Why Independent Black Media Is Essential (and Disruptive)
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Words matter. They are used to define narratives and set standards. Tell stories, whether they be true or false, and explain concepts and ideas. News and current events, when compiled together, tells a story to get you to think a certain way about the topics at hand.
When it comes to the Black community, how we are described and depicted has always been tightly controlled by people from outside of the community. In response to this narrative-control by white society, black people were forced to develop their own ways to tell their own stories. Historically, however, it was easy to ignore black stories, ideas, concepts, and beliefs. White-owned publications had more readers and more capital to invest in their platforms.
Things are changing now. The advent of the internet and social media provides black people with more power to craft their own narrative than at any point in U.S. history. Now people listen because they are forced to listen. Black voices are the loudest they've ever been, our ideas more pervasive and influential than at any point.
Before we get into that though, let's talk about the trailblazers who paved the way.
Historic Black Newspapers
The first owned and operated black newspaper in the United States was called the Freedman's Journal, which was meant to appeal to free Blacks. A lot of the early black newspapers in the 19th century were part of the abolitionist movement and thereby began the trend of black thought through written word being associated with the uplifting of the community.
There was also The North Star which was created by Frederick Douglass in 1847 to advocate against slavery. Two years earlier in 1845, The Anti-Slavery Bugle was founded in New Lisbon, Ohio and was often shared on the Underground Railroad among its participants. However, newspapers during this early era were oft short-lived due to the lack of penetration within the black community. Most black people were prevented from learning to read and write, and they were also blocked from a decent wage. There was no such thing as a 'paid slave.' Not for anti-slavery newspapers, that's for sure. No wage and no education meant no ability for these black-owned newspapers to survive very long.
After slavery, as more and more black people learned to read and write, many more publications would spring up. Publications such as The Afro-American (now called The Baltimore Afro-American) which began in Baltimore, Maryland in 1892 and promoted unity in the local black community and challenged racial discrimination. By 1919, the Associated Negro Press was established in Chicago, Illinois. The ANP would play a major role during the era of segregation in circulating news stories to the black community by black writers and black authors.
Black newspapers and magazines provided a source of context in a world that defined black issues through non-black, and often anti-black, lenses. From 1919 when the ANP was founded, to 1964 when it went bankrupt, it was not uncommon for white newspapers to publicize and advertise lynchings. They also apologized for the murder of black people by ravenous mobs of random white men. Not totally unlike today where we see modern versions of this same activity where black death is legitimized by apologists for the State.
Black media has always had to fight back against anti-black assumptions and norms in American society. This is why independent black news is essential and will continue to be until we live in a society where anti-blackness isn't accepted as normal.
Independent Black Media Is Disruptive
What does it mean to be truly disruptive? When it comes to technology and innovation, disruption occurs when something original comes along and creates a new market and value system and eventually disrupts an existing market or value system.
From the very beginning, black media was disruptive - as long as it remained independent and original. It was disruptive because it created a new market for black information that existed outside of the control of white America. Black media has always had a value system that held concepts of state violence and anti-blackness to a different standard than your typical white-owned publication. This clearly became a problem for some after the end of slavery and the Civil War around the turn of the 20th century. There were many regions in America back then where black people could be assaulted simply for reading the wrong newspaper or periodical. Black media caused a disruption in the all-white flow of information.
Something had to be done, so around the turn of the 20th century, you began to see a new trend. That was the funding of black media by 'liberal' white benefactors. People such as J.D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie saw the potential to make a lot of money and bankrolled black intellectuals during the time. They undoubtedly also saw the ability to control the narrative in the black community. So a cultural mindset was developed around what was called by some 'The Tuskegee Machine' and we'd end up with thought-leaders who may or may not have held back on making certain arguments.
Herein lies the truth, black media, when it is untamed and uncontrollable is highly disruptive and always has been. It provides opposing arguments against injustices that are not always politically-correct...or supported by the State. Not to say that you can't have pro-black ideas if you get money from outside the community. However, there is always that threat of being told by the monied interests that what you're saying is "too radical" or "too black." That if you don't change your tone, they'll pull their funding and support for your platform. This reality hangs over the heads of many "kinda-black-enough" platforms.
Independent Black Media Is Not Monolithic
All black people do not think alike. There are political disagreements, economic disagreements, differences in style and approach, generational shifts in thought and perceptions of the world. We are a complex and layered people. Often-times the appearance of monolithic thought has given the perception to some that we all think the same way. Social media, however, shows how fluid the range of our discussions truly is.
You have black socialists, black capitalists, black futurists, black pessimists, black liberals, black progressives, black conservatives, black Christians, black Muslims, black atheists/agnostics, black people who are straight, black people who are gay/lesbian...and everything in between. You have black immigrants, black native-born Americans, black veterans, black activists, black feminists, black womanists, black nerds (blerds), and black people who just don't give a damn. You have black people with college degrees and black people without them. Black workers and black entrepreneurs.
All of these black people have different experiences and life stories that impact the way they view the world. When their works are combined, they all represent the black media, or perhaps what could become a black media.
All of these voices have something to add to the discussion, though one may disagree with something said from one or more of these groups. Just about all of these groups have groups of bloggers and thinkers who write (some more consistently than others) about the things that impact their group within the larger context of the black community.
The common thread, the through-line if you will, has not changed. Modern-day thinkers in the black community still overwhelming talk about the issues of oppression that impact us. Social media and the internet have simply given black writers, thinkers, and intellectuals the ability to communicate on a mass scale for a fraction of the costs compared to that of traditional mass media on television.
The Limitations of Black Media
There are major resistance levels when it concerns exposure for black media and black news. Traffic nowadays isn't cheap and access to strong search engine data comes at a high price. A good SEO strategy means more exposure and rankings for keywords that you can compete for. More exposure means more organic backlinks that you don't have to work for. More backlinks means even more exposure because Google now views your site as having more authority because your content is being linked to. So being able to target the right data and the right people is extremely important for black media.
There's not just the issue of online exposure, but what about on-the-ground reporters and citizen journalists? It costs money to fly people around the country, pay for room and board and other hidden costs involved in telling a thorough news story. One can see how the bill increases exponentially and I haven't even touched on marketing costs.
A major limitation of black media is the lack of financing and capital. The disruptive nature of black people telling black stories means we have to find ways to fund ourselves and each other. This is why it's so easy for outsiders to come in and control the narrative by controlling the flow of capital. This puts a stranglehold on content creation because it becomes less about telling the unapologetic truth and more about making sure the money keeps flowing.
There appears to be a ceiling - a ceiling that must be broken. A barrier that blocks most truly independent members of the decentralized black media. Without the breaking of this barrier, black media and black news will struggle to survive.
The Future of Black Media
Potential is everywhere, but it is not as easy to capitalize off of as people may think. I think a paradigm shift is overdue in the black community. Black people propping up black media as their first or second sources of information is critical to its long-term success.
I personally see a tremendous amount of potential in blockchain technology and the creation of our own token systems. If enough people were to adopt a particular token system that was designed to curate content from black content creators, that could become a source of financing. Enough people would have to be on board, however, to make an agenda like that grow.
Regardless of how we accumulate the capital, the necessity of capital accumulation is not debatable. For black media to grow into its own, it has to go beyond simply sharing content on social media. We have to begin to curate revenue. That is the next phase of development. Online black media websites and blogs, when combined with social media, have a considerable amount of social currency. The power is there to be tapped into.
Controlling our own narrative will be a constant struggle against the lies and propaganda that fuels the right-wing in America. This battle can't be fought by everyone because it requires a certain defiant mentality that many do not have. However, I don't believe it is something we can choose not to do. It is one of the most pressing and consistent forms of attack against the black community. The anti-black agenda is built on a foundation of false information. Countering these lies is one of the primary reasons why Black and Intellectual exists.