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A Review of Ethan Michaeli's new book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America: From the Age of Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama



By Todd Steven Burroughs



Saturday, May 28, 2016.


(TriceEdneyWire.com) - Telling the "biography" of a Black America newspaper, particularly a major one that served a national audience in its prime, has been seldom tried because it is a feat worthy of both Hercules and Job. The scanning of thousands of articles and pages were required, not to mention the juggling of hundreds of names, places and events.

But when the Black newspaper involved is spiritually embryoed by a speech by Frederick Douglass, and, once born, crosses over into historical territory that starts with Ida B. Wells-Barnett and ends almost a century later with a Chicago politician who becomes the first Black president of the United States, the story simply must be told.

Ethan Michaeli, a White Jewish man who was a former investigative reporter and copyeditor for the newspaper in the 1990s, thankfully, chose to be at the center of a perfect storm of historical circumstance of which to create this book. He had the enthusiastic support of the newspaper's historic owners and executives; the entire historical record of The Defender achieved and indexed in a major city library; autobiographies, biographies and memoirs, as well as select unpublished manuscripts and oral history interviews of several Defender staffers. He also accessed more than a score of well-researched histories of Chicago's Black communities.

The Defender book chronicles well the lives of its heroes: founder Robert S. Abbott; heir and Defender builder John Sengstacke; journalistic firebrand and civil rights activist Wells-Barnett, editor extraordinaire Louis Martin and the globe-trotting journalist Ethel Payne, the first lady of the Black Press. Geography and history collide and collude well here, with The Defender-the paper that jumpstarted the Great Migration-seen undoubtedly an essential part of a major city big enough to house the gangster Al Capone in the 1920s and Harold Washington, the man who ultimately became the city's first Black mayor in 1983.

The incredible scope of this book is only marred by several nitpicks and one major issue. For example, it is possible that many of the columns Michaeli describes by African-American luminaries such as Mary McLeod Bethune and W.E.B. Du Bois as Defender products were probably syndicated. Also, there is very little in this book about the Chicago-headquartered Nation of Islam or its national newspaper, Muhammad Speaks, a clear competitor to The Defender in the former's heyday of the 1960s and 1970s.

And where is any serious discussion of perhaps The Defender's most famous op-ed columnist, a journalist/poet/short story phenomenon named Langston Hughes and his famous and important fictional character, Jesse B. Semple? Hughes is only used to make one political point here, and then he's gone. The foremost problem: It's sadly clear-and perhaps inevitable, under the circumstances spelled out in the book's sub-title-that the real reason a major commercial publisher accepted this topic is to tell an "acceptable" Black liberal story of mainstream Black politics that leads to the happy ending of Barack Obama's moderate-at-best presidency.

The historic militancy of the Black press-particularly the often-contentious power The Defender wielded, a paper that fought against Marcus Garvey on one end and for martyred Black Panther Fred Hampton on the other, a paper that the Jim Crow South attempted to ban-is worth 10 Barack Obamas and (his aide) David Axelrods. It doesn't need Obama's clearly mandatory saga as a wrap-around.

Michaeli's outstanding achievement needs to be repeated by interested historians. Needed are similar massive century-spanning "biographies" of other Black periodicals that held significant power during Jim Crow and after, including: Ebony/Jet/Negro Digest/Black World; the Washington, D.C.-based NNPA News Service; The Pittsburgh Courier; The Afro-American newspaper chain, The New York Amsterdam News and The Norfolk (Va.) Journal and Guide. If these proposed books can be filled with currently locked-away documentation, if archives and personal-papers collections can be made ready and organized and newspapers properly microfilmed (and perhaps digitized), more extraordinary detail of Black America's 20th century political and social history, city by city, can be written from this perspective.

In this digital social media era in which seemingly every Black person in the world naively - and perhaps more than a little arrogantly - finds in the mirror an armchair advocacy journalist of 140 characters, this sweeping story of journalistic grit, courage and sacrifice is extremely important to tell. Defender journalists were risking their lives, fulltime for low pay, on the street, with the story. They shaped Black history on the run in print as well as conferring behind closed doors with Black America's leaders. Black newspapers like The Chicago Defender represented 20th century Black America at its very best-socially militant, personally engaged, and politically powerful.

And Black newspapers publicly exhibited the wisdom of how to use that power. This book is the story that Black Chicago and the Black press earned and deserved, through its gallons of historic ink, blood and sweat, all mixed in to politically form a century.


Todd Steven Burroughs, Ph.D. is a historian of 20th century Black media. He is also a former reporter, columnist and editor with the National Newspaper Publishers Association News Service and a former freelance correspondent with the New Jersey edition of The Afro-American newspaper chain. An independent researcher and writer based in Newark, N.J., he is the author of "Son-Shine on Cracked Sidewalks," an audiobook on Amiri Baraka and Ras Baraka through the eyes of the 2014 Newark mayoral campaign. Burroughs is the co-editor, along with Jared Ball, of "A Lie of Reinvention: Correcting Manning Marable's Malcolm X" and the co-author, with Herb Boyd, of "Civil Rights: Yesterday & Today."


A Review of Ethan Michaeli's new book, The Defender: How The Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America: From the Age of Pullman Porters to the Age of Obama


Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt



How A Legendary Black Newspaper Changed America

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