Making Black Quotidian
Earlier this year the Chicago Defender, a legendary black newspaper, published its final print edition after 114 years and made the decision to focus exclusively on digital content. At its peak in the late 1920s, the newspaper claimed a circulation of over 250,000, but in the 2010s The Defender’s had only 16,000 print subscribers, while the newspaper’s website recorded 450,000 unique visitors each month. “It is an economic decision,” Hiram Jackson, chief executive of Real Times Media, which owns The Defender and several other black newspapers, told the New York Times. “But it’s more an effort to make sure The Defender has another 100 years.”
In the three years I have been working on Black Quotidian: Everyday History in African-American Newspapers I have been thinking a lot about the history, legacy, and future of the black press. Black newspapers were important to readers because they covered a wide range of news related to politics, civil rights, sports, arts and culture. This was important because most mainstream white newspapers did not treat black people as equal citizens in the cities or country in which they lived. Through much of the twentieth century, if you picked up a big city newspaper like the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, or Los Angeles Times, you would have no idea that those cities had thriving African-American communities. While millions of African Americans lived in these cities, the mainstream newspapers carried only a handful of stories about black people. And the stories that did appear were often sensationalized crime stories. In contrast, African-American newspapers were dedicated to recording and sharing stories about the everyday joys, struggles, and complexities of black life. Looking through the archives of these newspapers it is clear that Black lives mattered everyday in papers such as the Chicago Defender, Pittsburgh Courier, Los Angeles Sentinel, and New York Amsterdam News. And when African-American newspapers openly advocated for the humanity of black people, they also made it clear that mainstream white newspapers were not politically neutral.
I chose to focus on African-American newspapers because I wanted to focus on the lives, and not only the deaths, of black people.
While Black Quotidian includes posts about iconic figures such as Carter G. Woodson, Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman, I also try to call attention to people and events that are not commonly featured in textbooks, documentaries, or Black History Month celebrations. From January 2016 to January 2017, each day I posted at least one black newspaper article from that date in history, accompanied by brief commentary. The digital publication now includes introductory chapters on the history of the black press, more than 365 daily posts (including guest posts from scholars and students), and more than 1,000 media objects, which are arranged in flexible pathways that enable readers to explore the text and media in different ways.
Black Quotidian developed as a response to researching and teaching African-American history in the era of Black Lives Matter. As a teacher, I have tried to offer my students historical context to understand police shootings of black people and the implications of viral videos of these killings circulating on social media, but I am concerned that my students only see black history as a story of tragedy and struggle, without appreciating the joyous complexity of everyday black lives and communities. For Black Quotidian, I chose to focus on African-American newspapers because I wanted to focus on the lives, and not only the deaths, of black people. Violence against black people was a frequent topic in black newspapers, but so too were debutante balls, dentists, dolls, and discos. Taking the ordinary aspects of African-American history seriously means recognizing the richness and diversity of black culture and history. By emphasizing that black history can be mundane, not only triumphant or tragic, Black Quotidian offers a thematically diverse foundation from which to research and teach African-American history.
Claiming the right of black people to experience and enjoy the mundane aspects of daily life has taken on a renewed resonance in an era marked by quotidian violence, fear, and mourning. “Though the white liberal imagination likes to feel temporarily bad about black suffering,” poet Claudia Rankin writes, “there really is no mode of empathy that can replicate the daily strain of knowing that as a black person you can be killed for simply being black: no hands in your pockets, no playing music, no sudden movements, no driving your car, no walking at night, no walking in the day, no turning onto this street, no entering this building, no standing your ground, no standing here, no standing there, no talking back, no playing with toy guns, no living while black.”
Seeing ordinary black lives is difficult because it runs counter to dominant models for depicting black people in American media and popular culture. Rembert Browne makes this point in a New York Times essay (with accompanying photographs by Andre Wagner of ordinary black New Yorkers). Browne argues that featuring traditional icons in Black History Month “supports the misleading narrative that a few exceptional people and their acts are the de facto history of black America, rendering the stories of the ordinary as invisible.” In this case, the visibility of black icons is coupled with an erasure of everyday stories of black people. “Our country knows how to concern itself with these huge figures in black America — people who are long gone, or alive but well out of reach,” Browne argues. “This same America, however, has no idea what to do with the average, ordinary black American.” The illegibility of ordinary black Americans is a part of a larger racial system that denies the humanity of black people and deems their lives to be of less value than their white peers. During the digital era, social media has been an important place to assert the humanity of average black people. Black newspapers were an important precedent for Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr, and other forms of social media because the black press carried the full panoply of news, from elections and civil rights protests, to dances and sporting events, to birth announcements and funerals.
Digital history represents a new way to continue traditions that have long been important for scholars of African-American history and culture. Early practitioners, such as Carter G. Woodson, who founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History (ASNLH) in 1915 and initiated Negro History Week in 1926, viewed African-American history as a communal endeavor that required popular participation. For decades, teachers, preachers, and parents could write to Woodson and the ASNLH in Washington D.C. to request pamphlets and educational materials on black history. Scholars in the digital era, such as Keisha N. Blain, P. Gabrielle Foreman, Jessica Marie Johnson, Mark Anthony Neal, Alondra Nelson, and Marissa Parham, have been similarly creative with regard to networking and circulating knowledge. Drawing on these deep traditions in African-American Studies, Black Quotidian uses digital tools and methods to explore black history and cultures in new ways and to bring these materials to audiences within and beyond the academy.
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Matthew F. Delmont is the Sherman Fairchild Distinguished Professor of History at Dartmouth College.