Remembering the Black Radical Press

Black Press, history

 

By Christopher Tinson, Black Perspectives

Print culture, including journals, magazines, newsletters, pamphlets, posters, and books, was instrumental in advancing the politics, aesthetics, and criticism of the Black Power movement. Every major city in the United States had a publishing organ that served to disseminate the ideological focus, social commentary, and political analysis of Black Power. These publications or “movement pages” were critical sites of knowledge production that imagined liberation for the entire Black world.

Black Power publications effectively shaped the organizational life of the groups that produced them. They amplified a defiant attitude, and offered their organizational analysis of society from the ground up. As sites of exchange and debate, these publications map the formation, shifts, and search for collective political destiny and often a shared sense of identity. Open nearly any publication from the Black Power era and one finds an emphasis on a collective vision of political autonomy. These periodicals conveyed the urgency of Black-led revolutionary change in the political arena, while the emphasis on culture called attention to an expressly non-western sense of aesthetics, performance, and expressive values. Both elements required creativity, imagination, and intense study.

Not surprisingly, these publications varied in terms of style and presentation. Some were hastily published, with a mimeographed presentation. Some publications, such as The Black Panther: Black Community/Intercommunal News Service was printed as a newspaper in print quality and size, while others– such as FreedomwaysNegro Digest/Black World, and Liberator were journals with a magazine-style presentation. Most of the publications were headed by men–almost always unpaid. However, women often filled many of the editorial committee positions or spearheaded distribution networks that ensured widespread reception.

Publications such as The Black PantherFreedomways, and the Negro Digest/Black World frequently carried the writing, thought, and strategy of Black women activists, artists and intellectuals. Overlapping with–and in some ways inspired by–the Black Power movement, the Third World Women’s Alliance (TWWA) in Berkeley, Californiapublished Triple Jeopardy. Early issues of the periodical carried now iconic images of women of ostensibly different ethnicities, one brandishing a rifle, beneath a caption that read, “Smash! Capitalism, Racism and Sexism.” The impactful run of Triple Jeopardy notwithstanding, the Black Power era periodicals run by and for women were dismally low.

Despite these limitations, Black Power era publications were Black peoples’ opportunity to engage local, national, and international government policies in their own voice. Direct connection to communities often determined the relevance of these publishing sites. In this way, these publishing spaces offered a form of direct community engagement and movement-inspired political literacy. These periodicals went beyond merely presenting the news. Rather they strove to explicitly shape Black public opinion on a range of issues. Common themes included critiques of U.S. domestic, state-sanctioned violence and inequality, police brutality, Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society, the War on Poverty, government surveillance, and school desegregation. Foreign policy concerns chiefly included African independence, self-determination of the Third World, and the Vietnam War.

Black Power periodicals engaged Black politics broadly, including critiques and debates of elected officials, Black leadership, and public policy from below. On these movement pages could be found calls for the formation of independent Black political parties, and campaigns for the defense of imprisoned or exiled activists, alongside reports from international writer’s festivals and spirited discussions of African literature and politics.

From The Black Panther: Black Community/Intercommunal News Service (Wikimedia Commons).

Black Power era publications also emphasized the urgency of a collective revolutionary vision. Periodicals sought to make explicit connections between local experiences throughout the “Chocolate Cities” of the U.S. and around the world. These Black spaces of the page experienced various degrees of longevity. Some were short-lived, only lasting through a handful of issues, while others survived for decades. Yet, each held distinctive importance to the communities they emerged from and the communities they reached, producing a network of local activism that challenged spatial isolation between cities, communities, and circles of activists.

This is certainly true for New York–home to the short-lived Black Arts journals such as Umbraand the Harlem-based, and short-lived magazine Freedom, which was chiefly concerned with African history and the politics of African liberation founded by Paul Robeson. The city was also the site of periodicals with considerably longer runs such as Freedomways, Liberator Magazine, and Muhammad Speaks, alongside venerable newspaper outlets such as Amsterdam News.

Black Power’s impact in New York is readily observable in the formation of the Young Lords Party, considered the Latino counterpart of the Black Panther Party. New York-based Puerto Ricans, or self-described Boricuas, sharpened the anticolonial spear of Black Power by emphasizing the largely ignored African heritage of Puerto Ricans, while highlighting the colonized experience of Puerto Rico as a U.S. Territory. Importantly, for a time, Pálante was published both in the U.S. and on the island of Puerto Rico. Finally, New York was also the home of the African Nationalist Pioneer Movement (ANPM) led by Carlos A. Cooks who published the short-lived newsletters The Black Challenge and The Street Speaker.

In Newark, New Jersey, the Congress of African People, led by Amiri Baraka published Unity and Struggle, while Black workers at the Ford Motor Plantation in Mahwah, New Jersey circulated their demands for workers rights, Black Nationalism, and Third World solidarity in a publication called The Black Voice. Impressively, their raison d’être included demands for worker transportation, waivers for Vietnam War veteran workers, and employment applications in multilingual (specifically Spanish and Creole) formats. Elsewhere in the North, collectives of organized Black laborers in Boston published The Hammer, under the auspices of the United Community of Construction Workers.

Amiri Baraka speaking during the Black Political Convention in Gary, Ind., March 12, 1972 (Photo: Julian C. Wilson, AP).

Similarly, Chicago provided a crucial space for Black Power periodicals to thrive. By far one of the hubs of Black print culture, Chicago was unique in that it could boast the success of the more mainstream Chicago Defender, while also serving as the central location of the John H. Johnson empire that gave birth to arguably the most well known periodicals in Black culture—Jet and Ebony. The success of these periodicals provided enough of a mainstream readership and advertising revenue required for its more assertively intellectual-activist offshoots, Negro Digest and later Black World to significantly impact the political and intellectual life of a generation of African American and African students, writers and activists. Under the widely respected editorship of Hoyt FullerNegro Digest/Black World was arguably the most far-reaching of all periodicals outside of the Black Panther Newspaper in the Black Power era.

Chicago was also home to the Black Arts periodical Nommo, published by the influential Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), which consisted of stalwarts of the Black Arts and pioneers of the Black Studies movement, including Abdul AlkalimatHaki Madhubuti, Fuller, Sterling Plumpp and Angela Jackson. Chicago was also the staging ground for the short-lived BWC News published by the Black Women’s Committee for the Protection of Our Children, as well as the base of activity for local Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton. By the mid-1970s, UFOMI published the radical Pan-Africanist publication, Afrika Must Unite: An International Journal of Current Afrikan Affairs, under the auspices of the Arusha-Konakri Institute, and edited by activist Ruwa Chiri.

Although Muhammad Speaks was the main organ of the Nation of Islam and the principle media platform of leader the Hon. Elijah Muhammad, its readership and contributors extended beyond its Muslim devotees. As such, it covered the central tenets of the Nation of Islam as well as the specific concerns of Black people around the world struggling against American apartheid in housing, education, the economy, and the courts. The editorial impact of longtime Black media activist, Richard “Dick” Durham demonstrates that the lines between revolutionaries and Black religious organizations were porous.

Outside of Chicago and the New York region, Detroit was host to the highest number of independent Black Power publishing outlets. The League of Revolutionary Black Workers alone launched Black VanguardDRUMInner City Voice, and The South End whose masthead spoke to the class fissures between two distinctive elements engaged in the Black freedom struggle: “One class-conscious worker is worth 100 students.” Yet, during this same period, students at Detroit’s Central High organized their own newsletter called Black Student Voice.

NOW!, edited and published by Imari Obadele (Richard B. Henry), also emerged from Detroit’s charged political landscape. Along with his brother Milton Henry, Richard was instrumental in establishing several key organizations, including the Group on Advanced Leadership (GOAL), the Freedom Now Party (FNP), and the Republic of New Afrika (RNA) throughout the 1960s. Lastly, the Rev. Albert Cleage published Correspondence and frequently reprinted articles from sister publications around the country.

As these diverse examples reveal, Black Power publications were critical sites of political exchange and debate in Black communities across the United States–and in other parts of the African Diaspora. These periodicals  channeled movement energies by reimagining civic engagement and offering the world new political literacies of struggle. As sites of Diaspora in print, these outlets demonstrate the effective global presence of Black radicalism in the 1960s and 1970s.

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