- Twentieth-Century Black Press Scholarship:New Analytical Approaches, Growing Momentum
In To Write in the Light of Freedom: The Newspapers of the 1964 Mississippi Freedom Schools, William Sturkey and Jon N. Hale posit that "Newspapers provided safe spaces for expression, giving the students venues where they could criticize their society, report on movement activities, communicate with each other, and express their innermost hopes and dreams" (33). Though the authors are writing about student publications that until now have not been considered a part of the traditional definition of the black press, they astutely summarize the vision of those periodicals that, beginning with Freedom's Journal in 1827, provided black citizen-journalist-activists with an outlet to share information, pursue collective action, make individual and community connections, and use print to speak truth to power on the experience of racism. [End Page 96]
Following journalism history scholarship generally, much scholarship on the twentieth-century black press has fallen into four broad thematic categories: cultural and institutional histories, biographies, edited collections, and encyclopedic reference works. Often, these works have emphasized metropolitan weeklies rather than smaller, rural newspapers and alternative forms of media, including magazines, student journalism, and early news broadcast programs. (For instance, the Chicago Defender, Baltimore Afro-American, and Boston Guardian have all been subjects of book-length treatments.) Four of the most recent additions to scholarship on the twentieth-century black press are notable for transcending the basic characteristics of each of these predictable approaches and demonstrating how black press historiography has become increasingly analytical and inclusive. Ethan Michaeli's The Defender: How the Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America and Gerald Horne's The Rise and Fall of the Associated Negro Press reimagine how cultural histories and biographies of the black press specifically should be situated within larger political and philosophical questions about journalism and democracy. Edited collections by Earle V. Bryant, who illuminates otherwise unknown writings of celebrated novelist Richard Wright during his tenure as a journalist for the communist publications the Daily Worker and New Masses, and Sturkey and Hale's To Write in the Light of Freedom represent the exploration of archival collections that redefine what constitutes "black press" scholarship. As Andreá Williams noted in "Visions of the Future in Nineteenth-Century Black Periodicals" (American Periodicals 27, no. 2), treatments of black press material have grown not only in volume but also in approach, especially as scholars have worked to redefine the terms of subdiscipline. The four works reviewed here demonstrate how contemporary work has eschewed the typical tropes often presented in such histories and broadened our subjects of inquiry beyond mass circulation metropolitan weeklies.
Cultural histories have attempted to highlight the commonalities between publications and broadly explain their progression over time, while institutional histories have illuminated the development, major personalities, and newsroom ethos of individual newspapers. Ethan Michaeli's The Defender takes a close look at the history of the iconic Chicago newspaper often credited with promoting the "Great Northern Drive," a notable component of the Great Migration of the early twentieth century. Michaeli's institutional history is perhaps the most high-profile addition to the field, having enjoyed a favorable review from Brent Staples in the New York Times upon its release, who called the work a "deeply researched, elegantly written history." It traces the history of the newspaper from its humble beginnings at the dining room table of founder Robert S. Abbott...