When we consider the historic role of journalist amond Black people, we are left with the deep conviction that, for Black people, the necessities of the time demand that activism must play a role in the performance of the profession.
It must be so, I argue, then – in our not-too-distant past – and now, in our troubled present, for to fail to do so leaves our people at the not-too-tender mercies of a system that has demonstrated a kind of vehemence and animosity that few populations in America have suffered from.
For ultimately, a profession is just that – a claim to act a certain way in the world, according to certain stated norms and codes that a certain area of employment must abide by.
Except in the long history of Black America, we know better.
We must know, as did the esteemed Black journalist, Frederick Douglass, that a constitution written on parchment would differ greatly from government and legal practice, when it came to Black people. They were promises: promises broken and unfulfilled for over a century, after the Supreme Court decided in the Plessy decision that ‘separate but equal’ was good enough. Black journalist Ida B. Wells-Barnett worked long and hard to bring light to the lies used to justify lynching’s against Black people. So much so that, according to recent scholarship, she was shunned and avoided by leading lights of the early civil rights movement, who regarded her as too militant’ too outspoken.
Meanwhile, under the Hayes-Tilden gentlemen’s agreement, white terrorism, expressed by lynching was the peculiar American custom that wasn’t spoken of in polite society. So, quietly (except for Wells) Black bodies hung and burned by the thousands — across America, the courts and law deeming it mere local custom, beyond their control.
When we enter the modern era, we see a panorama of Black pain that is as unprecedented as it is silent. I speak of mass incarceration, the targeting, imprisonment and criminalization of dark people in ways (and in numbers) the world has never seen. For decades.
And, until recent days, the silence -even among Black journalists – has been deafening. Recently the New York Times has editorialized against it. How many Black newspapers have done so?
Why not? Professionalism? A false objectivity?
The late historian, Howard Zinn, for years decried the notion of professionalism. In a speech in Colorado in 2006, Zinn said:
‘We all go into professions where you’re supposed to be professional. And to be professional means that you don’t step outside of your profession. If you’re an artist, you don’t take a stand on political issues. If you’re a professor, you don’t give your opinions in the classroom. If you’re a newspaperman, you pretend to be objective in presenting the news. But, of course, it’s all false. You cannot be neutral.’
In Zinn’s words, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.”
As journalists, the choices before you are actually quite clear. Follow the dictates of your bosses; or serve the interests of your people.
Black America, in the main, lives a life of hell – daily. For them, freedom is a word, but prison is inevitability. For them, civil rights are a mirage, and daily humiliations are a certainty.
For all the powers of the State are arrayed against them.
They know this – as do we, but such lived realities rarely flow from our pens, our mouths or our fingers.
So, we write dross on the life-styles of the rich and famous. Or some blathering from a politician.
While our people suffer.
The choice, for any journalist, should be clear.
Thank you, NABJ.