Black newspapers — a fixture in almost every major city since the 1800s — are needed now more than ever, contends narrator Joe Morton in The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords. The documentary was the center of discussion at the January 11 “Reel Talk” monthly film screening session at the St. Paul’s Penumbra Theatre.
The Stanley Nelson-produced and directed film, in five segments through archival footage and personal accounts from Black journalists, shows “the growth and influence” of the Black press, beginning with the founding of the first Black newspaper, Freedom’s Journal in 1827. The film also covers the role of legendary Black journalists like Chicago-Defender Publisher Robert Abbott, how Black newspapers “were the only ones able to write and crusade for” Blacks in the 1920s and 1930s; the launching of the “Double V” campaign during World War II, which served as the forerunner of the Civil Rights Movement in the following two decades after the war; and the varied reasons for the decline of the Black press in the last 30 years or more.
Minneapolis Community and Technical College English Professor Shannon Gibney and Penumbra Teen Programs Coordinator H. Adam Harris moderated the post-film discussion. Gibney said afterwards that she regularly shows the hard-to-get film in her mass communications classes. “It’s not on YouTube. It’s not on Netflix or any digital platform,” she lamented.
The film also highlights the many overlooked contributions by Black women, such as Charlotte Bass, the California Eagle editor and publisher for 40 years, and the first Black woman to run for national office when she was a vice-presidential candidate for the Progressive Party in 1952. “You can’t find anything about this woman,” noted Gibney. “I have looked. What a travesty!”
The independent film company California Newsreel controls the rights to the film, said Gibney, who urged the audience to get their own copy of ‘The Black Press.’
“I think now you can get digital subscriptions” or obtain the film at a nominal fee for educational or community purposes, she surmised. “They are trying to make it user-friendly and increase the access of it. We need to find ways to support creation and distribution of films like this. We may have to pay for something like this that is high quality and independent. We [can’t] expect all this content to be free and accessible.”
Co-moderator Harris said he liked one scene in the film when someone proudly said, “Other papers aren’t being objective so why should we.” When an audience member asks if social media replaced the Black press in highlighting current issues and topics on the Black community, Harris responded that “Black Twitter,” like the Black press, “provided a space for community. The Black press created a sense of cohesion.”
The Daily Beast calls Black Twitter “an online culture of Black intellectuals, trendsetters, and talking heads giving voice to many of the issues” such as police brutality, and credits them with forcing the mainstream media to cover these issues.
“Black Twitter is the real thing,” added Gibney, who pointed out that it provides “a multiplicity of Black voices. “I love Black Twitter. A lot of people don’t know that the most likely person to tweet something is a Black person, second only to a Latino person. They are responding to things and break things to the forefront and call people to the carpet in a way that I think a lot of White folk [were] not expecting.”
Retired history professor Mahmoud El-Kati told the two co-hosts and the audience that he is a lifelong supporter of the Black press. “My grandmother taught me to read before I went to school” using Black newspapers, he said proudly, adding that both the Black press and the Black church have been hugely instrumental for change for Blacks in America.
Gibney told the MSR that the film accurately explains the Black press’ significance to American history, which too often has been undervalued. “I think in terms of education, it is still not getting out,” she surmised. “That’s a travesty, and I am not talking about for Black people. White students get angry about it as well because it actually is a collective history. They actually feel angry” that this important part of history has been kept from them, noted the professor.
She added that Black Twitter is mostly Black people — “I think it is importantly different. But I just think that some of the humor and wit, and the sardonic aspects of Black culture —there’s something about the culture of Black Twitter that jells really well with Black culture.”
Harris admitted afterwards, “It was the first time I saw the film. I was so moved. I never heard of Charlotte Bass. I walked away very inspired.”
Former Council on Black Minnesotans executive director Lester Collins said he was inspired to research past copies of Black newspapers, especially those featured in the film. “It’s excellent. It’s amazing,” he added.
“I know a lot of people” who were interviewed in the film, such as the late Vernon Jarrett and Frank Bolden, added El-Kati. “He [Bolden] taught me [lessons on Black history]. I’ve been around a lot of Black journalists and read these guys. Reading the editorial page of Black newspapers was an education for me.”
Finally, El-Kati concluded that the Black press served as an ideal platform throughout its history and “raised questions about democracy.”
Read an interview with April Reign, who last year created the #OscarsSoWhite Twitter hashtag that some believe pushed mainstream media to begin taking Black Twitter seriously on the MSR website.
For more info go to www.pbs.org/blackpress/film
Also, The Black Press: Soldiers Without Swords is now available for 48 hour digital rental to individuals on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/ondemand/blackpress.
Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charles Hallman is the senior staff writer at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder. He can be reached at email@example.com