The Afro American and The Black Press
The Baltimore Afro American, one of the leading Black newspapers of the late nineteenth and mid-twentieth centuries, attempted to forge a reconnection to Africa and other parts of the Diaspora with the aim that African Americans would begin to identify the similarities in their individual and shared experiences with other Africans. These similarities were intended to raise their level of consciousness, as well as to forge a level of Black solidarity for Blacks globally. A sample of the Afro American's Pan African agenda was evident in its coverage of the African Diaspora in three areas, Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia between 1915 and 1941.
Hence, the primary objective of this paper is to use the case of the Baltimore Afro American and its coverage of global issues that affected Blacks within the United States and in three Diaspora communities, and to examine the relationship and coverage of Pan African issues by the Black press. This paper will also address several relevant questions with regard to the type of Pan African agenda the newspaper advocated (i.e. conservative, moderate, or radical Pan-Africanism) and whether the news coverage is characterized by a theoretical or applied Pan Africanist model. The analysis will borrow from definitions of Pan Africanism that were provided by scholars such as Sylvia M. Jacobs, St. Claire Drake, and Jeremiah I. Dibua. Finally, the paper will propose new criteria for defining Pan Africanism, specifically as it relates to Black newspapers. (1)
Historical Background: An Introduction
The Black press is perhaps one of the most significant yet underused sources for examining African American views from within the African American community. While primary papers of leading civil rights organizations and prominent African American leaders and church organizations provide important insights into the African American experience, the Black press' contribution has much to add to our understanding of Black thought, and more specifically, Pan African consciousness.
Unlike the Black church, the press with its editorials, opinion pieces and letters to the editor, offered a multi layered perspective and an array of voices for the Black community which was not always included in religious rhetoric. The Black press reached a far greater constituency than its circulation figures reflected. Through individuals, families, barbershops, salons, churches, social and civic organizations, Black newspapers circulated the community. The Black press covered the full range of human experiences. From births, marriages and deaths to college graduation and higher achievements in academia, the Black press gave voice to its readers. (2)
The Black press, with regards to Africa, provided a forum for debate about Africa's meaning and relevance in Black America. Although the influence of African American leadership on the Black community and the Black press was weighed heavily at times, the Black press sometimes stood boldly against leadership and provided an alternative view for the Black community. For example, during the early part of the twentieth century leaders like Booker T. Washington, W.E.B. DuBois, and Marcus M. Garvey reacted to worldwide activities that affected Blacks in Haiti, Liberia, and Ethiopia. The reactions of these leaders were sometimes supported by the Afro American and other times disregarded as disparate. In the case of DuBois and Garvey's views on Liberia, the Afro American reaction was decidedly different from both leaders. However, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia ignited a stronger reaction from African American leadership as well as the Black press. The main goal of the Press in the twentieth century was to reflect a perspective which centered on its concern for the region and those of the Black community.
Front page news coverage was very symbolic in the Black press. For the Afro American newspaper the image of Africa and America appeared on its masthead. This was a constant reminder of the connection between America and Africa and continues to appear in its current weekly newspaper. There on the front page of the newspaper, readers could find explicit connections made between their experiences in the United States with Blacks in the Diaspora. For example, during the 1930's reports on lynching and other violent acts that were committed against Blacks in the United States were a constant focus in the press. Additionally, readers would also find articles related to European colonization of Africa, African resistance to European domination, as well as news on the varied cultural expressions of the African continent. Beginning with the first Black newspaper, editors expressed their desire to have "Africa at the center of the column, proving that natives were not stupid or uncivilized." (3) This idea was vital to the development of cohesion not only within the national Black community, but also between African Americans and African people dispersed throughout Africa and other parts of the world. Thus, the coverage not only informed Blacks but also helped to elevate morale and build a sense of collective consciousness. (4)
Nineteenth and early twentieth century scholars have paid close attention to global events and its relation to the experience of Blacks nationally. Robin D.G. Kelly's timely article, "'But a Local Phase of a World Problem': Black History's Global Vision, 1883-1950" provides examples of the diasporic nature of Black scholarship. Kelly's article helps to center this current discussion into the broader framework of Pan African consciousness among African Americans. He explores the idea of transnational perspectives in African American thought. In Kelly's assertion, historians, writers, and activists defined themselves as part of a larger Black community, or as a part of an "African Diaspora." Additionally, Kelly argues that the expressed support of emigration by Blacks became a central issue in Black political discourse and thus became a critical topic for historical investigation. (5)
Kelly believes that the nature of Pan African ideology espoused by historians and activists was born out of their sense of a diasporic identity that can also be described as "imagined community." He explained the difference between diasporic identity and nationalisms. First, unlike nationalist sentiment, the African Diaspora is not a sovereign territory with defined boundaries. Rather it has been limited to people of African descent who share a single culture and historical roots, regardless of location, and language. Moreover, many in the Diaspora view themselves as an oppressed nation without a homeland, or choose Africa as their homeland. (6) Examples of Black press coverage indicate that the press utilized the same approach used by historians to write the history of Blacks. For example, in the early twentieth century, when the United States military occupied Haiti and European domination in Africa progressed, African Americans developed renewed sentiments toward other members of the African Diaspora. These events, occupation and colonization, gave rise to anti colonial sentiments that Garvey expressed, as well as the protests of radical magazines and newspapers. (7)
The historical writings and scholars Kelly chose to focus on such as W. E. B. DuBois, Rayford W. Logan, Carter G. Woodson, and many others, serve as examples of the continual global ideology as highlighted in their scholarship. The Baltimore Afro American printed articles by many of these scholars including, Logan, Woodson, and DuBois. Therefore, Kelly's article provides adequate support for the kind of "global vision" or Pan African ideology the Afro American newspaper adopted in the twentieth century. (8)
Defining Pan Africanism in the Black Press
Pan Africanism in Black newspapers can be defined as a fluid model that encompasses elements of all three theories that were outlined by Jacobs, Drake, and Dibua. It includes common destiny and history, social, political, religious, and cultural aspects for unification of the global Black community. It also utilizes a hierarchal framework, in which, culture influences the press' support of specific political and economic agendas. What is critical in the present conception of Pan Africanism espoused by the press is the importance of region and its history. Hence, Diasporic region impacted the type of Pan Africanism the press adopted. Moreover, depending on the history and seeming destiny of the diaspora region, and the Black press' identification or connection to the particular region, Pan Africanist ideas the newspaper espoused reflected a moderate, conservative, or radical tone.
Also, questions that can be included in the analysis are: What regional ties are felt by the press and why? What did the region desire for itself? Did the press share similar aspirations for the region? Did the press coverage...