Black History Month to me is more than just four weeks of public recognition of the enormous contributions of Blacks in America. It should instead be a 365-day examination of the role that Blacks continue to play in every facet of our national and local life. Still, Black History Month is an important period for us to reflect on Black life through individuals and institutions that are promoting, demonstrating and uplifting the achievement of Blacks.
That is why I do not take lightly assignments like mine. I had a vivid reminder of that last week when 90-year-old Marjorie Lewis Harris walked into my office with a book that chronicles the life of her mother, Violet Lewis, the woman who founded Detroit’s only Black Historical College, the Lewis College of Business, which no longer is in operation.
As I was walking her down the steps after spending time in my office, she told me, “My mother was an honorable woman. Someone needs to tell that story.” Her mother served as bookkeeper to Madam C.J. Walker among other achievements. That is Black history.
In many ways we are each connected to the great pipelines of history that have informed our current dispensation. Therefore, we are each charged to tell the story of the great men and women of stature who defied prejudice, challenged stereotypes, confronted institutional racism and Jim Crow to rise to be somebody Black children and all children can look up to.
I’m reminded of that need to continue to narrate, write and explain the Black experience in its many forms when I’m invited to take part in events that speak to that experience. For instance, an email I received two weeks ago from the Office of the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan asked me to be the guest speaker at the Black History Month Program federal prosecutors are organizing later this month, under the theme “A Century of Black Life, History and Culture.” Part of the subject of my talk as the invitation suggested is the state of African Americans in Detroit in the context of Detroit’s current revitalization.
I also realize that journalists like myself in the Black press and other Black oriented media outlets would not be here had it not been for the weight of history. The history of Blacks being projected in cruel and negative ways in the mainstream press gave rise to Black oriented media organs.
The history of denying Blacks principled and meaningful voices in mainstream media to discuss the plight of African Americans is what triggered giant men and women like W.E.B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass, Ida B Wells and others to establish platforms that would champions causes of their people.
Today, we can say we are much better off since the days of Douglass, Du Bois and Wells. But the double standards still exist in terms of the kind of treatment and prominence that is given to legitimate Black issues in mainstream media, when compared to non-Black issues. I get calls, like the one last week where I met with some prominent Blacks in the city concerned about African American participation in Detroit’s comeback.
However, there are mainstream media outlets that know all too well that their relevance in the Black community and other communities of color is tied to opening their platforms to unusual and non-traditional voices.
Outlets like public radio have a responsibility to serve the public good. That responsibility is even greater in light of a recent report about how White National Public Radio has become.
NPR, in an astonishing way and a display of race guilt, began a national conversation on its Whiteness by airing a bold commentary, “Challenging the Whiteness of Public Radio,” on its signature program “All Things Considered.”
The piercing commentary by an African American professor of communication, Chenjerai Kumanyika, hit a nerve. It has caught fire all over the Internet.
“Without being directly told, people like me learn that our way of speaking isn’t professional. And you start to imitate the standard or even hide the distinctive features of your own voice. This is one of the reasons that some of my Black and Brown friends refuse to listen to some of my favorite radio shows despite my most passionate efforts,” Kumanyika said.
In an interview with the Washington Post, Kumanyika said he wanted to send a message about inclusion.
“I was hoping to expand the conversation. This is not only about race but about class and ethnicity, too,” Kumanyika said. “I was hoping that audiences and listeners can begin to rethink what their expectations are and what we’re missing if we don’t challenge our comfort zones.”
I couldn’t agree more with Kumanyika. NPR’s well-known standard of Whiteness, which has forced it to air Kumanyika’s commentary on “All Things Considered,” cannot be discussed outside of NPR’s affiliated member stations around the nation including WDET-101.9FM Detroit Public Radio, which is part of the NPR network.
In the case of WDET, I have been formally involved with the station now for almost four years. First as a senior political analyst and most recently as host of “Detroit Today,” on Thursdays, 9-10 am.
When I was first invited to be an on-air contributor it was in part to address community engagement and the vexing question of inclusive voices on the air.
But before coming on the air formally, I had been helping the station’s new regime address community engagement. One of the first initiatives I led in 2009 was getting then Detroit Public Schools Emergency Manager Robert Bobb, who had just come to town to do a no-holds-barred live town hall on WDET held at Wayne State University Community Arts Auditorium. Speaking before an audience of almost 400, Bobb and I discussed the fate of DPS. But what was most important to me was having the community directly ask questions.
Getting WDET into the community with the Bobb town hall was important. Detroiters showed up because they were anxious and apprehensive about what would happen to the public school system. Protesters who opposed an emergency manager showed up to demonstrate their First Amendment right. The producer then for that project, Noah Ovshinsky, who is no longer at the station, and I would meet at Avalon Bakery in Midtown each week to brainstorm over coffee and cookies for the town hall and what direction to take the live conversation. Following that I initiated and hosted another series — “Is Detroit Open for Business?” — a month-long conversation on small business as part of the overall WDET “Detroit Agenda” project.
Coming from Black media, I knew my pedigree did not match the typical public radio voice. The talent pool that public radio seeks is usually in mainstream press, not in Black, Hispanic, Arab or Jewish oriented media.
At WDET, I knew I would be different. I knew I would stand out. I knew my voice would be distinct and authentic. Perhaps it would have made more sense to Detroit Public Radio if I were in the mainstream press because that is the NPR tradition and status quo. But my being on air defied that tradition and model. I’ve resisted many attempts to cross over.
In 2012, when I attended the funeral of Ben Burns, the former editor of the Detroit News, in Grosse Pointe to pay my respects because Burns followed my work, I stood in line waiting to shake the hand of his widow. The moment I opened my mouth to express sympathy to her, she quickly said she recognized that voice on WDET, and talked about how much she enjoyed hearing me. I cut the conversation short because I was there to remember Burns who understood the essence of the Black press. Burns gave me a media diversity award at a ceremony that left me dumbfounded when he started rattling off the names of the icons of the Black press in the last century, underscoring why our media is central to America’s democracy.
Being part of WDET was fulfilling a need — to help Detroit Public Radio address inclusion, and in a very real way confront the so-called Whiteness disease that appeared to have infected public radio around the nation for so long.
Added to this is the issue of increasing African American, and other ethnic listenership for a station rooted in Detroit’s history and cultural framework.
As I became more acclimated and settled in the role of a senior political analyst at WDET and appearing on the “Craig Fahle Show” every Thursday morning, I was struck by an experience that spoke to the reluctance of public radio in to be comfortable with non-traditional voices.
I was in a one-on-one meeting one day and towards the very end, and in a very casual way, was advised not to go down the route of Dr. Michael Eric Dyson in my on-air analysis. Apparently, this individual who commanded a lot of sway at the station at the time had become very uncomfortable with my approach on air.
I bristled at his suggestion and walked away. I felt I was being told to tone down my candid, honest perspective and views on the issues in Detroit. That exchange stuck in my head, and it would define my view of NPR as a place that has a long way to go. I was not going to walk away from public radio. I was already there. I did not feel out of place at WDET. I felt the comment was totally out of place because this is Detroit Public Radio, and it should reflect that.
Any public radio that is serious about growing its audience beyond the traditional audience, and is concerned about the risk of being irrelevant to the new multiracial majority documented in the last U.S. Cencus report, should begin to do what Kumanyika said in his “All Things Considered” commentary. It should never feel uncomfortable bringing on board non-traditional voices from the non-traditional talent pool.
Let’s be clear about the history. WDET is the product of the blood and sweat of the poor and the working class in labor. The station was donated to Wayne State University by the United Auto Workers (UAW) on the condition that it should never be sold. Blacks are a key block of the labor movement.
At the very least, deeper and robust social justice conversations dealing with race, class and multiethnic diversity and labor issues in a city like Detroit should not be frowned upon. The station should be the leader in the region on such issues because it has a different biography than the typical public radio.
In 2004 when Tavis Smiley walked away from his NPR show, he talked about the lack of commitment to inclusive dialogue, and the deliberate lack of marketing and promotion of shows that will attract people of color. If you want to kill a show, don’t promote or market it, and then blame the ratings for its extinction. Is a trick in the industry. But if you want people of color to listen, then take it to them.
“Top to bottom. Top down, this organization needs to be more inclusive. From the people who run it to the on-air talent, to the producers, to the subject matter they cover. To the treatment they give topics,” Smiley said at the time.
Asking me then to divorce myself from Dr. Dyson was a statement reflective of the non-inclusive culture in public radio.
Dyson and I have mutual respect and admiration for each other. He is a towering Black intellectual and one of the most brilliant minds to ever come out of Detroit, whose work continues to challenge America’s moral conscience on issues that WDET should be a central part of.
When Nabih Ayad, chairman of the Arab Civil Rights League (ACRL), invited me to the ACRL Dinner last year, Dyson was the keynote speaker.
When I walked up to Dyson’s table to greet him, he stood up and hugged me saying, “Brother, I was looking at your book on Obama the other day,” referring to one of my books on President Obama.
Brother Dyson is writing a consequential book on Obama that the nation is waiting on. He spoke about it before a packed audience when he and I appeared for a public conversation at Wayne County Community College District Global Conversation Speaker Series.
My point is this, and please don’t get it twisted: Nothing will change my voice and the perspective I bring in the work that I do. I did not get here by myself. I and other journalists, generations before me, are walking in the shoes of Du Bois, Douglass and Wells. They paved the way for me to be here. This is what Black history means to me. They were authentic. They kept it real. They moved mountains in bringing attention to issues important to African Americans and other people of color.
The notion of bringing inclusive voices on the air should not be antithetical to public radio in the nation. One of the greatest liberal fallacies of all time is that public radio is liberal.
How liberal is it if Black, Hispanic, Arab, Jewish oriented voices are not given prominent roles on the air?
How do you define liberalism outside of racial diversity?
One of the features of “Detroit Today” on Thursdays is its deliberateness in expanding the conversation. I repeatedly invited Osama Siblani, the head of the Arab American News, as a guest because he is a non-traditional voice.
During the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, I took the conversation on the path of a more inclusive remembrance by inviting the venerable Rabbi Daniel Syme, of Temple Beth El in Bloomfield Hills, who was inducted into the Martin Luther King Jr. International Board of Preachers at Morehouse College, to be part of the discussion. He told me later that was the first time he came to WDET for an interview. I wanted Syme in the studio because Blacks and Jews have a special relationship. Stories like Rabbi Syme’s motivate me when I come in every Thursday morning to do the show. Demonstrating inclusion. Doing what is not traditional. America is changing, many institutions are changing and so must public radio.
Tune in. Tell us how to expand the dialogue. Send Amy Miller, the show producer, ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Because in my world, this is Black history at work.