SPJ21 Journalism Conference: September 2-4, 2021

Join us this September — from wherever you are — for the journalism conference of the year.

Home > Diversity > The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools > Black Americans: The best journalists know their history

The Whole Story: Diversity Tips and Tools

February 7, 2007
Black Americans: The best journalists know their history

What does it mean to be portrayed as a participant in U.S. history? What does it mean to be missing from the American story? That’s what troubled Dr. Carter G. Woodson, an esteemed historian at Harvard University, when he proposed Negro History Week in 1926.

Woodson had founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History in 1915 in order to build a scholarly record that might topple racist falsehoods and bias. But he soon realized that the effort required more than scholarship. The public — both white Americans and African Americans — had little idea of black Americans’ inventions, political leadership, scholarship or cultural achievements. The association extended its work beyond discovery to celebrating and popularizing black people’s contributions to society.

Would this historian view today’s representation of African Americans in the media as honest and accurate? Do we know enough as journalists to tell the shared story of America in its fullness and complexity?

Why not use this month as a reason to pick up a book that might add to your knowledge of African American history? A richer understanding will surely deepen your writing with texture and context, and may even supply some story ideas. Here are some suggested books and resources from SPJ Diversity Committee members and participants in the diversity leadership program:

Mike McQueen, AP Bureau Chief, New Orleans
At Canaan's Edge, Pillar of Fire, or Parting the Waters by Taylor Branch. I have personal and professional reasons for favoring these. Professionally, it's just great storytelling. Personally, it is the most accurate of the civil rights histories I have read. At 50, I am too young to have participated in the southern civil rights movement. But dozens of my relatives did, and they were NAACP leaders and marchers in St. Augustine, Florida, from 1960 until most were run out of town (no one would hire the "troublemakers") in 1965 when the TV cameras left and the Klan reclaimed the city. The terror I saw on their faces and in their voices when I was young and the stories they related to those of us in the family too young, frail or afraid to march is captured with amazing accuracy in each of his books.

George Daniels, assistant professor, University of Alabama
The Souls of Black Folk. This classic by W.E.B. DuBois articulates the experience of the African-Americans 100 years ago, but the truths and concepts are still applicable today. For instance, the concepts of the “talented tenth” and double-consciousness of people of color can be very easily applied to dilemmas involving race and diversity.

Split Image: African-Americans in the Mass Media by Jannette L. Dates and William Barlow. This book provides a good overview of black history as it relates to the mass media-- both print and broadcast. It's a must-read for anyone in journalism, regardless of your racial background. It's just full of need-to-know information.

Beth Haller, associate professor, Towson University
The Sweeter the Juice: A Family Memoir in Black and White by Shirlee Taylor Haizlip. An excellent exploration of how race is "constructed" in American society and how we are really all one family.

Venise Wagner, associate department chair, San Francisco State University
Two novels: Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison captures the difficulty of African Americans claiming an individual identity. It is still poignant and relevant today. Beloved by Toni Morrison speaks to the legacy of slavery in contemporary times.

Sally Lehrman, independent science and medical writer
The science fiction novel Kindred, by Octavia Butler. In this book, Butler confronts modern readers with the historical reality of slavery in the U.S. and challenges us to think deeply about our relationship to it.

America is Me, by Kennell Jackson. A wonderful compendium to pick up when the mood strikes and learn a little bit of truth about black American history.

The Eyes on the Prize Civil Rights Reader, edited by Clayborne Carson, David J. Garrow, Gerald Gill, Vincent Harding and Darlene Clark Hine. The story of the struggle for equality through the words of those who lived it.

Curtis Lawrence, professor, Columbia College Chicago
Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete by William C. Rhoden. I have not yet read this book, which touches on the role of black athletes in America, but I found it through a student who was engrossed in the book.

Deb Wenger, associate professor, Virginia Commonwealth University
In My Place, by Charlayne Hunter-Gault. The former national correspondent for MacNeil-Lehrer talks about growing up, including being one of two black students to originally desegregate the University of Georgia in the ‘60s. The book reminds me that there are a lot of folks who had to travel a hard road to success in journalism.

Gene Murray, mass communication professor, Grambling State University
Racism, Sexism, and the Media, third edition, by Clint C.Wilson II, Felix Gutierrez and Lena M. Chao, Sage Publications, 2003. This text covers various diversity issues in a multicultural America, and I believe journalists and educators should be exposed to these.

Although it is getting old, Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, and Rastus: Blacks in Advertising, Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow by Marilyn Kern-Foxworth is useful for its thorough coverage of minority advertising through the years. Channeling Blackness: Studies on Television and Race in America by Darnell M. Hunt adds a broadcast perspective. Ethnic Media in America, Vols. 1-3, by Guy T. Meiss and Alice A. Tait, Kendall Hunt, is a collection of essays on topics concerning the press and diversity issues.

A History of the Black Press by Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II, Howard University Press, 1997. My favorite, but out of date.

A companion Diversity Toolbox provides a comprehensive set of links to journalism diversity resources and institutions. Accompanying essays offer principles and strategies for improving stories from conception on through to reporting and writing.

Your suggestions and comments welcome. Contact Sally Lehrman, your national diversity chair, at slehrman(at)bestwrit.com.

Join SPJ
Join SPJWhy join?

Advertise with SPJ
Advertise with SPJ