Catching Up With Books for the Fall
Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Richard Prince's Book Notes™: Uncovering Race
Two new books on race and the news media — Amy Alexander's "Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention," and Juan González's and Joseph Torres' "News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media" — are being published this month, both assessing how diversity is faring at a time of turmoil as news platforms change and the nation's demographics tilt toward people of color.
In the 16 months since the last edition of "Book Notes" chronicled new nonfiction books by journalists of color, authors have advanced book-length arguments about the changing perceptions of race as more barriers fall, shared their personal stories of how racism and sexism combined to affect their careers and uncovered little-known history.
Here are 14 such books, in their own ways "uncovering race," as Alexander titled her book. More will be presented soon.
Amy Alexander, veteran journalist and media critic, has written "Uncovering Race: A Black Journalist's Story of Reporting and Reinvention" (Beacon, $28.95). Few book-length examinations have looked at contemporary news media through the lens of a black journalist, and this one, published on Tuesday, becomes one of the first.
Alexander, born in San Francisco in 1963, takes readers through a career that stopped at the San Francisco Examiner, the Fresno Bee and the Miami Herald and, as a freelancer, to Boston; St. Paul and Washington. We're with Alexander as she covers the 1992 riots in Los Angeles that followed the beating of Rodney King, and we watch how a freelancer negotiates newsroom politics and newsroom racial politics.
And then there is Hurricane Katrina. "While many individual journalists from print and electronic outlets performed heroically during that week, the body of coverage of the disaster by mainstream news organizations was jumbled and scattershot in terms of their ability to report accurately and sensitively on the unique ethnic mix and historic underpinning of New Orleans's economic stratification," Alexander writes.
". . . It is a constant source of frustration to me that as an institution, the American media do not appear to learn important lessons from recent history when it comes to covering some stories, particularly those involving people of color or other marginalized groups."
The media critic segues from Katrina in 2005 to the Haiti earthquake of 2010, questioning whether news photographs perpetuated stereotypes and whether black journalists were less likely to receive industry recognition. Still, she declares, "with exceptions . . . major news organizations appear to have learned the right lessons over many years of covering the island." The book hits its stride in later chapters, analyzing coverage of Katrina and the rise of the Internet. Even this columnist — dubbed "the Jack Webb of race and media issues" — gets a few mentions, particularly for discussions of Katrina coverage in this space.
An alumna of africana.com, a thoughtful African American-oriented online news operation in business from 1999 to 2005, Alexander worries about a mainstream media that has cut back on journalists of color as the nation's demographics become more brown, and an online mainstream news world that is slow to absorb them.
"It is intriguing to consider that the two parallel universes that have long existed in print — exemplified, for example, by the likes of a black newspaper like the Chicago Defender as a counterpoint to the Chicago Tribune — may become the norm in the web world too. I've had the good fortune to write for 'white' web-only publications and for 'black' web organizations. I'm not yet certain whether that bifurcation can or should continue," she writes. ". . . It is a bitter but entirely accurate truism among black journalists: write for the 'black press' and you will fight the good fight all the way to the poorhouse."
Mervin Aubespin, a retired staff artist, news reporter and associate editor at the Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky., and a former president of the National Association of Black Journalists, is co-author of "Two Centuries of Black Louisville: A Photographic History" (Butler Books, $45).
No wonder this book, co-authored with Ken Clay, an executive in arts organizations in the city, and Dr. J. Blaine Hudson, chair of the Kentucky African American Heritage Commission, shot to the top of local bookstores' best-seller lists. Such a book, 304 pages and seemingly designed for that prideful ebony or mahogany coffee table, would reflect well on any city.
A review in the Courier-Journal, which made its resources available to the authors, begins, "Let me state this unequivocally: Every home in Louisville should own a copy of this revelatory and accomplished work.
Reviewer Scott Coffman continued, " . . . I am uncustomarily speechless at the sheer beauty of this volume. The muted colors throughout seem to mirror the lives portrayed, a sad darkness in the dispirited lives created by the slave trade. The rich sepias and ochers, however, burst from the page like the pride and promise so evident in the faces of those captured by the photographer's lens."
The authors say there had been "no single definitive work" on black Louisville. They frame their story this way:
"Relations between black and white Louisvillians were shaped more by a long series of compromises — some predating the Civil War — than by the dictates of whites. And compromises result only when both parties have an agenda and some capacity to achieve it — when both parties have leverage, albeit unequal in this case, and both have a stake in resolving their differences. For black Louisvillians, this leverage was rooted in the white Louisville's need for black labor and, after 1870, for black votes — and the extent to which one influenced the other.
"The challenge facing local African Americans, at least through 1985, was to understand the nature and limits of this leverage, to grasp that the racial moderation of some white business and political leaders (who often needed black labor and black votes) was not shared by the majority of local whites and to see how to use it effectively and how to use the gains that sometimes resulted from it to build institutions and community networks.
"The fact that black Louisvillians met this challenge extremely well at critical junctures over the past two centuries created the history that follows."
Aubespin became a journalist when the Courier-Journal needed a black reporter to venture into the riots in Louisville after the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. He is pictured then and later in his career. Bennie L. Ivory's 1997 appointment as executive editor and vice president of the Courier-Journal, the first African American so named, is part of the city's timeline, as is an 1855 Louisville-Courier clipping alerting the city to the presence of a free black preacher from Indiana found "to be armed with a deadly bowie knife, a pistol, lucifer matches and powder and ball in abundance."
Howard Bryant's "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron" (Pantheon, $29.95; $16.95, paper) was released in paperback in May, a year after its hardcover publication. Bryant is a writer for ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine, and an author of books on steroid scandals and the racial history of the Boston Red Sox. He told Journal-isms that being a journalist of color was critical to his work on Aaron, who broke Babe Ruth's home run record on April 8, 1974.
"For me, being a journalist of color was *hugely* important because when you follow how the white press portrayed Henry ('stepin fetchit'?) it illustrates once more the necessity for us to maintain and chronicle our own history. We've got the positions and the access to do so," he said by email. "As I told Mr. Aaron four years ago when I began, 'You did your job. We haven't done ours. I'd like your blessing for this project.' "
Reviewers praised the book. In the Washington Post, Wil Haygood called it "beautifully written and culturally important" and said Bryant told the Aaron story "with gusto and a ferocious sweep. There is plenty of baseball, but just as important the book includes front-office politics and the struggles of those who, like Aaron, came up right behind Jackie Robinson. It is also a deft examination of how white writers and black writers wrote about Aaron."
Allen Barra, writing in the Village Voice, discussed Bryant's revelations about Willie Mays. "The dark side of Willie Mays's personality is one that the mainstream press has all but ignored over the years, though it was flashed in front of their faces in 1973 when Willie clashed with Yogi Berra when Berra was managing the Mets. Mays's disdain for Aaron has likewise been disregarded by the New York media, though it was known and often commented on by writers in Atlanta for many years. . . .
"One wonders how New York baseball writers are going to respond to the unpleasant truth of Bryant's revelations."
Dwight Garner said in the New York Times, "Aaron is clearly a hard man to get to know" but that Bryant delivered a work with "the forceful sweep of a well-struck essay as much as that of a first-rate biography."
Ellis Cose, contributing editor at Newsweek and a former CEO of the Maynard Institute, published "The End of Anger: A New Generation's Take on Race and Rage" (Ecco, $24.99)
Cose's book, which he has said he considers his best, was mentioned in this space previously:
- Discussing "The End of Anger" in a New Black Generation
- Ellis Cose Challenges John McWhorter Book Review
Few books have described how it was to navigate both racism and sexism in the television news business. Former ABC News anchor Carole Simpson did so last year in her self-published "NewsLady," and the West Coast's Belva Davis has followed with "Never in My Wildest Dreams: A Black Woman's Life in Journalism" (Berrett-Koehler, $24.95).
In January, shortly after the book's initial publication, Julian Guthrie of the San Francisco Chronicle asked Davis her dreams for the next decade.
"I'm going into wind-down. I'm 78 years old," she said. "I have a contract with KQED that goes through the end of the year. Then maybe I could become a senior commentator. Our dream years, though, look like this: I'd like to give some wonderful speeches and find a wonderful cruise ship. I would hire myself out as a speaker on cruise ships. I can talk about anything, absolutely anything — just look at my life!"
The blurb on her web site, www.belvadavis.com, seems an apt summary:
"When Davis started her journalism career, the major media outlets were largely closed to African Americans and female reporters. In the earliest part of her career, she worked for black newspapers and black-programmed radio stations. In 1966, when, racial barriers began to fall, she became the first black woman hired as a television news reporter in the western United States....
"Many of the explosive stories of the '60s '70s and '80s intersected with her private life. She spent months covering campus demonstrations, anti-Vietnam war protests and the rise of the Black Panthers. She married William Moore, who became the first black television news photographer at a commercial station in California — at one point each of them had a station-issued gas masks to protect them during the protests. As she covered the kidnapping ordeal of heiress Patty Hearst, police informed her that white supremacists were threatening to abduct her own daughter. When she reported a series about alleged police misconduct, her son was mysteriously arrested. The family housekeeper turned out to be a likely spy on behalf of the Rev. Jim Jones’ Peoples Temple. And her daughter worked in San Francisco’s City Hall and was there the day Mayor George Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk were assassinated.
" 'Never in My Wildest Dreams' covers Davis' years of reporting on the AIDS epidemic for which she won awards, but also the story of the tragic lost of her [longtime] producer to the disease. There are stories of her travels to Cuba to meet with Fidel Castro twice, as well as to Kenya and Tanzania after the bombing of U.S. embassies in those countries. With honesty and openness, she talks about the difficulty of managing her family and professional career, while quietly fighting racism and sexism. Along the way she held fast to her dream — and changed the perception of who should and could be a good television news reporter."
John W. Fountain, a weekly columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and journalism professor at Roosevelt University in Chicago, has written "Dear Dad: Reflections on Fatherhood" (West Side Press, $24.95).
Fountain has assembled journalists and writers to contribute narratives that may be loving, but sometimes describe dads who are irresponsible and abusive. Fountain writes, "So what better time than this — than now — to lend to and perhaps spur the national dialogue on fatherhood, to raise to the light images of the best of our fathers, and also examples of some failed or flawed fathers, with the hope that from each may be gleaned a more perfect model to which all fathers might aspire?"
The project was inspired by an essay he wrote for NPR's "This I Believe" series. Contributing are: Fountain; Donald A. Hayner, Chicago Sun-Times editor-in-chief; Nichole M. Christian, former Detroit Free Press editorial writer; Stephanie Gadlin, writer, artist and social activist; Mario D. Parker, journalist for Bloomberg News; Hamil R. Harris, Washington Post reporter; Teresa Sewell, a Chicago journalist; Sylvester Monroe, veteran journalist, and Vincent C. Allen, founder of Agape Fellowship Ministries in Stafford, Va.
Also, Monica Fountain, former Chicago Tribune reporter; Lolly Bowean, Chicago Tribune reporter; R. Darryl Thomas, baritone, pianist, choir director and organist; Rosa Maria Santana, Los Angeles freelance writer and former West Coast associate Parity Project director for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists; Joseph A. Kirby, former Chicago Tribune correspondent who runs Between The Lines, a corporate communications and writing firm; Anne Valente, who teaches creative writing and is assistant editor of the literary magazine Storyglossia; and Lee Bey, writer, architectural critic and photographer.
Juan González, columnist for the Daily News in New York, and Joseph Torres, government relations manager for the advocacy group Free Press, have written "News for All the People: The Epic Story of Race and the American Media," to be published officially Oct. 24.
- Juan González and Joseph Torres with Amy Goodman on "Democracy Now," Pacifica Radio: On the Epic Story of Race & the U.S. Media
Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's "All Things Considered," has written "The Grace of Silence: A Memoir" (Pantheon, $24.95)
Rochelle Riley, metro columnist for the Detroit Free Press, produced "Raising a Parent: Lessons My Daughter Taught Me While We Grew Up Together." (Detroit Free Press, $12.95, paper).
"In 1992, I adopted a little girl because I thought she needed me," Riley writes in this volume published last year. "I soon learned that I needed her, and that, through her eyes, I would see the world in ways I never had before. These essays, written from 1995 through 2007, document the growing-up process for her — and for me."
The Detroit Public Library conducted an art contest to choose 13 student sketches for the book. Each winner received a $500 scholarship, thanks to the Skillman Foundation, with support from the Lakeshore Engineering Foundation.
Eugene Robinson, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the Washington Post, saw his "Disintegration: The Splintering of Black America" (Doubleday, $24.95; Anchor paperback, $15.95, e-book, $11.99), released in paperback on Oct. 4.
Robinson argues that there is no longer one black America but four: "a Mainstream middle-class majority with a full ownership stake in American society; a large Abandoned minority with less hope than ever of escaping poverty and dysfunction than at any time since Reconstruction's crushing end; a small Transcendent elite with such enormous wealth, power, and influence that even white folks have to genuflect; and two newly Emergent groups — individuals of mixed-race heritage and communities of recent black immigrants — that makes us wonder what 'black' is even supposed to mean."
Ultimately, Robinson argues for more attention to the poor — the "Abandoned" exemplified by those dispossessed in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina.
"I believe the problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of the Abandoned," Robinson writes. "The longer we wait to solve it, the harder it will be to even know where to begin. . . . As long as the Abandoned remain buried in both society's and their own dysfunction, with diminishing hope of ever being able to escape, the rest of us cannot feel that we have truly escaped, either."
Carole Simpson, retired ABC News anchor, has written "NewsLady" (self-published, $28). As reported in this space in January, "Simpson has produced an eye-opening account of the everyday expressions of sexism and racism in the television news business, recounting the graphically offensive statements made to her by colleagues over the years, most times without identifying the perpetrators by name.
"She says sexism was more of a problem than racism, asserting that black men and white men relate to each other with 'guy talk' in ways that mean black men have a leg up on black women in the business.
"It showcases Simpson's storytelling abilities and will provide any journalism student with an unvarnished look at how the television news business really operates. There are valuable lessons, too, in balancing family and career."
Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan, former fashion, food and home design writer for the Wall Street Journal, has written "A Tiger in the Kitchen: A Memoir of Food and Family" (Voice paperback, $14.99, Hyperion e-book, $14.99)
When the fashion bureau of the Wall Street Journal was laid off in February 2009, the Journal removed Tan's primary excuse for not pursuing a dream to return to Singapore to reconnect with her roots.
" 'A Tiger in the Kitchen' is the story of the year I spent traveling between New York City, where I live, and Singapore, where I grew up, to search for my identity by cooking with the women of my family," Tan explains in the publicity material. "It is a coming of age story in some ways. I spent so much of my life so focused on my career that I neglected to pay attention to some very key lessons that the women in my family had been wanting to teach me. The book is about my search for a deeper, richer sense of self and family. I finally went home to learn about being a 'woman,' but on my own, modern terms."
Tan is a former member of the governing board of the Asian American Journalists Association.
Mark N. Trahant, veteran journalist who is also chair of the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education, has "The Last Great Battle of the Indian Wars: Henry M. Jackson, Forrest J. Gerard and the campaign for the self-determination of America's Indian tribes" (The Cedars Group, $13, paper).
"At the beginning of the 20th century, mainstream American politicians hoped that American Indians would simply disappear," Trahant, a member of the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes of the Fort Hall Reservation in Idaho, explains in the 159-page paperback.
"The only 'local' political outcome was the end of American Indian tribal cultures. . . . Assimilation was a shared political doctrine. This was true for Democrats, Republicans and many American Indians (who wouldn't want a better education and prosperity for their children?) My own great-grandparents told my grandparents that they would be better off not speaking Indian, that they needed to learn the ways of the white people in order to succeed.
". . . The ultimate political expression for assimilation — and against tribal governance — was the philosophy of termination. . . . The idea was that the removal of American Indians from the source of their cultural existence, reservation life, would allow government obligations to evaporate. No more Indians — and no further need for a bureaucracy to effect government promises. In the span of 15 years, the government used this thinking to 'terminate' some 12,000 Indians and to steal nearly 1.4 million acres of tribal land."
In this book, Trahant looks at the turnaround in the thinking of the late Sen. Henry Jackson, D-Wash., formerly a stalwart of the "termination" policy, who became an architect of the federal policy of tribal self-determination in the 1970s. Jackson was assisted by Forrest Gerard, "a Blackfeet who had wide experience in tribal affairs with both the legislative and executive branches of the federal government . . . his knowledge of the issues and his intuition enabled him to orchestrate the development and passage of major legislation, the most remarkable outpouring of positive legislation in the history of federal-tribal affairs."
Isabel Wilkerson, professor of journalism and director of narrative nonfiction at Boston University, saw "The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration" (Random House, $30 hardcover, $16.95 paperback, $12.99 e-book, $24.99 audio), released last week in paperback and audiobook, read by professional narrator Robin Miles.
Wilkerson's book, 15 years in the making and mentioned in this space several times since its publication last year, has been critically acclaimed. President Obama took it with him on his recent vacation to Martha's Vineyard.
Some journalists considered Wilkerson, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for her feature writing at the New York Times, a sure bet for another Pulitzer for "The Warmth of Other Suns." However, jurors considered the book in the history category rather than as nonfiction, and the history winner was "The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery,” by Eric Foner.
Richard Prince's Journal-isms originates from Washington and is published Monday, Wednesday and Friday. It began in print before most of us knew what the Internet was, and it would like to be referred to as a "column." For newcomers: The words in blue (on most computers) are links leading to more information. The Web site BugMeNot.com provides passwords and user names to some registration-only news sites, but use may be illegal in some states. Any views expressed in the column are those of the person or organization quoted and not those of any other entity.
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