On Favorite Black Authors

I’ve written before about some of the seminal influences on my writing, but I want to focus today on work by black authors I’d consider critical to my understanding of race, culture, class, and narrative. Regular readers know that, as an historian, I consider history to be something of a symphony, where all cultures and voices need to be present in order to make the music.

As a child growing up in a predominantly white area, my first exposure to African-American culture came through my television set. The first book on my list is one I first listened to on PBS’ Reading Rainbow, read by LeVar Burton. The book, Striped Ice Cream by Joan Lexau, was about a little girl who, like me, worried that she wouldn’t get the birthday present she wanted because her family was poor. I related to her on that level, and only peripherally noticed that her skin color was different from mine.

As I grew older, my aunt, who lived in and among the historically black neighborhoods of Minneapolis and St. Paul, introduced me to one of my favorite authors: Maya Angelou. The first work I read of hers was I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, and I rank it as transformative for me. I inhaled every other book and work I could get my hands on by Ms. Angelou, and I grieved when she passed. Her stories about growing up as a black woman, living as an artist, and working as an activist electrified me.

I already knew I wanted to be a journalist; Angelou’s work made me understand that the stories I told needed to come from all segments of society. She opened my eyes to the assumptions I’d internalized from my limited interactions with people from other backgrounds, colors, creeds, and cultures, and in demonstrating how she found her voice, I learned to find mine.

From there, it was Alice Walker. Toni Morrison. Audre Lorde. Alex Haley. Ralph Ellison. bell hooks. Zora Neale Hurston. It was Oprah, whose rise as a journalist offering space for her viewers to tell their own stories was stunning to witness. I read the works of Martin Luther King, Jr., and I started to read an up-and-coming columnist from the Miami Herald named Leonard Pitts, Jr.

I have been extraordinarily busy in the last five years, personally, but my original passion to find my own voice, and now, as an educator, helping others find theirs, remains. Education doesn’t stop as we get older. On my to-be-read list right now are works by former President Barack Obama, former First Lady Michelle Obama, and novels by Pitts, who won a Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 2004. His latest novel, The Last Thing You Surrender, is on my e-reader right now.

I can’t honestly say this is a comprehensive list, in any fashion. In thinking about this topic, I Googled “favorite works by black authors,” and my list of new works to read easily tripled. As we move forward in this moment, let’s remember the importance of making our voices heard, and elevating those voices that could otherwise be lost.

On the Importance of Local Journalism

The news from Poynter Institute and other media think-tanks is ominous:  Local media outlets from around the United States are closing their doors and laying off staff. The economic challenges wrought by the pandemic have sliced that thin line that stood between these newsrooms and their loss.

In a time when local journalism is desperately needed, we are losing it.

When I entered the field as a news reporter for a daily newspaper in northern Wisconsin, the Marinette Eagle-Star, I had a newly minted bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a strong sense of the importance of journalism to society as a whole. I’ve lost neither of those. But I realized, soon after I started, that the routine stories I wrote for my local newspaper had significance beyond that.

My fellow reporters and I covered school board meetings, city council meetings, county board meetings, highway commission meetings, and many other gatherings of people who made decisions on behalf of their constituents. We talked to police officers and county deputies, superintendents of school districts and teachers in their classrooms. We haunted the offices of elected officials to find out what issues were being raised at the local, state, and federal level that might have an impact on our readers.

And we related all these stories to those readers. We told them about how a county sales tax might affect their bottom lines; how a move to a welfare-to-work program in the state of Wisconsin might affect not only their pocketbooks, but their neighbors; how a rise in gang violence locally had ties to larger cities to the south of us. We told them about a new thing called the Internet and how it might have potential to change how business is done, how many educational options could be offered, and even how individuals could access to information.

We explored the community we lived in, bringing stories about what our readers and their friends got up to in their spare time. We covered local sports, making sure our student athletes got their names in the paper and credit for their achievements. We shone a spotlight on the arts in our community, and we talked to leaders about transitions in leadership in their worlds.

We told reader stories, too, making an effort to find the interesting, unusual, and fun things they were involved in. We dug deep to record these things for the historical record. We also used that historical record, sometimes, to tell larger stories about the community in which we lived, such as that of the Peshtigo fire of 1871.

Readers let us know what they appreciated, and they let us know what they didn’t. Virulently. Ardently. We did our best to make sure we got it right, and we did our best to make it right when we erred.

In those pages, we told the story of community, of multiple communities. We printed birth notices, death notices, marriage notices. Notably, I typeset my own wedding announcement. I was also forced to write up my own accident report, to the light ribbing of my comrades. All careful, all a record. All a journal of what happened in that place, at that time.

Journalism, at its true essence, is public service. The bastardization of that service for profit has led to untold damage to journalism as a social institution.

As I watch the numbers rolling in of these losses, I mourn the loss of that essential community journal. No one ever got rich as a local journalist. But the impact of what local journalists do has been, can be, and will be immeasurable.