Writing Wrongs

By Mike Sula

Stan West found his calling after seeing Alfred Hitch-cock’s Foreign Correspondent. But, he admits, “for an inner-city black kid to grow up and be one seemed a little far-fetched at the time.”

Eventually West did become a reporter, filing dispatches from such places as Colombia, Libya, Angola, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Kuwait, and the West Bank. Yet he hasn’t always respected the traditional boundaries between reporting and editorializing. Over the years he’s tried to use his role as a journalist to further political causes. When he traveled to Haiti in June 1995, for instance, he acted as both a reporter and a UN monitor of parliamentary elections there. “I consider myself to be a human rights activist,” he says. “I don’t think it’s wrong to be one and a journalist at the same time.” This approach has opened doors to talk radio and foreign countries, but it’s also caused him some problems.

Born and raised in Chicago, West, who now lives in Oak Park, is the community-relations coordinator for the county clerk’s office, though he still pursues journalism on the side. He started out in California in 1973 after graduating from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. First he tried his hand at screenwriting. Unfortunately, he says, “I wrote really lousy scripts.” Then he became a music critic, writing for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and trade magazines. Reviewing such African artists as Hugh Masekela and Miriam Makeba–musicians who often use their work as a form of social protest–he became more interested in covering harder news stories. “They challenged me to write about some of the issues behind the music and not necessarily the superficial aspects, like what dance music is in and what’s out.”

By that time the disco boom had ended, and for West “the bottom fell out of the music business.” He found himself unable to make a living and became homeless for about two weeks, sleeping in his car on the streets of Los Angeles. “I knew it was temporary, but I went through it and I understand how someone can be shit out of luck through no fault of anybody’s.”

He was offered an internship at the Modesto Bee, where he got an interview with a leader of the Ku Klux Klan in the central San Joaquin Valley. The Klansman “thought I was white on the phone,” West recalls. “So the white reporters and editors really liked me after that, after they saw I was willing to take on the Klan.”

He eventually landed at the Pacific News Service, first as an editor, then as a freelance reporter overseas, using credit cards and grants to pay for travel. “My beat was southern Africa and the Middle East,” he says. “I included women, children, homeless people, and refugees as sources in addition to ‘official’ ones. My editor once said I was a fuckup because I didn’t do things the way normal reporters did. I was nearly thrown out of one of the emirates because I took a photo of a Pakistani refugee camp juxtaposed against this baby blue mansion owned by the emir.”

Pacific News Service executive editor Sandy Close recalls a story West wrote from the Middle East in which all his subjects were under the age of 15. “It was wonderful,” she says. “It was before the intifada and in some ways it predicted it. He wasn’t yet an accomplished writer, but he was determined to be one. He was a reporter who would cover Oakland with as much enthusiasm as Africa. He was the very opposite of provincial.”

In 1988 West was back in Chicago, trying to raise money to cover the pope’s visit to Mozambique. He didn’t make it to Africa and ended up as an associate editor at the Chicago Defender. “It was a nice homecoming because one of my idols, Langston Hughes, also worked there as a columnist. He was an internationalist in this city, where the only politics is local. If it ain’t Cook County, it ain’t going on.”

West went on to host World Objective, a radio program on WVON devoted to international news, which he tried to make relevant to his audience by drawing comparisons to local events. In 1993, after seven months of Zulu lessons, he took a group of listeners to South Africa during election negotiations. But the radio program was eventually canceled because, he says, the station owner felt he was overly fixated on Africa. West says he was told the show was “too black for black talk radio.” (‘VON says it was taken off the air due to low ratings.)

Six months after that trip West returned to South Africa to work as a UN observer during the elections. Both trips laid the groundwork for his self-published book Prism: An African-American Reporter’s Multi-Cultural View of the New South Africa. Divided into six sections–Africans, Whites, Coloureds, Indians, Asians, and African-Americans–the book details each group’s history in the country and its role in postapartheid South Africa.

He says his decision to publish the book himself was inspired by the can-do spirit he found common among South Africans. “On one hand they’re more entrepreneurial than American blacks. On the other hand they’re more socialistic. Through that balance they were able to achieve state power. In Zulu it’s called gokuka–turning over, turning around.

“I feel more at home there than I do here because of power sharing. I think the liberal and even the conservative whites are more sincere about moving the country forward than they are here. In America blacks have only been able to achieve a statement of power in the form of the Million Man March. Now that a million and a half blacks have atoned for our sins, when will white America atone for its sins?”

West plans to return to South Africa later this year for a diversity management conference with the National Black MBA Association, a group of African-American business professionals. “We’re going to go there and show them what we’ve done right,” he says, “but we’re also hoping we can learn from South Africans because they are facing the same issues as we are.”

At a conference in London last month, West helped raise funds for the International Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders to assist Zairean and Rwandan refugees. “There were all these deep-pocket blacks and whites there,” he says. “The BBC had just done a story that week suggesting that corporate blacks were turning their backs on their poorer counterparts. So it was a good time to guilt trip the black senior managers by saying, ‘You know, it’s fine and dandy that we’re moving up the corporate ladder and we’re challenging [companies] to do the right thing instead of the white thing, but that means nothing if we aren’t doing something for folks who are languishing in camps or in our own barrios and ghettos.'”

West has just completed a coffee-table book, cowritten with David Smallwood and Allison Keyes, called Profiles of Great African Americans. He has plans to publish an anthology of South African writers on his own Soweto Press as well as a children’s book about his twin toddler sons, coauthored with his wife Earlene and illustrated by his 11-year-old daughter. A trip to Zaire is planned later this year “after Mobutu is overthrown,” as well as a trip to Nigeria next year. West thinks the days are also numbered for Nigerian strongman Sani Abacha, though he’s more temperate in his criticism of Carol Moseley-Braun’s visit there last year. “Carol Moseley-Braun hangs with dictators, but at least she’s interested in Africa.”

Besides hosting City Voices–a half-hour talk show on WNUA–West appears on a cable access TV show called Caviar and Grits, which also features journalist Salim Muwakkil. He describes it as “three or four black guys sitting around a table talking about news in a fast and furious way. If someone screws up, we put his name in a bag, we pull the name out, and we talk about him like a dog.”

West views his job for county clerk David Orr as making a positive contribution to the community. “I do a lot of work deputizing 18-year-olds to register their peers. I see elections as a piece of the answer. For that reason I’m a little more optimistic than most Chicagoans. I’ve seen it work in third world countries. It’s a way of empowerment for people of all races. It’s a common bond.”

During the height of the crisis in Somalia, West headed a stateside relief effort. “I was able to organize Serbians and Croatians in Chicago–who couldn’t agree on their situation–to send money to Somalia for refugee relief. They understood civil war, that sense of being away from home. Here I am, a black guy, getting Serbs and Croats to send money. There is some hope. Bizarre things like that can happen.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Stan West photo by Jim Alexander Newberry.