There is probably no better way to catch the flavor of a time period or of a people than by perusing the pages of contemporary periodicals. The problem is that very often newspapers, newsletters, and magazines are not saved and preserved as the precious historical record that they represent. This is doubly true of the ephemera of African-Americans in by-gone eras for a number of reasons. First of all, periodicals are intended at their inception to be for immediate consumption and not for posterity. Their own creators, the many editors and publishers referenced here, were probably too busy to worry about preserving their publications. Unlike artifacts or material goods, paper products are likely to disintegrate if not properly stored. And institutions, such as archives and libraries, where they might have been collected, tend to be white-dominated and not to value information pertaining to African-Americans until fairly recently.
With the passage of time, the precious record of African-American life that is recorded in African-American publications is too often lost to later generations. Not only are the newspapers themselves often lost, but the memories of their impact disappear with each death of a community elder who remembers the personalities and issues involved. That is why Najiyyah Duncan’s work in researching the history of Cincinnati’s African-American newspapers is so important.
Not only did Ms. Duncan scour local and national collections to determine where old Cincinnati newspapers were archived, but she also located individuals who had retained some precious copies privately. If she saw a citation for a Cincinnati newspaper in one of the few books published on the topic of African-American newspapers, she did everything within her power to try to locate extant copies. Then she scrutinized what was in the papers, recording information about founders, editors, dates of publication, mastheads, news stories, and typical contents, including businesses that advertised in the papers.
By interviewing people who still remembered some of the earlier publications and the personalities behind them, Ms. Duncan supplements what she found in print. Although her main focus is on African-American newspapers published in Cincinnati, she also shares here what she found in the way of other types of local African-American publications as well as newspapers published elsewhere but circulated in Cincinnati.
All of this is very important to anyone interested in how we got to where we are today in matters of culture and race. I know from personal experience while researching the life of Maurice McCrackin, a white minister who lived among African-Americans in Cincinnati’s West End and worked tirelessly to end racism and war, how important it is to have a balanced historical record to draw on. Such a record, however, is useful to far more than writers and historians. Anyone inspired to address today’s complex social inequities needs to know what has gone before.
Furthermore, the record of any group should be articulated by members of that group rather than filtered and interpreted by the majority or dominant group. One of the first African-Americans to articulate the importance of this idea was John Brown Russwurm. In the first edition of the first African-American newspaper published in the United States, Freedom’s Journal in 1827, Russwurm wrote: “We wish to plead our own cause. Too long have others spoken for us. To long has the public been deceived by misrepresentations, in things which concern us dearly” (Quoted by Mary Sagarin in John Brown Russwurm: The Story of Freedom’s Journal, Freedom’s Journey. NY: Lothrop, Lee & Shepart, 1970, 57).
Najiyyah Duncan has paid homage to Russwurm’s vision and a long history of self-articulation among African-American journalists by her efforts here in describing Cincinnati’s heritage of
About Mae Najiyyah Duncan
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Published March 16, 2011
History, Political & Social Sciences, Travel.