shaped by, reflects, and has the capacity to challenge the State’s hegemony. Classen links the information disseminated through, and omitted from, Jackson’s broadcast media to the competing values that marked the region during the Jim Crow era. Because much of his study focuses on the omissions, the historical narrative has little source footage from the stations themselves. Classen thus turns to the people who were involved in the effort for racial integration. According to Classen, other scholarly examinations of the struggles over broadcasting in Mississippi, though certainly sensitive to the racial politics that marked these efforts, do not focus on the grassroots efforts waged by Mississippians or do not highlight the people involved in those struggles. These histories “provide further, sadly ironic, evidence that the voices and everyday perspectives of black Mississippians have too rarely been deemed worthy of further investigation” (14). Classen, in contrast, places those traditionally undervalued voices at the forefront of his study, using them as a living archive.
For Classen, historiography is shaped, for better or worse, by historians’ political and positional biases. He does not feign objectivity and openly discusses his methodological decisions, along with the constraints on those decisions. For instance, he notes that, because of his position as a white man interviewing mostly African Americans, he was told he “would receive historical accounts very different from those exchanged within the black community” (20). Such a discrepancy could be paralyzing. But Classen includes extended excerpts from the interviews to show how his questions were re-tuned as he accumulated interviewees’ responses. He states, “I quickly discovered that the very best and most provocative questions would come not from me but from those I interviewed” (22). In essence, Classen followed his subjects’ own curiosities about the issue. This strategy provided his subjects with a sense of agency that, like the television stations themselves, a more traditional and less self-reflexive approach would have omitted.
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This reflexivity calls attention to traditional historiography’s oversights and the consequent marginalization of histories—and the people represented by these histories—that might have been communicated through alternative forms. Classen sees everything from local concerts to legal discourse as fair game for illustrations of the social and political forces marking—or obscuring—the past. By scrutinizing how these pieces of the past are written in or out of memory, his method questions what should count as history, who has the authority to produce historically valuable data, and how collected data should be arranged into historical narratives. Classen’s unusual approach to historiography therefore reinforces larger concerns for social [End Page 91] justice: “This history is motivated by a desire for a reinvigorated democracy that truly engages more citizens and stimulates progressive change, particularly in the sphere of American race relations” (10).
However, while Classen positions his argument against other, more positivist and traditionally arranged histories of television, he does not discuss these competing narratives in sufficient detail. The lapse does not weaken Classen’s overall argument, but including a more explicit discussion of these other historical narratives would illustrate their weaknesses...