By: MARK FITZGERALD
WHEN NATION OF Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan used his keynote address to the National Association of Black Journalists as an opportunity to denounce African Americans in mainstream media newsrooms as “you slave writers, you slave media,” most NABJ members did not appear to take him seriously, and many of the rest were simply offended.
Yet, later in the 21st convention of the nation’s largest association of journalists of color, the issue of being a black opinion maker at a mainstream newspaper was addressed with far more seriousness ? and nearly as much passion ? than Farrakhan brought to the topic.
As more African Americans write bylined columns or unsigned editorials for mainstream newspapers, increasing numbers face a dilemma: how to maintain their “authentic” black voice while writing for majority-owned papers and white audiences in a more politically and fiscally conservative time.
One panel discussion of African-American newspaper columnists termed the topic simply, “Thinking Black.”
“The fact is, if it were not for black columnists who are thinking black, many of these [social] issues would not arise” in American newspapers, said Betty Baye, columnist for the Louisville Courier-Journal.
And there can be a palpable difference in newspapers who make room for black thought and those that don’t, one columnist said.
“I went to the Orange County Register from the Oakland Tribune. It was the [Robert] Maynard Tribune. You didn’t have to think black ? you just thought,” said Miki Turner.
It was another story at the Register, Turner said. No editor ever told her any topics were off limits, she said. And her supervising editor applauded her first effort, a controversial column about the discomforts of being black in notoriously republican Orange County.
Nevertheless, Turner said, “I found as I really started thinking black in my column, the more resistance came my way.”
Turner recently quit the paper.
Boston Globe columnist Derrick Jackson traced a similarly schizophrenic reaction among his colleagues from his very first column, an attack on then-presidential candidate Mike Dukakis for campaigning without comment at a Mississippi county fair notorious for its segregationist history.
“The reaction on the one hand was ‘Wow’ . . . On the other hand, it was ‘Uh-oh. What’s next?’ Jackson said.
This dual reaction ? and the dual audience African-American columnists address ? can paralyze some opinion writers, said Newsday assistant managing editor Les Payne, a columnist since 1983. He told the story of an unnamed prominent black columnist who privately shared many of Payne’s political views, and published nothing like them in his pieces.
The reason, the columnist told Payne: “I keep one eye on my white audience and another on my bosses.”
What black columnists should do instead, Payne said, is learn their craft by reading great white and black writers, and then adding their own voice.
“We can learn techniques and approaches from white artists, but authenticity in this racist society demands that we develop our own perspective and wage our own campaign ourselves,” Payne said.
It is worth the effort, Payne argued. Reading a long list of prominent white columnists past and present, he said, “Where are the black counterpoints to these well-known, influential and rich columnists? I think we need to begin making sure that we field a counterforce to the white viewpoint in the media not just this year, but for generations to come.
“We are really talking the high end,” Payne said. “Not only in terms of compensation, but power and influence.”
African-American journalists already have one advantage in infusing their work with “black thinking,” the Boston Globe’s Jackson said.
“We already are using mainstream language,” Jackson said. “We don’t talk like we might be playing bid whist around the table at night.”
?(“We can learn techniques and approaches from white artists, but authenticity in this racist society demands that we develop our own perspective and wage our own campaign ourselves.”) [Caption]
?(? Les Payne, Newsday assistant managing editor and columnist) [Photo & Caption]