The highs and lows of the Black Press
At almost 200 years old, the Black Press has a rich history. In its heyday, it was a vessel of abolition, anti-lynching, and communist scholarship. Over the years, however, it became marked by racism, censorship, anti-leftism, and co-optation. To get a better sense of the Black press in context, we’ll have to delve into its history.
19th Century Media: Black Press Roots
1827: The first Black newspaper (“Freedom’s Journal”) was published.
According to Penn State’s The Abolitionist Movement: His-Story and Her-Story, many newspapers were published during slavery times that promoted abolition. The first documented “abolitionist papers” were dated around 1830, an archives.gov article reveals. They write, “[T]hese volumes focus on their reactions to African colonization and the idea of gradual emancipation, the Fugitive Slave Law, and the promise brought by emancipation during the war. The NHPRC also supported the microfilm edition.”
Although it became a tool for freedom, advocating for abolition was still a dangerous practice that oftentimes resulted in violence.
1837: Elijah Lovejoy is killed.
In an 1837 riot, Elijah Lovejoy was murdered. Sadly, this was not the first time he experienced mob violence. Four years earlier, he was named editor of the St. Louis Observer, which advocated against slavery in Missouri, a slave state at the time. His advocacy made him a target, according to History.com, and he fled to Alton, a city in the free state of Illinois across the Mississippi River.
It was here when he would begin publishing the Alton Observer, and he resumed abolitionist journalism. Alas, Illinois’ state as a free state did not exempt them from supporting slavery. Unfortunately, on November 7, 1837, an armed mob of white rioters demolished Lovejoy’s printing press, killing him in a shootout.
This was not the first time Lovejoy or other anti-racist journalists would be victims of mob violence. Other targeted individuals included: Ida B. Wells and Frederick Douglass. Later, intellectuals like W.E.B. DuBois and Paul Robeson were also targeted and kicked out of the country.
1889: Ida B. Wells joined the Memphis free speech as an editor.
After three of her friends were lynched, Wells launched an investigation into Memphis lynchings and published her findings in Memphis Free Speech. As a result, their offices were squelched, according to Jean Ait Belkhir, who wrote for the Race, Gender & Class Journal.
1892: The printing press where Wells worked was torched.
Censorship was one of the major problems facing Black media in the early and mid-20th century. Really, Black media was a target of governmental hate campaigns, although it did not start this way.
20th Century Media: Black Press Rwebels
1908: The FBI was formed.
The FBI launched with “modest beginnings,” says Kenneth O’Reilly, the FBI (previously known as the bureau of investigation), but it would morph into a surveillance organization with the help of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
1909: NAACP was formed in New York.
During the 20th century, the FBI essentially began targetting Black-affiliated entities, such as the black press and black entertainers. In 1942, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover pulled a song from Billie Holiday’s set because it was a “communist, anti-war song,” O’reilly mentions. Two years prior, the FBI founded a special “Negroes” section to investigate suspected communists and communist sympathizers.
This would lead to the formation of RACON. RACON (short for racial conditions) was an FBI initiative aimed at preventing the spread of communism. Kenneth O’Reilly notes that FBI Hoover gave FDR a document about “‘Foreign-Inspired Agitation Among American Negroes internal Security. The timing was fortuitous, given the summer’s rioting in Harlem and Detroit. Thereafter, the Roosevelt administration continued to rely on the FBI to help solve any conceivable race-related problem. “
1934: The NAACP pressured FDR into passing an anti-lynching bill. (Note: this law was not passed until 2022, almost 90 years later).
As Black people suffered under Jim Crow, civil rights complaints began to pile on the FBI’s desk. Yet, “in the civil rights field, the FBI was invisible,” O’Reilly concluded. While the FBI was lax on investigating anti-Black crimes, this did not mean that Black people were off their radar.
1938: The FBI Launched a special Section titled “Negroes” to combat communism.
As a result, RACON indexed several black publications such as “The Afro-American, Amsterdam Star News, People’s voice, The Black Dispatch, Chicago Defender, Michigan Chronicle, Pittsburgh Courier,” O’Reilly mentions. During the red scare, the Black Press became a target of the government.
In another article, O’Reilly writes that Black people during that time “appear[ed] to have become more disrespectful, more assertive of their rights and more discontented with their station in life.” This was connotated with communism, he adds, which led to FBI agents approaching “at least four Black-owned newspapers, including the Pittsburgh Courier, in an attempt to convince Black editors to tone down their ‘militant crusading’.”
This would set a precedent for a long history of problems affecting Black media.
21st Century Media: Black Press Respectability
2000s: Legacy Black media faces a downwards spiral of media acquisitions and white co-optation.
Over the years, the Black Press has faced external opposition from major players like J Edgar Hoover and FDR. Yet, in more recent years, there seems to be internal opposition as well.
Over the years, the Black Press has faced external opposition from major players like J Edgar Hoover and FDR. Yet, in more recent years, there seems to be internal opposition as well. That is, some Black outlets have contributed to anti-Blackness instead of interrogating the roots of issues such as classism, racism, homophobia, and intra-communal violence.
One prime example is the Chicago Defender extolling respectability politics onto Southern ex-patriates. According to WTTW, “[F]or those already in Chicago, the Defender routinely printed rules of conduct to help new arrivals adjust and avoid conflict.” Some of these rules are listed above.
2010s: Dawning of Digital Media
Moreover, The Atlantic noted that “The front-page photograph of The Defender on September 2, 1916, shows a crowd of neatly dressed black men and women waiting for a train in Savannah, Georgia, under the headline ‘The Exodus’.”
“Neatly dressed” is a loaded term in this context. The excerpted quote suggests that these “neatly dressed” (well-behaved) Black people are more respectable than other Black people simply based on their behavior. These Victorian notions of modesty that came from the Black church are still prevalent to this day.
It is worth noting that while these churches were focused on defying stereotypes and avoiding adversities such as church burnings and bombings. Nonetheless, they participated in isolating certain Black people who did fit their ideal version of Blackness.
However, these respectability politics do not only affect class but other social identities as well (i.e. gender, sexual orientation). “An array of factors including an over-emphasis on the role of heterosexual Black male publishers, such as John H. Johnson and Robert Abbott, and a reluctance to move beyond narrowly defined definitions of the ‘political’ has contributed to the marginalization of gender and sexuality within Black Press historiography,” E. James West notes in “Queering the Black Press: Remembering BLK Magazine.”
As a result, BLK Magazine became one of the first magazines focused on the Black LGBTQIA experience. Unfortunately, outlets like this are an anomaly. More recently, Wear Your Voice Mag operated from 2014-2021. According to their archived Twitter account, it was “a digital magazine for and by LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color.”
Last year, the magazine ended operations due to a lack of funding.
At the same time, other Black outlets that are LGBTQIA unfriendly are thriving, such as The Shade Room. For HuffPost, Zeba Blay wrote, “For every “#TSRPositiveImages” post celebrating the work of Black entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and others, there are posts that seem strategically designed to bring out the worst of the internet.” Blay contended, “I don’t know what to do with The Shade Room.”
That’s fair. From one perspective, it serves as a cultural archive of Black pop culture. On the other, it is a vessel of bigotry, but can we take one without the other? In other words, should we ignore its flaws to celebrate its positivity or should we dismiss its positive impact when analyzing its flaws?
These are all essential questions I am asking myself about not just The Shade Room but many Black media outlets in general: Ebony magazine, who aided J Edgar Hoover; The Chicago Defender, who pushed respectability politics; World Star Hip Hop which went from Hip Hop highlights to being connotated with negativity, violence, and pornography.
In this column, The Archivist, we will take a look at Black media from 1827 until now, to give a wholistic glance at our past, present, and promising future. ~ℝ