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.

Biographies from the Basement

At Kensington Central Library, we are fortunate in having the largest special collection of biographies in the country (and possibly further afield!) – 85,000 volumes of published biographical material: biography, autobiography, collections of letters, diaries, journals and speeches.

We are delighted to have reopened the library, and it is possible for you to borrow books from the Biography Collection once again (as our regular readers will know, the collection is never open for direct browsing access to the public, but all except our most fragile books may be borrowed). To minimise staff trips to the store while our one-way system is in place, we have organised timed collections of books.  These will take place at 12pm and 5pm Monday to Friday, and at 12pm and 4pm on Saturdays.  Please email your requests to libraries@rbkc.gov.uk

With the social distancing measures we are currently taking in the library, it won’t be possible to have our normal monthly display of books from the collection. In this blog I will have a fortnightly look at a book, and will sometimes take the opportunity to showcase (virtually!) one of our most interesting, quirky or unusual volumes.  I will also feature a cover and an inscription. In every post I’ll include an extract of the biography of someone who lived in Kensington or Chelsea at some point – see if you can identify the person!  Hope you enjoy it.

 

Claudia, Kensington Central Library

 

Biography of the Week

Dust Tracks on a Road: An Autobiography

By Zora Neale Hurston

“I have been in Sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows with a harp and a sword in my hands.”

When I first discovered Zora Neale Hurston’s writing in my early 20s, I was bowled over – the copy of her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God I borrowed from Hammersmith Library opened up a world where poetic images tumbled and glittered like fragments of foil in a kaleidoscope, moving so quickly that I often had to revisit sentences to savour the impact.  But the writing was never self-conscious or showy, and Hurston’s underlying voice was perfectly controlled, generous and vital, sharp as a scalpel.  The power and inventiveness of her metaphors was such that I still remember some of them all these years later.

In 1942, at the same time as E. B. White was writing the essays we looked at last time, Hurston published Dust Tracks on a Road, her autobiography.  By this time, aged nearly 50, Hurston was a giant of the African American literary and scholarly scene, not only a writer of fiction but a leading anthropologist of African-American and Caribbean folklore.

She was a key figure in the Harlem Renaissance, the explosion of African-American creativity which produced ground breaking art, literature, culture and commentary, centred on Harlem in the 1920s, but in later years she received less and less attention and had faded into the realms of forgotten writers by the time she died in 1960.  Opinion had been divided about her use of dialect in her novels – some felt it was a crude caricature of the speech patterns of her community, which risked feeding into racist stereotypes; others believed it was a way of celebrating the poetic cadences of the American South and exploring the way language enriches and subverts.  Her later work looked at class and gender and how they shaped the lives of disadvantaged women, both black and white.

In 1975, the writer Alice Walker led the way to a rediscovery of her work, which was rightfully placed at the forefront of American literature.  In the 80s, the publisher Virago which was dedicated to making unjustly neglected out-of-print women writers available brought her autobiography out in a British edition, which is the one we have.  Hurston brings the same sparkling prose to her own life story, the story of a woman finding her inimitable voice against all the odds presented by poverty and racism. It resonates with her energy and genius, and I found it no easier to put down than that novel I first read 30 years ago.

The covers of our books can be wonderful examples of particular fashions in graphic design. And it’s always intriguing finding inscriptions in books – some are dedications by the author, some are intimate messages commemorating the giving of a gift. This week’s cover and inscription are from the same book – Memoir of Edwin Bainbridge by Thomas Darlington, published by Morgan and Scott in 1888.  Bainbridge, aged 22, was one of the 120 victims of the eruption of Mount Tarawera, on the North Island of New Zealand, on 10th June 1886. He had been travelling the world, and died at his hotel. His old school friend Darlington set about interviewing everyone who had known him to present this tribute to his life and heroic death (survivors of the eruption remembered him leading prayers to comfort and fortify them).

The binding is an elaborate one very typical of the period, with gilt lettering and a detailed image of Tarawera.  The inscription inside reads “To dear Willie on his fifth birthday, July 2nd 1889. G. B. Saltash”.   It seems extraordinary to us that such a sombre book should have been presented to a five-year-old. Presumably G. S. Saltash considered it a duty to inspire little Wille with the austere example of the classic ideal of Victorian manhood that Darlington evokes – self-sacrificing, valiant in the face of danger, pious and athletic.  We recognise this type as a quintessential Victorian idea, and a key component of the triumphalist mythology of Empire.  I feel rather sorry for poor Willie – I can’t help thinking he might have preferred one of the colourful illustrated books of nursery rhymes or fairy tales that were popular at the time.

The last extract describing the life of a resident of Kensington was from Queen Victoria by E. Gordon Browne, published in 1915.  Victoria always emphasised the simplicity of her upbringing, and Browne quotes her as saying: 

“I was brought up very simply—never had a room to myself till I was nearly grown up—always slept in my mother’s room till I came to the throne.”

 Can you identify the subject of the following extract?  (A clue: it’s an artist and it’s the late nineteeth century).

“In his garden he had a motley collection of animals, peacocks, armadilloes, the wombat, woodchuck, or Canadian marmot, and other outlandish creatures, including the famous zebu.”