Black History Month: Black Journalists

The inaugural issue of the first ever African American newspaper, Freedom’s Journal, appeared in March 1827.  Its stirring front-page editorial stated “Too long have others spoken for us. Too long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations”, encapsulating the truth that the experiences, needs and ideas of black people could only be expressed through the voices, pens and printing presses of black people. Black journalism has a fascinating and illustrious history, through which a rich tradition of brilliant minds sought to wrest the narrative of black experience from the dominant white commentators, fight the battle against racism and advance the cause of liberation.

As the earliest journalists recognised, no war could be waged – whether against the slave trade, which would continue for another four decades after the birth of Freedom’s Journal, or against lynching, the deprivation of civil rights, racist miscarriages of justice, institutional racism in the criminal justice system, government, and society generally – without a press created by and for black people. Newspapers were the way for individuals and communities to communicate with each other and challenge the racist misinformation that distorted the reality they knew.
Campaigns of huge political importance were carried out through their pages, debates shaped, and injustice exposed. They also fulfilled people’s need for entertainment and leisure at a time when black people could only find themselves depicted in stereotypical caricatures in white media. In this month’s display of books from our Special Collection of Biographies at Kensington Central Library, we mark Black History Month by looking at the stories of some of the most fascinating figures in black journalism.

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Some of the biggest names in 20th century black literature, whose stories can be found in our collection, worked as journalists – the poet Langston Hughes was a columnist for Abbott’s Chicago Defender (see below), and the novelist Zora Neale Hurston [pic 1] was also a reporter (one of her most famous pieces of journalism was her reporting of the 1952 trial in Florida of Ruby McCollum, the black woman convicted of murdering the white doctor and “pillar of the community” who abused her over many years).

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Lorraine Hansberry, [pic 2] the writer of the celebrated play A Raisin in the Sun wrote for the black newspaper Freedom, which was published by legendary singer and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Claudia Jones [pic 3], who founded the Notting Hill Carnival, set up the UK’s first black newspaper, The West Indian Gazette.

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Anyone who has watched the wonderful Mangrove film in the Small Axe series of films by Steve McQueen will have seen the brief appearance of C.L.R. James, played by Derek Griffiths.

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James [pic 4] was one of the most important journalists and historians of the period; he immigrated to Lancashire from Trinidad in 1932 and subsequently moved to London, where he wrote for many newspapers and was a leading figure in Marxist politics.  In the late 50s James returned to Trinidad and became the editor of The Nation newspaper, though he spent the last years of his life back in the UK, living in Brixton. James was also an expert on cricket and was cricket correspondent of the Manchester Guardian (now the Guardian) in the early 1930s. Huge names of black history like W. E. B. Du Bois and Marcus Garvey were also journalists, but in this blog post I would like to focus on a few names that may be less well known.

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Robert Sengstacke Abbott was born in Georgia, USA in 1868; his parents had been enslaved until not long before his birth. [pic 5]
After practising as a lawyer, in 1905 he founded The Chicago Defender newspaper, which went on to become the most widely read black-owned newspaper. Having himself made the journey from the South to Chicago, Abbott was passionate about what is known as “The Great Migration”, which saw many black people relocate from the Southern to the Northern United States to escape rural poverty and the horrific “Jim Crow” system of racial segregation.  (During the first wave of this, between 1916 and 1940, 1.6 million black people resettled in the North.)  Abbott used his newspaper to inspire others to make this journey, as he felt black people could have the opportunity to improve their circumstances only when they left the terrible conditions of the South behind. At the same time, he saw all too clearly that racism was also a huge problem in the North, and campaigned for equal civil rights, the end of discrimination in employment and education, and the end of persecution of mixed-race couples. Black railway porters, who in 1925 were to form the first official trade union led by African Americans, increased the paper’s circulation by distributing it on trains. It is estimated that at its most popular, the paper was read by four out of five of all black adults in the entire United States.  (The paper still thrives 116 years after Abbott founded it, though two years ago it became online only.) We have a rare early biography of Abbott, written in 1955 by another African American journalist, Roi Ottley, whose career took off in the 1930s and who went on to become the first African American correspondent to file reports on World War Two for major national newspapers.

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Born in Jamaica in 1941, Barbara Blake Hannah [pic 6] had been a TV newsreader and a contributor to a magazine run by her father Evon Blake (founder of the Press Association of Jamaica) before she arrived in the UK in 1964 and became a prolific journalist, her work being published in many national newspapers and magazines. In 1968 she became the first black reporter on Thames Television’s first regional news programme, London-based Today. Blake-Hannah interviewed many famous people, but what then transpired is a disgraceful indictment – viewers complained about having a black reporter on the programme, and rather than defending her, Thames Television dismissed her without explanation. She went on to work on a local news programme in Birmingham, commuting from London as no hotel in Birmingham would admit her. She also worked as a researcher on the BBC’s prestigious documentary series “Man Alive.”  In 1972, Blake-Hannah returned to Jamaica to work on the ground-breaking film The Harder they Come. She has written extensively about Rastafarianism and was the first Rastafarian senator in the Jamaican Parliament for three years in the 80s.  She is now the Chief Executive of the Jamaica Film Academy.  Her autobiography Growing Out: Black Hair & Black Pride In The Swinging Sixties came out in 2016 and describes her experience in the UK.

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Una Marson [pic 7] was an extraordinary woman who dese. Born in 1905 in rural Jamaica, she escaped her strict upbringing (her father was a Baptist minister) and was already a prolific journalist, playwright and poet by the time she was in her early twenties (at 21 she was assistant editor of The Jamaica Critic and by 23 she had set up her own magazine, the first Jamaican woman ever to do so).  She came alone to the UK while still not yet 30 and threw herself into the world of black activism and feminism, travelled in Europe, the USA and Israel, and met such important figures as Paul Robeson and Haile Salassie. She worked alongside George Orwell as a BBC producer during the Second World War, the first ever black woman to be employed by the corporation.  From 1942 she produced the BBC radio programme Calling the West Indies; she recreated it as Caribbean Voices, which ran for 15 years and showcased the work of important literary figures including Derek Walcott and V. S. Naipaul.  She is considered to be the first major female Caribbean poet and a key voice in the development of feminism.

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Finally, George Lamming, who is now 94 years old, was one of those who read Walcott’s poetry on Caribbean Voices produced by Una Marson. [pic 8] In 1951 he came to London from Barbados and began broadcasting for the BBC, and he wrote for the Barbadian magazine BIM. In the late 60s he embarked on an academic career in Jamaica and has been a visiting professor at universities throughout the USA and Australia.  His book In the Castle of My Skin was written during his first couple of years in the UK, and though often classified as a novel, it is included in our Special Collection of Biographies because it is considered to be an autobiographical evocation of Lamming’s childhood and youth in Barbados. It is an exquisitely written book, which gives a unique insight into his home island at a particular moment in its history.

This black history month, we hope you will enjoy finding out more about these and other unique individuals from the history of black journalism [pic 9], inextricably interwoven into the history of activism, literature, politics, and culture.

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Don’t forget to check out our BioEpic podcast, available on all major podcast platforms- Claudia at Kensington Central Library.


LGBT+ History Month

One of the most exciting things about our Special Collection of Biographies is the opportunity to discover wonderful writers that are often hard to come across in other places.  In honour of LGBT+ History Month, I’ll focus on four brilliant autobiographical voices of the mid twentieth century who were once well known but who have sadly faded from view (they should all be household names, in my opinion)!  All were gay, and given the times in which they wrote, references to their sexuality are woven through their work in very different ways, from oblique and coded “in jokes”, to more direct engagements with their experiences of relationships against the background of a bigoted society. They would not have wanted their work to be defined soley as representing their sexuality, as would not be the case with heterosexual writers – but they write about their sexuality in ways that tell us a lot about the society they inhabited and the experience of LGBT people within it.

I first discovered Denton Welch’s heartbreaking, hilarious voice in his memoir A Voice Through A Cloud, posthumously published in 1950, which describes his cycling accident aged 20 – he sustained injuries that changed his life and led to his death at 33.  In Maiden Voyage and In Youth is Pleasure, Welch smuggles in references to his sexuality which though necessarily hidden in plain sight, are full of joy and a commitment to self-expression.  He delights in meeting men under the radar of tediously conventional relatives (and it is important to remember the huge risks men ran at the time, when persecutory laws meant blackmail and prosecution were constant dangers).  Under a stylish and often very funny surface is a narrative of courageous self-affirmation: Welch is always uncompromisingly himself. He was also a wonderful painter, and his idiosyncratic voice was admired by figures such as Edith Sitwell, William Burroughs and Alan Bennett.  His diaries from 1942 to 1948 are a unique record of a Bohemian world.

R. Ackerley joined the BBC in 1928 and helped set up the influential Talks Department. From 1935 to 1959 he was literary editor of The Listener, the BBC magazine which was a cultural institution.

He was a man of great learning and, like Welch, a wonderful writer.  We have volumes of his diaries and correspondence – and the memoirs Hindoo Holiday (1932), describing his time serving as an Indian Maharaja’s secretary and  My Dog Tulip (1956) about his relationship with his beloved dog Queenie.   We Think the World of You (1960) is a novel, but was based on his own passionate relationship, across the class divide, with a petty criminal who remained married; they were very different characters and significant hearbreak accrued from their irresolvable tensions, but Ackerley writes with subtlety and honesty about their affair, and his surprising friendship with his lover’s wife.  He also wrote about the extraordinarily strange story of his father (who had another hidden family – the daughter of this secret menage, Diana Petrie, wrote a fabulous book about it, which we also have in the collection) – as well as a moving memoir of his troubled, exasperating but adored sister.

The American poet and novelist May Sarton wrote 13 volumes of memoir, between 1959 and 1996, all of which we have in our collection (one with a beautiful personal inscription in her handwriting).  They are vivid immersions in her experience of the natural world, and in the patterns and processes of her own intellectual and emotional life. Her love for Judith Matlack is a subject she returns to often.  Sarton wrote movingly about the courage it took to portray lesbian characters in her novels, which in the 60s were studied by feminist academics.  She declared her hope that she not be looked upon predominantly as a lesbian writer, but simply as a writer who engaged with the universal themes of human love.  But it is undeniable that her writing about erotic love between women was enormously important in giving it parity with heterosexual love stories and letting tenderness and lyricism challenge concealment and shame.

Lorraine Hansberry is probably the best known of these four writers, due to recent revivals of her seminal play A Raisin in the Sun, with which she became the first African American woman to have a play performed on Broadway at the age of just 29.  She was a key figure in the pan-African intellectual movement, and had friendships with other giants of the African-American artistic and political scene such as Paul Robeson and Langston Hughes.  James Baldwin was a close friend and devotee and declared her work to be ground breaking, and Martin Luther King was an admirer who expected her to inspire future generations.  She inspired Nina Simone with her play To be Young, Gifted and Black, which is also the title of her autobiography.

Hansberry married a man, Robert Nemiroff, and did not reveal her true sexuality due to anxiety about the hostility she might face.  However, as she moved into her thirties, she moved towards coming out, describing herself as “committed to this homosexuality thing” – this wasn’t straightforward in the early 60s, but Hansberry had relationships with women and a circle of gay friends.  She expressed the resolution to “create my life—not just accept it” – tragically, she shared Welch’s fate of dying in her early 30s.  Huge though her achievements were, it is tantalising to think what more she might have achieved, and what her searing intelligence might have added to debates on racial and sexual politics as the decades moved on.

The struggle for equality for LGBT+ people is far from over, and the fight against prejudice must continue.  But these four writers shed light on the huge pressures on gay people in the twentieth century to keep their true voices silent and their true loves hidden, and how people of artistic genius negotiated these pressures.  I hope you will enjoy getting to know them better through our collection.


Claudia, Central Library Basement Biography Store