Jill Nelson
Jill Nelson; drawing by David Levine


From the start black newspapers tended to appear when circumstances made influencing white opinion and unifying the insurgent spirit among blacks a “strange necessity,” as one pre-Civil War black editor termed it. When Frederick Douglass began publishing his antislavery weekly North Star, in Rochester, New York, in 1847, some white abolitionists considered it presumptuous of him to be lecturing them in print on principles of liberty. “Let us have the facts. We’ll take care of the philosophy.” Not only North Star but the three other newspaper ventures that Douglass undertook were all extensions of his work as a lecturer and writer, a continuation of his leadership by other means.

However, their spirit of advocacy made black newspapers vulnerable to swift disappearance as well. None of the black abolitionist newspapers, the first of which appeared in 1827, was in existence after the Civil War. The conflict between sustaining missionary zeal and maintaining a newspaper as a business was in evidence from the very beginning, when summaries of news events and antislavery speeches ran alongside home remedies like cures for drunkenness.1

After Reconstruction, black newspapers evolved from being a propaganda arm into a kind of opposition press, because even the friends of former slaves had their fears. For example, Horace Greeley himself favored suffrage for black men on a limited basis only. Henry Grady, the young editor of the Atlanta Constitution who invented the phrase “The New South,” never allowed his paper to mention any physical violence toward blacks.2 As long as white newspapers were unwilling or unable to attack “anti-Negro” forces or to air the views of black reformers, there was a service black newspapers could provide.

Black journalists became leading activists by the turn of the century because they owned or ran newspapers. But given the ephemeral nature of newspaper writing, and the general unavailability of published collections of writings by even the best black journalists of the past, those newspapermen who were once national figures have faded in memory. Timothy Thomas Fortune, for example, born a slave in 1856, was the most famous black newspaperman of his day until a nervous breakdown in 1907 forced him to sell his New York paper, The Age. He died in obscurity in 1928. William Monroe Trotter, born in 1872 and educated at Harvard, was the editor of the Boston Guardian from 1901 until his death, possibly by suicide, in 1934.

Ida B. Wells, born into slavery in 1862, was a schoolteacher when she wrote for a church newspaper in 1887 the story of her unsuccessful suit against segregated train travel. She became editor and part owner of a small paper in Memphis, The Free Speech, in 1889. In 1892 its offices were destroyed in order to silence her reports on the lynching of three black Memphis businessmen by their white competitors, and she found refuge at Fortune’s Age. “Having lost my paper, had a price put on my life, and been made an exile from home for hinting at the truth, I felt that I owned it to myself and my race to tell the whole truth.” Wells inaugurated a nationwide campaign against lynching, collecting her documentation on the subject in two books, Southern Horrors (1892) and A Red Record (1895). Wells, who married the editor of Chicago’s first black newspaper, began to write her autobiography three years before her death in 1931, although Crusade for Justice was published only in 1970.3

Of the three thousand black newspapers that have appeared in the US, 1,876 were founded between 1880 and 1915, and only fifteen of those survive. Seventy percent of black newspapers during this period were located in the South until their readership began to migrate in 1910, but more than geography governed their tone. The poet James Weldon Johnson’s brief career as a newspaperman was typical. When he was a teacher in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1896, he thought back to an earlier ambition and used his savings to start an afternoon newspaper, The Daily American, which, initially, was a success. Whites curious to know what was really going on among blacks also subscribed. But Johnson was obliged to suspend publication after eight months, citing as factors in the failure his inexperience, paralyzing plant costs, and the competition of the “colored columns” in the two white afternoon papers that already reported the club and church activities of blacks in the city. As telling, however, was Johnson’s observation in his autobiography, Along This Way (1933), that “the colored people of Jacksonville, regardless of what their will might be, were not able to support the kind of newspaper I sought to provide for them.” Shortly after the newspaper’s demise, Johnson commented at a meeting of black businessmen that the only sound investment he could think of was the Negro graveyard, because Negroes had to die, had to be buried, and had to be buried in segregated cemeteries.

By the 1920s, the functions of black newspapers as an opposition press had been taken over by periodicals that were the house organs of various black institutions or civil rights groups. Because of institutional backing, Du Bois was able to insist on high editorial standards at The Crisis, but The Messenger, which A. Philip Randolph had founded in 1917 as an unaffiliated, socialist antiwar magazine, began in the Twenties to imitate entertainment monthlies in an effort to keep its Harlem readers. The newspapers that were independent were often subsidized, either by philanthropy or, like many white papers, by political patronage. There had long been a correlation between a paper’s finances and its editorial policy. Booker T. Washington’s fingers controlled many persuasive dollars. The lobby of The Chicago Defender is a temple to that newspaper’s longevity. Display cases celebrate its luck in having been continuous since 1905. But it was also the newspaper whose editors were accused of having been paid to help frustrate Randolph and the first black union of workers, the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. As with other black institutions, in order to reconcile the ongoing existence of a black newspaper with the emotionalism of February Is Black History Month, one must sometimes bury the paper’s past selfinterests or social allegiances in a forgiving context.


Gunnar Myrdal praised black newspapers as “a fighting press” in An American Dilemma. He was writing during World War II, when the black press was at its peak of influence and circulation, because it had found again its voice of opposition, agitating for fair employment practices and desegregation in defense industries. White civilians frequently attacked black troops stationed in segregated training camps in the South, and the black press seized every opportunity to point out that soldiers were being asked to risk their lives abroad for a freedom they were denied at home. The federal government worried that bad publicity would hurt the war effort and gave in the many of their demands. As the journalist Roi Ottley wrote in Black Odyssey (1948), “In its honest fury against injustice the Negro press often verged on sensationalism” and “made no pretense at objectivity whatsoever” because it became a platform for black leaders, an instrument of public education, and a coordinator of mass action, and this “compelled [it] to bias.”

While the federal government yielded to inflammatory “race angling” news reports in the black press, the sudden power of black newspapers as a lobby in the Forties contained their future marginality. As postwar black newspapers became able to attract national advertisers, they began to assume the character of any ordinary enterprise. Unlike white newspapers, black newspapers historically had depended more on subscriptions than advertisements for revenue. Reluctant to lose sources of new income and intimidated by the cold war’s repression, black newspapers became cautious, thus alienating the future black professionals of the GI Bill generation, as well as the laboring masses.

To adapt to the changed political climate, most black papers ceased to project a national image and concentrated on local events. Perhaps this was another reason why circulation began to decline rapidly in the 1950s. The most resilient papers were family properties, sometimes a part of diverse family holdings. Then, too, a separate black press came to seem obsolete or contrary to the ideals of an integrated society. As of the early 1970s Muhammad Speaks and Black Panther, very much in the black nationalist manner of Marcus Garvey’s Negro World in the 1920s, were, in circulation at least, the last truly national black newspapers.

Robert E. Johnson, executive editor of Jet, remembered 1952 at Syracuse University’s School of Journalism as “a time to be ashamed if your white classmates caught you reading a black newspaper.” As more blacks moved into the middle class, they turned to the quality papers of the university educated, which, along with television, were giving more coverage, however slanted, to stories about bus boycotts, voter registration, and school desegregation. No matter how much black nationalism was involved, there was also a creeping suspicion that a blackowned newspaper was inferior goods, in the way it was felt that stores in poor neighborhoods routinely stocked the lowest grade of merchandise.

The statistics vary, but there are between 200 and 250 black newspapers in the US at present. Three of them are dailies, compared to an estimated 1,750 white-owned dailies. When magazines are included, the number of black journals increases to around 300. Black newspapers have a restricted presence unless one knows not only where to look for them but what banners to look for. To be distinctive in an age when there seem to be more blacks on television than there are in the whole US population, the black press relies on the deeply rooted prejudice among their readers that blacks in trouble will get a raw deal from the white media and the judicial system, that Tawana Brawley, Mike Tyson, Marion Barry, and O.J. Simpson will have no greater defenders or vigilant advocates. The editorial policy begins to resemble fortune telling: make enough predictions and one of them may come true.


Roy Wilkins, a newspaper man, was perhaps the last national civil rights figure to emerge from that junction of middle-class black life where profession and leadership met. While in time blacks would begin to cross the narrow bridge to wider employment possibilities, in journalism crossing over meant leaving advocacy behind. And one wonders if black newspapers are honestly regarded as stepping stones anymore. Luther P.Jackson, Jr., who had been the only black reporter at The Washington Post in 1959, argued in 1979 that the daily media, with a predominantly white readership to serve and so many subjects to cover, could never give issues and events of interest to blacks the attention they demanded, hence the importance of “an abiding and permanent” black press. “Integration has shown that there is no correlation between the numbers of stories about blacks that appear in newspapers and the number of black reporters employed by them.” The black press, Jackson went on to say, had paid a heavy price for integration: it could no longer rely on mass circulation among blacks for support, confidently claim to speak for blacks, or “pick and choose among black journalists.”4

Charlayne Hunter-Gault’s memoir, In My Place (1992), is concerned mostly with the upbringing that prepared her to play her part in the desegregation of the University of Georgia in 1961, a drama of being equal to the occasion that she writes about with modesty. Hunter-Gault had wanted to be a journalist since she was a school girl, but she was already a star when she went to The New York Times. Her book is very much like Melba Beals’s recent memoir of integrating the Little Rock, Arkansas, high school in 1957, Warriors Don’t Cry. Beals herself went on to become an NBC correspondent.

Roger Wilkins, whose autobiography, A Man’s Life (1982), is as curiously inert as his uncle’s,5 had been an assistant US attorney general and editorial writer at The Washington Post before another high-echelon corridor delivered him after Watergate to the editorial board of The New York Times as its first black. He says he let the Times know that he wouldn’t be merely the quota-appeasing “lead black.” As a columnist on urban affairs in the news department, he was pulled into a discrimination suit brought in 1974 on behalf of blacks in the commercial departments. Caught between friendships with management and identification with lower-rung black employees, Wilkins concluded that the high-visibility black who interacts with whites on what he calls previously uncharted levels “either has to give up a little bit of himself that is valuable or, at some point, there is a fight.” He resigned for personal reasons in 1979; the suit was settled out of court in 1980.

There has always been a small number of whites employed by black newspapers, but they remain black newspapers. There are rarer instances of a black running a major daily, like the late Robert Maynard, who in 1982 acquired controlling interest in the Oakland Tribune. That is akin to the position of black politicians who, if they want to be mayor of Spokane, Washington, or governor of Virginia, must represent a broad constituency and can’t crusade for blacks only.


The Kerner Commission’s criticism in 1968 of the way major newspapers reported race issues led to an increase in the recruitment of black reporters.6 But with the commitment to minority hiring came the suspicion that urban assignments were the riot beat. Then, too, it was hard for blacks to get jobs, and blacks in every occupation other than the most obvious, like bus driver, were immediately thought to have an interesting story behind them, which nourished the assumption that a black in the office was either a super being in the mode of the doctor played by Sidney Poitier in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? or a token, the spook by the door.

As major dailies began to hire black reporters, recognizing that the cities the newspapers covered were becoming more black, market-penetration studies translated into drives to reach the suburbs, because stories and ads were still aimed at the white middle class. In 1978, black reporters constituted 4 percent of reporters on white dailies. According to FAIR, a media watch organization, the percentage in 1993 was 4.3. The figure is striking not only because it’s so small and static, but because it is much the same as the figure for other black professionals, such as financial managers, and slightly higher than that for lawyers, which Stephen Carter quoted in Reflections of an Affirmative Action Baby.7

Brent Staples, Nathan McCall,8 Patrice Gaines, and Jill Nelson—these are the voices of the Kerner generation, the journalists who grew up during the popular revival of black nationalism. It would be less revealing of the ambivalence of the black middle class and the white middle class toward the historical situation they inherited had the picture in their books about the black journalist’s professional life been confined to a provincial newspaper: one would expect complaints about small-town papers or dailies in a city like Indianapolis, where Dan Quayle’s family owns the morning and evening editions. Of US dailies, 50 percent have no black reporters at all. Evidently The Washington Post can neither live down nor live up to its crusading, liberal, Watergate reputation. For a long time the Post also had a hangover from Janet Cooke’s deception, and many blacks on the news staff worried that they would be held collectively responsible.9

One could get the impression from these memoirs that every black reporter at The Washington Post has either been in jail or is at least related to someone who has been in trouble with the law. When Nathan McCall flubbed his first interview at the Post by failing to disclose his prison record, he was consoled by Milton Coleman, the city editor, whose brother had been in similar waters. Brent Staples believed his application at the Post was unsuccessful because the anger he couldn’t control about his brother’s murder meant that he had somehow broken “the rules of engagement” in his interview.

Patrice Gaines, a staff reporter at The Washington Post, also had tsuris that she put off talking to Ben Bradlee about—a past conviction for possession. Jill Nelson, formerly of the Post’s Sunday magazine, left her job interview amused that Bradlee was unaware of who owned and who merely rented in the black colony on Martha’s Vineyard, as if such a detail revealed anything other than the likelihood that the black colony is similar to any white enclave where snobs betray themselves as being NQOCD. But Nelson believes that the meeting with Bradlee went well because they were able to chat about the Vineyard. One wonders if Janet Cooke would have gotten her job in the first place had she not lied about Vassar and told instead the truth that she had gone to the University of Toledo, the in-between.

Like Parallel Time and Makes Me Wanna Holler, Patrice Gaines’s Laughing in the Dark opens with a true-grit scene from which the story will flash back to how it all got started. Gaines remembers the day when, twenty-one and in jail on a heroin charge, she waved from the window of her third-floor cell at her parents and her two-year-old daughter, who couldn’t see her. The scene shows how low Gaines had sunk, not where she’d come from, as if this theme as a market had no saturation point. Though these autobiographies are written in support of the argument that blacks are hindered by racism in the workplace, they borrow from what plays loudest in the headlines, the sensationalism working black people are critical of newspapers for concentrating on, the image they claim to be sick of being identified with and of being asked to be responsible for.

Patrice Gaines was born in 1949 and spent her early years “swathed in a false sense of belonging,” because she was a military brat who lived like her white playmates on the base at Quantico, Virginia. But as she got older, the N word was used freely around her at school and in the Brownie troop. Gaines lived in a state of unarticulated edginess until family circumstances moved her when she was ten to Beaufort, South Carolina, the land of “Colored Only” signs, where at least the “static” in her head caused by being different was gone. In 1963, when Gaines’s father was transferred to Georgia, her mother took the five girls to Glenarden Woods, a black Maryland suburb of Washington, DC. Medgar Evers was killed, the March on Washington had her grandmother making sandwiches all night, and Gaines began to reason that history could be made by ordinary people, not just by rich white people. In tenth grade, she was one of one hundred black students bussed to integrate a high school of 2,700. “I felt empty. Lonely. Insignificant. Invisible.” From this point, her autobiography flies the colors of youthful rebellion and self-destructiveness.

From her first boyfriend Gaines contracted syphilis and was hospitalized. She’d been a virgin, but he forgave her for infecting him. After high school, free of her parents and enrolled in a school to learn fashion merchandising, she convinced herself that helping her boyfriend to steal from the department store where she worked was a political act. She was pregnant when he got drafted, and she married someone else who was soon sent off to Korea, but not before acquainting her with the high of cough syrup and the dizziness of being slapped. Men introduced her to drugs. “I loved heroin. It silenced the confusion in my head and I was in synch with the world.” To be near the father of her child, she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. The father went AWOL, the army eventually discharged him, and Gaines stayed on, working as a Teletype operator. She was carrying a handbag, and that is where undercover agents found the heroin when they busted her boyfriend in 1970. After a month in jail in a lovingly recalled community of black women, Gaines took the lawyer’s deal and was sentenced to five years of probation with a monthly fine.

While in jail Gaines had reflected on how her problems and those of her fellow inmates were often the result of what they’d do for men. Much of Laughing in the Dark is a meditation on the self-obliteration that appeared to be necessary in order for her to win approval from men, the security she sought in being controlled by them, the void she tried to fill by never being without a man. She was to marry again, this time a feckless, free-love musician. James M. Cain once said that no one should write an autobiography unless it could be subtitled “Up from Slavery.”

Throughout the years of struggling with men Gaines heeded either an instinct or a dim voice from home and kept adding to her education in the hope that one day a decent job would mean independence for herself and her daughter. She stopped telling the truth about having a criminal record, because when she did so she was denied employment. Gaines doesn’t dwell on how quickly she seemed to move in and out of regular society. Perhaps her fluidity had something to do with the historical availability of clerical work for black women, as well as the possibility that these office jobs don’t pay enough to keep people from hitting bottom. She reveals the mask of normality behind which the country’s real drug culture thrives, the talent a user can put into a job when it is regarded as a scam, and the faith in re-birth a user is seldom without. In Gaines’s case the jobs she slipped in and out of were with black firms. Gaines doesn’t specify when she stopped using drugs, but they disappear from the narrative around the time she temporarily gave up men, stayed close to women, and began to consult a psychic.

A job as the only black secretary at the Charlotte Observer introduced her to the newspaper world.

I wrote about matters of the heart and I couldn’t yet see that journalists did this, too, with more skill and sense of communication than I could yet muster. Still, if there is such a thing as fate, it had acted on my behalf, to put me in a place where when I woke up I would have before me what I wanted all the time.

To be free for classes at Central Piedmont Community College, she moved to part-time work in the newsroom, where she fell in love with “the hum, the secrets and the creative clutter.” In 1978, Gaines heard about a free summer journalism program at Berkeley and “sat down and cried” when she received her acceptance letter. Afterward, a friend from the Observer who’d become managing editor of the Miami News agreed to hire her, where she would be one of two black reporters.

As night police reporter, she earned the trust of those whose misfortunes cut across the barriers of race, sex, and social status, but she had to swallow her disgust when she reported on the welcome of Cuban exiles and compared that to the plight of Haitian refugees. In December 1979, a black insurance executive, an ex-Marine, sustained injuries, according to the police report, after his motorcycle which they were chasing crashed. He slipped into a coma and died. The medical examiner was suspicious and an internal investigation led to five officers, one of whom was Cuban, being charged with the beating that split the man’s skull. In May of 1980 a jury of white males returned a not-guilty verdict in two hours, after which demonstrations in Miami turned into a three-day riot.

Gaines, who had befriended the victim’s widow, was forced to realize that she had become different from the people on the streets, who regarded her as a traitor as she took notes in the company of a white photographer. “For the first time in my life, I was afraid of people who looked like me.”

She had been looking for a reason to leave Miami. “I fled from more personal questions, like whether or not I, a black person, could work for a major newspaper and still respect myself.” Her application for full-time employment at the Post languished for six months until in 1985 she approached the assistant managing editor for the news section, who offered a three-month trial to see if she could meet daily deadlines. Gaines’s narrative concludes in prayerful calm. (The acknowledgments at the beginning of the book have been a tip-off. “I will thank God eternally for bringing J.C. into my life.”) Therapy is also given credit, as is caring for the friends from the Post who were stricken by AIDS. Gaines at one point was so depressed by loss that she couldn’t think of any new story ideas.

Asked to speak to members of a drug rehabilitation program, she informed the managing editor of her past in order to preempt the chance that this news might come from elsewhere. When she became a party to a union discrimination suit, she decided to admit before the matter came out in court that she had answered untruthfully about having a felony conviction. Her career was at stake, but she was tired of living like a fugitive. Donald Graham instructed Bradlee to make the decision. After five months, she was officially forgiven. Gaines rushed to the bathroom and sobbed. The victory, then, is in her escape from the stigma of the felon.

It is not law in the US that a prospective employee must disclose a criminal record to a private employer, but companies can by law set their own work rules and requirements. What private companies cannot do by law when setting employee requirements is to discriminate on the basis of race, sex, or age. But companies may find lying on an application just cause for dismissing an employee. Since criminal records are deemed indicators of trustworthiness, personnel policies can help to maintain an underclass because the inability to rejoin society contributes to recidivism. Bradlee deserves credit for exercising his discretionary power in favor of reform, but the proprieties of black pride make expressions of gratitude to white bosses difficult, as does the point that Gaines, like McCall, had already proven herself by the time her past came back like the wagon in The Mayor of Casterbridge.

Writing was the most therapeutic act of all. “I wanted to show my struggle to learn to love all of me.” When she first thought of writing an article about her secret an editor told her it would be “career suicide,” but then Nathan McCall came to work for the Post. “Could management’s experience with me have helped Nathan get hired?” she can’t resist asking herself. McCall wrote an article about his life of crime and Gaines observed that he was neither hated nor dismissed for it. Far from it. The Sunday her confessions finally appeared, she ran to buy a newspaper, but it isn’t clear from how Gaines describes what she was reading whether she couldn’t stop crying because the article had been changed or because she was finally unburdened of her past.

Throughout Gaines shows immense pride in her capacity to feel. Seven friends die of AIDS in a thirteen-month period, but Gaines doesn’t appear to have been inhibited from also crying for herself. The sincerity on the page about having been blessed with loose ducts is part of the popular culture of talk shows where tears are a sign that feelings have been got at, like the geyser when drilling for oil. It wouldn’t matter, except that authority on social questions these days is derived from “authenticity,” from the battlefield of personal experience, and the meaning of that experience is governed by orders from a headquarters of the self called one’s feelings, as if they were all that needed to be examined. In any event, Gaines says that offers of book contracts followed her revelations, as well as invitations to make inspirational speeches and a nomination for Best Commentary from the National Association of Black Journalists, all of which she accepted in the language of personal fulfillment as civic duty.

Going from Laughing in the Dark which ends with Gaines out dancing after an awards ceremony, “a streak of pink chiffon joy,” to Jill Nelson’s Volunteer Slavery is like dropping a Chatty Cathy doll and getting clobbered by the toughest girl on the block. Nothing could be further from Gaines’s after-school Zen that life is a journey back to the perfection one is born with but has “forgotten” than Nelson’s unapologetically bitter account of her four years at The Washington Post, first with the Sunday magazine and later the Metro desk, “the newspaper equivalent of Coon Town.” Anyone who has worked in an office has been faced with the need to make peace with it, especially when there is no place else to go, which is why one is only briefly taken aback when someone who has been kvetching about the office announces one day that Moloch, Inc. isn’t the worst place to work after all. That Nelson is no longer at the Post, that she will never have lunch in that town again, so to speak, accounts for an angry wit the autobiographies of her former colleagues haven’t a hint of.

Nelson has scores to settle and it is as well there is no index. Her book is a visit from the ghost of Grudges Past. So many Post personalities are evoked and spiked that when Nelson declines to identify the author of a particularly sleazy remark it means perhaps that there has been no hope of corroboration. Her version of the internal workings of the Post singles out a type of conversation that remains prudently unheard in Gaines’s newsroom hum and enlivens an office that McCall treats as depopulated, but to do so Nelson stretches the conventions of autobiography. Volunteer Slavery has the structure and feel of a novel. The office where Nelson glowered from 1986 to 1990 is written about in the present tense and those scenes alternate with memories of her youth in the active past. Nelson also makes extensive use of dialogue. Autobiography can be as free as any other form, but the tone of this one is contentious and the characters include private people with public reputations.

“The standard Negro balancing act when it comes to dealing with white folks, which involves sufficiently blurring the edges of my being so that they don’t feel intimidated, while simultaneously holding on to my integrity.” the “thin line between Uncle Tomming and Mau Mauing,” the feeling of being “a handicapped person they’ve decided to mainstream”—the lessons, for Nelson, are the same on every page whether she approaches work in the spirit of trying to change things from within or wanting to get along as a team player. Nelson depicts some white women colleagues as being as underhanded and condescending as some white men. Though she concedes that free-lancing may have spoiled her for the restrictions of a corporate workplace, she hardly ever finds herself at fault. Some writers never seem to find it odd that the narrator holds all the aces of perception.

If Nelson’s method is artful, she nevertheless exposes a great deal. Names that drift unobtrusively through the autobiographies of her peers Nelson fixes in a comic hierarchy. She talks to big shots and also to the black women at the switchboard. Unlike Staples, McCall, or Gaines, Nelson, a graduate of Columbia’s School of Journalism, presents a much fuller picture of the black journalist’s professional milieu, the caucuses and cocktail parties tense with rivalry and envy. What are bylines to general readers turn out to be vibrating links in a busy network.

Where Gaines claimed that her preoccupation with daily survival kept her innocent of the Post’s grand reputation, and where McCall’s success confirmed his belief in a spiritual force that would reward him, Nelson was made defensive. “Belonging isn’t what I crave; I’m after money and a larger audience.” Her teenage daughter, Nelson explains, was tired of her divorced mother’s “class-suicide trip,” of her vegetarian diet, funny clothes, and cramped New York apartments. She wanted to be like Vanessa Huxtable on The Cosby Show. Maternal love makes of every woman a slave, Balzac said.

Nelson’s refusal to be impressed by her new job was also a reflection of class, of her background as a child of West End Avenue professionals with family connections to Madame C.J. Walker, the famous hair-cream tycoon of the World War I era. Born in 1952, Nelson came of age during the height of the black-consciousness movement and shed her private-school image by not having a coming-out party, and by sporting an Afro as well as a boyfriend who lived in the projects. “He’s bad, therefore I am.” Even City College comes across as a militant’s choice. “In my middle-class guilt trip, it’s taken me nearly a lifetime to understand that the people dissing me for my bourgeois roots are usually the ones trying hardest to get to it themselves.”

Her overbearing father’s four marriages, a sister’s breakdown, a brother’s addiction—the setting of high-ceilinged apartments and summer porches gathers into the gentle embrace of middle-class dysfunction what would have been interpreted as symptoms of social blight had they unfolded among the poor. Middle class, too, is the shift in the attitude toward drugs reflected in Nelson’s book, from the class-dissolving marijuana of the Sixties to the dangerous ingestions that represented a line a middle-class person crossed at his or her peril in the Eighties. Nelson indicates that she drank heavily her first three years at the Post before stopping cold in 1989, but mention of Elavil and Ludiomil pop up in her last days.

Nelson’s sojourn at the Post was defined by two major disappointments, the first being the premier issue of the Sunday magazine, which featured a threatening rap star on the cover and an article sympathetic to shop owners who kept doors locked against black males. A three-month picket by a coalition of DC community organizations, the Washington Post Magazine Recall Committee, ended when Bradlee and Donald Graham agreed to a series of discussions about news coverage on a local black talk show. The other disappointment had to do with the Marion Barry trial and the racial and legal issues, such as intimidation of witnesses, that in her view were ignored in what she considered the paper’s atmosphere of vindictiveness toward Barry. But Barry was found guilty on only one count of the indictment. “It is the black folks who look like they’re about to smile, the Caucasians who look stricken,” Nelson says of the newsroom. When she found her story about the reaction among blacks, many of whom saw the verdict as defeating the conspiracy against Barry, buried inside the Style section, she “burst into tears.” Nelson gave up, sank into a lengthy depression, slowly emerged, and quit.

Bursting into tears. All along Nelson, the toughest girl on the block, had been losing ground at work, going down in sulky, depressive, self-justifying style, insisting that things were falling apart exactly in the way she reported them, conveying the sense that it was she who had put The Washington Post on notice, on trial, that it was auditioning for her, that the paper had to prove itself to her, and all along she had expectations, hidden hopes. In African-American history the most caustic voice often seems, in retrospect, the most sober.

Newspapers are acrimonious places, and dissatisfied people will have a hundred right and wrong explanations of what is going against them. Race in these circumstances is like the shadow that chases you and then flees when you pursue it, but black people mind suggestions of paranoia when they suspect racism behind certain actions. Perhaps Nelson was not as cooled out about the Post as she claimed. That two minority boxes were checked off by hiring one black female may have been true and that she was nevertheless as qualified and talented as anyone else may also have been true, but few people have the self-confidence to live clearly with both ideas, as expressed by Stephen Carter’s candor of the damned, “I got into law school because I am black,” and the sophistication of his “So what?”


In this regard Jake Lamar’s beautifully written memoir, Bourgeois Blues (1991), is highly instructive. Born in 1961, Lamar was at Time from 1983 to 1988, though by his memoir’s end he has only planned to quit his job as an associate editor. Blacks were thought to be “oversensitive” and to have difficulty mastering “Timestyle.” Of the sixty writers in the New York office Lamar at one point was the lone black, sustained by visits from a black veteran of the Chicago bureau identified as Survivor, who was to become the first black senior editor in the magazine’s history. Survivor held that telling black America’s real story at a place like Time was progress, but Lamar relates how “Timestyle”blocked an article on the underclass and translated another on fatherless families into a piece about young bucks.

Lamar had three advantages at Time: his job was peripheral to other concerns in his life; he’d suffered so much under his violent, self-made father that he had no fear left over for anyone else; and he’d worked himself silly in high school so no one could say that his being black had gotten him into Harvard. Many of his white classmates automatically regarded black students as academically inferior, but Lamar met whites who were not qualified to be there, which made race obviously just one factor in a host of other admissions considerations. Lamar had demystified Time before he got there and was prepared for the possibility that white people can be mediocre, that they protect and favor one another, and that whites aren’t above digging out race from the office arsenal of competitive strategies. But what his colleagues and superiors thought of him could not undermine his ability to think.

Brent Staples bristled in Parallel Time at the memory of when, after Rupert Murdoch took over the Chicago Sun-Times, he went on the interview circuit where his doctorate in psychology and expertise as a science writer were regarded as “a white man’s credentials” and white people wanted to know how he got them. Every profession has a casting couch of some kind and these black journalists, contrary to the claims of some opponents of affirmative action, didn’t consider themselves marked for failure because when they were hired they were the beneficiaries of their employers’ consciousness of their race. The problem wasn’t how they got there so much as it was what happened to them afterward. Nathan McCall watched a black economics reporter get such a harsh ride from an editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that the reporter, a Wharton alumnus, threw in the towel.

Much of what these autobiographies by black journalists have to say about the complications of integration are repeated in Ellis Cose’s recent survey of discontent among black professionals with how they are treated in white institutions, The Rage of a Privileged Class. After having learned the skills, accent, and style, they are still outsiders, under scrutiny, on probation. The grievance of black professionals has always been that they have to be dazzling just to break even, that an average black would never get the same breaks as an average white, certainly not without attempts to make the black feel like the white man’s burden.

Ivy Leaguers on the Fortune 500 list are in the minority, and whites can believe in black rags-to-riches stories—Motown Industries10 or Beatrice Inc.—more than they can black from-higher-education-to-profession, just-like-us stories. Perhaps that is why, to most blacks, white-collar opponents of affirmative action don’t seem to be defending color-blind fairness as much as they are covertly extending the country-club line that if one black moves into the neighborhood then it’s integrated but if several move in there’s reason to panic. The history of work in the US can be written in terms of which jobs blacks were excluded from, which professions were considered “white,” not only because of job security or intellectual arrogance, but because of fear among whites of the social intercourse it was assumed would follow as a consequence of working alongside blacks. Children of the Dream: the Psychology of Black Success by Audrey Edwards and Craig Polite mentions a seminar Ron Brown conducted on how blacks could raise the “comfort level” of whites when they are around them.11

Every step toward integration in the 1950s was met with articles in which whites worried about the harm that could come to blacks because of white unreadiness. Such articles disappeared after the blacks arrived and nothing cataclysmic happened. Where blacks are familiar as a presence, or even dominant in numbers, race ceases to be an issue. Consider how neutral race is in the sports pages. Black reporters originally may have been brought in to talk to black athletes, but now that everyone is used to so many blacks in the major leagues black reporters can just do their jobs, even if hockey is the last Klan meeting in town. Sports reporters are spared examinations of conscience, unlike Metro-desk black reporters who are subtly coerced to demonstrate an objectivity white reporters are seldom asked to prove. However, the defense Nathan McCall hit upon, that all journalists have lots of opinions about everything, inadequately addresses his own mixed feelings of sympathy and exasperation about stories of young black males involved in shootings and robberies, as though they were mirrors in which he glimpsed his former bad-ass self.

These autobiographies are tales of survival, like many other autobiographies written by blacks, but not, except in the case of Brent Staples, in the sense of having triumphed over the adversity of a hard background. They are about overcoming mistakes and, on a deeper level, about having survived the cultural scene where experimentation with drugs, confrontations with authority, or identification with the lumpen or the street were applauded as moves toward social liberation. 12 Some urban problems have a distinct generational aspect, and an underlying theme in these books is about coming back from the road that in the 1970s led to dropping out or to desperate acts that have lost their righteous aura in a country whose resources, it is beginning to occur to everyone, are limited, as is therefore belief in its egalitarian principles.

In the Eisenhower years, a book such as Thomas Peyton’s Quest for Dignity: The Autobiography of a Negro Doctor (1950) was considered a straightforward petition for entry, an appeal for acceptance, but in the 1960s, black militant consciousness raised questions about just what kind of society blacks were struggling to participate in. Civil rights, the acceptance of blacks, had been spoken of as change, that US society had to accept blacks in order to change. Later on the problem wasn’t even seen as US society needing to change before it could accept blacks, but whether it had the will to change at all. It is a pity that Paul Goodman did not include black youth in Growing Up Absurd. Although US society has recoiled from such self-examination which would describe it as a conformist system, this is what Jill Nelson is referring to when she worries that instead of blacks changing the system, it was changing them, as if being outside it—i.e., not being middle class—guaranteed purity.

H. Rap Brown in his autobiography, Die Nigger Die! (1969), taunted “negroes” with being rejected by white America, saying that even those who had big jobs with white firms discovered that they were “Black” when it was quitting time, and that the frustration of trying to “live a contradiction” is what made them rush home to watch the riots on television, “cheering like a muthafucka the whole time.” This kind of mockery, based on the notion that a black who is angry is a black who has come to his or her senses, has not lost its sting. It is interesting to note how often in these books going wild with black pride is expressed as a reaction to having been sent to integrate white high schools in the Black Power era.

For the Kerner generation of black journalists, the black militant consciousness of the late 1960s that defined their youth retains its prestige. It continues to inform the attitudes behind what is called by many the Black Perspective, that eye of the outsider. For blacks, the Black Perspective is a historical imperative, a sacred charge to stand in for the many and not to forget them, which is why black professionals are sometimes anxious to prove that buying into the system isn’t selling out. The anxiety is as true now as it was in Booker T. Washington’s day: Milton Coleman was criticized by many blacks for his part in breaking the “Hymietown” story that got Jesse Jackson into so much trouble.13

For whites, when the Black Perspective is not suspect as a smoke screen for lack of ability, innate or otherwise, it is a vested interest in a point of view, one lobby among many, blaming whites all the time, a kind of dead end, repetitive orthodoxy of social analysis, or an invitation for blacks to commit sabotage. Putney Swope was popular among black students when it came out in 1969. In the film, a black is by accident elected chairman of the board and proceeds to act “real black”—dashikis, whores, etc. It was taken as a parody of what whites thought were the revenge fantasies of blacks: as soon as blacks are through the door they’ll destroy, fail spectacularly, embarrass everyone. It happened, and the scandal at Kidder Peabody is the white executive’s nightmare even as Joseph Jett’s defense that he’s a black scapegoat demonstrates that the Black Perspective can be exploited as a form of careerism.14

All these books are a reassertion of the Black Perspective, especially after the eager welcome the white press accorded Shelby Steele’s argument in The Content of Our Character that blacks depend on their status as victims. However, the journalists who have come in from the cold of the Black Power era are not working for black newspapers, or becoming builders of black institutions. Surely they shouldn’t have to, but having gone mainstream is what makes for so much frankness in these books about “trying to get paid,” as Spike Lee’s character says as a refrain in Do the Right Thing, and wanting to succeed in the big time as uncloseted blacks. “Living large,” as rappers say, being well-off, has street credibility so long as one doesn’t project an image of imitating whites. Being “up-front” about pay scales can be a way of coming off as unsentimental and right-on, just as “angling” stories from a Black Perspective at a major US daily can be seen as keeping faith with the militant contention that the point of the civil rights movement was not to sit at lunch counters with whites but to let whites know they could no longer dictate where blacks sat.

It is hard to think of an autobiography by a black since the 1960s where the purpose was not in some way to testify, and these recent books give evidence about the move into the professional class in larger numbers. Fortunately, some professions, like journalism, have more doors of entry than others.15 Whether as occasions for confession or opportunities for retribution, these books share something of the spirit of the rallies where Jesse Jackson used to exhort black kids to chant “I am somebody,” or the Role Model programs at inner-city schools where visitors from the realm of success read student poems on bulletin boards while security guards escort a teen in handcuffs through the lobby’s metal detectors. Be not dismayed, you, too, can get out of here; there are such things as second acts.

The voice of the Kerner generation is perhaps that of the late bloomer, but just when its journalists have written out their youth in order to make sense of their adulthood, a reproachful postscript arrives from the next generation: Jerrold Ladd’s Out of the Madness. Currently a contributing writer for the Dallas Morning News and a college student, Ladd, born in 1971 into the apartheid of the Dallas projects, lost after only a year his job as a clerk at a white law firm on which he had staked his whole being to get, and so he went home to write his life story—at age twenty—that would appear first in various Texas magazines. “I was keenly aware of where I stood, that there was no real racial harmony or freedom for blacks, and anyone who claimed so was a fool. I knew I had no time to waste.” Yet another generation is out there, ready to declare that everyone before them, except Malcolm X, got it wrong.

It is interesting that in Ladd’s search for protection, education, and employment he turned to his heroin-addicted mother, the Christian church, substitute “minimum-wage” fathers, Muslim leaders, his peers, and white corporate mentors he was warned by black elders not to trust, but never to a government agency, local, state, or federal, except to try for a small business loan. Ladd doesn’t present it as an ideological decision. The idea doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. As for the traditional witnesses for freedom,

Where were the black men? The ones who could have helped, the so-called middle class, the educated, the doctors, the professors, the businessmen, the politicians, the teachers, the entertainers, the sports figures? They had left us, got out of the slums and turned into Uncle Toms, puppets, and wannabes. Pretending they were so concerned with charity and giving back to the community, up there speculating on what they thought was the problem, refusing to have direct contact with us. Big fakers.

(This is the second article in a series.)

This Issue

April 20, 1995