Watching and, frankly, enjoying the unapologetically hagiographic network television tributes to the semi-retired Judy Woodruff and newly-deceased Barbara Walters over the weekend, and then waking up to this Juan Gonzalez speech on Democracy Now!, shows how stark differences in mainstream American journalism can be–or at least, used to be, pre-Web and pre-1,000 channels. I accept my membership in Juan’s camp. But it’s clear to do today and tomorrow what he did means using Substack, etc. Effective mainstream journalism has this weird history of coming out of the American muckraking and capitalist traditions, and the millions made by mass advertising created a lot of space for approaches that don’t exist today. So you have to make them yourself, the way I.F. Stone and those folks did.
What’s also interesting to me is how in America, “alternative” spaces, if created by middle-class whites, can eventually become mainstream–or, as some critics of the mainstream would say, co-opted. We remember that at its creation almost 50 years ago, The MacNeil/Lehrer Report and All Things Considered, the newsmagazine of National Public Radio, were silent critiques of, and alternatives to, commercial mainstream news. (Note that among NPR’s alumni is former Philadelphia radio journalist and now Leftist legend Mumia Abu-Jamal.) Almost 30 years ago, Democracy Now! was a radical, almost anarchist critique of the million-dollar media institution it now is. 😉 I guess it now sees itself through that Gonzalez lens of outsider-within-the-inside. Which makes me think: is the middle-class, millionaire blond public television anchor Judy Woodruff just a “purer” version of her commercial counterpart, the long-ago-gone-Hollywood Barbara Walters? It’s a good, fair question.
In 2023 and beyond, more and more truthtellers must struggle with Amiri Baraka’s words, applied to race but easily, in this monochromatic circumstance, given to class:
I know it’s hard to be Black, and we’re all controlled by white folks.
[W.E.B.] Du Bois said we always have the double consciousness.
We’re trying to be Black, and meanwhile you got a white ghost hovering over your head that says, “If you don’t do this, you’ll get killed. If you don’t do this, you won’t get no money. If you don’t do this, nobody’ll think you’re beautiful. If you don’t do this, nobody’ll think you’re smart.”
That’s the ghost.
You’re trying to be Black and the ghost is telling you to be a ghost.
Imagine what you want then get out of the way Remember energy follows thought so be careful what you say So be careful what you ask for Make sure it’s really what you want Because your mind is made for thinking And energy follows thought
“You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you.” –Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
While watching Serena struggle through her last (?) second set last night, I got the news update on my phone: Barbara Ehrenreich had died. That nonfiction champion of working people was 81, 41 years older than the history-breaking wonder woman I was watching on ESPN.
I immediately went back to Williams because it’s consistently amazing to watch her form and spirit, even when she loses. And I confess I had been watching the U.S. Open all week to see how she would lose, how she would leave the field and then go to—what’s her word?—oh, yeah, “evolve.”
It’s a very reflective time for me because it’s the silver anniversary of someone who once yearned to be smart yet did a real dumb thing: leave a fulltime job to go to graduate school. Thirty years ago, give or take a week, when I was much less foolish and reckless than I am now, I decided to leave home and become a writer. I am so grateful for my life of failure that resulted from that decision.
When I decided to ditch covering Newark, N.J. mayors for mastering decimal numbers at Maryland and D.C. libraries, Bill Clinton hadn’t yet been elected and The Dark Knight and the X-Men had just made the jump into serious FOX Kids network animation. Will Smith was still the Fresh Prince and Serena and Venus were white Roman goddesses found in mythology books.
Here’s what I didn’t know back then:
You can’t enter a penthouse from the outside, because there are neither outdoor stairs nor a side door.
Writing is like golf; like Smith says in my favorite movie of his, you can’t win, you can only play. It’s not a career because there’s no future with it; it’s something that belongs only to the present–you do it full-time until it’s no longer feasible and viable.
Writing’s friend is also its enemy: stealing calm and stillness, even sacrificing it.
Is giving up or staying the course nature or nurture? Ta-Nehisi Coates, a man whose father told me once drove a cab, said on some Facebook video I once saw that people don’t fulfill their writing ambitions because they give up. Because that was Winner Advice, which is by its nature dishonest, he didn’t say why they give up. In a famous 2009 graduation address to the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, Ehrenreich was more forthcoming: “You are going to be trying to carve out a career in the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression. You are furthermore going to be trying to do so within what appears to be a dying industry. You have abundant skills and talents – it’s just not clear that anyone wants to pay you for them.”
Every single time I force myself twice monthly to pay a very nice woman to clean my apartment, I remember the line Ehrenreich dropped that scared me the most (and still does): “You won’t get rich, unless of course you develop a sideline in blackmail or bank robbery. You’ll be living some of the problems you report on – the struggle for health insurance, for child care, for affordable housing. You might never have a cleaning lady. In fact, you might be one. I can’t tell you how many writers I know who have moonlighted as cleaning ladies or waitresses. And you know what? They were good writers. And good cleaning ladies too, which is no small thing.”
By the time the famous author said this, Williams was still grand-slamming on the way to GOAT status and I was a lifer, still searching for literary immortality in a post-literate culture, armed with nothing but graduate degrees, the memorized arcs of a 1989 James Baldwin documentary and the Alex Haley episodes of Roots: The Next Generations, and a six-figure student loan debt. I had not yet accepted that writing doesn’t exist in the real world where people pay serious dues every day to ensure their survival. Unless you are in the Talented Tenth it’s an invisible, irrelevant profession. Don’t believe me? On May 23rd of this year, I went online and got my Wu-Tang clan-generated name: PHANTOM ARTIST. Yeah! Um, wait…. On August 22nd, I went back to try a second time, wary as 55 approaches next year. Wu-Tang renamed me LUCKLESS HOODOO. I accept my fate.
The destinies of other scribes happily cross over into the academy. All the living writers I followed as a 20-something are journalism professors now—most at Howard University, Hampton University and the place I got let go from 10 years ago next spring, Morgan State University. I learned during my six MSU years that being a professor is not a writingjob. I was taught in the 20th century that if you want to go write, write; If you want to make writing your fun nights-weekends-and-summer hobby, the analog mantra went, go be a professor. Twenty-two years into somewhere else, reality can be quite a witch when compared to memory. Other than my mentor Herb Boyd (himself a part-time professor for decades) and my friend Richard Prince, the only full-time writer I follow in 2022 has been in prison for 40 years.
For some there is only one path. Williams never gave up, never surrendered. Neither did Ehrenreich. But on the other hand, if you are not like them–either not the very best or not in that opportunity zone–that survival move and mode, I now know, slowly turns into professional evolution and eventual advancement in the real world outside your window. Thirty years later, pretty much everybody I know evolved well: they either/and: a) know what it’s like to get a promotion; b) make six figures or near it, c) have a house paid off and/or d) are fantastic and proud parents.
Ehrenreich and Williams have shared that accomplishment story, and on their own terms. They have inspired many who, like myself, will never get higher than fifth place in life’s Olympics—who will remain invisible to history but fulfilled in the private spaces. That in itself is a GOAT-level accomplishment.
Admittedly, I’m not an average person when it comes to the Black press, so I can’t relate. As a ’80s teenager, I read Ethel Payne in real-time in the newspaper I started my career at, The New Jersey Afro-American! (“You know because you read THE AFRO” was the newspaper chain’s motto 🙂 ) My Afro’s Op-Ed page was “national,” not local, and so that meant it was added on to local editions like ours by the Baltimore headquarters. Payne had an Op-Ed column there, “Behind The Scenes.” And because the Black press is so self-referential, whenever she was honored, they’d tell her history. At 22, I had also read the 2nd edition of Roland Wolseley’s The Black Press, USA, a flawed-but-important book that shaped my decision three decades ago to become a Black media historian. Of course it mentions her, as does later a much better general-history book written by historian Clint C. Wilson II.
Yeah, I wish prominent Black people in public would stop being so honest about their ignorance. 🙂 Not knowing something and being rich and famous means you don’t have to know it, right? This means that Gayle King has never regularly read historic/legacy (20th century) Black newspapers!
Don’t think our young Black journalism students are not peeping that because I’ve taught them at HBCUs and I know. (And this is part of a larger, systemic dumping of all media history classes because of J-schools’ well-funded digital focus. When I last checked, Maryland, my grad alma mater, stopped teaching journalism history as separate classes years ago.) Sadly, this public omission proves Gen Z’s irrelevancy point from its perspective.
P.S. Prince reminded me of this, so they’re really little room for excuses.