The Black Journalist and the Racial Mountain

It’s not what the wider world says about black writers that should concern them, so much as what they say about themselves.

Linotype operators at the Chicago Defender (Russell Lee / Library of Congress)

Howard French has an interesting piece in The Guardian tackling “the enduring whiteness of American media.” French’s claim is two-fold: 1.) Big media organizations have failed to produce a staff that looks like the larger country. 2.) Big media has failed black journalists, specifically, by siloing them in “stereotypical roles—sport, entertainment and especially what is euphemistically called urban affairs.” These twin effects, according to French, “strongly but silently [condition] how Americans understand their own country and the rest of the world.” This is an important piece—one worthy of the ongoing dialogue around newsroom diversity. But unfortunately it also shows how an attempt to analyze a problem, can actually reinforce it.

Howard French is a great journalist and a trailblazer—an African American who has reported from, among other locales, China, the Congo, Haiti, South Africa, and Japan. There are few journalists of any background who can match the depth and breadth of his experiences. But French is black, and garnering that experience has meant traveling outside of delineated boundaries and enduring a specific kind of skepticism lobbed at black journalists. That kind of skepticism has not disappeared. But to the extent that it has diminished, it is directly due to the efforts of black journalists like French.

Those efforts, and the fruits they bore, don’t appear in French’s essay. Instead he presents black journalists in two varieties—those chained by the boundaries of the press’s racism, and those specifically empowered to help maintain those boundaries. I am touted as an exemplar of that latter category. French sees me in a tradition of token black writers whom white people shower with plaudits so that they might better argue “that we don’t have a race problem any more.” To be sure, French sees this as “great work being celebrated.” But at its root it is still “the re-enactment of an old, insidious ritual of confinement”:

Coates was doing, after all, the one thing that black writers have long been permitted – if not always encouraged – to do: write about the experience of race and racism in the world and in their own lives.

This permission serves to both keep black journalists and writers from competing in venues beyond the sphere “of race and racism,” and allow whites to celebrate “their own enlightenment and generosity.”

French is airing a common suspicion—one that concerns itself not so much with black writing, but with what white people think of black writing. At The Washington Post, Carlos Lozada argued that because “liberal elites” enjoyed Between The World And Me, the book must be wrong. Jacobin writer Cedric Johnson addresses himself to “Ta-Nehisi Coates And The White Liberals Who Love Him.” David French felt so moved by the accolades given by “white liberals” that he wrote the same blog-post three different times. The writer Thomas Chatterton Williams reviewed the book twice—once when it was published, and then again after it was being celebrated. By his own admission, the writer John McWhorter did not bother to read the book, but did read what everyone else was saying about the book. This disturbed him so much that he considered giving up writing about race entirely. “Oh God,” moaned McWhorter. “One of the Men of The Year is going to be Ta-Nehisi Coates.”

That intellectuals like McWhorter are more provoked by what the (largely white) critical establishment has to say, than what an actual black human has written, is neither mysterious nor mystical. Indeed Glenn Loury made it quite clear in one of his more illuminating discussions of Between The World And Me:

If you’re riding high on The New York Times’ nonfiction best-seller list #1, 2, 3 and if you’re up there for a couple of months you’re selling hundreds of thousands, maybe even millions of copies of a text and you’re getting royalties of, I don’t know, it depends on the contract three, four, five bucks a pop. You understand? Anybody can do that arithmetic….

Moreover, you become the person who frames the conversation in the editorial board-rooms, in the corporate board-rooms, in the community activist meetings. Your text becomes influential in a very deep way. It resonates in the lives and in the minds of people. You become a household word. You become the go-to person. These are all very, very, very good things.

Loury’s thirst is Saharan. The strictures of racial spokesmanship, the perils of fame, the trap of being “the one,” none of this troubles him. Indeed Loury does not object to king-making. He objects to not being made the king. “If you’re so smart,” he wonders about himself. “Why don’t you have the prize?”

Though less craven, the gravity of white adulation distorts Howard French’s case all the same. Implicit in French’s focus on what is “permitted,” is a framing, a point of reference, an origin story that privileges the whims of presumably white gate-keepers above all others. Covering the force of racism in America is not something that a black writer can, of his own volition, believe to be interesting and essential. “The Race Beat” is a ghetto which white people tolerate in order to preserve those arenas that truly matter (business, technology, culture etc.) French tells the story of a black colleague who hoped to garner “some recognition” by covering “subjects that he knew white peers would find unattractive.” Those subjects were black. And the great tragedy of this colleague’s career, according to French, was that his attempts to move beyond his own people were repeatedly frustrated.

French believes that it is imperative that black writers cross “the river,” as he did, and escape the presumably provincial confines of covering race. In this, he echoes the white critics who so often say to those of us interested in black America, “Can’t you write about something other than racism?” without realizing that racism is the font of their very question, their very identity, their very world. Now, no writer—black, white or whatever—should spend time covering subjects which don’t interest them. It’s not fair to the writer and, more importantly, it’s not fair to the people being covered. But there is a segment of black writers who cover their own communities, not in hopes of garnering “recognition” from their white peers, but because they believe Harlem has as much to say to the world as Dakar, Silicon Valley, or Tokyo. The possibility of this sentiment is absent in French’s piece, and that absence puts French, unwittingly, on common ground with the very institutions he attacks. The outcomes are similar—the vanishing of black writers.

Reading his piece, you would never know that the same year The Atlantic published “The Case For Reparations,” it also published Nikole Hannah-Jones’s disturbing portrayal of the return of school segregation. You’d never know that both pieces were nominated for a National Magazine Awards. You’d never guess that Hannah-Jones went on, the next year, to be named NABJ’s Journalist Of The Year, and then win both the Peabody and the Polk awards.

Hannah-Jones does not stand alone. The most important work of American long-form journalism, in the past decade, was executed by Isabel Wilkerson—The Warmth Of Other Suns. Wilkerson, a 1994 Pulitzer prize winner, produced a book that was both a commercial triumph (New York Times best-seller) and a critical success (National Book Critics Circle Award winner.) The omission of Wilkerson and Hannah-Jones is characteristic of French’s piece. There are no Jelani Cobbs in his essay, no Alexis Okeowos, no Jamelle Bouies, no Yamiche Alcindors, no Rembert Brownes, no Trymaine Lees, no Malcolm Gladwells, no Joel Andersons, no Kelefa Sannehs, no Kara Browns, no Brentin Mocks, no Jenna Worthams, no Wesley Morrises. You would never guess that there are black journalists, here at The Atlantic, covering business and politics, editing its website, and designing its pages.

Here is the great sin of French’s piece—in losing sight of an entire community of black writers and journalists, he replicates the very tokenism he disdains. It’s as though The Undefeated never happened. This was a year in which three black journalists won the Pulitzer Prize. And though this fact can not be disconnected from mighty efforts of journalists like French, it merits no mention from him.

Contrary to his intent, French has produced a lengthy essay on the perils of restricting and omitting black writers, that omits and restricts black writers. In a piece running over five thousand words, French offers only three sentences to a generation of “high-profile black writers” and “new non-white voices.” French isn’t sure whether “this marks the beginning of an important shift, or is simply a short-term trend.” I think it marks something else—a community and tradition that endures whether the larger culture is paying attention, or not.

The most significant thing about my work, in French’s rendering, is that an influential community of white people have praised it. (Even this formulation is restrictive and rooted in the dated notion that there are no black decision-makers at the National Book Foundation or the MacArthur Foundation.) Another perspective might hold that this community of influencers is ancillary to my work, that my writing is actually a product of the community of black writers and journalists who French erases.

This is not sentimental. This is how it happened. I have been arguing with Jelani Cobb since I was a freshman at Howard University. I have been arguing with my book editor, Chris Jackson, for over a decade. It was Wilkerson’s work that helped inspire “The Case for Reparations.” Wilkerson is a Howard alum who edited The Hilltop, the campus paper that published my first articles. The most significant endorsement I have ever received did not come from the MacArthur Foundation, nor the National Book Foundation, but from a black woman—Toni Morrison, Howard alum, pupil of Alain Locke.

Tokenism attempts to obliterate these links—obliterates tradition and community. Your family is rendered invisible, and you become what other people, from other places, say about you. But popular and critical adulation are tricks of timing, luck, and fate. Viewing them as anything else, as self-definitional, as primary, is corrupting, is thirst. The favor and disdain of others is random. Community and tradition are not. Perhaps one might protest by pointing out that French was critiquing whites, not blacks, and thus his focus on white institutions, at the expense of black writers, is appropriate. This approach will always be myopic. I was not the only black writer to win the National Book Award. I was not even the only black person to be awarded a MacArthur.

When I started writing Between The World And Me, the only person’s permission I needed was black. He was my editor. He grew up like me. He understood where I was trying to go—even when I didn’t quite understand it myself. My father—who subsidized the self-published blog which is the seed of my presence here—read and critiqued the book before it was published. My mother—who taught me to read and write—did the same. The first stop on the book tour was West Baltimore. The next was Catonsville High School, where my mother works. The next was Howard University. Throughout the tour, we made a specific effort to be in black spaces, and pull in black bookstores. This was not a carefully laid plan to seduce white liberals. It was an attempt to be able to sleep at night. Writing a book from a black perspective is freeing. Seeing it constantly examined from a white perspective is depressing.

I think there are reasons to write beyond placing a thumb in the eye of “white liberals,” who are not our Gods and who are not our slaves. French is disturbed to see black writing function as a salve to the collective white conscience. But by the lights of history, the collective white conscience has never needed salve, has made no apologies, and has proven impervious to the import of black literature. It’s almost as though writers should write for themselves, should hew to their own standards, and keep their own conscience instead of fretting over the feelings of those who they can not change, and who they do not control.