MAXWELL:  Segregated in thought

3/10/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Reviewed by Bill Maxwell

For all of its good intentions, the newest book of DeWayne Wickham is a self-conscious, thinly veiled, ambivalent attempt to tell America’s black newspaper columnists _ who work for the major dailies _ how to think and what to think when they are writing about black issues.

And the title of the book? Thinking Black, of course.

In his introduction, Wickham tells readers where he got the title, and perhaps the idea, for the book. He travels back to 1929, and, unwittingly, quotes none other than H.L. Mencken, the late misanthrope and racist of the Baltimore Sun: “The Negro leader of today is not free. He must look to white men for his very existence, and in consequence he has to waste a lot his energy trying to think white. What the Negroes need is leaders who can and will think black.”

Here, then, is where Wickham and the 29 other columnists in the anthology, including Times writer Peggy Peterman, in the anthology come in: They attempt to demonstrate, in original columns and essays commissioned for the book, how to think black. A black columnist myself, I really wanted to know, as I approached the collection, what thinking black is and who decides who thinks black.

The first hint comes in the “Foreword,” by Pamela Newkirk, a journalism professor at New York University, who writes that today’s black columnists “must swim upstream, against powerful currents, to define and uplift a people in crisis, a race that is still, near the close of the twentieth century, misrepresented or ignored around the world. It is left to them to amplify the voices in the wilderness.”

For contemporary black writers to get the “thinking black” stamp of approval, they must express their ideas in the tradition of 19th century commentators such as the Rev. Samuel E. Cornish, John Brown Russwurm, Ida B. Wells and, of course, William Monroe Trotter, the Harvard College journalist who founded the Guardian, clearly one of the most militant newspapers ever launched.

These earlier columnists, having seen the effects of slavery and the atrocities following Reconstruction, saw themselves as warriors, their weapons the ideas they espoused in their all-black publications. In 1915, one such commentator, W.E.B. DuBois, reflected on the notion of thinking black: “Instead of being led and defended by others, as in the past, American Negroes are gaining their own voices, their own ideas. Self realization is thus coming … to another of the world’s great races.”

Thinking Black is an attempt to introduce the nation to the growing number of black writers expressing such self-realization. The views of Norman Lockman, a columnist and associate editor for the News Journal in Wilmington, Del., give the notion its acidity, a trait that makes many white readers and editors uncomfortable.

“It is not easy to be black without apology in America _ or anywhere else in the world where we are thought of as inferior beings,” Lockman writes, in the book’s closing essay. “But learning to be black without apology is the threshold of true freedom.”

Apparently knowing that he would be accused of trying to make “acceptable” black thought monolithic, Wickham covers his tracks, saying that “thinking black does not necessarily mean thinking alike.” He goes on to say that, while some columnists whom he selected are critical of their own race, they avoid the “shrillness of the black professional conservatives who cross-dress as journalists.”

Moreover, columnists who think black struggle with the job “of how to take black folks to task … without giving white critics the ammunition they need to bring down the race.”

Wickham’s core effort is laudable. Everyone truly interested in the plight of African-Americans should read Thinking Black. Like black people’s complex relationship with America at large, the book’s premise is complex _ and dubious. To assert a way of thinking black is to presume a way of “thinking white.” Moreover, Wickham has revived the silly blacker-than-thou exercise popular during the height of the black consciousness movement of the late 1960s and 1970s.

Perhaps in his next anthology, Wickham could juxtapose thinking black with thinking white. Then, I believe, his crusade to rescue America’s black columnists from themselves would lose some of its smugness. Meanwhile, Wickham has established himself as a one-man soul patrol, as the judge and jury of who does and does not think black among African-American pundits.

Bill Maxwell is a Times staff writer.