Description: Henry Louis Stephens, Amercian school. African American man reading a newpaper with the headline ‘Presidential Proclamation, Slavery’ which refers to President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1863, Watercolour.
Several weeks ago, a Black media executive I’ve admired over the years warned me about taking a job at a Black media company. I wanted to believe the advice they gave came from a good place, but their treating my decision to join a Black company as a professional fall, rather than the forward leap it was, didn’t feel good at all.
Their words were simple: why go to a Black company and give up the potential for professional growth and advancement? They wanted me to consider how any journalist, writer or media maker who hopes to achieve acclaim ought to work at places with broader bandwidth—meaning more diverse in its make up, the type of outlets white people read and support.
Black media companies apparently are the spaces where the careers of Black creatives die and innovation is gone. But this is counter-historical. Black media has reshaped and reformed journalism and American culture in the U.S. since its inception.
“Since well before the Civil War, publications and, more recently, radio and television stations owned and operated by African-Americans have provided an important counterweight to mass market media, simultaneously celebrating and shaping Black culture — from politics and government to fashion and music,” Sydney Ember and Nicholas Fandos co-wrote in a New York Time’s article supporting that claim.
Some people seem to believe Black media is the beleaguered stepchild in an industry where mainstream media accumulates public favor and monetary capital simply because it’s Black.
Black publications emerged because mainstream media industries refused to tell the complete story of American cultural and political life. The desire to tell the stories of people who existed on the edges of the margins, and not just the center of American concern, is the reason why Black newspapers like Freedom’s Journal and the North Star were published in the 19th century.
But some people seem to believe Black media is the beleaguered stepchild in an industry where mainstream media accumulates public favor and monetary capital simply because it’s Black.
Who taught us to see ourselves and our works as never enough, never good enough, never smart enough, never the aspiration upon which others’ visions and works are grounded? Who taught us to believe mainstream (white) media is always and only the end goal? I wish those questions were rhetorical. I wish the answer wasn’t already implied.
The thing is: Black people, Black culture, Black genius and Black media are not second place contenders in a world where a majority of bets are placed on everything but.
Black media in the 21st century can lead the way in recovering the narratives of American politics, social struggle and culture in an industry where the lived experiences of non-white people in the U.S. have been muted and trivialized over time.
Black media companies have the potential to transform digital and traditional journalism even as they seek to innovate and survive in a market still discovering their value.
Some mainstream media outlets report on Black death and crime while the number of Black writers within their news rooms and executive suites remain minimal. Some welcome the rise of audiences who enjoy the incessant reporting on Black cultural productions while publishing pieces that pathologize Black culture. And many have shifted the ways they report race in the U.S. in the wake of Black social movements, which is a result of the push of social media savvy Black activists and journalists who refused to wait for mainstream media to headline the stories that matter to their communities.
Black media companies have the potential to transform digital and traditional journalism even as they seek to innovate and survive in a market still discovering their value. News told from a Black perspective should not be imagined as a door slammed shut, but an opening for readers across the spectrum of identity who realize there are stories awaiting to be told, by people who know where to go to find them.