How I learned what matters most in 21st century black media.
I was a junior in college when I was introduced to the anthology The Black Press. Despite being required reading for Morgan State’s 300-level journalism concentration students, it was easy to become fascinated with scholarly writings on black journalism in the years leading up to and following emancipation, centered around names like David Walker, Amelia Johnson and others.
One entry on Frederick Douglass’ journalistic strategies and motivations, “We Hold These Truths to Be Self-Evident,” resonated with me then, and continues to do so when I read the book annually for renewed insight on the culture and business of news media within Black contexts.
It breaks down the great abolitionist’s approach to oratorical mastery, but more specifically, his use of editorial writing techniques like irony and sarcasm, used in short stories and open letters which defined him as a prolific publisher, commentator and reporter on the American problem of slavery.
Over a 20-year period, the uncommon Douglass mastered in traditional press what millions of black folks all over the country today take for granted and excess as powerful tools of mass communication.
The notion of emotion, which Douglass used then to compel the glimmering humanity of white folks, and which we use today to tap the latent rage of black folks, has always been then kindling to light a people against human indecency and injustice.
The audiences and the messaging have changed dramatically over the last 160 years. Douglass spoke then to white folks with money and power, trying to force them to confront the dueling perspectives of owning African people as chattel against the blossoming concept of American democracy.
His famous autobiographical quote, “You have seen how a man was made a slave; you shall see how a slave was made a man,” was then, and remains, the foundation for America to be unsettled by its own pursuit of domestic liberty, while denying the same to a single race of its citizenry.
Black folks today are awakening in growing number to the prospect of getting in formation against injustice, but are compelled to do so mostly after feeling the soul-burning chill of a man shot and bleeding to death in the front seat of a car. Or after wincing at the sight of a sparking, police-issued pistol tearing through a black man’s chest under the pressing heat of a summer night in Baton Rouge.
Journalistically, we all are the descendants of Douglass. Emotion drives our coverage, collectively and across cultural planes of class, education, geography and sexuality. We are photojournalists on Instagram, broadcasters on Facebook Live, YouTube, Periscope, and columnists on Facebook and Twitter; each of us grasping to find the right words, and right ways to make our contributions to the new black press.
We frantically use media to help in calling each other to action, because it helps us to affirm that we’ve done our part in helping others to know what injustice looks like in its most vile and maddening forms.
When I started the HBCU Digest six years ago, I thought that providing honest commentary and regular news on the state of our institutions would encourage students and graduates to take more responsibility for the fate of our schools.
I believed then that the black community would be empowered by seeing the dollars which support our research, the achievements of our students and alumni, the sociopolitical challenges which burn slowly away at our leadership and missions, and the opportunities for black communities nationwide to benefit from these institutions if we learn to invest in them.
I did not consider the lessons Professor Frank Dexter Brown was trying to teach us years ago, when he showed us documentaries on environmental discrimination against black residents in rural Louisiana, or snippets from ‘Eyes on the Prize.’ He taught us that news media which spurs movements isn’t solely built on the facts and opinion of those external forces creating struggle for our people, but rather, chronicling the tears and toil of struggle itself.
I thought objective news would accomplish the goal. I was wrong. Traditional journalism no longer spurs the kind of action we need — it is the unfiltered, biased nature of emancipatory journalism which makes it possible.
The HBCU Digest motto used to be ‘Enlightenment = Empowerment.” Those two terms are no longer separate in the 21st century. In a matter of seconds, a student at Southern University can watch a video of a man being shot at a Baton Rouge convenience store parking lot, share the video with thousands of followers, and organize a march to the scene of the crime and a campus prayer vigil to follow — all before he walks out of his dorm room.
There is a new economy of information, and those who do the most effective job of telling stories and building community around those stories can make a difference as a key influencer for justice. You all, readers, have been telling us, black media publishers and creators, to deliver emotion in whatever forms the message requires.
Black-owned media has suffered over the past 25 years, in part, because we sacrificed that all-important, emotional element of content delivery in exchange for being “standard” by mainstream definitions and models. Yes, we may have been writing about black themes, issues and culture; but we have been beholden to the standards of corporate advertising, and the pressure to attract attention away from other news resources, even though our product remains necessary and exclusively interesting to our audience.
I’ve refused to write for the last three days. Like most black folks nationwide, I deliberately put my own professional and personal interests aside to try and work through the pain of incomprehensible, racialized public deaths with my own family. I’ve tried to piece together what I could do with whatever skill I have to make a difference in our circumstances to help in ending this kind of trauma in our communities.
To this end, I’ve decided that the only convention my journalism, our journalism, truly needs to follow is that which emancipates readers’ minds to cultivate ideas, abandon inhibitions and to act upon concepts which makes our lives enriched and free.
In the coming weeks, the HBCU Digest will be entering a partnership with publishing platform Medium to create more in-depth and multi-media content around HBCU news and culture. Its daily news briefs and updates will be replaced with long-form editorial and podcasts and videos, all designed to construct the HBCU narrative in the way the will get to the heart of what makes HBCUs invaluable, even 150 years after their founding.
Our new motto: The Heart of the HBCU Community.
It will look different, and will be vastly different from the updates to which you may have grown accustomed over the last six years. If you have a Twitter account, I encourage you to create a Medium profile and to join the conversation once the new brand is launched.
You have seen how injustice impacts black media, you shall see how black media impacts injustice.