Black Press Feels Neglected

Fidelity is a thankless virtue. Nelson Mandela was a one-week wonder in America’s mass media. The black press has been hawking his cause for years and will go on hawking it.

Yet Mandela found time for Ted Koppel and the New York Times and Washington Post, but not for the National Newspaper Publishers Association, meeting in Chicago. The NNPA, which is the nation’s principal black press organization, was deeply insulted.

“The black press has been fighting and screaming against apartheid and the jailing of Mr. Mandela long before it was a popular issue,” said Dorothy Leavell, the blunt-talking publisher of the Crusader weekly newspapers in Chicago and Gary. Leavell is treasurer of the NNPA. “And to have Mr. Mandela less than an hour away in Detroit the day before our 50th convention and not to give us serious consideration and get him here is just unconscionable.”

The NNPA represents about 300 black-owned newspapers. Executive director Steve G. Davis told us that the theme of last month’s convention was “Forging a way for the underprivileged of the world,” and that the NNPA had dedicated the convention to Mandela even before the publishers knew that he was planning to visit the United States.

When Lindiwe Mabuza, an American representative of the African National Congress, announced the visit at a Washington, D.C., press conference that Davis attended, “I was surprised and very pleased and very hopeful,” says Davis. Mandela was not only coming; his trip would coincide with the convention. Davis asked Mabuza if Mandela could speak in Chicago. No, she said; Mandela has the strength to do only so much, and Chicago is not on his schedule.

“I said, ‘What am I going to tell the publishers in Chicago as to why this man Mandela cannot speak to the men who supported him all these years, even while he was in prison?’ That didn’t move her. She said, ‘Tell them we’re coming to Chicago on the next trip.’ I said, ‘That doesn’t do us any good.'”

Davis followed up with a letter to Mabuza pleading his case. “These publications have consistently advocated the ANC cause,” he wrote. “Through news items, editorials, and pictures, they have consistently urged the continuation of sanctions, the end of apartheid, and the development of voting privileges for everyone. Our weekly articles continue to chronicle the major events as they occur in South Africa.” (For instance, NNPA offers its member papers a weekly column by Daniel Marolen, an exiled South African.)

But Mabuza was not moved. Next Davis attempted to have Mandela address the NNPA by telephone from Los Angeles. But nothing came of that idea either. Mandela went home to Africa, and the nation’s black publishers found themselves in a state of great distress.

The Mandela episode (which they attribute not to Mandela but to various parties with a say in his American schedule) was one affront too many–“the straw that broke the camel’s back,” according to Davis. Did no one take the black press seriously any longer? NNPA’s board of directors composed a resolution ringing with protest and self-justification.

“The insults that we have been forced to endure by those who structured the visit of Nelson Mandela have brought us to the realization that we must insist on the right to participate in all decisions” involving the general welfare of black people, the board declared.

Davis told us, “Since 1948, the black press has been in the forefront of all of the advancements that the black masses of this country have been privileged to get.” And now, said Davis, “it looks as though people for some reason or another are forgetting about the black press.”

Perhaps its pages have been open too long to too many people with axes to grind and who hold the black cause only casually in their hearts. The resolution is remarkably blunt. “We will no longer be used as prostitutes in the process of communications,” it says, “by organizations and individuals who then cloak themselves in self-righteous legitimizing when they have attained their individual or collective goals.”

“In short,” said Davis, “we’re not going to have another Mandela incident if we can physically avoid it.”

Davis was maddeningly unspecific about who exactly the publishers feel offended by, but apparently it’s lots of people. “They send us all their propaganda,” said Dorothy Leavell, “but when they’re making their decisions, such as the historic visit by Mandela, they completely ignore us.

“I have in my hand,” said Leavell, “an article written by the Reverend Ben Chavis–‘Mandela, a standard of leadership’–to put in my newspaper. Yet I called him in June and his secretary was very abrupt and he never returned my call.”

A former prisoner himself in North Carolina, Chavis is executive director of the United Church of Christ’s Commission for Racial Justice. Why did you call him? we asked Leavell.

“Number one, I was calling to find out his availability of appearing at our convention. And second, because of my understanding he had something to do with the Mandela visit. I wanted to let him know we’d invited Mr. Mandela here and we were hopeful he’d come. His secretary–she just slapped me all the way up. Mr. Chavis–he was much too busy!”

Leavell went on hotly, “He wants us to run his article but he can’t return my call. There’s a certain arrogance . . .”

Chavis writes a column called “Civil Rights Journal.” Do you carry it? we asked Leavell. “Occasionally I do,” she said, “but I’m taking another look at it now. I doubt if I’ll ever be running it again. I’m angry as hell.”

Tour de Force

Meanwhile, at the Chicago Defender . . .

It was a rave from Earl Calloway for Andre Watts, performing July 8 at Ravinia. “The more pianist Watts performs, the more amazing he becomes,” Calloway gushed. “His rendition of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Piano Concerto No. 1’ was indeed, incredible. The opening movement, blazed with a well defined passion, surging ecstatically, but judiciously paced . . .

“His second movement possessed the kind of phrasing that was filled with subtlety and an enormous lyrical flow . . . and the following movements came with a brilliant ‘tour de force’. . .

“Andre Watts is beyond the shadow of a doubt, the greatest living pianist in the concert arena. He stands head and shoulders above the rest . . .”

Calloway should have taken a closer look at that head and shoulders. Watts had canceled, and the pianist that night was a tiny Korean woman, Ju Hee Suh.

Candidates’ Wives

“The story of women spending their lives enhancing their husbands’ careers at the expense of themselves is the oldest story in the book,” Ann Grimes was saying. But politicians ask us to believe their women are different.

The former managing editor of the Chicago Reporter, Grimes has just published a book on the ’88 elections–Running Mates: The Making of a First Lady. Grimes says she asked both Kitty Dukakis and Barbara Bush, “What needs of yours are being fulfilled by your husband running for president?” and both women replied in so many words, “Well, I don’t have these enormous needs.”

That was image. Reality was something else. “Her brilliance,” Grimes said of Barbara Bush, “is that she’s created an image of being apolitical, when she’s taken on the job of being a political wife with all the ambition and skill of any career woman.”

As for Kitty Dukakis–“this woman who seemed to be a very effective campaigner, in control and full of energy”–three months after her husband’s defeat, she checked into an alcoholic-treatment center. On the anniversary of his defeat, finding herself at home alone, she drank rubbing alcohol.

Emptiness devoured Kitty Dukakis. “She was as ambitious for the White House as her husband was,” Grimes said. “I think that she very much wanted to be a first lady, because she thought that would be a position for her that would be separate–she would be recognized as a celebrity in her own right.”

Yet who is the first lady, really, but simply the president’s wife? And who is the candidate’s wife, but a carefully calculated aspect of the candidate’s image? “One of the things you see,” said Grimes, “is that the spouses and families are as media-managed as the candidates themselves.”

The extreme example of a victimized wife was Lee Hart; what largely prompted Grimes to write her book was the fury she felt after the Donna Rice episode when Gary Hart’s wife forlornly stood by him instead of walking out. “I found myself initially not having much respect for [candidates’ wives],” said Grimes. “But as I got to know them and watched what they did, I kind of felt sorry for them in a way. Yet at the same time they bring this on themselves.”

The media have a right to go searching for the real woman, Grimes feels, if only because of that woman’s likely influence over her husband as first lady. Then don’t the media also have a right to search for the real marriage? we asked. If a first lady believes in astrology, we continued, it certainly matters whether she’s a Nancy Reagan rather than, say, a Patricia Nixon.

“Nancy Reagan pointed to the essential passivity of Ronald Reagan,” Grimes replied. Some reporters had an idea he was under her thumb before he became president, but they didn’t pursue it. “Those are hard questions to ask and to get answers to,” said Grimes. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t ask the questions.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.