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Cultural Background Can Work For Or Against Us

Donna Britt Washington Post

In fiction and real life, Americans are fascinated by people who aren’t what they seem.

In the summer hit film “Face/Off,” a lawman (John Travolta) surgically adopts the face and identity of the criminal whom he has obsessively pursued - and then the criminal assumes his identity. Designer Gianni Versace’s recent slaying has made the whole world fascinated with alleged killer Andrew Cunanan - a man who looks different in every photo, whose closest friends hardly knew him and who is an admitted homosexual who flashed photos of a woman and child he claimed to be his family.

Issues of identity - how we’re perceived, who we are, who we wish we were - intrigue everybody.

They obsess black people.

Nowhere is black folks’ obsession with their multiple, sometimes conflicting identities more evident than at the 22nd National Association of Black Journalists annual convention, held last week here. At many conventions, participants look and dress similarly; those attending NABJ’s national meeting sport pixie-cuts, dreadlocks and Mary Tyler Moore flips with equal conviction. They don African-print jackets and head wraps for one function and sleek Italian suits for the next.

But it’s deeper than coifs and clothes. Convention workshops and seminars often explore black journalists’ ongoing issues with identity. In Friday’s plenary session, “Shades of Black: One Community, Many Voices, Conflicting Perceptions,” panelists including Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates and Rep. Jesse Jackson, D-Ill., wrestled with whether black journalists are obligated to other blacks, and whether they are sufficiently open to differing opinions.

During Wednesday’s seminar, “The Black Press: Advocacy and Identity,” historian Lerone Bennett reminded conventioneers that 1997 is the 170th anniversary of the founding of “Freedom’s Journal,” the first newspaper published both by and for black Americans. The Journal’s first editorial stated: “We wish to plead our own cause.” Too long, it said, have others spoken for blacks.

Ebony magazine publisher John H. Johnson recalled the tale of the woman who, before leaving her children a sizable fortune, reminded them that she also was leaving them her values - and that they shouldn’t take one without the other. Johnson urged all NABJ members, most of whom work for white-owned media, to support the black press, which once was the only media that would hire black journalists. “I don’t think we should take the good without taking the obligation,” Johnson said.

Black journalists know plenty about perceived obligations. Depending on your perspective, being a black journalist - or being identified primarily as such by your employers and the public - can be a blessing or a curse. Or both.

Detroit-area sportswriter and radio commentator Eric Pate has occasionally weathered criticism from blacks who’ve claimed his perspective isn’t “authentic,” such as the caller who blamed racism for the media’s outrage at Mike Tyson for biting Evander Holyfield. “There was just no way to justify the fact that Tyson bit another man’s ear off,” Pate told him. “If a white boy had done that, I’m confident the Nevada State Athletic Commission would have taken the same steps.”

Pate, 33, is just as sure that his blackness adds to his value as a journalist. Whereas a white sportswriter might accept that there are only three African-American head coaches in the NFL “just because there are,” he explains, he’s more likely to question the low number. “I can write a piece about which qualified people aren’t getting interviewed and why. I’m not going to leave it at ‘that’s just the way it is.”’

But for some journalists, being identified primarily as black is a burden.

“Every human being feels like several people,” a male free-lance feature writer who has worked at two major daily newspapers told me. “I’ve come to where I want to feel like I belong as a person, period. … But I’ll always be identified as black.

“The good part is that if you let it, dealing with the (junk) that comes with being black can give you a sensitivity to all people, which can make you a better journalist. … But I’m tired of being judged - by black people who react as if I’m freak for not wanting only to be identified as black, and by white people who … want to stereotype every black person.”

I’ve felt both ways - glad that my particular perspective as a black American informs and deepens my work, and annoyed by others’ assumptions. But that’s how identity, and life itself, sometimes work.

Journalism is a powerful profession, conferring upon those who work within it opportunities to expose previously hidden events and perspectives, to shape opinion, to burrow inside hearts and minds. The problems and pluses that shape all African American life particularly affect the work lives of blacks who report the news. The same cultural identity that can immeasurably enrich black journalists’ work often makes working immeasurably more difficult.

Talk about a face-off.


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